The Alphabet: Observations from A to Z by Abba Richman
Almost by definition, photography is a graphical medium that connects directly to emotions rather than to our intellect. But, that's not always the case. Concept projects, like this one from Abba Richman, are their own little sub-genre of photography. In his case, he photographed the alphabet from A-Z in objects he found in his environment. I can imagine the fun he had as he hunted the haunts in his neighborhood and travels, searching for those last difficult to find characters.
The A-Z project is one that comes up with frequency — and Richman is certainly not the first nor the last to produce a body of work like this. It is, however, a project that is quite fun and worth repeating, particularly if you've never done such a project yourself. I talked to dozens of photographers who've engaged this kind of project and found a universal theme in their reports: it's not so much that looking for letters was the great reward, but rather the way such a project helped develop the habit of carrying one's camera and being constantly on the lookout for images. This alone makes such a project a worthwhile endeavor. In addition, it's quite possible that some wonderful images will be found that have purpose outside the alphabet project.
There are variations on this theme that are worth exploring, too. Numbers come to mind as an obvious alternative. Words also present their own challenge — many years ago, for example, I remember seeing a photographic project where some inventive photographer found all the words of the Gettysburg address in street signs, posters, and other presentations and after photographing them, did a giant cut and paste project to reproduce the famous speech. A visual cousin to this kind of project can be found in those massive images that create a mosaic of someone's face out of thousands of tiny photographs each with their own overall color tint, each contributing a single mosaic tile to the overall construction.
All of these are somewhat intellectual pursuits with the camera that challenge us with the puzzle of completion and the logistics of production. I'm not convinced they necessarily lead to great art — but they unquestionably do lead to a certain photographic discipline that is worth pursuing. In addition to helping develop habits of seeing, such exercises also lead us to let go of the object seen and reduce it to line and form — a useful tool for any visual art making.
I've often thought of this is a variation on that often quoted Minor White maxim about seeing things for what else they are, but in this case: Seeing things for what else they can represent. Far too often photographers can settle into a rut of making beautiful Xerox copies of what the world looks like instead of using their skills and talents to make artwork with whatever they find in the world. There are no letters in Richman's alphabet project except for the ones that he makes with his imagination. I'll go so far as to say this is an exercise that every photographer should do at least once in their life, if for no other reason than to loosen up and practice seeing in a different way than we do in everyday life.
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