Having great gear is nice but not enough because other photographers can purchase the same gear. Having great software is not enough because other photographers can purchase the same software. Having access to great subject matter or locations is not enough because other photographers can have access to the same subject matter and locations.
So, what can make us truly unique? When everyone has access to the same tools and knowledge, being unique no longer comes from using these tools and knowledge. Being unique, different or original, in one word, standing out and expressing a personal vision, comes from using these tools and this knowledge in a creative manner. In a day when hardware, software and subject matter are readily available and accessible, it is our creativity that becomes our ‘success edge’ so to speak.
An effective way to generate creativity is to work on projects instead of on isolated images. In this essay we are going to look at the creative aspects offered by projects.
Focusing our work makes it better
We all work on the same project when we start photography. This nearly universal project is called ‘everything that catches our eye.’ I did work on this project on my way back home from the store where I purchased my first camera. I would still be working on it if I had not had excellent teachers who told me to get off the ‘everything that catches my eyes’ train and move on to a more productive approach to photography.
We cannot photograph everything. Our project therefore cannot be whatever catches our eye. If it is, then it is no different to what everyone else is doing. Doing so is not working on a project; it is simply photographing everything and anything. We can't go on forever shooting everything that catches our eye. We have to move on to better goals and clearer vision in order to make our work better and reach the next step.
The problem with the 'catch my eye' project, if it can be called that, is that it is self- centred. We are the only ones who care about everything that catches our eye. Other people are not interested in everything that catches our attention and neither are we interested in everything that catches other people’s attention.
If you don’t believe me just Google ‘everything that catches my eye’ and you will see that there are no books, no portfolios, no shows and not much of anything else, project-wise, under that title. What people want to see from us is something that we see that they can’t. That 'something' is our unique take on a specific subject, the unique style with which we represent a specific subject or location, the particular point of view we share with our audience and so on. In other words, what people look for is focus and specificity.
To be interesting, a project must therefore be more than a collection of images whose sole reason for being shown together is that each photo is of something that caught our attention. There are countless things that catch my attention everyday, and yet I don’t photograph them. I used to until, as I mentioned, my teachers took me aside and explained the importance of focusing on a specific subject. That subject can be any of the many things that catch our attention, but it cannot be all the things that catch our attention.
Photographers who have achieved a significant level of recognition and of image quality, all had a specific focus for their work. Ansel Adams used large format cameras to photograph the American West with a particular emphasis on Yosemite. Henri Cartier Bresson used a 35mm camera to photograph street scenes involving people in a reportage-like style with a particular emphasis on Paris. Diane Arbus photographed street scenes that involved dramatic events and police intervention with a particular focus on New York City. Michael Kenna photographs long-exposure scenes devoid of people, in black and white with a square format with a particular emphasis on urban areas. Jerry Uelsmann photographs natural and manmade scenes that are used as elements in surrealist photo collages created with multiple enlargers. The list goes on but the common characteristic between all these photographers is how specific the focus of their work is. It is not just the subject matter that is specific, it is also how this subject is approached, what equipment is used, whether the prints are colour or black and white, and more.
This sharp focus is largely responsible for the uniqueness of their vision and the interest of their work. Their vision is also what gives birth to their focus. Rather than photographing everything that catches their eye, they pick and choose among all the things they encounter, until they see something that matches their focus and that has the potential for creating a successful image. In other words, they are deliberate in their choice of what to photograph. They know what they want and they go out and look for it. Rather than letting everything be their subject, they decide what their subject is going to be and then go out and look for it.
What is a project?
A project is a group of photographs focused on a specific theme, idea or subject, not just a group of prints on unrelated subjects. A project is conducted along the lines of a coherent personal style. In a successful project, the printing style and the overall quality must demonstrate the mastery of the medium.
A project is an opportunity to express your vision. Vision is best expressed through collections of images rather than through single photographs. Such a collection is called a project.
Another term to describe the process of working on a project is ‘working on a series of images.’ The word ‘series’ is a term widely used by artists to describe their projects. Just like a project, a series is a group of images focused on a similar theme, idea, subject, concept, etc. Artists have worked on series since time immemorial. Working on single images that are isolated and meant to stand by themselves is counter to an artistic approach and an artistic way of thinking.
By asking us to think in terms of a collection of images instead of a single, isolated image, projects force us to consider visual consistency across the entire project. Each image in the project needs to share similarities with the other images in the project. To use a visual metaphor, I like to compare the individual images to trees and the project to a forest. When you look at a forest from a distance it has a uniform appearance, even though each tree has slightly different characteristics. Working on a project teaches you to look at the forest instead of the individual trees. It is a powerful lesson.
Projects cause you to stop being excited by a single image and start being excited by a collection of images.
A project has to bring in something new to the subject you photograph, something we have not seen before. This can be a new approach, a new angle, a new visual presentation, technique, concept, etc.
A project has two sources of interest:
a. The concept of the project (how interesting the project is)
b. The individual photos that the project is made up of (how interesting each photograph is)
A project has to have consistency. To achieve this, the photographs must all be of the same ‘calibre.’ You can’t have strong and weak photographs. There has to be consistency in the quality of the composition, the processing, the printing, the style and so on.
A project is a visual and intellectual exploration of a specific subject or technique, it is a collection of photographs that you are proud of.
The completion of a project is a natural development in the career of a photographer. It is the first step towards a higher level of achievement.
In many ways a successfully completed project is a breakthrough, an illumination, an aha! moment, an epiphany. Sometimes, understanding the nature of a project and the differences between working on a project and working on single images is enough to generate this epiphany. The illumination that follows is an opening onto a larger view of photography. In turn, the photographer starts to envision greater possibilities for his or her work. Instead of working on single photographs or having just one image to say what he/she has to say, the photographer realises that by using a series of images he can say things better and more effectively. To use an analogy with writing, if a single image is a single word, then a project is a sentence. If a single image is a sentence, then a project is a paragraph. If an image is a paragraph, then a project is a chapter. And if a single image is a chapter, then a project is a book. The possibilities of conveying your message through a project are far greater than the possibilities of conveying your message through a single image.
Why work on projects?
Every photographer is eventually able to create one or several good photographs in his/her life. While this is an achievement, it is not all that impressive because many people can achieve this eventually. What is impressive is being able to take good photographs, or even better, great photographs, regularly. If anyone can eventually take a reasonably good photo, standing out from the crowd means creating a collection of good photographs. Having a single good photograph is simply not enough to stand out. In other words, what is important is consistency. To create great photographs regularly and consistently, you have to know what is a good photograph. You have to be looking for something special, you have to be able to capture it in a way that is unique to you, and you have to be able to do this time after time.
The best way to learn how to create great photographs regularly is to work on projects. This is why projects are both important and valuable for artists. Projects improve your focus, not just your photography. Projects challenge you to become better not just technically, but also artistically. The success of a project rests with how your audience responds to it – basically whether your audience understands and relates to your project or not.
A project also forces you to stop photographing randomly and, instead, to start working towards reaching a specific goal. As you do so, the project forces you to move away from ambition and towards concretisation. It changes your focus from thinking about doing something to actually doing that thing. It forces you to make the shift from ideas to reality and from wishful thinking to implementing.
Working on a project also teaches you how to solve unforeseen difficulties that stand between you and the completion of your project. We will see many more reasons why it is important to work on projects in the next essays in this section.
Finding a specific focus for your project
We all have boxes of prints on shelves and in closets or folders of images on our computers. Having those does not do us a lot of good. To make use of them we need to organise them first into projects and eventually into a body of work. Single photos can be interesting but projects consisting of a collection of photographs focused on a specific subject or concept are much more significant than single images. They are also, of course, much more difficult to complete.
The subject of a project can be anything as long as it is specific. It can be a specific location or subject. It can be a specific technique, a specific colour, a specific approach to composition, and of course a specific vision. In that regard the following remarks are important:
• A project focuses your energy in a single direction and towards a single goal.
• You stop photographing things because they catch your eye.
• You start photographing things because they fit within your project.
Projects and story
A project is a story. It can be a simple story, for example ‘this place is beautiful,’ or it can be a complex story, for example ‘I explored a unique place and this is what I saw and experienced.’
This story needs to make sense and cannot be overly complicated. In the case of a photographic project the story is told through images. Each photograph represents a specific part of the story. The story can have a beginning, a middle and an end, although it does not have to. It can also follow other verbal storytelling genres such as a first person narrative, a short story, a novel, a work of fiction or nonfiction and so on.
You can tell stories (visually speaking) in a project that you cannot tell in a single image. For example, because it is a series of images, a project is conducive to cause and effect, if that is the theme of your story. A single picture on the contrary is not conducive to cause and effect because it is hard to show the passage of time in a single photograph.
Projects and intended use
Much of landscape photography is intended as wall art. However, your project does not have to be wall art. It can be aimed at a different use such as being displayed on a coffee table, or kept in your library or on your desk. Considering end-uses other than wall art can generate new ideas for your projects. For example, you can create a folio, a collection of small prints on letter size paper kept in a cardboard envelope custom made for this purpose. Your project can also be a portfolio or even an artist book.
Similarly, you do not have to target the same end-use for all your projects. While some projects can be non-wall art, such as folios, portfolios, artist books, DVDs, etc, other projects can be wall art consisting of small or medium size prints, while others still can be wall art consisting of large or even massive pieces. Some of these wall pieces can be finished traditionally with glass and framing, while others can be finished in a more contemporary fashion such as by rear-mounting the prints on plexiglass, or printing on canvas and mounting the prints onto stretcher bars for a gallery mounting finish.
Projects and medium
You can use elements other than photographs in your projects in order to share your message with your audience more effectively. These other elements can include text, music, found objects (either organic or man-made), graphics, etc. Using other art mediums together with photography makes the content of your work richer and your message more interesting to your audience. It also increases the amount of time people will spend with your work because looking at a multimedia work of art requires more time than looking at photographs alone.
Projects and number of images
A project gives you the freedom to use more than one photograph to make your point. Today, we often look at photographs one at a time, in part because digital printing gives us the possibility to print large photographs and large photographs are best seen one at a time. However, looking at a group of small photographs offers different possibilities. For example, the effect created by a folio or a portfolio is very different than the effect created by a single large image. Similarly, presenting a group of photographs on a wall by using small images all matted and framed in the same style creates a different effect than presenting a single large photograph.
Projects and intended audience
You don’t have to have the same target audience for all your projects. Different projects can have different audiences provided your projects focus on different things. For example, my Cars Folio addresses a completely different audience than my Landscape Photography Folios and Portfolios.
All you need to remember is that it is OK to do so. It is OK to work on a project on ‘tin toys’ when you are known for doing large landscapes for example. I use this example because this is exactly what I did. I did only one project on tin toys, one series of photographs and then moved on. However, doing this project was fun. It was different, it was creative, it refueled my creative energies – it allowed me to change my mind and it let me explore a new subject. This is all good. It is so good for me that in fact I regularly work on what I call ‘small side projects.’ I did one on cars; a favourite subject of mine, which ended up being a Folio, an eFolio and an eBook. I did one on guitars, one on GI Joe toys, one on miniature cars and so on.
I got the idea for doing projects on a variety of subjects from my art training. When I studied painting and photography in Paris, we were given assignments on specific subjects. For example, I remember being given an assignment on ‘sidewalks’ another on ‘manhole covers’ another on ‘children’ and yet another on ‘passers by’ and ‘street signs’ and a multitude of other specific subject matters, some of which I have forgotten about, others I remember vividly to this day.
This experience made me realise that firstly, I can be creative when working on a variety of subjects, even though I would not want to spend my entire life working on these subjects. Secondly, that an interesting project can result from the exploration of a subject that I would not have thought of on my own, or that greatly departs from my personal taste. Thirdly, that my audience doesn’t have to be the same for all my projects. While most of my audience finds what I call my ‘eclecticism’ attractive, some tune in to specific projects and tune off other projects. That’s perfectly fine with me because I don’t want my audience to control what I can and cannot photograph. I need the diversity to keep me active! I can’t photograph the same thing all the time and I can’t photograph the same thing in the same style forever!