When speaking with students, Ben and I will often talk about the importance of projects as an element in one’s photographic growth. While we tend to talk about this in the context of practicing, projects can take on a life of their own, and can help motivate you, either when you’re out in the field, or simply to get you out shooting. It can also be the type of thing that can fine tune your ultimate photographic vision.
A project can be anything thematic, and it doesn’t necessarily have to be of tangible ‘things,’ although it can be, like Ben’s tree project, which he mentioned in Chapter 9 of Complete Digital Photography (that chapter is available as a free download from the book support page):
One way to make yourself practice, and to breathe new life into familiar locations, is to give yourself an assignment. You can choose a subject—old cars, doorways, local flowers—or maybe a phrase or a word—contentment; no pain, no gain; a penny saved. The subject matter or word doesn’t have to mean anything to anyone else, and you can interpret it any way you want. The idea is simply to give yourself some way to frame your view of your location. Having a specific point of view or photographic goal will often make you see familiar ground in a new way. I like shooting trees, so I keep an ongoing tree project. Often, going out with the idea of shooting trees takes the pressure off; I don’t have to worry about finding subject matter. The world is a big place, and limiting it can make shooting much simpler.
Projects can be long-term things, or short-term opportunities. A few months back Ben posted a video about a photo project involving a group of musicians whom he liked, who lived in Morocco. He had a deep interest in the music, which, coupled with a planned trip to the region, gave him the impetus to create a singular project.
I too have had a number of projects over the years, some of which have been quick, ‘get inspired’ type of things, but I have also had a few longer-term projects. The one I’ve been working on the longest is the Columbia River project, which is about the magnificent river that has captivated me from the moment I saw it. I haven’t done much on the project in the past few years, largely due to personal and location issues, but every time I get near the Columbia, I’m thinking about it. (I also have a fun–to me, at least–project about art museums and and tourists, but that one’s completion is dependent upon travel opportunities, which have been much more limited for me lately.)
My most recent project is something that started coming together in the last year, entitled West; the first few photos are shown at the top of the page. West is an outgrowth of a deep and longtime interest in the western United States, and my sense of who I am as a photographer. I have taken lots of photos over the years in and of the West, but it is only in the last year that I have realized that this actually is a project I need to work on, and that I was at a place where my understanding of technique, composition and processing can help realize what I’m trying to capture.
West is still in its beginning stages, but it has kept me engaged on a high level for the past few months. I’ve started sharing the beginnings of the West project, as a set of printed works in a limited edition. Many of you know that I am a long-standing proponent of the photographic print, and I wanted to share some of the first images from the series, the way that I envisioned them, as prints:
The photographer in me has spent many parts of these travels searching for photos in the landscape. I have wanted nothing more than to capture that feeling of being grounded in a place, but I also wanted photographs that felt like ‘me.’ Last spring, in California’s magnificent Owens Valley, I took the shot shown above (center). That was the first time that all of this stuff—the West, being grounded, sensing a place, and trying to be an artist—merged for me.
If you’re interested in reading more about my motivation for West, you can see the first set, and read more about where this project has come from, and what it means to me. I’m still shooting other things, but West gives me a different purpose in my photographic journey. I’m not sure where it will all lead, but I’m committed to making it part of my practice as a photographer.
I think that this is a good time to think about your own work in the context of a larger practice, to think about a project that can hone your skills. Think about it holistically, from the time you think about bringing your camera to your eye, all the way to your post-production work. And, if you’ve been working on a project (or projects), share with us some of the things you’ve done; we’d love to see them.