How to Start a Project: Mark Steinmetz

© Mark Steinmetz

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 WillettLisa KeresziEirik JohnsonRichard Renaldi and Brian Ulrich.

Today we finish the series with a contribution from Mark Steinmetz.

Steinmetz resides in Athens, Georgia. He has published a number of books with Nazraeli Press. The latest - Paris in my time - has just been released.

People want to feel like they are in control. Often, before even starting something new, people try to determine by various means how their project will turn out. It’s important, I believe, not to get ahead of things but to simply allow the outcome to unfold naturally. Trying to decide too soon what results you want will lead to rigidity and lack of surprise.

Also – people like to justify to themselves that the work they are doing is valid and it seems natural to use words to tell yourself that what you are doing is important and meaningful. But it’s important to not to too narrowly define what you’re doing through the use of language. People want to feel like they have a grip on things and so using words to make sense of what you’re doing might provide a feeling of relief and control but be careful you don’t make your project less interesting by having it fit neatly into a scheme of words. Images have a power that is different from the power of words and they communicate in ways that words cannot. In today’s culture, words dominate our thinking and, used in a lazy manner, they help sustain a spectrum of fundamentalist thought. Being able to accept ambiguity leads to a better quality of life and better work.

Garry Winogrand was taking his kids to the zoo while he was going through a difficult divorce. He took pictures, realized he was on to something, and eventually produced The Animals. One afternoon I heard a bat strike a baseball – that sharp crack - and I turned and saw a Little League game and I knew in an instant I would do a body of work on the subject (which will be published next year – The Players). In some ways it was part of a natural progression from what I had been working on but I experienced my realization in one forceful moment. When I moved from Chicago to Knoxville to accept a temporary teaching assignment I very soon had a strong feeling/image for the work I would do there – it was a mixture of vision and intuitive knowing - but I could find no words that might helpfully explain to others or to myself what I was doing – this work would become the book South Central.

It’s important to be cultivated. In my opinion, reading and considering great literature is the best way to do this, but there are many ways to deepen your understandings and your capacity to feel and notice. If you are cultivating yourself, the chances are greater that the work you end up doing will be worth doing as far as others are concerned. It’s best not to ask how your work will be received by the world or how it might boost your reputation. Just stay close to your own guidance and see what comes. Be authentic and natural – it sounds easy enough but it actually takes some discipline and courage. If you are able to quiet yourself and be honest with yourself, then it will be easier for you to embark on a project that truly excites you and rewards you.