Monday, May 17, 2021

The Project vs. The Pile

I happened a month or two ago to look in on a 3 of 5 presentations in a series put together by one Paul Halliday, "programme convenor" (whatever that means, it's British, I think) for a vanity MA that Goldsmiths sells. The first presentation was Paul once again giving his "London" photographs. I've talked about this, um, collection, before. The other presentations were by fairly recent graduates of the MA program. I will leaved them un-identified, because they seem like nice people who would be better served by anonymity here.

Shortly thereafter I looked at a 30 minute interview with another earnest British wannabee who's going off to do a masters someplace or other. That presentation being of much the same stripe, it got me to noodling.

The thing all of these presentations had in common was this:

The presenter had in hand a pile of photographs, without the foggiest notion of how to shape them into a project. Paul has been hacking around with his pile pretending it's going to be something some day for 20 years. The others, being younger, have had less time to aimlessly sift their pictures.

The piles were all over the place: archives of found prints, archives of snaps taken by the photographer over a period of years without direction, a collection of strongly conceptual individual prints built around a specific gimmick.

As piles go, they were fine. There's plenty of depth to any of these piles. The photos are good enough for something. Each pile contains, manifestly, at least one substantive project. Something with depth and meaning could be drawn from any of these, in some cases a dozen different things could be drawn out.

What is lacking here is not content, but method. The Goldsmiths people all gave essentially the same talk: "And then I took this photo. And then I took this photo and it was tricky because.. And then I took this photo." for a hour. I can, quite literally, go around to my local camera club and see the same talk "This is a barn. I couldn't get the whole barn in frame because I was parked at the side of the road, so it's just part of the barn. Then I took this photo."

The presentations were almost painful to watch, completely pitiable. I couldn't even tell whether the artists had any idea how far into the weeds they were. One presentation took a sort of stab at something conceptual, something over-arching, but didn't get anywhere before lapsing into a litany of "this photo... this photo..." I may have been projecting but I did feel a kind of pathos, a kind of "am I done? is this it?" wistfulness from the presenters.

Exactly the same situation obtains at the local camera club as with this apparently pretty large category of masters-ish students: perfectly good photos which could, without a doubt, be shaped into a collective object of some sort, but which are not so shaped. They are a formless mass of photos, because the photographer, the artist, has no real notion of what the next step is, or if there is a next step.

At the same time, in other corners of the Serious Photography world, we have small armies of people extracting projects from piles. Sam Contis made Day Sleeper from a pile of Dorothea Lange's castoffs, and it looks to me like it is credibly "a project" in some meaningful way. We could argue about whether Maloof has found any coherent sub-piles in the work of Vivian Maier, but certainly some people think these things are "projects" in some meaningful way. The "found photograph" book is actually a fairly large genre at this point, and while they may frequently be bad projects they are often at least conceptually coherent things rather than merely piles.

This is a thing which can be taught, or at any rate learned, but it appears that it is not learned at Goldsmiths. For 10,000 pounds, 18,000 if you're not British, you too can assemble a pile of photos that you can sort of pitifully stir around for a few years before you return to the family business.

I find myself puzzled as to how I would explain or teach the process myself. I know it is a process that can be done, and I could probably talk about a half dozen specific approaches to making a sequence of photographs that has at least a chance at transcending pile-ness. What I do not know is any generalizations that make any sense.

I think if I were trying to teach this, I would probably teach the specifics by example: "Let's tell a literal short story with a simple plot using these photos" and "let's sequence these photos by geometrical coincidences, Frank/Evans style" and "let's sequence these by subject matter" and "let's sequence these by mood" or whatever.

Just do it over and over and over different ways, and hope that something sticks.

Photographers have been taught too long that "editing" consists of "picking out the good ones" and that's just not it. I mean, that's a skill too, but it's mainly useful if you're selling individual prints.

Picking out the good ones is almost counterproductive when you're making a project, a sequence, a coherent body of work. You need the filler shots too.

An idea wouldn't hurt, while you're at it.

1 comment:

  1. I blame three things for the whole, misbegotten 'project' concept: the photobook industry, the MA-Photography industry, and cinema envy.

    Folks, just stick to instagram. You'll be happy, I'll be happy.