Shooting a (personal) photographic project: thoughts and other musings – by William Brown
Bill is a project-driven photographer – even when he’s not aware of it. We first spoke back in February 2018 and got talking about his projects – from a relatively short 16 months all the way to a whopping 39 years and counting.
I suggested that his perspective on starting, continuing and finishing a project would be a valuable one, especially as most of us out here making photographs don’t really know where to begin. The article you see here blossomed from that initially vague prodding about his “Reunion Demo” project.
I hope you enjoy reading it as much as I have working with Bill to put it together.
Let me jump right in and say I believe personal photo projects are not the exclusive territory of older and more experienced photographers. Anyone who shoots more than one image of a particular subject or concept can be a candidate for a photo project.
The reasons for beginning and shooting a photo project can be as many and diverse as the people who have a desire to capture a moment, either to preserve, share or print it. The possibility of financial gain is not typically a driving force (at least not in my experience). If the project lasts any time at all it will take an inner burning desire to see it through to its conclusion.
You hear others talk about photographing a subject you are passionate about. At no time is this more important than when taking on a “project”. The reason being is a project usually requires a level of sacrifice, be it personal, financial, time, etc.
The upside to this deep commitment is that I feel it will show in the work that you produce during this time. We also read and hear that we need to have our own visual identity. A project can allow us to detach from what we believe others think of us or the type of shot we should take because individual moments can speak to us and inform us at a deeper personal level. This translates into a deeper understanding of yourself, your equipment, what’s important to you and what your personal vision is.
This was certainly the case for me when I had taken the last shots of the featured project. Putting together this article, I have tried to be as comprehensive as I can. I cover a bit about me (for context), the project I am using as an example (Reunion Demo), my workflow, some guidance and all manner of things I hope you will find useful when considering your own photo projects both now in the future.
In full, the article covers:
Table of contents
- 1 Opening Thoughts
- 2 Context is king, who am I?
- 3 Process and procedure
- 4 A spontaneous project
- 5 The need for a workflow
- 6 Choosing a project
- 7 Establishing parameters and guidelines
- 8 Things to Consider
- 9 Your project is shot – now what?
- 10 Takeaways of shooting a project
- 11 Remember those stories?
- 12 Closing Thoughts
Context is king, who am I?
My name is Bill Brown, although I use William Brown for all my artistic endeavors. I am a husband, father and son who is blessed to have the opportunity to work as an artist in Dallas, Texas. I create original works on paper and my medium of choice is pencil, both graphite and colored, as well as watercolor gouache.
I’m just a regular guy who has always enjoyed film photography. I have been a photo retoucher for 40+ years, so because of my background, I don’t consider myself a purist and my ideas may be somewhat stretching for some. The bulk of my retouching moved to the computer in 2006 (to avoid becoming a dinosaur) and now I am a digital darkroom and photo restoration specialist.
I have been a lifelong lover of the panoramic image. I use many tools to achieve a look for my original works on paper and I see no difference in using Photoshop as a tool to help me achieve a look for my photographic images. Until the digital darkroom came along the vast majority of my archive remained unseen. You see, I believe a print can be the ultimate expression of an image or idea.
The digital darkroom finally gives me the ability to print my photographs as I have envisioned. Note: No reality was harmed in the production of the panoramas used in this article.
Process and procedure
I’m a procedure person. What I mean by that is I have a particular way of doing things. If it’s something I will do more than once then I’m going to analyze the process and create a procedure. I am all about repeatability. This is the backbone of my business as people are hiring me to produce a specific result.
I kind of carry this procedure around in my head, but if needs be, you can write it down so that you can tick off the boxes after an item is completed. This hardcopy can keep you on task when there is no second chance to reshoot a moment. A spontaneous project can benefit from this list.
This is not a technical how-to, but more of an overview of the process. My process is by no means the definitive list, it’s just what works for me. As I lay out my process here, I encourage you to look at the steps and decide how best to adapt them to the way you see and work.
Certainly, each project has its own elements specific to it, but the basic structure remains pretty much the same. Sometimes the thought of a photo project can be a little intimidating or even frightening. By looking at the different parts of the process, it will hopefully help to eliminate most of the anxiety.
In this article, I will lay out the steps I see as being critical to creating a complete package, but I will also talk about some of the less tangible aspects of shooting a project. I will also discuss some of my personal thoughts and observations experienced through my photo project as well as things I experienced pulling the images together for this article. Now let’s take a look behind the curtain, as it were.
A spontaneous project
The project I am using for this article is one that I refer to as“Reunion demo”. I can’t say I had a specific idea in mind when I began shooting this project other than documenting the process. I’ve always been fascinated with heavy machinery and this gave me an excuse to be around it and to watch it.
There is an area in downtown Dallas known as the Reunion District. The most prominent structure is the Hyatt Regency with the adjoining Reunion Tower. Located within walking distance was the building being demolished, Reunion Arena. It was the sports arena that had been the home to various pro teams as well as the venue for countless music concerts, march madness, pay per view events, the circus, a stop for politicians and even housing for displaced persons during the aftermath of hurricane Katrina.
At a basic level, “Reunion demo” gave me the opportunity to be shooting regularly. On a deeper level, it helped me to push out the boundaries of my daily routine. I’m a rigid routine person and this project enabled me to expand into less defined regions. It became a catalyst for experiencing life beyond my comfort zone. I had never shot an extended project with a hard ending so I decided to take on this personal adventure. I photographed from May 2009 until August 2010.
This project came about in a spontaneous moment but I didn’t immediately identify it as such in my mind since I had missed the actual beginning of the demolition. That was okay because it ultimately became more about helping me through a difficult life circumstance.
The project started more as me marking the end of an era. You see, back in 1981, I was in the early stages of what would eventually become my longest running photo project (excluding family). That project is the skyline and city of Dallas, more specifically the skyline when the Trinity River is flooded. It has no hard end other than my inability to physically get there to take a picture.
Reunion Arena opened in April of 1980 and on that evening in 1981, I just decided to go take some shots of the skyline with its new addition. I was already quite fond of the blue hour, the look of all the car lights, as well as the glow the buildings acquired during longer exposures. I would be shooting with a new transparency film, so I needed to journal the process: frame number followed by camera settings and length of exposure. I don’t recall how it came about but I somehow convinced my Mom to be the keeper of the journal. This was the only time she ever did this and the only time she ever accompanied me intentionally. I wish I had taken her picture there. A shout out to my Mom who turned 97 this year. She has always encouraged me to pursue my dreams.
After we arrived and set up I started the process of shooting from daylight through to dark. I shot the whole roll so I could turn it in for immediate processing. I may have even taken it to the lab and put it in the night drop box. That way I could pick it up the next morning. E-6 was a three-hour turnaround and the lab had a night crew. Those were the days! But I digress.
Flash forward to 2009. As I drove past the arena I saw the demolition company’s banner on the building and noticed the demolition was already underway. At that moment those photos from 28 years ago popped into my head and I thought I should mark the passing of the arena with one last photo. More specifically, one last photo from the same location as in 1981.
I found a place to park and then shot my first panoramic. Then I walked to my 1981 location and took my shot. I don’t recall the exact course of events but I have noticed things about this project only now as I’m putting this article together. In many ways, the photos are a truer memory of the proceedings. My personal memories are more the way I wanted things to be as opposed to the way they really were.
It was interesting to see the actual first shots and see that the building was more demolished than I remembered. Eventually, I was stopping by every few days to see what progress had occurred since my last visit. Each time I was there the events of that day as well as light and weather conditions determined my shots.
Before long it became a full-blown photo obsession.
The need for a workflow
Before going further, I feel the need to discuss what I consider an important piece to the overall puzzle. It’s not always considered and I came to this later in my shooting process and not fully until I started working closely with a photographer who understood the process. What I want to address is workflow.
…not in a digital sense but in a broader scope.
What I mean is that a standard practice needs to be created and instituted by which you will be able to track and locate specific images over the course of the project and your whole shooting life.
This side of a project can actually require more dedication and perseverance because it’s not really the fun part of the process.
In short: you need to create a cataloging system for the work that will become what I call the “Archive” as soon as possible.
My archive has lived in my head for decades, as I only had to recall the year I shot something, then look for it in my stacks of envelopes and print file slide holders. Since it was never anything more than personal work, I never created a definitive method for tracking specific images. If I had been following a cataloging process over the years my life would be much easier now as I begin to pull together individual bodies of work and create a cohesive timeline.
This is the perfect example of the old adage: ‘Do as I say – not as I do/as I’ve done”.
For an archive to have legs it must be manageable by someone other than the photographer. I rely so much on my personal memory to locate images, but my wife and daughter can’t do this. Without the cataloging system, your photographic legacy will just be an overwhelming jumble of images. Start this process early and you (and your family) will always be thankful you did.
Choosing a project
How do you decide on a project? It doesn’t have to be complex; it only needs to be something that is meaningful to you.
Per-son-al: of, affecting, or belonging to a particular person rather than to anyone else.
Not every project has to end up as a book, zine or exhibit but every project can certainly be a learning opportunity. Projects can have vastly different timeframes.
The amount of time it takes to complete doesn’t always have a bearing on the importance or value of the project to you. I don’t think a project has to have a deep philosophical meaning. It can if that’s your intent but sometimes it’s just because it’s fun for you. A project first and foremost should be of meaning to you. You will be the one devoting time, energy, effort, money as well as other things.
I think sometimes we feel we must do a certain type of project if it is to be considered serious work. Don’t let this thinking discourage or weigh you down. If it can connect or resonate with others, that’s a bonus. If projects are new territory for you then pick something you can complete and keep it realistic for your experience as well as schedule.
- Look at the patterns and surroundings in your everyday life.
- If you have young children or a pet, then try incorporating your time with them into a project.
- Do you take walks on the same route, go to the same playground, or play specific games together?
- What elements in these activities could be used as a project?
I have a project that is quite simple in nature but is long term – photographing my daughter on the first and last day of school. Another is photographing her asleep or with her stuffed animals. These are simple because they are part of everyday life. Don’t encumber yourself with difficult restrictions.
KEEP IT SIMPLE.
You may have personal ideas you would like to explore or delve into, or it could be a spontaneous moment wherein a personal connection is made. It can also happen unconsciously in that as you look through your work you may notice a recurring theme has developed over time. I am probably more of a projects type thinker so I’m always looking for patterns or connections. The downside to this is that it can muddy the waters or should I say water down my thoughts and time in too many directions.
You can certainly have overlapping projects and I wouldn’t pass up a shot even though it is not relevant to the current project you may be working on. If something sparks your interest, shoot it and sort it out later. I certainly encountered this with my arena demolition project.
Establishing parameters and guidelines
You’ve picked a project – now what? After I’ve identified something as a project, I begin the process of setting parameters and guidelines (I’m a procedure person, remember?).
These parameters and guidelines can be:
- “What type of camera do I want to use?”
- “What film will best capture my idea or vision?”
- “What are the goals you would like to achieve?”
- “Do you want to get any specific images?”
If you have a single camera, you could shoot something that showcases that camera’s strengths or make your project to shoot everything, then use what you have photographed to help you in deciding what type of shots you and your camera are best suited for.
You can make this more detailed but once again, be careful not to encumber the process with too many minutiae. Take it from someone who people say can turn anything into a project.
In the case of this project, one of my first thoughts was choosing the photographic style. In its most basic form, it would definitely be a documentary. As I thought about this I determined I wanted to try and shoot from interesting angles and locations. Not just a straight-on documentary.
As I couldn’t actually get access to the site this meant I wouldn’t have any direct interaction with the workers so the challenge would be imparting a personal feeling to the project.
The upside was that the arena was located next to a bridge going out of downtown Dallas. so I would be shooting from an elevated viewpoint overlooking the whole site. Since it was an arena, there was parking very close to where I would be shooting so I wouldn’t endanger myself or anyone else.
On this note, I would add that I eventually spoke with the ranking police officer in charge of securing the area during the demolition and obtained permission to be parked in the secured perimeter. Depending on the type of project you are doing you may need to connect with anyone directly related to what you are photographing so that they know who you are and why you are taking pictures.
Another guideline was that I had to pick a single location I would shoot from in order to create a distinct timeline. Since I would be moving about the site I wanted to create an anchoring point which would give a visual context for all the other shots. The whole project can be broken down to this one series of shots because it shows the progression of the demolition in its most basic form. As I put the images together for this article I came to realize I had done this with several other locations as well.
As a project progresses start evaluating the parameters and guidelines you established at the beginning and decide if you need to pay closer attention to certain aspects you’ve already photographed. Also, do you see any patterns emerging that you could investigate more thoroughly? A simple pattern I noticed was the old red courthouse in the background so I tried to make sure I included it in shots through stages of the arena’s demise. One of my goals was to get some shots I felt were individually interesting.
As I thought about my project and the images already shot, I started imagining all the different elements and what I thought would make a complete package. I concluded that the shots by themselves were just an emotionless record of yet another building succumbing to the onslaught of heavy machines.
At this point, I felt I should start collecting people’s stories of their own personal encounters at the arena during its lifetime. I wanted the emotion of people’s individual memories to be the overarching thread that tied the whole thing together. This accumulation of stories has allowed me to connect with people, if only for a moment, that I otherwise would not have gotten to know.
For me, photography is a personal thing and I want others to experience this personal connection as well by evoking their own memories.
If having exact dates and times is crucial to the process, you may want to use a journal or some type of calendar or note app on your phone.
Something I didn’t think about was how to be able to position myself for certain recurring shots, once the building was gone. I should have created some sketches that noted my specific location as Barnaby Nutt did for his Ghost of New Walk Centre project. Once the building was totally gone I could only guess about my location.
Things to Consider
If the project you choose has uncontrolled elements start trying to anticipate what is coming. By anticipating coming events you can position yourself and be ready to capture the moment.
Challenge yourself to think a moment through. Doing this on a regular basis and you will find you can position yourself for important shots instead of running to catch the action. Let it come to you, let it pass in front of your lens.
Shooting with film means there are a limited number of shots so pace your shooting. If you know something you really want to photograph is coming, then don’t overshoot an element of lesser importance. You don’t want to be at a roll change during a critical sequence. I have changed rolls before all frames were used just to be ready for what was coming.
Use this time to also try some new things that could have future uses. I shot several panoramas with a Canon 35 tilt & shift lens. The result was an amazingly high-resolution composite (above), which aligned beautifully. Take the time to try some new things when there is no pressure to nail it.
By having a finite number of shots, you need to learn when and when not to shoot.
To contradict all this, I would also encourage you to take the shot even if it’s not exactly what you want. There’s no guarantee it will happen again. The moment is more important than perfect composition, light, etc. I have missed more shots and have more regrets because of this one thing.
Finally, journal your personal thoughts and memories.
Your project is shot – now what?
You’ve finished the actual shooting of the project so now it’s time to begin choosing which images best portray your vision.
If you plan on doing a book or a zine as well as an exhibit, you will probably want to choose a slightly different selection of images for each. If you are doing an exhibit, the scale of the work will be a definite consideration. Are you wanting intimacy or immersion?
Something else to consider at this stage is whether or not you want to have a curator involved. Having someone not personally attached to the work can certainly bring a new perspective to the selection process and may even “see” a new message in the work. This curator could also be associated with the gallery that will house your exhibit.
If it’s an individual without ties to your work you need to be sure they share your vision for the work. But even then you will have to be willing to let go of your personal attachments to specific images. There are advantages and disadvantages to each so you will have to determine what things are your non-negotiables.
As you start the process of image selection be aware of any patterns or analogies that may exist other than the ones you purposely shot. You may notice a sub-series contained within the broader scope of images. I experienced this as I looked through the shots to put with this article. Also, as I put the images in sequential order my feelings of being there again were almost palpable.
A strange feeling of reliving a moment!
Takeaways of shooting a project
Certainly, there are the obvious, such as a greater understanding of your equipment and film type. The less obvious are the personal interactions that happen along the way.
These personal encounters give us a bigger view of our world and the people in it. For the rest of our lives, we each carry with us this new knowledge which will last long after an image has faded from memory. Another benefit is the places we go and the experiences we have while we’re there.
Because this project lasted for 16 months I experienced a myriad of situations and emotions. The most disappointing experience occurred the day the roof was brought down. I was onsite till 12:30 pm but could wait no longer because of commitments to my business clients.
It all came down about three hours later (video at the foot of this article).
You have to make difficult decisions like this but don’t let a single incident derail the process. I continued to photograph for another 9 months after this and I finished with a moment of serendipity. Even in the midst of adversity, press forward.
Another experience happened one morning shortly after I had arrived and started shooting. I heard the throaty exhaust of a vehicle as it was accelerating up the road and I turned to see a truck fast approaching. It was several lanes over from me but intuitively I sensed what was about to happen.
I brought my camera in close to my body to protect it and braced myself. In a few short moments the truck accelerated and moved across the two lanes. My back, from shoulders down, was soaked with water as they hit a large puddle of water left over from an early morning rain. Since I had anticipated the coming event it is nothing more than an amusing memory from this project.
Remember those stories?
Other stories unfolded as well, like seeing a woman asleep on one of the open staircases, or on the day the roof was to be brought down, I met a steelworker who had helped build the arena. He related the story of how the whole crew had signed the final beam after it was secured in place and he hoped maybe to retrieve that piece of history for himself.
There were more…
I got to photograph both a Dallas Sidekicks soccer game and a Dallas Mavericks basketball game there. ~ Bill
I went to Reunion for a pay per view fight. When I got in line, Robert Duvall the actor, was in line next to me. He was up from Waxahachie where the movie Tender Mercies was being filmed. We had a great conversation while we waited in line. ~ Bruce
My high school graduation ceremony was at Reunion Arena in 2005. ~ Federico
I had the same two seats from opening night till the last sponsored event”. ~ RV
I went to a March Madness basketball game there. One of the teams had a player known for arguing with the referees. As the game got going it didn’t take long before he was at it with the refs. All of a sudden and almost as if instructed, everyone in the arena started to chant. CRY BABY, CRY BABY, CRY BABY! ~ Ken
…these types of personal experiences are the things that give life a fullness as we momentarily pass into other people’s worlds, or they speed through ours.
A project can also be stimulating in a graphic design sense as well. If you consider doing a book or zine, then the design and layout can be a great thought process exercise.
Here’s a short list of personal benefits I believe a project can contain:
- Anything learned is applicable to paying work.
- You gain a better understanding of yourself, your equipment and your photographic interests.
- Enhanced ability to “see” what’s around you.
- Helps you create or expand your personal archive.
- A personal feeling of accomplishment.
Towards the end of the demolition project Dallas began and is still in the midst of its greatest transformation but presently no new structure has been built on this site. The highway interchange seen in the background of many of the shots has been totally redone as well as many new buildings and two Calatrava designed bridges constructed.
The location I shot from in 1981 as well as during the demolition was removed during the highway expansion. These images now cross from a simple documentary photo into the realm of historical record of the city itself. This can be one of the results of taking on a personal project. An outcome not planned or thought about.
Another form of “happy accident”.
Shooting a photo project can be as much about personal growth as it is about the scenes photographed. When I completed the shooting phase of this project, I asked myself what was the purpose of doing this. For me, it was a chance to experience those emotions and feelings I had as a boy on summer vacation. Every morning when I got up there was an anticipation of what the day’s adventure might be. Maybe I would travel to the Amazon, climb Everest or sail with Shackleton.
It was my momentary chance to escape from the reality of everyday life.
I had been on a great photo adventure looking for that cover shot. One particular morning, I walked up to the bridge railing and looked down on the site. There, in a mangled heap was a scoreboard. Only one word was visible: “HOME”.
I immediately made the mental jump to that famous line “There’s no place like home”. You see, because of my life circumstances, I was preparing to move my family from the house we had designed and built. We were moving to a strange place that I knew nothing about. It was comforting to know that all I had to do was click my heels together, repeat those words and I would be back there again.
That may all seem like a big mental leap but for me it was true. I’m not saying every project can have this type of impact on your life, but here’s the thing, you just never know. When a project becomes an extension of us we can be subconsciously drawn to subjects that we have a deeper connection to than it just interests us.
What’s really in your world? What do you miss seeing every day? There may be something waiting to expand your life if you just but “see” it. I didn’t see the beginning of this demolition even though I drove past it every day.
I walked into this story, though, at just the right time for my life. I guess I would say a photo project could be a philosophical pathway if we realize that what we choose to photograph can be an extension of us and our life.
If you’ve never shot a photo project, I want to encourage you to at least start thinking about it. The personal feeling of accomplishment will go a long way towards opening up your mind to new ideas and you never know what kind of adventure may be just ahead. I am far from completing all of my ideas for this project but I still have a sense of personal accomplishment because I did it. I’ve given my thoughts on how to proceed so embrace those that strike a chord with you personally, follow your heart and take the first steps into the exciting world of a personal photo project.
I hope this has been informative, enlightening and inspiring. I wish every person reading this beautiful light and good shooting. Thanks for your time and thank you EM for providing a place to share my thoughts and ideas with the greater community of film shooters. Thanks also to the photographer who instilled in me a love of photography and the documentary process, Bank Langmore.
Thank you to photographer and friend, John Derryberry, whose loan of a Contax G2 in 2008 brought a renewed desire to delve deeper into my world. Finally, I want to thank my wife and daughter who let me embrace my photographic obsession and thanks as well to the two photo labs that have processed my life on film, BWC Photo Imaging and Photographique
~ William Brown
A word on gear
This was not a one-camera-one-film project. Different camera bodies, lenses and films were used over the course of the ~15 months I was documenting the project, including:
- Canon F-1n 1984 Olympic edition with speed finder and power drive.
- Canon FD-17, 28, 35-105, 35 T&S, 80-200 and 300mm lenses.
- Contax G2 with Zeiss Biogon 21/2.8, Planar 35/2, Planar 45/2, Sonnar 90/2.8.
- Rollei Prego 90 PS.
- Manfrotto 055XPRO B tripod with pistol grip head and cable release.
- Kodak Portra 160NC, Kodak EKTACHROME E100VS, Kodak Portra 400BW and Fuji Velvia 50
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