Rambling thoughts in defence of the single image
I have been noticing for a while that discussion of photography on the Internet increasingly tends to be in terms of books, exhibitions or, at the very least, portfolios. Their common denominator and the approach towards producing them is project. At the same time, we hear about single images less and less often. Indeed, our photographic focus has imperceptibly yet undeniably drifted from single photograph towards project: project is now our starting and ending point, and single image is usually a link in the chain rather than an independent statement. Nowadays we hear of single images mostly when discussing iconic photographs of yesteryear, and showing one single image, no matter how compelling it might be, seems no longer fashionable or even adequate.
Of course, the notion of exhibitions, photography books or portfolios was not invented recently. Many great masters of the past did ultimately work towards finished bodies of work. However, I would venture to say that they generally started out with and worked towards single image—it received their full attention and was a thing unto itself; at the same time, finished bodies of work were subsequent constructs. I doubt that Ansel Adams persistently photographed Yosemite with the primary purpose of producing enough images to have an exhibition, or that Henri Cartier–Bresson came up with the concept of the decisive moment while thinking of a particular portfolio. Later, when enough strong single images were produced and showed consistency, then they were compiled into coherent collections. Come to think of it, it is not surprising that single images did ultimately constitute finished bodies of work: if a photographer is true to himself in his artistic pursuits, his final work will always be consistent. And one can be true to himself only within the domain of single image: if project supersedes single image, there is bound to be a compromise at the level of the latter.
A shift, however, has clearly occurred, and today we are supposed to start out with the idea of a project, and single images are expected to follow a preconceived framework. Indeed, the concept of project has come to dominate, or nearly swallowed, the power of single image. While it is true that project is a better platform to explore and depict a subject in depth, images in a coherent project greatly depend on the established framework and one another; thus, as individual photographs, they have far less space and possibility to be fully fleshed out individual artistic statements. Of course, there must be at least a few truly outstanding individual images to make a finished project work, but we should be reminded that a series is only as good as the worst image in it. Or perhaps, have our standards slipped to the point whereby we no longer require each individual image to be an independent artistic statement? If so, projects clearly thrive on the sacrifice on the part of single images.
I work on projects in my daytime job, and, to me, the notion of project has always been associated with the businesslike, cold–blooded approach whereby something is carefully planned and meticulously executed. It works brilliantly in areas where something can be clearly defined and measured, but something as elusive and intricate as art does not fall into this category. You can have an intention to create art, but can you plan and execute art? Heck, you are lucky if you happen to create unplanned art, and dreaming of creating art according to a plan is delusional. That, or you are a genius.
Sketches of Madrid, part four
As an example, the images above work well together to illustrate what can be photographed with the simplest camera that you have without going anywhere—they were taken with the Canon S95 point–and–shoot camera from the apartment in Madrid where I stayed. However, they were taken at different times as independent photographs, and the idea of putting them together came to my mind later. Could I start out with the idea of a mini–project to illustrate the point and then purposefully make four images to create this mini–folio? Yes, but I most likely would have ended up with several contrived images that would not work together so well.
It seems to me that the pendulum swinging back and forth between single image and project has gone a bit too far in the direction of the latter, and I think it is time to rebalance things a little. Despite the currently pervasive focus on projects I still strongly believe in the power of single image; in my opinion, our focus should primarily remain on it. Instead of completely dictating creation of single images, at the outset the idea of a project should remain loose, or even vague, to allow enough space and imagination for strong single images to be created. The concept of a project should gradually take shape as individual images appear, accumulate and indicate the direction in which the project can unfold. In other words, single images should mould projects to a greater degree than they tend to do now. In the end, projects themselves shall benefit from this rebalancing, because final bodies of work will consist of stronger individual images, as well as have more consistency and overall aesthetic appeal.
Related article: The Single Photograph