The Importance of a Photography Project

EMI 1400 Vinyl Record Press

It is often said that the best way to improve something, anything that you do creatively is to give yourself a project. A self set goal that focuses your creative energies onto an end target. This allows you to break the goal down into steps, a plan, a strategy. I can honestly say that none of that applied to how I started my own long term photography project.

The Vinyl Factory

I had recently got back into taking pictures, mainly on my iPhone and posting them to either Instagram or EyeEm. It seemed I was just snapping aimlessly really. My interest in film cameras had returned after a chance encounter with an Olympus Trip 35. Then quite by chance, I was asked to visit a factory in West London to discuss an engineering contract with a new client as part of my day job.

The client in question was a vinyl record pressing plant now known as The Vinyl Factory. Born from the ashes of the EMI press works when it ceased vinyl record manufacture in the early 2000’s.

Lacquer Master Disc
Lacquer Master Disc before silver coating

On entering the plant, I was overwhelmed with nostalgia for my youth. My record collection and music taste literally defined who I was back then. Standing in the very place responsible for some of the most iconic records ever, I felt compelled to go and get a camera and start photographing everything in sight. But it’s not as easy as that.

After my day job work was done for that visit, I plucked up the courage to ask the MD if it would be OK to come in and shoot some pictures in the factory. That took a little time to get agreement, but after looking at my slowly growing portfolio, was granted permission. Could it be that simple to get access? It seemed so but I think timing and approach had a lot to do with it.

Nickel Plating Baths
Playing the Nickel Plating Baths

With such an analogue legacy before me, it seems the only option was that this project had to be done on analogue cameras, the tools used to record this project had to be authentic, and contemporary with the subject matter.

It wasn’t long since I purchased a classic fixed lens rangefinder. A near mint Olympus 35SP, you can read about that here, so was on the lookout for a small project, an essay subject. Something to give me a reason to shoot. Serendipity?

Nickel Plating Baths
Nickel Plating Baths

Now what? I was in way over my head, having never done anything like this before. Looking at essays online, to get some ideas, I started shooting, some colour film some black and white, to see what worked and go from there.

Setting The Stamper Plates
Setting The Stamper Plates

The first rolls showed lots of promise. Both the color and black and white had potential. Every frame seemed to scream vintage character, and history. However, after some consideration, discussion with friends, and the client (I use the word loosely as it was self commissioned project!) I settled on Ilford excellent HP5+ Black & White, for a number of reasons, speed being one, but mainly I just thought the aesthetic gave the right look. Black vinyl, white labels.

New Pressed Record
New Pressed Record

Now this is where the hard work set in. With maybe 70-100 frames after the first visit or two, the gestation and editing begun. Killing your own babies is a very difficult process. Extracting just the images that really connected with the slowly unfolding narrative was really difficult. Particularly as I didn’t have a clear brief in the first place! I needed space between the shoot, first view of the shots and eventual selection to get the objectivity needed. They say this is what Garry Winogrand did with his rolls. One reason why so many undeveloped rolls were found after he died. He needed to look at the images without the memory of taking them, seeing them with fresh eyes.

Portrait of a press operator
Portrait of a press operator

Clearly I couldn’t do that. But I could put some space between me and the images to get some perspective on them. This of course extends the duration of any project timeline. A typical photo project I read somewhere was between 2 – 5 years. I wasn’t sure I would be able to sustain that level of commitment, especially with an art director friend saying I just needed to finish it and move on.

Andy, long serving press operator
Andy, long serving press operator

The largest challenge I found was the edit. Not editing or retouching of the images themselves, but the selection of images. With about 400 plus images to choose from, some very similar but with a slightly different angle or lighting, it seemed never ending. Pulling all my favorites into a book template really helped. What would have been even better in hindsight would be to use prints to select and order the sequence. This is how I feel it would go in future. Taking the time to note image numbers and roll numbers with greater diligence would make this stage much easier.

Setting The Presses
Setting The Presses

The real sticking point for me was coming up with the words needed to tie it all together. It needed a story, more than just the pictures. There was a lot going on in some of the images and without some explanation, the relevance of the image in would be lost. Running the commentary through every page detracted from the idea of a photo book. It broke the flow of the images.  So after a couple of re-writes the images and words were divided into three sections. Process, People and Place. This I felt was a natural grouping of subject matter.

Empty Press Halls
Empty Press Halls

Finally after two proof prints, and nearly two years of shooting, consideration, writing and thought process a complete book emerged. A long way from the initial concept of a brief photo essay of say 10-15 images and a short article, but it is something I am proud of. It’s also the most expensive book I own.  Adding up the film, processing, proof prints and days of holiday taken to shoot I don’t want to think what this project has actually cost directly. Not to mention the gear acquisition that occurred during the process. Starting with a single rangefinder and ending up with two Olympus OM SLR bodies and a collection of lenses, continuous soft box lights and bags etc.

Factory Building
Former Factory Building

Giving myself a project has been a great learning experience and one I plan to repeat. But only once I’ve managed to do something with the product of all this effort. Maybe before? I have a few ideas for the next one, but with the wisdom of hindsight it will be based around smaller “projectettes” that could build in to a larger body of work. I have definitely been bitten by the documentary bug, recording for the future what is today seen as ordinary.

So, go on, give yourself a project this year and see where it takes you. You may surprise yourself.

If you would like to follow my work you can via the links below.

Published by julianhiggs

A returning film photographer, darkroom builder and book maker.

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