Thursday, June 13, 2013

A Few Thoughts On Sequencing Photography Projects, Part 1 of 3


"Yes / Remove (1234 11th St.)"
from Arcana, Or, Finding Context

INTRO:

After a couple weeks mumbling and shuffling around my studio in a daze after returning from Photo Lucida in Portland I had a sudden urge to do something very challenging. Specifically, I felt very motivated to re-approach my large photo projects with the goal of editing and sequencing them in to a finalized form. As a bit of background, I tend to make large semi/psuedo/lyric documentary projects that span four or five years of shooting. From there I tend to have a few shows and move on to my next project. But the selection of 15-20 pieces for a gallery show are only a small percentage of the finished pieces that make up the whole of the project. 

A large part of my inspiration to tackle such a monumental task was that at Photo Lucida, it became clear to me that the current expectation for a photographer or artist web site is to have the entirety of a project available for viewing. Even as recently as four or five years ago, the expectation was only for a sample portfolio for each project to be on your site — in fact it was considered a bit crass to post entire projects. Additionally, photo books are some of my biggest influences on how I think about constructing my projects. So it only makes sense to me to make sequences of my work after countless hours spent peering at books by and about Araki, Moriyama, Frank, Wessel, Atget, Struth, and countless other self-published works that I've picked up from shops like Printed Matter in NYC.

I know that selecting the pieces that make up a body of work and then sequencing them to a coherent order is daunting for most people, myself included. So having spent the better part of the last two months working back through my projects with a focus on editing and sequencing, I thought I'd share a few of the insights and tactics I had found wrangling with sequencing. Part one will focus on the process of selecting what images to work with, part two will focusing on the initial steps of building your sequence, and part three will focusing on techniques for refining the sequence.


"Illusion? (1234 11th St.)"
from Arcana, Or, Finding Context

SELECTS:

Before I even start sequencing, I like to attempt to look at all of the images I shot and pick a set of "strong selects" from all available images. I usually try to look at the images in multiple ways as I make selects, such as by making prints and then also using Lightroom or any other digital method. Then I cross-check my picks with each other. If the body of work has started making sense in your own head, you'll likely end up with a huge amount of agreement between the two. If not, keep looking at the work and try to figure out what is going on. This strategy is nice because it lets you be confident in your selects process that you've seen the work in a few different formats. Sometimes it's really easy to overlook amazing images because of being overly familiar with the way you're looking at them. Randomized slide shows are great for this sort of pre-sequencing process.

The next step in picking out the strong selects is to cut out all the fat. That is, no matter how much you like an image in your selects set, you should pull it out if it in any way is making the project weaker. These are hard decisions, but you need to grit your teeth and be honest with yourself about what work is the best and most important. I usually even end up throwing out lots of the original pieces that, in my mind, defined the project but which seem redundant or unsophisticated after years of refining the ideas. The trick is to avoid over-edit though. I'd offer a warning that it is very easy to accidentally cut out the more subtle pieces and include only the flashy, but shallow work. 

One of my ways to avoid falling into the trap of selecting the wrong images to try to sequence is that I always work with two sets of images while I edit. First, as I've already mentioned, I have the set of strong selects. These are images that I know I need to have as the core of the project. I might cut some of these images later, but in general this set of images will always be the images that I work with foremost. Second, I have a set of image that I term "alternates." These are images that are pretty good, but might have one characteristic or another that means they aren't your first choices. Any piece you cut out in the previous paragraph can get put in this set. I'll end up tossing out most of these alternate images, but few images will invariably go from "just okay" to "damn awesome" in the right context. Sometimes these alternates can be the perfect transition image. Anytime I hit a spot where the sequence starts to stumble I'll flip through the alternates set to see if there is a perfect image to fix the hiccup.

The reason that you want to separate your selects into two sets of strong selects and alternates is that you are de-cluttering the sequencing process because it gives you flexibility to form ideas without clogging your brain with too many options.  Trying to make a sequence using 50 out of 60 images is way easier to keep straight in your head than trying to make the same sequence of 50 from 200 images, 150 of which you are already fairly certain aren't as strong. The process of sequencing is really non-linear and it's incredibly easy to to get distracted or confused or unconfident with too many choices.

If you're curious, I'll usually tend to use something around 75% of my strong selects and then maybe only 3 or 4 images from the alternates in the final sequence. (My alternates piles is usually just as large as my selects pile.) Don't skip developing an alternates set though. Some of the most exciting pairings came from finding an image in the alternate set that teaches a new way to look at the work. This alternate set should also becomes the home for any images you cut  during sequencing. I've found that at the front of the sequencing process I have discarded images incorrectly for silly reasons, like because they randomly are set next to an image whose color clashes. Building a working method that incorporates uncertainty and possibility gives you flexibility without overwhelming yourself. 

In the next section (coming next week) we'll start looking at the messy task of taking a jumble of images giving them structure.



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