Monday, April 22, 2013

Interview with Cover Photographer Symon Chow

Symon Chow and cover model Olive.
My guest today is the talented Symon Chow, the photographer behind the In the Shadow of Blackbirds cover. Photography plays an enormous role in the plot of this novel, so I'm thrilled to feature someone who is both familiar with the art form and skilled at capturing the haunting look of the early-twentieth-century spirit photographs that are integral to this book.

Here is my interview with Symon.

Thank you so much for joining me today, Symon! As soon as my editor, Maggie Lehrman, gave me the link to your website and I saw your haunting, unique, vintage-style photographs, I knew you were the perfect photographer for the In the Shadow of Blackbirds cover. When and how did you first become drawn to this particular style of photography?

I guess it would have had to be in college when I started learning how to shoot “Alternative Process” photography. I have always been fascinated by old cameras and lenses, though even before college, I was fascinated by turn-of-the-century photography. But back then wasn’t as much about the gear and the process as it was about the subject. I have always had an affinity for the fashion of the era. If I had to pinpoint its beginning, it actually came from a shirt that my mother wore when I was a child. The shirt had a very intricate Art Nouveau pattern of sirens swirling through ribbons of fabric. I still remember it fondly and it has stuck with me though all of my creative endeavors.

When ABRAMS designer Maria T. Middleton approached you about photographing the cover of In the Shadow of Blackbirds, what were the first steps you went through to design and prepare for the shoot?

The first step of most covers I have worked on is to, of course, discuss what the designer and editor envision. I like to get as much details about the feeling they want to convey, so that I can get an idea of what kind of lighting will be involved. Then I like to ask about what types of props they want to incorporate. With that information, and the actual story for reference, I try to get as much detail before I work on “sketches.” I present as many different options as I can, focusing on different key elements that we’ve discussed. When the sketch is approved I can then concentrate on putting together the actual elements of the composition and source props and setups. The process is very much like putting a jigsaw puzzle together. It can at times be very fun and at times a little frustrating, but in the end, ALWAYS super fulfilling!

Your online portfolio shows a variety of costumes and eclectic Victorian/early 1900s-style backdrops and props. For the In the Shadow of Blackbirds cover, did you provide the costumes and all the accessories, including the goggles? 

I did actually, but not as much as I normally would have. Maggie and Maria already had a very particular outfit in mind before I even got involved in this project and had the costume pretty much sorted out. The only thing they didn’t have were the goggles...which I just happened to have sitting around (I collect old military goggles). On the day of the shoot we also played with different shoes and accessories. We have a fairly large collection of turn-of-the-century, pre- and post-WWI outfits and props that we’ve been collecting for years.

Did you use various costumes and backdrops for this shoot, or was there one particular look that you wanted most?

I believe we did a number of set-ups for this cover. Mostly wardrobe changes, different lighting set-ups, and positioning. We wanted to keep the setup simple in terms of the pose, because we wanted to focus on atmosphere. We were going for haunting, but also at the same time, inviting. We wanted the reader to get sucked into Mary’s world, and actually want to stay a while

Early-twentieth-century spirit photography plays an enormous role in the novel. Decades before the Photoshop era, photographers used methods such as double exposures to create ghostly images in the developed pictures. Are you able to divulge how you and Maria created the spirit lurking behind the model on the cover? 

Smoke and Mirrors.

If you lived in the early 1900s, would you still have been a photographer and designer? Do you think it would have been easier or harder to make a living with that art form back then?

I believe I would absolutely be working in photography and/or design in some shape or form. Especially in my photography, I use much of the same equipment, technics, and chemicals that were being used back then. It would be a toss-up as far as ease goes. While it would be easier to do the work of actually taking the picture and developing, it would be much harder to have the picture altered, press ready, and reproduced. This type of work is just in my blood, whether it be taking photos or making a sign or creating a book. I think if I were alive back then, and given the choice, my job would have been in the arts/technical field.

Thank you so much for joining me, Symon! I love hearing about the creation of this highly unique cover.

Visit Symon Chow online at

For more behind-the-scenes In the Shadow of Blackbirds cover info, please see my interview with the book's designer, Maria T. Middleton.

No comments: