In the context of fine art photography, with some subjects or themes, working out where the series begins and ends is quite simple. Especially if it has a documentary slant on it or is defined by time or geography or both.

But as fine art photographers, some of us probably have subjects we keep coming back to again and again.

Sometimes street photography falls into this category, where there is no end.

In these cases, have any of you ever struggled with how to close a work, to say, ok, it is done.

I'm struggling because I feel my subjects are so personal that they will never end...?

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    \$\begingroup\$ While I don't want to discourage non-technical questions, I can't see how this one can possibly be answered, other than "it depends", or possibly "when the artist is dead". Maybe it could be rephrased as "What are approaches for defining the scope of a photographic project?" \$\endgroup\$
    – mattdm
    Commented Mar 22, 2011 at 11:35
  • \$\begingroup\$ hmm, good point. would it help if it was a community wiki? \$\endgroup\$
    – andy
    Commented Mar 22, 2011 at 12:35
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    \$\begingroup\$ This is a conversation for meta.photo.stackexchange.com. My feeling is that CW is meant for things like list-of-resources questions, where there's a benefit to collaborative answer-building. It shouldn't be used for unanswerable questions — the site is focused on Q/A, not discussion. That's why I suggested the more focused rephrasing of the question, which I think helps but I'm not sure helps enough. \$\endgroup\$
    – mattdm
    Commented Mar 22, 2011 at 12:43
  • \$\begingroup\$ Or post it in the chat room, its async - so you can always see if it sparks discussion. \$\endgroup\$
    – rfusca
    Commented Mar 22, 2011 at 16:50
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    \$\begingroup\$ You guys are nuts. The question is just fine, and is totally answerable. :-) \$\endgroup\$ Commented Mar 22, 2011 at 17:17

2 Answers 2


'How do I know when I'm done' is almost as important of a question as 'what do I take pictures of,' and it's a question that most fine art photographers I've ever met or worked with struggle over. There's a certain 'luxury' sometimes to having a client attached to a project because it forces completion (you're on their deadline and you don't get paid if you don't finish!), but when it's a project with no 'end-user' it can breed things like endless fiddling while trying to get every image 'just right,' seeking out 'just one more' to add to the collection,' and hating the work because it never quite matches up with what the artist 'imagined' it would all look like. In fact it is a common enough dilemma that many of my professors at art school talked about strategies for overcoming the somewhat natural tendency for artists never to finish what they start.

The three techniques that I come back to time and time again in my own work are:

On The Clock - Setting a hard deadlines is the primary thing I do to keep myself on task... and I set lots of deadlines. My total project deadline may be 3 months, my session deadline may be 2 hours, and my deadline for finishing the post production on the photo I'm currently working on may be 20 minutes. The key is to set the deadlines, and honor them... Yes, they're artificial, but I treat them as if they're not.

Your own best advocate - Another thing I frequently do is to enlist someone to be the 'gatekeeper of done' for my work. This is someone I trust completely who I can show my work in progress to and discuss it openly. This person (actually I have a few) is able to tell me when they think I've moved from productive work on a project to simply 'spinning my wheels.' In essence I grant them the power to tell me it's time to stop.

Tell the world - There's nothing like a show or an 'unveiling' of some sort to light a fire and switch me into 'just gotta get it done' mode. Because I'm not famous enough to be able to call up fancy schmancy galleries in order to have a real show, I often set up shows at my house and send out invitations to folks over to look at my work, have cocktails, etc. Turn it into a fun evening. I've even seen this work successfully as a 'virtual show' where someone tells their group of friends/family that they'll be releasing a website of a project on a certain day... Although for me personally there wouldn't be the level of motivation necessary to get it done in a 'virtual' release like that.

Now obviously the one big thing an artist needs in employing any of these techniques (or others you may come up with) is the integrity to stick with the commitments you make to yourself, even in the face of the variety of emotions that artists go through regarding their work: not feeling like the work is done, any good, worth showing, etc. For me part of the 'exquisite pain' of being artistic is realizing and accepting that I'm probably rarely (if ever) going to be completely satisfied with anything I ever do... That dissatisfaction is usually at the heart of me not getting things finished and once I acknowledge that fact it is often easier for me to simply let things go.

  • \$\begingroup\$ Wow, great answer jay, thank you. I think the point you make about accepting one will never be completely satisfied is an excellent one. Also finding third partiesnto look at your work, very good. I guess I just to say, ok, enough picturesmof lamp posts! \$\endgroup\$
    – andy
    Commented Mar 22, 2011 at 19:52
  • \$\begingroup\$ I've known a lot of brilliant artists who are never happy (I mean, "I think I'm going to do a bunch of coke, party all the time, crash my car, and then maybe cut my own ear off" not happy) because their work doesn't match up with what is in their heads/hearts exactly so they feel like complete failures all the time... \$\endgroup\$ Commented Mar 22, 2011 at 22:23
  • \$\begingroup\$ I think the healthier course of action is to accept that the majority of the time our work is only going to be a pale imitation of the images we have in our head... But every once in a while something comes out exactly as we imagined it would and those moments are breathtaking... and worth chasing after as we create our art over the course of our lives. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Mar 22, 2011 at 22:23

Jay gave a good answer for bringing projects to an end by imposing deadlines using one or more of three techniques.

I am going to give a different kind of answer where you define the contents, i.e. the scope and the end point falls out of that.

So this is how I do it.

Give your project a title and a one sentence description. Just do it and don't sweat the details. You will come back later and update this. This forces you to clarify somewhat where you are trying to go.

Do some preliminary or exploratory work. In the process of doing exploratory work you will discover more about the project. This unstructured, exploratory work will allow you to discover the potential scope of your project. You will uncover aspects that you had never thought about. Once again, just do it and explore freely. Try not to limit your ideas.

Re-do your title and project description. By now you will know much more about the potential of your project and this will probably require you to refine your project title and description.

Use mind mapping tools to outline your project structure in detail. You will have developed a clear idea of the project as a result of your exploratory work. Commit this idea to paper by using mind mapping tools. Mind mapping is a great tool for taking vague or incomplete ideas and developing them so that they have a clear and detailed structure which covers all possibilities.

The mind map defines the project scope and plan. You can tick off the bubbles as you complete them until finally you complete the project.

Have a well defined deliverable. This can be a photo book, a web gallery, a presentation to some audience. But you must have a deliverable that you produce as a result of the project that finally signals its completion.

Arriving at a quality result is an iterative process. So build this into your expectations of when you will finish the project. You should review the project after taking a short time out. The break gives you a chance to view your work from a fresh perspective. My rules of thumb are that the normal project goes through one review and iteration whereas a special project will go through two reviews and iterations, but never more than two. The law of diminishing returns applies after that with a vengeance.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Actually, it seems like you got the opposite of the point of my answer... The methods I described are specifically useful in situations where there isn't a clear end point or deadline like commercial work, such as with a open-ended fine-art project or 'personal' photography project. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Mar 22, 2011 at 22:11
  • \$\begingroup\$ haha, I agree with Lance's comment. Nevertheless, really good advice labnut, thank you \$\endgroup\$
    – andy
    Commented Mar 22, 2011 at 23:12
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    \$\begingroup\$ Yes indeed, so I have corrected my answer accordingly. :) \$\endgroup\$
    – labnut
    Commented Mar 23, 2011 at 9:22
  • \$\begingroup\$ great answer labnut, if I could I'd mark you both as answer! \$\endgroup\$
    – andy
    Commented Mar 23, 2011 at 21:55

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