Alabaster Art Director Samuel Han on Details & Thoughtfulness Behind the Beautiful Bible Books
Interviewed for Risen Magazine
Risen Magazine: We love the brand Alabaster. Let’s just start with the name. Talk about how it was chosen and then, what you’re trying to accomplish through the brand.
Samuel Han: Yes. Well, the name kind of stems from the first release that we had. It was The Four Gospels. That was our big release. Each of them made separately. The image was of alabaster stone. There was one piece of alabaster stone that was shot from four different sides. And the whole idea of this, the alabaster jar came from Mark 14, when the woman with the alabaster jar comes, breaks the jar, and, in the Greek, Jesus says, “She has done a beautiful thing”, and it’s this beauty of… Language that isn’t used anywhere else. And Jesus says, “Beauty.” So, we see her act as beautiful, and also in a way it was like, I guess, first century church act of performance art. So, we see this beautiful act happening, and we see this intersection of beauty and art at the same time.
So, that’s kind of where we took the inspiration initially for the Alabaster name and logo. And I think that made the most sense, as well, because our first release was with the four Gospels.
RM: The books are so beautiful. They’re clean, and crisp, and it’s the Bible story. So, Sam, share a little bit about your background, and then how you got involved with being part of this brand.
SH: My journey into Alabaster is quite unique, I’d say. We are now a team of eight. Most of the people on the team right now have come through as a mutual friend, or there’s a recommendation. Just because we’ve been flowing from friends.
How I got connected initially was a friend said, “Oh, this company called Alabaster, they’re new, and they’re looking for photographers.” So, kind of on a whim, I applied, sent an application. And then, now like four years ago, almost five years ago, I started just submitting photos.
I’ll go into this more in detail later, but when you see some of the landscape pictures that you see throughout our books, we outsource a lot of our photography. So, there’s photographers all around the world that we work with. That’s how I initially started.
And then, somehow, in some way, they just started using more and more of my photos, and they were like, “Sam, we love your photos.” And I was like, “Wow, thank you.” And then, they asked what my background in photography was, not just landscape-wise. And I actually got my BFA in photography at a school called Parsons in New York.
So, then I went from taking these landscape photos. And then, once we get to talking about Ecclesiastes, you’ll see that I was brought in as a studio manager. So, I started doing a lot of their in-house studio photography for them. And then, I guess my role has just grown constantly throughout the past three or four years.
RM: I love that. And I love that you pulled from so many different photographers, too. Because then you have this collective feel to it. So, you mention Ecclesiastes. And I know you have the cover photo for that.
Let’s just take this book, and kind of walk me through how it goes from the Book of Ecclesiastes that we see in the Bible, to this beautiful piece of art that still wholly has the scripture in it? How do you decide what photos to use? What tone? What feel? What does that look like?
SH: Yes. I’ll start off by saying, sometime you get questions about the text itself, and people are like, “Do they change the text?” We don’t alter the text at all. It might be sliced up differently, just because we’re trying to play with the layout design of it, and things like that. But we don’t change the text at all, depending on the translation.
What we do is, the first process is, we work with a few theologians, that we reach out to. We’re like, “Hey, these are the next books that we’re thinking about producing. Can you take some time to research?” So, basically depending on how long the book is, and how extensive they need to go in depth, they will bring us an art introduction that kind of goes through the overview and the themes of the book.
And then, they actually go basically verse by verse, and give us a Google Sheet of verse by verse, “This is the verse, this is the key theme, this is a narrative moment, this is a visual concept that we can explore.” And they just go down. Yeah, it’s incredible. And they are amazing.
So, we’ll basically take this information. From there we’ll go, “Okay, so this is how it lives right now, theologically.” So, “How can we take what lives there already and visualize what’s happened?”
So, I’d say, specially for Ecclesiastes, if you haven’t gotten a chance to read the artist’s introductions, all of our books have an artist introduction. That kind of goes through a little bit of what we’re thinking about when we did the art direction for the book.
And for Ecclesiastes a big thing is, in one of the English translations it says, “Everything is meaningless.” But, in the Hebrew that “Meaningless” word really is more like “Hard to grasp.” It’s like a grasping for something that’s not their type of thing. And I think we explain it as, it’s translated as like a vapor or breath.
So, we wanted to re-explore how the book of Ecclesiastes can be seen and understood. In this, you start to see it a little bit, even in the cover where it’s like, you have this sand floating up. That’s just like, it gives this a little bit like an ethereal feel to it. And that’s where we started. We’re like, “Okay, this is what the book of Ecclesiastes is trying to get at. And how can we visualize this right?”
RM: You had mentioned that you sometimes use photography from others. But, if you were to go out and shoot, are there specific verses that you say, “Oh, this needs to look this way, and we’re not seeing it. So let’s do a product shot, let’s do a hand placement.” Kind of what is maybe a little overview of what that looks like?
SH: Basically, we’ll set a mood board and a color story for each book. And for Ecclesiastes the color story was this slate blue, grayish color. And the mood board was a lot of images like this, where it’s like fabric floating that’s like blurred out. We’ve got images where… a little bit harder to see. Like images through a curtain. Things like that. And we had a lot of mood board images like this.
But, I think the concern always is our mix between landscape images like these, where our photographers will take. And then, our studio images where we’re like, “We want to very explicitly give off this idea of like a vapor.” So, then, in our studio, we’re shooting things like this where there’s like a pair of pants, trying to basically grasp this vapor.
So, it’s a little bit difficult, that’s why we do a mix of studio photography and landscape photography. It’s because we do see the importance of landscape photography in all of the bible books. But we also want to take it a bit more art and conceptually into the studio round as well.
So, specifically for images like this one, where it is very much thematic. So, not all of our images are always image-to-verse type of thing. Sometimes it’s a bit more like, “Okay, so this is talking about the injustices of life.” But sometimes we’ll have the image be a bit more thematic-related. Like, “Oh, this is the theme of Ecclesiastes in this section.” So, we’ll drop in a photo like that.
RM: I love how much care, thought and detail goes into each page. It isn’t just like, “Oh, I like this image, and we’re going to throw it in here. This would be pretty cool.” There’s that setting and mood, you’re creating a tone.
A lot of sources say if you’re never read the Bible before, or you’re thinking about reading it, a good place to start is the book of John. And you actually happen to have the cover image for this book, too. It is super exciting. I love that this one is about nature, and blank canvas. You had mentioned the artist introductions. I found those so helpful. I loved that, because it also kind of helps give it an overview of what I’m about to dive into as well.
SH: I’m not sure why the Gospel of John is as it is. But, in comparison to the other three Gospels, the Gospel of John is definitely written in the most unique way. Which might be why it’s easier for somebody who has never read it to be introduced to it. John basically starts from the beginning of time, which is a great place to start if you’re just reading one of the Gospels for the first time.
So, one of the things that we were exploring with the book of John is, as you can see a little bit in the cover image, and as you go on, you’ll see a bit more of this hazy gray. You’ll see a little bit of unsure of what’s going on sometimes. The whole thing of the book of John that we were trying to get out is the mystery of God.
There’s so much about, even within the Gospel of John, he’s talking about Jesus, talking about God, talking about Jesus as the Word. And people are like, “What does that mean?” And we’re just trying to explore the beauty of the mystery of God.
Because, the mystery, although for us, maybe a lot of us is difficult to be like, “Oh, I love mystery. I love uncertainty”, right? But, there is a beauty to that mystery that only Jesus knows. So, we’re exploring these types of themes, especially with the book of John.
RM: I love that, because you go to another Gospel, the Gospel of Mark, and at first I was like, “Is this image upside-down?” You know what? It’s has to be purposeful. There is so much more, the idea of suffering and love. Talk to me a little bit about some of the decisions that were made through these images.
SH: Yes. One of the biggest comments that we get about the cover of the Gospel of Mark is, “I think you guys have a misprint. That image is upside-down on mine.” And we do understand. That was what we were trying to get at. It was like trying to make it slightly visceral, like that’s clearly upside-down. But, there must be a reason for it, right? So, I’m really glad you caught on.
RM: No, no. You’re so intentional and purposeful about everything that you do. There is no way that this could be a misprint.
SH: Right. And there’s a lot of upside-down images. So, one of the biggest things we’re exploring for the Gospel of Mark is a lot of what Mark is getting at, and the angle that he takes at from Jesus’s life is talking about the upside-down Kingdom.
He’s talking about “The last shall be first, and the first shall be last.” So, we were like, “How do we explore this visually?” Initially we were like, “The Kingdom of God.” And then we were like, “Okay, how does that look visually?” And then that’s where we got to that, “Okay, it is technically the upside-down Kingdom, from how we, as a society, would view it now.” And then we were like, “Oh, upside-down. We can do something with that.”
So, we’re exploring the upside-down images. And not just landscape, but we’re also exploring like upside-down flowers, and props, and things that people would normally not want to see upside-down. But, it’s a visceral reaction to our intentional layout design, I guess.
RM: It absolutely adds that extra layer of internalizing and thinking about what’s actually being read. And, one of the things that’s so great about the whole collection is that you have different styles, too. I love the Wisdom collection, I love that it’s hardback. These can be coffee table books, but not décor. Because, we’re hoping that whoever we invite into our house picks them up, or that we have a lull in between, right after picking up the kids, and making dinner, and sitting there and I say, “Oh, let me just read one chapter.” Talk to me about how you’ve seen actual faith grow because of this?
SH: Yeah. It’s incredible, actually, I think. Especially during the pandemic. Back then we were five people, we were like, “Maybe this is it for us.”
But, surprisingly enough. And gratefully enough, people started to explore what it looks like to have our Bibles in their space, because people are inside all the time. So they’re exploring more like, “Oh, I can take this book, and in this empty space I can journal. I can write in these spaces.” And I’m like, “Well, yeah.” There’s a lot of negative space in our books that I do understand there’s a set of people that don’t want to touch this. And I totally respect that. But there are also some people who are like they want to take notes, they want to outline, they want to highlight. And somebody would send us photos of them highlighting. And at first we were like, “Oh, people do that.” And then we got more and more. And I was like. “Oh, actually I love how people are interacting and experiencing the Bible. And Bible stories as new.”
These are stories that I grew up with, but I’m re-reading it with these playful images as well, and they’re like, “Oh, but I’m seeing it differently. I’m experiencing the Bible in a different and new way.” And even people who come over to their places they’re like, “Oh, what is this?”
I don’t know if you’ve opened one of the hard covers, but our hard covers, I love the dust covers. But, if you open it, it’s got this very slick foil. I think it’s so beautiful. And, a lot of people will have this displayed. Like, “What is that?” And they’re like, “Oh, that’s one of my Bibles.” They go, “Bibles? That’s a bible?” And then these conversations come out of nowhere, just because our bibles are sitting on the coffee tables.
There’s two realms of people re-experiencing the Bible as good and new and beautiful. And then new people, who haven’t had any interest in the Bible are experiencing it as beautiful as well. So, we’re super grateful to just have a lot of people who are experiencing the Bible and God as beautiful both ways. People who have always been interested, and people who have not even been interested.
RM: I have the Gospels hardcover, like you have. It’s actually the first one that I got. And, I go back and forth, I want to take off the jacket. Which way should I do it? I need another one. I love the mixture of soft and hard cover. And you know what? I never even thought about journaling in these beautiful books. And that’s a whole other avenue that is beautiful, because you can have a visceral reaction to a photo or something along those lines, and you might write something differently than if you were in church, or in a study, or just with the normal way of reading the Bible in the past.
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