Imagineering Methods for Theme Creation—Tools

Just Quit- Mineola Road © Bob Killen
Just Quit- Mineola Road © Bob Killen

The Photographers Journal

The best fine art photography project is the one you finish. However, finishing and starting are two points in time that share wired ends. One cannot finish without a start and one cannot start without a finished product in view. So where is the start?

Perhaps it is in your head, but more likely it is in your heart, your soul, a muse that is a foggy mesh of subject and theme that is more feeling then substance. You are wrestling with an idea or ideas and you are trying to get at past ideation and on to the work of making images that you believe in. So how do you get off the starting block and onto creating? Most artists use several tools to generate ideas and to refine the process of developing a theme as well as putting all of the pieces together to complete a project.

In this blog installment, we will explore one of the most important tools for developing and creating your theme —

The Photographers Journal.

I know, I know, you are a visual person, full of hue, saturation, luminance, tone, form, and finish, and you don’t write. But the truth is that journaling is a powerful creative stimulant, used by artists since we made bison pictures on cave walls. Da Vinci’s journals are records of masterful thought; Ansel Adams kept an extensive photographic journal wherein he recorded scientific data as well as his concerns about color and the commercialization of the environment. Minor White kept notes on how composition affected viewer reactions. Alfred Stieglitz’s journal records how he came to understand and develop his theory of visual equivalency as well as detailed records of exposures and pre-visual sketches. Contemporary fine art photographers such as Grannan, Caponigro, Sherman, Crewdson, Arbus, Taylor, and many others keep journals of some type. Journaling is also practiced by bankers, spiritual leaders, business captains (e.g. Jack Welch), scientists, stay at home moms and dads, and politicians.

Anyone can create and keep a journal, but I believe it is a must have, must use tool, for artists.

What is a Photographers Journal?

A Photographers Journal is a friend that I share my observations, reactions, and feelings with each day. I journal about all types of subjects but I usually segregate thoughts about photography and fine art projects from family and personal matters. When I write, I reflect on the why of a project, what I have learned as I work through images, and over time, I usually see things differently as I continue to develop an initial idea into a final thematic. Many concepts never materialize or simply don’t work as first envisioned and discussing these issues with myself reveals self. I learn why, why not, or simply, I don’t know.

Journaling about Photographic Themes

Images, especially concept photos, will provide answers about your themes that words cannot.

Nonetheless you need a one-on-one session with you— and you, to figure out why you are shooting a certain project, a certain way, at certain times, with whatever mechanical techniques you have chosen. Sometimes it is helpful to ramble, but I encourage students in my fine art classes to employ critical thinking when you write to yourself about yourself and your project. If you write on a schedule you will come to terms with your subject and theme.

The Benefits of a Photographic Journal

Writing a journal helps us to recapture a given moment so that we can reprocess it later.

Putting pen to paper or finger to keyboard engages us to ask provoking questions; ‘Why do I do this?’ or ‘Why did this happen?’ The act of writing often crystallizes a particular problem or issue or enables you to see where a particular piece of work has not achieved its objective.

Journal writing encourages engagement and reflection. When we journal, the words are now ‘outside’ of us. They are there in black and white on the paper or on the screen. This is often revealing, but it is also sometimes scary.

Journaling allows us freedom from external judgments.  You are free to write as you wish and your words can take you in new directions. Without restrictions or censorship your mind can race—or slow down— and you can step outside various visual thought boxes or turn them sideways.

Journal Layouts

You can use bound books, loose leaf notebooks, One Note on your computer, they all work—so choose one that works for you. I have been doing more of my journaling with One Note because I can insert images and sketches alongside my words (we’ll dig into sketches and concept photos in future blogs).

I typically put headers on my pages that refer to a given project or theme, the date, place, and time. I like these references because when I come back to a given page I feel grounded by the recall.  I consider my Photographic Journal as a learning journal with thoughts about the subject as well as facts about the process. If you are new to photographic journaling then a good starting point is to use four basic elements:

  • Visual Description of the project theme as you know at the time. This is subject to change, of course, and loose exploratory writing is more helpful then task specific considerations.
  • Additional Material — Where I’m shooting, or if I’m working in post-production, I write about technical observations as well as emotional responses. Often I simply write questions and sometimes make declarative statements that describe how a project or specific image is coming together or falling apart.
  • Introspection— A personal analysis of how I got where I am and why I’m here.
  • Next Steps – Introspection and reflection usually leads to developing a list of ‘to dos’ necessary to continue the project or to get on track. Sometimes the next step is abandonment.

There is, however, no ‘right’ way. The test is whether it works for you and you may have to try several approaches to find a journal process that works for you.

Reaping rewards from your Photographic Journal

If you make journal-writing part of your everyday routine, you will accumulate ideas, reflections, understandings, and document your experiences so that that they gain value with time passage. From your journal, you can harvest your past so that you reap a more rewarding future.

Buy a journal, write words on the pages.

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One thought on “Imagineering Methods for Theme Creation—Tools

  1. As usual Bob, your words of wisdom combined with practical tips offer the best form of encouragement for me as I struggle to put words with my photographs.

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