The other day, I was speaking with Brian Ulrich, doing a new interview for an upcoming book of interviews. As is widely know, Brian has spent about a decade on what is to become a book later this year, photographing - to sum it up in a somewhat simplified manner - the landscape of consumption in the US. I first met Brian about five or six years ago, and from talking with him I know a little bit about the evolution of all that work, with all its many complex elements. (more)
Of course, not every photography project takes a decade. Many (most?) are done in shorter periods of time, even though months or a few years are fairly common. But there also are those bodies of work done in a very short period of time. I don’t know whether this is actually true, but I am under the impression that those short-term projects over the past few years have become more and more ubiquitous, leading to an increasing number of photobooks.
There is no universal law that determines the correlation between the time a project takes to finish and the quality of its outcome. Your project does not get better and better the more time you spend on it. And even something done over the course of, let’s say, two weeks could become a very meaningful and exciting photobook.
But it seems safe to say that a body of work done in two weeks usually looks like a body of work done in two weeks. It’s very, very hard to imagine someone producing a body of work as wide in scope and profound in meaning as Brian’s in two weeks. And we don’t even have to talk about projects that in some sense are documentary in character. It gets even more complex when we think of work that is metaphorical, say, or does whatever else it is that many “fine art” projects do.
So most photo projects (and their resulting photobooks) done in two weeks look and feel like they were done in two weeks. In fact, most of the time, you don’t even really need the book, because once you’ve seen the images on the screen, there is nothing else to discover. You see it once, you’ve seen it all.
At the risk of sounding like that old scratchy record again, what I’m looking for in photography is something that turns me into a different person, something that I need to come back to, something that when I come back to it looks and feels at least slightly different even though it’s the same images. I believe such photography comes from a photographer who has undergone a transformation her/himself. In part, that is why some projects take a long time to do: It’s not just that taking the photographs takes time, it’s also that their maker evolves along with the images.
You get none of that in projects shot in two weeks, projects where there is an idea, someone take the photos and then calls it a day. Mind you, there is nothing wrong with photography done that way, but I’m just not so interested in it.
Digital photography and our times, encouraging consumption and always asking for something new, seem to have made producing quick projects (and photobooks) ever more common. I just need to ask: Is that such a good development? I don’t think it is.