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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 Contemporary Explorer

Keith Carter — The Structure of the Project

Keith Carter has become a prolific artist whom many have admired for his dream-like mythological images. He is single handedly defining a genre of fine art photography. Good for him.

That is not, however, why he inspires me. In fact, I should probably confess that this work dreamy work of his doesn't connect with me. His first book, however, made such an impact on me that he easily finds a place on this list of people who have inspired me profoundly. The title of that book is From Uncertain to Blue. I picked it up in a bookstore, flipped through quickly, and immediately knew I wanted to own it. Mind you, I had no idea what is was about, but I was captivated by the images. Often, that's enough for me to add a book to the shopping cart.

Sometime later, I sat down for a more thorough read of the book. Only then did I discover the meaning of his obscure title, and a principle of photography that has subsequently  been a most important guide for my own work. Carter defined for me the very concept of "project photography."

Uncertain to Blue, he explains in the intro, are the two small towns that were the first and the last in his travels to photograph rural Texas. He started in Uncertain, Texas and concluded in Blue, Texas. Immediately, his project is defined by a structure. Furthermore, he limited himself to only one photograph per town. He tried to make each single photograph a representative to for the town -- not merely the first snapshot made there.

The structure of the project was determined -- small towns in Texas, one photograph per town, that photograph attempting to capture something of the spirit of the town. With the structure defined, he went to work. The book is the culmination of that structure.

Prior to the inspiration I received from Carter's From Uncertain to Blue, my work was mostly PBWA -- Photography By Wandering Around. I never worked with structure, never with purpose, relying on the questionable strategy of stumbling upon something interesting to photograph. My work looked like it -- random, disjointed, disconnected, the product of luck rather than intent.

Much later, I learned Orson Wells had encapsulated this idea when he said," The enemy of art is the limitless."

By the way, the structure of a project need not be established before the photography happens, as it was in this Keith Carter project. It often is, but there is another way. I prefer to shoot, in the field, without a structure, indeed without even a project in mind. I think of this as a "gathering assets" strategy. In the field, I'm just capturing data. Later, at home, typically in front of the computer, the project and its structure take form. The important inspiration and lesson from Carter was not when the structure is applied, but rather that it serves the creative process well that a structure is applied.

What is the structure? It might be the goal or the limitations. In short, the structure of the project sets its boundaries. If you are interested in making a project about trees, for example, do you allow it to include all trees, only winter trees, standing and fallen trees, firs and deciduous trees? Or do you limit the project to just bamboo trees? Where do you define the boundaries of the project? The structure provides guardrails that distill and intensify the content. Carter limited himself to Texas, to small towns, to one photograph per town. These limitations were tight enough to give him focus, but loose enough to allow creative flexibility within those boundaries.

We can photograph anything -- well, almost anything. The value of structure is that it directs us to photograph/select images that are meaningful to our objectives. It keeps us from wandering off into non-productive tangents and thereby diluting our message. Curiously enough, this isn't restrictive, but rather freeing. Having structure allows us to let go and embrace creatively without flying off the rails and losing our way. Keith Carter's example was one of the great lessons of my photographic life.