I’m completely comfortable writing about photography in most circumstances. I’m less comfortable when I’m writing about — I started to say my photography, but that sounds so pretentious. I’m less comfortable writing about the photographs I shoot. But about a month ago I received an email asking me 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 nattered on about my approach to the Faux Life series and the Traffic Signal series. But it occurs to me that I haven’t really addressed the actual questions. Since I promised I’d write about each of the three photo series I’ve included on this site, I thought maybe I could use this third piece to at least attempt some answers.
Do you just pick a thing and start taking picture of it? Yes. Well, no. Sometimes.
With the Faux Life series I knew what I wanted before I shot the first photograph — but that’s a conceptual series. I had to develop the concept before I could shoot the series. So in that case, yes I picked a thing and started taking photos of it. The Traffic Signal series grew out of a different project — one that focused more on writing than on photography. It wasn’t until I’d shot some photos of traffic signals that I actually became interested in them as a distinct theme. So no, I didn’t just pick a thing and start taking photographs of it. I hadn’t even considered it as a thing until after I’d taken several photos in which traffic signals were featured.
With the Larking about in Alleys series I was doing just that. Larking about in alleys and shooting photos of stuff I saw there. I’d no idea of making it into a coherent series until a friend of mine (the delightful Beckett Gladney) suggested it.
Do you make up rules or guidelines before you start? Yes. Well, no. Sometimes.
Since the Faux Life series was conceptual, I obviously had to come up with some basic rules before I began shooting. 1) Rephotograph moments from the Buffy the Vampire Slayer (or Angel) television series, 2) shoot them in black-and-white, 3) post-process the images to shift the focus or make them more dramatic, 4) find an appropriate (or an inappropriate) line from a Jane Austen novel, 5) insure that both the image and the text combine to create something not found in either original.
Those were the ‘rules.’ But I discovered I had to be flexible within the confines of those rules. For example, I’d originally intended to rephotograph action sequences — chase scenes or fights. But they turned out to be surprisingly uninteresting. I learned that the more quiet and nuanced scene carried more emotional impact.
The Traffic Signals series was significantly easier because it had significantly fewer rules. Just the one, really: photograph a traffic signal in such a way that it provides an unexpected perspective of such a commonplace device. Simple.
On the other hand, Larking about in Alleys turned out to be surprisingly more difficult. Initially, I was truly just larking about — wandering idly through alleyways to see what I could see, and doing it for the simple reason that I enjoy seeing stuff not really intended to be seen. But once I began the series, I needed it to be cohesive and coherent. It had to require more than simply being IN an alley and shooting a photograph. The photo had to have (and yes, I realize how loopy this sounds) a certain alley quality. It had to have alleyness.
And that meant I had to think about alleys. Alleys in American cities are basically utilitarian. They’re working spaces rather than commercial spaces. They tend to be cosmetically ignored; nobody really cares how an alley looks. They tend to be narrow and confined, though they often open up unexpectedly into a wider space (as seen below). Alleys aren’t usually built for traffic — not in the sense of the efficient transport, by foot or vehicle, of goods or people from one place to another. For the most part, alleys aren’t intended to be thru-ways; they’re a temporary destination — a place to load and unload. Although they’re usually open to the public, the public isn’t expected to use them. The public most certainly isn’t expected to lark about in them.
Once I’d developed a sense of alleyness, I began trying to shoot photos that would suggest those alley qualities. It’s not as easy as you’d think.
But that’s it. That’s how I develop a photography project. Which is to say, that none of the three series on this website developed in the same way. I realize that’s not a particularly helpful answer to the questions. But hey, I’m a writer, not a photographer.
I don’t think it’s terribly difficult to start a photography project. I suspect it can be difficult to do something original, or to do it in an original way. And I have absolutely no help to offer about that.
Oh, and about the title of this piece? It’s my understanding (and many thanks to Sonya Butler) that Faire l’idiot dans les Ruelles is French for Larking about in Alleys. It sounds so much more amusing in French.