Scale & Substance by Tamsin Green
Published in Loupe Issue 13: Sustainability (09.2022)

Making anything will usually involve materials, energy and water. If we are going to make things, and in this case make books, how can we develop creative practices that consider ecological sustainability at each step of the process? In 2021 I established manual.editions (MNL) as a platform to explore this question, and many others that I was asking in my practice. MNL activities currently include publishing my own work in book form, lending books through an artist book library and hosting a learning community called the Sustainable Photobook Publishing (SPP) network.

There is a conscious smallness to my publishing both in the physical size of the books and the edition sizes, which have ranged from 35-120 books. I assemble and bind all of the books by hand. This process makes me very aware of the nature of the materials I am working with and the waste produced through the making process. I have published three small size limited edition handmade books. My first two books are bodies of photographic work and the third is a text based publication. I see each book as a learning opportunity, often exploring something that I found problematic with the last book. With my second book for example there were a lot of off-cuts created through trimming. These paper off-cuts were re-used where possible as packaging, and all orders through the MNL website will have arrived with something bright orange, as I re-used this left-over card stock as bookmarks and notecards. With the third book, Scale & Substance, I wanted to explore using a standard size sheet of paper to see if this waste through trimming could be eliminated. The resulting book was made of eight sheets of standard A3 paper, folded and sewn together to create a 1.8m long concertina book. This required avoiding any damage to the paper in transit as the full sheets would be part of the final book. I worked with a printer 1.5 miles away and they protected the printed pages with cardboard for transportation. 

Printing locally in London is something I have done with all of the books, using an HP Indigo digital press for the first two and Risograph for this latest publication. If you are offset printing a larger run of say 500 books or more then it becomes difficult as European printers or those further afield generally offer significantly more competitive pricing than UK based companies. To print locally we need to think creatively about how alternative types of printing or book structures can offer fresh ways of working with paper and ink which in turn will lead to more interesting books.

With Scale & Substance I wanted to make a publication that complemented the gallery exhibition. The book contains four texts that explore the multifaceted meaning of the words scale and substance. These consist of essays, a collection of poems I wrote whilst walking and sleeping in the landscape called ‘Walking out of Sleep’, and an interview by Kim Shaw. Interwoven with these texts are two manuals, the first describing how to make an open spine book, and the second explaining how to deconstruct the book and re-use it as a wall-mounted object. 

Distribution is something that I am currently thinking a lot about in the context of how small editions can be shared with an audience. One copy of each MNL book is available to borrow through my online library, and the books are also part of physical public library collections such as the National Art Library at the V&A and the Tate. We often try to keep books pristine, limiting handling and enclosing them in vitrines. In recent exhibitions, however, I have explored showing books as deconstructed wall-mounted objects. As all of my books are bound without adhesives they are easily  disassembled and reused or recycled. Installed open and uncovered, the paper is free to respond to the environment; creasing, curling, absorbing moisture and picking up fingerprints through encouraged handling. These wall installations have also been a way of re-using test prints that would usually be discarded.

The SPP network has grown very organically through a desire to have open discussions about more sustainable practices. The network is open to anyone active in the field who would like to contribute to shared learning. Over the past year, we have worked on four initiatives: the assembly of a local resource list of papers, printers and packaging; case studies of books, detailing materials and processes used and highlighting lessons learned; a monthly meet-up with invited speakers, including printers, paper suppliers and a carbon calculator developer; and an Earth Day international panel discussion, co-organised with 10x10 Photobooks.

From this ongoing experimentation, research and discussion it is clear that there is no single route to make a book sustainably. Some of the questions that I think we could be asking ourselves and our collaborators are: What is the optimum book size, taking into account paper and transportation sizes? How many books need to be made? Can the book be made from materials and processes that are sustainably managed and sourced? Can single-use materials be eliminated? Does the book need to last forever, and if not, what happens to the materials at the end of their life? 

All of us have different starting points and ideas of what constitutes a sustainable practice. By working together and sharing knowledge we can help each other to ask better questions, encourage the availability of better choices, and find the best recipe for each individual book.

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