Projects or Singles? Ask Pythia!

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Away with ideals. Let each individual act spontaneously from the forever incalculable prompting of the creative wellhead within him. There is no universal law.

—D.H. Lawrence

Working in projects is, without a doubt, a better, more artistic, and more satisfying way to practice photography than to pursue single images. To pursue single images is, without a doubt, a better, more artistic, and more satisfying way to practice photography than working in projects.

Each of the statements in the preceding paragraph is false. Certainly, the two cannot coexist. Each of these statements, however, is absolutely true and the two do not contradict when preceded with the words, “for some people.”

Which “some people” do you fit into? The Pythia—the high priestess of the ancient Temple of Apollo (also known as the Oracle of Delphi) has the answer. She has had the answer for more than 2,000 years. The answer, the first of three maxims engraved above the entrance to her temple, was this: know thyself.

The Pythia’s wisdom is the stuff of legends. More impressive, hundreds of years after her time her wisdom also agrees with modern science: the science of personality psychology. According to the American Psychological Association (APA), the word personality “refers to the enduring characteristics and behavior that comprise a person’s unique adjustment to life, including major traits, interests, drives, values, self-concept, abilities, and emotional patterns.”

Personality psychology is founded on the idea that we are each wired differently from others, leading to differences in preferences, temperament, and various cognitive abilities. Although often not stated overtly, personality psychology also explains why so many popular maxims and traditions should never be considered ubiquitously as the most appropriate for every person. This is especially true of maxims, traditions, norms, and opinions relating to one’s mode of artistic expression—things a person does by choice, rather than by necessity, coercion, or duty.

In this sense, personality psychology is eminently compatible with the philosophy of existentialism, founded in the idea that individuals must choose (to the degree they have the freedom to do so) their own ethics and actions according to their own temperament, sensibilities, and conscience, regardless of any traditions and expectations they happened to have been born into or that are considered appropriate, honorable, desirable, or dutiful by their society or by influential persons. As one of the fathers of existentialism, Friedrich Nietzsche, wrote: “No one can construct for you the bridge upon which precisely you must cross the stream of life, no one but you yourself alone. There are, to be sure, countless paths and bridges and demi-gods which would bear you through this stream; but only at the cost of yourself.”

A popular model in personality research is the Five-Factor Model (FFM), also known as the Big-Five model of personality. According to the FFM, one’s personality is a unique blend of these five traits: extraversion, agreeableness, neuroticism, openness to experience, and conscientiousness. Different people may rank differently (relative to others) in where they fall on each of the traits, and the combination of the five yields one’s unique personality. Of these traits, conscientiousness perhaps explains better than the rest why photographic projects may be a more appropriate and rewarding mode of work for some, while pursuing single images may be preferable for others.

The APA defines conscientiousness as, “the tendency to be organized, responsible, and hardworking.” Highly conscientiousness people are industrious, tend to plan their work and to stick to their plans, are not easily distracted, and take great pride and pleasure in achieving their goals even if the work required was tedious or otherwise unenjoyable.

Conversely, people with low conscientiousness tend to be impulsive and easily distracted, take risks, juggle a lot of ideas, and are more concerned with the quality of their immediate experience than with the expectation of future rewards. Such people may start working on an idea with great enthusiasm only to later become distracted or bored and lose interest in the work before completing it. No doubt, Mary Oliver was correct in describing most artists’ temperaments when she wrote, “There is a notion that creative people are absentminded, reckless, heedless of social customs and obligations. It is, hopefully, true.”

It may be tempting to conclude that one should aspire or have the discipline to become highly conscientious. However, one’s degree of conscientiousness is largely not a matter of choice. Like other personality traits, one’s degree of conscientiousness is largely determined by genetic predisposition and formative (external) influences.

By necessity, high conscientiousness is at least in some ways at odds with creativity. Specifically, conscientiousness is often in competition with another personality trait (which is strongly correlated with creativity): openness to experience. People with high openness to experience generally possess what some researchers described as “leaky attention.” They tend to have a lot of ideas influenced by a broad range of concepts (i.e., they are good divergent thinkers), often overtaking or negating previous ideas. They tend to be distracted easily, get excited to pursue new possibilities, sometimes to a point where new ideas seem more important and worthy of attention than existing work in progress. This explains why highly creative people may be very good at starting things, but they are often not very good at finishing them.

This is not to say that creative people can’t also be highly conscientious. In fact, creative people who are fortunate to also have an uncommonly high degree of conscientiousness are those most likely to become commercially successful and widely recognizable. This is because high conscientiousness makes people more productive, gives people the discipline to finish works after starting them and the tenacity (and interest) to pursue professional success more vigorously than those with lower conscientiousness, who may consider such things as commerce and popularity as lesser priorities, if not necessary evils, when compared with their joy in pursuing new ideas and experiences, regardless of what anyone else may think (or buy).

Returning to the matter of projects versus single images, it should be obvious by now that project-oriented work—work that demands consistency, resisting the temptation to switch one’s attention to other things, and limiting oneself to working within narrow, preconceived success criteria for the sake of future reward—can be very appealing to highly conscientious people. On the other hand, this mode of work may seem like a tedious chore to those who rank highly on openness to experience, whose desire to try new things is of such magnitude that it can easily overwhelm their degree of conscientiousness when answering the question: what should I work on now?

To people whose creative impulses are powerful enough to overcome their conscientiousness, working on projects may feel like an imposition, a fetter, something to rebel against rather than something to take pride in. Such persons likely will (perhaps begrudgingly) still act in a conscientious manner in professional, social, interpersonal, ethical, or other appropriate contexts, but it would be much harder for them to reign in their attention and creative urges when some “aha!” moment presents itself and they feel inspired to work on something new rather than set it aside to complete an existing project. For such a person, photography’s capacity to produce excellent singular works while still in the throes of inspiration and creative excitement, may be the medium’s greatest advantage over other media.

Research shows that, statistically, artists as a group tend to score lower than the average population on conscientiousness. This explains why most artists, past and present, pursued their work one piece at a time. Often, these pieces, to an outside observer, may seem entirely unrelated. Consider for example how different Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa is from his Vitruvian Man, not to mention he was also an excellent sculptor, scientist, inventor, and musician. Of course, there are also examples for the opposite. Claude Monet made about 250 paintings of waterlilies and around 30 paintings of haystacks.

In a greater sense, we must consider that, given our uniqueness of personality and the inevitable finite nature of our lives, all of us in fact—whether highly conscientiousness or not—ultimately work toward one grand project: our life. More specifically, the one project uniting all that we do is to make the slice of time afforded to us to be conscious living beings, as meaningful as possible. As Albert Camus put it:

Too often the work of a creator is looked upon as a series of isolated testimonies. Thus, artist and man of letters are confused . . . a man’s sole creation is strengthened in its successive and multiple aspects: his works. One after another, they complement one another, correct or overtake one another, contradict one another too. If something brings creation to an end, it is not the victorious and illusory cry of the blinded artist: ‘I have said everything,’ but the death of the creator which closes his experience and the book of his genius.

J.D. Salinger put it more succinctly when he wrote, “an artist’s only concern is to shoot for some kind of perfection, and on his own terms, not anyone else’s.” Perfection on your own terms means perfection according to your own personality. For some, this perfection may be expressed in singular works, for others in thematic collections of works. The point being that, as long as it is considered so in light of one’s personality, one kind of perfection is no less perfect than another kind of perfection.

I mentioned that know thyself is just the first of three maxims engraved above the entrance to the Temple of Apollo. The second of these maxims is, nothing to excess. This advice also, if perhaps in a roundabout way, is related to choosing between committing oneself to projects or remaining open to ideas and epiphanies that may inspire singular creations that may not necessarily fit within any theme or preconception.

For highly conscientious people, the risk of excess may manifest as becoming too involved in a project to a point where one feels stressed by one’s limited capacity to only do so much within a given time, or reluctance to leave something unfinished even if it may become evident that there is no good reason to finish it. As a result, such people may overwork themselves to finish a project even when the project is no longer enjoyable to work on or may even fail to achieve its originally intended purpose.

For highly conscientious people, finishing a project may seem the ultimate measure of success, rather than their enjoyment in the process of working on the project, the importance of the finished project, or the realization that one’s limited time and resources may be better spent on other things. For such people, I recommend doing what any good project manager knows to do: define the project’s success criteria in advance, identify relevant metrics and assess them regularly as you go. If during the project it becomes clear that the success criteria, for whatever reason, can no longer be met, abandoning a project is a better choice than sinking more effort and resources into it.

For those who are not very conscientious, excess may also be a problem; specifically, an excess of ideas and competing priorities. If you don’t finish at least some of what you start, you will never be satisfied with your work. Those who may not have the discipline to remain focused on a long-term project may still do well to train themselves to focus their attention long enough to do the best job they can with single works: to finish every image to the highest possible quality before starting on the next.

In practice, this means being acutely mindful when in the field and visualizing possibilities beyond the obvious; then, when a potential photograph is found, dedicating yourself—your attention, time, and thoughts—fully to considering and fine-tuning your composition before switching to a different subject and/or departing. In the studio, it means similarly dedicating your attention fully to processing (and/or printing) an image in the most effective way possible, correcting all flaws and adjusting every relevant quality of the image to the highest and most precise degree before moving on to something else. While not easy, especially when one’s mind is prone to distraction, asserting such control, if only for a few minutes at a time, is a necessary precursor to flow, and as such is well worth the effort.

So, are you one who will be better off working on projects or pursuing single images? You can find out by taking one of many freely available FFM personality tests to see where you fall on the conscientiousness scale. While conscientiousness may not be the only factor, knowing your own ranking on any and all the five personality traits can be profoundly useful, and a good way to spare yourself angst about making different choices than others’. Consider photography as Edvard Munch considered painting. He wrote, “My art is rooted in a single reflection: why am I not as others are?”

(For the curious, the third maxim from Apollo’s Temple, perhaps not as relevant to the topic of photographic work, can be paraphrased as: “guaranteeing another person’s debt leads to ruin.”)

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10 thoughts on “Projects or Singles? Ask Pythia!

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  1. As a photographer who is not project-oriented I appreciate this essay. As much as I admire Brooks Jensen, I have always taken umbrage with his rather myopic view on projects versus what he calls “greatest hits.” There is no one “right way.”

    1. Thank you, Chris! I love Brooks’s portfolios and am in awe of his productivity (beyond just LensWork, his folios, chapbooks, and Kokoro monographs are wonderful). I consider him one of those fortunate people who are both creative and highly conscientious. Alas, like you, I don’t enjoy working in projects, and I think that “greatest hits” may be a pejorative for works that in other media may be considered as singular masterpieces.

  2. It’s always interesting to read what you’ve been investigating and thinking about. It’s also humbling. Thanks for another essay so relevant to creators, and perhaps many others as well.

  3. I’m with Dorothea Lange, who said in 1958, “I find that it has become instinctive, habitual, necessary, to group photographs. I used to think in terms of single photographs, the Bulls-eye technique. No more. A photographic statement is more what I now reach for. [Then I] can express the relationships, equivalents, progressions, contradictions, positives and negatives, etc. Our medium is peculiarly geared to this.” Of course it’s possible to do both projects and bulls-eyes.

    1. Thanks, Gary! Of course it’s possible to do both, but that doesn’t mean that both are equally satisfying to a given person. Lange was a photojournalist. It was her job and calling to make statements and to tell stories. But others may have different goals and sensibilities, which can also find expression in photography. The goal of visual art, in particular, is often not to tell a story but to make a singular impression, to elicit an emotion, etc.

  4. I believe the integrity of each image contributes to the quality of the project – your essay is timely and relatable. I am compiling two or three dozen photos that can stand on their own, matted and framed, that will contribute to a cohesive exhibit or ‘project’ for this fall. The creative process of composition is satisfying for each image, and, I have found, the end-game process of compiling the pictures for display and sale brings fulfillment of a different creative-process kind. Finally, of course, all along this path, it is imperative to ‘know thyself’ or to ‘be true to thyself,’ with selecting the images that will not only appeal to the audience, but stand together as a singular project. As creators, there are constant challenges, and as your epigraph by DH Lawrence inspires, “act spontaneously from…the creative wellhead within.” Thank you, Guy, for such a well-written, excellent piece!

  5. Another very enlightening article. I now better understand my tendency to never finish a project! I’ve “closed” some but in no way finished them. Thanks for the insights Guy!

    1. Thank you, Tom! You are certainly not alone. Even Michelangelo was known to abandon works in progress when something else felt more important or interesting to him.

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