I was only in Albany for a few hours last week. I headed out with a camera and took a bunch of pictures.
Occasionally I post the results of these little outings...you might remember when the tree service came or when I took a walk in Penn Yan. What you see of mine are usually simple "mini-sets" from one shooting session. I thought it might be useful to indicate the work process I'd use if I were doing any of these things in a more involved way, more seriously.
The basic process is reduced to essentials in a quote by Mark L. Power: "Shoot, think, shoot." That jibing between the one and the other is where the richness comes from.
The first step is to do some shooting and distill it into a handful of pictures you like, as I've done in these sets. They don't necessarily have to "go together," but can just be "the good ones." If the pictures suggest a direction, then the next step would be to go shoot a second time, perhaps with a picture or two in mind as a direction for the project—for instance if the two pictures here suggested "stone buildings" or "the vicinity of the capital building." I think the "idea" can be very vague at this point...it's more important to be open to whatever way you might want to take it.
Try your best to think of meaning, or feeling, and not just prettiness.
Don't forget that a set or portfolio of pictures can stand a lot of variety. As long as the theme, idea or raison d'etre is resilient enough to keep it from being just a bunch of pictures, variety provides dynamism. The fact that it's all your vision, style, and taste goes a fair way to keeping things coherent. Anyway editing for coherence and consistency is the last step, not something you want to start too early.
By the third or fourth photographing session—each time processing a handful of "good" or favorite pictures from the shooting—that's when you know if the project is maintaining any energy. If you're still energized and enthusiastic, that's enough of a sign that you should keep going. On the other hand, I get bored easily, and I suppose discouraged easily too, so I have to be careful—I don't want to give up on things too soon. It's important to know yourself; seldom is "energy" just limitless unbridled enthusiasm. A little judgment is called for too.
If the project has sufficient energy, then you're starting to accrue a stack of pictures. I say "stack," implying a physical form, as if they were prints, and that's intentional—always, always, it's better to look when you're thinking, when you're editing or evaluating. Don't work just with your mind—be sure you're working with your eyes too.
As the stack of pictures gets bigger, what I always find is that some of the earlier selects begin to fall away. For instance, of my "out for a walk" four, I only like the middle two now. So as you go along, you're both adding to the set and also culling it down. Let it evolve.
All of your visits to a place or outings for a project are valuable. Early on, you can see new things with fresh eyes, and the attentiveness that novelty provides is valuable. Later on you might be getting bored with the obvious shots and start to look for something different. That can help save your project from superficiality (a problem sometimes with photojournalism—the photographer "parachutes in," gathers some of the obvious pictures, then departs, having never really gotten to know anything deeply or specifically).
So when do you quit? At every stage of the process you have to balance thinking, or thoughtfulness, with openness. Even if you have the time and resources to keep adding to a project, every project has legs of its own...you'll know when you've got enough, when the set is a set and doesn't need any more. The longer and harder you work, though, the better the set usually gets, just because better pictures start crowding out less distinguished ones.
Photographers have definitely pursued projects for whole careers or lifetimes, and sometimes someone in a unique and uniquely rich situation can create a complete set of pictures in a week or even less. Stay attuned—it takes subtlety and good judgment to know when a project is complete. I should mention that a common mistake of amateur enthusiasts is to keep one idea going for way too long. They have access, and have learned how to get the goods, and it's easier to keep going than it is to start putting things in final form and moving on. You don't want to quit too soon (especially because of laziness, which is my flaw), but you don't want to drag things out either.
If I were to go ahead with the Albany pictures as a set, I'd plan three or four more trips to Albany to photograph, picking auspicious times of year. I might try to hire a local guide to squire me around. This is common practice among photojournalists working in foreign locations, often for security or translation purposes or both, but works just as well in places in your own country that you don't know well yourself. I'm not really much of a "city architecture" photographer myself—I really yearn to photograph people, but usually lack access (or the cojones to be bold with strangers). So I don't know that I'd devote a lot of time to making a whole project out of Albany. But that's how I'd go about it if I were doing it.
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(To see all the comments, click on the "Comments" link below.)
Featured Comments from:
Nigel: "I did professional theatrical photography some years ago. Then it was easy to make good photographs as I knew what photographs I had to take and how they had to look. When I stopped and went back to doing it for my own pleasure my photography lost direction badly. I would go somewhere and snap what I found without direction or purpose and what I got was photographs without purpose or direction.
"My solution was to decide on a subject and then create a project and shoot to my imaginary brief.I often also have several projects running at the same time. This makes me research my subject and I often know what I am going to shoot before I arrive at a place. The research also throws up new places to visit.
"The conclusion of a project for me is when I have enough material to do a Blurb or ePub book for myself. Whilst doing the book I often see that I am missing something so out I go to fill in the missing links. Having the production of a book in mind, means that I try to shoot the pictures I will need; the establishing shots down to the detail shots.
"My projects are quite varied, from just documenting a family holiday,a small project documenting the abstract patterns in the mud around some mud volcanoes we have nearby, two structures by Calatrava in my town, or my latest one which documents the sites of WWII war atrocities against civilians in the Apennine mountains which was sparked by coming across a little monument in an inaccessibile part of these mountains whilst doing another project on rustic Apennine architecture."
David Cope: "Timely. I'm starting to edit what is in effect an 'accidental' project. I've been shooting two (sometimes three) times daily for over a year during the dog walk.
"Recently I was thinking about what I should do to start a project when it struck me that I'd been doing one without even realising it! My daily dose of photography has built up into quite an archive. I'm not a spray and pray type so the workload is manageable and I've been doing first cut selects as I go anyway.
"It's going to be challenging for me (which is part of the fun) as it's an eclectic mix of images—found still life, landscape, reportage, abstract, nature close up, weather, farming etc. Mostly shot with B&W in mind but some work better in colour and I've no idea how to handle this as a series yet!"
Kefyn Moss: "Whenever I travel now, I always end up doing projects. The individual 'hero' image has much less appeal now. I'm looking for the 'essence' of the place I'm visiting but I don't go looking for it too actively but rather let it come to me—which can take a few days to a week or more for me to recognise. I have in the last few years done book projects locally which I set for a year (but which I felt completed by eight months) and others that lasted the length of a trip (six weeks) or more recently when everything was firing perfectly less than three weeks. Not being able to easily return to the location makes it more critical to speed up and streamline the process you describe Mike, but I've found that it just happens naturally now and really focuses my creativity. It's very satisfying."
Ed Grossman: "Being mostly a project photographer, it's nice to see this topic featured. What astonishes me is how much I've learned about myself through my portfolios. Being able to articulate how I'm connected to my portfolios not only tells me what they're about but what I'm about. My stronger self-awareness has bettered my life.
"One piece of advice I'd offer is the importance of making the work for an audience of one (yourself). This can't help but strengthen the art and your bond to it. Should you decide to share the work with an audience, your passion will radiate from it. I'm convinced that people can 'see' that personal connection in art and bond with the artist when it's present. In my opinion, doing what you love is a win-win situation."