Hours of Idleness-A Photographer's Journey in St. Louis

The Photographic Series

Posted in 35mm, art, awareness, film, learning, perception, photography, technique by Jason Gray on July 26, 2012

William Eggleston; from his series, Los Alamos.

When beginning photography, one generally photographs randomly, for practice, or for some personal sense of social preservation (ie. family function, a party, etc.). While these pursuits often remain ingrained throughout the timeframe that a person wields a camera, it eventually becomes apparent to the photographer that there is a greater potential for their image-making. Both the strength and the weakness of photography is that a single picture cannot say all that there is to say about a single subject; photographs need context in order to direct the initial broadness of their interpretation. In an interview with Aperture, artist Jason Fulford has summed this up by saying, “Photography has clarity in the same way that language has. A word is precise, but its meaning can change based on the words around it: think tank, tank top.” In picture-making, sometimes this context comes from the viewer’s impressions (actually, this is always true) and sometimes the context is provided by an editor or an art director, but for the artist looking to make a profound statement, context always arises from a body of images presented together in a series.

Consider for a moment a photograph of yourself graduating from high school. The photograph depicts you smiling on a stage, both of your hands are occupied, one with shaking that of your school administrator, and the other with grasping your diploma. The image has special significance for you because you lived it. Likewise, for others who have experienced something akin, this picture would stir an empathetic response, one that attaches their own histories to yours. However, the photograph tells very little about who you are as an individual. To understand something more about you that goes beyond the superficiality of shared customs, we would need to look through your entire photo album. From this context, we might be able to ascertain where you work, whether or not you are married, if you have children/grandchildren, where you live, etc. All photographs work this way; their message strengthens in response to their proportion.

The photographic series has its origins tied to the origins of photography. Sir Henry Fox Talbot, the British inventor who made photographs reproducible, published an early example of the photobook with his The Pencil of Nature (1844-46). For this series, Talbot selected a group of images, all taken near where he lived, which he felt best represented the range of his new photographic process.

Sir Henry Fox Talbot; Open Door; 1844:

Sir Henry Fox Talbot; The Ladder; 1843:

Although this would at first seem haphazard, the series is uniform due to his scientific approach. In other words, a series is not merely dictated by subject matter. Occasionally, a photographer sets up parameters, or limitations, for their work that is modeled on experimentation. The photographer may or may not have an expectation of what the images will eventually look like; the photographs are simply the results of the experiment which is really the important concept driving the imagery. Surrealist photographers like Man Ray used this approach to great effect.

Man Ray; (top) Sphere, Ball, Cone, Pliers, and Square, (bottom) Spiral; 1922:

Historically, all photographic series fit into one of three categories, Thematic, Documentary, or Serial. An easy was to think of how they are distinct is to look at what they mean mathematically: Thematic= 1,4,3,9,8,5,etc. Documentary= 1,2,3,4,5,6,etc. Serial=1,2,1,2,1,2,etc.

The Thematic Series consists of images ordered together by theme. This is arguably the most popular form of series used by fine art photographers, and has been utilized for creative effect since the very beginning. Many of the most famous photobooks published images brought together in this way (Robert Frank’s The Americans, Henri Cartier-Bresson’s The Decisive Moment, etc.). The reason why the Thematic Series is so popular is because its definition is so broad in scope, and because fine art photographers tend to think in terms of bodies of work. I produce my images almost exclusively in this way. I begin with a problem that I want to solve, or a concept that I want to clarify or bring attention to (say, the Mississippi River Levee System). Then, I create loose parameters for myself to contain my perspective and focus my message (I’m interested in what these places look like and what struggles go on there). Sometimes I begin photographing at this point, or else I write a statement to further solidify my intentions:

“The Mississippi River has long been an obstacle and a supplier of life for the people who have lived alongside it. This precarious relationship informs our interpretation of the river, even while its unpredictable ebbs and flows sustain the water’s inherent mystery. The destructive power of the Mississippi is an affront to man’s industry, and an impossible riddle long tried to be overcome. The current Levee System which parallels the river’s banks is mankind’s best answer so far. The space occupied by this manmade intrusion is self-contradicting, at some points it is an otherworldly place where few people venture, while at others, it is the region where commerce brushes against the river’s edge. However, the levee is always a place where life and death converge; hope balanced by disaster in equal proportions. With this series, I have attempted to document the area in between the levee walls and the river; a process that condenses the expansive concept of these locations near the city of St. Louis, Missouri into a rambling compound sentence that hopefully expresses something of the dichotomous nature of life along the Mississippi River.”

From here forward, I work until I feel that the project is complete, or the problem is solved. Occasionally, I will set myself a deadline if the work is very open-ended. For many photographers though, a Thematic Series culminates in a lifetime of work pursuing the same idea (Ansel Adams, Andreas Gursky) or the evolution of an idea over time (Jeff Wall, Richard Avedon). Here are some images from my Levee Project, 2012- :

A Documentary Series is grouped images that portray a person, place, or event, often with relationship to time passing. Photographers who work in this way do so as journalists, artists, anthropologists, and historians. They are often interested in the effect that an image has over posterity, and consider their photographs to represent visual truths. Gerry Badger, in his book, The Pleasures of Good Photographs, wrote, “Photography annihilates time and space, transforming an instant into a moment that endures…”. Documentary photographers generally believe this to be true, which is why the series model is important to them. After all “a moment that endures” is still no complete record of an event and its rippling effect. The ability to tell a story is intrinsic to the Documentary Series, and to tell it without doctoring the image (ie. the facts) is a moral imperative to those who work in this way. That said, the Documentary Series can have some flexibility, especially when the photographer is more concerned with artistic truths than photographic ones. A good example of this is the photographer, Nikki Lee. Lee documents subcultures by embedding herself within them as a participant. The disguises that she uses to conceal her true identity are much more than they at first seem; she intensely researches her subjects, develops a persona that she will fully embody, and then entrenches herself for as long as is necessary to gather the portrait that she is looking for. All along, no one mistakes her as an outsider; a feat that is truly extraordinary.

Nikki Lee; (top) The Hispanic Project (25), 1998, (bottom) The Seniors Project (26), 1999:

Nikki Lee; (top) The Ohio Project (6), 1999, (bottom) The HipHop Project (1), 2001:

A Serial Imagery series is perhaps the simplest and most difficult to express. Serial Imagery involves the purposeful repetition of an image or parts of an image for a broader aesthetic benefit or visual impact. In a series of serial images, there is generally no beginning or ending image, simply a first image and a last image, usually without set sequence. John Coplans, author of Serial Imagery, clarifies by saying, “Essential to the morphology of serial imagery is the abandonment of the conspicuous uniqueness of each painting [or photograph, etc.].” The idea of Serial Imagery in art gained prominence with the work of the painter Claude Monet. His serial paintings of water lilies, haystacks, bridges, cathedrals, and more all broke ideological ground for a new approach to photography. Alfred Steiglitz’s Equivalents and Ansel Adams’ Surf Sequence (below) are well known examples of this approach.

Although I usually work thematically, I enjoy the philosophical purity of producing serial images. For me, the Serial Imagery approach is best suited to images wherein the idea is of greater concern than the form, or in cases where the form changes only subtly (the repetition emphasizes the nuanced nature). Below is a Serial Imagery series that I photographed on identity.

The Identity Project, 2010-2011:

Whichever method of series you choose to pursue, it is always important to consider what your message is and how you want to present your work even before you take the first picture. As I’ve come to learn, consistency is key to a successful series; develop a modus operandi before you head out the door. To make your images instantly more compatible, consider doing things like always using the same focal length, photographing your subjects in the same location/at the same time of day/in the same lighting scenario, if you are using film, opt for a single ISO and use it throughout, try to apply the same techniques in the darkroom or while editing on a computer; finding standards and applying them uniformly always helps to make what you are trying to express easier to determine and clearer to read.

Short quiz

Which type of series is it? (please post your answers in the comments)

1. Rineke Dijkstra’s Beach Portraits

2. Martin Parr’s New Brighton

3. Lisa Sarfati’s She


3 Responses

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  1. tms said, on July 31, 2012 at 11:27 am

    Jason, this is a great essay. First of all, I am inspired by the way you systematise the different series – that made things much clearer for me.
    Second, I tend to agree that photographs work well in – I might not go as far as saying need – a context (the conceptual context of a series, or, at least, the context of an oeuvre.
    And I also feel encouraged by your lines because somebody told me that “serie were boring” when I was about to hang my last (small) exhibition – I’ll now be all the more sure that they are not!
    So thanks for posting this. I hope to read more “wise words” on photography from you.

  2. Jason Gray said, on July 31, 2012 at 1:10 pm

    Hi Tomas,

    Thank you so much for your kind words. I am pleased that you enjoyed reading the essay, and that it may have helped you in defending your own work.


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