Pictures Make Pictures

A blog post about making photographs with no photographs.

One of the classic problems for students studying photography is figuring out what to photograph. They are, after all, learning a whole new language. We wouldn't expect eloquence when first learning a new language, but somehow students think they need to be good in photography right out of the gate. After all, a photograph made by a novice can look very much like one made by an expert.

Most semesters in the study of photography end with a final project, and usually a thesis is required at the end of a student's major in college. The topic is self-defined and there was always a period of doubt, perhaps a few trials and then some re-evaluation and re-definition before arriving at the subject, the content of the project.

I liken the process for students to being "armchair invention". Sit in your armchair usually the night before you have to tell your teacher what you're going to do (I made them write out a proposal so we could discuss it), think up an idea, then share it with  your teacher in class. Often there were no pictures to go along with the idea. Then, meeting with me 1:1 we would flush out the concept, perhaps talk about the logistics, location, lighting, model releases and, oh yes, whether or not they had my approval to go ahead. The idea versus the reality was that they were most often very far apart. It wasn't unusual for me to let them fall into the trap of envisioning something truly grand and magnificent that there was no way they could realize. I tried to give them enough time to fail, pick up the pieces and re-approach their topic, humbled but now knowing why it had  gone so badly the first time. This fell into the understanding that look,  you're not going to compose a symphony in three weeks, so let's scale this back to something you can actually accomplish.

In all this, in the ongoing conversation of trying to help them arrive at a good project that used their new found skills, investigated multiple themes and had a point of view, I would often say, "Pictures Make Pictures". This addressed their inevitable "writer's block", the characteristic of being frozen and not photographing because they didn't know what to photograph. Pictures makes pictures simply means activity (in this case shooting) is always better than inactivity (not shooting). I would urge them to take the final project out of the question, not be driven by the 15 or so final prints they needed for the grade in the class but to go out with camera in hand and make pictures, to hell with the outcome.  Another way to deal with this is to ask, "when was the last time you went out to photograph and you didn't become interested in what you were photographing?" If nothing else, you would be better informed about what not to do than before you went shooting. If I could just motivate them to get in the car, on the bus, on the subway, walk around the block with their camera I could practically guarantee the beginnings of a project would rear its head, an idea would occur, a photograph would show them something, lead them to another and another and so on. Photographs make photographs, pictures make pictures. 

I wonder if there is something of value here for you, those of you that are reading this that are practitioners of photography. Cramped up? Feeling the malaise of the short days and the cold temperatures? Everything look ugly and surrounded by trash? Call yourself a photographer? Go photograph. Seeking inspiration, motivation to go back out again with a camera? Worry less, think less and do more. Count on past experience to lead you to new ideas and perhaps new projects or ways of photographing, new ways of seeing, new insights.

Pictures make pictures.

Topics: Commentary

Permalink | Posted December 20, 2018