Short reflections on photographic ‘projects’

In my Wind power opening, I said this was not to be a ‘project’, but that I understood it as being something more akin to a ‘book’. Rob Hudson picked up on that in his comment and asked why I did not want to use the term ‘project’.

For me, this is really very simple. It is, as Rob suggests, something to do with nuance of language, though perhaps not necessarily in the way he meant it. For me, it is about a way of thinking about what I am doing. Let me take a step back from the wind farms…

When I was engaged in working on the What Lies Beneath series from autumn 2011-autumn 2012, I treated it as a coherent body of work that started with a particular image and ended with another. I had made photographs before this that could, from the point of view of the subject matter (water and what is beneath the surface of the water), be included in the series, but they were not made with the intention of exploring the issues that the series was seeking to explore, and so it did not feel ‘right’ to include these images. I was trying to use the creation of photographs to explore a particular theme. In that sense, What Lies Beneath was a project, something limited in scope and intent.

Perhaps it is helpful to think about this in another way. Although I have not completed any kind of photography degree (though I’d love to do so!), it seems to me that ‘projects’ are almost a clichéd part of such programmes of study. The term points to the time-limited and carefully circumscribed nature of what is being done, with the aim of eliciting a certain kind of response or engagement, particularly one that can be assessed in some way (I recognise this pattern from my own work as an academic in a different field!). That is fine for certain contexts, such as university work that needs to be assessed, or something like What Lies Beneath, or another mini-project of three images called Love Me As I Am that I am intending to create soon about a personal story – but it is not the right term or context for all collections of images.

So with Wind power, I am looking at something much more expansive. I have already used images going back several years in the first ‘chapters’ – and I have a number of even older images that I want to use, some from about 20 years ago. Although I had obviously not thought about working on a photographic exploration of wind farms 20 years ago, I was photographing wind turbines 20 years ago, and so these machines have clearly been a source of fascination for me for a considerable time.

That is why thinking about a ‘book’ makes more sense to me for the wind farm subject. Writing a book involves drawing in all kinds of material from all places and times, in order to communicate (what will hopefully be!) a coherent narrative: a narrative that is meant to address a particular concern or theme. In a novel or a poem, for example, this might be about addressing elemental issues around the human condition, expressed through the lives and experiences of characters. In an academic context, we might find similar themes, addressed in terms of reflections upon other texts (understood as broadly as possible). In auto-biographical contexts, the author reflects upon their own life and seeks to offer some insight that might be of interest to the reader. And so on – in all cases, authors draw on a vast range of sources and nothing is really out of bounds. In my own academic work, on European missionaries in the 19th and 20th century Middle East, I have drawn upon sources such as letters, committee minutes, and diaries, and anything and everything that seemed appropriate beyond that: other academic studies (of course), but also poems, novels, hymns, photographs, drawings, film footage, interviews with descendants…

And that is how I envisage Wind power going: I want to draw on all kinds of sources, whether these be ‘historical’ photographs that I have taken, scientific data – which I will hopefully get at least broadly right, drawing on friends like Mike Colechin for help (he’s an engineer when not out playing with a camera!) – literary texts, interviews and more. No doubt there will be sources that I cannot envisage or imagine at this stage: that happens in my academic work, and I see no reason why it should not happen here.

All of that is so much broader than a ‘project’ – in fact, it’s more like a… book!

Crichton Castle valley, 4x5" Fuji Provia 100F, 180mm

Crichton Castle valley, 4×5″ Fuji Provia 100F, 180mm

P.S. And here there is a little bit more water, and stones under the water… but it is clearly not a part of What Lies Beneath! 😉 No, it’s just a rather pretty image I made when out with Mike Colechin in April, with nicely muted spring colours that the Fuji Provia 100F has captured rather well (I’ve made no adjustments to the scan). This is one of the images I was referring to a few days ago in a tweet, expressing delight at the wonders of large format photography.

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9 thoughts on “Short reflections on photographic ‘projects’

  1. Mike Green

    Definitely not a project. ‘Book’ seems good to me, given your description of intent. That does rather imply something bound together, whether physically or electronically, however. A couple of thoughts:
    1. ‘Exploration’ might be an alternative?
    2. It could also be argued to be a dissertation, in the usage not specifically meaning ‘for an academic qualification’.

    1. Michael Marten Post author

      Thanks for reading, Mike. Both of these terms also work, yes, though ‘exploration’ seems to me to be a bit more tentative than what I am hoping to do here. Of course, books as bound objects – whether real or virtual – have a finite ending, and I’m not sure where that is just now, but I’m sure I’ll be aware of it at some point!

  2. Lucy Telford

    It’s interesting, isn’t it, how powerful language is. Words are laden with so much more than meaning – they carry with them connotations and “baggage.” I suppose that we all have our own individual reactions to words and so what might be a project to one person could quite easily be a book to another. In some respects, it doesn’t matter – words are just semiotic signs – but in other ways it matters a lot if one wants to be clearly understood.

    Personally, I dislike the word “project” in connection with anything creative. This is maybe because in my head I associate the word with school and graphs and something which you HAVE to do. That leaves me with the rather unsatisfactory “series” to describe anything I do which contains more than one image! It’s interesting, also, that you talk about how this work will encompass sources other than images – that sounds great and definitely edges it into book territory. I can see the distinction you are drawing. Interesting…

    1. Michael Marten Post author

      Indeed, and much of what I bring to this is no doubt baggage! So yes, semiotic signs laden with meaning.
      This kind of thinking with school work is just the kind of thing I object to, in part because I recognise the assessment issue in my academic contexts. I am not trying to create something that is assessable in that way.

  3. Rob Hudson

    Hi Michael,

    Well I have to say this hasn’t really cleared up my confusion about your original statement, if anything it has added to it! I think this results from an opinion about projects being prescriptive in some way, which is certainly not how I think of them.

    When I first started espousing the idea of the project – quite a few years ago now – it was as a way of steering myself and others away from the shallow single image approach to photography that is so prevalent in landscape in particular. More than that it is a way of challenging our thinking and creativity to produce something new, worthwhile and personally satisfying. The other great advantage of the project, series or whatever you want to call them is that we don’t have to reinvent the wheel each time we pick up the camera. And in that way they can become developmental, picking up ideas from where they left off, moving progressing and changing over time. I will admit in the very early days I was as much concerned with the way projects could be described visually as a unifying theme; but in latter years I have come to realise they are more about a unity of ideas as much as a look. My conception projects have become much more fluid in recent years. What I used to call a ’developmental project’ has become the only way I work today.

    Now I know you academics like nothing more than a good argument about semantics, but this one seems to me based upon a very narrow incarnation of the idea of the project. Basically there are no ’rules’ in my head about projects (although there may well be good ones and bad ones!) so the use of historical work, other sources and Mike Colchin’s advice and ideas are as legitimate as you want them to be. BUT – and it’s a big but, it actually strikes me that this idea is more akin to academic work or journalism than a photographic project. Which is entirely the opposite of what you seemed to be arguing above! Maybe you can take the academic out of the university, but you can’t take the university out of the academic?!

    Rob.

  4. tomwilkinsonphotography

    The first word that popped into my head when I woke this morning was ‘semiotics’. Strange, then, that I read Lucy’s comment on this! Also interesting is that semiotics is major critical theory in photography. Coincidence? Hmm.. I’m not sure I believe in them!

    For what it’s worth Michael, I completely understand your need to think of your work outside of the ‘project’ label. Indeed, projects (in the University cliche sense) are required to be structured, methodical, assessable, short-term. And I will defend this as a very important and valid way of doing things partly because I’m in the middle of this process myself, and partly because I think its necessary to some extent.

    In the academic environment (not that I have to tell you, or anyone really) there are constant deadline and timeframes that certain pieces of work need to be completed by to reach that final assessment and the end result- the sheet of paper that confirms you have had whatever subject and level conferred upon you. And that’s the end of the matter. Or is it? I don’t think so. What you have learned, practised, taught, doesn’t end at all, rather you take it with you, it informs you, and you adapt it. The formal assessment is just a necessary cut off point- we can’t all be perpetual students (try as I might!), and for some this is not the right path, but we have all gone through periods in our academic or professional lives where we are assessed in one way or another. For me, assessments can be by my tutors (at the high end) but also by peers and colleagues. A recent comment on one of my pictures on flickr
    ( http://www.flickr.com/photos/45148704@N00/9025172695/ ) shows a clear assessment which in turn prompted me to invest a little more time thinking about the meaning of that particular series. I think, in social media circles we are also constantly assessed, ‘liked’, ‘re-tweeted’, and ‘favourited’. Personally, the idea of a project helps me to focus my practice and thinking on one particular subject; to rein in those ideas and clarify them, and this needs to be assessed to let me know if it is working or not.

    I am torn here in agreeing with Mike Green and Lucy’s use of the meaning of words, but also in agreeing with Rob’s developmental project idea. Does the word actually matter? Yes it comes with connotations of assessment and schooling, but to me has such a broad meaning that it can encompass pretty much anything the artist wants it to. It simply identifies the body of work as pertaining to a particular area of enquiry; visual, thematic, conceptual. Your book idea is excellent, I really like the pace of it- slower, more considered ‘chunks’ of thought that develop over time. If Rob points out that your methods are more like academic work than a photographic project, I disagree on the distinction, for as he says himself, there are no rules about projects. Your academic stance is what makes your work unique and I think if you were to suppress this, we would just have a series of images of wind farms (or whatever evolves), without your insight and clear passion enriching them.

    Whether a project or a body of work or a book, what is important are the parameters we set, the meaning we convey and the opinions we share.

    1. Rob Hudson

      Hi Tom, that’s a very convincing response, except I’d like to add that photographs can say things, express feelings, emotions, view points, metaphors etc in a way that is different to any other form of expression. None of which precludes bringing other sources to the table of course, but I have to then ask if it’s such a mixed bag then why? Why not just write it all down, forget the photography? You see photographic expression holds a very important place in my heart, it’s something we photographers have barely started to explore. What can and can’t be said in a photograph might actually turn out to be the route of this discussion. I will of course suggest that we explore that before committing to other forms of expression, but then I’m a photographer, not an academic! 😉

  5. tomwilkinsonphotography

    Hi Rob, I can’t help but agree entirely! If we could say everything we wanted to say, convey profound levels of meaning and aesthetically astound with a photograph then surely that’s the ultimate prize? Very often what is left unsaid in a picture is what I take away from it. And it remains unsaid, and that’s very important.

    When I’m assessed for my work at Uni, the bottom line is the photos, if they don’t ‘work’ I haven’t succeeded, no matter how much waffle I produce to back them up! I’m taking it as read that Michael’s photos will speak for themselves, but for me, reading around subjects, discussions and research can often add to the whole experience. I am in no way denying the existence or value of photographic expression, simply interested in looking at what supplementary materials and thinking can add. Would we have the same level of appreciation of Cartier-Bresson’s ‘decisive moment’ if nobody had bothered critically assessing the way this functions in photography, and subsequently the use of composition as an expressive tool in European circles (though this came from painting, etc, but you know what I’m getting at!). http://bit.ly/10Uo5Ie

    But, yes, that is all historic and in the present it’s difficult to see what theories and movements may present themselves. I’m enamoured with photography for these reasons and am glad that for those who want it, there are endless discussions, interpretations and critical readings of photographs. We all enjoy a lively debate about art, what art is, and can be, and I think photography fits in with this nicely. It is important though that such things add value to the work.

    1. Michael Marten Post author

      Rob, Tom: I feel I’ve missed the boat a bit in replying here, just the way life has taken me away from having time to properly think these things through. However, I want to try and offer a couple of thoughts that may help to clarify this, though I’m not sure I can do the thoughtfulness that both of you have put in here the justice that it deserves.
      Firstly: I was explicitly talking about my own understandings, and I sought to explain how I understood ‘project’ and why I was reluctant to use that term. Quite aside from quotidian dictionary meanings, terms do, of course, have personal meanings that have their origins in personal contexts. I was trying to explain my personal context. I do not dispute that you, Rob, might feel differently about this term arising from your own experience – and that is why I was trying to develop it more closely here, to show how I understood it.
      Secondly: I agree that the photographs need to be photographs that work as photographs. I hope they will do that, and it is something I am trying to do. I thought this story (that James Dyas Davidson first brought to my attention) rather noteworthy – the lack of narrative in pretty images is something that I think all of us bemoan, just as each of us approach it differently. The comments on the photo you link to here, Tom, are remarkable for that.
      Thirdly: I do think, however, that whilst photographs need to be saying something, there are also things that they do not communicate, and text is one way of responding to that. Other forms of communication can complement our images. Rob, your Skirrid Hill images do that: photographic interpretations of poetry that is enriched by the photographs. The images alone do not communicate the poetry (for me, at least), but the two together work well, and I am seeking to do something similar here, albeit not with poetry. My texts are intended to communicate something that complements the photographs. I’ve already been told my photos make the wind turbines look too nice, so I’m clearly managing to communicate something, and that is quite different to me writing ‘wind turbines are nice’ – nobody would engage with that! The images elicited an emotional reaction, and that is what I want.
      Fourthly: combining these two elements (and more, such as video, as I showed you Rob, when I was visiting, and will be appearing soon) is part of what makes the whole. That I choose to describe this as a ‘book’ rather than a ‘project’ has, I think, taken on a significance beyond that which I originally wanted to give it. Truth is, I’m not that bothered what it is called, but for me it is more akin to a book, a project being just as Tom described it, a university-type of assessed task.
      I hope this helps a bit in resolving some of the issues you raise. I’ll look forward to continuing the debate as the next chapters appear…! 🙂

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