Saturday, August 31, 2013

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

(Sorry for the delay in finishing up the final section of this essay on photographic sequencing. After a couple of months of extra shifts on the computer and behind the camera, I actually hurt my hand badly enough to take a doctor-mandated month-long break. Parts 1 and 2 are available on the blog still if you missed them).


Now that you've spent weeks arranging your prints in an order you like, I am going to suggest doing the unthinkable. First, take a photograph of the layout of the sequenced prints (in my case, sitting on my studio floor) and then re-shuffle all of the images and start over. Sometimes my cat does this for me, by deciding the studio floor is an awesome place to run laps. 

The goal isn't a memory test. That is, you're not trying to piece back together your previous sequence. Instead the goal is to create a new result with the specific intent of giving yourself a way to compare and contrast how different pairings and orders create new sets of meaning and flow. Some artists (myself included) will re-sequence dozens of times if the relationships within the body of work is particularly tricky. In the end, I will usually find that one of my drafts becomes the foundation for my final order, but with phrases, pairings, ideas, and structures borrowed from the other variants.

Assuming my cat-critic has ceased her interventions and I've settled on a final-ish sequence, I try to live with the work for a while. I do this by letting the semi-final sequence sit out for a long period of time; Often I spend about a week occasionally moving and tweaking a sequence even after I've settled on a fairly solid order. Sometimes I'll think everything is perfect, but after a week of staring at it I'll notice a awkward part in the sequence. Usually, the kinds of things I'm looking for at this point are pieces, transitions, or phrases that seems to get weaker (or more annoying) with every viewing. 

Even though you should be a harsh editor with your own work, you should also be very careful to avoid homogenizing the body of work though relentless revisions. Projects filled with images that are highly similar in tone, farming and form are very fatiguing. Nothing makes my eyes gloss over faster than a series of photographs that are bland permutations of each other. Yes, similar looking images are easier to sequence and edit, but that sort of superficial similarity artificially limits the depth of resonance that the project can achieve (much like a drunk friend that can't move past his one repetitive point in a bar-room argument). Savvy internal contrasts are the best way to making a sequence feel organic and enthralling.


"Okay, now we're ready to go to press!," you cry, after all this work. However eager you might be, I find that, like many moments in life, the more you learn the more questions you have. Specifically, by now the project has likely started to develop a sophisticated internal vocabulary. The difference in your own understanding of the project between when you first selected some proofs and now is so vast that the best next step is actually to return to the beginning: go back to the original body of work and start looking through all your frames again. Not just the selects, not just the alternates pile, but go even further back in the process and look at *everything* you shot for the project. 

Now that you've established the grammar, tone, and editorial content of the project (which honestly, only seems to solidify once you've seen the whole project in its own context though the sequencing process) there are almost always going to be a few awesome, but subtle frames that you initially missed that will make the project stronger. In a way, the project-process will teach you new ways to expand your photographic vision. Frames that seemed too odd, subtle, specific, unspecific, or any other outlier, might now seem like perfect choices. 

Additionally, by taking a week or more just looking and thinking, you might notice that you're actually missing important aspects to the work. In my anime convention project "Bridges Of Desire," after a couple of weeks with some breathing space, I realized I had forgotten to include ANY reference to the amount of partying and drinking that happens (many of the photos document the results of this but I had forgotten the "cause" in the "cause and effect" balance of the project). So I went back and found a couple great frames I had missed because I now had a very clear idea of the kind of image that I needed. These new frames might easily slip in to the sequence - occasionally, I'll notice a clearly defined gap and go hunting for the perfect image to fill it, but you might also need to entirely re-sequence the project if the additions change the tone or content severely enough.


If you get this deep into sequencing and you start to having this weird feeling that everything is mostly working, but subtly wrong, fear not. You may well have encountered a shockingly common problem. One of my teachers gave me one of the best pieces of advice for art, which was, "Always turn around and look at what is directly behind where you're pointing the camera. It will usually be more interesting then what you were initially going to photograph." In that spirit, I always look at both the individual passages and the whole project *backwards*. I mean this in the most literal way. You start with the last image and look through the whole sequence in reverse. Yes, you heard me - give it a go and you might be utterly surprised. The number of times that the exact "reversed" version of an otherwise finished sequence ends up working better than the "forward" version is pretty shocking (roughly 33% from my estimation!) 


Once you've gone through the ordeal of crafting and re-crafting the sequence, the next critical step is to show the semi-finalized product to other people. I like to show my work to both trained artists and non-artists. What are people's opinions who are familiar with your subject or medium versus unfamiliar? Note where the different people agree and disagree both each other and with your own thoughts and intentions. Don't worry if you hear lots of conflicting information. You'll never get everyone to agree (or, if you're anything like me, even agree with yourself from yesterday) but this process is a way to give yourself a way to make conscious, calibrated choices. 

Taking the work in to different spaces can be a useful finishing tactic as well. When I'm beginning a sequence, I really want to be undisturbed in my studio with a cup of coffee//whiskey/both blasting music while I dance around in a flurry of photographs. But once I'm fairly far in, I find it can be very informative to take your working sequence of prints out in to the world. You can try looking through the images at coffee shop, the bar, the beach, the library, on the bus. Changing contexts is a useful tactic with any art practice because sometimes your subconscious gets stuck in a rut. Changing the ambiance can shake off the numbness that can come from focusing on subtleties in isolation for weeks.  


Another large pothole I regularly fall in is the failure to account for the human mind's quickly fading memory of images. In a large body of work, pay particular attention to the exact place in the sequence where other people get "lost." I often find that these derailing locations happen because: 1) I changed something about the sequence too abruptly; 2) I've put too many visually or conceptually dense photographs right next to each other without enough breathing room for the viewer; 3) Or because I've put images that are designed to resonate too far apart to have other people pick up on those sympathetic vibrations. To put it bluntly, specifics of photographs are very hard to remember — any more than 6 or 8 images back and the human memory seems to get fuzzy. For issue one, you might try to refine the sequence to give subtle hints and transitions going toward the problem section (much like smoothing out a curve on a real railroad track). For issue two, you can try to create some counterpoint with dense images and restrained images on either side. For issue number three, if you need to keep an idea going forward across a long gap in the sequence it's often useful to put "signal booster" images in between. These "signal boosting" images can be as obvious as a reoccurring theme that creates a sense of meter within the project, or subtle formal hints that you only really actively notice on the second or third time through the project. 


Once you've locked down the image sequence, don't forget to pay close attention to decisions that can happen outside of the images. You can use the titles (or lack of titles) of the work to cue and hint at what the viewer should be looking at. Additionally, if you're working toward a book format you can have an endless array of layouts, chapters, titles, essays, statements, and pull quotes. I tend to use textual elements very sparingly since my work tends to have very specific framing which the viewer should ideally explore on their own. Many projects can certainly benefit from text for poetic, documentary, narrative, or conceptual reasons. When in doubt, it's probably better to say too little with the external elements because photographs tend to be highly suggestible to external cues (which is why so much of the conceptual photography practices use text).


In closing, I can't emphasis enough that these three articles are a series of tactics, strategies, and methods for sequencing photographs, not necessarily specific solutions to your sequencing concerns. The process of sequencing your photographs, whether it is for a book, a physical portfolio, online platform, gallery show, or just for your own pleasure will teach you a massive amount about your own work - teach you an intimate sort of know knowledge of your work that can't be achieved any other way. In the most direct terms, what sequencing means to me is trying to listen, to pay the closest possible attention to what you have made so that you can then join your larger artistic goals with the internal forces that the photographs are exerting on each other. This system of sequencing is about coming to understand your art from the inside rather than imposing yourself on your project. In this way, your final sequence will have an air of inevitability but also plenty of space for the viewer to be fascinated, surprised, and engaged. 


Yes, smart-ass, I know that every technique and hint I've mentioned in these articles can and will be broken by successful projects in both the future and past. I went to CalArts for my MFA in photography so the only constant I've seen is that every supposed rule can and will be broken to make successful work. Some artists won't use a process that at all resembles mine nor find value in the same kind of work that I strive to produce. Even though I tend to make work in the vein of post-documentary or lyric essay, my process can vary fairly radically from one project to another, but I'll usually try out many or these tactics during the long course of production. Each artist, each project has to be approached as it's own interestingly quirky world and as an artist, you'll have to adapt and develop your own techniques and methods, which is why I so strongly emphasize paying such close attention to the work itself across the many steps in this essay.

Additionally, I can't recommend enough that you pick up the digital copies of "Photobook Review" (if anyone out there from Aperture is listening, I really wish you would collect these newsletters in to a real book that we could get our grubby mitts on), both volumes of The Photobook: A History as well as the book Japanese Photo Books. These publications are some of the best thinking on what forces and challenges and rewards are at play in this method of working with photography. Additionally, Mary Virgina Swanson's book Publish Your Photography Book is a great pragmatic introduction to photo book making and publishing.

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