Any creative project that ends up being a body of work needs a spine for it to stick. I am not talking about single images, for instances; photos you capture on the street or in Mother Nature, that doesn’t become part of something bigger. No, I am talking about something more comprehensive, such as a photo essay, a book, a film, a concert, you know, whatever you are working with and put together to express something deeper and more profound.
Spine for such a project, to put it bluntly, begins with your first strong idea. You were scratching to come up with an idea, you found one, and through the next stages of creative thinking your nurtured it into the spine of your creation. The idea is the toehold that gets you started. The spine is the statement you make to yourself outlining your intention for the work. You intent to tell this story. You intent to explore this theme. You intent to employ this structure. The audience, the viewers, the readers may infer it or not. But if you stick to your spine, the piece will work.
Let me take my latest photographic project as an example. You have already seen one of the first photos from it; the caveman as many of you saw the photo I posted last week as, or the water spirit, as I saw it. The project is only in the very beginning, but I already have an idea of how I want to pursue it. The foundation for the project is a bunch of farm ruins that are spread over a small area in a bottom of a valley very close to my home city Bergen in Norway. Often times I have wandered around these ruins – and felt a tremendous draw by them. I can feel the harsh existence it would have been to make a living here back hundreds of years when the small farms were still inhabited. Even more so, I almost feel at home, as if I had once lived this life. Yes, this sounds high-flying and even daft, but nevertheless it’s how I feel every time I wander around in the ruins.
That feeling is the foundation of the photo project. Then I have nurtured the idea and elaborated how to convert that feeling into something more tangible. I want to pursue a threefold expression. Firstly, I want to hint at the life as it was back in the old days, the farmers’ world and how the understood it. The water spirit is one such photo. Then I want to tell my own connection with this area. Finally, I want to express the beauty of the valley the farmers and myself have shared through this many hundreds of years. As I just wrote, I have only started pursuing the project, but already now I see the final outcome as a series of triptychs – images that consists of three panels or three separate photos put next to each other.
What I have just described here is the spine of the project.
In my early days of creative fumbling and trying out, I never thought about spine. I was content to receive any random thought floating through the ether that happened to settle on me that day. I didn’t even think I needed a supporting mechanism for the photos I took, the pieces I wrote, the drawings I made. I thought getting lost was part of the adventure.
I was wrong.
Floating spineless can get you through the day, but at some point you’ll be lost in the middle of a project, whether it’s a painting, a novel, a song, a poem or a photo project, and you won’t know how to get back to what you are trying to accomplish. It might not happen in your first creation, which, in your bubble of sweet inexperience, may skim from heart to mind to canvas, page, stage or image sensor exactly as you intended, perfect in shape, proportion, and meaning. However, it will happen in the next piece, or the one after that. It happens to everyone. You’ll find yourself pacing your particular white room, asking yourself, What am I trying to say? That is the moment when you will embrace, with gratitude, the notion of spine.
You can discover the spine of a piece in many ways. You can find it with the aid of a friend. That’s what editors do for writers who have lost their way. You can induce the spine with a ritual. Sometimes the spine does double duty, both as the covert idea guiding the artist and the overt them for the audience. That’s what makes Herman Melvillle’s Moby Dick so powerful and enduring. It has a solid unrelenting spine: Get the whale. Sometimes the spine of a piece comes from the music you listen to. There are just so many ways the spine can come to you or be developed by yourself.
Keep in mind that coming up with a spine is neither a chore nor a distraction that takes you away from the real work of the creative process. It’s a tool, a gift you give yourself to make your job easier. As for the particular quality of your spine, it doesn’t matter how you developed it or how you exploit it; your choice of spine is as personal as how you pray – if you pray at all. It’s a private choice that only has to provide comfort and guidance to you. It’s your spine. Use what works for you.