Projects Give Focus

Airplane taking off. A short project.

Sometimes when we feel burnt out or empty and aren’t finding anything exciting to shoot, setting ourselves a project to do can help to focus our creative energy and invigorate us. For some of us, the projects become the core of our work.


I tend to be an omnivore photographically. I look for interesting scenes, almost regardless of what the subject is. So, in other words, I shoot everything. Sometimes that leads to my attention being stretched too thin.

Temporarily selecting a particular subject for a project focuses my attention and energy down to a narrow point. Rather than finding any interesting subject I spend some time tuned up to only a certain subject.

I find that this period of focus can be refreshing. I would not want to permanently exclude a broader viewpoint. That would become boring and it is not my style. But doing it for a short time is a good creative exercise.

Creative channel

Creativity is an ephemeral thing. It seems to come and go. Once we have developed it, I don’t really believe it ever goes away, but I do see it get stronger and weaker at times. When we cannot feel the pull of our creativity, it is scary. We doubt ourselves. We fear that we are a fraud.

At these times taking on a project can often be a great refresher for me. Picking out something that interests us and is very narrow and specific presents a new challenge. Just the slight seeming reframing from “go be creative” to “find a creative approach to this subject” creates a very different exercise.

I’m fairly competitive and like solving problems. A project is a challenge and a problem solving opportunity.

For a short time I get to narrow my focus down to just the project subject. It fills my thoughts. My creativity has a clear goal. It becomes a problem to solve.

I find that good things come out of this.

Body of work

A lot is said about having a well curated body of work. Projects can add greatly to this. When done, the project may only be 10-20 carefully selected images. But hopefully, they have a theme, a consistent style, and they tell a story. This helps build your body of work.

Several projects in your portfolio are like boulders in a stream. They stand out as the rest of the collection flows around them. They are solid cores that the rest build on.

Ansel Adams famously said “Twelve significant photographs in any one year is a good crop.” I would say that, in the digital world, we shoot a lot more and probably our standards have relaxed from Ansel’s. Still, shooting projects increases our probability of good images. We have most of our creativity focused on a certain theme for a period of time. That has to help. These great images build our portfolio.

Doing good?

The process of selecting a project is subjective. Some people feel they can and should contribute to a cause. Whether that is wilderness preservation or global warming or human trafficking or any other large important cause, that can be great. You can feel like you are making a difference in the world. And maybe you are. I would not discourage you. Wanting to do good is a great human trait.

But a project does not have to be grand in scale or in impact. It only has to be focused in scope and interesting to you. Remember, first, the project is for your benefit. It can be as small or large, as local or global as you want. The purpose of the projects I am talking about is to energize you. To get you through a creative slump.

For instance, I am doing a project on speeding trains. Sounds dumb. Maybe it is. But I see something in these that inspires me to work it. I like what I am seeing so far. As a matter of fact, I dropped this blog for a few minutes to go out and capture one going by. I hope you don’t mind the interruption. 🙂

Only projects?

If projects are so good, why not only do that? A valid question. Some artists only do projects, like Brooke Shaden or Jennifer Thoreson. It works for them. It is aligned with their creativity and the way they see the world.

A project-only world doesn’t work for me. As I said before, my interests are wide ranging. I like to go out empty and be inspired by what I find. That is just me. I find that contrasting this with occasional projects gives me a good balance and it keeps me sharp and energized.

I will certainly not try to tell you you have to do it like me. Your mileage may vary.

Remember, we are discussing art, not brick laying. Art is a purely creative process. There is no one way or objective right or wrong. If anyone tells you it has to be done a certain way, run. Fast. Don’t look back.

Try assigning yourself projects occasionally. They do not have to be big or long or hugely involved. Pick something of interest that you would seldom work on. This gives yourself permission to spend time on it. Let your creativity focus on the project and see what you come up with. Hang your 10 best images from the project on your wall and consider them. It might become a habit.

Be Different, Like Everyone Else

I hate getting cynical (even though I am), but at times it seems to me that there is little originality in the art world. It’s just a business. The gatekeepers want to put you in a box to make it more convenient for them to stereotype you and know “where you fit in”. Difference and variety are actually discouraged.

Galleries and dealers say they are looking for fresh and creative and unique, as long as it is like all the works they already carry. Curators look for cutting edge, original work, as long as it is just like the shows they usually put together.

This sounds like middle school, where everybody is consumed with angst and frantically seeking their individuality; trying to be themselves. Which means they are desperately trying to look and dress and act exactly like everyone else in their group. Because if they actually were themselves, the leaders in their peer group would make fun of them. How ridiculous.

Standard advice for new artists is that you have to develop a signature style and a body of work focused on a few projects or themes. That does not work well for some of us. My themes and subjects are wide ranging. I might be doing street photography this morning and landscapes this afternoon and still lives tomorrow and composites the next day and … The forces that motivate me, helped by my borderline ADD, also prevent me from focusing all my attention on one theme or subject. I wander where my curiosity leads me and enjoy seeing what I find along the way.

So when people ask what I do, I can really only say “I’m an artist”. If they push beyond that, well, most of my work is outdoors, all is digital, it is usually based on photography, and it is “fine art” in the sense that it is not intended as documentary or reportage. I am not representing any of my work as “truth”. I lean toward the abstract and even surreal, but I also enjoy crisp, highly detailed shots of an old barn. My work may be heavily manipulated or composited – or not. I intend for the main destination of my art to be prints.

If I put together a portfolio for a gallery it may have an image of a church building, and an abstract view of a tree, and a wide landscape on the high plains, and a pure composited abstract, and a black and white landscape in the mountains and several other seemingly disjoint things. Their reaction is “what does this mean? what do you shoot?” I can only answer that this is my style. I am curious about a lot happening in the world around me. My style is the subject, the point of view, the way it is shot, the attitude and feeling I bring. Each one is me, my expression and my reaction to what I encounter. Purity, consistency, and following rules is not my strong suit.

Because of my wide interests, my inventory of images is pretty large. I would be glad to pull special portfolios for a gallery or designer if they have a certain subject or genre they are looking for. But if they take the attitude that I’m not worthy of consideration unless I only do the type of projects they value, it makes me wonder who they think the artist is. They expect me to be different, like everyone else.

So should I follow the path that calls me or do what other people expect of me? I like what Darius Foroux said: If you want to stand out from the crowd, guess what, you have to stand out from the crowd.

Visit my web site

To get a better idea of the range of things I value and do, please check out my web site: