The Idea Is Everything

My take on Einstein’s quote above is that, if you can execute them successfully, there really are no bad ideas. With some projects or themes, you need to exercise a single-mindedness of vision, a laser adherence to the idea that every photo must contribute to the story or theme or it’s excluded, no matter how strong it may be.

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“If at first an idea does not sound absurd, then there is no hope for it.” —Albert Einstein

Tucker Shaw had the idea that he would take a picture of everything he ate for an entire year. The result? A book entitled Everything I Ate: A Year in the Life of My Mouth. He used a point–and-shoot camera to photograph every morsel of food before he ate it. The idea sounds unusual, and it is, but the result is a thought-provoking work published by Chronicle Books, a publisher of some innovative and original titles, including many great photo books.

When you make your way through Shaw’s catalog of food pictures, at first you look, then you process, then you personalize and imagine looking through a similar catalog of images of what you’ve consumed in a year. Then the thought horrifies you, then you put the book down.

“Sure, it’s just a bunch of pictures of food, none of them all that great. But it’s the most honest thing I’ve ever done. There are no secrets in these pictures. Nothing is missing,” said Shaw. He used photography in a clever and simple way as an archiving tool, and the sum is definitely greater than the parts.

I have a few other seemingly absurd ideas that grace my book shelf.

BikePoles1John Glassie did a book called Bicycles Locked to Poles. In it, you’ll find images of—you guessed it—pole-locked bicycles. Similar to Tucker Shaw’s work, the catalog of straightforward, literal depictions starts to gain momentum as you view bicycle after bicycle, abandoned and sad, with missing parts, showing you what the photographer wants to show you.

That’s what we do as photographers. We say to our viewers, “Look at this. It’s funny, sad, shameful, beautiful.” It’s a bicycle locked to a pole.

Andrew Danson is a Canadian photographer who decided he would photograph Canadian politicians alone in their offices, with a twist. In his book Unofficial Portraits (Doubleday, 1987), Danson himself didn’t take a single picture. Instead, he would frame the image with his subject in place, set up the lights, adjust the exposure, and then leave. The subject was left behind, in a quiet room with a cable release (which you could see in the picture), and would take a series of 12 self-portraits. When they were done, they would come and get him.

“Some politicians saw humor in such an undertaking while others took themselves very seriously. This work is about power, self-image, imagination, and about the dialectics of photography,” said Danson. The results were fascinating. Some of his subjects would puff themselves up, trying to project a look of confidence or bravado. But the camera could not be faked out, and those images often ended up looking silly. His inspiration for the project came while working far removed from the world of Canadian politics, when he was documenting poverty in Jamaica. He says sometimes inspiration comes when you’re distanced from your regular routine and surroundings.

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