Thoughts on the Project Windmill
This article was originally published in June 2013.
Ask any photographer what they’re working on, and they’re sure to tell you about their project. It’s almost as if these days photographers don’t take pictures any longer, they take projects. This being the internet, it would be tempting to simply find someone to blame. Pretend you’re raising a question, and you’d be ready to go: “Have art schools (alternatively: galleries, bloggers, photographers, photobooks, everybody’s grandmothers, whoever else you can think of) killed photography by insisting on projects?” But it’s easy to see how little would be gained from that approach. Instead, it might be worthwhile to try to probe a little deeper.
I started thinking about single photographs—as opposed to photo projects – when I was walking around with my Fuji Instax camera while teaching photography earlier this month. There I was, talking mostly about projects, even asking photographers what kind of project they’d like to work on; and at the same time, I was looking for photographs that had nothing to do with a project.
Teaching (the non-technical aspects of) photography is hard. How do you teach someone to express themselves in a creative way? Without going too much into the details of how I believe this can be done, it’s almost too obvious to point out that starting from something that is not a photo can be—and usually is—a wonderful set of training wheels: “What are you interested in?” That which a student might be interested in can then, often with all kinds of modifications and usually with all kinds of clarifications, turned into a project.
It’s important to keep in mind what ‘project’ here can mean: A project can literally be anything, whether it’s an artful almost reportage on a community of like-minded people in some very specific location, or a set of photographs that were created under similar conditions and that reflect the photographer’s mindset reacting to those conditions. I noticed that when talking about projects many people love to assume that a project always is something that is very obvious, very clear. But often, it isn’t. A typology of portable toilets in all likelihood is. But many projects are only clear in the sense that when you see them you feel that all these photographs belong together and convey something that feels whole. People love talking about art schools as focusing on the former, whereas in reality that’s absolutely not the case.
Add to that the fact that we have become very literate in terms of what photographs can do, how they can work. Put two photographs next to each other, and we start finding something else, “the third photograph,” to use a phrase by Michael Schmidt. This is where photography gets especially juicy: a project with, say, 20 photographs in reality often has many more images in it. It’s just that most of them are invisible. They’re created in the viewers’ minds, from the skeleton provided by the 20 pictures. This often (always?) is where things get really interesting. And it is here where we can witness the strength of the contemporary photobook.
The project ‘problem’ thus changes once you consider the various nuances that are involved. But there is more still. As it turns out, there are quite a few photographers who essentially produce single, individual images. Those photographs might exist in some sort of project (or photobook), but they are only loosely connected to each other. Loosely, but not so loosely that there isn’t something that holds them together. At the very least, there always is something that holds photographs together: the photographer. Of course, if you cast your net very wide, every photo lives in a project. I wouldn’t want to necessarily go into that direction, but it’s important to keep this in mind.
And even if none of this convinced you, if you are the photographer who only produces single photographs that have nothing to do with each other—isolated little beauties—why wouldn’t have you a place in this world? Why or how would what the rest of the world does affect you? I have a funny feeling that the answer might come across the lines of: “I will not be as accepted because I am supposed to do projects.” Which is simply not true. As convenient as the idea of the art world being dominated by a small cabal of people might be, a cabal that dictates what is allowed and what is not allowed, the reality is that that cabal does not exist. If you’re a single-photo photographer, it might be time to stop fighting the ‘project’ windmill
About Jörg Colberg
Colberg is the founder and editor of the Conscientous blog, which led him to be included in American Photo’s list of ‘Photography Innovators of 2006’. This article was first published on Conscientous Extended (www.jmcolberg.com/weblog/extended), where he publishes longer articles and interviews.