How to Start a Project: Erika Diettes

© Erika Diettes, from the series "Sudarios" ("Shrouds")

This is the latest in an ongoing series of short essays from photographers responding to the basic question, "What advice do you have for starting a project?" The series has featured replies from Judith Joy RossIrina RozovskyAlejandro CartagenaPhil ToledanoSteven AhlgrenSusan LipperAmani WillettLisa KeresziEirik JohnsonRichard RenaldiBrian UlrichMark SteinmetzTim DavisNicholas Nixon and Jeff Whetstone.

Today we return to the question of starting a project with Erika Diettes. The text is presented first in a translation from Spanish, then in the original Spanish.

Erika Diettes has a Master's Degree in Anthropology. Her artistic production, linked from the very onset to photography, explores memory, pain and death from her multidisciplinary perspective. It directly confronts witnesses as well as victims of diverse social and political conflicts in works in which they are both protagonists and objects of study and contemplation, encompassing pain, loss and mourning. Her research, which range from images to essays, crafts texts and conferences in dissertations that deepen her experiences and knowledge about artistic interpretation, death and the dramatic socio-political contexts that lead to it.

Her work has been exhibited in different settings linked to the memory processes of various groups of victims in Colombia. Her work has also been exhibited in Colombian cultural institutions like the Museum of Antioquia, the Modern Art Museum of Bogota, the Colombian National Museum, and the Colombian National University Museum, among others. In the international sphere, her works have been displayed in individual and collective exhibits at the Centro Cultural Recoleta (Recoleta Cultural Center, Buenos Aires), ExTeresa Arte Actual (Modern Art Museum, Mexico City), the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston, and other institutions in the United States, Australia, Poland, Argentina, Dominican Republic, Mexico, Ecuador and Chile. Her work is part of important public and private collections in Colombia and the United States.

© Erika Diettes, Installation view "Sudarios" ("Shrouds")

All beginnings are difficult, even this interview...I have gone in a lot of circles, trying to think of something deeply inspiring to say. Thinking again and again about the beginning of my projects, however, I realized that to start a project, even if these are obvious words, the most important thing is the determination to start the project. Making the first picture of what, in the future, could become a huge project, an exhibition, a book, etc. is most important. Just by looking at an image you find the clue for the next image. An idea that never materializes fades, is lost, it does not exist. Or worse, it prevents you from moving forwards to another idea.

It is important to understand that many times what works perfectly in your mind as a wonderful idea might not work materialized in front of the camera. That is why my key recommendation is to build projects based in the images and outwards from images. While it is clear that the theoretical foundations are very important and will be reflected in the photographs, it is also very important to note that the image is the final product and that it is from the image that the viewer will come to understand the theoretical intention of the author.

Building, taking and seeing the image in the final medium in which we intend to show it in order to analyze it is key to developing the set of images that will make up a project. My last recommendation is to have perseverance to complete the project, and always be open to new opportunities that may arise along the way. Often the most important and definitive elements of a work are those that we will find in the search for the initial idea. No great work is the result of a moment of inspiration. I would dare say that great works are the result of much study, research, technical mastery, discipline, obsession and - above all - are an exercise in resistance.

© Erika Diettes, "Relicarios" ("Reliquaries")

Todos los comienzos son difíciles, incluso el de esta entrevista, ... He tenido que darle muchas vueltas, pensando en lograr decir algo profundamente inspirador. Sin embargo, pensando una y otra vez en los comienzos de todos mis proyectos caí en cuenta que para empezar un proyecto, así sean las palabras más obvias, la determinación de empezarlo es lo más importante. Tomar la primera imagen de lo que en un futuro pueda convertirse en un proyecto enorme, una exposición, en un libro, etc es lo más importante. Sólo viendo una imagen uno encuentra la pista para la imagen que sigue. Una idea que no se materialice se difumina, se pierde, no existe. O lo que es peor, no permite que uno de paso a otra idea. 

Es importante entender que muchas veces lo que funciona perfectamente en la cabeza como una idea maravillosa, puede no funcionar al materializarse frente a la cámara. Es por esto que mi recomendación esencial es construir los proyectos desde las imágenes y a partir de las imágenes. Si bien, es obvio que los fundamentos teóricos son importantísimos y se van a reflejar en las fotografías, es muy importante tener en cuenta que la imagen es el producto final y que es desde allí donde el espectador va a llegar a entender la intención teórica del autor. 

Construir, tomar y ver la imagen para analizarla en el medio final en el que se pretende mostrar es clave para desarrollar el conjunto de imágenes que conformarán un proyecto. Mi última recomendación es tener perseverancia en lograr culminar el proyecto, siempre estando abierto a las nuevas posibilidades que se pueden presentar en el camino. Muchas veces los elementos más importantes y definitivos de una obra son elementos que uno va encontrando en la búsqueda de la idea inicial. Ninguna gran obra es el resultado de un instante de inspiración. Me atrevería afirmar que las grandes obras son el resultado de mucho estudio, investigación, maestría técnica, disciplina, obsesión y sobre todo son un ejercicio de resistencia.

© Erika Diettes, From the series "A Punta de Sangre" ("All Blood and Guts")


Editing with Zora J Murff

From the series "Corrections" © Zora J Murff

We are talking to a range of photographers, photo editors, professors of photography, book designers and others about the physical process of editing images. Selecting, sequencing and laying out photographs - be it for a magazine, book, online site or gallery presentation - seems something of a mysterious process for many photographers and a process that seems perhaps hard to give words to. I haven't found much written about the process and that's exactly why I'm excited to see what comes up in this series.

We started the conversation with Rob HaggartAshley KauschingerJeff RichMiska DraskoczyKevin WY Lee, Aya Takada, the pairing of Jessica Dean Camp and Cole Don KelleyAmy Wolff and Daniel Coburn. Today we continue the series with Zora Murff.

Zora J Murff is an MFA student in Studio Art at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln. Zora attended the University of Iowa where he studied Photography and holds a BS in Psychology from Iowa State University. Zora is also a co-curator of Strange Fire Artist Collective. Combining his education in human services and art, Zora's photography focuses on the experiences of youth in the juvenile justice system and the role of images in the correctional system; specifically how images are used to define individuals who are deemed criminals, and what happens when these definitions are abandoned or skewed. His work has been exhibited nationally, internationally, and featured online including The British Journal of Photography and Wired Magazine's Raw File. His work has also been published in VICE Magazine, GOOD Magazine, and PDN's Emerging Photographer Magazine. Zora was shortlisted for the 2015 GOMMA Photography Grant, named a LensCulture 2015 Top 50 Emerging Talent, was a 2014 Photolucida Critical Mass finalist, and is part of the Midwest Photographers Project through the Museum of Contemporary Photography in Chicago. Zora published his first monograph, Corrections, through Aint-Bad Editions in the Winter of 2015.

From the series "Corrections" © Zora J Murff

fototazo: Tell us a little about yourself and what area of photography you work in.

Zora J Murff: I am currently an MFA Candidate and Instructor of Record at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln. I'm also a co-curator of Strange Fire Artist Collective. I have been working in photography since 2012, and finished my series Corrections during my last year of studying at The University of Iowa. Corrections could be considered documentary, and its focus is on contemporary rehabilitation practices in the juvenile justice system. Currently, it comes as no surprise that I still find myself working with the the photograph as a form of representation in the criminal justice system, but my interest has transitioned into the idea of the picture being used as both a source of and challenge to stereotypes of people of color, the image essentially as image.

f: How do you select images to work with from a larger group? What criteria do you use?

ZJM: I created Corrections in a series of types: there are portraits, landscapes, interiors, studio images, digitally manipulated mugshots, and scanned documents. For the sequence, I started by organizing the images into groups of types, looking at them in grids (starting on screen and then making small prints), and then taking out the less successful images. The less successful images could be either photographs that were poorly made, or ones that were similar to stronger photographs.

From the series "Corrections" © Zora J Murff

f: Talk with us about how you begin to organize and sequence the images that you have selected in relationship to each other - as well as to text if there's text.

ZJM: Obscurity was a key part of making this series, and as I was making the work, I noticed that my more subtle images were more powerful and more engaging. So I would try to match the power of pairings and sequences to my strongest individual images. If I felt that the idea was there, I would mark this sequence as successful. If it wasn't, then I would mix the images up and have another go at it. Text that I recorded from the kids about the crimes they had committed was important to the series, but due to limitations in the amount of pages I could have in the book, this was ultimately something I had to exclude from the final product (even though it is still present in some of the scanned documents).

f: How do you balance formal qualities in the photographs with the content/narrative of the series as a whole as you select and sequence a series?

ZJM: One of my biggest considerations was trying to capture idea of recidivism, or repeated involvement with and movement through the criminal justice system. Repetition was very important to the process, and again I relied upon subtlety. The studio shots of the items kids come into contact and the documents they created helped me round out the narrative of actual movement through the system. In the studio shots, the environment of the detention facility is erased, but still very much present as these are only objects one would come into contact with during incarceration. The blank backgrounds assisted in highlighting the "object-ness" of these things while also referencing the erasure of identity the individual experiences during incarceration. The documents assisted in the building of identity, illustrating the mindset of kids who have to experience such a tragic place and tumultuous time in their lives. Placing these types of images at specific points in the final sequence for the book helps with the idea of an individual cycling through the system.

From the series "Corrections" © Zora J Murff

f: What are common issues, problems and questions that unfold for you during the process of laying things out?

ZJM: One problem that I had was losing access to the kids and detention facility. Quitting my job as a Tracker and moving away from Cedar Rapids was nice in a way because I had a scheduled end date to the project, but once I began reviewing images for the book, if I noticed holes or wanted to revisit making an image of a particular person, I could no longer do so.

f: How do you know when a layout is done?

ZJM: I would say that a layout is complete when you feel that you've met the criteria you've set. That being said, it could be argued that a layout or sequence is never really complete. Specific to Corrections, I felt that sequence was done when I could enter the series at different points, get to the end, make it back to my starting point, and just continue looking through it. It was important to at certain times feel hope and at others feel that the individuals in this predicament would continue to struggle with it.

From the series "Corrections" © Zora J Murff

f: What are common mistakes you see in editing?

ZJM: I think sometimes we can be too literal when sequencing images together. Some of the stronger sequences I've seen are ones I can spend a fair bit of time with and draw something new from every time I revisit it – not unlike watching a cerebral thriller film and picking up on cues that you miss your first time watching it.

f: Finally, what is the best advice you've ever gotten about editing?

ZJM: Murder your darlings. I noticed while working on Corrections, it was difficult to let go of images of kids I had especially strong relationships with. If I made an image of an individual I had a strong bond with that didn't fit in the series, I had to recognize I could enjoy that image as a personal reminder of that person and the time we spent together, rather than an image that was meaningful to the series.

From the series "Corrections" © Zora J Murff


On Mediocrity and Projects

© Lewis Baltz

Joerg Colberg recently published a piece on Conscientious entitled "Why does it always have to be about something?" In his piece, he argues that making projects that are "about" something has become - for some – a way to get away with making mediocre images. He makes a call for photographs that make us "hungry" to see them and adds at the end, "And let's also accept work more openly again that is not playing along the lines of standard aboutness. It really doesn't always have to be a project."

It's hard to disagree with those thoughts. Who wants to look at lazy mediocre photography that uses "ideas" to cover for visual weaknesses in a photograph, or to place a veneer over the limited abilities and knowledge on the part of the photographer? Why not demand great photographs? And who wants to be the stuffy artiste that mandates that photography must be made in projects for it to be "good" or serious work?

There are, however, some points I'd like to add. First let's talk about the different faculties we bring to the table when we look at photographs and how they might affect how we understand mediocrity in photography, then we can turn to the idea of "mediocre" images, how an idea like mediocrity reflects a specific time and place, as well as the context photographs are viewed in, and finally I'll throw in a general defense of the project for good measure.

© Joe Deal

When we look at photographs we see a lot of stuff that's there, on the surface, but we also "see" things that are not physically there. When we look at the surface and observe line, color, saturation, composition, tonality and the rest, we might feel excited by their specific qualities or not, feel drawn to look longer or feel nothing. In these terms, which are those considered by the original piece, there are not really any situations that I can think of that would suggest not pushing beyond mediocrity.

I would add, however, that we don't stop looking with our eyes, we also see with our minds and emotions and we see through ideologies and within cultural moments. In the crosshairs of all those elements, we see things that aren't there on the photographs' surface.

If we look at Joe Deal or Lewis Baltz, for two random examples, some might find the removed, black and white, straight ahead work mediocre based on their eyes. As photographs, one can argue that a good percentage of their work isn't spectacular, often falling into the category of work that inspires museum goers to say they could do that.

If we understand, however, how their work is commenting on consumerism through repetition, landscape through its desolation, society through rigid geometry, suddenly these "mediocre" images are given aesthetic life and visual spark through our minds' appreciation of how they use aesthetics to create commentary. We love their appropriation of "mediocre" aesthetics in service of a specific cultural critique

If we also understand the history of landscape painting and photography, we can also "see" their radical departure from aesthetic history, we can feel excited by their move in the ongoing art chess game, by how they advance the conversation, by how they engage the work that came before it. What might seem like just a mediocre landscape or cityscape to someone unfamiliar with the background of the work itself and with art history, to others that are familiar the same work might seem aesthetically exciting because of how its formal qualities relate to the content it engages and to the context it exists in. They can appreciate how it subverts aesthetic assumptions and habits.

While there's no reason to strive for the mediocre, it's worth remembering that we make a judgment of aesthetic quality with more than our eyes. The ideas, knowledge and experiences we bring to looking at an image can excite us and make us passionate about work that seemed at first glance - or to an uninformed viewer - mediocre, and we very well might change our mind about its aesthetic value the more we learn and grow as appreciators of art, as we find more ways to engage with photography other than with just our eyes, giving us a more complex relationship to aesthetics than simply a momentary assessment of form.

"Mediocre" is an important word choice in this conversation and a good one; other words that might be casually considered a near synonym –boring or banal or bland, for example – would change the conversation a lot.

What's the difference? "Mediocre" is a judgment of performance while "boring" and "banal" and "bland" are descriptions of the visual effect of an image. That's important to note, because mediocre is then a term we can use to assess how well a photograph is achieving what it wants to do, how well it executes its "proposal" and that of the project it belongs to, if it belongs to one.

An image could try to engage the idea, for example, of boredom or banality or blandness in Soviet apartment block architecture by working with images that reflect those qualities in their aesthetic construction, yet only do a mediocre job of doing so. Maybe they're not boring enough! Maybe there's room to emphasize even more banality! Why make mediocre boring and banal and bland images when you could make great ones!

Additionally, within a body of work, say a photobook, we almost always need what I'll call "lunch pail photographs." Putting together your best 50 images as a project won't work; there's always a need for images that aren't all-stars to bridge images in a sequence - they might set off the aesthetic spectacular-ness of the following image or help glue the theme together. I wouldn't go as far as saying that that allows for us to dip down into mediocrity, but there's definitely room for average photographs at times in service of the greater good of a body of work. The themes and ideas of our projects almost always call for aesthetic decisions that aren't just making the best damn aesthetic photograph we can make and selecting those to show.

To add one more point, sometimes "good" photographs can generate heated debate because of their subject, and making visually alluring images might not be appropriate for a given situation, suggesting that perhaps "good" photographs are not always what the photographer should be shooting for (pun noted, and apologized for, but not retracted). Think of the issues eternally surrounding Sebastiao Salgado's work, for example, or Teju Cole's Steve McCurry take-down for examples of "great" formal photographs not matching, in the minds of some critics, subject, creating problematic content.

© William Eggleston

One cultural context or moment will judge mediocrity different than another and we judge mediocrity differently based on context. Just as we ourselves have fluid understandings of aesthetics over our lives (Mom, turn off that gawdawful classical music!), so do we as a culture. Ultimately art is a form of language, and sometimes we need to speak in ways that are subversive to the dominant aesthetic ideas, challenging, perhaps, where we draw the line around what is "mediocre."

Think of William Eggleston as an example of how someone completely ruptured ideas of aesthetics by challenging common ideas of beauty inside of a particular cultural moment. A photograph of the inside of a freezer! And in color! If you've seen a million pretty pictures, you might find beauty in photography that dares to usurp the aesthetics of "mediocre photographs" and posit it as high art. In a way, the entire snapshot movement in contemporary art photography was based in this concept, as well as many other "low culture" visual ideas brought into "high art" during the last several decades.

To step away from the single-image conversation for a moment, I recently saw a slide show in which a curator showed a series of (I believe it was) six photographs by Marco Breuer. The first image in the series is a photograph of a piece of photographic paper that has been folded and reshot. Mediocrity defined. Then, however, over the series of photographs, we see that each print is the previous print, folded again and rephotographed and we see that the color shifts in a mysterious way during the process from blue to red (unfortunately I can't find the images online to share).

That first mediocre image, in the context of the series, suddenly seems pregnant with what it will become, necessary, and next to the busier final images, its very simple construction seems restrained and elegant, not mediocre. In this way, mediocre is defined not only by the larger cultural moment, but also by the specifics of viewing time (through what will subsequently be seen in its sequence) and context (quiet after seeing the busier final images, for example).

There's nothing wrong with "singles" or one iconic homerun photograph standing alone or just a really, really beautiful photograph. Photographic work, or any other artistic work, doesn't need to be presented as a series or project. For better and for worse, doing so helps galleries, museums, critics, historians and collectors talk about and build a narrative for the medium. Doing so also helps classrooms generate content to debate. It helps photography take itself seriously as art. There's obviously no rule, however, written about individual works of art being lesser or unacceptable for standing on their own.

A little in defense of the project, though. If we can assume, after the above conversation, that photographs that we put into the professional art-documentary-photojournalism arenas should be something more than "mediocre" visually, that leaves us with both single images and images as part of projects all being at least pretty good.

I would argue, then, that photography is at its strongest and most interesting when presented in series or project because not only does it offer us images to enjoy individually, it also offers us much more. It gives us the ideas formed between photographs, ideas of narrative or argument through sequence. It gives us images that pop visually and philosophically next to each other. We can appreciate the graceful decisions across the edit, sequencing and layout of a photobook or installation.

In short, a good image can be enjoyable to look at, but a well-done project ultimately gives us much more nutrition by risking much more and engaging much more while still being made up of solid photographs. When a photographer can successfully juggle all of the many dynamics created by bringing so many variables together, the impact, in my experience, is always much more profound than I find sitting with a single image.

Ultimately it's the "anyone can make a good photograph" argument. That's true, just as anyone can write a great line of poetry. My wife, who is a pianist, has taken some shots that enrage me with jealousy. Incredibly few, however, can put together photographs into a project that unites technique, form, subject, content and context in a way that's cohesive, fresh and that carves out its own place in the current photography conversation, just as none of us can turn our line of poetry into a book of Neruda-quality poems. It's just an infinitely more complex and interesting game.

Aesthetic understanding is, in essence, relative. While mediocrity isn't a goal to strive for, how we understand and define mediocre photography in formal terms is fluid as we change physical context and as time passes, it is affected by our biases and knowledge as much as by what our eyes physically see. This relativity exists not just on a personal level, but also a cultural one.

There are moments when content calls for backing away from creating our best photographs according to traditional paradigms of beauty and photography, from my perspective, reaches its height of power in concert, that is to say, in the series and project, and average photographs can help such a body of work come together. So don't erase those "mediocre" images from your Lightroom catalog. You'll see them differently in five years. The mediocre photographs of one situation are not those of the next. And even if they've only risen from mediocre to average in your subsequent assessment, building your best work may just call on you to use some of your most average shots.