The Grind is the selecting your location, choosing which equipment to bring, selecting a film stock, lining up subjects, finding an open slot in your schedule, making time to send/respond to emails, editing the photos when you’re finished with the shoot, picking your favorite picture to present to the world, sending a select few to the subject, backing up your Lightroom library…
But that’s what “photography” means – it’s the photographs, and it’s the Grind to get them made.
Lately, it’s the Grind that has me feeling overwhelmed. If I can pick away at it, bit by bit, I do okay. Otherwise, I feel like I’m swimming in “photography.”
Better learn to love the Grind if you really want to accomplish that project.
Busting your ass planning something important? Feel like you can’t proceed until you have a bulletproof plan in place? Replace “plan” with “guess” and take it easy. That’s all plans really are anyway: guesses.
As my old boss used to say, plan the work and work the plan.
But I take the same approach to planning as I do for traveling: set up the ground rules and structure, and then let real life interject – as it always does.
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.
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.
Last week I participated in an area authors book publishing forum. Me and two other local authors spoke about our book projects, and what it took to get them into the read world. After a brief introduction, we opened up the forum to audience questions. One question really got me thinking, from a thoughtful lady:
“What did you do to keep away the self doubt?”
All of us agreed that self doubt played a role in our projects. What if our books didn’t sell? What if we couldn’t make it work? Was it a big waste of time?
Perhaps more frightening: What if no one cared?
For my part, a large part of my project went into the pre-planning. As I’ve shared before, I thought about having a built-in audience, using my connections to get the word out, and relying on marketing to make my project a known thing.
Even deeper and scarier than getting the word out, however, self doubt means wondering whether a project even deserves to exist. What’s the big idea, and has it earned an audience?
Plenty of artists deal with self doubt. I wonder if there’s extra pressure on those who put physical things into the real world. Ones and zeroes can exist virtually and bother no one – but a book? That takes materials, space, and time in the universe. There’s gravity associated with it.
Good Ideas deserve the atoms that make up a book or print or sculpture or whatever. Getting rid of (or at least easing) self doubt means convincing yourself that yours is a Good Idea.
Ask anyone who’s had to promote a project – a book, a gallery showing, a performance – and they’ll probably tell you how exhausting it can feel. Especially if the project is close to their heart, and especially if the person tends toward introversion.
It feels like you put your heart and effort into something, and then you have to put your heart and effort into making sure enough people (a) care and (b) hear about it to be interested. Yelling is tiring, even when it’s about yourself.
Some people are pretty good at this. But when I think about it, usually those folks are speaking to a big enough audience that cares. They hit (a) and (b) from above every time they promote something.
My projects started small: a portrait project here, a documentary there, each with a modest built-in audience. They cared. Over time, the number of people who knew about me grew.
Organic growth means taking the long view. Person by person, project by project, you’re increasing the number of people who know what you do. It takes patience, and planning, and a bit of humility. But I love the process.
Dampen your expectations on the first few projects, because it’s going to take time to reach people that care. Start making stuff that people might have an interest in (that’s the first part) so that, for the next project, they’ll hear about it (the second part). Each time might just get easier.
I spent a good time of the holiday break absorbing Rebecca Lily’s 365 project, from start to finish. I’ve mentioned Lily’s project here before, but I keep coming back to it because I love her journal-style posts, her photos, and her voice. And I admire the project.
It has me thinking about 365 projects in general. Many photographers attempt them, and many never finish. Some say don’t bother.
Reading Lily’s project blog got me thinking: could I do my own 365 project?
In a way, keeping a daily blog is a sort of 365 day project. Except for weekends, I post a photo (or two) per day on my Flickr.
The difference is, a 365 project is daily – make a photo every day, post a photo every day, even on weekends. It’s the combination of discipline and routine, along with any lessons learned along the way, that make a 365 project worthwhile.
Or not. Toward the end of Lily’s project, you feel her struggling to see the thing through. Is a mundane photograph worth the daily post? How do you handle the ebb and flow of the project, from the highs to the lows? What’s to stop you from giving up partway through?
Thinking about this kind of project, I voice these questions as I look at my own fears. I don’t think the daily photo making would be the tough part, although it would still be a challenge. It’s more like, what would be my goal in establishing a 365 project? Would I post every day? How?
This is the kind of planning and goal setting I feel would make for a successful project.
A 365 project is by far the best recommendation I could ever give a photographer who is struggling with finding their own style or voice. It’s like taking an intensive college course that’s normally a semester long, in 6 weeks. It’s perhaps five years’ worth (or more) of photography condensed into 1 year.
Maybe I should’ve started a project two years ago.
In middle school, my shop teacher was a grizzled old guy. Suspenders, beard, calloused hands – a stereotype if there ever was one. He told us to “make sure you keep things steady” while his hands shook. Neat guy.
One day he told us a story about taking a factory job as a younger man. Our teacher, the new employee, had to work 30 days in the plant without taking a day off. If he worked those 30 consecutive days, he got hired on as a full-time employee. If he missed even one day, he would be let go.
Well, he missed a day because he was violently ill. And of course he got let go from his new job. His lesson, if I remember it right, was that the real world was a tough place, and you had to work hard and pay your dues to make it.
I probably knew it earlier than seventh grade, but after hearing my shop teacher’s story, I figured out that maybe I didn’t want a blue collar job. I wanted to make things, yes, always. But not work in manufacturing – as my father had. It’s not that blue collar work was “below me.” I wasn’t “too good” for a factory job. It’s just that shop class never clicked, and hearing my teacher’s story made me worry about the prospects of working at a place like that. My future was going to be spent doing creative things with my mind.
Luckily, today we can “work with our hands” in other ways: digital projects, hobbies, crafting, writing, etc. It doesn’t have to be a full time job. The stakes are much lower.
At my previous job, there were a few college professors that spent their entire days in the abstract, teaching and reading and lecturing. When they got back home, they got their hands busy doing things like woodworking and car repair. I understood that need. It’s why I enjoy fixing things around the house when I can.
As humans, our best tools are our hands, and maybe tinkering tickles some ancient need we have as toolmakers.
It’s one of the reasons why I love making and pouring over physical things like photo books. Holding something physical, making artistic decisions about materials – I create things with my mind, and then get to hold them in my hands.
During Artists In Jackson, my portrait strategy for each artist was a mix of planning and spontaneity.
Take Ashley here. My thinking going into our sessions was: pick a cool spot, a good time of day, and see what we make.
Others, like Andrew, I didn’t know the location at all, but as we explored the building we found a room with just my kind of light.
My trick is to find a location that has what Brooks Jensen calls a “density of opportunity.” Namely, head to a place I know reasonably well, with cool surroundings, that we can use to make photos. And typically, I try to find a time of day where light comes in at an angle, and I can have fun with shadows or golden hour.
Otherwise, I’m making it up as I go along. And that’s part of the fun, and the learning. Those variables feel comfortable.
That may be why I’m having such a hard time getting started on my next portrait project. This time, my thinking is to have everyone come to one location, with a structured light source, and shoot on a simple backdrop with simple surroundings. There’s no improv involved with the settings, lighting, etc. The only variable is the subject of the portrait – that’s where the chaos comes in.
With such a rigid structure, I feel like everything—the place, the time, the light—has to be perfect before I even get started making photographs. So I haven’t started.
Given enough time, that Not Starting turns into guilt (for not making) and worry (about never starting), and that’s where I sit right now.