in which i give a critique disguised as discourse

Over the last couple of years I’ve been slowly banging away at a series of photos centering on traffic signals. A few months ago an acquaintance told me he liked the series and wanted to know if I’d object if he started a similar series.

How could I object? I don’t own traffic signals. So I told him to have at it. Recently he asked me to look at his series and give my thoughts. As a general rule, that’s my cue to run and hide and avoid that person for a few weeks. I tried to distract him with an amusing anecdote about an Irishman, a Jew and a Martian who walked into a bar, but he wasn’t having any of it. So I looked at the photos. I mean, how bad could it be?

Pretty fucking bad, is how bad. He’d jammed about 70 or 80 photos together, of which maybe half a dozen were good (in my opinion, which is a matter of taste, of course). But it wasn’t just a matter of good/bad photographs; he didn’t seem to understand that a series needs to work as a unit, not just as individual images. He didn’t know how to edit them so they worked together.

So I found myself thinking about what makes a series work, and here’s what I think: what makes a series work is its ability to communicate an idea or a mood. It’s not just a collection of photographs of the same thing–coffee cups, the dog, decaying houses, sports equipment, traffic signals. A successful series, I think, finds meaning in the subject, or brings meaning to the subject, or explores relationships between the subject and other stuff, or conveys a specific unifying mood. But it’s not just photos that feature the same thing.

And that’s where this guy failed, in my opinion. They were just random pictures of random traffic signals shot for no other reason than there was a traffic signal in the frame, then clumped together without any editorial thought. If this guy (who, I hope, will be reading this) would only decide why he’s shooting the photos of traffic signals, then cull the images that don’t fit with his intent, he’d have a good beginning for a series.

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2 thoughts on “in which i give a critique disguised as discourse

  1. I think in and to are the two most important words you wrote. So few people understand that a good essay awakens the viewer to meaning in/to the subject. Whether we add it, or the meaning is inherently there but unconsidered before.

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  2. You said it all – A series is not just a collection. When you begin to ask yourself why you’re shooting all those coffee cups or whatever and what you want to say about the coffee cup, then it can become a series.

    But it takes practice – especially the self-editing part. That’s the hardest bit of most creative processes.

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