How to Start a Project: Eirik Johnson

© Eirik Johnson, from the series Sawdust Mountain

Two years ago, I asked a handful of friends in the photography world if they had advice about starting projects for my students. I continue to present their responses to students each semester.

Under that idea that their responses might be of interest to others, I will be publishing some of the responses I received then as well as soliciting new responses to post a total of a dozen replies from photographers 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 Willett, and Lisa Kereszi.

Today we continue with a contribution from Eirik Johnson.

Seattle-based photographer and mixed-media artist Eirik Johnson has exhibited his work at spaces including the Museum of Contemporary Photography in Chicago, the Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston, and the Aperture Foundation in New York. He has received numerous awards including the 2012 Neddy at Cornish Award in Open Medium, a Massachusetts Cultural Council Grant in 2009, the Santa Fe Prize in 2005, and a William J. Fulbright Grant to Peru in 2000. His work is in the permanent collections of institutions including the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, the Seattle Art Museum, and the George Eastman House, Rochester, NY. His second monograph Sawdust Mountain was published by Aperture in 2009. His first book Borderlands was published by Twin Palms Press in 2005.

Johnson’s editorial work has appeared in publications including The New York Times Magazine, Metropolis, Dwell, Audubon, GQ, and The Wall Street Journal.

Johnson is currently a visiting faculty at the University of Washington, Cornish College of the Arts, and the Photography Center Northwest.

"What advice do you have for starting a project?"

That's a good question and frankly, one that I keep asking myself. For me, projects tend to begin out of looser investigations of questions or ideas that keep nagging me. There needs to be some sort of spark to get me out looking around or at the very least brainstorming potential directions for that idea. I tend to fail quite dramatically when I set out intent to begin a "project." It's more of a cumulative process; you begin with an idea, you say to yourself "let's go have a look," then you see where it goes from there. Nine times out of ten, your original idea goes out the window, but you needed it if for no other reason then to wake you up in the middle of the night with that spark.

Once you have that initial idea, the question that gets you out the door, then it's a process of figuring out the contours of the project. I'm an admitted slow-learner and usually I need to revisit and re-photograph in order to understand where the work is going. This actually can be a good thing as the process informs and challenges the suppositions I might have about where the work is going.

I don't want to leave you with the impression that projects need to be a long slog or sweeping in scale and take four years to complete. I seem to work most productively when I alternate between long-term work and brief projects that might begin simply as exercises. Lately, I've focused on smaller projects rooted in the simplicity of an idea and try to execute that idea as elegantly as possible. Sometimes we get caught up in thinking the more complex a project the more important it must be when in fact, sometimes the opposite is true.

© Eirik Johnson, from the series Borderlands