How you present your work may be almost as important as what work you present. It’s the art of sequencing or arranging. And it is an art, which involves specific techniques that can be learned. What are some of the guiding principles involved? Here are a few.
Sequence matters. Start strong. Finish strong. Make getting there interesting. Whether it’s a symphony, a novel, or an exhibit. It’s good advice for arranging any creative product. To sequence a project, you can use the metaphor of building a fence. The strongest pieces can be thought of as posts. The less strong pieces can be thought of as rails. You want to start and end with very strongest pieces to create a strong structure. You want to periodically reinforce runs of less strong units with one or more stronger units. You don’t want long runs of rails without posts or the structure may fail. A fence made only of posts becomes something else entirely, a wall with no variation or grace. The number of strong pieces you include determines how long a fence will be, though the number of other images you include may modify length somewhat.
Remember the golden rules of marketing; primacy (the first thing you see), recency (the last thing you see ), and frequency (the number of times you see the same or similar things). Frequency is rated first. Primacy is rated second. Recency is rated third. They’re all important. It’s all about effective memorable communication. So, the most important thing is to have a consistent body of work (frequency). The next most important thing is to start with your strongest work (primacy). The next most important thing is to finish strong (recency).
You can use classic story telling devices (like structure, proximity, pace, length, etc) to strengthen any image presentation and bring to light subtext in and connections between images that give work added depth and dimension.
In short, arranging matters.
January 10, 2014 | Leave a Comment
Do you want more time for your creative life? (Or anything in your life … reading, music, yoga, meditation … ) Steal the time. Get up early and pay yourself first. Instead of thinking in big lots, think in little chunks. (Don’t think of these little chunks as substitutes for big lots of time; instead think of them as meaningful additions.
Look at how the minutes add up.
Day Week Month Year Hrs Work Weeks
5 35 150 1825 30 1
10 70 300 3650 61 1.5
15 105 450 5,475 91 2
20 140 600 7,300 122 3
30 210 900 10,950 183 4.5
60 420 1800 21,900 365 9.5
Right now you’re probably making excuses. Here are the most common excuses. Sound familiar? I made them for decades.
“The time I can make isn’t at my peak performance time.”
“The first few minutes are spent preparing workspace and materials.”
“The first few minutes are spent getting into a mindset.”
“There are days when I’m away from my workspace and materials.”
Do everything you can to eliminate these barriers. You’re resourceful.
Then, stop making excuses and just do it – consistently.
Your time will add up and you’ll see real results.
If you don’t start, you’ll be left with excuses.
Go for it!
Every voyage I’ve made to Antarctica has revealed new dimensions in the subject – weather, light, seasonal changes, annual variations, and my growing understanding of the region have all contributed to this.
With so many wonderful places to go, why would you return to the same location more than once?
Let me count the ways.
1 You’ll see more of and learn more about a place.
Increase your understanding of the places you photograph and your photographs will become more interesting.
2 You’ll have an opportunity to get the images you missed.
Try making a short list of the shots you missed when you shoot. Even if you never return this activity will prompt you to be clearer about why you missed the shots and you can take steps towards remedying this in the future. If you do return, you’ll have the beginnings of a working plan that will greatly increase your productivity and success rate.
3 You’ll have an opportunity to refine the images you made.
You may have made images that barely made the cut but would shine if they were reframed or made with different equipment or in different conditions. For this reason I recommend you review not only the images that worked on your previous trip(s) but also the ones that didn’t asking yourself why they didn’t and what you could do differently.
4 You’ll see new things as your vision matures.
Having first found the images that come to you more naturally, you’ll later find yourself challenged to look for other kinds of images, which will stimulate your creativity and increase your visual versatility.
5 You’ll see changes in the place.
Time reveals. Weather, time of day, seasons, and the accumulation of years change a place. They change us too. These changes can become a wellspring for many images.
6 You’ll learn more about yourself.
While it’s true that you can learn more about yourself when you experience new things, it’s equally true that you’ll learn more about yourself when you re-experience them. You’ll find that your relationship with a location will change over time, as you experience more and mature. You’ll see not only how a place has changed but also how you’ve changed – and how the place has contributed to your growth. These types of insights are harder to achieve in new locations. Because the perspective with which you look at thing is different, the types of things you learn are different.
7 You’ll get to spend more time in your favorite places.
Just as you can’t go everywhere, you can’t return to every place. Return to the places that call you. Passion kindles the fires within, which will be visible in your images. Passion energizes and recharges us. A large part of the reason we do the things we do is because we enjoy them.
Unfamiliar locations challenge you to see new things in new ways, familiar locations challenge you to see the same things in new ways.
Just because we see new things doesn’t mean we will see in new ways, in fact the times when we are grappling with so many new variables are often the times when we fall back on our habits. When we see the same things again we are forced to see in new ways and/or deepen the ways we see them.
Even with a lifetime of adventuring, you can’t see it all. Your question is do you want to see a lot or do you want to see deeply? You’ll want to strike a balance between the two, surveying the many opportunities before you and choosing to return to one or a few of the places that call you the most. Exactly what balance you strike at any given moment is up to you.
Most images can be compared to a stage. There’s an environment, a central character (often with a secondary character), an action performed, a prop (or two or three or four, maybe more), and light. Props are thought of as so secondary that we often overlook them and their contributions to great dramas. At a minimum, props make an environment richer and more interesting. Sometimes props do more, providing a catalyst for action or a stimulus for interaction.
Try using props in your images to stimulate many creative ideas.
When it comes to props, you’ve got options. Props can be single or multiple, repeated or varied, found or purchased either on site or offsite, old or new, manufactured, handmade, or natural … just keep going. The possibilities are seemingly limitless. Almost anything can be a prop.
Finding the limits of what makes a prop may be one of the most insightful things you’ll learn during your explorations.
There are some fine lines to explore when using props.
Props can make or break images. The right prop animates an image making it stronger. The wrong prop confuses and disrupts an image’s integrity. Appropriate really isn’t an appropriate word to use when selecting a prop. Sometimes an inappropriate or absurd addition is what adds meaningful ambiguity, tension, or complexity. Useful is better word to use. When choosing a prop, ask yourself. “Does it contribute and reinforce or does it distract and detract from a statement?”
The story and character props bring with them can add interest and energy to almost any image. Props can turn ordinary images into extraordinary one. Props can also clutter or overload picture perfect pictures. There is much to be gained by exploring the differences between placing props in already strong compositions and deliberately weakening the graphic impact of a composition, making it perfectly imperfect, to emphasize the storied quality a prop contributes.
Using props raises a lot of questions. In fact it may be the questions props raise that makes them so full of potential and possibilities.
Is an object a prop if you find it rather than select it? Props are usually deliberately chosen rather than incidentally found (except in existential dramas or French films) because rather than dumbly filling space they comment, whether directly or obliquely, on the place, person, or events at hand. Props are relevant.
Is it a prop if you don’t move it? There’s an interesting distinction to be drawn between photographing found objects that haven’t been moved and those that have. Whether the distance is long or short, if you transport an object to a new location it becomes a prop.
Does repetition of the same prop change its function or status as a prop? If a repeated prop is not placed in context carefully it can become the central subject. Used strategically repeated props can provide continuity between two or more images. Firearms are not the only smoking guns found in mysteries.
Is it a prop if it’s the central subject? An object photographed with a minimal background is a study. A found set of objects is a still life, though many still lifes are selected, moved, and constructed.
At what point does an object become a prop? It’s useful to remember that, rather than stealing the show, props prop something else up. Props are supporting actors in a larger drama. Props are used for accent, counterpoint, and interaction but they are rarely the central focus, at least not the sole focus. Admittedly, the line drawn between a prop (a secondary element) and a subject (a primary element) can be very fine, at time almost indistinguishable.
There may be no definitive conclusions to these questions, save the images you make.
What is undeniable is that each move you make has consequences,
You’ll learn a lot by looking at how other people use props in their images. Here are a few examples of great uses of props in photography.
Joyce Tenneson often asks the subjects she makes portraits of to hold objects that contribute something elusively poetic to the picture.
Horst Wackerbarth has made a career of transporting a red couch around the world and photographing it in all manner of locations.
Sean Duggan’s series Artifacts Of An Uncertain Origin, places man-made objects in an unlikely way into natural scenes as if by magic.
Albert Lamorisse’s movie The Red Balloon, which was later adapted as a book of stills, takes its title from a prop that becomes more than a prop or a central character in the drama.
Keep looking for other good examples and you’ll find there’s more to learn everyday.
With just a little more thought, you can go even further. Physicist Richard Feynman championed the thought experiment. Just imagine what you can do with props.
If William Shakespeare is right and “all the world’s a stage … “ then how you accessorize your images, and perhaps even your life, with props, will speak volumes.
Here’s a selection of my iPhone experiments with props.
Illumination I, 2000
Titles have always been challenging for me. While I always use a working title for a developing series, often, I don’t know what to title the works until I truly understand them – and that can be long after they’ve been created. Sometimes I change the titles of a few of my images after I’ve released them.
Most of my images, being a combination of at least two images from different times and places, don’t fit the typical place date format. To date, I’ve only used this type of title for one series, Antarctica, because I want that work to be seen as more editorial in nature.
Because I want to leave plenty of room for the viewer, I avoid titles that impose a single interpretation on a work of art – Exhibit A : Evidence Of My Failed Relationships. I also don’t want a title to make up for what’s not already strongly felt in an image – Unimaginable Grace.
Initially, I grouped work according to the dominant natural element in it, using a set of six series, interlocking because many images can fit into more than one series, under one larger title – Elemental: Dreaming In Stone; Waterway; Fire Within; Aerial Boundaries; Songs From Wood; and Animalia.
Later, I came to understand there was a further reason I didn’t use standard place/date titles. I want my images to be seen not as records of things (a materialistic viewpoint) but as traces of processes (a wholistic viewpoint).
I’d like to use an active verb for my titles, but the image isn’t the active process itself, it’s some thing made from observing processes. So instead of the word Illuminating, I use the word Illumination.
I use a number to indicate the order of creation in a series.
The date attributed is the date of release, not the date of exposure.
Neko Harbor, Antarctica, 2007
(Watch how focus and content shifts when these alternate titles are used – Freezing Point, Glacial Retreat, Blue, Constellation.)
When in doubt, when selecting titles for your images keep them simple and neutral. Less is more, more or less.
Good titles complement works by giving viewers more relevant information that makes their experience richer, indicating it’s creator’s relationship towards a subject and medium and audience, suggesting but not limiting attention to dimensions of a work that might otherwise remain overlooked, all the while leaving room for viewer’s extended interpretation.
Bad titles dominate or subvert works by attempting to make up for what’s missing, focus attention on one aspect of work and deflect attention from others, add heavy-handed interpretation leaving less room for viewer participation, or tell viewers rather than show them.
To avoid bad titles, rather than becoming a master of language, keep it simple. While there are notable examples where this maxim has been defied with success – singer/songwriter Fiona Apple titled one of her albums with a complete poem containing over four hundred characters causing a buzz-worthy stir which reinforced her reputation for being both poetic and eccentric – at a minimum it takes a significant flair for style or even genius to pull a stunt like this off.
You might be tempted to keep it really simple. Remember, Untitled is still a title. It’s the most neutral to the point of being non-descript and almost uninformative. Sometimes it works – well. Many times, it’s not enough. But eliminating it altogether and simply stating the medium used is almost always never enough.
In a majority of cases, just a little more will do just fine. The classic convention for titling an image is to identify the subject (name the person, place or thing) and add the date of creation: if it’s a photograph use the date of exposure; if it’s a painting use the date of completion; if it’s a composite photograph default to the latter; if it’s an image of an historic event add the date of the event in the first part of the title and add the date of completion of the image.
It’s the times when this convention doesn’t fit that more creativity is warranted.
Use this list as a springboard for exploring your options.
1 List the subject and date, Neko Harbor, Antarctica, 2007 for instance.
2 State a relationship to the subject, yours or someone else’s; i.e. My Mother or Her Home.
3 Use a general category for the subject rather than an individual one, such as Slave or Statistic.
4 Name a formal element in the work – number, shape, color, size, etc.
5 Refer to another medium, such as poetic or musical form.
6 Loosely interpret the subject subjectively; similes and metaphors often work well here, such as Smells Like Teen Spirit.
7 Use a technical term, related to either the subject or the creation of the work, in a way that furthers more inquiry, Ascent or Descent for example.
8 State what the subject is not – Is Not Untitled.
9 Create a contradiction – think of Magritte’s famous painting of a pipe entitled This Is Not A Pipe.
You’ll no doubt find ways to expand this list.
It’s interesting to note that when you keep it simple and conventional, specificity works in your favor, yet the more creative and unconventional you get the more ambiguity, sometimes coupled with a dose of irony or contradiction, works in your favor
You may hit upon one ingenious title. If you should be so lucky quickly ask yourself, “Can you repeat it?” One genius title amid a cluster of duds will stand out like a sore thumb. Bodies of work beg some consistency. That said, you may find that varying your titling conventions between different projects is an effective way to further differentiate them.
Consider creating a standard for your titles, after giving considerable thought to both its short and long-term effects on the way audiences will respond to you work. There are many benefits to creating a consistent practice, including the creation and fulfillment of expectations and the reduction of the time and energy you put into resolving new terms. This will also call more attention to the times when you deviate from your standards, which can be advantageous if used strategically.
Like your art, titles are all about communication. Titles become a part of your art. Make sure your titles make a contribution to effectively communicating what you want to communicate. It’s worth the time you invest to put some thought into how you title your work.
How do you title your work?
The image highlighted is an outlier. While the rest of the images are shot aerially looking down, it’s shot at ground level looking up. It won’t fit with the rest of the images until more images like it are completed to balance the set within the set.
Outliers. They’re the images that don’t fit neatly in a body of work. Outliers test the code of a style or body of work.
Widely divergent outliers, if they’re good but not great, often indicate a failure to move beyond conventional to more personal ways of seeing. If they’re great, they may represent a valuable new area for discovery or even a breakthrough.
Moderately divergent outliers may be just what you need to advance a body of work by providing one or more valuable variations on a theme, adding new energy and content into the mix. This is particularly true if just one thing is changed from the characteristics of the larger set (angle of view, range, duration, etc), as what changes calls attention to itself and questions are asked about how this change expands our understanding of the subject or artist’s intent.
If outliers are included for the wrong reasons (like you can’t put the image aside for now or find another context for it), they often disrupt the tone and continuity of a collection of images. This weakens the overall effect. This is the jack-of-all-trades master of none syndrome.
If outliers are included for the right reasons (they display a different but related theme or way of seeing the same subject and provide new avenues for going deeper with your subject and your relationship to it), they strengthen both other specific images within a set and the group as a whole as well.
On occasion one (rarely more) outlier can work within a body of work, when presented as a prelude (before), turning point (middle) or after thought (end), to suggest other as yet not fully resolved dimensions within a body of work. Use this strategy carefully, as outliers draw a lot of attention to themselves.
Pay attention to outliers. They’re your worst enemies. They’re your best friends.
“Creativity is not a talent. It is a way of operating.” – John Cleese
Among the many gems John Cleese shares, he outlines “The 5 factors that you can arrange to make your lives more creative.”
1 – Space
“You can’t become playful, and therefore creative, if you’re under your usual pressures.”
2 – Time
“It’s not enough to create space; you have to create your space for a specific period of time.”
3 – Time
“Give your mind as long as possible to come up with something original.”
4 – Confidence
“Nothing will stop you being creative so effectively as the fear of making a mistake.”
5 – Humor
“The main evolutionary significance of humor is that it gets us from the closed mode to the open mode quicker than anything else.”
These are two book covers for projects I’m currently developing.
I create visual reminders for projects I’m currently working on. Then I place them in my working environment. They constantly prompt me to consider the work I’m developing at many times and in many moods. I sleep on it. I collect sketches and notes. I plan trips to make new exposures and list what I kind of material I’m looking for. I assemble relevant finished images in the series. I look for connections between images currently being made and images made in the past. I list many ways to develop the work.
What projects are you developing?
What kinds of visual reminders would be helpful to you?
What other things can you do to develop the work you want to do right now?
Defining a project is one of the single best ways to develop your body of work. When you define a project you focus, set goals, set quotas, set timelines, create a useful structure for your images, collect accompanying materials, and polish the presentation of your efforts so that they will be well received.
Focusing your efforts into a project will help you produce a useful product. A project gives your work a definite, presentable structure. A finished project makes work more useful and accessible. Once your project is done, your work will have a significantly greater likelihood of seeing the light of day. Who knows, public acclaim may follow. Come what may, your satisfaction is guaranteed.
Create a mission and set goals.
Define the purpose of your project and what you’d like to achieve through it. Many times, people adopt the mission and goals of others without first checking if those goals are personally beneficial. Some have professional aspirations, others don’t. Your goals will help you determine projects and timelines that are appropriate for you. The few moments (or hours) you spend clarifying why you’re doing what you’re doing and what you’d like to see come of it will save you hours, months, even years by ensuring that you’re going in the right direction – a direction of your own choosing. When you take control of your personal projects, you also take control of your life.
Make a plan to achieve your goals.
A plan will help make your project a reality. A simple action plan is all you need to get started. Action plans define the steps that are required to achieve completion. Action plans should be clear and practical. Action plans should be flexible; odds are, things will not go exactly according to plan and you’ll need to modify your plan to accommodate surprises, both pleasant and unpleasant. Reality happens. Grace happens too. Having defined what you need to accomplish, your unconscious will go to work on the task, generating many ideas. You’ll find yourself ready to make the most of unexpected opportunities as they arise.
Set a timeline.
A timeline can be used to combat procrastination and/or distraction and encourage you to produce work. Set realistic timelines. Unrealistic timelines simply produce frustration.
Identify where and when you’ll need and who will help you.
While many artists define and produce projects themselves, some artists engage a curator, gallery director, publisher, editor, agent, writer, or designer to help them realize a project, in part or in whole. Finding the right collaborator(s) can improve any project. Above all, seek feedback. Seek feedback from people with diverse perspectives whose opinions you value and trust. One thing you can always use, that you can never provide for yourself, is an outside perspective. People with different perspectives may identify ways to improve, expand, or extend the reach of your project. Remember, feedback is food for thought, not gospel. In the end, all final decisions are your decisions; it’s your project.
Stay focused and follow through.
You can work on multiple projects at a time. Be careful that you don’t get scattered. Starting projects is easy. Finishing them is hard. Make sure you’re working on the best project. List all your possible projects and identify the ones that are most important and the ones that are easiest to finish. If you’re lucky enough that the same project fits both criteria, focus all of your efforts there. Otherwise, you’ll have to strike a balance between what’s practical and what’s most important to you. Only you can decide this and the balance is likely to shift as time passes and circumstances develop. Look for a common theme among projects. Often your projects will be related. Focus your efforts in related areas. It’s very likely those areas have greater relevance for you than others. Your work will be perceived as stronger and more cohesive if your projects relate to one another, implying evolution.
What’s your project?
A project is a wonderful thing. It gives direction. It brings clarity. It increases productivity. It produces tangible results. It brings personal growth. It presents your work in the very best light. You and your work deserve this. Pick your projects well. They define not only how other people see you but also what you become. You are what you do. Take the first step today; make a commitment to create a personal project. (Write something right now – put your words somewhere where you’ll constantly be reminded of them and can continue refining them!)
Plan to plan.
Many people refuse to plan, especially in creative fields where discovery is desired. They say, “Failing to plan is planning to fail.” Everyone needs a plan. Often, when you start a project, knowing you need to learn more as you go forward, you feel like you don’t have enough of the pieces to make a plan or you don’t have all of the pieces to make a complete plan. My recommendation is to start with a rough plan and continue to refine it as you go.
The best plans aren’t written in stone. The best plans remain flexible. Flexible plans allow you to make course corrections along the way as you learn more about your subject, your medium, yourself, and your audience. Expect to update your plan. I find that, if I don’t update my plan during the development of a project, this a clear indicator that I haven’t found the insight(s) necessary to complete it. I expect to be changed, for the better, by the projects I engage in. I expect to grow.
It helps to have a mission.
You have so many options before you, and so many more will soon present themselves to you, that you’ll find it challenging to choose which project(s) to move forward on or which path(s) to choose during project development. Defining a mission for your creative efforts in general will help ensure that you stay on track.
Be prepared to be surprised.
You don’t have to know all the answers before you begin to work. You just have to know the most important questions. Creating is a matter of solving mysteries, of finding answers. You don’t have to solve a mystery completely; you just have to find a few answers that you can stand by. If you’re lucky, you’ll find new questions and new mysteries along the way.
Find your groove. Find your message.
Doing things consciously, repeatedly, and consistently brings mastery. Repeat your successes … and find meaningful variations on them. When you do this you give your work a theme and style, which communicate a message. When does a groove become a rut? Don’t worry about the rut too soon, most people don’t stick with one thing long enough to find a groove. They go off road, traveling anywhere and everywhere, by any and all means, and ultimately don’t end up anywhere in particular, much less a place to return to, a place they can call their own.
Past projects lead to new projects.
Often the seeds of future work lie in present work. Themes that were unclear or latent, at the beginning of a personal project, once developed, lead to new lines of inquiry and more work. A creative life is never truly over. The best creative lives evolve; growing deeper, more complex and more sophisticated.
Prepare to make your work effective.
Even the best images will go unnoticed if they’re not presented and promoted properly. If you’ve spent a significant amount of time and resources to develop a personal project, you own it to yourself to see it presented well. This may be as simple as presenting your images well to yourself or as complex as promoting a publication and or exhibit, physically and/or virtually.
Make visible touchstones to guide your progress.
If you’ve got a personal project you want to complete, make a visible touchstone and keep it in one or more places where you can see it frequently. By doing this, you’ll be directing your conscious mind to focus on it and suggesting to your unconscious mind that this is a matter of importance – both will start to work on the challenge, even when you’re unaware of it. You will literally be sleeping on it. Many of the best ideas come during this period of gestation and incubation.
Projects take time.
It’s unlikely that you’ll be able to finish a project in a day. Projects can take weeks, months, or even years to complete. Some projects are ongoing and never end, producing many milestones along the way (publications, exhibitions, commissions, etc). Some projects lie dormant for a period of time and then suddenly come to life again. Projects have a life of their own. Personal projects require commitment, but the depth of your commitment will be reflected in both you and your work and in the achievements you make with it.
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