There’s something that always seems to elude photography students, especially those studying photography at a college of fine art. The ever-elusive project idea.
The title of this post may feel mis-leading, such that it may be seen as a “how-to,” but it’s not. Rather, this post is more about the struggles and effort that goes in to “conjuring the project.”
When I began my informal photography studies many moons ago in the summer of 2010, I had no concept of fine art photography. No concept of photo books. No concept of the photo series. I just loved taking pictures of buildings and my family, and learning the technical aspects of the medium.
I can actually draw my photographic fascination all the way back to when I was in early elementary school, likely third or forth grade (around 2005 to 2006). I bought a point-and-shoot film rangefinder camera at a garage sale and got a handful of what was likely Fujifilm Superia color film (the “competitor” with Kodak Gold). Back then, my understanding of photography was exactly what many people think it is - pointing, and shooting.
It wasn’t until my sophomore year of college, over a decade later, that I realized this thing called a photo series existed. I had seen them everywhere, but never had a term for them. They were always “collections” or “a really consistent photographer,” to me. My first photography professor, Jason Reblando, was the one who not only inspired me to become a photography major, but also inspired me to work within projects like the series.
Jason had recently published his photo book New Deal Utopias around then, and When I saw his work within the book, I was amazed at how everything worked together, how it all embraced one umbrella concept of the “Greenbelt towns” of FDR’s New Deal era (late Depression), and the intricate “sub-concepts” that emerged throughout the book.
I fell in love with this idea, and it later led me to my current, and hopefully ongoing, obsession with photobooks.
The real struggle with this, however, is conjuring the idea for a project, especially at this caliber. For Reblando’s work, it was a broad, yet specific, topic that he could research and work on over a few years. That’s the kind of luxury you get as a post-student photographer. Students don’t think they get the same kind of luxury — but that’s far from the truth.
I’ve found in my three years of being a photography major at ISU that some of my colleagues and close friends (used to) consider class project deadlines to be the deadline. The end-all-be-all of the project. Once that date comes, it’s all over, time to put that project away forever. My fellow senior photography majors have gotten out of that thought, thankfully, but I often see the younger students (some in the same classes as us seniors), stop working on an idea right on the day it’s due.
Once I realized this common occurrence among my peers (and I think my professors began to notice it, as well), I started to bring up in class whenever it applied that “the class deadline is not the deadline of the project. Treat it like it’s a ‘high-stakes in-progress critique.’” This usually helps level their heads and lower their stress, to an extent.
Often times, a project that’s proposed early in the semester morphs or gets abandoned. This is expected in any art academy. But that’s the joy of it — The idea changes. The concept changes. You start to see you’re doing things you weren’t aware of. That’s when the project is really conjured into existence.