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Thursday, 02 September 2010


An ex post facto project is already written into the (non)plan at the beginning, because anything you do is unified by you, a place or places, an interest, and/or a taste for what is worth showing.

Thanks Ctein.
I was almost despairing my lack of thematic focus. I had even contemplated *gulp* planning something.

But now that I know that you get by (with a little help from your friends) I am comfortable in my aimless wandering in life.

I am at this moment quoting the Karamazov brothers on whatever social networking site I frequent most.


"An ex post facto project is already written into the (non)plan at the beginning, because anything you do is unified by you, a place or places, an interest, and/or a taste for what is worth showing."

I think that might be constructing a tautology--if everything you do is unified by the fact that you did it, then the whole idea of "theme" gets obliterated.

What I was originally talking about was some idea that energizes someone's work--organizes it--suggests things to shoot, places to go, modes of approach. "Wandering around and hoping for the best" explicitly doesn't qualify in my book, just by the definition.


So the distinction you're making is between "shooting to a theme" where you go out with a theme in mind and deliberately make pictures towards that theme, vs. assembling a monograph later from pictures you took without any particular thematic intent? Scotland was just a place you were, and you shot pictures, and what resulted could be a monograph as it turned out?

I'm curious why a trip to Cape Canaveral to shoot space pictures doesn't count as in some way thematic?

"Consistency? That's a bore."

Well, it may be a bore but worth enduring if, say, you are trying to produce an edition of prints.

A better expression of what I think you mean is, "A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds." Wiki gives Emerson the credit for that little gem.


I think the main thing is to keep plugging away, and when you get home, see what you've got.

Aside from keeping the love affair with photography alive in commercially stressful times, having a few themes helps me overcome the occasional writer's block. Going out with something in mind helps me get motivated. Clouds are always a favorite subject, and I'm working on a series of hand-painted lettering, going in for tight abstractions much like Walker Evans's Polaroids.

One great thing about photography is the serendipitous; when I go out looking at clouds there's no telling what surprises I'll come across.

First Snow, Minneapolis -2009. by Ctein

This a theme is it not Ctein.

We don't get snow where I live, thanks for sharing what a first snow feels like.

When I think of projects/themes I seem to come back to this article sent by a dear friend.
I seem to fall into them with little or no forethought. The latest one spins my prop as I truly enjoy the experience of being there. The photography is but a sketch pad for the remembering.

As an amateur 'hobbyist' photographer a lot of my images over the years have centred on opportunities arising from travel. In fact, I refer to myself as an 'opportunist' photographer because I don't go out seeking images - I wait to stumble over them. Not very efficient, but it fits the lifestyle - never one to get up before dawn in freezing weather!
But lately I discovered Brooks Jensen's "Lenswork" site and magazine and have become interested in the concept of folios that he features. I'd recommend a look for anyone who hasn't found the site before now. With 50 years of stored negatives there's no doubt that I can mine them to create a few themed folios but It has also awoken me to the fact that this creative process can take place over several years. One needs to have some concept of what is of interest but there's no need to go out and complete the task in six days, weeks or even months. Opportunities will come that will fit one of the conceptual folios and so you take the image(s) and file them away to add to the selection you will eventually make. And while this is going on I can go into my darkroom and reprint some of the earlier negatives to suit the format and presentation of the folios I have in mind. Some will come to fruition - some not.
Seems like a pretty good way to go for now. Gives some more purpose to a lot of my photographic forays and a definite outcome in terms of a creative package I can produce as gifts or maybe even for sale at the local market!

All this talk about themes got me to thinking and I came up with an idea for one that will be easy to do because of where I live. I started it yesterday.



I think a lot depends on your definition of "theme". For example, this morning I went out to a local park to shoot some natural landscapes. Is a location necessarily a theme? or does a theme need to be an idea in the back of your mind?
For me, I am also an opportunistic photographer. I find it much more comfortable working on each image as an individual statement. If two or more images work together, either by design (theme?) or happenstance (portfolio mining?) so much the better...

What happens with me is that I never begin with a theme or concept. In the course of just making pictures though, a theme may emerge and then I'll begin to follow it. Even once I start to follow that theme I'll still photograph anything else I run into that looks like it might make a picture. So one of my large, not yet completed projects--"White Churches"--consists almost entirely of subjects I ran into while traveling to work on my (large, uncompleted) project on drive-in theaters.

Ctein, after reading Mike's article on themes I've been thinking of making some printed portfolios of 12-24 photographs, which presents some practical issues. The first is the size of print, which would be determined by the aspect ratio of the print (2:3 in my case) and the size of portfolio boxes that can be purchased.

A search on the web for typical portfolio print sizes did not yield much, although I found that Eggleston had produced a 16x20 inch (40.6 x w: 50.8 cm) portfolio called Los Alamos (dye transfer prints, by the way). I couldn't find information on the size of the prints themselves, but calculated in a spreadsheet the following alternatives that would, for prints in "landscape" orientation, result in equal top, left and right borders and a slightly large bottom border on the mounting board (in inches):

[sorry for the weird formatting of the tables, but the preview metrics of Typepad doesn't match those of the entry screen]

Print Size.................................8.5x12.75...9x13.5...10x15
Top/Left/Right Border............3.625.........3.25........2.5
Bottom Border..........................3.875.........3.75........3.5

As a 16x20 inch portfolio box is quite large, I also calculated the following print sizes for two smaller available box sizes, based again on a landscape orientation 2:3 aspect ratio having equal top, left and right borders and a somewhat larger bottom border (in inches):

Board Size...........................12.5x15..........14x18
Print Size.............................7x10.5........8.5x12.75
Top/Left/Right Border..........2.25.............2.625
Bottom Border........................3.25.............2.875

The next issue is how to mount the print. I would use 2- or 4-ply buffered board on which I would dry-mount the print. Dry mounting is an issue as it is not considered archival, but in an humid environment like Bangkok or, for that matter, Washington, DC in the summer, prints buckle in with changes in humidity; and fiber based prints, both digital and silver halide tend to curl.

Finally, the over-matt — I'm not sure what it's called — would be cut so that it would be, say, 3/8ths inch larger than the print and ¼ inch at the bottom. Usually, in a portfolio, an over-mount is put on each print but I was thinking that I would provide one per box for viewing the prints because if the portfolio is sold and the buyer wants to frame the prints he or she would, in any case, probably use a larger over-matt and frame — or is it tacky not to put an over-matt on every print in a portfolio.

I would appreciate the views and comments of anyone on these portfolio production issues.


I think a good project rises out of a deep conviction. I've brainstormed a few and actually gotten started, only to lose interest and revert to stumbling (which is my preferred mode, too). If I'm not consumed by an idea, I think it will show in the photos.

But it seems we're at a point that, if an artist wants their photography taken seriously, it has to take the form of a project accompanied by an absurdly pretentious mission statement. Did HCB ever write such a statement? Moriyama? I don't know. Recently, I read an interview where Moriyama referred to his own work as snapshots.

I hope that someday an issue will move me so deeply I'll be compelled to photograph it obsessively and show the world what they've been missing. Until then, it's beauty for beauty's sake.

Dear Michael,

And how do you know what's unified by *me*?

Analysis of the themes that run through an artist's work is a standard and important part of artistic understanding and criticism, but there's a difference between the themes that are found in a body of work and a body of work that is created to a theme.

For me, anyway. Maybe for you they feel exactly the same. I can't speak to that. But I'm the one living in this head and I can speak to it.


Dear Jamin,

Be sure to give credit where credit is due [smile]. In fact, if one wants to be precise about the probe announced, my recollection is that the phrase should be attributed to Randy Nelson, formerly Alyosha of the FKB and currently Dean of Pixar University.

And knowing the way social networking and communications work, 30 seconds after this gets posted, someone at Pixar will be pointing it out to Randy, so everybody wave and say, "Hi, Randy! Ho!"


Dear DDB,

It all depends on the direction of time's arrow. I made The Final Frontier well after I made all those space program photographs. The photographing of the Apollo and Shuttle missions themselves? They were assignments-- "Go to Event X, and come back with Y usable photos." A goal to be sure, but not much of a creational theme.

But it could have been! Take a look at John Sexton's "Places of Power;" he worked the same subject matter I did, but he went into it with an artistic intent and structure in mind (I presume).

Further confounding the matter, back in the early 1980s, Jeff Hecht and I tried to figure out a way to turn my space program photographs into a book. We gave it up because we just couldn't figure out a coherent post-hoc theme to build the book around; we were missing the High Concept. When I saw John's wonderful book, I mentally slapped myself upside the head thinking, "Doh! We coulda done THAT one!"

But, for me, I think the intent has to be there BEFORE the photos are made. Regardless of how many good photos I got out of our trip to the North Shore of Lake Superior back in July, I wasn't working to a theme. I was I was just doing my usual stumbling-over thing. Even if I am likely to be able to pull one or two good chapbooks out of them (which seems likely).


Dear John,

Maybe... maybe not! One of the reasons an awful lot of people like hand-crafted work is because no two pieces are exactly alike. You'll even find a fair percentage of photographers and collectors who don't like digital prints in part because they can be as exactly alike as a machine can make that.

Personally, that doesn't bother me one bit. But it very much bothers quite a few people.

~ pax \ Ctein
[ Please excuse any word-salad. MacSpeech in training! ]
-- Ctein's Online Gallery http://ctein.com 
-- Digital Restorations http://photo-repair.com 

Dear Robert,

"First Snow, Minneapolis -2009" is an interesting case. It, in fact, was not a creational theme. I just think first snowfalls are really, really neat and can't resist photographing them. Only later, when I was trying to decide what kind of a chapbook I wanted to do for my Contributors, did I realize there were enough good photos in that day's work to build one. So, much like the Scottish Highlands, this was a post-hoc theme.

On the other hand, 18 month ago I was out with DDB (David Dyer-Bennet) photographing Mississippi Lock and Dam #1 (see one photo from that session in this recent column: http://tinyurl.com/2e8bg9e), and I said to him pretty early in the session, "Hey, I'm getting so much interesting stuff here that I'll probably be able to build something like a portfolio or a chapbook around it." At which point the idea was in my head. What effect did it have on my photography? I have no idea. Maybe none. Or maybe everything. But that one thought moved it from being a post-hoc theme to a creational one.

When I first thought of offering the Contributors a chapbook for resubscribing, that was the one I had in mind. Then I became entranced with the first snowfall photographs and changed my mind. I'm an artist. I get to do that. [g]

(Aside to the audience: my next couple of columns will be about how to make chapbooks, so please hold your questions until then.)

~ pax \ Ctein
[ Please excuse any word-salad. MacSpeech in training! ]
-- Ctein's Online Gallery http://ctein.com 
-- Digital Restorations http://photo-repair.com 

Ctein I do envy your stumbling! The difference between us, is I stumble and manage to fall flat on my face. As I said in the previous comments I have tried and tried to go out without preconceived ideas but it doesn´t bring many successful photos home. At least when I´m round my local area I stumble, once I move out and travel I see images everywhere, it´s just that with two little kids I don´t travel too much. So I need a theme to bring something back to work on, I´m bored with setting out before sunrise to find a nice landscape image. I can do it every time, however I find those images boring and I believe those round me also find them uninteresting.
I shouldn't generalise....I find that when I go out shooting images without a theme I´m self deluding MYSELF.
By the way Ctein, I´ve got the Minolta Dimage Scan 5400, I´ve always used the original Minolta program like you, however I tried VueScan the other day and I was quite impressed. Have you tried it out?

Thank you. As someone who does not follow themes I take solace from hearing that others do not. I don't begin to claim to be a great photographer but I have often been recommended to 'follow a theme' I always thought that I was the one failing for not having that great theme to follow.

While I'm (obviously) one of those who photograph to a theme, my chosen theme is quite broad. In fact, it dictates little more than the time and place when and where my photography is done and not much else. I have never not taken an interesting photo because it didn't fit my theme and I'd like to think that despite my focus in certain directions, I remain open to explore other options, in other directions, as they present themselves.

For me, the benefit of always having a theme in my mind is that it provides me with a starting point for every outing. It means I don't need to make all my decisions, all at once, in advance, before I set out from the house with my camera and tripod in tow.

Which is a good thing, as it always seemed to be the first decision that I had to make -- what should I photograph this time? -- that ultimately proved to be the insurmountable obstacle that managed to keep me home more often than not. With a theme in mind, however, this is no longer an issue and the end result is that whereas as I used to get out photographing once a month (maybe), I now get out once, if not twice, each week. And as the old saying goes, practice makes perfect ...

"I have often been recommended to 'follow a theme' I always thought that I was the one failing for not having that great theme to follow."

I don't think you should have to feel that way about it. It's your photography, you decide what you want to do with it. As long as it's not illegal or immoral, go for it.

Any time I talk about my beliefs and recommendations, they're just suggestions. I'm assuming everyone will evaluate them for themselves and then take them or leave them. There's no "one right way" and no "you have to do it my way" in my view. Of course I will try my best to convince you I'm right, but ultimately any decision is yours alone...with no "you must feel guilty" attachment.


I think I just found the perfect way to describe what kind of photographer I am:

I'm an ad hoc 'tog.

I find my genius* all over the place, but only if I show up to meet it.

*To understand how I am using the term "genius" here, please see this incredible TED Talk video by Elizabeth Gilbert: http://www.ted.com/talks/elizabeth_gilbert_on_genius.html

Having just moved to Tbilisi I'm struggling to take pictures mainly because everything is new and the temptation to go crazy and take pictures of everything is always there.

At times like this a theme seems like a good idea - not because it will produce great pictures or a compelling narrative but because it will force some discipline.

Since exerting control is more important than the visual coherence of the theme my idea is to do some '20 two 1' shooting - 20 pictures, 2 hours, 1 street. Is this a theme? I think the 1 street part makes it so but that anything in the street is up for grabs saves it from being too rigid.

Maybe I'll start today.

Wandering around aimlessly hoping for miracle shots clearly doesn't count as a working method. But then again, just compiling similar shots can be equally uncreative. Strict typologies can be one of the banes of photography, producing endless variants of an initial success.

I often start with a vague intangible feeling, that only develops into an idea during the taking of photographs. I’d compare it to jazz - starting out with a scrap of an idea, a small known theme, then improvising and working it into something quite unexpected.

So it’s a mixture of an initial trigger, improvised musing during the taking of photographs, and then a long process of post facto distillation and editing.

Thank you both for introducing a thought-provoking topic for discussion.
My personal photography is project driven. Before planning a photoshoot I lwork out the theme and application for the images (exhibition, book, calendar, home display, gift, etc.).
On the other hand new projects will no doubt occur to me later. So when on a photoshoot I take pictures for my personal stock. It helps to give a new project a flying start to by mining my stock of existing images.
This also works well for long-term projects that may take years to mature. For example, I have one on Solitude. When on a photoshoot for another project, I always keep an eye open for possible shots that might work for "Solitude".
So I guess my practice is a hybrid of project driven and personal stock driven. That's a kind of future-proofing.

I've got several theme-oriented ideas, but I lack the opportunities for the most of them and cannot realise the others for various reasons.

Still, is it a theme if I have various topics I'm interested in and have shot them more than once? Or it's just... I don't know what. For instance, I have this old abandoned cemetery quite close to my home and like shooting there occasionally. Is it a theme?

BTW, Mitch, it's a Passe-Partout. 9-6mm is a very unusual size for a Passe-Partout, btw.

Personally, I have tried not to limit myself to either/or. It has been interesting to go back and look at my collection of images and discover that there have been "themes" that I wasn't aware of when they were made. Now when I go out I look for oportunities to add to those "themes", but I don't limit my field of view to looking for just those "themes". Hopefully this will lead to an ever expanding list of "themes", instead of a case of perpetual lenshood gazing.

I have another personal reason to go out with a theme and that's because I've been on crutches for the last 10 months so I need a plan/theme to make it worth trudging along every morning at 5:30am. Of course it's not perfect or foolproof and I don't always come home with anything decent it's just that I don't have the luxury to go exploring.

Those of you who are tied down to family obligations and work probably will benefit from a theme, it's organizing and at least trying to rely as little as possible on luck.


I think some are missing the point of Mike's original post. As I see it, the theme or project isn't meant to be an end unto itself; rather, it's a technique that some photographers use or may want to try to help them focus and develop their creativity. If you don't like working with a theme or find it too constraining, c'est la vie, to each his own, etc. There's no right or wrong approach.

At a workshop with John Paul Caponigro two years ago, we talked about this at one point. My conclusion was that my default theme is "photos that I happen to like."

Sometimes themes emerge after the fact, and I'll make a special trip to try and fill something in, but generally when I go out thinking "I'm going to get a great picture of a guernsey cow today" (to pick an example out of thin air), I come home empty-handed. My muse, such as it is, apparently doesn't like having too specific of a goal.

Now I might head out looking specifically for a farm that has guernsey cattle to fill in a hole in a theme, but I'll feel free to shoot the combine sitting in the front yard, the red barn, the white church just down the road, and other things. And maybe even a cow. But maybe not.

Darned fickle muse. :/

And Ctein, JP has been going gung-ho with chapbooks printed on-demand by blurb. http://www.johnpaulcaponigro.com/blog/?tag=print-on-demand picks out most of those columns, which you may find interesting.

My own experience of photographing to a theme is varied. I have been working on the Badlands as subject for 30 years and hope to continue to do so for many years to come. I visited Independent Machinery as a spontaneous, out cruising, why don't we look in here idea. After working for a few hours, I made some nice images and returned with prints and an idea for another shot, but found even more exciting stuff to photograph. To my surprise that continued until I had visited a total of 15 times over a year, continuing to find new and interesting things to photograph even though I felt the I'd pretty much wound things up on each previous visit. I even changed the subject somewhat, from semi abstract close ups of machinery and steel parts, to photographing the people who made them - the first time in my life I had done any serious work photographing people.

That has led to a planned project. I recently decided to retry film and large format, and even went so far as to purchase a 5X7 and I'm going to photograph the people at the local mall where I shop - the barber, shoe repair man, the lady who slices my luncheon meat and the fellow at the local convenience store.

I like the idea that I'm pushing my boundaries a bit.

Funny how one thing leads to another and how themes may not call out to you until you stumble on them by chance.

The post above by Jeffrey Goggin states more effectively what I was trying to write. And, wow, is his work great.

My wife and I are members of a photo club--Vienna Photographic Society--and we have members who work to broad themes. They shoot "birds", "nature", "landscapes", "flowers", etc. We have competitions that require the entries to be part of a theme--3 this year(this year: water; planes, trains, or automobiles; and patterns). To generalize, most members are uncomfortable with shooting to a theme and the related competitions are usually under-represented with entries. Many of our members relish these themed competitions because they force our members to shoot outside the box--away from their usual themes. To many of our members, these themed competitions are like assignments and they--hobbyists--don't like assignments; they like to shoot what they like to shoot. So, it seems that shooting to a theme requires planning (duh!), while "stumbling around shooting" doesn't (well, not as much). Interesting insights from folks, though. Thanks.

Dear Guy,

"Wandering around aimlessly hoping for miracle shots clearly doesn't count as a working method."

Oh, and why not, pray tell?

That just what I've been doing for 40+ years, and it's been a very successful strategy for me.

Maybe it isn't a method that would work for you, but it sure works for me.


Dear Jeffrey,

Yup! A creational theme can be a time and place (as in my Dam and Locks #1)... or not (as in First Snowfall). Or both at the same time, vis John Sexton's and my different approaches to photographing at Cape Canaveral.

I think a point that some readers have been letting slip past them is that "theme" is not a tangible object in the real world-- it's a concept in our thoughts. It may be definable in terms of mentation but it certainly cannot be definable as a physical description or action, any more than happiness can. Folks who try to parse the question that way are just gonnna tie themselves in knots.

pax / Ctein

Dear Steve,

I think that's not unusual. Mike wrote a couple of articles some time back about photographic projects. (Unfortunately, I don't have pointers to them-- perhaps he can find them.) What I got from the comments was that a common way that a photographic project develops is someone making a moderate number of photographs without an overarching thematic intent, of something that interests them. They look at the work they're doing, and realize that there is a theme/project there. Then it starts to become intentional for them (though not usually monomaniacal).

I can say that was true of my projects, so far. In the case of "Christmas" I made photographs like that for several years before it stopped being merely a hobby and became a thematic project. In the case of "Kilauea" it only took one session of photographing that subject matter for me to look at the prints and go, "Damn, this needs to be a book!" And in the case of "Lock and Dam #1" it happened in midsession (yes, I think chimping is a creative tool).

Of course of course the vast majority of my photography still isn't thematic; I'm just talking about the stuff that it is.

I'm certain that not everybody does this the same way. I've known of photographers finding a creational theme in their work only after the project is done; for them, the theme seems to remain unconscious when they're making the photographs. It's not a post-hoc theme; they do feel it guides what photographs they made. It just didn't operate on a conscious level.

Conversely, the two new themes that I alluded to in the article (one undescribed and the other being the nighttime aerial photography) seem to have sprung full-blown from my brow. I have made no photographs at all that even relate to either one or that would be incorporated in the finished work. If I decide to follow up on these projects, every single photograph I make around those subjects will have been informed by thematic intent.

Pretty much the exact opposite of stumbling over cool photographs.

But, then, I am happy to contradict myself, for I contain multitudes (thank you Walt Whitman).

~ pax \ Ctein
[ Please excuse any word-salad. MacSpeech in training! ]
-- Ctein's Online Gallery http://ctein.com 
-- Digital Restorations http://photo-repair.com 

Dear Craig,

I think you're pretty insightful, yourself. In fact, I think you've pinned down exactly why I may not do these hypothetical future themed projects of mine. They would require some measure of planning and organization and assembling certain kinds of gear and scheduling certain times to do photography, in contrast to my normal stumbling-over-photographs approach. The latter is so much easier!

~ pax \ Ctein
[ Please excuse any word-salad. MacSpeech in training! ]
-- Ctein's Online Gallery http://ctein.com 
-- Digital Restorations http://photo-repair.com 

“Until the film is edited, I have no idea myself what it will be about. And perhaps not even then. Perhaps the film will only be a mood, or a statement about a style of life. Perhaps it has no plot at all, in the way you use the word. I depart from the script constantly. I may film scenes I had no intention of filming; thing suggest themselves on location, and we improvise. I try not to think about it too much. Then, in the cutting room, I take the film and start to put it together, and only then do I begin to get an idea of what it is about." -Michelangelo Antonioni to Roger Ebert in 1969

It's nice to know I am not alone, indeed I seem to be in good company, but still the nagging doubt remains. Is the lack of discipline inherent in my rather random and hopeful approach actually stunting my artistic development, or is the issue actually more to do with setting oneself challenges?

In the end, perhaps the thematic issue is a red herring. Poets find expression in succinct ideas, each self-consistent and profound but seldom thematic. Novelists on the other hand are obsessed with narrative, with the development of a thematic idea to its conclusion. Interestingly, many poets claim that a random experience or thought can spark a spontaneous poetic outpouring whereas most novelists claim that each book has to be forced out through sheer willpower, day after day.

Either way, the key to success seems to be to labour hard to develop your technique, such that when opportunity does present itself you know how to react. In some ways, being a poet is far more demanding, both aesthetically and technically, which is possibly why so many of us struggle with it.

Ctein, You and Mike have touched on a topic that stimulates my mental juices. While i am willing to talk hardware it is the less tangible aspects of the art of photography that I find the most interesting. I'm forever trying to figure out what makes one image more successful than another(at least for me). It is a source of wonder that some scenes or subjects tug at me and others don't. I should mention that I am not usually a people photographer although I have had some experience there. I am drawn to scenes that Richard Estes might paint or Stephen Shore might photograph, but why? I look forward to George Barr's new book, but I don't expect it to provide answers, just stir the pot. As always, it's interesting to read your comments.

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