Last week I visited the Detroit Institute of Art to check out The Open Road exhibition, a fantastic collection of photography road trips by some of the great photographers. It was right up my alley (so much so that I bought the accompanying book).
It got me thinking: What if I had been into photography, like I am now, back when I took my country-crossing road trips?
Surely I could have made some sort of project or publication out of my Route 66 trip, or my New England trip, or any of the other big road trips I took in my 20s and early 30s. I went on some pretty great adventures, and I took lots of photos, but I wasn’t into photography. I didn’t have the eye I do today.
A book is an enclosed and encapsulated medium that you can actually come pretty damn close to perfecting. I also tend to think that the book is sometimes more important than the show, as the exhibit is a temporary thing, often hanging for a month or six weeks and then it goes away.
Maybe a couple of thousand people see it?
But a book is something that I always say is on your “permanent record” and it never ever goes away—so you better get it right!
He also highlights the importance of playing around with the physical layout of a photo book:
As far as putting together the books, I spend hundred & hundreds of hours shuffling around my photographs, making dummies, turning pages, and switching them around and all that. To me that is really the only way to do it, to print the pictures out, paste them in a physical blank book dummy, and turn the pages.
For my Artists In Jackson book, I didn’t quite know what the layout was going to look like. So I printed a bunch of horizontal and portrait-shaped squares, taped them to pages, and moved them around to see how the look and flow would go. It was super helpful to see the book take shape, even if only in the abstract.
It also helps to give it to someone you trust, and ask, “What do you think?”
Taking a vacation is a good excuse to make some photos. You’re in a new place, with new sights and people to see. Everything is fresh and wonderful (especially when they have lobster rolls along the Atlantic Ocean, as above).
But most of us can’t take a vacation all the time.
So what if you took little trips, around your hometown, or to the cities you’re next to?
I started a little project based on small towns around Michigan a few summers back – little towns that I had never visited, or had only traveled through. I’d take a lunch hour and prowl around main street, and shoot what I see.
You don’t have to go far to see a new place. Chances are, there’s something to see within a few miles of where you are right now. This idea is not new.
August is travel season for a lot of people. Now, challenge yourself to travel a little more local for a new perspective.
Nor does anybody care about your one-act play, your Facebook page or your new sesame chicken joint at Canal and Tchoupitoulas. It isn’t that people are mean or cruel.They’re just busy. When you understand that nobody wants to read your shit, your mind becomes powerfully concentrated.
Think about that. All the hard work we put into creative projects, or blog entries, or advertising campaigns – nobody really cares. They have better things to do.
Until they do start to care. But that’s only a fraction.
I try to bring this viewpoint to my job. We fret over the little things, and we polish the text to a buffed shine. Luckily, Ann Arbor (a true college town) is more literate than most cities. Still, at the root, nobody cares.
So give them a reason to.
Or: set your expectations accordingly. If no one cares what you do, doesn’t that give you some freedom to do what you want to do?
It’s fine to start something, and give up after you begin – midway, almost done, whatever. Sometimes things don’t work out.
I’ve done that quite a few times. A new project will pop into my head, and I’ll start on it, but then I give up. Lack of interest, lack of time, whatever.
The trouble starts when you share a project you haven’t thought through to completion. You make a big announcement, “Hey! I’m doing a thing!” You share the thing. Everyone’s excited.
And then? Crickets.
People that follow your work are left in the lurch. Nothing more comes of your big project after that first big thing, or the announcement. Do that a few times, and people start to question your credibility.
Working on personal projects is something I still try to do, it’s very important to me. I also believe it plays an important part in developing your own style, staying creatively motivated, exploring new ideas and learning new things…I try hard to produce personal projects fairly regularly, even when I’m busy with actual work. I try to produce and post something usually once or twice a week.
GIF artist Al Boardman talks about personal projects in a way a lot of artists do: It’s important to do the fun stuff and the paid stuff.
The paid stuff keeps the lights on, but the personal stuff keeps you, you.
And it’s usually the personal work that makes people sit up, take notice, and ask if you’re for hire.
Will I ever get over the awkwardness of asking people to take portraits, or for their help in starting a documentary project?
Probably not, which is why I try to do it often.
It’s kind of weird, to go up to someone, or send someone a note, and ask to make their portrait. How well do they know you? How well do they know your work? Do they know you at all?
I like to think it’s flattering to ask someone to take their portrait. It kind of says that I think the person is interesting enough to inquire. It also says that I want to spend a bit of time with the person – to get to know them better.
But I’m also a guy, and sometimes it feels like the bad guy stereotypes come through when I ask someone to join me in making photos.
For documentaries, it’s really weird, because here’s someone who does a cool thing but doesn’t know who I am, or what I’ve done. That was the case with my Albion Anagama documentary. I learned after the project was done that Ken and Anne had no idea what to expect. Thankfully, they were pleasantly surprised with the outcome.
But what if they weren’t?
That’s the risk of making something: you don’t know what the participant will think. You only hope that they’ll be pleased enough to continue a relationship and work with you again.
Getting over the hump of asking in the first place? I have no idea how to solve it. I’m going to keep trying, though, no matter how much discomfort it causes me.
A year or two ago, I thought about doing a book called “So You Bought a Fancy Camera.” It would be for friends who had just bought a DSLR or mirrorless camera and needed to get started with the basics.
Instead, I spent my time making another book (and another after that), covering something other than how-to material, and I feel like that was time better spent.
Who needs another asshole talking about focal length?