Photography is a widely elastic medium to explore. I say this as someone who’s work spans both street photography and conceptual narrative, just two possible paths in a myriad of choices within the field of photography.
Street photography is spontaneous and intuitive. When I am swimming with my camera, I don’t control the outcome, but rather, work tirelessly to put myself in the path of something special. An entire day could be lost missing the shot or filling an SD card with nothing special, but I get back at it the next day. I am always hunting for something new.
My conceptual work, on the other hand, begins with an idea or a story I feel compelled to tell. From there, I endeavor to create photographs that support the narrative. I journal and mindmap to generate ideas or tap into my intuitive voice, then I make a plan to execute the pictures. Many carefully planned photographs end up on the cutting room floor, just like a writer scraps whole chapters of a novel. It’s grist for the mill — the price of doing business. But eventually, the narrative comes together, and the story forms a cohesive whole that feels ready to release into the world.
I realize these sound like tidy or organized processes — I can assure you that neither path is tidy or organized — but I think it is helpful to step away from the work from time to time and boil it down to the essence. For me, the essence is this: street photography is about finding; conceptual work is about constructing. Shifting between the two processes keeps my creative-self alert and engaged, almost like I am toggling between the different hemispheres of my brain.
If this is helpful for you too, let’s ponder other photographic mediums and how they might fit into these two models. Landscape photography, I’d say that’s finding. Abstract photography, constructing. Assignment photography, finding. Commercial work, constructing. Documentary photography, finding. Still life photography, constructing. Family portraiture, both perhaps?
Why do these definitions matter? Well, I don’t necessarily think they do for everyone, but I am forever on the quest to understand why I do what I do and to remove layers and layers of academic language and theory to get to the kernel of truth. Finding and constructing feel like permeable scaffolds — they hold me creatively but still allow room to breathe and mutate.
By both finding and constructing in my work, I feel a deep sense of mastery and creative freedom, as if no one box or fixed label can contain me. And by deciding which hat I will wear on a given day, I can shift my energy to the right frequency to create. Lately, I have worn my conceptual hat most frequently, but in a few short weeks, I will be back to shooting street photography in the water. I am already preparing myself mentally for the shift in consciousness.
Deb, I love the way you think. Every word resonates with my own photography experience. I love your examples of finding and constructing, and the acknowledgment that these ways of making exist on a continuum so that some pictures are the result of both processes. Most of all, this way of thinking is liberating for me. There is no wrong way to make a picture, no wrong way to be me. I’ve long held a similar belief but could not express it as eloquently as you have here. I’m printing this post out and keeping it to re-read and share. Thank you.
Donna, I wasn’t sure who I was writing it for, but now I know it was YOU. It just felt like something I wanted to flesh out a bit more. Ideas bounce around in my head all day long. Committing them to words helps me carve a deeper neural pathway. Isn’t it funny how united we are? So often we work in isolation, but we are dancing the same steps. Thank you for taking the time to comment. It made my day. xoxo Deb
What a wonderful way of thinking about things. Big love.
Also. Your images. Always!
This is really useful, flexible framework, Deb. I too wonder at length about why I do what I do and I appreciate the effort involved in peeling away academic language to get at an idea that feels clear and true. And the images, as always a treat.
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