Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Projects Are All Very Well, But...

These days, many editors require photographic projects, a unifying theme to the images, some times even to the point of accepting weaker images just because they fit with the theme, even when the photographer may well have dozens of stronger images at home which will remain unseen because they aren't part of a project.

I certainly understand why an editor would do this. The publication looks better when all the images from one photographer are from a single project or at least theme. The ability to produce dozens of strong images on a single topic says a lot about the abilities of the photographer.

I would point out however that many of our greatest photographers did not work this way much or all of the time. Pepper # 30 is much loved. Ever see Peppers 1 - 29. I suppose you could include Edward Weston's other vegetable images but I have only ever seen fewer than a dozen vegetable images from him - ie. good enough to be published. That won't even get you in the door of Lenswork, for example.

I love 'Chez Mondrian' by Kertesz, but I have not seen any of his other images that remotely look like this image or are on the same theme. Instead his publications show a wide variety of subjects from street photography to 'shot from my window' type work to people.

Other well known photographers definitely did projects or worked within themes. Edward Weston could and has done entire books from nudes. Others did or do nothing but projects.

I guess that for those who don't photograph to an agenda or do projects, the hope would be to come up with enough really strong images that they can do a book, though even there publishers like themes so one may be self publishing which basically won't work if you don't have a reputation which you aren't going to get if you don't get published. Hmmm.

There's always the readers pages in photo magazines but as that generally results in only a few images at best, it really tends to reinforce the message 'these were the only good images'. Black and White magazine from U.S.A. accepts small portfolios of images - 8 if I remember rightly, while Black and White Photography (U.K.) published my badlands images a few years ago based on a submission of only a dozen or so images - but all one theme.

Has anyone had success getting published or shown in galleries without a strong theme or without a specific project?

I wonder what editors think about this - since clearly their needs are not necessarily ours, entirely reasonably.


Anonymous said...

As always, interesting comments. I can't speak for other magazines, obviously, but here at LensWork we definitely have a prejudice towards bodies of work that contain an exploration of a theme in multiple images. We do so for a specific - and historic - reason. When we started LensWork, the first eleven issues had no images whatsoever! Quite simply, we didn't want to be just another magazine to publish so-called "greatest hits" photographs like so many the other magazines did and still do. In fact, when we started LensWork, you couldn't find magazines with bodies of work - everything was "greatest hits." Instead, we chose to publish only articles on photography and the creative process and bypass the inclusion of images altogether. It wasn't until issue #13 that we began publishing images with regularity.

Our change of heart was the result of an insight we had about portfolios. You see, in every workshop I'd ever attended, the participants always focused on and showed their "greatest hits." The critique sessions were always, therefore, comments on singular and sometimes stunning images. But, somewhere during the workshop, usually towards the end, someone would almost always hesitatingly and tentatively bring out one final box of prints for the group to examine. They would explain that they had done a portfolio that was intended to be seen as a body of work. These projects were usually ten or fifteen or sometimes twenty prints, typically gathered together in a clam-shell box with a title page. I always enjoyed this moment in the workshops.

The problem with these portfolios is one of finding an audience. A portfolio of ten to twenty images is too few to be published as a book; it's too many images of a single theme for a gallery exhibition - besides, galleries usually want your greatest hits so they can sell the most number of prints possible. Even if a non-profit gallery offered an exhibition of these portfolios, ten to twenty prints is often not enough to fill the walls. These poor little portfolios are sort of “orphans” in the photographic world with no logical venue in which they can be exhibited and seen by a wider audience. We realized that this was precisely what LensWork could do for the photographic community - bring these portfolios out of storage and into the light of publishing day. We've continued focusing on bodies of work – i.e., portfolios - ever since. True, there are a few other magazines now that publish bodies of work - B&W (sort of) and Blindspot come to mind - but there weren't when we started - the notable exception being Aperture, inspired from the early Minor White vision for his magazine back in the 1950s. None of the large, mass-circulation publications focus on bodies of work - think Popular Photography and the like.

There are a couple of secondary reasons for us to focus on portfolios, too. First, I find that most photographers actually work this way - making lots of images of a subject that captures their imagination. Your own work in the machine shop is a classic example of this. Second, we wanted the photographs in LensWork to be about life as much as we wanted them to be about photography. We think of each portfolio in LensWork and LensWork Extended as a little book, rather than as merely a promotional piece about the photographer (like B&W) or an illustration of techniques (like the technology-oriented magazines).

So, with this in mind, it's easy to see why the emphasis from LensWork, in our editorials, in our submission guidelines, in our publications is focused on bodies of work. It's not that single images and greatest hits are of less importance, but rather that our particular publishing mission is to focus on bodies of work.

Well, I hope this explains our preoccupation with projects. I can't speak for other venues and their interests in more or fewer prints, but for LensWork and LensWork Extended this is our motivation. I hope this helps.

Brooks Jensen
Editor, LensWork Publishing

George Barr said...

Many thanks to Brooks for that insight into the thinking at Lenswork. Makes perfect sense. Of course, in an ideal world, there would be several magazines of the quality of Lenswork, all with their own policies, all thriving and offering photographers a 'good fit' for their style. Fortunately we have photo.net and other services which have given us exposure like we never dreamed of in the past, in which the vast majority of good and serious photographers shared their work with fewer than a dozen people. May you live in interesting times - yeah, we sure do!


grant kench said...

Which all raizes for me the issue of how tight or alternatively broad an editor defines what images fit within a portfolio.
I take images of rocks. I also take images of water. Is it one or the other or a combination? I rarely take images of people. But I do have a reasonably good image of rocks, water and people squid fishing. Does that qualify to fit in either rocks or water?
Can it be said that too many vegetables just get boring after a while despite quality?
Isn't the strength a photographers work bases on a significant number of quality images not necessarily all on one theme rather than a few lucky shots?
Its all a mystery to me.