In $5,000 photo book, a quest for perfection

Sailboats race along the Seattle waterfront, one of 340 images in the book “Labyrinth Sublime.” Photos courtesy of Rosemarie and Pat Keough

For Rosemarie and Pat Keough, producing a high-end book of photography that weighs almost 20 pounds and sells for $5,000 was not a business decision.

It was a quest for perfection.

The Salt Spring Island couple’s self-published book “Labyrinth Sublime” is a limited-edition collection of 340 dazzling color photos taken over two decades from boats, planes and land of an area stretching from Seattle up the Inside Passage to southeast Alaska.

The book, which came out last fall and was on display during the Seattle Antiquarian Book Fair earlier this month, takes obsession to quality to a rare level. The cover is morocco goat leather from India and Bangladesh, tanned in Scotland using centuries-old methods. The book, which measures about 17 by 13.5 by 2.5 inches, is hand-bound combining durable split-board construction with classic European leather binding. The hybrid of the two traditional styles was developed by the Keoughs’ bindery over numerous prototypes.

“It really is an obsession with perfection,” he said. “If it’s going to be under our name, it has to be done absolutely perfectly, the best way it can be done.

Near the front of the book is an image of sailboats racing against the Seattle skyline during the annual summer Downtown Sailing Series. Boats are a recurring theme; Pat is an avid sailor who built a trimaran with two New Zealanders in his twenties and sailed it about 15,000 miles through the South Pacific. Later, he and Rosemarie spent summers sailing with their two children on a 62-foot sloop owned by friends.

The photographs in “Labyrinth Sublime” capture the natural splendor, industry and culture of the region, from a bear sleeping in an Alaskan forest glade to old nets hung in an abandoned fish cannery near Bella Coola, British Columbia. Sweeping panoramas of misty fjords and calving glaciers alternate with images of exquisite, close-up detail.

The book is lush with color. One photo shows a bright green Pacific tree frog perched on the yellow leaf bract of a skunk cabbage. In another, green hillsides and a patch of blue sky reflect dreamily in rippled water, looking like an abstract painting.

“Labyrinth Sublime” follows the 2003 release of “Antarctica,” the first in the Keoughs’ planned “Explorer Series.” The two books have won a total of more than two dozen awards. Most recently, “Labyrinth Sublime” won the top prize for best book arts craftmanship at this year’s Independent Publisher Book Awards, and also took top prize for best fine edition book at the 2012 Gold Ink Awards.

The two books now live among collections owned by people including Paul Allen. The Washington State Library has a copy of “Labyrinth Sublime,” and Sean Lanksbury, the library’s Pacific Northwest and Special Collections librarian, said the book stands out both for its exceptional photography and quality construction.

“It uses a level of craftsmanship that we don’t see in modern publishing a lot these days,” he said. “It’s not often you come across someone who’s willing to put the extra time and money and effort into producing a book that’s bound this well. You can tell it was very carefully attended to.”

The book provides a strong visual documentation of the landscape and to a lesser extent, the people of the region, Lanksbury said.

“Even though there are other books on the Inside Passage, there are not that many with large-format photography of this magnitude, and the quality of the photos sets it apart. These are exceptionally well-composed photographs.”

For longtime cruiser Murray Dorsey, the Keoughs’ books are a way to return to some of the places he and his wife visited on their boat. Dorsey met the couple about 20 years ago through a mutual friend, Canadian artist Robert Bateman, and owns both of their large books. He sees them as works of art that will be passed down through generations.

“They’re pieces of art and certainly not going to decline in value,” said Dorsey, who lives in Lacey, Wash. “They’re something that my grandkids will have. And because these are places we’ve been, we enjoy reading them.”

Rosemarie, 53, and Pat, 67, met in 1984 during a canoe trip on the South Nahanni River in Canada’s Northwest Territories. Their meeting was serendipitous – both had signed up for the canoe trip after excursions on opposite sides of the continent fell through. They were engaged six weeks after the trip and married within months.

While photographing elephants in India on their honeymoon, the newlyweds, then living in Ontario, decided to quit their management jobs and pursue their love of photography as a career.

“All the time, the dream was to produce books,” Rosemarie said. “Books are something we both treasured.”

After being turned down by a big Canadian publisher, the couple produced a photography book about the Ottawa Valley, remortgaging their house and borrowing cash from family and friends to finance the project. The book’s success convinced a publisher to sign them on for two more coffee table books.

But the Keoughs weren’t happy with the quality of those books, and thus begun a decade-long search to produce the best book they could. The process has been complicated, and Rosemarie admits they have a “tenacity that goes beyond reason.” Before settling on a printer in Manitoba, they spent about four months having test copies printed by various companies. They have personally overseen the printing and binding processes.

“Antarctica” came out when the U.S. economy was relatively healthy, but the timing for its successor was not as good. The Keoughs took orders for about 40 copies of “Labyrinth Sublime” in August 2008, then the economy collapsed. They called everyone who had ordered copies and said they were delaying production. Not one canceled, they said.

“With that confidence, we had this money that we could apply to the production bill,” Rosemarie said.

Financing the books up front is costly. While the Keoughs are reluctant to put a price on producing the books, given currency fluctuations and increasing costs for materials, they say that when a book sells through a retailer, they subsidize part of the cost. On the quality of the binding alone, they say, the book could be priced at $8,000 to $10,000. If they can recoup their financial investment in the books, they will consider themselves fortunate.

Another challenge has been marketing the books. That requires providing loaner copies to shops and galleries, which are often damaged and written off. One book displayed on a cruise ship was slit down its spine, presumably for the pages to lay flat so someone could photograph them.

Still, their passion for producing grand-scale photography books is undiminished. They’re thinking of producing books on the Arctic, possibly the Mediterranean and the South Pacific, as the next in their series.

“It’s a great profession in that you get to explore,” Rosemarie said. “It’s an excuse to keep learning.”

Additional information about the Keoughs and their work can be found on their website.

One Response to In $5,000 photo book, a quest for perfection

  1. Evan November 2, 2012 at 7:22 am #

    Looks beautifull. I’d rather just pick 2 or 3 locationns see them myself for 5 grand. I can’t afford to be a customer who can admire the art made during their travels, but I am glad a patron bought one for UW. I’ll look for it there. Or maybe someday get on board Tatoosh or Octopus to see where P. Allen keeps his copy.

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