Parts of the Process — 17 years in the making: Frédéric Lagrange’s photography book, Mongolia

Posted 17 October 2018 Interview by Marianne Hanoun

As an eight year old, Frédéric Lagrange would sit and listen to his grandfather tell stories. At first, there’s nothing seemingly extraordinary about this – except that his grandfather was a prisoner of war, and the stories he was telling were of personal rescue. Saved by a group of Mongol soldiers fighting under Soviet command in 1944, the tale left a lasting impression on the photographer. And ever since, Mongolia has remained on Frédéric’s mind. In 2001, he set out on an intimately personal project to capture and document the life and inhabitants of the then-foreign country that saved his grandfather, and by proxy, him, too. 

The result is Mongolia, a large-format, self-published photography book; the outcome of an extraordinary 17-year-long process that saw Frédéric traverse the country’s dramatically changing climates and landscapes. But the project’s challenges weren’t just physical, as Frédéric found out when it came to producing the book – from editing down 1,261 rolls of film, designing the layout with The New York Times Magazine art director Matt Willey, and printing the book itself – not to mention putting together a convincing Kickstarter proposal. Here, Frédéric tells us how this incredibly ambitious project came together – from studying the country’s topography and shooting in sub-zero temperatures to finally pressing print. 

Duration

17 years (2001–2018)

Team

Frédéric Lagrange (Photographer)
Matt Willey (Art Director) 
Pico Iyer (Writer, Foreword)
Gretchen Smelter (Project Director)

Budget

A specific budget was not set, but costs ultimately accumulated to around $300,000 USD for flights to and from Mongolia, guides, drivers, hotel stays, food, domestic flights, equipment, rolls of film, lab processing, scanning, colour correction, proof printing and final printing of the book.

The finished book

Project Background

I first heard about Mongolia from my grandfather when I was around seven or eight years old, who would tell stories of being a soldier during World War II. He spoke of how he had been rescued in late 1944 – when he was a prisoner of war – by a detachment of Mongol soldiers who were fighting under Soviet command. 

I remember the excitement in his voice as he explained how he and other British and American prisoners in the camp had been rescued by these massive men from a foreign land. Since then, Mongolia has always been on my mind. Those men saved my grandfather’s life, and ultimately mine as well.

(Left) Frédéric's grandfather, Louis Lagrange, in Paris around 1978 (Right) A school photo of Frédéric at 8 years old

Covering New Ground

Many years later, in 2001, I saved enough money from my job as a photo assistant, took a month off, and travelled to Mongolia. I spent the majority of that month shooting in the West, attracted by the unspoiled beauty and endless landscapes. When I returned to New York City, I looked at a map of Mongolia and fully grasped just how little ground I had managed to cover during that initial trip. I felt a strong urge to see more: the Gobi desert in the South, the eagle hunters in the West, the Tsaatan reindeer herders in the Northern Taiga, and so much more. That epiphany inspired the idea for this book, which has been a long-term labour of love – 17 years in the making.

“The main goal has become to create a timeless body of work; a portrait of Mongolia and its people through the seasons and time.”

During all those years and many trips, I covered all of the vastly different provinces of Mongolia in all seasons. Winters, when temperatures dropped to -35 degrees celsius, were particularly challenging, but always the most visually interesting. Cracking ice on a frozen lake while my guide and I were driving over it, sandstorms, and other extreme weather conditions, created unexpected moments that turned into powerful images. Over the years of working on this project, the main goal has become to create a timeless body of work about this quickly-evolving country; a portrait of the Mongolia and its people through the seasons and time. I wanted to document my vision of the country for myself, bring the country to life visually and try to be as thorough as possible in my documentation of it.

(Left) Tsaatan herder and Frédéric, Winter 2006 (Right) Frédéric shooting a portrait of his friend, Altai during one of his first trips to Mongolia, Autumn, 2006

An Organic Process

The whole process was very organic. As it was a personal project, I didn’t have any investors, partners or publishers who were waiting for a result at a certain time, it was just me. This allowed me to take the time I needed to create and evolve the narrative as I was going along.

I didn’t have a schedule or deadline to abide by, so I had an incredible amount of flexibility to go when and where I wanted to. I had a map of the country, and a list of locations and people I wanted to visit and document during specific seasons. But I also wanted to allow myself to have spontaneous moments, and not to be too rigid. I wanted to go with the flow of life there; to be an observer rather than adhere to a strict checklist. 

“I wanted to go with the flow of life [in Mongolia]; to be an observer rather than adhere to a strict checklist.”

One of Frédéric's original maps of Mongolia on which he noted the itineraries for the years 2015, 2017 and 2018

I wanted to take all the necessary time to capture the emotions and character of this rugged, and still very mysterious place; to travel deeper into the culture and immerse myself with the people who I felt completely foreign to when I first arrived. It was only after returning again and again, spending the time to observe, learn and understand, that I was able to be forgotten amongst my new friends. Only then could I take the photos that would tell this genuine story. 

Final photography

Studying Up and Setting Out

I normally do a lot of reading and research before starting any new projects. When I began the project in 2001, Google wasn’t the same search engine tool as it is today. So I had to do a lot of historical research, reading anything I could find in books, newspapers and the news. As I had a certain interest depending on the geography or density of people living in certain areas, I also studied the topography and maps of the country. For instance, in the west of the country I was very attracted by the Altai Mountains Range and the many different landscapes and diversity of people living there. But the main research was done once I was actually in Mongolia. 

I talked to everyone I could – from city dwellers and teachers to herders in the countryside to understand their interests and everyday life, in order to be able to accurately document it. I was very industrious and inquisitive, trying to see as much as I could with the little time I had. This lead to very long days and being constantly on the move. 

Mongolia

Building a Team

For the first 16 years, I was really on my own working on the project, shooting and creating the visuals. But on the ground in Mongolia, I had the help of my drivers and guide and friend Enkhdul, who gave me first hand advice on places to see and people to meet – very precious information. Enkhdul also helped me during the actual shoot while taking care of things like permits to access certain remote areas; and organising drivers, flights and hotel reservations. We have been working together in Mongolia for 13 years now, and we have a very good way of working together. 

Later in the process, when I knew the body of work was complete, I brought in New York-based art director Matt Willey to design the book and Gretchen Smelter to be the project director. The book had been in my head for 17 years, so I was clear on what I wanted it to look like, and had the final say on everything. I was very methodical. Once a team was involved I worked with everyone very closely, and during the past year, I regularly communicated with them about every aspect of the book – from timings and photo editing to paper choices.

Final photography

While the shoot itself took 17 years and 13-month long trips to Mongolia. The book, including pre-production, editing, layout and design, finding a printer, writing the introduction and all of the captions, printing in Italy and post-production such as binding took over a year.

It was a challenge because, during this year, I was travelling back and forth to Hong Kong as my wife was living there for work. Scheduling became a challenge as Matt was in NYC with a busy professional life at The New York Times Magazine. I had to be very efficient when I was in New York, and plan ahead of time to make sure I could accomplish what I needed and meet with my NYC team in order to meet the printer’s deadlines.

Final photography

Editing the Photos

Throughout this time, my most important tools were my 6x7 Pentax, a 55mm lens, 100mm lens and many rolls of negative Kodak film. The entire book was shot on negative film. By the end of it, I had 1261 rolls of film, from which I spent three years editing to get to 1600 images, which Matt and I started with. We edited these down to 600, and then 300. At this stage, I was just too close to all the images so, I asked Matt to finalise everything according to the layout, art direction and narrative he had in mind. 

We had worked together in the past for Avaunt and PORT magazines and I felt very comfortable having him edit the final images. He came to the studio and we laid down all the pairings and images he had selected on the floor. We spent entire days going through everything, moving images around, swapping and changing pairings to narrow the choice. Finally we came up with an edit of 185 pictures spread over 252 pages that we both felt strongly about. That was a really fun process and collaboration.

Matt Willey during the photo-editing process

Frédéric during the photo-editing process

Frédéric during the photo-editing process

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Seeking Funding on Kickstarter

Everything I had financially went into this project. To fund trips to Mongolia for the book, I was working full-time as a commercial photographer. Sometimes I was able to go on a trip as planned and other times I would have to delay the project if say, a big advertising job came up. Over the years I had to make tough decisions like, ‘Do I buy a car or do I save for the project?’ or ‘Do I go out with friends for dinner; or buy clothes; or do I save for a trip to Mongolia?’ Essentially, every extra dollar was given to the project. 

The project on Kickstarter

Kickstarter was the perfect platform to try and make back a portion of the $300,000 I had fronted for the project over 17 years. The biggest risk with Kickstarter would’ve been not reaching my initial funding goal (which, luckily, we reached within two days). After all of the time, energy and money, it would’ve been a huge blow on many levels. The biggest challenge was marketing the book for the Kickstarter audience who usually only spend an average of $50 to $75 on a photo book, and Mongolia is $250. This is probably the most expensive book ever presented on Kickstarter.

“Everything I had financially went into this project. So over the years I had to make tough decisions like, ‘Do I buy a car or do I save for the project?’”

Some people advised me that the book would be too high-end for a platform like Kickstarter. But I had a different approach to it: I wanted the book to be like nothing else ever presented on Kickstarter. On top of being a beautifully crafted book by some of the best craftsmen in the field in Italy, it was a limited-edition, and a piece of art that looks incredibly beautiful in a room on its own. I was very touched and overwhelmed by the response; I received many emails and messages of appreciation about the body of work I had built over the years. 

Final photography

On Press: Pressing Print

Once I approved the layout, and copy was edited by the project director, Matt made a final PDF which I sent to my printer in Italy. I then spent a full week, day and night, in my studio creating press prints for the pressman to match all of the book images to. I hand-carried those to Italy with me. 

As this was my first book project, I had many conversations with my printing representative, and there were a lot of questions and back and forth. I learned a lot through the physical making of the book, from copy editing, captions to binding, foil stamping, debossing and the actual printing. I know now the challenges with paper, weight and the limitations of a printing press. 

The printing process

Checking proofs

Checking proofs

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Some of the printed pages

Some of the printed pages

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One of the biggest challenges on this project, was not shooting pictures in sub-zero temperatures with analogue film in winter time in Mongolia, but actually while on press printing the book. We had five full days on press to match the colour rendering as closely as possible to the colour reference proofs I had made and taken with me. 

“The biggest challenge wasn’t shooting pictures in sub-zero temperatures with analogue film – but printing the book.”

We printed in Italy with a local Italian printer. The pressmen did not speak English and I had to go through a translator to communicate. A lot of communication and details were lost in translation. I was also very particular about what I wanted, and it took us double the time on press to reach that level of satisfaction with the printing. But I now have a better grasp of the whole process which will definitely be a great advantage for the next book. 

Final spreads from the book

Final Responses and Feedback

So far, the feedback has been very positive. People who have seen the completed book (which has not been many as the book has yet to be released) have loved it. They talk about the size, the paper quality and the printing is all what a photography book should look and feel like. I was probably the most vocal in term of critics. I think the printing and colour rendering could have been better and a bit closer to what I had in mind, but of course I am very close to it.

“In my eyes, it is already a success. Completing the book after 17 years, and holding the physical copy in my hands is deeply gratifying.”

In my eyes, it is already a success. Completing the book after 17 years, and holding the physical copy in my hands is deeply gratifying. If the 1,000 copies end up being sold, that would feel even better. As I type this, the Kickstarter funding goal has more than doubled, and is still on for 10 more days. The reaction from the Kickstarter community and the wider world has been truly overwhelming for me. I also got a lot of messages and emails from people who had followed my work throughout the years and were finally being able to get a copy. That was really amazing to hear and read.

Working on the book was a learning process for me. I learned new techniques and played with different ideas without the pressure of having editors wanting a certain look or image. And it taught me new ways of shooting that I can use on future editorial or commercial jobs. Working on this personal project was a great way to experiment.

See more of Frédéric’s work here
And check out Mongolia’s Kickstarter page here

The collector’s edition of the book

Posted 17 October 2018 Interview by Marianne Hanoun
Collection: Parts of the Process
Disciplines: Photography
Mentions: Frédéric Lagrange, Matt Willey, Gretchen Smelter
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