I was given sets of photographs from 9 different people. Some collections were quite small, others quite large. Some collections where very tight, coherent, others rambled. Some contained extremely individual pictures which could well stand each alone, others gained strength from the collection they were in. Some collections were more diffuse, with no obvious "holy cow, that's incredible!". I don't mean to say that this last sort of thing was bad, it quite definitely isn't, and I learned a great deal about just how powerful and useful a relatively diffuse set of photos can be.
Looking through what began, really, as a big frightening heap of pictures, I found almost immediately possibilities for themes. Largely graphical themes. With a disparate group of contributors, it would be really too much to hope that some Big Idea emerges, but more on that later. No, mainly I noticed common subjects (dogs, bikes) and common graphical elements, similar structures or tonalities shared across two or more pictures.
Some individual pictures set a theme, merely by being strong. The theme might be a subject (bikes), a graphical idea (big square thing in the middle), or a look (high contrast, saturated), or I suppose almost anything. But in any case it was often a single picture that stuck with me, and then a second one that picked up the same idea which crystallized it. Once completed, I dare say it would be hard to tell which ones "set" themes, and which ones "echo" it, and perhaps it truly is arbitrary and random.
This is where those diffuse collections showed their strength. It was in these diffuse collections that I found those echoes, those repetitions of an idea. If you have two tight portfolios, and you are struck by a particular picture in one, you now have a problem, and it's a serious one. Without some diffuse collections to look through, I see no way the problem isn't fatal, in fact.
How am I to make this portfolio, and in particular, this particular picture which I love, flow into the work as a whole? This portfolio is too tightly structured to permit the flow. The other portfolio into which the flow must eventually pass, is likewise walled-up. How shall I breach these walls, and interconnect these two?
This is where the diffuse collections shine, they give up, more often than seems reasonable, a perfect echo to reinforce an idea and to bridge it out to the bigger sequence, to open the walls of the individual collection. The pictures I shot to connect things form the most diffuse collection of all, they're simply all over the place on most axes.
In terms of general portfolio strength, there is no collection that I did not damage in the service of the whole. The strongest individual portfolios were essentially destroyed. They functioned on many axes, and in the service of the book I discarded almost all of them. On the one hand, I feel bad about it, but on the other hand, in hindsight, it's inevitable. The necessary common ground is never going to include everything that is good, so some good things are simply going to be lost.
Portfolios in which tonality and graphic character figure loudest fared the best, of course.
I found pictures that set themes. I found pictures to echo those themes. But also, I found ways for pictures to support one another. Since much of the book is two-up pages, I found myself making little diptychs. In filling out "dogs", say, I might find a natural picture (with dogs in it) for the next page from A, and then a pretty graphical echo (with no dogs) from B. That picture in turn sets a tonality for the pleasing coda on the last page of a section.
The analogies with music are inevitable.
The big themes, set by one picture or a pair, and then repeated throughout. These feel "important", and it's tempting to dismiss everything else as filler.
Smaller themes, repeated for a couple of pages, or just within a diptych. It might be just noodling around to fill up an extra minute or two before we can recapitulate the major theme and finally get on with the second movement, but it needn't be. These can be pretty little bits as well. They can harmonize with the whole, and help us get to that second movement by setting up a tonality for us, while at the same wrapping up with dogs.
As for Big Ideas, I put none into the book. Indeed, I removed some by shattering portfolios. Portfolios that spoke of Life, or Humanity, or Desolation, all blown to pieces in the service of the bigger collection.
I feel, though, as if the whole is sufficiently rich to allow the reader to find something in it. As I have said (it turns out) before, I think you might find something in there on your own. It's certainly a rich, dense, mass of symbols, and I certainly won't stop you.