I am planning a workshop series on creating ‘A Body of Work’ for a local group.
In a way, this is my reaction against the over-focus on single images that we see in so many photographic arenas, and especially competitions at all kinds of level, from local Camera Clubs to Pulitzer awards. That is not to say that stunning, individual photographs are in some way ‘wrong’. But I believe that simply producing single images can stymie one’s attempts to develop a personal style, and can also get in the way when one is considering exhibitions or books.
If one pursues a degree in photography, or attains a distinction at the higher levels in organisations such as the Royal Photographic Society (RPS), then there is a requirement to create such a body of work, or panel, in RPS terms. (Disclaimer: I have both an MA in Photography and am a Fellow of the RPS).
‘Body of work’ normally refers to a lifetime’s work, but I am going to cheat a bit and use it to suggest a constant and coherent series or sustained artistic effort – think Picasso’s Blue or Pink periods within his overall oeuvre. Importantly, body of bork is not a denial that strong individual images are important – in fact, quite the opposite. A strong body of work needs strong individual images. Nor does it require creating some complex and longstanding project. Rather, it is about developing a personal approach to photography which becomes evident across a range of photographs. It is about developing one’s practice of photography as a craft. It is about the process and practice of curation of one’s own work. It is about thinking through one’s own ideas about taking photographs to be able to express those thoughts clearly to help self-development. And being clear about one’s ‘body of work’ helps us work through what our work might mean to prospective audiences.
As a thought-starter, I see the creation of a ‘body of work’ as entailing a little pre-thinking and planning, then a fair bit of trial and error. I offer three thematic areas to consider:
First, what and (and why) do you want to communicate to your audience. We all have audiences, if only social media or family & friends.
Second, how will you execute to bring this alive – is there a narrative of some kind for your audience to follow?
Third, what’s the tonality and feeling in your work – a consistent and coherent ‘look and feel’?
I am creating an outline ‘curriculum’, as follows;
- Meetings every two weeks – initially on Zoom but then as things ease with a mix of Zoom and F2F assuming people want to continue. We could move to monthly once we get going.
- Sessions would start with sharing different approaches to bodies of work – visual themes, narratives, audiences. Each session I’d kick off with something new on the subject.
- We’d make it as interactive as possible. For example: discussion / questions to get people to think about what they are doing currently; mini projects between the two weekly sessions etc.
- We’d look at the importance of editing and curating a series, and how to do it.
- We’d look at how to construct narratives – and the difference between ‘story’ and ‘narrative’.
- We’d explore what people could gain from e.g. LRPS as a way to build their practice (rather than just get gongs).
- Maybe we’d look at doing a group exhibition somewhere …..
In researching the workshop, I found Sasha Wolf’s book Photo Work; Forty Photographers on Process and Practice very helpful. Sasha is an artist, curator, filmmaker and a judge, and she founded a private art space that specializes in contemporary photography by emerging artists. She also has a podcast series which complements the book, available here.
The book is built around twelve questions which Sasha asked all forty photographers to answer, with widely divergent but helpful results. To give you a taster, I have collected quotes representing these twelve questions, each from a different photographer. Unashamedly, the view expressed is reasonably similar to my own, though expressed in every case far more eloquently than I could have done. I’d urge readers to think about their own answers to the questions.
So, here is the selection:
1. What comes first for you: the idea for a project, or individual that suggest a concept?
‘They go hand in glove. If you are a photographer who works with life, then you have to put yourself into the territory where that imagery and your thoughts might coalesce, because you need the vital lesson that first key image provides. Not the first image, but the first key image, the one that unlocks the door. The one you stumble over. It might surprise you by coming in from left field, taking things in a completely different direction, but that’s the beauty of working with the world, with the moments that time hurls your way’. (Pg. 80)
2. What are the main things that must be present for you when you are creating a body of work? (Social commentary, string form, personal connection, photographic reference …)
‘I think the main thing is that each individual photograph has to function in a way that compels a viewer to want to engage with it. Making photographs, for me, is always about how one uses the visual poetics of picture-making and then weds that notion to a meaningful intention and subject. I want each photograph within a project to compel the viewer’s attention through the use of form, color, light, tonality, vantage point, and the other devices that l have at my disposal. All of those things are deployed in the interest of creating an engagement with the subject, whether a person, a community, or a history’. (Pg. 18)
3. Is the idea of a body of work important to you? How does it function in relation to making a great individual photograph?
‘Sometimes a “body” of work is important in that it can be a way to orient myself and get specific – specificity allows me to go deeper, and it allows for nuance. But the true body of work is the sum total of a life’s work. Projects are just chapters. Regardless, every photograph has to stand on its own’. (Pg. 84)
4. Do you have what you might call a “photographic style”?
‘If people can recognize your work, I guess that means you have a style, but it’s a term I’ve never felt comfortable with and rarely use. l can’t frame my work with a high-concept description of style – maybe that’s snobbish or simply a avoidance of the question – but l think l’ll leave it there’. (Pg. 64)
5. Where would you say your style falls on a continuum between completely intuitive and intellectually formulated?
‘Both ends of that spectrum are important to me. It’s easy to assume that intuition and intellect cannot coexist in work, being that they seem opposing ways of thinking/working, but I believe they can work in tandem and inform one another. I love Sister Corita Kent’s “Ten Rules for Students and Teachers,” which was popularized by John Cage; Rule #8 is “Do not try to create and analyze at the same time. They are different processes.” (Pg. 89)
6. Assuming you now shoot in what you would consider your natural voice, have you ever wished your voice was different?
‘The key is nurturing your own talents and abilities. You cannot be someone you are not, and there is no reason in trying’. (Pg. 71)
7. How do you know when a body of work is finished?
‘I know when a body of work is finished when the charge drops. and the thing that pulled you along is no longer there. You can feel yourself lose your connection to the narrative. At this point, the story has been told and is now in danger of repeating itself. It’s about knowing when that
time has come and having the courage to let it go’. (Pg. 58)
8. Have you ever had a body of work that was created in the editing process?
‘No. But you surely can unmake a body of good pictures with poor editing. Editing is every bit as hard as making photographs. No two pictures are qualitatively equal. Their proper ordering cannot be determined by rule. And, there is often the difficulty of deciding whether a picture should be included at all. Is it faithful to the subject? Some of the problem is in freeing yourself from the memory of standing there when you took the photograph, amazed and hopeful and trying hard’. (Pg. 15)
9. Do you associate your work with a particular genre of photography? If yes, how would you define that genre?
‘Not necessarily, though I do think back to earlier in my career when I tried to understand where my work would it into the history of the entire medium. l think it is important for a young photographer to know what has come before them, in order to not be derivative. I often suggest to my students that they ask themselves, ‘Where is my place in this artistic continuum, and how do I make a meaningful contribution to the medium?’ (Pg. 104)
10. do you ever revisit a series that has already been exhibited or published to shoot more and add to it?
‘l’ve done this with Imperial Courts. I produced the first series of portraits in l993.The work was presented in an exhibition that same year, and Vibe published a portfolio of the work. Then it disappeared in a drawer. I stayed in touch with the community, but it took me fifteen years to revisit it with my camera, after which I continued for eight consecutive years before I presented the project in book form and as a comprehensive exhibition, which included prints, a three-channel video installation, and a soundscape. And as life in the community continues, a community I’ve become emotionally invested in and visit on a regular basis, I consider it quite likely that at some point I will proceed to make new work in Imperial Courts’. (Pg. 141)
On this question, I’ll add a second answer, from Ed Panar;
‘Absolutely. For me, many of my projects are ongoing and long-term. I’m interested in how time can ‘change photographs, so sometimes it literally takes years to get to the point where I find the right place for certain images. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that many photography projects are seen differently after time has passed, and maybe that’s why there’s a lot of effort spent in the photo world looking back at older things, seeing how perceptions have changed, how we’ve changed, noticing things differently. This is one of my favorite parts of photography, the fact that as static as images might appear, they don’t really stay the same’. (Pg. 162)
11. Do you ever revisit a series that has already been exhibited or published and reedit it?
‘One of the most important facts about finished work is that it cannot be reedited. That said, there’s nothing to keep particular images that I have been included in finished projects from being repurposed or recontextualized in other bodies of work. Sometimes a single picture from a past book or exhibition can be the beginning of a new project’. (Pg. 116)
12. Do you create with presentation in mind, be that a gallery show or a book?
LaToya Ruby Frazier:
Once you find your voice and your vision, you should think about your audience and how best to engage with them. I’m always asking: How will this help an audience member understand what’s happening here? How would a video instead of a still photograph work? Would a panel or public talk add to the audience’s engagement with the material? I’m constantly thinking about multiple platforms and about how to better address my audience’. (Pg. 77)
WOLF, Sasha (Editor). 2019. Photo Work. New York: Aperture.
Header: Mick Yates. 2016. Dusting.