11 Photographers on How to Finish a Body of Work
Over the course of her career, curator and lecturer Sasha Wolf has heard countless young photographers say they often feel adrift in their own practices, wondering if they are doing it the “right” way. This inspired her to seek out insights from a wide range of photographers about their approaches to making photographs and a sustained a body of work, which are brought together in PhotoWork: Forty Photographers on Process and Practice. Structured as a Proust-like questionnaire, the responses from both established and newly emerging photographers reveal that there is no single path. Below, eleven artists respond to the question: How do you know when a body of work is finished?
On the one hand, I think the project is finished when I have said visually all that I think needs to be said about that particular subject. But one never knows. Recently, I thought my project Harlem Redux [published in 2012] was done, but then I started to feel like there were gaps in terms of the kinds of pictures, range of subjects, and varying vantage points from which I wanted to tell the story about the ways the Harlem community is changing. I couldn’t shake this nagging feeling that there was more to do, and so I went back. Turns out, I made some of the strongest photographs on that visit. So sometimes you know, and sometimes you don’t.
It’s so hard to know! Maybe when I’ve run out of things to say and pictures I want to take. There are, of course, lots of practical and pragmatic reasons it ends: deadlines, energy, inspiration, resources. Even so, I find it very difficult to end a body of work. I might not ever truly end it because of the way I work. I can spend five or six years in a place if I’m drawn to it, even after an exhibition has ended. I revisit places. I continue following the train of thought until I feel it’s resolved.
I know when a body of work is finished when the charge drops, and the thing that pulled you along is no longer there. You can feel yourself lose your connection to the narrative. At this point, the story has been told and is now in danger of repeating itself. It’s about knowing when that time has come and having the courage to let it go.
Deadlines help and are often critical to preventing something from getting overthought and overworked. I’ve been lucky to have some good book editors who, more than once, kept me from ruining a good idea. Repetition is another sign—but it’s tricky. Going back again and again to a certain subject or making variations is an important discipline. The bad repetition, the kind that doesn’t add up to anything and becomes a dead end or a compulsive gesture—that’s a sign that you are done with a project.
LaToya Ruby Frazier
It will never be finished. The meaning of an image is never fixed. It changes as history changes. We’re all connected intergenerationally—we’re connected to the images of the past and to the future. I’m thinking about time travel when I make my work—take, as an example, my work with my mother and my grandmother (The Notion of Family, Aperture 2014). I’m suggesting we are one entity; we are all markers on a timeline that is cyclical. But even within that work, things change. Take the self-portrait Huxtables, Mom, and Me (2008). I’m wearing a T-shirt that’s worn, the ink is peeling off; the mirror behind me, in which a reflection of my mom can be seen, is dusty and scratched. The image already had meaning embedded in it because of what the Huxtables meant to American society—the first public image of a middle-class Black family and the whole “Cosby effect” that I wanted to critique. Looking at it now, thanks to Bill Cosby’s sex crimes, that image has acquired a whole new layer of meaning.
When the question “Does this work?” is not keeping me awake anymore. At that point you have the answer to the thing that has been troubling you, so in a way it is, or will soon be, finished, and you can start to think ahead to the future.
I used to say, “When I stop getting out of the car to take the picture.” Basically, you know you’re finished when the burden of setting up the camera outweighs your drive to capture that particular image.
One note of caution: I feel that photographers and artists these days are very much on an accelerated production cycle, where we can feel pressured to have an entirely new project every couple of years. It is important to slow down around your own work, trust yourself, and ask if you really are done. Knowing when to push through and keep going is just as important as knowing when to stop. The new iterations, the small discoveries, and the nuances of my own way of working were all important realizations for me, and those only came through continued efforts.
I think it is essential to finish, to edit and present, in whatever form, a project or body of work so that it is permanent, out of the hands of the artist, and into the public sphere. When I look back on any project that I have finished, whether it be from a few years or a few decades ago, I find that there are always things I’m proud of, as well as things I would do totally differently. It seems to me that there is no better indication of growth as an artist than to have circumstances that allow for such insights.
I teach with Nayland Blake, and I have heard him tell students, “Finishing is for furniture.” Once the problems of construction are resolved, of a table for instance, the process no longer involves thinking. Finishing is the stage where the person mindlessly applies polish but no longer pays attention. At this point you are no longer making art. Nayland is one of the most intelligent and clear-sighted artists I know. I often ask myself, “What would Nayland do?”
What’s the cliché? A work of art is never finished, only abandoned. With the kind of work I do, I could shoot forever, trying to improve the photos or tweak the edit or just fuck with things endlessly. But life is short, and at some point you have to say, “Ok, this is enough.” If you feel the subject matter isn’t thoroughly explored after the completion of a project, then you can always go shoot the same kind of stuff in the future.
This is a difficult question to answer. If photography were a true narrative art like filmmaking or fiction-writing, you’d have certain narrative conventions like the feature-length film, the television program, the novel, the short story, etc. But photography functions more like poetry and, like contemporary poetry, is usually free verse in nature. There are no standards for beginning, middle, and end. It’s up to each photographer to create her own structure. In the past, I’ve usually used the book as the chief structural device. Since most of the photobooks I love generally have around forty to sixty pictures, that’s been the number I tried to achieve. But I’m currently less project-orientated. Nowadays, I’m just happy to work on an individual poem and see where it takes me.
Responses have been edited for space. To read the full interviews, order your copy of PhotoWork here.