projects

On 365 Photography Projects

Come Follow Me

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 tip from Lily, halfway through her 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.


Work With Your Hands

Northampton, Massachusetts

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.

 


Photo Improv

Ashley at Marshall Motors

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.


Adds Up to Something New

Starting new photography projects

Todd Hido, on starting a new project:

That is how things always start for me—I will make one or two photographs that I don’t necessarily fit with my other ones and then I go out and try to build on them. Slowly it adds up into something.

So true for me as well. I’ll often get an idea, try it out a few times, and then it doesn’t pan out. But often, something catches, and I keep going.

And hey, it’s okay to have a few going at once. Few photos here, a few nibbles there, and pretty soon you have something strong.


Some Project Ideas

A Few Projects

I’m just going to leave this here, as a kind of in-public to-do list.

  1. Musicians In Jackson: This is my ongoing, maybe-soon next project, featuring musicians in my community. Still stewing on this one, but getting closer to getting started.
  2. Artists In Jackson – part two!
  3. Some smaller, more personal portrait shoots with friends and family. Go somewhere interesting, and just make photographs. I have a few offers out there.
  4. Something here on the University of Michigan campus. I thought about setting up a tripod and asking people on the Diag to stop and get their photo, and see what I can get. There’s so many people here – there has to be something fun I could do.
  5. I’d like to get out and explore more small communities around Michigan. How to pick which ones?
  6. A documentary project highlighting something going on in Jackson. Maybe longer form, maybe one-off, but the idea would be to follow a story from beginning to end.
  7. A zombie/horror movie conceptual photo shoot, with costumes and locations and makeup and all that. I’ve had this one in mind, totally for fun, for a long time. I bet I have some friends who would totally be up for it.

Until They Start to Care

Ann Arbor, Michigan

People don’t take the time to read, says Steven Pressfield, via Dave Trott:

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?


Fail In Private

 

Failing In Public

Here’s the thing about failed projects:

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.

Maybe it’s better to fail in private. Then you’re only disappointing yourself.


Paid Stuff and Fun Stuff

Paid Stuff vs Free Stuff

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.


On Projects

 

On Projects

Give me a month, and a new idea, and I’ll make a project out of it.

Quitting coffee for a month? Done that. Quitting alcohol for a month? Done that (in January). Doing Lent, even though I’m not Catholic? Done that. Drive cross country a few times? Check!

I’ve done the workout thing, the running thing, the daily photo project thing, the portrait project thing, tried the vegetarian thing, a few documentary things.

A lot of my inspiration comes from Benjamin Franklin, who challenged himself with all kinds of fun personal projects. And because the idea of learning new things and applying what I’ve learned is immensely gratifying.

By pushing up against your limits, even if those are just perceived limits, can help you figure out more about yourself.

Can you quit meat/coffee/alcohol? What does that mean for the rest of your life? Does it makes things better, overall, or worse? What did you learn by doing that? Etc.

Here lately, I’ve had a few more personal projects in mind:

  • Make only black and white photos for the summer
  • Take up running again
  • Lose five pounds

The good part is, these are all small things to try. If I fail, I’m not losing anything (except, perhaps, a bit of fitness).

But if I succeed, maybe it will make life a tiny bit better.