#951. On Projects

By Dave Jenkins | How-To

Jan 10

As I wrote recently to a friend — Steve, I think you are looking in the wrong place for a solution to your photo-malaise. You are looking at process, not purpose. Changing cameras, lenses, experimenting with film, seeking to emulate other photographers (although that is not necessarily a bad thing in itself) — these are all process issues and are not a solution.

A small, country church in Dooly County, south Georgia

As the always iconoclastic and often perceptive Andrew Molitor says, “Photographers, culturally, seem to have a terrible problem with looking for technical solutions to creative problems.”

Town Square and Courthouse, McDonough, Georgia

The cure for photo-malaise is not process, it is purpose. Why are you taking pictures? If the goal of making pleasing photographs is simply to make pleasing photographs, your efforts will sooner or later run out of steam and lapse into photo-malaise. I was a photographer for many years, even a professional for most of that time, before I discovered who I am as a photographer. When I was photographing for clients I was usually working on some kind of project and toward a specific purpose. I often found that work satisfying, although I did not at the time understand why. When photographing for myself I sought to make pleasing pictures, but more or less at random.

Fayette County Courthouse, Fayetteville, Georgia

It was while working on a project — photographs for the book Rock City Barns: A Passing Era in the mid-’90s that I began to find a sense of who I am as a photographer. I think of it as “finding my voice.” After the book came out it attracted some attention in the art photography community and I received a letter from a well-known art photographer who urged me to create an artist’s statement, defining myself and my work. I thought about it, and this is what I came up with:

“My domain is the old, the odd, and the ordinary; the beautiful, the abandoned, and the about to vanish away. I am a visual historian of an earlier America and a recorder of the interface between man and nature; a keeper of vanishing ways of life.”

Short’s Mill, near Clarkesville, Georgia
Starr’s Mill, Fayette County, Georgia

While traveling to make the photographs for the Rock City Barn book, I began picking up pictures for another subject that interested me, and now it’s almost ready to become a book: Found on Road Dead: An Anthology of Abandoned Automobiles.

Small barn near Lookout Mtn., Walker County, Georgia
Manning Brothers Service Station, Glynn County, Georgia

Since that time, I’ve been accumulating photographs for various projects in keeping with my statement of purpose. Photography is almost complete for Lost Barns of Rock City — a book of barns that were lost from Rock City’s records and which I discovered on my various travels or in response to tips from people who knew of barns that were not in the first book. Other book projects in various stages of photography include Old Houses of Georgia, People of Georgia, Tennessee: A Backroads Portrait, and Israel Today: The Land and the People.

Chaise Lounge, Irwin County, Georgia
Susie’s Sunset Cafe, LaFayette, Georgia

Does all that sound ambitious? Of course it is! Will some (any) of these books see publication? Possibly. Georgia: A Backroads Portrait is complete and is currently making the rounds of publishers. And Countryman Press, which rejected Backroads Portrait because they no longer do coffee-table books, nevertheless assigned me to create a book in a different format, Backroads and Byways of Georgia, which was released in 2017.

Demented Spider, Walker County, Georgia
Face-off, Ware County, Georgia

Meantime, I don’t have to worry about photo-malaise. I only have to worry about finding time and money (for travel) to work on my various projects. I am 82, in reasonable health, and have a reason to get up every morning. I will continue to pursue my photo-projects as long as I can. Find yourself a project. Or several. Breath new life into your photography. The world is full of opportunities.

Danny Gandy and friend, Dooly County, Georgia. “This is not a fighting cock!”
Boynton Beauty Salon, Catoosa County, Georgia

By the way, this is exactly the approach recommended by Magnum photographer David Hurn in his great little book On Being a Photographer (written with Bill Jay).

Bottoms Up! Floyd County, Georgia

Check out Georgia: A Backroads Portrait at Blurb.com

And if you should happen to have a friend in the publishing business. . .

Dave Jenkins blogs at alifeinphotography.blogspot.com


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  • John W says:

    Dave – Delightful article and images. I know the “project” thing all too well. My problem is the projects tend to morph in directions and ways I never anticipated and push me off in other directions I never imagined existed. All fascinating and engrossing, but 6, 8, a dozen or twenty images on a subject or theme, never enough for a book.

    My sister lives in Atlanta. Maybe I should visit more often.

    • Dave Jenkins says:

      Thanks, John. You definitely should visit Georgia more often. And when you do, pick up a copy of my book “Backroads and Byways of Georgia. It’s available at Amazon.

  • jean pierre (pete) guaron says:

    Hi Dave – welcome to DS – thanks for sharing some of your thoughts and your photographs. I chuckled when I got to Danny – I’m passionate about the quality of the food that comes into my kitchen, and I only buy free range eggs – he’s obviously a kindred spirit!

    I loved the quote from Andrew Molitor!

    And like you, I’ve been setting myself “projects” for some years. Some of them have been remarkably useful – one in particular has taught me a huge amount about “light” – which of course is the very basis of photography.

    I also loved your final photo – the action is nicely frozen!

  • Leonard says:

    Projects. Themes. Stories. Aye, them’s the rub, all right, Dave.

    Your post got me all jazzed to get back to it.

    We shall see.


  • Frank Field says:

    Dave — Your comments on purpose are well-taken. Your images have shown me things I missed when I lived in Atlanta for a year but was glued to my graduate studies and too busy to visit most of the Peach Tree state. Your image of Susie’s Sunset Cafe seems as tho a modern Norman Rockwell scene and truly emphasizes the value of “wait for the light.”

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