Because I’m the Managing Editor of Utata.org, I get a hefty chunk of photography-related email. Most of it has to do with photography exhibitions, or photography books, or questions about Utata photo projects. Relatively little of my email deals with my own views on photography. But a few days ago I got an email that included the following questions:
I guess what I’m asking is how do you develop a personal photography project? Do you just pick a thing and start taking picture of it? Do you make up rules or guidelines before you start? How do you start a photography project?
I started to write back and basically say ‘Dude, I don’t have a clue how to start a project.’ But that sounded pretty stupid. The more I thought about it, the more I realized I must have some vague notion of how to go about it. I mean, I’ve done a number of photo projects. They couldn’t have all happened by accident. Could they?
So over the last few days I’ve found myself sporadically thinking about projects. This is what I discovered: each of the three projects I’ve included on this site (I have other photo projects; I just haven’t published them here) began in a different way. And since I do not want to write another post about guns, I’ve decided to write something about each of those three projects.
I’m going to begin with the Traffic Signals series, because it’s the simplest. Well, that’s not true — the Larking About in Alleys series is actually the simplest. But Traffic Signals is the oldest of the three projects. And, of course, I just checked and found that Faux Life is older by a year. But fuck it, I’m going to talk about Traffic Signals anyway.
The project as it exists now actually began with a different project. The Utata Storytellers Project of 2009 required us to make up to six photographs in which we would relate a story. We were only allowed a maximum of 35 words per photo. I kicked around a number of ideas for the gig, but came across my final project idea rather by accident.
I was standing at a crosswalk with some other pedestrians. There was a buzzing sound coming from the traffic signal. That buzzing ceased (or at least reduced in volume) when the light changed and we were allowed to cross the street. It struck me as odd and more than a little funny. It was as if the traffic signal was also sending out audible cues.
So I concocted a little talein which a person believed he was being given messages through the traffic lights and pedestrian signals. It’s called After the Bombs Dropped. For the photographs, I used an app called Poladroid, which mimics Polaroid photography. I thought it added a more authentic feel to the story.
When the project was finished, I found I was still intrigued by traffic signals. I was fascinated by the fact that so many people — both drivers and pedestrians — obeyed them, even when there wasn’t any traffic on the streets. And yet even though they obeyed the signals, people never really looked at them. And they were everywhere. Everywhere.
So I kept photographing them. On the set in my flickr photostream, I continue to use the Poladroid app for the images. That aesthetic still appeals to me. But for my personal files (and here on this site) I use the app but dispense with the faux Polaroid border — primarily because the border looks goofy here. (It may look goofy on flickr as well, but hey — that’s flickr.)
I like to think the series is deceptively simple. As I said, traffic signals are everywhere. But while they’re ubiquitous, they’re not necessarily visually interesting. Most aren’t.
I’ve come to appreciate how difficult it is to photograph traffic signals in a way that creates a sense of drama. It’s not about documenting traffic signals; it’s about imparting a sense of tension within the frame.
I’m not always successful. But the challenge keeps me interested in the project. It also, I have to confess, annoys anybody I’m in a car with when I insist they either stop the vehicle or let me out and drive around the block until I get the photo.
It’s not quite an obsession, but it has an obsessive component to it. And happily the world is full of traffic signals, so it’s unlikely I’ll run out of material.