I’ll admit that getting going with new creative projects has been a challenge lately. With the move, and the new baby, it’s been hard to think and plan about doing a big new thing.
“Inspiration,” as most people understand it, doesn’t help. I don’t need to look at other photo projects, or read quotes from famous artists. None of that will help me take a step forward. It’s not how I’m wired. Inspiration, for me, is just a bunch of ideas.
But this morning, on the drive into work, I felt a spark as I was listening to Bill and Jeffery on On Taking Pictures. It wasn’t anything concrete, or the subject matter, or even their mood. I think it was just listening to two people talk about art and creativity that made me feel better about my situation. That little creative fire inside me that’s been so weak the past few months got a little brighter. I can’t explain exactly how it lit back up, but I guess it doesn’t matter.
What I need is a kick in the butt from time to time, not inspiration.
All of my photographs during the year just “happened”. Nothing was planned in advance. I was able to capture them just because I brought my camera with me everywhere, every single day. And sometimes, because I felt brave enough to ask a complete stranger for their portrait, and I didn’t get chased away.
Planned versus unplanned. Project versus un-project.
This idea of the 365 project keeps coming up, because I’m starting to see it as a worthwhile challenge to any creative person. “Discipline and constant work at the whetstones upon which the dull knife of talent is honed,” says Stephen King. Keeping at something, day after day, is intrinsically rewarding.
But what about a planned project versus a project like Patience’s? Bill Wadman, for instance, is doing 365 portraits this year. It’s a project with a set of restrictions: pictures of people, with Wadman’s new-ish medium format camera. There’s a schedule to set and people to line up. There’s structure.
Patience’s project – “capture real moments and make memories, to tell about the good and the bad times” – is a rambling, take-it-as-you-get-it 365 project. He takes the world, day to day, exactly as it is, and lets chaos and randomness dictate his project. Apart from one camera, one lens, one film, there’s very little structure.
My preference? One of each, which is my goal this year.
I am based in the county of Herefordshire in the west of England, close to the border with Wales. It is a region of rolling farmland, wooded hills and (close to the border) dramatic upland moor. I am very fond of this landscape and it features a lot in my photography. My initial interest photographically was in taking what I guess you could call a traditional approach, working slowly with a tripod, using filters and trying to be out in dramatic light and the start and end of the day. I soon realised thought that this wasn’t really for me and latterly I have pursued a more contemporary, documentary approach to my work (always handheld these days!) – whether shooting in an urban or rural environment.
How did you get started in photography?
My interest led me to enroll in a beginners black and white darkroom evening class back in 2003. I knew next to nothing about photographic technique and so it was a pretty steep learning curve. Very quickly, however, I knew that I was hooked and photography has been a huge part of my life ever since.
What do you like about your photography?
It has taken many years of experimentation and many failed images and projects for me to feel comfortable with my own work, but I’m happy to say I now do. I think it is really important to develop an approach and style that works for you, produce images that make you happy and not worry if others like them too. That said, I do really enjoy sharing my work and hope that some of my images create a positive reaction. If pushed, I guess I would say I like the freedom in my approach to image-making – I work quite spontaneously with little planning. I’m also very partial to photograph patterns, shadows and shapes I find interesting. Lastly, it really appeals to me to have such a personal means by which to share how I see the world around me.
I like that your work explores different locations. Where do you get inspiration for your style/ideas?
My local landscape is definitely a source of inspiration. I believe the best approach is to photography what’s around you, what you know or where you happen to be, and try to find ways to make interesting pictures. This is in contrast to the trend to travel to well-known and much-photographed beauty spots. I’m not criticising that approach, I’ve simply come to realise it’s not for me and doesn’t produce results I feel happy with.
You’re “Yashica Steve” on Instagram – using film to express your vision. What kinds of themes do you explore with your work? How does film help you accomplish that?
I set up my Instagram account as @yashicasteve to share new film work when I started working with film again last year. I have really loved photographing this way over the last few months, using a Yashica T4 35mm compact camera loaded with AgfaVista 200. I’m don’t support the notion that film is better than digital (or vice versa), it’s just that I find the feel of the pictures, the atmosphere, really pleasing and it seems to suit my preferred subject matter. I am increasingly enjoying walking around urban environments with no planned route or expectations and simply photographing things I encounter that interest me. I also love the deferred gratification of seeing the images after getting the film developed – digital has made everything so instantaneous this is a real pleasure!
Any upcoming projects or shoots you’re working on?
My focus over recent months has been on a project called Borderland: where England meets Wales, documenting the often forgotten rural hinterland I call home on the border between the two countries. The landscape there is changing in many ways as (very slowly!) this rural landscape modernises and traditional ways of life decline. I think it makes for a fascinating and timely subject and I’m hoping others agree! I have managed all aspects of putting the book together and promoting it myself and am delighted to have sold most of the limited edition of 100 copies. There are some still available, however, and the whole series can be viewed and orders placed on my website.
Reminders basically rule my life. Since my first iPhone, I’ve let a combination of to-do tasks and calendar pop-ups tell me what to do, and when. Everything from taking my daily medication to taking out the trash – I assign a robot to tell me things that I would otherwise forget. It’s a mix of Absent-Minded Professorness and outboard brain reliance.
I know that if I want to build a habit (exercise), or tell myself to do something later in a day (call the cable company), or if there’s something I just can’t or shouldn’t forget (a doctor’s appointment), I have to set a reminder. Otherwise, my brain won’t hold on to the information.
Now, I’m using a reminder system to keep my daily project going. It’s simple: twice a day, Day One tells me to make a new entry. That’s my signal to keep my photo project going – usually at 4 p.m. (before I leave work) and 7 p.m. (before the light disappears).
Why Day One? For me, it serves as both a reminder system and a daily log for the photo I take and the camera settings I used. I can even include a reference photo as a visual clue.
Day One has served me well since the birth of my daughter in 2015. Then, I used it as a journal to record her growing up – personality developments, funny sayings, a photo, that kind of thing. It came in handy when I made her first year photo book; I could look back and see, chronologically, how she was turning into a toddler.
The app doesn’t really matter. You could do something similar with a calendar or a text file. The point is that I rely so much on reminders that I’m using them to keep my daily photo project moving along. I’m both reminding myself and logging my progress as I go. Over time, it may become a habit, and I won’t need to think about it.
But probably not. I know myself well enough to keep a system like this in place until the project is done.
For this next one, I want to experiment with some studio space, and making the portraits on black and white film. To do that, I picked up a Bronica ETRSi from Jon Wilkening – a fantastic kit, full of potential. And it includes a learning curve, which is the part I’m most looking forward to.
(One of the benefits of picking up photography as a hobby is that you get to tinker, and learn new equipment, while you’re making photographs. That puts it in the same realm as classic computers or engine repair as much as art.)
I hope to set up a quick photo studio to practice with the Bronica, including making photos with friends and family, just for fun.
Restrictions are simply creative challenges. Using medium format film for a portrait project is a restriction that, I hope, leads to interesting results and good photographs. It forces me to learn something new, while lending a timeless feel to the whole endeavor. Should be fun.
Michigan Avenue has been recognized for its significance as a Historic Heritage Route. Given the fact that it’s persisted so long and been so essential to the state, it seems more than fitting to refer to this road, which spans the entire east-west length of the state, as Michigan Avenue.
Last winter, off my big portrait project, I needed something to keep me entertained during these cold Michigan winter months. I needed a photo project to keep my mind and camera busy, and something that I could do inside.
When Sandhill Crane Vineyards invited me to be their featured artist for May, I felt like I needed to show some fresh work in their gallery. Wine would be fun. But what if I did more than wine still life photos? What if I made it bigger?
A few months back I was invited to speak to the Jackson Civic Art Association about the project. One of the members, Carrie Joers, dug my still life shots. More than liking them, she wanted to paint them, and figured a how-to session on setting up a still life setting would be good for her drawing and painting friends.
Here’s what I told the group in terms of restrictions and things to think about:
Look at good still life paintings and photos to get an idea of what you like. I started with the Dutch masters, and went through to good product photography. Keep an idea board (I used Pinterest).
Get yourself a theme. Doing random stuff is fun, but I found a theme (seasons, with food as the focus) easier to keep myself focused and organized. Pears go with winter, acorns go with fall, and colors matter, etc.
Look for materials and items around the house, and keep texture in mind (the more, the merrier). Figure out what you don’t have on hand, and then go bargain shopping: yard sales, thrift stores, stuff in your parents’ attic, that kind of thing. Fabrics, containers, decorations – all that stuff can be had for cheap. To get the fresh ingredients, I went grocery shopping.
Set up near a window for good light, and make your own backdrop. This was a lot of fun for me: I got to experiment with painting on a canvas, and setting a mood (here’s my simple set up at home).
Experiment and practice. Move stuff around. Try a bunch of shots. Take 50 photographs to find the one killer shot.
Challenge yourself. I went with one camera, one lens – and a 100mm macro lens at that. Set restrictions, stick to your theme, and don’t make it easy.
I’m making my slideshow (with notes) available as a download (PDF), since I can’t give my presentation to you, the reader. It should give you some background, some ideas, and some inspirational crumbs to follow.
From looming billboards to glittering shop windows to the myriad distractions flowing through the pocket-sized screens we carry everywhere, vast and sophisticated efforts prod us to look in specific directions, at specific things, in specific ways. Taken together, they add up to a kind of war against seeing. I try to be part of the resistance.
Walker’s tips are all good strategies for design, writing, and photography exercises. What do you spot that’s interesting, new, or unseen? There’s a photo project in the making.
Notice things that aren’t meant to be noticed creatively – “attend to some recurring thing that is ubiquitous” Walker says – and you get one of those cataloging projects that are such a joy. For myself, that includes handmade yard sale signs. It’s a little thing, but it’s fun.