As a newspaper photographer, my subject matter is often assignment-driven and specific. I might go to the park for a feature photograph or head to the pool for a portrait of two swimmers. While these can be interesting and rewarding to document, I, like many photographers, also enjoy pursuing personal photo projects.
Projects help maintain an active engagement in the craft of image-making, and they enable us to visually share with others things we enjoy or find important. The question is, what subject do we choose and is it worth photographing?
I have a large collection of photography books I lean on for inspiration and to discover what other photographers find value in for their subjects.
Not even the sky is the limit on subject matter. While you might feel silly spending your free photo time taking snapshots of pets, consider the success of William Wegman and photojournalist Elliott Erwitt. Each has doggedly pursued man’s best friend as the focus of two distinctive bodies of work.
Wegman is famous for photographing Weimaraners — often his own — in various poses and costumes. It seems the longer he investigates the subject, the more creative he becomes.
Although Erwitt doesn’t pursue images of dogs full time, as a globe-trotting photojournalist his keen eye has captured a career-long series of humorous canine photographs. Identifying a single subject and sticking to it tends to expand a photographer’s possibilities rather than limit them.
While documenting the Amish in Pennsylvania, photographer George Tice realized that everything about the subject was worthy of his camera’s attention.
“As I progressed further with my project,” Tice says, “it became obvious that it was really unimportant where I chose to photograph.”
Subject-driven projects can be as short as a birthday party or decades long.
In 1975, photographer Nicholas Nixon took a portrait of his wife and her three sisters. Every year since, he has photographed the Brown sisters in the same order, left to right. To view this fascinating series, check out this site.
Recently my wife used a point-and-shoot camera to photograph the life cycle of lotus flowers at an area pond. Editing through the collection, I was struck by the diversity of images. From the stark contrast of plant stalks against ice in winter, to the dried, colorless leaves in fall, each image was a unique interpretation of a lotus plant.
Focusing on one subject can be a creative and liberating experience. And, as French photographer Robert Doisneau says, “all subjects are worthy of attention.” It isn’t necessarily the grandness of the subject that is important, but rather the dedication and enthusiasm you have for the subject.
In the end you’ll have a unique and personal collection of images to share with others.