Mike's column last week, "Shooting to a Theme," was one of the most thought-provoking columns he's written in a long time. The comments from the readership were equally insightful and inspiring. I sat down to write a comment of my own, and it rapidly spun out of control, turning back on itself introspectively, recursively, and artistically. At which point I realized it was an entire column in itself. And so, here we are.
Mike's notion is a most interesting notion, indeed, and deserving of much serious thought. Of course, it's very photographer-dependent. For example, my friend Laurie Toby Edison is nearly 100% project driven; you could say she's just about entirely theme-oriented. She's done a little on-the-fly photography, but I would say that it's far more often for the purpose of getting her artistic bearings, a preamble to the theme that will develop or as a kind of conceptual sketch pad. I don't even have to ask her about this; I'm positive she is happiest working to a theme.
I'm at the opposite extreme. The very first theme I ever worked is the "Christmas in California" project, and it took me nearly 30 years of serious photography to get to that point. I think my muse wants to be the exact antithesis of Laurie's and what Paul described in the comments to Mike's column—almost every photograph in my portfolio is precisely the result of heading out blindly and hoping to stumble over a "masterpiece" (well, that's over-egotistical, even for me—I'm willing to stop at calling them "portfolio-quality photos"). In my case, those hopes are reliably fulfilled.
Since doing Christmas in California, I have worked on only one more theme—the "Jewels of Kilauea" project. I have thought of two more theme projects I might do someday. I don't know that I ever will.
Just to be clear, I am distinguishing between preconceived themes and ad- or post-hoc constructions. I may have created five monographs, but only Christmas in California is creationally thematic. The other four were all constructed after the fact by portfolio-mining (like data-mining) and mostly were purely circumstantial. E.g., the Scotland monograph/portfolio exists merely because I discovered that after ten days of photographing in the Highlands, I had enough good photos to make up a coherent portfolio/monograph. But I didn't set out to do that, either consciously or unconsciously (yeah, I'd know—don't ask me to try to explain how that works). They're just a motley of randomly stumbled-over photos tied together by geographic circumstance. It's the data mining and organization that turns them into a coherent work, but that coherence did not exist until after the fact. It played absolutely no part in the creation of the photographs.
Similarly, like Jeffrey Goggin, high-quality urban night photography has been a recurrent theme in my work since my college days, but it's a theme only in the ad-hoc sense; it's never been a creative theme per se. It's just me stumbling over fine photos again, except now I'm stumbling around in the dark instead of in the light. Night just happens to be a place where I know I'll find cool photos to make.
That's okay. My friends the Flying Karamazov Brothers coined the brilliant line, "It doesn't matter how you get there if you don't know where you're going." Improvisation is the spice of my life, and I don't mind stumbling around, because I stumble over the damnedest, most wonderful things. I know that I would absolutely, positively not get more joy if my work followed themes, preconceived or not.
Apparently my muse, unlike Paul's, is quite happy just stumbling along. Is this of huge import? No. But I find it very interesting. For some reason, my muse is truly tickled by Paul's conceptualization of stumbling over photos. I'm going to have to figure out why that so delights her, but it surely does. I'm sure it means something. I may eventually understand what that something is. But not today or tomorrow, I think.
In counterpoint to that, one of the two new themes I am toying with is a project of doing really high quality aerial photography at night, which is just becoming technically possible. If I did that, it would be a creative themed project, in contrast to my ongoing, highly-productive nocturnal stumbling.
Different strokes, for different folks, under different circumstances, at different times. Consistency? That's a bore.
Ctein's regular weekly column appears every Thursday, almost always in the morning.
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Original contents copyright 2010 by Michael C. Johnston and/or the bylined author. All Rights Reserved.
Featured Comment by Carl Weese: "What happens with me is that I never begin with a theme or concept. In the course of just making pictures though, a theme may emerge and then I'll begin to follow it. Even once I start to follow that theme I'll still photograph anything else I run into that looks like it might make a picture. So one of my large, not yet completed projects—'White Churches'—consists almost entirely of subjects I ran into while traveling to work on my (large, uncompleted) project on drive-in theaters."