Why the Greatest Photographers Pursue Projects

Blacksmith, Spalding

Yesterday I came across a copy of Robert Doisneau’s Portraits of the Artists. It’s a beautiful book, displaying photos from a personal project spanning many decades. The oldest are over 70 years old. Not only do they capture the likeness of the various artists (some well known, like Picasso and Hockney, and others who have been forgotten by all except a few), they show the environments they lived and worked in. Several artists were pictured in various states of squalor in tiny Paris apartments, and it shows just how much living standards have improved in the intervening decades. But this aside, there are a few other things I thought about as I looked through the photos.

doisneauBlack and white photography is beautiful. All the photos in the book are black and white, taken with a variety of cameras. It looks like Doisneau used a mixture of large format, medium format (square) and 35mm format. Black and white photography is an acquired skill, and relies on the photographer learning to see in monochrome. I guess it helps if it’s the main medium you work in for the majority of your career. Also if for most of that time the technical quality far surpasses that of colour, and is much easier to work with.

The cameras Doisneau used were primitive in comparison to the latest digital cameras, but his photos are still gorgeous. There is no doubt looking through this book that you are looking at the work of the one of the 20th century’s master lensmen.

When I say primitive, I’m not referring to image quality, even though the quality of both film and lenses has improved since Doisneau’s career started. I’m talking about ease of use and handling. It’s far harder to handle and focus accurately with a large medium format camera, for example, than it is with a modern digital SLR or mirrorless camera. Plus it is harder to work the subject when you have to change film (or camera backs) every 12 exposures. But Doisneau and countless others managed, proving (if it needed to be proved) that master photographers learn to work within the limitations of their gear.

Photography is a powerful legacy. Doisneau passed away in 1994. Most of the artists in the book are also dead. Their lives have been lived, and all that is left is their artwork and people’s memories. Doisneau was photographing something contemporary, but the years slipped by, as they do for all of us, and times changed, as they always will, and his photos became part of history. Now they show us how people once lived, worked and dreamt.

David Bailey once remarked that photography is an intrinsically sad medium, because everything, once photographed, is immediately in the past. Photography is always about things that have happened.

The message here is twofold – live your live as powerfully as you can, while you can, because your time is limited and no-one knows how much of it we have left. The other is learn to recognise your legacy. What ordinary things are you photographing today that people will look at in 70 years time and marvel about the way people used to live, work and dream? How will people remember you, and the work you created while you were alive?

Projects are a powerful way of motivating you to take photos and put together a body of work worthy of a legacy. I skipped over the introduction and don’t know how many of Doisneau’s photos in this book came about through a personal project and how many were commissioned (I suspect a mixture of both, as a photographer’s personal work often feeds through into their later, commissioned work).

But I feel this book came about not because Doisneau was working towards it from the start (although he may have been) but because he had an urge to photograph a group of people that he felt a strong connection with (photographers are artists after all). Connection is the key here – I don’t know the stories behind any of these photos but no doubt Doisneau stalked with the artists about their lives, their dreams, their work, their hopes, their loves, their sadnesses, their hopes for the future.

If you want to make similarly compelling portraits this is the urge you must share – to connect with, talk to and understand your fellow human beings – to be interested in their lives, hopes and dreams. Compelling portraits arise from these impulses, not the wish to simply take a photo and move onto the next trophy or interesting face.

The power of projects

I strong believe that projects are essential for photographers to follow as their work evolves. A project gives you direction and motivation. It helps you see possibilities and gives you something to aim for. Projects can cover a set length of time, or be returned to again and again over the years and decades.

The hardest part about coming up with a project is probably thinking up the idea. Here’s a good one I came across last week and that I find wonderfully inspiring – the Atlas of Beauty. Romanian photographer Mihaela Noroc spent two years travelling the world taking photos of women from different countries. This is a great project. It is focused. The aim is clear.

The project also has great legacy potential. It is about something deeper than the immediate subject. It connects people by exploring and documenting an important aspect of the human condition. It has historical value. In 100 years time people will write stories about these photos the same way we do now about photos taken a century ago.

Another feature of this project is that the photographer threw herself into it with great intensity. She left her job, travelled the world and funded the project through Indiegogo.

Not many people are in a position to do this, but her intensity, determination and dedication have resulted in a project that deserves its own book, an exhibition, even to have a movie made about it. It’s an extraordinary story.

The problem with reading about projects like this is that you can feel pressure to come up with a similar grand idea. This is hard – it’s not easy to think up ideas this good. And even if you did, you may not have the opportunity to ditch everything to pursue it. Most photographers need simpler projects.

Nine photography project ideas

With that in mind, here are some concepts I have come up with for projects (some of these are based on what I’ve seen other photographers do, some are simpler than others – I’m listing these here not because you should do them, although if you want to you can, but to inspire you to come up with similar ideas).

1. Photographing artists and craftsmen. I’ve been doing this for a little over a year now. I’ve made new friends, gained insights into the creative processes of other people, and improved my photography skills.

Here’s a photo I took recently of a blacksmith at work.

Blacksmith, Spalding

2. Making portraits of circus performers. This started because I saw a photo of a fire performer posing with lit fans. It was a beautiful image and I thought that I would like to take one just like it. A couple of years later I saw someone mention someone who did this on Facebook. I didn’t know her but I sent her a message to ask if she was interested . She was – and knew other people that did similar things. I haven’t taken portraits of circus performers for a while, and need to get back into it, but it’s certainly been an interesting experience and I’ve also made new friends.

Portrait of circus performer

3. Portraits of people with dreadlocks. This followed on from the previous idea, as many circus performers have dreadlocks.

Portrait with dreadlocks

4. 100 strangers project. The idea is that you photograph 100 people you don’t know, by approaching them and explaining that you are participating in this project. It’s a great excuse to ask interesting people if you can make a portrait of them. You can learn more about it at the official Flickr group and this article.

5. Photographing the night sky. Wellington resident Mark Gee has made a name for himself doing this. New Zealand seems particularly suited to this type of photography as it is sparsely populated, so has plenty of open spaces with little light pollution, but there are many people doing this sort of photography around the world.

6. Peace in 10000 hands. New Zealand photographer Stu Robertson (yes another Kiwi!) has a project where he photographs a white rose, a symbol of peace, in the hands of people around the world. The project has taken off in a big way and subjects include celebrities like Ricky Gervais, Danny DeVito and the Dalai Lama. This is another simple, yet powerful project idea.

7. 365 project. A photo a day, for an entire year. I haven’t seen these mentioned as much as they were a few years ago, but I guess people are still doing them. The idea is that taking a photo every day forces you to find something interesting to photograph, especially if part of the project is posting the selected photo to a website or photo sharing website like Flickr. The accountability part makes it harder to miss a day.

8. One camera, one lens, one year. This one (proposed by Mike Johnston of The Online Photographer) would take a lot of dedication to stick to because it proposes that you spend an entire year using just one camera and one prime lens to take photos. The idea is that you really learn to use that camera and lens combination well. It’s about the equipment becoming so familiar that you forget about using it and focus on learning to see and find interesting subjects.

An important part of Mike’s proposal is printing out photos and comparing them to see how your skills and vision evolve over the course of the year. To do this as proposed takes a lot of dedication (although people have done it but there’s no reason why you can’t do versions of it for a day, a week or a month. For example, I often go out with just one camera and one prime lens for the entire day. I don’t miss my other lenses when I do so.

9. The personal landscape project. I’ll expand on this in a future post, but it occurs to me that when it comes to landscape photography many photographers lack imagination. Let me give you an example. I’m visiting my parents and they live in north Norfolk in the UK. It’s a beautiful region. Perhaps picturesque or pretty are better words. It doesn’t have mountains or other awe-inspiring scenery. It’s more of a quiet beauty that grows on you as you learn to appreciate it.

The problem is that local landscape photographers tend to go for the chocolate box scenes – in this case the boats, marshes, windmills, sand dunes, beaches and pretty coastal villages. Fair enough – I’m basing this judgement on photos I’ve seen for sale in local photography galleries, and these guys have to take photos that sell.

But where’s the imagination? Where’s the beautiful black and white work? (most of it’s in colour). Where’s the personal interpretation? Anybody can go take a photo of a wooden boat – where is the interpretation? What does the landscape mean to you once you move away from the well known locations?

I’ve never been to Yosemite and I’m sure that if I did I would take photos of the same iconic views as Ansel Adams. But I’m not Ansel Adams, and neither are you, and copying his photos, however iconic they are, doesn’t make me or you a good photographer. That’s just chasing other people’s images. Find your own. What does the landscape mean to you?

It helps in this case that I’m seeing the north Norfolk landscape with fresh eyes after being away for five years and not having visited much of it for 20. Here’s a photo I took of some beehives I found in a field.

Beehives in a Norfolk field

If you have read this far I hope you have enjoyed these project ideas that they inspire you to pursue either the same projects or come up with similar ideas for yourselves. Do so, and you’ll be following in the footsteps of masters like Robert Doisneau, as well as photographers who will in the future be counted amongst today’s masters.

Further reading

Why Your Photography will Improve if You Use Just Two Lenses

Colour or Black and White?

The Gap Between Making and Processing Photos

Debunking the Rule of Thirds

Learn more about the creative aspects of photography with my ebooks Mastering Composition and Mastering Lenses.





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