In the final months of his father’s life, photographer Phillip Toledano began taking pictures that culminated in a project called “Days With My Father.” It is a bittersweet reflection, told in portraits, still-life images, and short narrative text. “I didn’t think anyone would have interest. It felt like such an incredibly personal thing. It was this thing within me that I had to get out,” Toledano says.
He created a Web site for the project,www.dayswithmyfather.com, and mentioned it to a couple of friends. Before he knew it the site was getting 15,000 hits per day, and people from all over the world were e-mailing him with stories about their own fathers and grandfathers. To date, the site has attracted more than a million visitors. Toledano is now turning the project into a book, and his publisher has asked him to start work on another book about becoming a father (his first child, a daughter, was born in July).
“Days With My Father” is just one of several projects sites Toledano has created. It’s also one of many Web sites photographers in general have created to showcase a specific project, apart from their commercial portfolio sites. The projects often reflect creative ambitions, and the sites emphasize the work while barely mentioning the photographer. Self-promotion, in other words, is not the primary intent but executed well, project sites can lead photographers to new assignment opportunities, print sales, and offers for exhibitions and book projects.
All of Toledano’s projects, he explains, get a dedicated site because they are “radically different,” and he wants each one to have a site with a design that reflects the idea of the project. (They include projects about video gamers, phone sex workers and other subjects, and can all be accessed fromwww.mrtoledano.com).
Toledano says he also tries to use a different designer for each one of the sites. “I want the Web designer to bring something to the party,” he says. Part of the appeal of “Days with My Father” was undoubtedly its elegant and quiet design, created by the Web design firm Fashion Buddah.
“It’s hard to design something that’s beautiful and invisible at the same time,” he observes. “I didn’t want something flashy for “Days with My Father.” [The design] felt really organic, which is what I wanted.” (Fashion Buddah ended up winning a variety of design awards for the site).
Toledano says he negotiated a deal for the design, and added that photographers shouldn’t underestimate their bargaining power. “If you’ve got really great work, a Web designer is going to want to do a site for you,” he says, at a reduced rate, on a trade, or even for no more than their own self-promotion.
Photographer Finn O’Hara traded prints for Web design services for his successful project site, “A Moment Before.” The project was inspired by his curiosity about the life-altering decisions that turned people into subjects of news stories. “I asked myself, ‘Why not try to recreate those decisions?’” he says. At the time, he’d been shooting a lot of editorial portrait work, and wanted to experiment with conceptual narrative. The result was a series of images unlike any of O’Hara’s other work. So rather than upload it to his commercial portfolio site, he created a separate site, and watched traffic spike after some influential bloggers took notice.
It took O’Hara in new creative directions, demonstrating production capabilities and ideas that his regular clients didn’t associate with his work. “It definitely opened the door for new jobs,” he says. He landed a commercial shoot for Nike on the basis of “A Moment Before,” and several new editorial clients inspired by the project have also hired him.
O’Hara is now working on another project site, inspired by the multimedia narratives he’s seen on FLYP magazine and some multimedia work he’s done with fellow Canadian (and Magnum photographer) Larry Towell.
The new project is a collection of images he’s shooting on Kodachrome, along with stories of the people who are donating old Kodachrome film stockpiled in their refrigerators. The donors stepped forward after seeing an article in the Toronto Globe and Mail about O’Hara and his father and their love of Kodachrome. O’Hara’s father is a former Kodak employee, and the paper ran the story after a reporter read a post on O’Hara’s blog about the demise of Kodachrome film.
“I don’t think just pasting photos up tells the entire story,” says O’Hara, explaining why he’s collecting stories from the Kodachrome donors. “There’s a way to round out the story with a good essay, maybe a few interviews, that doesn’t have to be massive project, but offers information about a process and really puts hooks into readers.”
Another photographer who recently launched a project site is Brooks Reynolds, who says he was inspired by Toledano’s “Days With My Father” project. Reynolds’s site is called “We are Sleeping Giants.” It began when he heard a song called “Night of the Creeps” while traveling with a musician friend, and imagined it as a soundtrack for a series of photographs that capture the mixed emotions—desire, isolation, anticipation, mystery—that 20-somethings might feel late on a warm summer night.
“I was experimenting [to] try something new,” he says. The images are more conceptual, with more elaborate production, than he’s used to shooting. He scouted locations, cast models (from Facebook photos), and set up lights, generators, fog machines, and other gear he needed to execute his vision. “It wasn’t Gregory Crewdson, but still…” Reynolds says, referring to Crewdson’s elaborately constructed suburban scenes.
Reynolds didn’t set out to use the project as a self-promotion, but now that he’s completed it, clients “can see what I do, and take ideas from it. It could be a style I apply [to assignments] in addition to what’s in my portfolio,” he says. “I thought of it almost like a viral portfolio. It was saying, ‘Hey, here’s a personal project I did.’ It’s without a doubt a portfolio, but it has a Trojan Horse way of getting to the audience.”
Other photographers have launched project sites with specific goals and audiences in mind. Jim Garner, a commercial and wedding photographer, recently created a site for a personal project about the storied past of his partner’s doting grandfather, who was a career criminal. Garner and his partner went through newspaper and justice system archives to dig up his story, photographing his files, his cell at Alcatraz, and scenes of his escapes from various prisons (he “escaped” Alcatraz by feigning psychosis).
Garner created a dedicated Web site to get feedback from friends and colleagues prior to turning the project into a self-published book. “The idea is to try something new and completely ‘out there’ and see what colleagues think about it,” Garner says. “That’s where new ideas come from. It’s all about personal growth, and ultimately that benefits our clients.” (He has since taken the site down.)
In July 2007, photographer Andy Freeberg set up a Web site for his project called Sentry, a series of images of art gallery desks in New York, andyfreebergphotoart.com. Freeberg’s intent was to establish himself as a fine art photographer, so he launched the site just before calling on galleries.
“I wanted to separate it from my commercial and editorial work,” he explains. “You don’t want to confuse them [gallerists]. It was a way to make clear that [the project] was something I was serious about” and not simply a temporary diversion from his commercial work.
The strategy paid off: several galleries expressed interest; someone mentioned it to Jorg Colberg, who posted a link on his influential art photography blog, Conscientious; and Gallery owner James Danziger, who saw the link on Conscientious, called Freeberg for prints the next day and mounted an exhibition of the Sentry project just two months after Freeberg put up his site.
Last year, just prior to entering Photolucida’s Critical Mass competition, Freeberg posted a new project to the Sentry site called Guardians. That project is a series of quirky portraits of guards in Russian art museums. Blogs including Boing Boing and Iheartphotography took note, posted links, and drove in the traffic. Freeberg was named one of the Critical Mass Top 50 photographers for 2008. It’s hard to prove that his Web site and the bloggers who noticed it were a deciding factor, but they certainly didn’t hurt.