How does a photographic project or series evolve? How important are “style” and “genre”? What comes first—the photographs or a concept? PhotoWork: Forty Photographers on Process and Practice, edited and introduced by Sasha Wolf, is a collection of interviews with an incredibly wide range of photographers about their approach to making photographs and, more importantly, a sustained body of work.
The format of this book is simple – and it’s an easy and rewarding read. It is structured as a Proust-like questionnaire—meant to elicit personal, truthful insights—in which photographers (Gregory Halpern, Robert Adams, Elinor Carucci, Catherine Opie, Siân Davey, Gillian Laub, Vanessa Winship, Manjari Sharma and many more) were each asked the same set of twelve questions, resulting in a typology of responses that allows for an intriguing and enlightening compare and contrast, and something you can really learn from.
Justine Kurland discusses the importance of allowing a narrative to unravel; Doug DuBois reflects on the process of growing into one’s own work; Dawoud Bey evokes musicians such as Miles Davis as his inspiration for never wanting to become “my own oldies show.”
In the forward to the book Wolf explains: “The deeper motivation for making this book emerges from my own past life as a filmmaker. I appreciate many of the anxieties photographers face as they begin new projects. My experiences with the artists I’ve worked with over the years, as a gallerist, curator, and editor, have been extremely fulfilling due in no small part to the many ways in which I can relate to their struggles and successes. I am very sympathetic to the torture of the proverbial blank page: the ways that infinite options can be the greatest source of anguish. One of the hardest things about being an artist is that there is no map to follow. You are like Lewis and Clark: you must draw your own. And that, of course, becomes a lot easier after you determine how the pencil feels most comfortable in your hand.”
The questions Wolf asks were designed to provoke honest, unvarnished responses—the “truth” about each individual’s unique process of making a body of work (rather than any one individual image). Examples of two such questions are: “What are the key elements that must be present for you when you are creating a body of work? (Social commentary, strong form, personal connection, photographic reference . . .)” and “Do you create with presentation in mind, be that a gallery show or a book?”
On a whole the photographer’s answers are candid and honest. Because the list of photographers chosen to interview range dramatically in where they are in their careers – from solidly established practitioners across a range of genres (Dayanita Singh and Vanessa Winship, say) to slightly more emerging ones – the responses are wildly divergent, so there is something for just about every reader irrespective of where they find themselves in their career.
This book comes at a crucial time in an industry that is overwhelmed with talent, but much of that talent is struggling to make a living and many are loosing sight of the creative process in the continued hustle. It’s useful to remember that there isn’t one single path – just many perspectives and potential avenues for success, depending on how one personally defines that. This book can serve as much needed inspiration – especially if you’re feeling a little adrift in your practice.
Sasha Wolf represents emerging and midcareer fine-art photographers as a private practice, following a decade of running Sasha Wolf Gallery in New York City.
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