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Those Who Inspire Me (and Why) — A Media Book by Brooks Jensen

Each Thursday Brooks records another commentary and we post it here at LensWork Online. The audio versions are found here. There is also a text version for each commentary for those who prefer to read rather than listen.

From the Author's Preface:

"I started writing this book about 7 years ago. After considerable thought, instead of publishing this content as traditional book, Those Who Inspire Me (and Why) will be published here, as a series of downloadable audios and text. Consider it a small token of my immense gratitude to all those who have pioneered this way of life that I love, and a passing-on of the invaluable contributions they've made to our creative lives." Brooks Jensen, Anacortes, Washington, 2019

A Storyteller from the Past

August Sander — A Grand Scheme


I suspect that most of you are familiar with that old canard about, "Inch by inch is a cinch; yard by yard is hard." This sums up the lesson from August Sander in far fewer words than I'm about the use.


August Sander had a Grand Scheme. He set out to photograph every single class of humanity in his native Germany -- and essentially accomplished that feat. I had been aware of his photography, but not of this Grand Scheme until a seven-volume set of his work was published by Harry Abrams in 2005 titled August Sander: People of the 20th Century. It is an impressive publication effort and Sander's individual photographs can be quite captivating. To me, however, it is the structure of his project that even more impressive. This idea of structure has become one of the cornerstones of my art life, one I've written about at length elsewhere. Simple put here so as not to repeat myself too wastefully, knowing and establishing a structure can often provide both the guardrails that keep our work headed in the right direction and provide the incentive that can carry us through the inevitable draggish parts that often occur in every artmaking project. The trick to having and using a structure for our artmaking is to understand its function and to not allow it to limit our creativity.


Consider August Sander. The structure of his photographic life was a sort of Grand Scheme which first established both the work to be included, but also the work to be excluded. By defining his project as "all classes of society in Germany," he knew where to concentrate his efforts. France, Russia, and America, for example, might have been interesting places to photograph, but he was not tempted because his project was defined otherwise. The structure of his project prevented him from drifting off on a whim and losing focus on the movement toward his stated goals. The guardrails of his defined project kept him on track.


In spite of the narrowing that his Grand Scheme applied to his work, this structure also had an attendant and somewhat massive, task list. "Every class of people" in any society is not small task. Indeed, his seven-volume set of books shows clearly what a massive task this project was! I can see Sander with his checklist — bakers, check; brick layers, check; bankers, check; milk maids, check. The task list must have been a tremendous motivator for him to keep working on the project.


Structure for and art project provides direction, but it can also squelch the life right out of our work, if we are not careful. For this reason, I've always thought that paying attention to the structure of our projects is an important first step, and important on-going one, too. I often find my projects by stumbling upon them, without forethought or any sense of planning. Once recognized, however, the next step in my process is almost always to sketch the idea of the project in loose and rough form. At this stage, I don't want to get too wrapped up in tightly defining the project because some flexibility allows the creative aspects of the project to still flourish. Working my way through the project — whether it requires hours or decades — is then typically a process of working within the structure of the project while simultaneously narrowing and tightening the project as it progresses. There is a funnel-like distillation that concentrates the project as I progress through it. Without a structure, this concentrating process if often absent, much to the loss of strength of the final result.


Another aspect of Sander's work that inspires is his strategy about working such a large project. At first blush, I have no doubt that I would have found his project overwhelming. It's definition was simply too large to motivate; indeed, it might easily have become oppressive. This is where the "chip away" strategy comes to the rescue. To me, chipping away implies two ideas that work hand in hand: continuing the work with a steady pace, and dividing the work into smaller chunks, "sub-projects," if you will. Sanders approach lent itself to this ideally because he could simple divide the overall project into smaller, consumable bits. (As my wife often puts it, we cannot eat a whole chicken in one gulp, but bite by bite not only consumes the chicken, but does so in a much more pleasant way.) Dividing a project into smaller bits, or chapters, or sections, or sub-projects — think of it as you will -- helps us manage our work. Big things simply cannot be managed in any other way. Sander may not have taught me this lesson, but his work reminds me of it and validates the approach.