Wednesday, June 19, 2013

A Few Thoughts On Sequencing Photography Projects, Part 2 of 3

This is the second of three articles taking an in-depth look at some of the mysteries of sequencing photographs. If you missing the first article, which covers the process of picking sets of selects, read it here:

"Cosplayers Preparing"
from Bridges of Desire


My first step when I start sequencing a project is to make little prints and then spread them out randomly on a big floor/wall. Feel free to use cheap and small paper. The idea here is just to give yourself a very manageable set of the pieces in your project to handle. Some editors (particularly professional publishers) will work with prints on their desk that are barely larger than a postage stamp. Some people (usually fine art photographers) use 8"x10" prints stuck to a large studio wall. I tend toward using 3"x5" or 4"x6" prints, mostly because I don't want to have to cut out 150 images. Also, my studio floor (i.e. the second small bedroom in our apartment) is my working space and that size fits there nicely.  

The next step in my sequencing process is to take all of my small prints and place them on the floor randomly (or stuck to a wall or whatever you are most comfortable working with). The randomization aspect is important because getting the best sequence is really a process of listening for how the images to talk with each other.  Once I have all the images laid out I just tend to stare at the pieces for a couple days. As I look at the sprawl of images I might absently pair work in to diptychs and triptychs. I'll often try sorting the images in different ways (such as by subject or by shape), but without the intention of making a sequence. 

One of the important editing observations to make during this aimless grouping process is to identify images that are basically the same as other images. The great documentary photographer Norman Mauskopf told me that he could pick out less experienced photographers because their sequences often had too many redundant images in their sequence. Some repetition is okay, but if you have effectively five variants of the same image, it is probably worthwhile to set a couple of them in to the alternates pile.

The next step is to shuffle the pieces again and lay them out to make different sets of groupings: of all the same color; images that have the same weather in the sky; images that have the same direction of shadows; images that have strong out of focus elements; images that have the same kind of emotional state (sad, tense, etc.) Again, I'm not even aiming to make a sequence at this point, I'm just physically feeling out the different kinds of relationships that can exist between the images. As I work through this process, I'll take notes in a sketchbook. Really feel free to explore the bounds of the work in this rough grouping stage. Shuffle and reorganize the images as many ways as you can. Strive to see how everything fits together, formally, intellectually, narratively, artistically, theoretically, and personally.  

Sometimes I'll get past the grouping stage into the real sequencing fairly quickly. (A week of playing with the images before going toward sequencing would be as fast as I've ever managed.) Other times, such as with my Apartment Homes project, it can take almost a month of just mucking around blindly before the pieces start talking to each other. The idea is to get comfortable working with the project's vocabulary and, like getting to know a person, you can't rush. I find it amazing how little I, even as the artist, actually know the pieces in my photo projects, until I start sequencing. For an artist that works with large groups of images, that's part of why this arduous process is so rewarding — I've never found a better way to learn new things about my art.

from Bridges of Desire

Once you reach a level of comfort with the images, I find the next easiest step is to reshuffle and re-lay out all the work and then start making the photos into units or phrases. To understand what you're trying to do, think of the relationship of lines, stanzas and poems in writing poetry. Lines are single images (or pairs of images) with specific referents. Stanzas are like units of 4-9 images that contain a larger idea. The whole poem is a journey that uses the currents, tensions and bigger ideas that are formed by the stanzas to accomplish it's artistic goal. But don't worry about that at this point; you're only trying to write/sequence some strong stanzas, not complete the whole poem. Remember though that this description using poetry, along with the other examples using music later, are metaphors. They are simply methods of talking about sequencing to help you get a handle on a very complex problem that is deeply photographic at it's core. 

One simple, but effective trick to finding a starting point is to have the first phrase filled with strong images. By "strong," I mean images that grab the viewer and express the emotional core of the project. In my own projects, I want a viewer who only looked at the first "phrase" of images to have a decent understanding of the general scope and idea of the project. Starting with strong work might sound crass or obvious, but it is important in most projects to give the viewer a strong sense of orientation and direction to propel them in to the more complex core of your artistic idea. 

Another useful metaphor for sequencing is is to think of it like putting together a mix tape for your friends. You usually start with good, solid stuff because once you have people hooked in to your way of thinking, they will follow your more complex and challenging ideas more readily. What you are attempting to do is create a conceptual trajectory. That is, you are attempting to make each step follow an internal, inevitable logic. Each part should flow together naturally and ultimately lead the viewer ever deeper into understanding the nuances and depths of your project. 

My projects almost always start with a bold and interesting proposition in the first phrase; then the following phrases branch and investigate the many ideas which were presented in that opening phrase. The ending should have some sort of cathartic quality; where the final phrase returns to the core theme but with all of the additional artistic nuances that the middle phrases explored having been tied together in to an even more rich braid of ideas and emotions.

"Street Fighter Group Photo Shoot"
from Bridges of Desire

One of the better metaphors for sequencing is that the final product should resemble a jazz solo. It starts with a thematic statement that defines the basic boundaries of the idea, then the musician explores, detours, re-imagines, re-forms, deconstructs, reconstructs, expounds and meditates on variations of that theme. Finally, in the end, the soloist comes back home to restate the theme in a way that is a capstone to with the whole scintillating complexity that came from the middle of the improvisation. But the jazz solo metaphor also comes with one warning: don't drift too far off topic without creating a thread for the viewer to follow. It's critical to connect every artistic move back to underlying idea of the project. Even if the sequence has moments of dissonance or jarring disconnection, it's still very possible to build those disjunctions in to the logic of the sequence so that, like free jazz, the chaos still connects to the main idea.

I've found that for almost all of my projects, most of the pairings, phrases and transitions, will come from a combination of intuition and authorial voice. Intuition is a highly complex understanding of the work that comes from having spent years trying to understand the ideas. 

Don't underestimate the power and usefulness of "stupid" associations; i.e. finding two images that share a similar form, point of view or subject matter can be the best way to elegantly segue between two "phrases" in a body of work. If two phrases don't latch together nicely, often you can put an image in between them that has both kinds of forms or subjects as a transition.

Sequencing photos isn't a true language with pre-defined grammar, so don't overlook intuition (which is actually a lateral application of technique and understanding.) Sometimes images just "work" together and that's fine. But part of what makes photography so fascinating is that each image always has massive amounts of nebulous and latent information. Since photography isn't as direct as language it can also useful to have a some moments of forceful authorial voice alongside intuition in the sequencing. This can often mean putting two wildly disparate images next to each other to make a very blunt connection. But heavy-handed techniques should be used sparingly, since it's akin to yelling in the viewers ear. 

"Lobby, Friday Night"
from Bridges of Desire

Once you get a bunch of phrases of photographs put together, you can start connecting them into longer sequences of images. In my own working process, I'll usually end up with about half of the images falling into phrases then in to a longer sequence fairly quickly. For instance, in my anime convention project, Bridges Of Desire, the second half of the project fell into place rapidly. The other half of the images just sat there, staring at me, almost daring me to try to make sense of them. At first it worried me that I had all of these leftover images, and that somehow I had gotten off track. But what I learned is that those remaining un-sequenced images are actually images that have deep connections with the rest of the remaining images, but that the connections with each other are rather more subtle than the images that almost instantly grouped together. Often I'll only notice the relationships between these more nuanced images after that initial easy half is finished and out of their way. But that's okay — this process of sequencing photographs is as far from homogenous as possible so tricky artistic moments are inevitable. 

Let me sum up this middle part of the sequencing process. First, you are trying to learn the vocabulary of the images. Second, you are trying to make phrases with those images. Third, you are connecting those phrases in to longer chains.  The real challenge is that the sequence has to teach the viewer how to read and understand the project as the look at the images. 

One bonus suggestion for this article that I've recently stumbled across is that it can be quite effective to use music to help leverage your brain into the correct state of thought that is needed for a particular project. I was having no end of trouble sequencing my project on anime conventions, Bridges Of Desire, and eventually I realized that a big part of my problem was that my current mindset was very far removed from the world that the photos were building. I ended up digging through the darkest depths of the internet to listen to anime soundtracks that were popular at anime conventions when I was making the photos. Yes, it was embarrassing, but it was also extremely effective. Even if there isn't a literal connection between the photographs and music, you can use music to help you enter the world of the project.

In the next and final post, I'm going to dig deep into techniques for polishing and tightening the rough sequencing. But for the moment, I'd love to share a video of the current sequence I'm working on with the Bridges Of Desire project:

Bridges Of Desire - Sequencing Preview from Eron Rauch on Vimeo.

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