A Friend’s Book: Tom Millea and The Book of Palms

POSTED ON Oct 5, 2010

Joel Friedlander

Written by Joel Friedlander

Home > Blog > Book Design, Book Printing, Self-Publishing > A Friend’s Book: Tom Millea and The Book of Palms

Something that’s obvious to me now is that when you start to participate in social media, you come in contact with a lot of the loose ends from your life. I’m thinking of Facebook. Within a few hours of signing up for Facebook in 2009, I had heard from a woman I went to high school with in New York in the 1960s. Soon I was in touch with all the old gang, now scattered to the winds.

But other people also began to emerge from the big network that is Facebook, and I reconnected with a great friend from my youth, someone I hadn’t seen or talked to in over 25 years.

Early Days

Tom Millea and I had met at college in Danbury Connecticut. Through Tom and another friend I met there I become involved in fine art photography and ended up producing many high-end photography books later in my career.

Tom, even in college, was a man with a singular vision of his place in the big scheme of things. He was an artist, a photographer, and he ventured into the world to find new things, to understand what he found there, and to create, from what he saw, ways of “describing consciousness.”

His journey continued on this straight and narrow path. Tom never gave up the dream of being an artist, because he didn’t know how to do anything else. His passion was his art, and eventually he helped revitalize the practice of printing photographs with platinum and palladium, instead of the silver halide used in commercial films and papers. Emulsions would be concocted and coated onto beautiful watercolor papers.

Negatives from the large format cameras Tom used would be exposed to the paper and images of incredible subtlety and nuance were the result. These images are impossible to reproduce by any other means, and the process gained popularity.

There was a deadly side to spending all those years in the darkroom handling heavy metals, and eventually Tom’s body couldn’t handle it anymore. It wasn’t just the metals either, but the hydrochloric acid Tom used to process his prints that gradually burned away at his lungs. He had to close down his darkroom, sell all the expensive equipment acquired over a lifetime and bring his black and white photography career to an end.

The Move to Digital

book design

Tom Millea by Bob Carroll

But as an artist, Tom still had his mission, the one thing he was good at and the one thing he had to do. He decided to learn digital photography. He bought big Macintoshes with huge monitors and the best printers he could afford. He locked himself in his studio for five years, trying to master this form that is so different from the film photography he had practiced for so long.

And he did master it. Tom got to the point where he could create images with his digital camera, print them as big as 30″ x 40″ on rough archival printing paper, and the images were fantastic. Not like black and white silver prints, and not like platinum prints either. They have a richness and tonality that’s all their own.

And them Tom made the biggest leap. With his body aging fast from a lifetime devoted to his art but little else, Tom started shooting in color. A whole new world opened up. The Tom Millea who was known throughout the photography world for his uncompromising approach to black and white photography, was seeing the world in color.

One day Tom noticed a banana palm outside a friend’s house in Carmel Valley. These are very common in Northern California, and many homes have them in pots or on the terrace. But this one caught Tom’s eye, and he started photographing it.

Reunion With a Book Designer

In the meantime Tom and I had reconnected, rekindling our friendship from many years ago. I looked through the hundreds of photographs that documented the search Tom had been on all these years, and got glimpses of what he had found. There were incredible platinum prints, series of nudes that were amazing, whole suites of images with text all ready to become something.

But what had they become? Tom had never published anything. I was surprised. No gallery retrospective, no monograph, no book. He had produced portfolios instead.

It’s a form that photographers understand, the selection, sequencing and presentation of a thematically related group of photographs. They may have special graphics for the titles or the text parts, but basically you are looking at a stack of photographic prints, usually in a box, flipping them over one at a time.

The huge advantage of the portfolio is that the photographer can design and create them one at a time, and pretty much by himself. You might get some custom boxes made, but other than that you control everything, and you only need the paper to print and mount enough photos for the portfolio. It’s total DIY, one-at-a-time production.

A book, on the other hand, is a big deal, and there are many parts of a book that are out of your control. Once it’s printed it’s fixed, you can’t change it. On top of that, to produce a book good enough to really show the photographs is hellishly expensive.

It wasn’t that he didn’t try, because he did. There were simply no printers who could adequately reproduce the remarkable subtlety and nuance of the platinum prints.

So for over 30 years Tom concentrated on what he was going to shoot next, not what he was going to do with the stuff he had already shot. Galleries showed his work occasionally, and many of his platinum prints hang in galleries, museums and collections all over the world. When the web came along Tom put up a lovely website where people could see his work. But that was it.

Until I came along, that is. When you’re a photographer sitting at the end of your career with boxes of prints piled around you and suddenly, a book designer drops into your life, I think you pretty much have to take it as an act of providence. What other choice do you have?

Trying to Find the Book

So Tom and I set about trying to find a book to create from his work. We entered a long and confusing period in which I tried to find a printer who could handle the delicate black and white studies of two models Tom had photographed some years ago. We were looking at books that might cost $3,000 to print, but they were modest, small page sizes, paperback, under 100 pages.

Nothing seemed right. We ran press proofs in which Tom’s image files, which run about 250 MG each, were calibrated by the printer for the proof. In addition, the printer also scanned Tom’s prints and then separated and proofed them alongside the proofs made from Tom’s files.

We ran 2-color (duotone) proofs, 3-color (tritone) proofs, we ran proofs of the images printed in 4 color process. To be honest, they all looked like crap. It looked like there was not going to be a book.

We decided to switch tracks. Tom and a friend had put all the photos he had taken of the banana palm into a tight, 63-image sequence. Tom had asked a legendary curator of photography, Jim Enyeart, to look at them and give an opinion. Enyeart ended up writing a long introduction to the book, an informed appraisal of what Tom had accomplished with his photos of this simple plant. Here’s one of the things Enyeart had to say:

The images are a rich tableau of modernist love for ideal abstractions of nature and at the same time reveal incongruous metaphoric worlds of flesh, life, and death. The artist is present in every image, looking, testing, and pushing the subject into visualizations that are about more than “the thing itself,” something that would otherwise escape cognition of even the most practiced appreciative eye.

The Book Starts to Take Shape

photography book design

Click to enlarge

I designed a book around the images. It was 8″ x 9″ and 96 pages, and it worked nicely. I used Apollo, a beautiful roman face for the text. It seemed to hold up well on the page without inflecting the images. For heads I used Mona Lisa Recut. It’s hard to account for your attraction to one typeface over another for a specific book. In this case, it immediately leapt to mind and became part of my mental imagery of the book.

I created a typographic look that alluded to letterpress models of earlier times, and even included a colophon on the last page of the book. Most of the images faced another image on the page. There were discrete plate numbers, and the finished PDF had a lovely flow to it.

We continued to try to find a printer who could reproduce the images Tom was making. We ran a press proof in China, waiting anxiously for weeks until the huge sheets came back and we could spread them out. The paper was bad, and the printing wasn’t all that much better.

In the meantime Tom had gone back to the banana palm and made a whole new set of photos, images that started where the earlier sequence left off and just kept pushing further into what there was to see there. Some of the images were absolutely stunning. They looked nothing like any photographs I had ever seen. They seemed to be pushing photography into areas it had never been before.

Looking at some of them, I would have sworn they were paintings, or digitally enhanced. Remarkable colors would emerge, with half of a leaf browns and greens, while the other half was an electric blue. And yet Tom did no image manipulation after they were taken. He only balanced the color, nothing else. It looked like a treatise on modern art and abstraction.

As we continued looking for printers, we found an outstanding company in South Korea. Again we set up a press proof, again we went through the agonizing weeks of waiting for the sheets to come back. This time, for the first time, I saw something that really did remind me of the originals. This printer was an artist too. But there were other problems. His price was fantastically high, and he only wanted to print on very heavy paper, and only on one side of the sheet.

Hemlock Press of Vancouver

photography book design

A spread from The Book of Palms. Click to enlarge

One day Tom heard about a printer doing outstanding offset printing in Canada, of all places. We made contact and arranged another press proof, after the printer had looked at Tom’s images and assured us they could do the job, and on the paper we wanted. At this point Tom had spent $7,000 – $8,000 just on press proofs, and with nothing to show for it.

This time, when the sheets came back, I knew we would have a book if we could only get through the rest of the process. Due to cost and production constraints, the book would have to change, and that was good news and bad news.

On one hand we had to cut it back to 32 images, and only 72 pages. But on the other hand we got a bigger book, which helped display the images much better. It was now 9.5″ x 11.5″ a really generous and pleasing size, one that would immerse the reader in the book.

We decided on a hardcover with a jacket, and I set about adapting the design to this larger size, and to a new set of photos that incorporated all the work Tom had done with the banana palm during the past year.

The design of the book morphed also. Collaborating with an artist is different than collaborating with other kinds of people. The book became an expression of Tom’s art and his whole approach to art. Rather than facing pages of photos, the book became a series of photos, each on the right hand pages.

On the left hand pages was only a small number, floating opposite the image. As you flip through the book, you can see that what Tom has done is merge the portfolio sensibility of the photographer with the demands of a printed and bound book.

Each image appears by itself on a huge expanse of Mohawk Superfine, the lovely paper the book is printed on. You flip the pages like you would flip the prints in a portfolio.

Right from the beginning, Tom had never intended for the book to represent his original images. In fact, this is impossible. He knew that the book, to succeed, had to be a work of art on its own. But until we started on our collaboration, the book part of the project was missing. It was the two of us pulling and pushing and trying to find what the book wanted to become, that made it possible to produce the book that eventually came off the presses in Toronto.

Finishing Touches

We added a gorgeous red cloth and some copies with matching red slipcases. I received my copy about 10 days ago.

Hemlock Printing in Toronto, where the book was printed, did a magnificent job of interpreting Tom’s images on the printed page. It is truly one of the most remarkable jobs of offset printing I’ve ever seen.

I’m not going to pretend that there weren’t difficulties and problems along the way, because there were many. When a commercial printer is pressed to meet a higher standard than normal, or to make adjustments that seem inconsequential to ordinary eyes, pressure is inevitable. And there are times the pressure is just too much.

But once a book is born, you can’t un-born it. After a lifetime in photography, there’s a Tom Millea book that you can now buy. It only represents a small part of his work, but it is an incredible book nevertheless.

Jill and I were looking it over the other day. It’s hard to explain the effect these images have on me, but some of them are quite profound. Jill kept asking me how he got those colors in there, did he doctor them up in Photoshop?

I said, no, that’s not what it’s about. It’s about seeing, in the end. Tom, like many artists, sees things that we don’t see. And he captures that in whatever way he can, and that’s what he’s showing us.

One day while working together I told Tom that, no matter where he looked, he saw a universe. That’s what’s in these photos, and a lot more besides.

Now, some people don’t get them. Tom tells me other photographers just don’t know what to make of the images. But I’m both happy and satisfied.

I know that a circle has been closed. No matter what else happens this book will continue to amaze people with the quality of the materials that went into it, the quality of the printing that accomplished it, and the transcendental images that it contains. It will be around a lot longer than either Tom or I will. And that is very satisfying.

There are many many people publishing their own work these days, and just as many stories behind their pursuit of publication. There are no generalizations that fit some of these people, like Tom Millea. Keep that in mind the next time a conversation starts up about “self-publishing.” There are much bigger issues behind the mundane, and I think we’re lucky when we manage to get a glimpse of them.


To see more images from The Book of Palms, head over to:
The Book of Palms sales page with sample images.
ISBN: 978-0-615-38182-4
9.5” x 11.5”, 72 pages
$75.00 available only from the photographer
To learn more about Tom Millea and his work, visit his website at TomMillea.com
More on Tom Millea and his photography:
Gerald Boerner’s Profile of Tom Millea
About Tom Millea on Photo.box.sk
Tom Millea in Artworks Magazine
Tom Millea’s Transition to Digital in Photo Technique
Tom Millea in Photo Technique
Tom Millea on Polaroid on Photocritic International

Joel Friedlander

Written by
Joel Friedlander

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