Friday, April 01, 2011

Do We Need To Do Projects?

Brooks Jensen has written about the importance of projects, especially from the point of view of a publisher. Sandy Wilson commented on my last blognote to the effect that projects are an artificial idea largely promulgated by teachers, critics and publishers, the implication being that at the very least projects are not needed, and implying they might not even be a good idea, or perhaps 'might not be good for you'.

I think the truth is somewhere between. Some photographers seem to do nothing but projects. They don't carry a camera unless they are on a project. Others simply carry a camera when they have the time, photographing whatever appears before them that might photograph well. Others do a bit of both.

Elliot Erwitt is famous for his dog pictures, but he photographs amusing and insightful relationships all over and often without featuring dogs. Edward Weston would go on trips, but then photograph whatever happened on hand while there, from dead pelicans to nudes, pottery to friends.

It's true that Edward Weston made a project of Armco Steel, but only insofar as he visited it and got a few photographs - certainly not enough to make a real 'project' of it, not enough to submit a portfolio of the images so he could get them in Lenswork. Yet one of those images was certainly considered a milestone in his work. Did he then go around a whole whack of other industrial sites - no he didn't.

In selecting images for "Why Photographs Work", I selected an industrial image from a photographer famous for his landscapes, and he quite reasonably asked if we could select a different image that was more typical of his work In another case, a photographer had 'moved on' since doing the image I selected and didn't want to be included if it meant going with an old project. He felt obliged to support his galleries which were all showing his new and diff. work.

Some subjects are best explored thoroughly and only over a long period do the best images develop. Other times, there simply isn't enough material to make repeated visits worth while - before long you simply make variations of the shots you made last time.

Of course, you also have the problem of defining what constitutes a project - wouild you call landscape in general a project - hardly. What if you limited it to mountain photography? Or a specific mountain - but what if you then find you don't have enough great images of that one mountain, so you have to travel and build mountain photographs over many years - still a project?

No matter what topic/subject/project you come up with, you can generalize it enough so it doesn't look like a project, or narrow it so much its unlikely you will get a whole portfolio of images from it.

You'd think that photographers who shoot almost at random and with no real plan or project in mind, would eventually shoot enough images they'd get lucky and over 20+ years produce a portfolio of really interesting, yet entirely unrelated images. Interestingly, I don't think this happens very often. Typically the people who can produce a sig. number of 'random' images of great power or beauty are the same ones who also gravitate to projects.

I suspect that projects are a natural side effect of being curious and interested - why wouldn't you want to explore more situations that have given you pleasure, challenge or success in the past.

What does happen is that lots of photographers simply don't have enough depth in any one subject to make a show or please a publisher and they don't because they like to spread themselves thin, which is just fine. They do need to be aware though, that this may mean they aren't going to get published or acquire fame until late in life by which time the apparent randomness of their work coalesces into a series of subjects of enough depth.

Of course, this raises the subject of how you define success in photography and that's a topic for another day.


Markus Spring said...

The question if we do need projects can probably only be answered for an individuum, not so much for the "we" group, and even for an individuum it might be different in the phases of personal development.

For me personally even a thematically wide project can help to keep on track in learning and developing skills. To overcome a personal aversion against a certain city, which I had felt as unattractive but was obliged to stay in for a number of days, I decided on a personal project of street sceneries, trying to frame what was disturbing me. From these controversial feelings now flowing into my photography I profited a lot.

For me one guiding sentence comes from the David Hurn/Bill Jay book "On Being a Photographer": Become an expert on your subject! And this probably always leads to some kind of a project...

Anonymous said...

Thanks for opening this discussion about projects. I do want to clarify one idea, however, about what a project is. Far too many photographers jump to the conclusion that a project needs to be a photographic exploration of a particular subject — an easy assumption to make. With a little more careful thought, however, it is easy to realize that a project is not limited to the process of photographing but can also be a way to simply package unrelated images together to make them more accessible to a viewing public. It's simply a matter of how we choose to draw a container around group of images so they are indeed a group. The simple group "My Greatest Hits" is still a group with a purpose and a definition even if the images themselves are completely unrelated.

The reason I've been such an advocate of projects is because without this kind of grouping or packaging, a collection of images is simply a pile of prints. It helps the audience connect to a body of work and to see the connections between them if we present them with some sort of structure that binds the images together as a group. Often, the challenge for us photographers can be to simply find this structure that binds the images. This is as valuable a process in project-oriented photography as the more classical one of simply making a series or collection of images of a given subject.

Examples. A project could be a multi-print presentation of a single tree. It could be a multi-print presentation of a number of different trees — my Winter Trees series is an example of this. A project could be a collection of landscapes that all have a tree in them. It could be a project of "This Living Earth" that has trees, fish, elephants, grasslands, etc. It could be a collection of evening light images, some of which might be of a tree. I could go on, but you get the point. In fact, a particular photograph of a given tree could be used in all these examples and make a contribution to each of these "project" oriented presentations.

So, the question for us photographers is simply one of how we want to package our images for a final presentation — and that packaging itself can be the definition of the project.
Brooks Jensen
Editor, LensWork Publishing

Joe Lipka said...

Good photographs do not show up by themselves. They usually arrive with a group of their friends. The group of friends is usually called a project.

Innocent said...

I was beginning to think something was wrong with me for being out of step with the current trend of project oriented photography. I tend to just go out and "celebrate the fact that God gave me an eyeball" as someone said in praise of Jay Maisel.

Glad to know a brain isn't necessary as well...


Sandy Wilson said...

Oops, I seem to have opened a can of worms here.

The point I was trying to make in my original post was that the art critic David Lee was having a go at the State Art establishment in the UK.

In his article in the AG quarterly magazine No 41 Autumn 2005 page 65 published here in the UK, he was decrying the project as part of State Art education system.

In it he stated 'that all serious photographer's now have to be working on a project', as part of the Photography/art education system.

He was also condemning a recent book entitle 'reGeneration'. reGeneration is a book compiled of 50 photography students work from colleges all over the world. But that is a separate issue.

The project, first we must define define what a project is, project is a task nothing more nothing less.

As Brooks Jensen states that many photographers jump to the conclusion that a project has to be collection of pictures depicting the same or related subject matter. He also states that a project may not be limited to pictures relating to the same subject matter. This in my opinion is a portfolio of pictures. Which shows the photographers diverse spectrum of subject matter that he or she is capable of photographing.

A group of pictures 'My Greatest Hits' is a portfolio of your work and the action of compiling them is a project.

However to get back to particularly teachers of photography in colleges, they cannot understand an unrelated subject matter group of images as in a sense they are not a project how can they assess them.

It is this in bedded attitude that we have to get rid of in the State Art establishment and many photographic gallery's and also many book publishers.

If I were to got to a top gallery tomorrow with a portfolio of forty prints of completely unrelated subject matter, they would show me the door.

Let pose the following question to you Brooks, would you published a group of completely unrelated subject matter pictures in your world class magazine 'Lenswork'

As I have given the location of the original article if possible it would be better for any reader of this blog to read the full five page article as it would explain what I am trying to say in a clearer and better way.

Back numbers can be aquired from the publisheron their web site

PS Brooks I think that your 'Lenswork' magazine is one of the best photography magazines produced anywhere in the world today. We have nothing like it here in the UK.

George Barr said...


no fear, thoughtful responses are never 'a can of worms', and we can but learn from varying viewpoints. In a few days, I'm going to write more on the subject of projects because I think we can all learn from this.


I hoped you might join in the conversation, very much appreciated and we hopefully can continue this dialogue.



Gary Nylander said...

I often wonder about projects, although try to work on thematic work, I'm mostly a "greatest hits" kind of photographer so not much of a chance of my work ever getting published in well known photography magazines or featured in many high end galleries, which is fine with me, I'm always trying to search out from a personal perspective as to what and why am I photographing the things, places or people in front of my lens, I guess if it turns into a project great, if its a one hit wonder, also great, I'm just happy to go out and make pictures. One thing I have noticed sometimes about certain project work from other photographers I have seen published, is that images are sometimes created of the same subject, to me they become a "variation on a theme" of the same subject from various different angles.I like to see projects that have a common thread but not necessarily of the same subject over and over.

Sandy Wilson said...

In this on going discussion on the project in photography. I thought I had better explain my way of working when making images.

Personally I do not practice project work in my photography. I suppose I could be described as a Flaneur photographer. A Flaneur photographer is a photographer who wanders about with a camera making images of whatever takes his or her interest.

You could say that I am a photographer that is attuned to ever changing circumstances, and can respond to any situation that arises in a spontaneous way.

I also use my resourcefulness, which includes the ability to see potential subjects beyond our conditioned habitual ways of seeing.

In a way I follow the same principals as used by the photographer Wynn Bullock, as he explains here.

"My pictures are never pre-visualized or planned, I feel strongly that pictures must come from contact with things at the time and place of taking. At such times, I rely on intuitive, perceptual responses to guide me".

On many occasions when out making images with photographer friends, they often ask me "what are you making images off", my reply is, " I do not know yet".

When Francis Bacon the British artist was asked by an interviewer during a documentary about him "What was he going to paint",as he stood before a blank canvas, his reply was, "How the F*** do I known".

When out making images I never have any set ideas in mind, or projects of what I am going to make images off. I prefer to be spontaneous in my approach to the environment and situation that surrounds me at the time.

While going about my business of making images one of my photographer friends remarked, "You always seem to be engaged in purposeless wandering when trying to make images"? "However when you stop and make an image you always seem to see something compelling and interesting that the rest of us have missed".

By following the above technique when making my images, I always seem to create images with completely unrelated themes and subject matter. The exact opposite of project related images.

Along the way there are many failures, but the successes are interesting, exciting and very satisfying.

So there you are I have now laid myself bare to you all, explaining the way I work when making my images.

Dennis Allshouse said...

Is it worth distinguishing between a project and a body of work? As I sit here, it strikes me as false distinction. But... A project somehow implies a more focussed, shorter timebase thing. Find a topic and drill into it. A body of work can happen without thinking about it. The wandering eye alights and records it. I think it's likely Sandy has bodies of work. It's a matter of filtering the collection. The Wynn Bullock remark is very resonant with me.

Anonymous said...

Merriam Webster defines project as
1. a specific plan or design
2. a planned undertaking: as
a. a definitely formulated piece of research

It is NOT a collection of images.

It IS a deliberate, researched and planned execution of images.

Taking images from the past and grouping them does not make a project.

Sandy Wilson said...

Merriam, your definition of a project is eloquently described. Thank for putting it better than I could describe it.

Anonymous said...

I think Britain has some real issues (and history) to overcome with regards to it's art schools and it's art critics. It seems there is a real chip on the shoulder here. It's just not like this in the U.S. Both types of photographic approaches live peaceably together. The reason art schools try to enforce a project approach is easy, most art school students are young and have not yet developed a significant body of work to draw from in developing portfolios of interest. This is the truth and there is no sinister plot on the part of art school instructors(at least in the US) to enforce some agenda here. Students eventually decide what approach to take.

As for galleries perferring projects, poppycock! Galleries want artists who can consistently produce photos that they can sell. I can tell you that a project that consists of say 50 or so images with only 12 that stand out is not as strong as 50 solid but unrelated images. Galleries want to sell strong photos . . . period.

As an aside, I have seen non-project work in Lenswork (and I'm seeing more with each issue) so to label Lenswork as a project-photo only magazine is not fair.

This is all just bellybutton gazing to me. Make photos however you make them be they through random wandering or through planned projects both preconceived or in post-organizing but just make the photos damn it!

Aleksei Saunders said...

Ours needs as artists are as different as our creations.

As Mr. Adams wrote - "The artist speaks in terms of his medium; transcription of his ideas in words are almost always inadequate and misleading in the most precise sense. We all write too much, speak too much, preach too much. It would be better if we just said what we have to say in photography. After all, we are photographers; if our work has "what it takes" it will not need the embalming of words to perpetuate it. Let the critics - the professional critics - fuss with the winding sheets."

If it works it works, if it doesn't it doesn't - when we begin to use dictionary definitions in our discussions about art we may be a little distracted from our craft.