Musings on Photography

Project Progression, another view

Posted in process by Paul Butzi on February 24, 2009


Over on Photo Expressions Gordon McGregor writes about starting projects:

Starting projects seems to be easy. Ideas are dime a dozen, always popping up, ready to pursued. But I find the starting bit easy. It is the follow-through that often saps my will. Even if the pictures are good it can become a struggle to keep turning up, time and again. I know from experience that each time I do, I’ll see something new or exciting and get carried away. I’ll find that productive, flowing place where the good pictures come from. But showing up can be such a battle.

I don’t know of an escape from this problem. I suffer from the same follow-through issues that Gordon does.

I only know of one small cheat, and it has to do with the way my projects seem to get started. From reading Gordon’s post, I get the feeling that he comes up with the idea for the project first, and then goes out to execute on the task of making the photos. I know a lot of photographers who work that way. I’ve read books (the one by David Hurn comes to mind) which advocate for this plan.

It’s a good plan, I suppose, if you’re the sort of person for whom that sort of plan works. And, it turns out, I am not one of those people.

My projects seem to be more like the particles that spurt out of a particle collision. I’m busy banging the particles together on one project, busily making photographs and examining them with the fervent intensity of a particle physicist looking at tracks in his cloud chamber (or, if you like, sensor array of the Large Hadron Collider). Like the physicist, I’m looking for clues to how things are what they are. In the end, so much of our figuring things out seems to amount to banging things together and watching the sparks, and it doesn’t much seem to matter whether you’re watching particle collisions in the LHC, making photographs, or writing a play.

Anyway, the way it works (at least used to work, in part) if you’re a particle physicist is that you’d be running an experiment, and you’d be looking at all these particle trails in the cloud chamber, and you’re constantly searching for the kind of event you need for your current experiment. At the same time, though, you start to notice patterns in the other events. And before you know it, you’re designing an experiment to figure out what’s happening with this pattern you noticed.

And that’s the way it is for me with photography. I’m busily working away, head down, on some project. At the same time, every time something catches my eye, I make a photograph of it. Why not? Disk space is cheap. I’l make photos directly related to the project, photos tangentially related to the project, and photos that are utterly unrelated to the current project. It’s all ok with me.

And then, when I process those not related photos, I start to see patterns emerging. It can take a long time, and it’s often a big help to show a lot of your work to others. It’s a really big help if you’re in the habit of showing the confusing photos you make to others. But over time, the patterns emerge, and I start to see a relationship I wasn’t quite aware of among the photos I’ve made. I can pull all those weakly related photos together, and suddenly I have a project. Actually, what’s happened is that I had a project before, I just hadn’t consciously realized it, nor had I articulated it to myself.

But once I recognize that project among the photos I’ve already made, I start consciously looking for more photos. I’ll start going to the places where those photos are likely to be lurking. And that that point, I’m pretty much in the same boat as Gordon.

I just think it’s interesting that the roadblock seems to be the same, but the approach path seems to be different. It falls into that broad category I call “Things that make me say ‘hmmmm'”.

6 Responses

Subscribe to comments with RSS.

  1. Gordon McGregor said, on February 24, 2009 at 10:53 am

    I have the same problem with my technical work too though. I like solving problems and working through the issues, until I get to the point where I’ve proved that the ‘thing can be done’. Do the hard bit of an algorithm, find the elegant solution to a problem and demonstrate that it works.

    The finishing and the polishing and the fleshing it out is always a drudge. I think it is just a fear of hard work that I’m languishing under 😉

    Although there is also the general issues that as you get closer to finishing something, you get closer to saying ‘this is as good as I could make it’

    When it is half done, demonstrating all the potential, it is easier to stop and wave your hands and say ‘and add some awesome and we are done’. But finished is ‘this is what I am able to do’

    At least, I’ve read about that being one of those issues – I’m not sure if it is the case for me. I suspect I get bored. I can mentally see where it is going to go – it has achieved what I wanted to do and the rest is just execution/ work.

  2. Gordon McGregor said, on February 24, 2009 at 11:42 am

    As for ‘how I do it’ projects and me are something of a new relationship. I’ve tried and failed a few times. Prior to this I was of the ‘wander around and take pictures of things I like’ school of photography.

    Not entirely sure where I’m going to land.

  3. Mike said, on February 24, 2009 at 3:07 pm

    Ah yes. Once I’ve proved I can do it, why push further:)

    My hope is that by having lots of projects, plus just taking photos, they all converge towards some sort of finishedness. I did once manage to complete a project in a weekend – it was pictures I took walking the dog on Saturday morning…


  4. Gordon McGregor said, on February 24, 2009 at 9:28 pm

    well, I think most of my initial momentum/ motivation comes from ‘I wonder if I can do xxx’, or ‘I wonder what would happen if I try yyy’ Once the question gets answered, the motivation to finish starts to wane.

  5. Mike said, on February 27, 2009 at 12:27 am

    Yes, exactly!

  6. Gordon McGregor said, on February 27, 2009 at 3:28 pm

    A comment I saw here ( )

    Two helpful tricks I’ve noticed: projects get photographers out the door and working (Stephen Shore), and projects emerge from reviewing the massive amounts of work produced after getting out the door and working (Lee Friedlander).


    The common thread is once again, getting out the door and working – not how you get there, just that you do I think.

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: