Photographers for whom their art is a compelling force can occasionally run dry. Similar in nature to writer's block, this phenomena can cause great frustration.
Another problem exists for photographers who have a certain specialty, but who, because of circumstances, are unable to practice their craft as often as they would wish. In my case, for example, this is an issue because I'm primarily a landscape photographer. Yet, I live in the downtown core of a city of 2.5 million people. To even get to where the suburbs end and the countryside begins is as much as a 45 minute drive — without traffic. And, of course, once outside of the urban sprawl I'm still hundreds, and in most cases even thousands of miles from the landscapes that I love to shoot the most — the mountains and the deserts.
Though I take 4-5 photographic trips a year, excluding the field workshops that I conduct twice a year, this still means that 90% of the time I am not where I want to be, and doing the photography that I most want to do. This being the case, how do I overcome either the occasional block, or deal with the inability to practice my art in ways that would be most satisfying?
Pursuing a Project
Photographed with a Leica M6 TTL and Tri-Elmar lens @ 50mm, on Ilford XP2 Super
I solve the dilemma by pursuing one or more Projects. What I mean by this is a self-assignment that adds structure to the desire to do photography; channeling and disciplining my time. There are a couple of ways of going about this, as discussed further on. But first, let's see why developing a Project is helpful.
When we go on a vacation our attention is focused. We feel more alert, more alive. We see and experience things more clearly. The reason for this is the newness of the experience. Indeed, this is why we can have a strenuous and active holiday and still come back feeling refreshed. It isn't being busy that makes us tired, it's being bored!
The idea of the Project then is to focus ones attention the way that a vacation or other trip does. Instead of just randomly going out to do some shooting, as we all do when we get the itch, I propose going out instead in pursuit of a specific goal.
These two photographs are from a new Project which I am currently involved with called The Urban Landscape. One definition of landscape is "...an expanse of natural scenery, that can be seen from a single viewpoint." To enable this Project in a urban environment I've broadened the meaning of landscape to refer solely to the concept of a "single viewpoint" — though one that's located within a multiplicity of locations — and in this case in an urban area. The single viewpoint is taken metaphorically to mean my viewpoint. And, since this is my Project, I obviously can interpret it any way I please.
Photographed with a Leica M6 TTL and 12mm f/5.6 Voigtl”nder Heliar on Provia 100F. Quadtone conversion in Photoshop.
Philosophy aside, I find this an exciting prospect. I can do it where I live, when and as I have the time. It's challenging, yet not overwhelming. I can broaden and shrink the constraints as I see fit. I have no one to answer to but myself. It challenges my eye and my technical skills and keeps them finely honed.
There is no time limit. I can take a week, a month, a year, or longer — until it's done. When it "feels" done I can put together a portfolio for exhibition, or just for my own pleasure. If it doesn't work out I can burying it in a filing cabinet. (Except that now I'm showing you two of my current Projects at a very early stage — something I normally wouldn't do except for close associates).
Of course this all begs the question of how to create a Project? There are two ways that I know.
Discovering The Project
Photograph taken with a Canon EOS D30 and 28~135mm f/3.5~f/5.6L lens.
One way is to look through your existing work and see if there are any themes that you can uncover. One that I recently got excited about, as I was looking for such themes in my own work to illustrate this article, is called Windows & Doorways. At this point there are only a few images. But I know as I look through my prints that there will be more, because the world as it appears through and lit by windows and doorways is something that fascinates me. With this as impetus I'm now consciously on the lookout for images that I previously never saw as being linked together.
What interests you? What have you found yourself shooting over and over again? If you look through your prints and slides you'll be surprised that certain themes will emerge — ones that you may not even have been aware of.
Inventing The Project
It may be though that nothing jumps out at you. In that case you'll need to develop your own concept — one that's meaningful to you and that suites the environment where you live. This should be the type of shooting that you can do after work, on a weekend, or any time that a few hours become available. Don't set a high hurdle that requires that you travel any great distance for it. Make it something that's possible close to home.
It could be a construction site as a building takes shape, or a demolition site as one is torn down. It could be something as simple as a tree in different seasons, or a child as she grows up and pass through different stages of life. If you live in a rural environment the moods of a body of water or the changes in the sky as the seasons progress might be what sparks your interest. The choices are infinite. Simply choose one or two topics that appeal, and see if you can't create an image or two that starts you off on a process of discovery.
Two Current Projects
I currently have two new projects of this nature on the go. One is The Urban Landscape and the other Windows and Doorways. See if either of them gives you any ideas for your own work. As I add new images in the months ahead I'll post an announcement on What's New so you can keep track of what I'm doing. In the meantime, I have a photographic challenge at hand that suites the urban environment were I live and that will tide me over until the next time I'm in red-rock country.
What's Your Project?
This article has generated more feedback than just about any other that I've recently (Summer 2001) published. Many people have written describing their projects and some have provided URLs. I've selected several of these so that you can see what your fellow photographers are up to these days.
If you have a Project that you think others might want to see, drop me a note with a link. I can't promise that I'll post them all, but I'll try and put up links to some of the more interesting ones.