For me it was a very important and revealing trip – photographically and personally. Travelling through the rural and remote areas of Canada has rejuvenated me and refocused my photography. It has birthed my new “Come Back Soon” project. While visually, the project focuses on the forgotten, unused and “what others left behind” it has a much more profound meaning. It is an invitation and challenge to study the past, which we are often so eager to judge and dismiss. Interestingly enough, it is not people who are at the centre of my photographic interest. Not in a direct sense.
It is the public sphere. It is the rustic, unplanned, often agrarian landscape left behind or maintained by people living far from the chaos and tumult of large cities. Even though most visuals portray things, those elements, carefully arranged in the frame, tell the story of people present and those who left. “Come Back Soon” is a visual examination of “what is left behind.” It is also a personal urge to see, arrange and speak out. It is not about taking a stance – there is an oversupply of people who do that – but it is rather a visual exposé for you to decipher and savour.
I have been longing for such a project for a while. I wanted my seeing to renew itself, to break with my past – to come back anew. “Come Back Soon” – indeed!
I am so grateful to those of you who have been accompanying me throughout my photographic journey. I know it is not an easy endeavour to stick with a photographer who started with landscape, only to shoot travel, street, creative street, then travel and now… I guess this is it. In addition, many of you enjoyed my trademark deep shadows and blacks but recently… I‘ve been shooting less and less of it. I guess part of the reason was that many photographers have embraced this aggressive style and they are doing it really, really well so it was time for me to move on. The other reason might be my relentless search for new seeing.
That brings me to where I am today. Such visual shifts are in no way clearly marked on the fridge calendar. Rather, they sneak up on you without any warning. There is no question that this mutation in my seeing has been happening for a while.
First, it showed up as I became weary of my usual subjects and the way I see them and frame them. Despite successful imagery, every image came with an internal warning “seen this – done that.” Over the course of the last few months this early warning system has been echoing more and more loudly in my head.
Second, the urge for new visual discoveries, outside the boundaries of traditional street photography, was overwhelming my senses, pushing me away from my traditional visual settings.
Third, some recent outside influences, which don’t happen often, provided a much-needed reinforcement of my visual shift. Among others, the work of Ned Pratt propelled the change.
Fourth, this new direction fits perfectly into my recent method of slow, deliberate and thoughtful shooting.
Fifth, my urge to take my printing to another level sealed the deal.
While you’re reading this you may wonder, “What the hell Olaf are you talking about?” I don’t blame you. This is the best I can write at the moment as not everything is as clear as I would like it to be, nor will it ever be. It is just happening, simple as that. I have to admit that my countless conversations with Tomasz of Fujilove are helping as we both opened up about our own seeing to the point that we can question each other’s photography without the usual social constraints.
So, my photographic friend, thank you again for sticking around. It means a lot. I will continue sharing my journey with you here, as well as on my resurrected YouTube channel. If you haven’t subscribed yet, please make sure to do so.
Here are some images from my latest project with the working title, “The Scraps,” all taken with the GFX50S and the GF45-100 F4 OIS lens. One note about the gear—I really enjoy this zoom lens. Look for my review of this lens in the Medium Format Magazine later this month.
With persistence, talent and hard work you start producing satisfactory and sometimes even great images. The drill is well-known. You go out, shoot some images, edit and then share them with your friends on social forums or other mediums of your choice, then repeat!
Most of us limit our photographic life to single images which we like and others may also appreciate. Sometimes the images connect with lots of people or get an award or two. Some of us may be noticed by our peers and the industry in general, gaining a large following and respect. This is all very rewarding and, in many cases, well-deserved. There is no question that such a state of photographic life is quite fulfilling and comforting.
Such a state of affairs should be enough in itself, but is it? When I talk with my photographic friends, especially the unsettled ones who cannot stay still despite their success, and who feel they need to break another glass ceiling—they would say no, it is not enough. Deep inside they want to open another door of what’s next for them. Of course, such foraging into the unknown is highly personal and impossible to embody in a blog post.
But there is something that points many great photographers in one direction and this is where I believe the future of photography lies. Before I go into more detail, let’s take a look at today’s world of photography.
Just yesterday, one of my Facebook friends, Elliott Anderson, wrote a note below one of my images saying: “Been thinking about it lately. Just the sheer quantity. In the year 2000, 80 billion photos were taken. In 2017, 1.3 trillion!” He added: “At some point, more photos will be taken in a single year than in the entire 20th century. It creates an existential crisis for the photographer.” Yes, it does. Of course, there are many positive aspects of this visual engagement of people around the world. There is nothing wrong with it per se.
Most of the photos are individual pictures taken for the sake of a certain moment, a birthday or the Eiffel Tower. They will probably be lost after serving their purpose, whatever that might be, and I am sure that on an individual level those photos carry a priceless memory.
Of course, a small subset of those images involves the work you and I do—something we might call serious or committed photography (your reading this tells me that you are committed to the craft of seeing). We’re always trying to learn and create something more articulate and meaningful. We try to say something with our imagery and as our visual vocabulary expands, so does our creativity and proficiency. But even in this subset of the photos there is still an avalanche of individual images. Just open Facebook groups, 500px and see thousands if not millions of beautifully executed photographs, some really creative. Those of us who were privileged to participate in or even lead certain trends might produce great photographs on a regular basis. In short, I am not dismissing this process at all.
I enjoy this visual conversation. Over the years I’ve put a lot of effort and resources into producing the best work I can. I challenged myself and demanded the absolute best in terms of ideas and execution both for myself and my students. I am proud of my work.
But I wouldn’t be honest with you, my photographic friends, if I said, “This is it.” As one of my readers put it: “You made it.” I would certainly not describe it this way. Yes, I’ve gone quite far in my journey as a photographer but the further I go the more I am convinced that what I’ve being doing so far is only part of the story. Almost daily I start a conversation in one of my images I share with you but most of those images are visual tète-a-tètes. With a photo I am not able to convey more than a sentence-worth of meaning. But I want to convey an idea and engage the viewer on a deeper, more meaningful level. It is like writing random sentences without being able to put together one page, let alone a book.
In the last few weeks, I‘ve spent a lot of time going through my catalogue of images shot over the course of the last 10 years. They include lots of explorations and mistakes—of course kept safe and far away from my audience—as every good curator would do. Then I went to my best work. Yes, there was some great imagery but there is a problem. As much as they are fine images, these are still individual frames living their own individual lives, in most cases stripped of a larger narrative or wider meaning. They are like drugs which provide enough stimulant to satisfy in the moment but as soon as the ecstasy fades, another “pill” is needed. We photographers have flooded the internet, Instagram (pick any media here) with these pills. We swallow them daily, entertain ourselves, stimulate each other with them and may even cherish some. That’s all great but is it enough?
When you dive deep into the best work ever done in photography, you will quickly discover that it was built on a much broader idea and certainly not based on one single image. It wasn’t based on photographic operandi designed to feed the hungry world of social media photography. What am I talking about?
I am talking about the long-term (years, not days), well-defined, illuminating and, most importantly, personal project. This is where I believe the future of photography lies.
I don’t mean a one-photo-a-day sort of project. Even though I am personally not a fan of this type of project, I respect and understand their purpose. But this is not what I’m talking about.
The future of photography lies in a personal, well-researched, thoughtful and impactful visual narrative which portrays an idea or emotion. Such projects go well beyond a shallow photographic veneer. They involve personal commitment, knowledge of the subject matter, research (beyond an internet search), preparation, objectives, logistics, funding and then of course shooting, sequencing, curating and a variety forms of presentation and interaction. I am talking about taking on a project which would span years and which, in the words of Trent Parke, would “encompass” all of you.
I often wonder how Robert Frank’s project, “The Americans,” would look like in today’s world of social media photography. Would he be able to produce such a profound work being constantly interrupted and pressured by social media? Would he be able to concentrate and curate the huge body of work he shot over the years if he decided to get involved in Instagram on a daily basis? These are important questions we need to ask ourselves.
When Trent Parke was asked about “all the overflow and iPhones” in an interview, he answered, “To be honest I don’t really think about it too much. I am usually in my zone, working away. I don’t look at lot of other work these days. I used to when I was young. And once I’m working away at something it becomes all- encompassing. You could say that I don’t come up for air.” Let alone for a tap on a cell-phone screen.
This is a way of approaching photography that I feel is losing its voice. It is there but it is being trampled by loud, noisy, often shallow and quick photography grabbing people’s attention. Photography has become visual fast food—shoot, share, feel good, feel inspired, shoot, share. An injection of “joy” and “satisfaction” certainly feeds our hunger but deep inside many of us walk around hungry and confused.
Don’t get me wrong. The purpose of this piece is not to criticize the way we share our work but rather re-think the purpose of it all. Perhaps we should rethink the way we shoot, work and share.
In the last few years I’ve enjoyed numerous eye-opening conversations with photographers who work on such long-term, deeply immersive projects. Those exchanges made me realize that I have to alter my own approach to photography. There is no denying that I enjoy shooting the individual images on the streets of the world’s cities. With time, however, I realized this was not enough for me, not in an egoistical sense but rather in substance. I watched some artists which you will never find on top of Internet lists, Instagram rankings or YouTube lists, working in the quiet of their room or basement on massive and demanding photographic projects. Some of them skip the Internet entirely and focus on their own neighbourhood, community, country. Some of them showed me what they produced—their books, printed images, carefully sequenced—telling incredible stories and revealing ideas which challenged everything I knew about photography and sometimes the world. It hit me hard. No single image will ever reach such depth and coherence (don’t confuse that with impact).
What’s the way forward? I will repeat. The future of photography belongs to long-term photographic projects, not single images. As someone who deeply appreciates convention but embraces the new, I believe there are ways to commit to a vast project but still find a way to engage today’s social-media-savvy audience and do it well.
Instead of producing another “me-too” YouTube video, writing YYY vs. XXX or one more “Why I switched from Z to Y” piece, it is worth pursuing a new way of photographic interaction based on a personal project-based platform where you engage your audience so they are not just observers but active participants.
The key words here are personal, encompassing and engaging! Yes, such projects require huge commitment from us—maybe one fewer Netflix series to watch—but I believe such an effort is the future of photography. We can still enjoy our single images because there is value and enjoyment in them but at some point we must challenge ourselves to go beyond that. We have to move away from communicating with single words and work on crafting images around ideas, memories and experiences. This kind of photographic undertaking will not only enrich the world of photography but allow us to go deeper into ourselves. We should uncover the raw reality of our lives as imperfect and dull as they might be. There is beauty in it waiting to be discovered.
What’s your long-term project going to be?
Next time I will expand on some ideas presented in this lengthy article and try to share with you some actionable ideas. I am especially interested in incorporating social interaction and the media in a way that would enrich the project, not distract from it. Stay tuned. In the meantime, I would love to hear from you. What do you think? Would you like to share your experience?
Below please find some images from my Renatus Project, which I started a year ago but have been struggling with. I am happy to report that I am doubling down on it and I’m excited to continue on this challenging but highly rewarding journey. Many new stories are coming live in the next few months.
When shooting on the street most people aim for individual images. I do too, most of the time. However, photographers should find time to pursue their personal projects and create a series. The commitment to issues close to our heart along with long-term project management and concentration on one subject provide a break from the “one shoot – one reward” mentality. But it also forces us to produce content-rich photographic material. It is articulate seeing, indeed.
I’ve noticed that working on longer-term projects such as Augmented Eye or R-A-I-N is very different from shooting a single image. Such projects not only help my seeing become more consequential but also ingenious. I push my seeing to approach routine issues and visuals in new, eerie ways.
Kasia and I are currently working on two new mega projects; details will be announced soon. However, you don’t need to start with anything big and profound to enrich your photography. I’ve found that even small, private and fun visual projects benefit my seeing a lot. Here is an example.
After observing for a while how light interacts with my working space – my desk to be exact – I decided to photograph everything visible from my desk. This restriction is forcing me to play with the same elements (the biggest change is likely the coffee cups arriving and disappearing daily) when the only real change is the light.
Here are the first images from the fun project called “RIGHT HERE.” I would love to hear about your own mini-projects. Feel free to leave a link to your project in my comments section for others to see.
The idea for our project “Augmented Eye” transpired when I was shooting on the streets of Vancouver last year. I chose a spot at one of the busiest intersections in the city, a place where I have taken photographs on many occasions. The city life around me was buzzing and visuals were passing by faster than I could process them.
Then something strange happened. As I observed the chaos around me, my brain started to ignore previous patterns and began wandering around as if my visual radar was being reprogrammed to look for new signals. As I sensed this subtle change I made a deliberate effort to scrutinize the area with new eyes to accelerate this happening.
This effort led me to new visuals I haven’t been able to uncover before. I was suddenly operating in a real-world environment enhanced by a new perception of reality. It was as if some elements had always existed but were functioning independently and merging into one vision.
Later I started to ponder this phenomenon and one word that came to my mind was augmented. The term “Augmented Reality” implies a direct or indirect view of a physical, real-world environment whose elements are augmented or supplemented by a computer. The purpose of such projections is to enhance one’s perception of reality.
It turned out that prolonged observations of one place caused my brain to skip its usual routine and start searching for an additional element as if it wanted to enhance my reality. Over the course of a year, I explored this idea in the project “Augmented Eye.”
Today I would like to share with you some images that I shot over the last year for this project. You may have seen some of them before on this blog but I think it is important to put them together within a theme. Please note that there is no Photoshop manipulation here, just pure visuals built layer upon layer (nothing to do with PS layers!) from intense observation. They were all taken with the X-series cameras and lenses.
We will be discussing and practicing this phenomenon, among many other things, in the “Streets of Vancouver Photography Workshop” this summer. Those of you who would like to learn more and explore new ways of seeing please join me on the July 28-31 weekend of our Vancouver workshop. Only two spots left. Reserve your spot here.
While the majority of our work is in colour, the images close to our heart are black and white. What is it in black and white photographs that commands such a high regard despite decades of advancement in colour technology? Why is black and white considered the purest form of photography? Why should every student of photography start with black and white imagery?
We will try to answer these questions and write more about this fascinating subject in one of our upcoming blog entries. In the meantime I would like to share a few images from our recent project: The Other Vancouver.