Focussing for the eternally distracted

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If you’re expecting an image laden blog with more pictures than words or if you just don’t ‘do’ projects look away now, move along, this won’t be for you….but if you’ve ever found yourself wondering what to do with all those images you’ve taken of that one location, or you have catalogs of images just languishing on a hard drive somewhere, or if you’ve found yourself wasting an opportunity to get out with the camera because you can’t make your mind up where to go or what to shoot…then maybe stick with me…I may be able to help…maybe…

So, recently I bagged a place on a forthcoming Doug Chinnery & Paul Kenny workshop to discuss Creative Thinking, which is going to include lots of discussion about moving work forward with a purpose, and in particular working through projects. Around the same time Rob Knight had the splendid idea of sharing one of his own projects, Washlands, from start to finish to allow others to share in his own creative journey, a brave decision for anyone, even for a battle hardened educator like Rob.

Naturally, I then started to think about my own creative processes…and how to approach my own largely static, seemingly immovable projects. I stared at a blank piece of paper and thought…I’ve been a business consultant for most of my working life, helping others solve their business problems or solving them for them…so I should be able to figure this out for myself surely…and I started scribbling with my crayons…

So what is the problem?

I’m what is known in personality temperament terms as an Idealist – I’m a people focussed butterfly who ironically gets drained through being around groups of people as an introvert, with the attention span of a gnat, a deep inbuilt loathing of repetition and following process, a lifelong deep relationship with imposter syndrome in all that I do which also manifests itself as a constant lack of personal satisfaction with my own work, and in Belbin Team Roles terms I am absolutely positively not a completer finisher.  Just ask anyone who has ever suffered from my lack of follow through on a promise made, just how much of a pain in the arse I can be to be friends with…they’ll roll their eyes and laugh when you mention my name and meeting my commitments in the same sentence…I have honest intentions, I really do, I just have the attention span, the focus and self-control of a labrador at an obedience class sat next to a plate of sausages.

To make me work properly I need structure. As a consultant I’ve always had coping mechanisms and lashings of learned behaviour to get me through in the office environment, well mostly, but I’ve never really applied that to my creative life for some reason.

Also In my opinion I make too many ‘single’ images that don’t necessarily form part of a wider narrative, which is almost certainly a symptom of the fact I simply can’t plan shots with military precision and an undying commitment to weather apps and The Photographers Ephemeris in the way many other photographers do. Instead I have a natural tendency to just go somewhere and then react to what I find.

All of the above all too often results in indecision and finding it all too easy to not go out with the camera when I have the time to do so. Where shall I go? What shall I shoot? Ah stuff it…I won’t bother! Which is quickly followed by frustration and an overwhelming sense of time wasted shortly afterwards.

But you use a notebook I hear you cry, you go on about it enough, doesn’t that give you all the process you need? Yes I do…and it helps….but here’s the thing…it’s not quite enough for me…To help explain why let’s take a look at the lifecycle of the creative process inside my head.It starts out with lots of ideas, experimentation, failure, indecision, direction changes, single images, quotes, feelings, mini series of images, glimpses of connections between ‘things’, chaos writ large in fact, but clarity slowly begins to emerge and an idea is refined, patterns are found and followed, and eventually a coherent thread emerges that can be worked, mined and built upon until it is taken through to it’s natural conclusion whatever that may be. 

My notebook reflects the first half of that scribble, chaos and possibilities of things that never manifest into reality, a notebook of unkept promises and unexplored creative avenues.

I needed more structure, more formality, more focus, to give me a way to lift ideas from the pages of the chaos and carnage and out into their own space where they could breathe and grow without being overshadowed by other images, ideas, quotes, thoughts and rants, a clean space of their own.

Easy then I hear you all shouting at your screens, “a project notebook of their own!”  Job done, end of story, stop musing about it and get on with it I hear you say and thanks for wasting our time for that little nugget of obviousness. 

Well, again it’s not quite that straightforward.  When do I move something from my main notebook out to it’s own soft leather covered tome of elitism and endless possibility? What triggers that ceremonial unwrapping of new stationery, and through the process of putting pen to paper on that first unblemished page, to making the commitment of dedicating your own precious time and effort to this single idea above the others you’ve left behind?

Yes, there’s a gut feel that tells you when something has legs, that there’s an idea in there that is probably worth pursuing, but if that was the only bar to entry and I gave each of them their own notebook, on that simple test alone I’d have my own library of moleskines with only a few pages completed in each. It would be pointless, so there has to be something a bit more rigorous and considered.

And then there are the smaller things, the mini projects and series that emerge from a single day out, the moments of play which are unlikely to go any further but may at some point act as catalysts for other, greater things, they are the intermittent punctuations of a common theme that dot my notebook and as such are almost impossible to bring together and understand.

So, it’s clear then that I have a sliding scale of creative ideas to deal with, from single images, quotes, ideas, merest glimmers of ideas, through to well formed projects with a clear direction, purpose and end goal, and the need for a structure or process to move me through from one end of that scale to the other for those things that warrant it.

It’s fairly easy to map that sliding scale onto the scribble of chaos as you can see

But it still doesn’t clearly answer what makes it over the line and why. Well as I said I’m a consultant so it’s time to break out a table…

This gives me a nice neat point of delineation between my main notebook and the emergence of a project.  It also started to give me clues as to the questions that need answering in order to cross that line, the framework that something needs in order to be considered a fully fledged ‘project’.

1.Direction & Theme

Does it have an easily describable theme and direction? Can I simply, in a single paragraph of text, articulate what the linkage is between the images, what am I trying to communicate, where is it going, what is it trying to say? What is the very nature of the project?

2.Constraints, Commonality & Stylistic considerations

What brings this set of images together?  What are the commonalities they share? What are the constraints that apply to this work? Is there a geographical constraint? Are they dictated by a certain type of weather? Are there stylistic considerations, e.g. colour or black and white, high key or low key,? What are the compositional anchors, themes and ‘rules’ for this set of images? Is there a gear constraint, lens choice, camera selection?

3.Output

What is the final output? Exhibition? Book? Zine? Online PDF? If the output is known it may influence the constraints applied or stylistic considerations.

4.Critical Mass in 8-10 images

Can I pull together 8-10 images that when viewed together hang as a body of work, incomplete maybe, but cohesive, and answer some of the questions above?

 

As a bare minimum, to cross that line I need the critical mass box to be ticked, along with an idea of the constraints and commonalities that bring those images together at that point in time. I stress ‘at that point in time’ as once you start to explore that project in depth, experimentation and play may, and indeed should, test and stretch or change those constraints completely.

But as the work and ideas begin to mature, more of those questions will be answered, and with more certainty.  More images are added to the pot, some dead ends are unearthed now and again, but there is less deviation overall and a greater focus is achieved.  I find I can look at the images steadily accruing as part of the project and begin to spot gaps in the sequences, bifurcations in the chains of images that are forming and spot previously included images that now just stand out as not meeting the evolved criteria for inclusion.

I already have several bodies of work in various stages of maturity, and I mapped them onto my new structure to see if they fitted, and thankfully they all did.  So now, in addition to having a few growing sets of images loosely clumped around an idea, I also have a framework that I can begin to evaluate each of those bodies of work against, which in turn helps give me a focus and a reason to get out and shoot as I can use the constraints of those projects to tell me when the conditions are right. In short, when I have a day to get out with the camera, I can now go out with purpose rather than shuffling aimlessly and indecisively around my study before giving up and walking the dogs instead.

One final decision I made was to not simply use a new notebook to mark the emergence of a new project, instead I use project boxes, document storage boxes in fact, for each one.  This allows me to mark that transition with the grandiose sounding ‘the gathering’. A symbolic pulling together of not only prints of the images that comprise the project, but also, maps, sketches, notes, objects such as pebbles or shells from a beach or bark from a tree, that relate to that particular project in some way, and most importantly a sheet of paper with as many of the answers to those all important questions as I can muster.  It also means that as things mature further, potential paper samples, outline designs and mock ups for zines or books can also be included. A one place home for the project until it completes.

I’ve also rejigged my website to represent this a bit, and give a place for some of those Play type pieces of work that otherwise wouldn’t get much if any air time, I’ll keep adding to it as more emerge.  There are a couple of other projects waiting to be added to the list too, I just need more hours in the day to add them here.

Of course this all won’t work for everyone, in fact it probably won’t for anyone else, but it does work for me.  It helps an easily bored and constantly frustrated creative…me….feel focussed and on top of things….well at the moment anyway…and if you’ve got this far well done, make yourself a brew…you’ve earned it!  Not an image heavy blog this one, so here’s one you won’t have seen before as a very, very small reward…

1 Comment

  1. Carol Gregory  —  February 19, 2018 at 5:09 pm

    This is an interesting and coherent insight into what can be a chaotic process – thank you! I have many images, plenty of mini-series and beginnings, several project ideas in my ‘everything’ notebook, some maps and collections of material in various folders and envelopes (somewhere), a half-finished website and a chaotic garden office that is too cold and damp to use much of the time – but no coherent approach to bringing anything to fruition. The ideas started when on a workshop with Eddie Ephraums and David Ward, but except for the booklet that the workshop drew out of me, I’ve completed nothing since. There are seeds here that might just germinate – thank you for the nudge!

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