In Defense of “Greatest Hits”

I often read about the virtues and benefits of photography projects. Without question they are a very popular way of working for many, if not most, photographers. Brooks Jensen, the editor of LensWork magazine, is a huge proponent, stating that “Random photography is fun, liberating, useful in its own way, but far less motivational than photography that is engaged in for a defined project. Simply said, wandering around the landscape looking for “greatest hits” photographs does not have the potential for success as trying to do a specific project.”  Indeed, the format of LensWork is predicated on the photography project. 

I am not a project-oriented photographer. It’s simply not how I am wired. Ideas for projects don’t naturally come to me as they do other photographers. It would seem this places me in the minority, a fact that causes me a fair degree of anxiety and doubt. I ask myself, am I missing out on something here? Am I holding myself back? To be clear, I am a fan of Brooks’, particularly his writings (his book Letting Go of the Camera is a must have in any photographer’s collection). However, I take umbrage to his views on this topic. To be fair, Jensen is not the only person to hold this view. I recently read an article by another photographer who labeled photos not part of a project as “greatest hits”. Apparently, this definition has taken hold. Why this narrow belief? 

I find the label “greatest hits” inaccurate and insulting. My issue is the rather narrow way in which the topic is defined and the assumptions on which it is based. One assumption is that “greatest hits” images result from being at the right place at the right time, a place we only visit once before moving on. Certainly that is one way of practicing photography, but it is not how I work. When I am in nature with my camera I am not trying to come home with any photos, great or otherwise. I visit familiar places over and over again, becoming intimately familiar with its character and moods. When I am out in nature I simply wander and observe, seeing and listening, and when so moved I make a photo. My approach to making photos is deliberate and with intent. Is that any different from that related to a project? Does one not wander when working on a project? Does one not work with intent? I find the idea of projects antithetical to my preferred way of working. I don’t like having preconceived ideas of what I am to photograph.

An oft stated advantage of project photography is that self-imposed limitations inherent in project work can fuel creativity, a belief with which I agree. However, I find plenty of limitations with my own photography, random or otherwise. The types of images I make, the places I visit, the conditions at hand, all place limitations on what I am to photograph. I also disagree with the notion that random photography is far less motivational. Motivation is entirely dependent on intent. Yes, if I wish to submit a photo essay to LensWork I need a set of 20 high quality images that are unified in theme. If that is not my goal then why does it matter? Communion with nature and self-discovery are my primary motivators when it comes to photography, both of which have little to do with projects.

I agree that projects are a great way to produce a cohesive set of images that explore a specific theme or concept at depth, I’m not refuting that. Moreover, the nature of projects makes them ideal for creating content around our images. A collection of images unified in theme readily lends itself to exhibits, articles, book ideas, the list goes on and on. However, I believe a stand alone image can tell a story and be every bit as expressive as a set of thematically similar photos. In fact, I find a series of photos that are too similar to be very boring, each image being nothing more than a subtle variation on a theme. It is also worthwhile to remember that projects need not be conceived beforehand and can come after the fact simply by reviewing our work and selecting those images that are unified in theme. The question of whether to pursue a project or not ultimately depends on the goal.

Should an idea for a project someday strike I will pursue it. Until that happens I will continue working as I have. Ultimately, I don’t look at my images as stand alone works of art, let alone a collection of “greatest hits”. They are all related in that they represent my vision, a part of a continuum of creative work, each piece building on the learnings from what came before. It could be argued my body of work is one long, ongoing project, united in vision and intent.