Do You Have a Spine?


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.


59 thoughts on “Do You Have a Spine?

  1. This is very interesting. You don’t talk about art although it’s implied all along your article. I find your view very refreshing. I totally agree with the idea of the spine. I have been painting for twenty years before discovering mine. The process of creation demands time (like the time a child needs to learn how to walk, and stand straight). This brings out other issues, in our contemporary world, Time is seen as a hindrance sometimes. Things must be done fast and delivered promptly. It completely transformes the creative world I think. How do you manage this construction of a spine as opposed to the growing velocity of our world ?

    1. This is a very important point. It takes time to acquire some skills and insight and confidence in the creation of any art work. You only get there by work and more work. As for your question, I can speed up on internet when I need to, but take my time when I photograph or write or whatever I am serious about creatively. Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Julie.

  2. I am spineless , lost it on the way to searching high and low for it…probably have to give up searching and it might find me instead. Still got hope, as you see! Good Post Otto.

  3. What a beautiful, wise and inspiring post. I love the images it invokes for me, the spine of books, my own essential backbone on which the rest of my skeleton, my body, my life depend and hang… a sense of strength, uprightness, courage. I’ve been planning a poetry collection for a while, but indeed the project doesn’t yet have a clear spine! Now I know what’s missing 🙂 Thanks! Harula x

  4. Everything you say Otto resonates very strongly with me. I have a project that I believe has a spine currently underway. It was working toward a contemporary associateship with the RPS that taught me the value of this approach. Your project sounds very interesting indeed and not a million miles away from something I have been working on also. I’ve been thinking that people had much harsher existences in the past but somehow they were so much closer to the elemental nature of all things. In our coccooned comfort of modern living, so many people are losing sight of what is a very important part of our existence. To feel a belonging to our environment is healthy and spiritually so uplifting. How we reconcile this conflict (maybe we can’t), this is my spine, working out how I can explore this through my photography, that’s the work in progress 🙂

    1. What you write about your project very much resonates strongly with my thoughts on the project I described in this post. We might have to compare ideas and exchange thoughts at some point! Thank you for sharing your “spine”, Adrian.

  5. I was given the challenge of coming up with a theme or story to follow for a season for B&H photo reviews. your article is very usefi8ul. I love to create art but am not a good writer. Coming up with a story is going to be very hard for me.

  6. Yes, you’ve done it again. The “spine” (as you call it) gives direction, meaning and structure to what can still be flow. Intention is the gem that helps one soar, even if it dissipates and leads in an entirely opposite direction.

  7. I really like this post, Otto. First, it is really interesting to read about the spine of your work. I am intrigued by your bond with the people who lived on that land long ago and with the land itself. It will be very interesting to watch this evolve.
    My daughter is an artist in training, and she is already asking herself what her work will be about. It is good for an artist to seek the answer to this question. I wandered, spineless, for years before I found it and it was such a relief when I knew I had.

  8. First, I don’t think you’re daft in connecting with a place, or people of the past. I have those places too. And this is yet another great direction post. I think I am forming a spine the more I shoot.

  9. I’ve been thinking about a post for some time now. Probably over a year. Lately, I have been gathering bits and pieces for it and finally was assembling it today. This post about the “spine” resonated something I was trying to say and is sending me back to make sure the spine of my story is holding up. Thanks, Otto.

  10. I haven’t called it ‘spine’ but I love the analogy. As a writer, there must be a spine to the story, the main theme, the trunk for which the scenes and twists branch from. Another great post Otto! I like how you think!

  11. this was a neat talk, i wondered if my photoblog has a spine and slowly it started to take shape in my mind, a sad song, a depression… and yes, i think depression is the spine to my body of work, tho you did mention that random photos shouldn’t have a spine, but i think mine has a spine lol

    1. For me it’s clear that your blog has a spine. 🙂 And of course a single photo can have a spine as well, it’s just a matter of how you look at it. It still needs to tell something for it to be of interest to others.

  12. I like the way you dive into this…and yes, a spine to anything you do is almost essential to complete the experience. Of course, I love photo essays and seem to develop a story with most every outing ~ although there are times when all I do is walk back with images and nothing else…I now understand what that feeling is 🙂

  13. This is interesting and important subject dear Otto. As always you are giving us precious notes about photography. I am one of them too who is spineless… But I haven’t thought of this till now… And also I can say this too, I haven’t been in any project with my camera. “Improvisation” could be the right word for my photography. Moments of my camera simultaneously works… maybe it is something like photojournalism of my days… But I know this is another important field in photography. I think, as you made a nice point, I have to find my spine… On the other hand, if we look in another side of this, I mean to have a spine means to have a style, or to be known when people watch your photography, this is Otto’s photograph or This is Paul’s… etc. Is it something like that dear Otto? Photography is a long way to learn, as I understand. Thank you dear Otto, you created waves of thoughts in me 🙂 Love, nia

    1. For me style – or an artistic voice – and a spine is closely connected. But whereas style is something of yourself in every work art of work you do, the spine is connected to one body of work – the idea behind a certain work. So for instance, your “Improvisation” may not be closely related and as such have a spine that hold them together, but they will certainly express your voice. On the other hand, even though you may not have defined a spine for these “Improvisation” there might still be something that you weren’t aware of during the shooting that connects them and in hindsight could be extrapolated as a backbone of the work. Does this make sense?

      1. Thank you dear Otto, I will try to come back and read again for to understand. I am so tired and sleepless, I am almost counfused now. And also you know sometimes my language is being problem. But once again thank you, I will read again. Love, nia

      2. Yes, dear Otto, I can almost understand now. This is great, I mean the thought. It wasn’t easy to understand for me at first. But I noticed something about my photography, I haven’t worked for any project… yet 🙂 Maybe. So, I can easily say I am not aware of a spine.. Your expression about old days and farms impressed me. And the connection with a spine of photography! There is something great and deep behind all these works, I should think of them, I should learn too… Once again Thank you so much. Let me say this too, how I wish(ed) to attend one of your workshops, travels… 🙂 Have a nice day, love, nia

  14. I think you hit on the foundation of great art. I always say, writing is all about communication; if you have nothing to say – don’t write. I feel that you are making a similar point here. Figure out what you want to communicate, define your idea, then get creative on how to present it.

  15. First, your new project seems fascinating. There are places in the world which do call to us, and stir our creative impulses. Projects that begin in such ways seem to succeed far better than those which begin in thought alone.

    I agree with all you say here. I came to much the same conclusion a few years ago, although I framed my understanding differently. Here is how it happened. I was working on an essay, which refused to develop. After some time, I realized the problem. I had two story lines in one piece, and they were at war with one another. I excised one, and all was well.

    Thinking about the experience, I came up with my own little “rule,” which I think is another way of describing your spine. I’ve always been fond of Kierkegaard’s small volume, “Purity of Thought is to Will One Thing.” It came to me that, in the same way, “purity of prose is to write one thing.” Whether it’s a haiku or “War and Peace,” keeping that “one thing” — that spine — in view is necessary for success. Clearly, the same is true for any creative endeavor.

    1. I think this is a good point – and one that I can learn from. I think I have a tendency too often to wanting too much at the same time. “Purity is one thing” – I like that. Thank you for this bit of great advise, Linda.

  16. Very timely for me Otto. I am currently drawing together a collection of my abstracts and am exploring what it is (if anything) that gives them coherence. This is an ‘after the event’ approach but it provides an opportunity for me to reflect more closely on what my photography and picture-making is about.

  17. Spine is what I may be groping for right now, my friend. Sometimes I have this feeling that the spine is not unlike smoke, insubstantial and yet indicative of a a fire somewhere. Thank you for this enlightening piece. I might still piece together something.

  18. As always, Otto…your posts inspire! Was watching ART BEAT on PBS last evening. Their focus was on glass blowers/glass artists in the Pacific NW. One artist said (paraphrasing here)….he never knew where his current project was going to go…which direction he would take or it would take him in the artistic process. He also…said (again paraphrasing) yes, sometimes he failed. Sometimes the direction didn’t work….but if an artist is comfortable in “direction” he is not learning, exploring, taking chances. Which brings us to your post…Finding Your Spine…which once again I’ve paraphrased to suit…… Thanks, Otto!!! My best, Raye

    1. Thank you, Raye. I am glad you can find something that relates to you in my post. Otherwise it sounds like it was an interesting TV show on PBS. As always; there are so many different approached to the act of creating.

  19. I am very able to feel what you say, Otto, and the moment I saw your picture of the farm I thought that you were here in Ticino and wanted to write about the people’s history here. I presumed, somehow that it was your spine of a story. I would, however, never have imagined that stone houses like this also existed in Norway and not only in Ticino and therefore, my spine could be to find out more about these similarities and write a little story about them! Thank you very much for your helpful guidance.:)
    Very best regards Martina

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