Developing photography projects – Trevor Saylor
Photographer Trevor Saylor has been kind enough to share with us his experience in developing photography projects. I hope that Trevor will be a regular contributor to the site in the future.
I have uploaded some shots previously about my travels to Anna Maria Island in other posts on my blog. Going through my archives again, I have begun to create a longer-term set of images that I am slowly beginning to visualize as a project that is nowhere near complete but could take many more trips to fully finish. Thankfully, I’m sure I’ll have a lot more trips to do so. This has led me to think about long-term photographic projects, which forms the basis of this post. The images in this post are ones that I have not previously shown, but are the beginnings of a project that I am cautiously calling “Floridians” for now. Both the title and the images contained in this project are subject to change, but I figured I should add some shots to the post. If you have comments on them or my musings within this post, please do let me know.
I think a discussion about the nature of projects and how they start, evolve, and come into being might be helpful. All I can do is share how I go about it, and there are certainly others who are far more experienced than I at this, but I reached a stage in my photography a few years ago where I wanted to stop just taking and uploading shots for the sake of it and begin focusing on coherent, complete bodies of work centered around a theme or idea. If you’re getting to the same point, this may be helpful; if you’re long past that point and have some ideas of your own to add, please do so.
I’ll cover how to start a project, choose appropriate equipment, and editing your work in this post. In a later post, I’ll cover other considerations for the later stages of your workflow if there is an interest.
When starting a photographic project, there seem to be two generally-accepted ways of going about doing gathering material.
First, one has an idea and goes out in search of this idea. This involves going out intentionally searching for things about this idea, and shooting anything that might fit. The good thing about this way of doing things is that it focuses one’s attention and output around this single theme; the bad thing is that often one can overlook other photographs since they don’t fit the conceptual thread one is presently engaged in. Additionally, I find that one’s preconceptions can get in the way in this form of working. For example, if one sets out to shoot the plight of the homeless (which is far too cliched, and please do not shoot this), one might miss things that don’t fit exactly into that, or worse, one approaches the idea with one’s mind already made up about the subject. By studying the plight of the homeless, one has already narrowed the theme to be one that is negative in tone; by simply shooting with an open mind, other possibilities might open up and take the project in different directions that initially intended.
The other way many photographers begin a project is by shooting naturally what they are interested in, and then by later going through one’s work to identify themes and visual threads that fit together into a single, coherent project. The good thing about this way of working is that it allows the photographer to keep an open mind and follow what comes naturally to them; the bad thing is that it can mean a far less focused approach, necessitating a lot more shots to be taken, more time to be invested, and sometimes shoe-horning photos that don’t fit exactly into the theme of the project. Much tighter editing is often necessary to avoid extraneous or redundant images (but editing is necessary regardless of the approach taken to the project).
I find that I use a hybrid approach. I generally let things start naturally, but once I’ve identified a theme in my work I keep it in the back of my mind so that at any given time I might have multiple projects that are in various stages of realization or completion to keep me motivated an semi-focused. For example, my recent Summer Job project was one that I thought up before I began, but all I really went into it with was a general idea and left the final determination for the editing stage. It had a hard start and end date as well–which is important to keep in mind. I had 100 days with a clear start and finish, meaning that at a certain point it was over, regardless of what I had. While this may sound challenging, it’s actually incredibly liberating.
An important thing to consider is how to start and finish a project. Often starting it isn’t the issue so much as ending it is. I find that projects that don’t have a hard timetable are the ones that are inevitable never-ending. For example, I can use my recent Saint Paul Cathedral project as a project that had neither start nor end date determined for me; it started when I began and ended when I decided it was enough. Of course, it’s never really enough, and therein lies the trick. I am sure I could go back now and make images that I’d find are better than one I included–and this kind of second-guessing can mean projects that are started and never wind up getting done. If your project has no set end-date, make sure you have a way to end it.
You will also need to think about equipment. What equipment will best suit this project? Some photographers only use one type of camera, one they feel comfortable with or the only one they own, for example. Others vary their equipment based on the project’s specifications. Will you be traveling for this project? Then perhaps something light is needed. Will you be printing large photographs? Then perhaps a medium- or large-format camera is needed. Digital or film; large or small; light or heavy; image quality vs. portability; these are all things to consider when choosing your equipment.
Generally, it is a good idea to keep a consistent format and visual aesthetic for a project. Changing too much can disorient the viewer and detract from the theme or idea you are trying to present to your audience. This isn’t an iron-clad rule, but it is important to think about when choosing equipment.
Additionally, consider how the medium you do choose will help you to express your ideas. From a technical standpoint, this might mean a faster film or tripod if you’re doing night-time photography, or an external light meter if shooting in difficult lighting conditions; thematically, you might want a smaller/larger grain in images, or choosing color vs. black and white is another consideration. Finally, choosing a focal length can be important in expressing a feeling to the viewer: longer focal lengths are great for portraits, while wider focal lengths are nice to get close and give the viewer a visceral, right-there-with-you feeling.
Editing Your Work
Yes, you will need to edit, and this does not mean Photoshop. Editing for a project does not mean editing the images themselves; I assume that by the time you are itching to create groups of images around themes and ideas, I should hope you are confident in your ability to create images that are technically proficient enough to stand on their own merit. Editing for a project means being ruthless and culling your images down to the smallest number possible to have a worthwhile project–or said in another way, how can you tell this particular story/idea/theme in the fewest number of images possible? Often, photographers choose an arbitrary number–say, 10 or 20–that they limit themselves to. Why? They are round numbers, but the number could be anything, depending on how you envision your project’s presentation. Do you plan to see this project in a gallery? Then the gallery that agrees to show your work will dictate how many images you can have, based on space restrictions often, but also other variables. They might only have space to hang 8 images, or this might also depend on how large your prints are. 8×10? 16×20? Larger than that? This goes back to choosing equipment.
I have found in my own work as well as in speaking with others that printing photographs is incredibly important in creating a project. Whether you shoot digital or film, print your images when it is time to choose the final selections. There is something much different in seeing images in print and moving them around physically when thinking of arrangement or display size than seeing them on a screen. Working on a computer or tablet is incredibly convenient, but unless your audience will be viewing them that way, I suggest printing photographs. You don’t have to print them all large, even simple 5×7 prints could be enough often, but having them in front of you physically is helpful.
Avoid falling in love with certain shots. Often this can be a pitfall of projects. You have a set of images you like, and you are near the end of your realization of this particular project but there is one shot you’re in love with. It’s a great image, even–but it doesn’t fit in with the visual, stylistic, or thematic thread you’ve established with the other shots. Don’t be afraid to let go of shots and detach yourself emotionally from a certain image if need be. It can be a delicate balance: you have to stay emotionally connected to the project to create a strong project that resonates with your audience, while at the same time allowing yourself to be disconnected enough to sacrifice certain shots you’re in love with. In my experience, allowing your work to sit for a while before looking at it can help with this; allowing it to sit without looking at it even after you have looked at it can help you examine it more critically and objectively as well.
Of course, one of the most important parts of creating images, and a photographic project, is critique. You need to show your work to others whose opinion you trust and respect. Unless your mother knows a lot about photography or art, she may not be the best person to show your work to (sorry, mom!) since she loves you, and, by extension, your work. Asking others, who are familiar with your work, or whose work you respect, to critically examine your work will help you figure out where the project is going. I would recommend doing so along the way, not just at the end. Getting pointers along the way of where to take the idea or things to incorporate can be invaluable.
I hope that this was helpful for you all. If it was, please let me know, and if you anything else to add, please do so–I am by no means the final authority on this, but I figured I’d share what I do know with others.
The project contained in this post–as I mentioned, it is called Floridians for the time being–is not fully formed and has a long way to go. I’ve given the images preliminary titles but that could change as well; in fact, I often find that titling an image is one of the hardest parts for me. Too cute, and it’s cliched; too clever and it can be trite; too dull and it can detract from the image. Finding a balance, and conveying the concept and idea of the image along with a descriptive, short name is not as easy as it might seem. Anyone have a way to help with that?
You can find out more about Trevor and his work by going to the following links:
Thanks for sharing your thoughts and ideas Trevor. I looks forward to your next piece.