A couple of Saturdays ago I spent a good morning with Al Brydon (@AlBrydonPhoto) in Bolehill Quarry where amongst other things we discussed the use of projects to focus your photographic efforts. Whilst I have read of the value of projects and seen the amazing results that some produce, nothing has materialised beyond the notion rattling around my head.
I suspect I'm not dissimilar to many photographers in the earlier stages of their journey. I would go out, find something I like and photograph it. Those things don't have to have a connection beyond things that I like. This has progressed to the point that when I research and find something that appeals, I feel that I'm able to make a strong individual image.
Beyond being continually attracted to similar subjects, I don't think taking lots of waterfall or long-exposure-sky-and-water-with-foreground-rock pictures quite counts as a project or a cohesive body of work. They represent individual finds and moments, perhaps magical in their own right, but also quite disconnected from each other. Maybe each or a subset of them could be the nucleus of a project, but for now they stand on their own.
By comparison looking at other artists' portfolios, the connection between their images is very strong. Though beautiful images in their own right, they are transported to a different level when brought alongside other related images. The sum is truly much greater than the parts. As recent examples of work that show this connectedness, Bruce Percy's recent trips to Bolivia, Patagonia, Norway and Iceland, Iain Sarjeant's Among Trees and a project that Al recently shared on the Behance Network have helped instill in me a need for greater cohesion in my own work.
I'm thinking that a body of work is a bit like a choir. Each member of the choir has their own voice and is a great singer in their own right. As an ensemble, the voice is all the louder. They may be singing the same song but the subtleties of each voice add something unique to the overall sound. Each image in a collection may be beautiful but when brought together with other images with a common theme the similarities and the differences are accentuated, making the shared voice stronger and the nuances more distinct.
So rather than searching for a reason not to do a project (e.g. feeling constrained, scared of losing enthusiasm), I've decided to embark on a project or two myself and see where they lead me. Perhaps somewhere new with renewed focus. Perhaps nowhere (not all projects must be an outright success as a life in IT has taught me).
I suspect this progression, for the self trained artist at least, is fairly common. Indeed it seems to share a pattern with "Capability Maturity Models" I've come across at work:
- go and shoot the world, have some fun, learn your craft (chaotic)
- find specific things that interest you, become good at making images (repeatable)
- look for patterns and consistency, learn to tell a story and make a stronger connection with people (defined)
The later stages I haven't reached so couldn't knowledgeably extend the analogy. But in CMM it's about "optimising" and I'm sure "perfecting" (for want of a better word) your images and process will lie somewhere beyond.
This isn't some big announcement shouting about a massively exciting new project because until there's something to look at who really cares? More it's to acknowledge that I'm perhaps missing something that project work may help me find. Similarly it may be something for you to consider if you're finding yourself taking a lot of really nice pictures that don't "speak as one".
One of the things that I've found recently is that I've been bemoaning photo opportunities where I live. On the edge of the Peak District. Life's a bummer huh? I've found myself travelling over to the "classic" Peak District in the east, chiefly the area around Hathersage - Stanage Edge, Over Owler Tor, Padley Gorge, the places that those familiar with the Peak District will know well. I've got to be honest a 40 minute car journey at 4.30am was occasionally off-putting (and not very green).
I'd scour my maps and the internet, trawl through Flickr looking for something more local for me to shoot. My conclusion: I live in the worst part of the Peak District. Nobody has any interest in my neck of the woods.
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The majority of pictures in the Longdendale valley are of the trains that used to travel along the valley and through the Woodhead tunnels as they ran between Manchester and Sheffield. The line has since shut and been turned into a leisure track. Power pylons now snake their way along the valley before diving below ground into the old railway tunnels. A major trunk road, the A628 (T) "Woodhead", one of the busiest in the country, runs along the other side of the valley. The valley itself was flooded to create 5 reservoirs by damming the River Etherow which runs the length of the valley.
With so few images, the busyness of the man made infrastructure, and lacking the more obvious beauty and relative tranquility of the southern and eastern peaks, it has long suggested to me that I should look farther afield for my image making.
Yes, I have been discounting a 12 mile stretch of the Peak District because there are no nice pictures on Flickr. Daft or what?! It has hills, trees, rocks, cliff faces, abandoned quarries, it even has - gasp - water and waterfalls! It runs east to west so you get the sun at each end of the valley either end of the day. It seems to have it's own weather system (which means it always seems to be windy and rainy :)). What's not to love?
So my first photo project is going to explore this valley and see what there is to show the world. In some ways I feel like an intrepid explorer venturing into the unknown, though the presence of man throughout the valley denies this reality! Even if those that have gone before me found little of note I'm certain that I'll find something that intrigues me. Perhaps I'll uncover a piece of me that has been hiding behind more accessible and pretty landscapes.
When you're on the slopes of those hills, you can see the road and the reservoirs and the electricity pylons, and yet you're still surrounded by this bleak and wonderful landscape. I suspect that this "wilderness in the midst of man" will be a theme that appears during the project. I expect the project to be dark, moody and at times bleak. I don't intend to bend the landscape to my will, that's just my experiences of living here! Per this post I'll keep an open mind on what I'll find. I'll keep you posted.