Variations on a theme

In my photography, my teaching and my discussions with other photographers, the idea of variations on a theme comes up often. For me, one of the joys of looking at photographs is seeing the different ways that photographers interpret the same thing. Yet, when some photographers come together to talk or photograph they can get territorial about their imagery and their ideas. Recent events have reminded me why this kind of thinking is limiting.

David Walker, a writer, for Photo District News, who is writing a series of posts called “Variations On a Theme,” approached me recently. He wanted to include some of my work on the foreclosure crisis in one of his blog postings. I was intrigued by his strategy and please that he had found my work via http://socialdocumentary.net/, where it had recently won an award.

He posted my work on the foreclosure crisis along with the work of four other photographers who have been exploring the same theme. He described our work as “several noteworthy interpretations.” You can see the blog post and the images by starting at: http://www.pdnpulse.com/2010/01/variations-on-a-theme-foreclosure.html The interesting thing about the work shown in the blog post is how differently four people interpret the same theme. In some cases we were all photographing inside foreclosed houses, yet we all interpreted that subject uniquely.

That idea, that different photographers working in the same environment can interpret a place differently, finding variations on a theme, was driven home in another recent project. I was photographing in a small historic synagogue in Tucson, Arizona, alongside my wife, Annu Palakunnathu Matthew and Abigail Gumbiner, a long-time friend/photographer. We were creating images destined to become a limited edition portfolio to raise funds for sustaining the Jewish History Museum that now occupies the old synagogue space. I have previously blogged about the collaborative process involved in producing that work. You can read that blog entry at: http://thewellspoint.com/2009/11/20/a-photographic-collaboration-ten-years-in-the-making/.

One of the best parts of the project, besides working along side some of my favorite people, was seeing how each of us interpreted the same small space. We actually thrived on the idea of variations on a theme. As we were photographing, we were joking with each other, but we were also competing, drawing both energy and inspiration from each other. I loved looking at the finished work of the other two photographers because I was constantly surprised by what they saw (and what I missed.) Thankfully, they missed what I saw, so in the aggregate we all did our own work and all made unique images. To see the final fifteen images (five pictures per person) that will make up that portfolio, start at http://www.davidhwells.com/lightSynag/index.html#_self

So the take away lesson for me as photographer (and a teacher) goes something like this: Yes, a bunch of photographers can be photographing the same thing, be it the same location or same topic. Similarly photographers in a workshop might be standing together at the same place. In both cases, the best work comes when the photographer(s) embrace the situation, look past the false idea of competition, draw energy and inspiration from each other and go on to find images that are uniquely their own.

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