I recently had the honor of being one of 16 presenters at Out of Chicago Photography’s inaugural conference. What an exciting and nerve-racking experience that was given it was my first time presenting anything on photography. I had really great turnout during my two sessions and met some truly amazing people, attendees and fellow presenters alike. It was especially great to meet some social media friends in person. I greatly appreciate all the effort Chris Smith and his staff put into creating such a fulfilling event and all the attendees of both my sessions and photowalk. Thank you!
I thought it might be nice to put a little (or likely long) blog post together recapping what was presented for those who were able to attend and those who weren’t. So here it goes…
What we discussed during my sessions was how to find your unique vision through your photography. What I spoke about and cover here is my process in this very long journey in hopes that some of what helped me will also help you to understand what it is you prefer to photograph, how you photograph or “see”, who you’re creating the work for and why.
As I said this was a very long process for me and the first step in all of this was the most difficult…determining what it was I was most passionate about photographing. Part of what helped me determine what I love was ruling out what I didn’t love so much (this was the easy part). For me this was portrait work, street and fashion, those were the obvious and most easy to rule out. But that still left a wide world of genres to choose from, so the hard work of narrowing down further was one lengthy process.
One thing that helped me was giving myself assignments, first in the form of a 365 day photo challenge, later in limiting what I shoot each time I went out for a day of photographing. Those limitations were generally in the form of patterns (lines, shadows, triangles, etc.), color, mood/emotion or equipment. By doing this, and I was resistant to this for a long time, I saw things in more detail and instead of hoping for some magical moment to appear I created something through a deeper study of what I specifically set out to see that day.
Pardon this tangent but it’s one I firmly believe in…I think limiting your equipment helps you focus and see far more clearly than spending all your time obsessing over what equipment might be best for the changing conditions in front of you. I’m a firm believer in making what you have work and that it is how you see things that is important not what type of gear you have. There are photographers out there with $10,000 cameras who have terrible images and there are others creating astonishing work with only an iPhone. So, let the obsession with having the newest and greatest go because at the end of the day it’s irrelevant. Thoroughly understand how to use your equipment and let that become second nature so you can focus on your unique way of seeing the world.
I’m not saying don’t experiment because sometimes through experimentation comes a new direction and a needed way to reinvigorate but do so intentionally.
Ok, moving past my rant but still determining what you love to photograph. Self-assignments, limitations within a given shoot time…but what if you still don’t know? Well count me in this group. I decided that I needed a thorough review of my work, first by myself and then perhaps by someone with much greater knowledge than me.
What I did a number of years ago and still do periodically is go through my work, pull my favorite images and spend time with them. I try to see any patterns or themes within my work, from what it is that I find myself photographing to whether there’s a common style emerging. Is it heading in any type of direction or a new direction? What is it about these favorites that I like so much?
Maybe at this point you can’t answer all these questions but creating a folder of favorites and setting off to continue creating more images in a similar fashion sets things in motion toward determining the how’s and why’s of your unique way of seeing. It’s the first step in being purposeful and creating work with intent (more on this later).
If you still feel you don’t have a clear idea in mind for genre or can’t see that common thread through your work, it can’t hurt to get an outside opinion. There are many ways to do this: whether a formal portfolio review at one of the many national or international portfolio reviews (though I would urge you to wait until you have a more clear series or project to present, you want to put your best foot forward at something like this), an online portfolio review by a more established photographer or finding a local photographer whose work you admire that may be open to reviewing your work. Whichever way, I sometimes think considering another person’s viewpoint, who is not as close to the work as you are, can offer a fresh perspective that may be hard for you to see. I do think sometimes we are too close to our work and we have these emotional attachments to specific images that may not come through to the viewer.
However, one caveat with getting an outside opinion…take what they have to say, consider it and why they have the view they have. At the end of the day, though, who are you creating this work for? Is it for you? Is it for other photographers or so called “experts”? Is it for general public or to get the most “likes” on social media? I hope the answer is to make yourself happy. As bad as this may sound I think creating any type of art is a very selfish endeavor and it should be. It’s something you do to make yourself happy, to express yourself in some way and if you go about doing this to make some “expert” or the public happy you will eventually fall short. Nothing you create will be authentic and you’ll struggle to express anything with any depth. Without depth and authenticity the odds of it truly resonating with anyone else will be very unlikely.
By this point I finally had an idea in mind of what, how and for whom I was photographing, but I still felt there was more to be understood and that I was lacking depth. For me the next step was to be more purposeful and intentional when I photographed. So I began to be even more specific when I went out shooting. As most of you know, architecture is what I focus on so I would go out with the intent of focusing on one building for the day (as opposed to wandering and hoping to see something great), seeing it in as many ways as I could and spending significant amounts of time with my subject, researching the building’s history and sometimes viewing others’ perspectives of the building. Though being careful not to ingrain others’ visions because I don’t want to just go out and copy, I want to create something that is my own.
To push myself further I set out to create series–something I have done in a number of different ways. One quick way to get you in the mindset is to pick one subject for the day. For me that would be one building, and intentionally create a series of images showing my way of seeing this one thing. A more common way in which I’ve come to create series is to periodically go through my work, as I mentioned before, and notice certain patterns emerge. As much as I had this notion that series would just fall into my lap or strike like lightning, nearly all of them have slowly revealed themselves to me through many years of shooting. Pulling favorite images and seeing patterns develop. Studying those patterns and trying to understand what the common thread between each image and then each series is. Once this understanding is in place it becomes so much clearer when I’m out shooting as to how to approach a subject and what I’m looking for. This is when those images seem to “appear out of nowhere”, when in fact this way of seeing, this vision, has taken years to develop but is now ingrained within my subconscious. Without even seeking certain images out they do feel like they find me at times.
Moving beyond series, and the backhand way of discovering them, creating projects is an even more purposeful way to create a body of work. Generally, I think projects start with a defined idea, specific plan and way to approach the intended body of work and knowing what message or feeling you intend to convey. Not to say there isn’t a message or feeling in the series created, because the best ones do have their purpose and message, but for me these were understood upon studying the images when piecing these common threads together. With a project I feel like I know the intended message or feeling I want to convey before even creating my first image. Not to say that message or way of approaching the project won’t change as I begin and work through creating it, because it often does and being open to these possibilities can lead to better work.
My From the ‘L’ and Hometown portfolios are projects and the other portfolios are series. There is a common message throughout my series and projects and one that I didn’t understand when I first started creating images. Once I came to understand my specific way of seeing and what it was I was saying through my work, things fell together and started to make sense. When I go out to shoot now there is that underlying vision guiding me through the images I create and it is very liberating.
I hope this is helpful to you in your photographic journey and I would love any feedback as to what works and doesn’t work for you. I know this was one very long blog post and if you made it to the end I appreciate your time and would certainly love to hear from you!