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Thursday, November 9

On Projects...

Grange Orchard, Carse of Gowrie.
Zeiss Super Ikonta, Tmax 400, printed on Ilford MG IV FB

"Project" is proving to be a right four-letter word for me at the moment. As we all know, projects are a brilliant way of providing some direction for our photography, of keeping the senses keen and - at the very least - giving us something to point the camera at when inspiration is in short supply.

I'm great at starting projects. In fact, I could be the best there's ever been. Sadly, I'm the worst at finishing them. I've never finished anything I've started really. They're not failures as such as they're open-ended and I can go back to them at any time. Who knows, I might pick one or two of them up in future. However, the fact that I haven't so far shouldn't be ignored when assessing my ability to start something and see it through to the end.

And yet, here I am again kicking around some ideas for projects. Will I be able to complete the deal this time? Is there any point to a half-finished project? I've been thinking about embarking on a big (for me) project but I've been keeping quiet about it because I didn't know if I was up to the task. It was James Ravilious that got me thinking about it. Or rather, his book, A Corner of England.

Photography largely performs two functions, as decorative art and social documentary. It's the art side of things that I've always been more interested in but the book planted a documentary seed in my brain that has since germinated and flowered. It either needs to be harvested now or zapped with weedkiller.

This project idea is quite simple. I want to document The Carse of Gowrie over the next two years with the idea of, hopefully, putting on a wee exhibition somewhere at the end of it. I should say that part of me wants to document it. The other part says, "It's too big a job and you don't like photographing people." Brutally honest, that other part.


For whatever reason, I've always had a fear of failure. It's what spurred me on at school and in sport. I used to be fiercely competitive as a lad but have mellowed like a fine wine as I've grown older. Some would say I've just grown foostie*. I suppose I'm worried that I might "fail" if I took on the project.

So I sought to define failure in this context. What would it look like in social documentary terms? Well, I can handle the technical side of things so I'm not worried about that. But what if, heaven forbid, I spent two years producing lots of boring, mundane photographs? Yes, I'd classify that as failure. How real is that possibility?

The Carse has an amazing variety of things happening within a quite restricted geographical area so, on the face of it, there shouldn't be too much difficulty finding stuff to point a lens at. However, I know from past experience that there's not a lot in terms of countryside or environment that has the "wow factor" so we're not talking Ansel Adams country here. Or even Gomez Addams.

But, and, as they say, it's a big but, does that really matter? The aim must be to show the Carse as it is now, boring bits, warts and all. The idea is that people will hopefully look at my pictures in years to come and say so that's what life was like then. Not, "Wow, look at the bokeh on that shot".  Or, "Yes, that 300mm lens really has compressed the perspective nicely." And, if worst came to the worst and I failed according to my own criteria, what would it matter? Who'd give a toss beyond me? There's no piper to pay if you're playing your own tune, is there?

Photographic Gold

Another obstacle to overcome is my penchant for trying to photograph things as they were and not as they are. Ravilious was mining photographic gold in his quiet corner of England both in terms of the landscape and the people, a way of life that hadn't changed too significantly for much of the 20th century. A comprehensive account of the Carse would look quite 21st century as you might expect and just couldn't possess the same charm as 1970s/80s rural England. And people? Yes, I'd have to photograph lots of them in covering the area's varied commercial and industrial aspects and one thing this blog is not over-endowed with is pics of people.

Unusually for a journalist, I just never found people as interesting as buildings and things. I know that must sound terrible to many folk but "human interest" stories never did much for me - and I wrote more than my fair share of them, tear-jerkers and all. It's pretty much the same when it comes to photographing people: if they're not family or friends then they don't hold my attention as much (although Ravilious's people shots are making me re-think that somewhat). I photographed people almost every working day during my first year as a reporter in a district office (and learned a lot from the local Fife freelance, David Ireland) and I suppose I could get used to it again - if I had to.

Here's another "but". The prospect of having to photograph people changed the whole exercise for me. It went from being something I was really beginning to look forward to with some excitement to a job of work. I always knew it would be difficult building enough enthusiasm for the people shots. I just get no creative buzz from that type of photography. And the creative buzz is the only reason I pick up a camera.

I even, sort of, made a start to the Carse project. It happened a few weeks ago. It was a day filled with drizzle and showers - perfect photography weather for me. I hadn't been out to the Carse for a couple of months so decided to visit the biggest village, Errol. In the bag were a Nikon F90 and 35mm and 85mm Nikkors - an almost perfect little outfit. A roll of Tmax 400 was standing by for duty.

Clotted Cream

There was an interesting-looking building on the main street running through the village that I wanted to photograph whilst standing up a pend on the opposite side of the road. It was all old brick with mortar highlights the colour of clotted cream, some of which were reflected in the puddles on the road. It was nice but it lacked something - a human figure. There weren't too many people about - understandable given the weather - and those that were seemed to be running from car to shop and back again. Then I saw a young woman, hood up, pushing a pram and towing a West Highland Terrier. She was on the same side of the road as the building and walking towards it. Superb!

So, I'm standing under the roof of the pend, looking through the viewfinder with trigger finger cocked and the safety off and waiting for her to appear in front of the building - when she suddenly loomed directly in front of me! She'd crossed the road to enter the same pend! I started laughing and said, "You've just spoiled my photograph." I explained about my idea of a figure in front of the building and she volunteered to cross the road and walk past - in the rain.** What a lass.

Back in the pend, she asked me why I was photographing Errol and I heard myself saying, "Well, I've got this idea for a photographic project about the Carse with maybe a wee exhibition at the end of it..." I thought that might have been my "crossing the Rubicon" moment but no. Since then I've hummed and hawed, weighed the pros and cons and sought out countless other hackneyed expressions useful to the arch-procrastinator until I was almost catatonic. Then I did it all over again.

You're probably sitting there wondering why I'm over-thinking this instead of just going and doing it. The truth is I over-think a lot of things in life. You know how a big dog needs a lot of exercise? Well, a big brain is the same. Haha. So that's Project One - parked in neutral while I try to summon up enough revs to get started.


Project Two is a little easier but I'm still nowhere near committed to it either. During the 19th and 20th centuries, governments bought up privately-owned land, divided it into bite-sized chunks and rented it to various categories of people, including war veterans, so that they could earn a subsistence living working their plot in some way. These "smallholdings" became quite popular. Scotland has around 20,000 of them at the last count. There's a sub-division of these called, if I remember correctly, small landholdings. Smallholdings can be rented or privately-owned but small landholdings are always tenanted.

In Scotland, there are fewer than 100 small landholdings left and it's anyone's guess how long they'll be around although the Scottish Government has been taking an interest in them recently. They would seem like a good subject for a project especially since I think we have a handful here on the northern outskirts of Dundee which might make a good start.

So what's the problem with this project? I think I'm about 30 years too late. Had I started in the 1980s I think I would have found some of the older practices and customs extant. Now? Well, I've skirted around the edges of what I believe are the small landholdings with a camera whilst photographing a nearby beech wood and the plots didn't look all that different from ordinary countryside gardens, only bigger. There are one or two small tractors, a couple of big sheds, some signs of livestock and a general air of untidiness but nothing too bad - or too good from a photographic point of view, if you know what I mean. Would I be able to get anything vaguely coherent in project terms from these plots? I'm going to have a closer look over the next few days. I wouldn't describe Project Two as "parked": it's more like I'm just driving by very slowly with the window down taking it all in.

Mid-life Crisis

Project Three is dead easy but isn't likely to be very fulfilling from an artistic point of view. I want to photograph my youth. I've had this idea kicking around for ages, made a tentative start a few years ago but didn't take it any further (sounds familiar?). The idea, in a nutshell, is that I'd make a list of memorable places from my youth into my teenage years and photograph them. Prints would be made and pasted in a project journal with a write-up for each one explaining the photograph's significance.

I thought my off-spring might find something like this interesting. I'd certainly have loved it had my own father been able to do something similar but we're all different and computers have fried the minds of most young people in my experience so my best effort could end up at the local dump at some indeterminate point in the future. Despite that, I think I'll go ahead with this project partly because it's so accessible: I can walk to a lot of the significant places I'm talking about and many of them are still standing. Official status? I've just chucked the keys to the valet parking attendant and I'm headed to the bar for some refreshment before getting started.

So that's where I'm standing with regard to possible projects. One should go ahead but the other two will need yet more thought - unless I adopt the "Screw it - let's do it!" attitude of Richard Branson.

* Urban Dictionary: Scottish. "disgusting, putrid, over-ripe, mouldy, etc."

** Despite writing above that I was confident I could handle the technical side, I failed miserably with this photograph. For some reason that still escapes me, I'd loaded Tmax 100 into the Nikon but had over-ridden the DX coding and set the ISO dial to 400 ISO. I tried to recover the situation a little by extending development in Rollei RHS DC and got a very under-developed set of negs. A bit of research showed that a two-stop push is a big no-no for Tmax 100 in this brew. I think the shot was just never meant to be.


Dave Jenkins said...

"Photography largely performs two functions, as decorative art and social documentary."

Have you ever noticed, Bruce, that many, of not most, of the photographs that are today considered art began life as documentary photographs?

Herman Sheephouse said...

Hi Bruce - just do them. Don't think about it, just go and do them. They all sound like fine ideas and you should at least give them a go - it makes much more sense to have a goal, rather than wandering around aimlessly waiting for something to happen. Don't overthink them either, just go and take photos, let your gut rule your finger.
I am looking forward to the results and hope to get an invite to wine and nibbles on the first night!

As for photographing 'mundanity', who's to say what is and isn't - it's the simple recording of life in Ravilious' photographs that makes them, rather than anything technical. Pick up thy camera and walk . ..

Martyn Lacey said...

I have admired the work of James Ravilious for some time also Chris killip, although his work was in complete contest to Ravilious being the industrial north. Both had the ability to create thought provoking photos from the mundane every day scene and both recorded the end of an era.
I too struggle with completing projects and certainly have my fair share of open ended ones that I hope to revisit as life slows down.
I have recently embarked on a series of photos reflecting the state of the agricultural community in this part of the world, over the border from James Ravilious in Somerset. Where once in every village lived men who worked on the land we now have people who commute to the city or even worst have a holiday home here and live in London. At the moment I am exploring the influence of large machines and computerisation on the land by photographing these at work over the seasons.
Projects are a great motivator but sometimes we don't live up to what we expect from ourselves especially when we refer to the likes of work by the afore mentioned, but hey does that matter? At least it gets us out there and provides an excuse to retreat into the darkroom.

DavidM said...

Nice moody shot of tree and sky, cleverly placing Zone 5 on Zone 3 and giving N+1 development, as we say.
Don't worry about boring shots. High impact images are for your camera club nights.
If you think of it, you don't judge a poem by the number of high-impact words it contains but how they hang together. Daffodils, cloud, wandered, high, float are very ordinary words; vale and host are very slightly uncommon, but are bunged in for the scansion, which isn't a problem for photographers.
Would it be a better poem if he'd written: perennial herbaceous bulbiferous geophytes and Cumulus humilis?
(Ain't Wikipedia wonderful?)
If you are really desperate about your images being tedious, you can write an essay in that peculiar language that academic critics of photography use. Suddenly all the pictures are magically transformed into signifiers of the problematics of representation. See?
Easy-peasy. I'm sure you can do better tham me, although you might be handicapped by being able to write clearly already.

Dave Jenkins said...

I assume you have read “On Being a Photographer,” by Bill Jay and David Hurn. If you haven’t, get it and read it. If you have read it, then read it again. And then again, until it begins to sink in.

I have reached the point where I find it uninteresting to photograph without a project in mind.

Dave Jenkins said...

I'm surprised more people haven't commented. I think this is one of your best posts.

Alan C. said...

I have a theory that the best photographic project isn't the one that arises from advance planning and conscious thought. It's the one that you suddenly realise you have been pursuing for the lat six months without realising it.

So, as Herman Sheephouse said, it may be best not to overthink this.
Have you looked for a pattern in what you are already photographing?
Just a thought.


DavidM said...

Six comments, all on the day after publication doesn't seem bad going; and now it's seven.

Kerstin Jonsson said...

Great post! I think one of the benefits with projects is they keep your mind and creativity working also between photo sessions. Which by itself makes each session more rewarding because you have made a plan for it beforehand. Thinking about what to photograph and looking for options when doing other stuff often makes that other stuff (read commuting and being at work) more rewarding in turn.

Another thing is that projects tie individual images together, while without a context, a beatutiful picture is standalone and a less beautiful picture is not even worth bothering. If they tie together by being in the same project they can support each other and" the result is bigger than the sum of the parts". Pretty obvious, but it deserves some thought anyway.


Bruce Robbins said...

Thanks to all for the supportive comments. I love reading your comments but I try not to be too obsessed about numbers. Regardless of the website it's always a tiny percentage of readers who take the time to comment. If you've got the readership numbers of a Mike Johnston or Steve Huff then that still adds up to a lot of comments. With my readership numbers, not so much.

MartyNL said...

The Carse of Gowrie looks like it could be a very interesting long term project. I think we are all looking forward to seeing the progress and results as prints naturally.
Best of luck!

Dave Jenkins said...

I've really said more than enough, but it seems I just can't leave this subject alone because arranging my work in projects is so necessary for me. Few of my photographs have much power as stand-alone pieces of art, but in the aggregate, as in my books, they can have considerable impact.

The great National Geographic photographer Sam Abell said this:

"Think of yourself in some larger and longer term than the specific assignment you're working on. Plan to have a show of the work, or do a book of it. If you think your photography will go forward without that, you're wrong."

Now, I'll shut up.

DavidM said...

One of the benefits of a series – any connected group of pictures – is that it makes all kinds of things interesting. Suppose you are doing a series on drainpipes or hats. (simplistic examples, I know) Suddenly you see all sorts of variations in the way that drainpipes are made or how people cover their heads.
You might notice that some people wear hats in cars, and that Mercedes drivers wear one kind of hat and Saab drivers another, more eccentric and individual kind. Or perhaps that Leica owners favoured a particular shape or colour. I'd guess that Leica-strokers wrap their hats in bubble-wrap before they venture out, but I might be underestimating the eccentricity of people who keep Leicas as pets. Maybe they put silica-jell sachets underneath. Perhaps they hang them on a hat-rack in order of date.

Bruce Robbins said...

Haha! And yet not without some very large grains of truth. You should see the hat this Saab driver wears...

DavidM said...

Saab... Scandinavian... Hats... Hmmmm... Horns?

Dave Hodson said...

I suspect every thinking and feeling photographer goes through something similar at one point through their life. Interesting that Edward Weston left over 10,000 negatives to The Center for Creative Photography (who knows how many he took) but only felt that 830 were worth printing as a legacy. He took 14 negatives for his work "The Nautilus" and made 28 prints with 4 papers before he was happy. His son Brett however, burned all but a dozen or so of his own negatives before he died.

Elle Bruce on her blog ( ) had some interesting insights on this that might be helpful, including a link to Arno Rafael Minkkinen's

"The Helsinki Bus Station Theory" ( ).

Minkkinen's theory is a simple gem so hopefully you take the chance to read it. It might not be as applicable to your dilemma of starting the project as you envisage it but maybe one photo at a time is a good place to start.

Bruce Robbins said...

Thought-provoking links, Dave. Thanks for taking the time to post them.

DavidM said...

I've seen the railway station but I missed the bus station completely.
I suppose that it could be a bus station anywhere. adds an extra metaphor to the Parable of Helsinki.
"Please note that some services may start or end outside of the map boundaries."

Herman Sheephouse said...

David - up here, we've been operating outside of those map boundaries for a long time.
Just need to find Bruce now who is MIA with nothing to guide him home save the waft of fixer fumes on the breeze . . .

DavidM said...

Happy New Project in 2018!