Projects are good, projects with deadlines are better.
So I thought a few months ago, when I decided to participate in six group exhibitions and a camera club book project in 2010. That would give me milestones and force me to keep working consistently. Besides, there’s no thrill like seeing your work out there on the wall or on the page for everyone to see.
The PhotoAccess Members’ Show in May is an annual fixture, requiring one to three works that are less than two years old. No mining the archives here, it’s all about growing and developing as a photographer. That’s a good thing, though it can a scramble to find fresh work to exhibit. Still, a last minute panic can have surprising creative spin-offs: I shot my glassware shadows series the afternoon before a Members’ Show deadline, then had to teach myself black and white inkjet printing before framing and delivering the work the next afternoon. All this because I couldn’t bear to miss a Members’ Show.
Other regular events are the annual CPS exhibition in July and Hang It Yourself at PhotoAccess in September. This year we also had Holiday Snaps: A Members’ Postcard Show at PhotoAccess and, thanks to Ray Osmotherly, Diversity at Strathnairn Homestead Gallery. Then there is Thredbo, a group exhibition by participants in a recent PhotoAccess weekend in Thredbo. Whew!
Be prepared to scrap plan A
I put my hand up for all six exhibitions, assuming that I would have the work in hand when the time came. Easy, I thought. The postcard show in February didn’t demand recent work, so I could do a mini retrospective of my travel photos. I went through my collection, looking for the great images I thought were there. Alas, the harvest was disappointing – plenty of good mages, but only a few with that extra edge you want for an exhibition. The best of those had already appeared in past exhibitions.
Clearly, the travel retrospective wasn’t going to fly. So I went through the whole collection several times, making postcard prints of favourites that I hadn’t shown before and kept on sorting, discarding and re-sorting until something worthwhile emerged. I ended up with two parallel series: a set of four colourful 35mm and digital images and six muted Holga and Polaroid shots. Only two pre-2006 images made it into the postcard pack and most of the work was more recent. This was nothing like the original plan but I was very happy with the result.
Continuous assessment required
It’s sobering to look back over your work a few years down the track, but it’s also a great learning experience. Some images stand the test of time, others need to make way for better ones. The postcard experience demonstrated that I should work through the whole collection, weeding out the duds and dividing the rest into hero shots (that select handful you know will last) and probable keepers, which will stay on probation until the next review.
It’s obvious, I know, but most of us shrink from the task of culling our photos – too hard, too tedious, too depressing, no time! But it’s even more depressing to search through unusable and ordinary images to find the ones that matter. Even the hero shots can get lost in all the clutter. For example, I thought there were only four images in my 2006 Autumn Reflections series, but I recently found a fifth one – arguably the best of the lot – lurking among the many rejects from that project. So cull the collection and let the best ones shine! And why not put a flag on the ones with exhibition and competition potential while you’re at it?
Be critical but don’t overdo it
The next three exhibition deadlines came close together in late April and May, so I set out to grab every photo opportunity I could. The Multicultural Festival, the Canberra Show, the Thredbo excursion, the CPS visit to Braidwood, a visit to Gunning with photographer friends – all were occasions for much fun and photography, but none of my images were that great. The theory is sound enough: keep shooting and experimenting and the right images will come, in time. It’s the inevitable failures and “OK but not great” images that get me down There are so many of them!
That is doubly discouraging when I’m looking for exhibition images. Sifting through two years’ work this year’s Members’ Show, I found one – count it, one – exhibition standard image I had not already shown. Fortunately, one is enough – better one strong image than several weaker ones. If in doubt, leave it out – it’s no fun realising too late that an exhibition image doesn’t quite make the grade.
Then there was Thredbo. Plenty of photos, but nothing I thought up to printing on A3 plus paper for an exhibition. So my exhibition print was a set of eight small images laid out in sequence to make a story board of the weekend. Nicely finessed, I thought, only to be told one of said photos was “a corker” that would have looked great as a large print. Sigh. Maybe I’ll put that one in Hang It Yourself.
And there’s another lesson: get a second opinion. It’s all too easy to under or overrate your own work. Find someone you trust to give you an honest appraisal, and make sure they see the ones you aren’t sure about. You could be pleasantly surprised.
Start a project, pick a theme
By the time I had a chance to focus on the Strathnairn exhibition I was profoundly grateful I had already been photographing Fyshwick for a book the Southside Camera Club is putting together on Canberra suburbs in autumn. That gave me a firm deadline for something I had been meaning to get around to for ages and, at the same time, a set of related images for the the exhibition. Just as well, too – filling my second piece of wall space at Strathnairn required another mad scramble through the archives….
Working on a specific project or theme is a great way to avoid that despairing hunt for exhibition images. Many of our more prolific CPS members work in series, producing strong sets of related images such as Barb Smith’s Russian sequence and Judy Parker’s City Underfoot and Near and Far series in the Diversity exhibition at Strathnairn. Some specialise in particular subjects or techniques, such as Murray Foote’s musicians, Ross Gould’s actors, dancers and acrobats, and Brain Rope’s montages. These photographers always have plenty of strong images to exhibit, though some occasionally have trouble trimming their selection to fit the available space. I call that a good problem – much better than making that umpteenth pass through already well-sifted archives.
Don’t stress out
Above all, remember that you’re doing this for love. Don’t turn it into hard work – photography is supposed to be fun. And sometimes the best images come when we’re just fooling around and experimenting freely, without worrying about getting it perfect every time. Remember to play. If an image is out of focus and you like it anyway, well, that’s art, isn’t it?
Andrée Lawrey | June 2010