It’s always fun to change things up and do new things, so from time to time on an ongoing basis I will be interviewing prominent photographers and folks involved with publishing on my blog. I’m pleased and honored to kick off this series with a discussion with photographer and well-known book producer Rick Smolan.
Rick Smolan is a former Time, Life, and National Geographic photographer best known as the co-creator of the “Day in the Life” book series. Today, Smolan directs massive crowd sourced projects which combine creative storytelling with state-of-the-art technology. Many of his books have appeared on the New York Times best-seller lists and his projects have been featured on the covers of dozens of publications around the globe including Fortune, Time, GEO and Stern.
The primary focus of my discussion with Rick Smolan relates to his recent Kickstarter funded book project, Inside Tracks.
HD: Tell me about Inside Tracks.
RS: Inside Tracks is the extraordinary story of Robyn Davidson, a twenty-seven-year-old Australian woman who set off to cross the desolate outback, accompanied only by four camels and a dog. It was a trip that began as a pure and (many said) lunatic gesture of independence and quickly turned into an all-out battle of wits against the forces of both nature and civilization. Cocky and outspoken, Robyn Davidson’s tale is at once the probing journal of a daring and stubborn woman and a wilderness adventure of the most exhilarating sort. It’s also the subject of a stunning new feature film called Tracks from the Oscar winning team behind “The Kings Speech”.
HD: What did you have to do with Robyn’s story?
I was assigned by National Geographic to document her journey, and tracked Robyn down in the desert five times during her nine-month journey. As I photographed the outback of Australia, and tried to see the landscape through Robyn’s eyes, I found an ancient awesome landscape swept by rain, heat and dust and inhabited by all varieties of marauding life, from poisonous snakes and wild bull camels to swarms of tourists clamoring after their newest heroine, the “Camel Lady.”
HD: This sounds like a great story. But why revisit it now?
RS: Of all the assignments I shot as a freelance photographer, Robyn’s timeless story has always been the one that seemed to touch people the most deeply. It’s a love story, a dog story, and an epic adventure. The that fact that it has now been turned into a much-loved movie makes it a great time to revisit the original journey and feature images never seen before.
Inside Tracks is also quite unique in that it’s one of the first smartphone-enabled coffee table books and combines images from the original story together with images from the movie.
HD: I’d like to get back to the interesting and exciting extended features of your book in a moment. First, please tell me a bit more about the film.
RS: When Robyn and her caravan reached their destination nine months and 2000 miles of outback later, their arrival marked the end of a true odyssey, an unforgettable journey and now an extraordinary film, In the movie, Robyn is portrayed by Mia Wasikowska (from Alice in Wonderland) and I’m (gulp!) played by Adam Driver (in HBO’s series Girls).
Mia Wasikowska and Adam Driver are two of the fastest rising young movie stars. Mia was nominated for her role in TRACKS as Best Actress at the recent Gotham Awards, and Adam will appear in the next Star Wars film.
The filmmakers were incredibly meticulous in casting all the actors to look like the original people (not only Robyn and me, but her father, the aboriginal elder she traveled with, and so on) — they even manufactured clothes to match the ones people wore in my photos. In fact, they built many of the sets based on my still photos and the side-by-side comparisons are fascinating.
HD: This must be very exciting for you.
RS: It’s great to have a major movie built around a story I played a role in, and yes, it is a real kick to be played by a major movie star. I think I know how Mark Zuckerberg must feel, minus the ten billion dollars part!
HD: How does your life today compare with the life you were leading when you created the images shown in Inside Tracks?
RS: My life is completely different. When I documented Robyn’s journey, photojournalists were sent out on assignments that sometimes lasted months. I traveled with Robyn for three months during her nine month trip. Today that kind of in-depth coverage is very rare. I was also 28 years old and single at the time, living in hotels 11 months of the year. I was footloose and fancy free. Today I have two wonderful kids (12 and 14) and a brilliant wife plus two dogs and two cats. I travel about half as much as I’d like to and twice as much as my family wants me to!
HD: Do you miss the Australian outback? Would you go back? Do you enjoy wilderness experiences?
RS: I loved the outback. The quiet, the clarity of the light, the lack of light pollution so you could see stars was unlike anything I’ve ever seen anywhere else. I did go back during the shooting of the movie and it hadn’t changed at all. Just magical!
HD: If you could do this story over again, what would you do differently?
RS: I wish I had bought a movie camera back then, but was worried I’d be shooting movie footage just when I should have been shooting stills. I didn’t want to risk being distracted. Now I so wish I had shot movie footage anyway.
HD: How does Robyn’s take on this adventure in her book Tracks differ from yours, or are they the same? Same question for the movie, or are there substantive differences?
RS: We compared our very different memories of the trip in this wonderful video produced by Emmy Award winning director Brian Storm. Actually, since human memory can be so malleable, one of our biggest fears is that the movie version of events will begin to change the way both of us remember the actual journey.
HD: You mentioned earlier in this interview that your book has some unusual features. Please tell me more.
RS: The coolest part of this book is that it comes with a free app which allows your iPhone or iPad to recognize one of my original photos of Robyn’s trek, and then immediately play a scene from the movie based on that photo. The effect is reminiscent of the Harry Potter movies where you could tap a character in the newspaper and have them turn around to tell you their story. It allows readers to feel as if they are joining Robyn on her journey (and the actors as they bring her legendary trek to life.)
HD: I understand that you self-published Inside Tracks via a Kickstarter campaign, even though I’m sure you could have found a conventional publisher to work with. What’s the thinking behind your decision? How do you feel it has turned out?
RS: Even though over the years conventional publishers have sold more than five million copies of my books, I decided to self-publish Inside Tracks via Kickstarter because, despite my track record, no publisher would commit to the size, the heavy matt paper, and to the 6-color printing plus spot varnish that I felt Robyn’s story deserved. The good news is that Inside Tracks has already sold over 11,000 copies, which probably makes Inside Tracks the best-selling Kickstarter coffee table book to date.
HD: Do you have any advice for someone contemplating a Kickstarter, or a self-publishing venture?
RS: Yes, I’m now convinced it’s the only way to go. You have a direct relationship with every backer (unlike when you work with a publisher), and you make much more per book, so you can make the book much more affordable. When a $45 book is sold through a publisher you might make $2. When you sell that same book for $22.50 directly you make $10. So you make as much selling 1,000 copies via Kickstarter at half the price as you would selling 5,000 via a publisher at full retail. Also with a publisher, you need to guess eight months in advance how many copies you “think” will sell, and if you are wrong, you end up with a warehouse full of unsold copies. With Kickstarter, you only print the number of copies that your backers paid for, so there is minimal risk. I think most photography books in the future will be crowd funded.
HD: What projects are you involved in now, and what are your plans for the future?
RS: My younger brother Sandy and I are just finishing a one hour TV documentary based on our Human Face of Big Data project and I’m working on a dramatic TV series based on Robert Heinlein’s classic science fiction novel “Tunnel in the Sky” (which I own the rights to).
HD: Thanks Rick, it is been really interesting finding out what you’re up to! If someone wants a copy of Inside Tracks, where is the best place to get one?
RS: Your readers can buy Inside Tracks from Amazon.com using this link. And, thank you.