Personally speaking

My college photo instructor Dick Fleming once said the difference between a professional photographer and an amateur is that when you’re a pro “you have to be creative next Tuesday at 3:00 p.m.” That means you can’t wait until inspiration hits you but rather you have to be creative when the job requires it. The grind to produce interesting photos everyday can be a heavy burden at times

There are many talented amateur photographers out there who are thinking about making the tranisition to pro. But it takes more than just sheer talent to do it on a daily basis. You have to be able to constantly tap into your creativity, and it can be a challenge to keep it up day in and day out. A way that many photographers have found to keep the creative juices flowing is to have a personal project. The project of the photographer’s choosing can help to keep the mind thinking about different and new approaches to photography.

When I was taking photo courses in college, one of the assignments was to shoot an egg. The lesson was to find creative way to shoot an ordinary object. I took the assignment to heart and found dozens of ways photograph eggs, and I still occasionally shoot them to this day.

One of the things I like to do photographically is to find beauty and interest in everyday places, objects and people. Making the ordinary extraordinary. It suits newspaper shooting, because that’s the majority of what we do. Several years ago I found a new personal project to help keep my eye and mind fresh.

I was leaving a Sac-Joaquin Section track meet at Sacramento City College’s Hughes Stadium. It was late in the day during that time between afternoon and evening. The sun was low on the horizon, and I was wending my way around the serpentine streets that wound around a railroad overpass. Out of the corner of my eye, the warm glow of the sun glinted perfectly off a nearby street sign and the low angle of the light cast its shadow against the overpass’s concrete tall retaining wall. Normally I would have stopped, but I was on deadline and there was nowhere close to park so I continued on my way. Although I never went back to that spot (I still may), the image that I passed up has haunted me. Not long after that I decided that I could make signs a new personal project.

“…Sign, sign, everywhere a sign
Blockin’ out the scenery, breakin’ my mind
Do this, don’t do that, can’t you read the sign?”

Like the lyrics from the 1971 song “Signs” by the Five Man Electrical Band, signs are ubiquitous. So much so that they often become visual background noise to most of us. We ignore them only until we need a specific onem such as which offramp to take or what traffic signal to heed. They can be clear and concise or ambiguously cryptic. They can be contradictory, ironic and humorous or stoically serious. Some state the obvious; others can be vague. Some signs are officially authoritative and others are informal handwritten notes. Their placement can fit in an urban scene or be out of place in a landscape. Some can contain informative text, while others are merely symbols or shapes. The one thing they have in common is that, like them or not, notice them or not, they are a part of our lives.

So that has been my personal project for a while now, and I’ve amassed several dozen photos pertaining to it. I shot them with no expectations of publication, but just to please myself. It helps me to keep thinking of new and fresh ways of seeing things and to keep my eye out for the photographic possibilities that are out there. Indeed, It’s helped me not only in my work but also finding photos that pertain to neither work nor the project. So if you find yourself in a rut, try finding your own personal project. It may be something that makes you smile or laugh; or perhaps it is heart-achingly beautiful. It needn’t please anyone else. Just make sure it’s something that inspires your mind, heart and eye.

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