It’s the third day of the new year and I’m still nursing a cold that really has me in the weeds. I know that it’s a virus and the weather has nothing to do with it, but I have to believe that dropping this Southern California boy into the sub-zero temperatures of New Hampshire for a week didn’t help matters. At the moment, Bruce Springsteen is singing about Rosalia in the background and I’m packing up print copies of Photography by the Letter for shipment. It’s only been available for a couple days and we’ve already sent copies to multiple cities in 17 states and 4 countries outside the US. I have a hard time even expressing how grateful I am for such a positive response. If you’ve listened to my podcast On Taking Pictures, you know how long I’ve been working on this and you’ve heard me talk about this project as more than just a book. While it is the largest solo “professional” project I’ve done to date, it’s also a document of sorts of nearly three years of some of the most dramatic personal changes in my adult life.
Here’s the thing — when I started the book, I wasn’t thinking about the potential scope of it at all. In fact, where it started is very different than where it ultimately ended up. The first outline was a simple bulleted list of twenty-six terms from A to Z and it was going to be a downloadable PDF than I would offer as a freebie to new subscribers of Iterations. That’s it. No photos, diagrams, tips, exercises, or interviews. I wasn’t even thinking about it as a physical book and even when I started to consider that as a potential option, I had no idea what it was going take to actually get it done. I ultimately did everything myself — the writing, the photography, and all of the design and layout — so every decision was on me, which I didn’t really think about at the time. If I had, I can’t really say that I would have attempted it. I was just enjoying doing the work and the more I enjoyed it — the “doing” — the more it kept growing and evolving (in software development, this is called “feature creep”).
Rarely are big projects borne from only a few key decisions. Instead, they come about as a result of making hundreds or even thousands of smaller choices that serve and shape the overall direction. For me, those choices began with one thing: the desire to do something new. As I mentioned previously, I wasn’t thinking about it in terms of a three-year project. Instead, I used a method some refer to as “chunking,” which allows you to wrap your head around either a large project or a project that hasn’t yet been clearly defined by setting up smaller, doable (sometimes called “actionable”) items. For Photography by the Letter, the scope began to change when I thought of new things to include (remember the term “feature creep”?). So as I began expanding the list of terms, I had to figure out a way to make it more visual, rather than merely a dictionary of photographic terms. While some of the terms worked as text only, I started to see others as photographs and still others as drawings or diagrams, which allowed me to build lists of tasks I could complete daily or weekly, without worrying about the scale of the entire project. As the scope of the project grew, I also found myself able to utilize a wider range of my skills to create a varied yet cohesive body of work.
I don’t know what the next year will hold in terms of creative output, and I’ve really just started to work through the postmortem on the project as a whole. While I don’t think I would do another project of this scale (at least not right away), I do know that this project is one I had to do myself once I started it. In the same way that I had to be the one who drove Adrianne and me across the country when I left California, which in many ways was a similar iterative process — the culmination of a hundred smaller choices, some of which I made and some of which were made for me. In both cases, the accomplishment is the evidence of the doing — and right now, it’s the doing that I am interested in the most.
How do you approach large or complicated projects?
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Photographer R.J. Kern made the transition from wedding photographer to fine art photographer by making portraits of sheep and goats inspired by the works of Rembrandt and John Singer Sargent. In 2017, he was a finalist for the Taylor Wessing Photographic Portrait Prize.
LensCulture recently posted a fascinating photo essay by Antonio Pulgarin called Fragments of Machismo: Confronting Latin American Masculinity. The project uses photographs and collage “to create conceptually focused works that tackle themes of cultural and sexual identity, memory, and displacement.”
Adrianne got me a copy of Avedon’s France for Christmas and I am absolutely loving it. If you are even a casual fan of Avedon’s work, you should have this in your library. Nearly 800 pages of essays, personal letters, photographs, and ephemera. And if you haven’t seen the film about Avedon, called Darkness and Light, you’re welcome.