There always seems to be a lot of talk about creating series and photo projects in the photography community and for the longest time the whole project mentality eluded me. I just couldn’t come up with anything interesting but I felt like it was important to move in that direction. I thought that creating a cohesive project would make me a better photographer, a real photographer. I still can’t nail down what exactly changed or why one day a project idea just popped into my head but my guess is it was a number of things.
A couple years before I developed my first project I was in this photo rut. I was shooting subject matter that I just wasn’t interested in, but I was making money so I felt like I should stick with it. I did for a period of time, but I also decided to do a 365 photo project. Remember those? Very popular a few years ago–creating one photo a day for a year. I guess this is technically a photo project but when I think about projects I think of something more personal or cohesive. Of course a 365 project can be personal and cohesive, I’ve seen some amazing 365 projects. But at this stage, I just wasn’t there, I still needed to figure out what the heck I most liked to photograph because all I knew is that portrait work wasn’t it. My only rule for the 365 was no portraits…any other subject was up for grabs in hopes of determining what the next step was.
At the end of that year, I still didn’t know, but it did cement my belief that portraits weren’t it. I guess it’s always good to rule things out. Right around this time I moved back to Chicago after 3+ years in Milwaukee. This was perfect! A chance to break away from the portraits and focus. As life happens, the focus wasn’t happening. I needed a jump-start. Given that I had 2 very young kids at the time, a 7 month old and a 4 year old, my time was quite limited but I needed to figure something out. Luckily I remembered this deck of cards I bought shortly after moving back to Chicago, 52 Adventures in Chicago. So, that kinda became my next project. Once a week my kids and I would draw a card and that would be our adventure and my photo subject. By the way, I still haven’t managed to get through that whole deck…life getting in the way again.
At the time, neither this nor the 365 felt like projects to me–and they weren’t in the sense of what I envisioned a project to be–but they were in their own way. By forcing me to photograph regularly, I slowly, and I mean slowly, started seeing a common thread in my images from one outing to the next. I really believe there is absolutely nothing more important to developing your vision and your skills than to photograph regularly. Cartier-Bresson was not kidding about your first 10,000 images being crap. I might be paraphrasing there;) But you gotta get through those early stages of your work to get to the good stuff, to start uncovering your own unique way of seeing the world. Only then can you even consider that you might have something more interesting or cohesive to say through your images. Although, there are a handful of images from very early on I still like. But, you know what? They’re very much in line with how I shoot and see today. That vision was there even in the beginning, I just didn’t know it. I needed to put in the time to understand what I was doing and where I was coming from.
So, let’s see…it took me until late 2012 to see some semblance of consistency and a hint at what might constitute a photo series. Oh yeah, did I mention I first started taking photos in 2001…talk about a slow learner!
Anyway, I eventually got there and that’s all that matters. Towards the end of 2012 I had this light bulb moment…my first project, yippee!!! I was riding the ‘L’ and thought it would be interesting to photograph the city from all the lines of the ‘L’. To ride every mile of every line and see how the city varies, and doesn’t vary, from each line. So, that’s what I did. I spent a year working on this project, From the ‘L’, and it felt good to follow through and complete something that was consistent. I self-published a book and have had images from the series purchased by a hotel for artwork. But, now what…
One project doesn’t make me a photographer. Heck I’ve decided I don’t have to do projects at all to be a “real” photographer, but there is something about them that helps keep me motivated. They keep my vision sharp and allow that vision to evolve.
The way the ‘L’ project came about, I’ve learned, is rare for me. I’ve only had one other project start from that ah-ha kind of moment. All the others have come through consistent shooting, reviewing my work, noticing common themes, even creating small, individual series of one subject. In fact, those individual series of one subject are a great way to start getting in the habit of shooting in a more thorough and cohesive way.
The image at the top of this post is from a project that began the way most of my projects begin. I was out shooting one day and created an image similar to this one but like nothing I had really shot before. It was a bit of an outlier, but there was something that drew me in and stuck in the back of my mind. Over time I seemed to encounter similar scenes and felt compelled to create the image. Eventually there will be enough good photos to call it a completed project. Or maybe it’ll just be ongoing and indefinite, only time will tell.
There really aren’t any rules to working on a project, only what you set the rules to be. A definitive end or ongoing, a small, one-subject body of work or a larger, multiple subject body of work, something you uncover over time or something you set out to create from an idea. Sometimes projects never get fulfilled, interest is lost, the idea was junk to begin with or what you start with evolves. Whatever happens it’s worth a shot, you never know where it’ll lead or what you’ll learn fro the experience.
Here are a few more images from the series, Urban Quilt, that the above image belongs to….still, very much, a project in progress.