What follows is purely empirical and an educated guess—meaning, it might be wrong. But: my sense, gleaned from years of working for and with photo hobbyists and enthusiasts and observing dedicated photographers and artists, is that photographers in general are happiest when they shoot to a theme.
The luckiest ones are those who find themes that they remain interested in long-term. Recently I had a few exchanges with a reader and supporter of the site who shoots urban scenes at night. That's his theme—he's good at it, he enjoys it, and his interest, focus, and direction amplifies, motivates, and enriches his work.
Recently I've been thinking of doing a project on items for sale by the roadside. I keep noticing examples in my area—everything from motorcycles, to rowboats, to a WWII-era Jeep that suddenly appeared perched on a hillock on a country corner. I haven't started this yet, and I might not. But I think I'd enjoy it.
It would get me out of the house.
That's a big component of the usefulness of having a theme, actually—it gets you going. I've used the "fishing" metaphor before—that getting good pictures is a combination of knowledge, preparedness, spending time, having a "feel for it," and luck—like fishing. But what's true of fishing is certainly just as true of photography: you're never going to catch a fish unless you're fishing. And you're never going to luck into a good picture when you're not taking pictures. Getting out of the house with a camera in your hand is a very underrated essential component of good photography. (I use "getting out of the house" in a figurative sense, there; what I mean is getting down to work, however you get down to work. Even if—as it was for a still-life photographer classmate of mine—it's done entirely in the house.)
Having a theme provides a starting point, a trigger. It helps you overcome inertia. Peter Turnley lived in Paris for a quarter century, and whenever he was home he loaded B&W film into a Leica and took pictures where he lived. Obviously, the theme: Paris. It took a while, but he's done one book of Paris pictures and he's thinking about doing another one.
If you think of it, a large number of great phototgraphers worked to a theme. The theme could be grandiose (a representative portrait of the German people across every strata of society between the wars [August Sander]) or trivial (pictures taken from your seat by the window of your apartment [a project André Kertesz did in old age]). Some photographers kept multiple themes in their heads and add to them gradually as they come across more and more picture subjects that fit. Lee Friedlander photographed that way for many years—he had various ideas, and, whenever he'd get another picture that fit a particular one, he'd literally throw it in a box with the others. It's not like he only photographed self portraits or monuments exclusively for concentrated stretches of time; he'd shoot generally but was always looking for chances to add to his chosen themes.
Some themes are simple (Arnold Newman's life work could pretty much be covered under the rubric "portraits of important people"), or complex (Robert Adams's work concerns development, environmentalism, land use and misuse, the inherent beauty of land and how we experience it, and it touches on a host of related issues).
Incidentally, I've been meaning to link to a terrific interview Steve Huff published recently with Shelby Lee Adams. (No relation to Robert, that I know of, and neither are related to Ansel.) The interview will open your eyes to how involved some photographers get with their subjects over periods of time that stretch into decades. Shelby Lee Adams is definitely a photographer with a distinct, well-defined theme.
What was Sally Mann's At Twelve? Just a self-assigned theme. She photographed twelve-year-old girls. A simple idea with plentiful opportunities. Not my favorite work of hers, but it got her going, and led directly to her much more important later work.
Some themes are too simple. I saw an entire book once of (black-and-white!) pictures of sunflowers*. About three would have sufficed for me. Pass!
A theme doesn't have to be big and important, though. I'm absolutely convinced that I could do a decent set of picture of the little block-long alley behind my house. If I walked up and down it every morning and evening for a year, I could come up with a great set of probably 12 to 16 pictures. (Granted, maybe not 40 or 60.) Things happen out there from time to time, but just the changing light and seasons and the lifecycles of the plants would yield subjects for the camera.
I could be mistaken when I say that having a theme or themes tends to make photographers happier and more industrious. Something to think about, though.
*Not Paul Caponigro's.
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Original contents copyright 2010 by Michael C. Johnston and/or the bylined author. All Rights Reserved.
Featured Comment by Edward Bussa: "Not that you need it, but you might find some inspiration for your project in this presentation of some work my friend, David McGowan did over the course of a year or more called "I'm one of those Americans."
Mike replies: Beautiful. Thanks, Edward. An impressively done project, and a perfect example of what I'm talking about. And notice how different some of those pictures are from each other, despite being thematically linked.
It also brings up the point that although not all photo-reportage projects are theme-based, some are.
Featured Comment by Rob Atkins: "I worked for Pete Turner for a number of years. Probably the most valuable lesson I received was watching Pete develop and work on and a few personal themes. These projects were about keeping the love affair with photography alive. The risk of burn-out from commercial assignments was, at times, a threat. Demanding deadlines and clients certainly bring a lot of stress, but the pleasure of going out and doing something just for yourself, just for the pure joy of it, was always restorative. It's a lesson that has stuck with me.
"Here's a personal theme I've just begun. As Mike says, 'It gets me out of the house.'"
Featured Comment by Jeffrey Goggin: "As someone who came late to the 'shooting to a theme' party—thank you, SoFoBoMo 2009!—I would also add that themes sometimes have a way of finding the photographer instead of the other way around.
"This certainly was the case with me, as I never set out to specialize in urban night photography (what a coincidence, eh?), but opportunity knocked one night in May 2009 and although I didn't recognize it at first, it provided me with exactly the shove I needed to push my photography forward in a way I never imagined possible.
"9,200 miles and 57 outings later, I'm still as enthusiastic every time I load my car with gear and head out to photograph as I was 15 months ago, and the only thing that stops me from doing it even more often still are the 70+ hours a week my day job demands of me and a need to sleep occasionally."
Featured Comment by Richard Howe: "I was never interested in photography and never even owned a camera (!) but sixyears and some months ago a friend offered to lend me his old digital camera (he had just upgraded) to take with me on a trip abroad. I still wasn't interested but he was insistent, so I took it, just to end the discussion.
"Though I wasn't planning to use it, I thought I should take a few shots, just to avoid any further discussion like that when I got back.
"To my complete surprise, I was instantly, totally, irrevocably smitten with photography. But once I was back home in New York I was overwhelmed by all there was to photograph, and scarcely knew where to begin (abroad it had been easy, somehow).
"Not knowing what else to do, I decided to take the camera with me on one of my (frequent) long walks (8–10 miles) in Manhattan, and just to shoot a picture at every intersection I came to....
"Somehow over the next two years this idea evolved into a project—a 'theme'—to systematically photograph all the street corners (usually four per intersection) on the island (more or less 11,500) and to do so as much as possible in less than a year, in fact, to do in the good weather interval between early spring and late fall.
"I thought it would generate a lot of material for me to work on and improve my skills, and that it certainly did. I also thought that I might get a few really good pictures out of it, and I like to think that happened also. And I wanted to do something that might have some value to people other than myself (as, eventually, straightforward historical documentary), even if many of the pictures had relatively little to offer from an aesthetic point of view.
"I did get 95%+ of it done in the first year, and almost all the rest of it subsequently (I still have some intersections I want to do over again, for various reasons).
"What started out as as somewhere between an accident and a lark has become the experience of a lifetime—and some of my hopes for it have been realized too, a little.
"About the learning aspect: it was a 'learning experience' in every imaginable way, and some that I hadn't imagined, either.
"Now I'm looking for another theme—but something much less grand in scope—for the 'Leica Year' year that TOP has convinced me is the next step.
"The New York / Manhattan street corner photos can be viewed at New York in Plain Sight."