Behind the Creative Process—Book Review

Earlier this autumn Aperture released an inspiring and introspective book. Photowork: Forty Photographers on Process and Practice is a book for the curious photographer, whether emerging or well established. As the book title indicates, forty photographers are asked about their approach to the creative process and how they translate that into photographs.

The focus is on a body of work, rather than the single image. Each photographer is asked the same set of questions—twelve to be more specific, creating a typology of responses that allows for an intriguing compare and contrast. How does a photographic project or series evolve? How important are “style” and “genre”? What comes first—the photographs or a concept? These are some of the questions the forty photographers are asked. Curator and lecturer Sasha Wolf was inspired to seek out and assemble responses to these questions after hearing from countless young photographers about how they often feel adrift in their own practice, wondering if they are doing it the “right” way.

The responses, from both established and newly emerging photographers, reveal there is no single path. Their advice is wildly divergent, for the most part generous, and delightful: Justine Kurland discusses the importance of allowing a narrative to unravel; Doug DuBois reflects on the process of growing into one’s own work; Dawoud Bey evokes musicians such as Miles Davis as his inspiration for never wanting to become “my own oldies show.”

I find Photowork to be a stimulating read. Acting as a manifesto of sorts, Photowork aims to depict an authentic image of the creative process in relation to photography. I love the many different approaches and how each photographer brings his or her own thoughts into something that becomes a fascinating, juggling act for the reader’s mind. Some answer are of course less interesting that others, but for the most part, I learned a lot and enjoyed reading about the many different paths that each photographer brings to the table.

A few photographers—particularly a couple of the more well-known— give way to somewhat arrogant responses, at least in my opinion. And some photographers bring forth pretentious and pompous statements. They talk seemingly very intellectually about their work, but with words that actually says nothing and are more like the emperor’s new clothes, if you know the fairy tale by Hans Christian Andersen. Nevertheless, the majority of answers are truly evocative and reflective.

I think most readers will find approaches they can relate to in Photowork. Certainly, I did. However, I what I found most interesting was to discover new approaches and new ways of thinking that forced me to think differently myself. To be creative is to be willing to be challenged. And often enough I was in Photowork. For me that was maybe the most enjoyable part of the reading experience—something to ponder on and bring into my own photography.

Interestingly enough, most, if not all photographers, agree upon working both intuitively and intellectually with a different emphasis on one end or the other of a continuum between the two. Otherwise, the diversity and difference in the answers is a great inducement. Like how some photographs embark on a project only after significant deliberations while others seem just to float into what eventually becomes a project. As an example of the latter is Katy Grannan. She says about the process as work that flows from other work: “Ideas come from anywhere and at any time and sometimes, not at all. I just keep working, keep living my life and trusting my curiosity.”

Also Peter Kayafas has a more fluid approach to his projects. He approaches his interaction with the world through the camera without much preconception. For him, it’s important the project such as they are—or might become—evolve out of using the camera without being inhibited by preoccupation to hunt something down that fits with a project. Furthermore, he says about a photographer’s voice: “I think an artist’s goal should not be to find a voice per se, but to empower the one that he or she already has. This is not to say that an artist should not strive to challenge and refine his or her voice, but I think that there is nothing more dangerous to original work than trying to create a voice”.

Another enjoyable part of the reading experience was learning about photographers and how they think that I had never heard about before. Two such photographers were for me Kelli Connell and Matthew Connors. I ended up buying some of their books, although out of print, still available second hand on Amazon.

The format of the book—the same twelve questions to all photographers—is both its strength and its weakness. It’s of great value to be able to directly compare how different photographers think about various aspects of their body of work and the creative process. But sometimes I would have liked for follow up questions to elaborate some of the more pensive answers. I would also have loved to learn more about how other cultures besides Western culture think about the process and practice of photography. Most photographers in Photowork are based in United States. Although there are a handful of photographers from other parts of the world, how interesting wouldn’t it be to learn how photographers from Asia, Africa or South America approach their photography creatively.

At first I was taken aback with the fact, that Photowork doesn’t show any photos. That’s right—text only. While the book is a collection of interviews where artists talk about their photographic processes and practices, there are no actual photos to be looked at between the questioning. At first, I thought it was silly. A book on photography without any photos? But this was clearly a deliberate decision. Since the artists speak specifically to creating a body of work, I can see how it would be difficult to pick and choose any one or couple of photos to represent the whole when the conversation calls for understanding a series—both how it is made and how it exists in the larger scope of things. Plus, including any number of photos of the many artists’ in question might have been disruptive to the ideas being discussed, when, in fact, the inquisitive reader is already doing a deep-dive on any names that interest them.

I will strongly recommend Photowork: Forty Photographers on Process and Practice for anyone who is serious about his or her photography. Particularly if you are curios about working on a photo project or a larger body of work—or are already working on one. With Christmas soon approaching, this is the perfect gift for your photographing friend—or yourself.

To buy the book, click on the link below:


PhotoWork: Forty Photographers on Process and Practice

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37 thoughts on “Behind the Creative Process—Book Review

  1. i don’t like to take advice hahaha… i like my own ‘bad photography’ to build up out of ME… i know i took years at photography school, but really, it was the same process of discovering MYSELF… i like to LOOK at brilliant photographers’ work, and it might spark a take away passion, but my photos will always be what i see… what i do… how i do it… (i hope i don’t have a case of the emperor’s new clothes in saying that lol)

    1. Which is should be for all photographers. I still find it interesting to learn about how other photographers think, not to imitate or be advised by what they say or think, but as part of developing my own take.

      1. yes yes, plus i crumble under criticism lolol… Otto is always super nice and beautiful to me, when i give him a photo to critique… otherwise i wouldn’t give him the photos… coz yeah… lol

  2. Jadå, det här är säkert en helt fantastisk bok, speciellt därför att den inte innehåller några fotografier, utan de intervjuade fotograferna får svara för sig själva, med ord. Sen kan jag då känna en viss tvekan, en tvekan inför hur frågorna är ställda och att det blandas proffs och amatörer. Varför då? undrar säker vän av ordning, är det någon skillnad? Jag säger både och…en amatör kan vara mycket mer begåvad än ett proffs, ha ett helt fantastiskt bildseende och även språklig förmåga, men en amatör lever inte på att visa och sälja sina alster, en amatör är i den bästa av världar just precis vad beteckningen innebär…att kunna leva för sin konst, att njuta av att skapa utan vinstkrav. En dröm som jag alltid har haft och nu sen jag halvt om halvt har pensionerat mig, börjar jag närma mig tillståndet. Om drömmen blir till besvikelse eller om den blir uppfylld…ja, det får framtiden utvisa. Det finns mycket mer att säga, men jag avrundar här och konstaterar att det är alltför långt mellan mina besök här hos dig…jag har blivit alltmer anti vad gäller sociala medier…men jag kommer tillbaka fortare än du anar…jag skall skärpa mig, i alla fall när det gäller kvalitetsbloggar som din! Ha de´ vi hörs!

    1. Det er alltid sunt å være kritisk. Det du peker på, er veldig relevant. Og, ja, det er stor forskjell på å være amatør og profesjonell. Mange av oss profesjonelle drømmer nok om friheten til amatøren, samtidig må jeg også innrømme at jeg føler meg privilegert som får jobbe med noe som gir meg stor glede. Nå får du nyte muligheten som din nye tilværelse gir deg. Og så må jeg også selv innrømme at det har blitt langt mellom mine besøk hos deg…

  3. Two short observations. 1) It seems like the idea of “intellectual” descriptions of one’s art have migrated from traditional fine art (painting, sculpture etc) to photography, which now allows photographers to also engage in that nefarious descriptive writing called “art speak”. 2) Trying to create your artistic voice is indeed the worst way to find your individual expression. You have to allow it, not manufacture it.

  4. An excellent review, Otto.

    Forty photographers seem like it would be a very broad collection too. I think I’d quite enjoy reading the new emerging photographers as they look at what they’re doing with fresh eyes and full of the wonder of what inspires them to create and how they see the world around them.

    Well-known photographers sometimes come across as being too full of experience and too well-practised to be open to the original and innovative that comes with those new to the craft. On the other hand, some of the early photographers of the 20th century still retain their unique approach and haven’t been exposed to the limits or peer pressure of popular social media today.

    Was there a broad age range in the 40 contributors?

    1. I agree with you. Young people have a different approach than older photographers, just as people for instance from different cultures. I always find it worthwhile to learn how photographers see things who come from a different place than myself. And, yes, the age range in the book is broad.

  5. Sounds like a good read indeed, and would make a perfect Christmas present for a photographer. I just happen to know one who would like it. Thanks for the great review.

  6. A great, balanced review of this book, Otto. I liked these observations: “But sometimes I would have liked for follow up questions to elaborate some of the more pensive answers. I would also have loved to learn more about how other cultures besides Western culture think about the process and practice of photography.” It is probably also a good idea to warn potential purchasers that there are no photos! That would be a bit shocking on first glance.

  7. This is fascinating. Putting together a book, specifically one that involves photography and well thought out themes is tough work. I love the way you dissect the process almost in a manner that feels like a guide. It shows creative strength and how possible it is for anybody with the time and dedication to replicate.

  8. I like the approach Peter Kayafas takes as this probably aligns best with my own intuitive process. Series are born from going out and shooting rather than thinking about it ahead of time. Sometimes I stumble upon something I want to work on over time and may have several themes in mind at any one time. I have been curious whether you have heard of Cole Thompson’s ‘Visual Celibacy’ practice. He feels self-expression is hindered by looking at other’s works when ideas and influence comes from others rather from within.

    1. I have not heard about Thompson’s “Visual Celibacy” as such, but I have heard similar thoughts from other photographers. Personally, I find it too inspiring to look at other photographers’ work and I don’t think it hinders my self-expression. But that’s me. 🙂

  9. Great review, Otto – I appreciate your points about wanting more diverse voices, the strength and weakness of the format, the pleasure of discovering new photographers…and I really appreciate your calling out those people who talk a lot but say nothing: the emperor’s new clothes syndrome. We see it too much. 🙂 Matthew Connors – yes, interesting work, thanks for mentioning it.

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