Grouping our photographs together in a series of similar photographs is an inevitable part of being a serious photographer. Displaying these groups of photographs together as one distinct unit better illustrates our abilities and distinct personalities.
Yet the methods we use to put together our photographic series can be somewhat murky at times and lead to nothing more than a group of our best photographs with no overall story of meaning. This scattered approach can come to light during an exhibition or in a web gallery of our photographs. We might, for example, group our photos by overall theme, showing, let’s say, our best landscape photographs. But if this grouping emphasizes only the individual photographs, which happen to be of landscapes, it will be experienced as a diverse group of images having no overall theme or story. A sunset over a lake, a misty mountain, a rainforest waterfall, a textured stone outcrop, and a sunlit meadow may all be great photographs, yet together as a group they don’t tell a distinctive story.
Putting together cohesive photography projects better illustrates concepts that are unique to you and better harnesses and focuses your photographic energies. Yes, an individual photograph can have an impact, but a group of similar photographs can affect the viewer even more, allowing your photographic vision to reach a greater audience and tell a profound story. Further, a strong series of photographs allows us to have more successful print exhibitions of our work, as well as facilitating the publishing of books and zines.
Developing a photographic project, however, requires some planning and thought, which can at times be perceived as stifling the creative process. Being open to the world and creating photographs with an open mind is an important part of the creative process. Having a distinctive project in mind, therefore, should serve not to stifle your creative process but only to guide you in a distinct direction. Being guided in a specific direction does not stifle creativity but only moulds it uniquely, helping you to make exceptional photographs. Working toward completing a photographic project serves to help you explore subject matter more deeply and to find creative and new ways to see subjects. The theme needs to be something you as an individual are absolutely passionate about because successfully completion requires time and many photographs.
Let’s start with our passions. We all know what our favourite photographic subjects are, the things we get excited about. Perhaps on the landscape side it is waterfalls or forests. On the urban side it could be architectural buildings or the contrast of street shadows and bright light. A good starting point is to look through your photographs and find similar subjects you have photographed over the years. Perhaps as a wildlife photographer you have successfully photographed a specific bird species well. Or have you photographed a park or urban area extensively, showing its unique character? Maybe you have a group of black and white photographs of ferns. As a portrait photographer, you might have good pictures of people uniquely lit in similar outdoor settings. Finding similarities in past photographs is a good way to understand who you are as a photographer, your strengths and weaknesses, and the subjects you are attracted too. It is an important process to assess your past work because doing so can help you find a stronger road for future endeavours.
Another way to stimulate photographic project ideas is looking to your non-photographic hobbies. For example, you may golf, do wood work, volunteer at an animal shelter, or do some other hobby or activity that you know well. This intimate knowledge of a subject can lead to insights and a unique photo series. Having a personal knowledge of a hobby or being a participant in a particular activity can also give you special access, allowing you to make pictures that other individuals can’t easily obtain.
Subjects that resonate with you as social issues can also lead to interesting projects. As Mark Power, a member of the international photographic cooperative Magnum Photos, once told me, “Photograph what angers you.” The thought behind this advice is to tap into your emotions as potential project motivators. Emotions can create powerful projects. Is there a local environmental issue that you feel strongly about? Or perhaps a social issue, such as homeless people on urban streets, stirs your emotions. All these issues that make you angry are good sources for developing a successful and unique project. The key is finding a subject that resonates strongly with you and one that you can stick with for an extended time.
The creation of projects is also related to telling stories with your photographs. A series can emphasize something as simple as a weekend trip—showing the phases of packing, driving, and experiencing a new space—or it could involve documenting a bigger, month-long holiday. Explaining an event through photographs is also a way to create a strong series of photographs. Seeing things in your own way, directly and simply, is a good foundation for creating unique focused work.
Without having tangible ideas, thoughts, feelings, and something almost “literary“ to contribute to “the discussion,“ today‘s photographer will become lost in the sea of mediocrity. – David Alan Harvey (Magnum Photos 2008, 3)
After you determine a potential project or series of photographs, the work begins. The photographer needs not only to take the pictures but also to conduct a thought and planning stage. Personally, I like to begin with a focus, a sharpening of the series characteristics. Writing a brief two-sentence “artistic statement” is an important part of the process because taking the time to formulate the project in words helps you better understand what it is about. Limiting yourself to just one or two sentences really forces you to narrow down and express exactly the true meaning of the project. Here are some questions to ask. Why did I photograph this subject, and why am I using this approach? The why questions are the most important, followed by the how questions, which pinpoint the techniques needed to accomplish the project.
Once the short artistic statement has been generated, I write out a shoot list of the photographs needed to tell the story. The shoot list is just a basic guideline and is not a constraint because things will change as new subjects come to light. I like to have some written ideas about the photographs I’ll need in order to point me in new directions. The ultimate result will always be different from the list generated at the start of the process, as the shooting phase must always be open to all subjects and possibilities. A third aspect of this development and planning stage is considering the end goal of the project. How do I want to market or package the series? Am I doing a magazine article, a full-blown exhibition, or potentially even a book? Each of these end games requires different numbers and types of photographs, so it is good to understand how this series will be shared in order to determine the time required. Sharing the work is an essential part of the process to me because I make photographs to share and show others what is uniquely interesting to me.
Stick to one project for a long time. And keep working on it through many stages of learning, even if it might feel finished. It’s the only way to break through what I think are some vital lessons that need to be learnt about story-telling and how to combine images.” – Mikhael Subotzky (Magnum Photos 2008, 7)
When is a project complete? This end period can be determined only by you, the creator, as the time given to a series or project is decided by your degree of continued interest or by when things reach a perceived finishing point. Projects can last a weekend, a month, or even years for more complex undertakings. Photography projects can ebb and flow at times, You might put a project down, knowing it is incomplete (or even thinking it’s finished), only to have it reignite at some future date when the urge returns. It is not uncommon for me to return to an unfinished project after months or years and either complete it or merge it into some new idea.
What does a completed project look like? In my own system of organization, it needs a strong number (minimum 10 photographs) to tell the story. Numbers range from 10 to 200 for larger book projects, but the key element is a tight edit of images, showing the very best work and the work most important to accomplishing the artistic statement. Large projects require a vast amount of photography in order to achieve a large number of exceptional, meaningful photographs. Tight editing cannot be stressed enough—the project must reflect your professionalism.
As a general guide I would guess that for a seven-picture essay I would shoot 20 to 30 cassettes of 36-exposure 35mm film. A single, exhibition-quality image probably occurs every, say, 100 films. For what it is worth. – David Hurn (1997, 61)
A completed project should have each individual photograph titled and captioned, as potential buyers need a small story behind each picture’s creation. I also believe it is important to print all the final images in a project, whether as simple 8.5 x 11 inch prints for reference or as larger, exhibition-sized prints (11 x 17 inches and upwards). To me, a photograph is not complete until it is printed. I need a tangible print that can be held in my hands and physically shown to others because this fully commits to the final product. I will also put together a printed contact sheet of all the photographs in a completed project in a specific, storytelling order. This gives me a document showing the order I have chosen and is a reference point for marketing or exhibiting. I also keep numerous digital files of each photograph in hi-res TIF, JPEG, and digital print sizes for future use and marketing.
Great work is always the result of great labour – Garry Winogrand (Dyer 2018)
The end game involves getting the work out for others to see, and this is where your individual marketing comes into play. Publishers, galleries, social media outlets are all fair game. And this marketing aspect is far too complicated to discuss in the project creation chapter. Upon the completion of a project and marketing it, you must tackle another important task, putting the project down and moving on to the next series, as there needs to be an end point and a move to something new and exciting.
Spending the time to work on and create a series of photographs gives the photographer a unique body of work that represents his or her true passions. It creates a better likelihood for recognition because, as a group, a series of photographs gives a photographer a stronger voice. It also creates more marketing options in that a series can be used in a potential book and or for print exhibition. Further, a series of photographs is a portfolio and a calling card for any photographer who wants to get work to the public. It is also a way to get a social issue in the limelight. The key element that drives success is that you are passionate about the project because this passion needs to carry you through the time commitments and over the potential roadblocks, allowing you to create something truly unique.
Creative Notes: The Process in Practice
The following series of photographs is from an extended four-year project that I called “The Bay Street Series.” In early 2016, I felt a strong need to explore photographically a 15-block area in Toronto, known as the Financial District. I wanted to better understand the environment to which 250,000 commuted each workday, the place where people worked and lived during a good part of their wakeful hours. And I wanted to position this space within its unique Canadian context. In particular, I wanted to understand the people who worked in this district, the characteristics of our society reflected in this influx of working people, and the nature of Canada’s largest financial epicentre. In total the project has 90 photographs.
Reproduced below are a few of those photographs, as well as an outline of the process I followed to complete the series. Photographs included Union Station and the rush on the street, building interiors, courtyards, candid portraits, street life, images of businessmen and women and support staff, and the commute home.
Write a brief artistic statement.
Here was my artistic statement for the “Bay Street” project.
To understand the importance and distinct nature of Canada’s highly concentrated financial district and the people that commute in and out of the district daily.
Write an initial shoot list of what is needed to tell the story, and take the pictures (lots of them!).
- Commute to Work. Train/Union Station Rush/Rush on the street
- Building Interiors. Hallways/Inside Foyers/ People interacting inside
- Outside Courtyards. People on breaks/Daily life/Eating/ Sleeping/On Phones/Outside
- Street Life Candid Portraits
- Street Life Overall. Intersections/Street people/transit stops/groups of people interacting and walking
- Street Abstracts. Couriers/ Billboards/ Feet/ Stylish dress/ Variety of odd things seen on the streets
- Support Staff. Construction workers/Cleaners/Drivers/ variety of people who keep the business district operating
- Commute Home. Rush down to Union/ Shadows in low light/ Empty streets/ Union Station train waiting.
Decide when the project is complete and what the completed project should look like.
Had I told the story completely? An important element was capturing all of the day: the rush to work, the poses of the workers themselves, the breaks outside, and the start of the trip back home, away from the financial district. So the order of the photographs was significant—and that order is similar to the day’s commute.
Only you the photographer know and feel when a project is complete. Your interest and enthusiasm for the project has waned and you begin to feel that you are making too many similar photographs. Each project is different and unique.
A few examples from my Bay Street Series:
Editor’s note: See more images from Randall’s Bay Street Series in the article, “Constructive Criticism and Being Humble.”