My research project development in Weeks 6 and 7 has mainly consisted of study rather than going out and shooting, which I’ve only managed once.
However, I have been able to sit down with some large-format photography books and study how a successful project is put together. Learning how a successful project works is important for me because I have almost no experience of it.
Among several I’ve looked at, the stand-out is Alec Soth’s Sleeping by the Mississippi. It is a wonderful body of work anyway, but what has become clear to me – apart from the need for impeccable production values – are these items:
- A strong idea. The Mississippi river is just that, providing a natural linking and flow to the images.
- Keep an open mind and be alert to possibility. It is clear from reading around that some of the many characters in Soth’s story are the result of chance encounters. But these were seen as opportunities and taken.
- Everyone meets as an equal. The portraits are the strongest feature of the work, for me. To a degree they are posed because with a large plate camera they have to be. But Soth is never less than on the level with his subjects. He shows them as they are, in all their uniqueness and humanity. There is no judgement. There is compassion in these portraits, in fact. This is very important.
- Find sub-themes and interests or allow them to emerge naturally. Beds are famously one for Soth, but when they are present in images they are treated with subtlety. They always signify something else – a beginning, an ending, a conception, a fall from grace, human presence, an absence, and so on. There are other themes in this story: mementos and graffiti, textures, Christian symbols, snapshots on a bedroom wall – all adding up to something more.
- Tap into myths and archetypes. Soth is fortunate, because America’s foundation myths are still so strong. The pioneer, the explorer, the homesteader – they are all here. So too are the preacher man, the outlaw and the narrowly ex-slave. The capstone image of the essay – Johnny Cash’s birthplace, a humble weatherboard cabin – is a story out of the lives of Washington or Thoreau. And overall there is in the insistent melancholy of another American myth: that America’s settlers came to an Eden, but their ungodly ways have turned it into a hell. Robert Adams in Los Angeles Spring uses the same approach.
So I am very glad to have got close to Sleeping by the Mississippi. This is the way I should be heading.
Two other essays I have much enjoyed are Hidden by Paul Seawright and Dust by Nadav Kander, both very different from Alec Soth. I looked at them mainly because of their treatment of colour – delicate (Kander) and bleached (Seawright). Finding a colour palette is something else I need to do. I liked a similar approach in both books – tiny humans, vast landscapes, vast events, but presented with very careful and sophisticated composition and framing. The result immediately puts a question mark over time and human significance. Kander’s collapsed concrete structures at former Soviet nuclear sites already look as old, and as irrelevant, as anything left by the Kings of Assyria two or three thousand years ago.
Setting Sun : Writings by Japanese Photographers has some very interesting ideas. This observation by the book’s editors is fascinating:
“The Japanese have a unique understanding of landscape. The term of ‘landscape’ in Japanese is fukei, which combines the notion of ‘flow’ or ‘wind’ (fu), and ‘view’ or ‘-scape’ (kei) – hence ‘flowing view’. Landscape is thus not considered static, but transient, ephemeral, never stopping.
“The flow of time is a vital part of this understanding: in the Japanese arts, time’s passage in nature, and the changing seasons, are central motifs. …
“Fukei photography is by no means restricted to natural subjects: it can be about cities, people and architecture. Whatever its subject, the fukei photograph is a paradox: a fixed view of something that is understood to be by definition in flux.” (p. 42)
Below are the books I’ve looked at and following are two contact sheets from my one project development walk in Weeks 6 and 7.
Earth. 2009. Prix Pictet. Kempen: TeNeues.
EVANS, Harold. 1997. Pictures on a Page : Photo-Journalism, Graphics and Picture Editing. Rev. London: Pimlico.
GRUYAERT, Harry. 2015. Harry Gruyaert. London: Thames & Hudson.
KANDER, Nadav and Will SELF. 2014. Nadav Kander : Dust. Dust. Ostfildern, Germany: Hatje Cantz.
SEAWRIGHT, Paul, Mark DURDEN and John STATHATOS. 2003. Hidden. London: Imperial War Museum.
SOTH, Alec and Hanya YANAGIHARA. 2019. I Know How Furiously Your Heart Is Beating. London: MACK.
SOTH, Alec, Patricia HAMPL and Anne TUCKER. 2017. Sleeping by the Mississippi. MACK. London: MACK.
TUCKER, Anne, Ivan VARTANIAN, Akihiro HATANAKA and Yutaka KANBAYASHI. 2005. Setting Sun : Writings by Japanese Photographers. New York : London: Aperture.