Tuesday, April 17, 2018

Lead with the Idea

I think something every photographer struggles with is this: My pictures look like everyone else's (or like that person's). I've talked about it, albeit in the distant past. At that time, I made the remark that while all pictures have been, in some sense, already taken, not every picture has been placed next to every other picture.

This leads me down two separate paths. The first is that it is in fact not necessary that your pictures look like someone else's. Sally Mann makes pictures that look different, because she makes aesthetic choices that would strike virtually all other photographers as completely insane. Many of her pictures look like a horrible mistake, or just rotten judgement. It is only when you assemble this battalion of catastrophe that it begins to fall together into something.

The second path is that it doesn't matter if your pictures look kind of like someone else's, but there is an If here. And it's a pretty big one.

Before I get to that, I will update on my P52 project: Languishing. I have discovered, again, that I am unfit to work in this way. By starting from pictures, and searching for the idea, I got only kind of bland ideas that I had no particular will to pursue. The best ideas were watered down versions of ideas I am already pursuing in other ways. For me, at any rate, walking around with the camera and looking for something to make of the pictures simply does not work. Or at any rate it does not work as well as starting from something I feel some real passion for.

Sally Mann, again. The work I saw in DC, "A Thousand Crossings" is in some sense a remix of work she already did, for a variety of reasons, with a variety of ideas. What I perceive as the core of the success here, though, is that all those various ideas sprang from a common place, Mann's love for and relationship with The South. There was, underneath Immediate Family, underneath Proud Flesh, underneath Battlefields, an abiding love and a complex set of emotions toward The South, and it is this that she extracted from the earlier work. Notice that Still Time, At Twelve and much of the more macabre death-related material does not appear (for example, there are probably other swatches of her oeuvre missing as well). That work did not share that common underlying theme.

So, the work was not particularly made with a conscious connection to the idea that eventually came to be the core of the thing I saw. But that passion was there, tucked away, supporting.

I think that really good work often (always?) comes from such wellsprings. I think, in the end, the best work is driven by some underlying passion, something that the artist deeply believes, that the artist is fascinated or obsessed with. The artist may or may not be conscious of it.

This is the big If referred to above.

If your pictures look like everyone else's, don't worry about it. Worry about whether there's any fire in your own belly. If you're just walking around taking pictures that are vaguely interesting, well, so be it. Perhaps you're honing some skills.

If you're just walking around taking pictures which you find yourself weirdly in love with, well, maybe there's some passion. Don't force it, but it might be worthwhile gently teasing it out into the open so you know where you're going. Or maybe you'll archive the pictures and find them again in a decade or two and it will burst upon you like a thunderstorm what you were actually doing.

A depressingly common case among artists seems to be walking around taking pictures that support some thesis the artist doesn't much care about, but which is in vogue. This work isn't very strong either, but it looks strong to the Art Community because it supports a chic thesis.

If you're driven by passion already, great. You're ahead of the game.

No matter how you slice it, I think that if there is a passion, a love, an obsession somewhere inside you as you're making your pictures, it simply doesn't matter if they look like someone else's, or like nobody else's. It doesn't matter if they're sharp or blurry or dark or botched. As long as they're the right thing, as long as they feed that fire, your work has a shot at coming together into something distinct and valuable.


  1. While I agree the shoot first / contextualize later approach doesn't work very well for me, either, there are many famous and/or successful photographers who appear to thrive by working that way.

    Lee Friedlander, for example, whose projects these days all seem to start with him rooting around in his negative files. Ditto for Robert Adams and George Tice.

    Of course, all of those photographers are now getting on in years, so they're probably not walking around with their cameras and taking new photos as often as they once did, so it makes sense they are looking to their futures via their pasts.

    Or is it maybe the shoot-first approach works best for younger photographers, who don't yet have the decades of experience (both good and bad) that can make them a tiny bit jaded or a huge negative file to rummage through?

    As for having a burning passion for one's subject matter of choice, I am clearly guilty of that myself.

    In fact, the other night, a friend confessed that he envied the dedication I have to the subject matter I photograph, as I've been mining essentially the same vein for coming up on a decade next month.

    How time flies when one is blindly pursuing an obsession, eh? Lol.

    1. I did that collaborative thing a year or two ago (or three?) and it was immensely satisfying without being particularly led by a concept.

      But I do feel like it was a bit.. thin might be the word. It's successful as a loaded set of pictures onto which you could maybe project some stuff, but I'm not convinced that it's much more than a tabula rasa, a mirror. Which is fine, I don't mean to de-legitimize that.

      But it's not exactly a deep and powerful statement about man's inhumanity to man, is it?

    2. I wonder how much of this behind-the-scenes stuff is obvious to -- or frankly, matters at all to -- even serious, sophisticated viewers?

      As photographers, we know every last detail about what went into our projects, but does any of that matter to the viewers, who (we hope!) approach them with an open mind and see only the finished, final results hanging on a wall or printed in a book?

      For a project as somber as "Man's inhumanity to man," wouldn't the theme itself overwhelm pretty much every other aspect associated with it?

      And for a project as casual and whimsical as, say, "Butterflies I have photographed," does it really make any difference whether the concept or the photos came first?

      Maybe the answer here is as simple as the methodology should match the project's meaning?

      A serious, somber project deserves -- requires? -- a serious, formal, working methodology, whereas a casual, lighthearted project is best served by a casual, lighthearted approach.

      Horses for courses, in other words.

  2. I believe that you're right that being passionate about the subject of one's photographic work certainly is important. But is it sufficient? I don't think so.

    In my opinion, continuous reflection on the work is as important. I don't mean "concept first"; it's rather like you read a book from which you pick up stuff that is somehow related to your work and which sets a new direction. Or you see something similar in a movie, or take something from an interview with an artist. That's not conscious thinking like when writing code - rather, your stuff is in the back of your mind all the time, and sometimes random pieces of the puzzle just fit in.

    Speaking of Sally Mann: I read "Hold Still" and had the impression that she is a very intelligent, erudite person (if photography weren't hers, she would certainly have potential to be an outstanding writer). I can't imagine that her work is created only out of passion; I believe that a great deal of reflection went into it, too.

    Best, Thomas