Creating a Photographic Project: Floridians

Floridians

Floridians

I have uploaded some shots previously about my travels to Anna Maria Island in other posts. Going through my archives again, I have begun to create a longer-term set of images that I am slowly beginning to visualize as a project that is nowhere near complete but could take many more trips to fully finish. Thankfully, I’m sure I’ll have a lot more trips to do so. This has led me to think about long-term photographic projects, which forms the basis of this post. The images in this post are ones that I have not previously shown, but are the beginnings of a project that I am cautiously calling Floridians for now. Both the title and the images contained in this project are subject to change, but I figured I should add some shots to the post. If you have comments on them or my musings within this post, please do let me know.

I think a discussion about the nature of projects and how they start, evolve, and come into being might be helpful. All I can do is share how I go about it, and there are certainly others who are far more experienced than I at this, but I reached a stage in my photography a few years ago where I wanted to stop just taking and uploading shots for the sake of it and begin focusing on coherent, complete bodies of work centered around a theme or idea. If you’re getting to the same point, this may be helpful; if you’re long past that point and have some ideas of your own to add, please do so.

I’ll cover how to start a project, choose appropriate equipment, and editing your work in this post. In a later post, I’ll cover other considerations for the later stages of your workflow if there is an interest.

Beach-goer

Beach-goer

Starting Out

When starting a photographic project, there seem to be two generally-accepted ways of going about doing gathering material.

First, one has an idea and goes out in search of this idea. This involves going out intentionally searching for things about this idea, and shooting anything that might fit. The good thing about this way of doing things is that it focuses one’s attention and output around this single theme; the bad thing is that often one can overlook other photographs since they don’t fit the conceptual thread one is presently engaged in. Additionally, I find that one’s preconceptions can get in the way in this form of working. For example, if one sets out to shoot the plight of the homeless (which is far too cliched, and please do not shoot this), one might miss things that don’t fit exactly into that, or worse, one approaches the idea with one’s mind already made up about the subject. By studying the plight of the homeless, one has already narrowed the theme to be one that is negative in tone; by simply shooting with an open mind, other possibilities might open up and take the project in different directions that initially intended.

The other way many photographers begin a project is by shooting naturally what they are interested in, and then by later going through one’s work to identify themes and visual threads that fit together into a single, coherent project. The good thing about this way of working is that it allows the photographer to keep an open mind and follow what comes naturally to them; the bad thing is that it can mean a far less focused approach, necessitating a lot more shots to be taken, more time to be invested, and sometimes shoe-horning photos that don’t fit exactly into the theme of the project. Much tighter editing is often necessary to avoid extraneous or redundant images (but editing is necessary regardless of the approach taken to the project).

I find that I use a hybrid approach. I generally let things start naturally, but once I’ve identified a theme in my work I keep it in the back of my mind so that at any given time I might have multiple projects that are in various stages of realization or completion to keep me motivated an semi-focused. For example, my recent Summer Job project was one that I thought up before I began, but all I really went into it with was a general idea and left the final determination for the editing stage. It had a hard start and end date as well–which is important to keep in mind. I had 100 days with a clear start and finish, meaning that at a certain point it was over, regardless of what I had. While this may sound challenging, it’s actually incredibly liberating.

An important thing to consider is how to start and finish a project. Often starting it isn’t the issue so much as ending it is. I find that projects that don’t have a hard timetable are the ones that are inevitable never-ending. For example, I can use my recent Saint Paul Cathedral project as a project that had neither start nor end date determined for me; it started when I began and ended when I decided it was enough. Of course, it’s never really enough, and therein lies the trick. I am sure I could go back now and make images that I’d find are better than one I included–and this kind of second-guessing can mean projects that are started and never wind up getting done. If your project has no set end-date, make sure you have a way to end it.

Bench

Selecting Equipment

You will also need to think about equipment. What equipment will best suit this project? Some photographers only use one type of camera, one they feel comfortable with or the only one they own, for example. Others vary their equipment based on the project’s specifications. Will you be traveling for this project? Then perhaps something light is needed. Will you be printing large photographs? Then perhaps a medium- or large-format camera is needed. Digital or film; large or small; light or heavy; image quality vs. portability; these are all things to consider when choosing your equipment.

Generally, it is a good idea to keep a consistent format and visual aesthetic for a project. Changing too much can disorient the viewer and detract from the theme or idea you are trying to present to your audience. This isn’t an iron-clad rule, but it is important to think about when choosing equipment.

Additionally, consider how the medium you do choose will help you to express your ideas. From a technical standpoint, this might mean a faster film or tripod if you’re doing night-time photography, or an external light meter if shooting in difficult lighting conditions; thematically, you might want a smaller/larger grain in images, or choosing color vs. black and white is another consideration. Finally, choosing a focal length can be important in expressing a feeling to the viewer: longer focal lengths are great for portraits, while wider focal lengths are nice to get close and give the viewer a visceral, right-there-with-you feeling.

Tanning

Editing Your Work

Yes, you will need to edit, and this does not mean Photoshop. Editing for a project does not mean editing the images themselves; I assume that by the time you are itching to create groups of images around themes and ideas, I should hope you are confident in your ability to create images that are technically proficient enough to stand on their own merit. Editing for a project means being ruthless and culling your images down to the smallest number possible to have a worthwhile project–or said in another way, how can you tell this particular story/idea/theme in the fewest number of images possible? Often, photographers choose an arbitrary number–say, 10 or 20–that they limit themselves to. Why? They are round numbers, but the number could be anything, depending on how you envision your project’s presentation. Do you plan to see this project in a gallery? Then the gallery that agrees to show your work will dictate how many images you can have, based on space restrictions often, but also other variables. They might only have space to hang 8 images, or this might also depend on how large your prints are. 8×10? 16×20? Larger than that? This goes back to choosing equipment.

I have found in my own work as well as in speaking with others that printing photographs is incredibly important in creating a project. Whether you shoot digital or film, print your images when it is time to choose the final selections. There is something much different in seeing images in print and moving them around physically when thinking of arrangement or display size than seeing them on a screen. Working on a computer or tablet is incredibly convenient, but unless your audience will be viewing them that way, I suggest printing photographs. You don’t have to print them all large, even simple 5×7 prints could be enough often, but having them in front of you physically is helpful.

Avoid falling in love with certain shots. Often this can be a pitfall of projects. You have a set of images you like, and you are near the end of your realization of this particular project but there is one shot you’re in love with. It’s a great image, even–but it doesn’t fit in with the visual, stylistic, or thematic thread you’ve established with the other shots. Don’t be afraid to let go of shots and detach yourself emotionally from a certain image if need be. It can be a delicate balance: you have to stay emotionally connected to the project to create a strong project that resonates with your audience, while at the same time allowing yourself to be disconnected enough to sacrifice certain shots you’re in love with. In my experience, allowing your work to sit for a while before looking at it can help with this; allowing it to sit without looking at it even after you have looked at it can help you examine it more critically and objectively as well.

Of course, one of the most important parts of creating images, and a photographic project, is critique. You need to show your work to others whose opinion you trust and respect. Unless your mother knows a lot about photography or art, she may not be the best person to show your work to (sorry, mom!) since she loves you, and, by extension, your work. Asking others, who are familiar with your work, or whose work you respect, to critically examine your work will help you figure out where the project is going. I would recommend doing so along the way, not just at the end. Getting pointers along the way of where to take the idea or things to incorporate can be invaluable.

First Steps

I hope that this was helpful for you all. If it was, please let me know by leaving a comment below. If you anything else to add, please do so–I am by no means the final authority on this, but I figured I’d share what I do know with others.

The project contained in this post–as I mentioned, it is called Floridians for the time being–is not fully formed and has a long way to go. I’ve given the images preliminary titles but that could change as well; in fact, I often find that titling an image is one of the hardest parts for me. Too cute, and it’s cliched; too clever and it can be trite; too dull and it can detract from the image. Finding a balance, and conveying the concept and idea of the image along with a descriptive, short name is not as easy as it might seem. Anyone have a way to help with that?

Feedback is always appreciated.

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17 thoughts on “Creating a Photographic Project: Floridians

  1. whittaker5694 says:

    Thanks for the thoughtful insights. As an absolute beginning photographer in the mid life phase, I’m trying right now to understand what I’m trying to accomplish and these stories give me much more to think about.
    I will continue following you and look forward to seeing much more of your work.

  2. Murchu says:

    Thanks for taking your time to relay your thoughts and personal ways of working with regard to projects. I found you through rangefinderforum, and projects and pursuing a greater thematic approach to my photography is something that has been on my mind for some time now. I think Shooting haphazardly and impulsively just does not satisfy me much anymore, and feel I am at a bit of a crossroads that way with my own photography, and as such am glad to read your post and the comments here, although purely as a spectator for now.

    • Good to see you found your way here–RFF is a great resource and community! Welcome, and I hope you continue to come back and find the blog useful.

  3. António Marques says:

    Sounds and looks like an exciting project. The first thing I noticed about the shots in this post was the feeling that they could benefit from a shorter distance to subject, as Brett Higham also pointed in his comment. Sometimes it’s not easy to be “in the face” of your subjects and to use a narrower lens than a 50mm can take them out of context. A small, silent and unobtrusive camera helps a lot in these situations. Love the color mood on your shots.

    • Thanks. I’m a lot closer than you’d think, with a 35mm focal length. The “in your face” approach isn’t one for me, but shooting subjects too tight often loses the context around them, and I wanted very much to show the surroundings in the shots–almost an environmental portrait.

      • Megan Johnson-Saylor says:

        I like that term, “environmental portrait.” I appreciate that the point of your photographs is to capture the whole scene which lets us learn more about the people in your photos than a closely cropped/traditional portrait would. We get to see the beach furniture, the toys and other accessories discarded after use or tossed away in a fit of tanning, the closeness of the houses to the beach. I love the first shot you posted; I think it captures a typical weekend day on the beaches of Anna Maria Island.

      • Thanks. I think that first shot says a lot, which is why I posted it at the top. I didn’t coin the term “environmental portrait”, but it’s what I was going for with this set, and this project.

  4. Kimberly Johnson says:

    Interesting commentary. I was intrigued by the idea that it is good to be careful not to fall in love with a specific shot because this can derail you from a focus. And you go on to say, “stay emotionally connected to the project to create a strong project that resonates with your audience.” Just how much DO you consider audience with a project? From a marketing perspective, planning to sell something, I realize that it is critical to consider audience. But I heard a local photographer speak about some of his work and he was clear that he makes photos for himself as an artist and that he does not think about audience.

    What is your response to that? Is it selling out somehow as an artist to be thinking about “audience”?

    • It’s not “selling out”, but one considers an audience whether or not one acknowledges it. That photographer you heard surely considered who would be seeing his work, and when applying for grants and the like he had to indicate how this would help the community. So he was thinking about it.

      It is, however, important to create meaningful Images that you can connect with personally. If you are not invested in the project then your work will show that; your images will not have the same level of commitment in them and it will be obvious that your heart wasn’t in it. We’ve all seen art that was created like that. In fact, most wedding albums I’ve seen are by photographers just going through the motions and it’s clear as day. So balancing your own level of interest and thinking about audience is a fine line to walk.

      I’m glad you enjoyed it and thanks for stopping by and leaving a comment!

      • Kimberly Johnson says:

        For you personally, how important is the question of audience? And what does this look like in practice?

        Seems to me that much of wedding photography is very sensitive to audience- giving the client what they want because they are paying for it. How does that work for you? Take your cathedral project. Who is the audience? What does it mean to consider the audience with a project like that? Does it influence the photos you take or what you do with them?

        Since I’m not an artist myself, I’m really curious about how things like this inform your work.

      • Well, there’s always an audience for a project, right? Even if it’s just me and my friends. The example you used–the cathedral project–didn’t have an audience in mind, but then I wasn’t commissioned or given grants for my work, like the other photographer you mentioned having gone to see speak.

  5. Liked your post. I’d love to see these photos framed a little closer to the subject and maybe a little closer to eye level? Looks like they were all taken from a standing position… Nice piece of work though. How long have you been taking photos?

    • Thanks for the feedback. Many were taken from a standing position, and intentionally so often.

      I have been taking photos for a long time, but seriously since about 2006-2007.

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