I thought I'd never understand this one photo series I saw over a decade ago; it was so popular but seemed so bland to me. What I realize now is the content of images aren't the most interesting part and in fact, the project has a lesson all photographers could learn from.
The year was some time in the Naughties, I had just bought a second-hand DSLR and was marauding from place to place with it obscuring 40% of my face 100% of the time. I don't just like things, I get a call from the void and throw myself in, neglecting all other areas of my life, and photography was exactly the same. I was reading, watching, and listening to everything I could get my hands on. I wanted to know what made the top photographers great. It was then I came across Bernd and Hilla Becher's "Water Towers (Wassertürme)" series. As the name implies, it's a project where they photographed industrial architecture ranging from water towers and silos to grain elevators and pithead gears all around Europe and North America. Each shot was in black and white — more sepia — and presented in banks of prints all the same dimension. It was and still is much coveted and can be seen in the Tate and Guggenheim (click either of these links to view as I don't want to infringe on any copyright) and has won many awards.
Try as I might, I didn't "get it". It felt like modern art that was in vogue to swoon over, but its genuine merit to the population at large was somewhere between lost and a meme. Then, some years later, I realized what was so impressive — to me at least — about this series: consistency. These images were taken in places thousands of miles apart, on different days, weeks, and even months, and yet there is a very obvious strand running through all of them. Think how difficult that must be to create. You have to have the same angle, the subject take up roughly the same amount of the frame, same composition, same editing, and same light... that's right, the sky is almost identical in every image. For me this swiftly went from a strange but mildly interesting industrial architecture record, to a seriously impressive artistic feat.
Suddenly, the more I looked, the more consistency I saw in top photographers. The results didn't even really matter (though they're always good), what mattered was being able to create multiple images in multiple locations, at different times, and yet it be clear to any viewer that the images are all "connected"; that is that they are all from the same photographer for the same project. It's significantly more difficult than it sounds and requires a harmony between photographer, equipment, and vision that is hard-earned. Martin Schoeller's headshots are a perfect example. He does a lot of his headshots with different backgrounds, in different locations, and with vastly different subjects, but you know they're his. They have something that links them all together. In actuality that "something" is a mixture of many things. Are they the best headshots you can get? No. They're not always even very flattering. But consistency is something that's rare, particularly at that level and number of repetitions.
I wanted to try to create my own style of headshot which was — unintentionally and only in retrospect am I realizing this — a blend of the two aforementioned series: headshots in the same style every time, but naturally lit with varying backgrounds. I don't believe for a second that they're the best headshots in the world, in fact, I usually take lots of different styles of headshot because people and their needs vary and they often aren't even my favorite shot of the day! However, I regularly get asked to take one of these. Perhaps there's a comfort in knowing exactly what you're going to get. There's commercial value in producing a certain type of image over and over; it sets a standard of work that alleviates the potential client's fears of disappointment. I do this time and time again even in non-portrait commercial work.
So, the project I think all photographers ought to conduct is this: create a series of images that are obviously part of the same set despite being shot at different times and locations.
Have you already done this? Share in the comment section below.