Monday, February 12, 2007

A Place To Start

From my post here about a photograph I made in 1994 Tommy Williams commented:

As usual, I'll ignore the main point of the article and ask about a tiny bit you threw in there about taking photos of something that was outside the parameters of your project. My problem is that I have no project and no focus: I just shoot all kinds of things like a dilettante.But I still wonder about balancing the need to focus on the "rules" of the project against the other photographic opportunities that show up while you're working on the project.

I like having a project for a couple of reasons. First of all it is a place to start. It is something that brings me back to work again and again. I think I would be floundering if every time I picked up the camera I had to start from scratch...if I had no plan except I'll go make some pictures. That is not to say that sometimes it is fun to have no plan but to have to do my work without a plan, day after day ......I don't think I'd know where to start. I'd find a reason not to work at all.

I often mention the book Art and Fear because I have found it very enlightening about how to just keep working. The book describes how Chopin used the musical form of Mazurkas as a place to start to make small scale pieces. And how a commitment to write a prelude and fugue in each of the twenty-four keys brought Bach to the piano day after day. Art and Fear says: "Working within the self-imposed discipline of a particular form eases the prospect of having to reinvent yourself with each new piece." In the margin of this part of the book I have written, "A project means a place to start." But a place to start doesn't mean that it is also the place to end. I always try to be open to other photographic opportunities and sometimes I find that my original thoughts about a project may be too narrow.

The other reason I like having a project is because I start to study the subject matter. For example, it took research to find the 16th century churches. I learned about Spain, Catholicism, pre-hispanic Mexico, Mexican art and Spanish art. Having a project gets me involved in so many ways and enlarges my world. The more I photograph the project the more layers that are peeled back and the more I understand my original emotional attraction to the subject.

But having a project doesn't mean the photographer has blinders on. We are visual people. We are going to see stuff on the side and photograph it. And you never know where that "stuff" will lead. For me a project doesn't mean limitations. It means simply, a place to start.


John W said...


As a newbie photographer, I've been doing it backwards. I see something that catches my eye, then I research it so I can say something about it in my blog. This usually means I fail to take additional shotsthat would help tell my story.

Research first, photograph second. I learn something new every day.

Thanks for the lesson.

Billie said...

John W,
Whoa. You are already on the right track. You are photographing stuff that interests you. First you might make a photograph or two of some "stuff" and you realize there is something there that really appeals to you and you want to shoot some more of it. That might mean that you have to do some research to find more of the "stuff" or more about the "stuff." And you just keep photographing the subject, peeling away layers and getting deeper into the stuff.

For example, you recently had some images from the Plant Sale in SMA on your blog. You keep thinking about the plants and the guys that travel around selling plants so you find out where they grow the plants and visit there, then you figure out a way to travel with them for a while. And maybe the project ends up being not about the SMA plant sale but about how they make a living and you have pictures of their homes and families. And you have had a wonderful adventure.

While I was shooting a lot of the churches in the Yucatan, we would come to Mexico during Day of the Dead or Candelaria so that in addition to the churches I'd also photograph something happening in the churches or in the cemetary. We always stopped at one village outside of Merida and if someone let me take their picture, I'd take them a print back the next time we went. Once we even planned a trip to Yucatan to photograph the churches so that we would be at their village during their church festival. We ended up knowing a family or two well enough that we were invited to their homes for a meal. As I wrote, you just keeping peeling layers and it is so enriching and hopefully the pictures just get better and better.