The Conception
The Plan
Shooting the Project
The Controversy
The Media
The Media
The Participants and Project Photographs
Final Notes
The Project Poster
 
process

For many years I have heard artists speak of an existential "artistic process" when it comes to creating their art to an extent of giving a greater degree of importance to this "process" then the final created piece itself. I have heard some photographers speak of the "process" as well to include giving more importance to the act of shooting then the final image. Many years ago, doing a radio interview, I was asked about my "artistic process" and I simply did not know how to respond.

I have never been able to get my head around what this "artistic process" concept is all about. I basically see something and decide whether it is interesting enough to shoot or not always with the final image in mind and really nothing else. Perhaps this "process" thing is discussed/taught in art classes, etc. but then again, I have never taken art classes or even a photography class for that matter so it is hard for me to identify with this thing.

All this said, the process (non-artistic) we went through doing this project whether it was the recruiting of people or the drama that would subsequently happen was somewhat interesting and this is why I decided to share it here on my website. I was tempted to volunteer to give a talk about the project to the local camera club because of the photography challenges I encountered as well as outside pressures faced but decided not to go there since the powers-to-be of this club found this project objectionable from the start.

While I still don't know what this "artistic process" thing is all about, I did have to reframe my initial vision and expectations along the way when it did come to shooting this project

creative frustration

I did go through a great deal of creative frustration the first half of shooting this project. Yeah...this may sort of sound like pretentious artistic gibberish but the frustration was certainly there. In some cases, I simply wasn't getting the results I had initially envisioned but at no fault of the participants. I should be able to create an interesting photograph regardless of what I am presented. In short, I initially wanted to shoot images that were artistic and creative with a lot of skin.

I decided to do this project because of the "challenge". While at first the challenge appeared to be getting participants; getting results that withstood the scrutiny of my toughest critic (me) became far more challenging. I did have constraints when it did come to shooting but even with those constraints, did I bite off more then I could chew? Did I write a check that my talent (or lack there of) couldn't possibly cash?

The first constraint was "time". From the first shot taken, there was only about 40 days to have a project that was ready to be hung. I have a full-time job so all shooting/project work would be done during the evening and on weekends. Because of the time crunch, I quickly realized that I wasn't going to hit home runs on every image. While I had definite ideas for some participants; I would simply have to resort to do some on-the-fly shooting with others and making best of the situation.

Admittedly, because of the fast pace of the shooting schedule, I wasn't always "on" or at my best coming into a new shooting situation. At times I was simply mentally tired which affected my ability to be creative. This project was not a cookie cutter type of shooting such as shooting events, weddings, portraits etc. when there are standard shots you shoot over and over again and can be done almost on autopilot. None of these images would be "standard" and had to be created. Unfortunately, at times I must admit I found myself settling for achieving the lower "it (the image) will do the job" standard in some cases because of the time crunch. This added to my frustration.

Another constraint would be shooting within the participant's comfort zone which differed from person to person. There was also a self-imposed constraint to take flattering images of each participant as well. Who would want a photograph of him/herself on public display that shows rolls of excess skin, cellulite or what have you. Sure, I could use Photoshop to make someone 40 lbs. lighter and do major work to eliminate major body flaws but then again, it would no longer be a photograph of the person. It would no longer be "real". As a result of these two shooting constraints, I certainly was not getting "maximum skin". You would see far more of the person if you encountered them on a beach. I had to eliminate this frustration but the only way I could do this was to change my mindset with regards to the project photography. This was something I had to reconcile from within.

During a late afternoon drive to Richmond with yet another project frustration on my mind, I had an epiphany of sorts that actually reframed the project photographs for me. Here I had a group of everyday people of all ages, shapes and sizes who volunteered to be a part of this project. Some of these people wouldn't normally have any photographs taken of themselves let alone one for public display. Some did this project as a self-challenge. Regardless of how much "skin" they were showing/hiding, they were still exposing themselves for a public display that would be scrutinized. Additionally they were all doing this project in the blind. They had no idea what kinds of images were taken of others. This took courage on their part and regardless of amount of skin they decided to expose.

I came to the conclusion that this aspect should be celebrated. This was still all in keeping with the basic tenets of the project "Old Towne Exposed". The weight of not getting results I initially wanted was lifted and I was set free from the constraints of what I initially envisioned for the project. Some could say I just rationalizing and gave myself an "excuse". Sure this could be the case but then again, I would like to think it is a case putting the constraints I was working under into a realistic prospective and this eased the frustration I had.

In hindsight, if I kept the blinders on and only took the kind of photographs that I initially envisioned, it would have taken a lot more time to complete the project and would have eliminated quite a few of the participants who did have "limits". Consequently we probably would have lost the rich diversity of people that made the project so successful and interesting.

grading

I was asked by an individual what I viewed as potential downfalls for doing such a potentially controversial project. The only downfall I could see was that my local reputation (if I indeed have one in the first place) as a photographer could take a hit if I did not produce decent results. I was not worried over the perception of me as an individual changing for shooting such a project.

Photographs routinely are graded or critiqued simply by what a person sees hanging in front of them. Many do not care nor understand what work may have gone into creating a given photograph so grading on some type of curve that takes into consideration "effort" does not happen much to the dismay of many photographers out there. If I were teaching a photography class I would tell the students that an uninteresting photograph is just as uninteresting regardless how much money you spent on your equipment, the cold and rain you had to endure to capture it or how much time you spent in front of the computer processing the digital file. I have run into photographers who simply do not understand this.

I am rather pragmatic when it comes to grading/critiquing my own photography. In fact, I am my harshest critic. While it may sound arrogant, no one can tell me anything about any image I take through a "critique" that I don't already know. I know what is right and what is wrong with any photograph I take.

I typically only exhibit images I truly like. In the case of this project, while I thought the "collection" really did work, I cannot say that I was enthusiastic over all the images. My lack of enthusiasm over an individual image was not due to the person I was shooting but my failure to come away from a shoot with a more interesting shot since I was the photographer who was behind the camera.

The bottom line is that I will give the cumulative grade of all the individual images a "C" but I am okay with that because of the VERY compressed shooting window and the fact that all 40 images are truly unique and not derivatives of each other as often seen in photography exhibitions. Because of this, I will take a hit for images that are just "okay" or simply "does the job".

luck

Participants - During the course of the project we had our share of dumb luck going on. I had a rough idea that we had a pretty balanced project in terms of women/men but with people dropping out and people being added, it was hard to keep up. We did take all volunteers. It was simply amazing that when we took a final count, we had 23 women and 23 men who made up the 40 images that were shot. Additionally, we pretty well nailed the demographics of "Old Towne" with the people who did participate but this would not be known until the end.

The Fit - All throughout the project, there was concern as well with regards to how many images could be hung on each side of Randy's creation. It was always a concern that we would not have enough then there came a point there was a concern we may have too many. I would ball park the number of images that could be hung on either side but it was not known until the Friday before the Wednesday pre-opening the EXACT image dimensions that included the film frame. The bottom line is that the project/number of images couldn't have fit more perfectly on Randy's creation. Positive karma was certainly with us.

The Petition - While there were plans to publicize the project around town with posters and mailings, Kimberly Ann and I simply ran out of time to do the things one does to normally publicize an art exhibit. It was lucky that a group of people found the concept of the project offensive enough to start a petition. Because of this, we got far more publicity through the media then we could have ever done on our own. None of this is meant to minimize Kimberly Ann's marketing efforts. She did get the Richmond Times-Dispatch and "Virginia Currents" interested in doing stories on this unique project. I will always consider her to be among the best in the area when it comes to marketing. The petition simply took publicity to a much different level and kicked it into overdrive.

group effort

While "Old Towne Exposed" may be considered a Mel Talley & Kimberly Ann Calos thing since our names are on the poster, the reality of it all is that is this was certainly a group effort of 47 people. Without our brave participants who blindly allowed me to shoot some images of them to those people who pitched in and helped to hang the show, prepare and manage things the nights of the pre-opening and opening, keep track of auction bids, poster/t-shirt sales, etc., this project would have never been a reality.

trust

I experienced "trust" from people that felt I was going to do the right thing when it came to shooting this project. On the other hand, I saw a complete lack of "trust" by a small group of people who knew me and was familiar with my photography.

I was truly humbled by the trust placed in me by the participants. They allowed me to shoot them in a "different" way for public display. No one would not see his or her image until the project was hung. I had some participants tell me that I was the only photographer they would ever consider allowing to shoot them in such a fashion. How I earned this level of trust, I will never know.

That said, there was a small group of people who felt that the project would harm the city and promoted sex, etc. I even had a "what about children?" card played on me. I am not talking about those who organized/signed the petition. I am talking about a small group of people who personally know Kimberly Ann and me. Not only would they voice their unsolicited displeasure about the project around town but took active steps to actually sabotage it by trying to get people not to participate. In some cases they were successful but in other cases they weren't. All of this "talk" was done based solely on the Richmond Times-Dispatch article. I would have thought since they did know me, they would have picked up the phone and asked "Mel...what is really going on?" before spewing their venomous views about a project they knew nothing about but this never happened.

After the very successful opening of the exhibit, I would be told..."it was never about your photography, I knew it would be good". This type of comment simply didn't make sense on any level. The project consisted of only my photography and nothing else. It was hard to stomach all the downright silly "excuses" made in an attempt to do damage control.

This small distasteful aspect of the project didn't affect the way I shot it nor my satisfaction of the results.

do it again?

Time and time again during the opening and the weeks that followed, we received many comments along the lines of "you should/need to do it again next year". A natural tendency would be to do another "like" installment of this project with different people and simply feed off of our original success however, that would be the easy thing to do. Nevertheless, I was in no condition at the time to even entertain such an idea. I needed time to recover and regroup. Since some time has passed, I have thought about it but my initial gut reaction didn't change one bit.

First of all, there would no longer be any "risk" involved on anyone's part. Judging all that was said, there is little doubt we would have problems getting people to participate a second time around. I may actually be able to get better photographs as well. We had some folks, who originally declined to do this project, admit to us "I (or we) should have done it." when they saw the finished exhibit. We knew all along that there would be people who would end up kicking themselves in the butt for not doing it. 

We also had many ask “why didn’t you ask me? I would have done it”. This is easy for an individual to say after viewing the project but would they have been as brave to step up and volunteer “in the blind” like our original participants did and simply trust Kimberly Ann and me?

Secondly, if we should do it again, there would no longer be that "unknown" element that tantalized the imagination of many wondering what Kimberly Ann and I were actually up to. It was this "unknown" that subsequently caused the eventual "drama" that took on a life of its own. This "unknown" was the catalyst for much speculation and talk. The "drama" and "unknown" that surrounded the project is what got people down to "Old Towne" which was our primary goal. This could never be recreated doing the same thing over again.

Finally, a definite goal of mine was to shoot/exhibit something "different" when I decided to take on this project. Doing a redux of the original project would not be very "different" now would it? Doing this same project again would be me taking an easy way out creatively. I want to continue to challenge myself and do something "different" and perhaps unexpected.

Yes....this is all meant to convey that I have no plans to shoot a new installment of "Old Towne Exposed". I have been there and done that and while I didn't get the t-shirt, Kimberly Ann certainly did sell them. The "film" is rolled up and is on a shelf in my office. No doubt it will sit and simply collect dust since I have little interest to exhibit the original "Old Towne Exposed" locally again; let alone shoot a new installment. It is time to move on and do something "different" but no less compelling and therein lies the challenge.

All this said, I have finally decided to start a new but very different project unlike anything I have ever attempted to shoot before. It has been in the "thinking" stage for perhaps the past three years. I am now in the midst of planning. This project will take me on a journey that will eventually be shared with others through my photography. I am of the belief that this path I have chosen will take my photography to yet another level in terms of subject matter, scope, challenge but more importantly...."relevance". Like any photography however, those who view it will ultimately decide whether it has any merit or not.

in conclusion

There are so many stories that could be told about this project that I actually feel that the story behind the project is far more interesting then the work itself and that is why I decided to exhaustively write about it. Perhaps there is something to this "process" thing I have heard about all these years. All that I have written is merely a glimpse of the project through my eyes.

There were so many rumors going around town about this project before and after the opening, it was hard to keep up with them. Some rumors were that some of the pictures were Photoshop creations.....i.e. I shot the person somewhere else and digitally put them into another setting. Actually a local graphic artist suggested we do that early on in the process but that really does go against my photographic ethos.

With regards to some of my images; it is amazing the number of people (to include self-proclaimed photographers) who automatically assumed that a shot, which may be a little different, was a Photoshop creation instead of being the result of good old fashion photography but that is a gripe to be written about at another time. To address a rumor on another shot, I will wag my finger and state.....I DID NOT PHOTOSHOP A THONG ON THAT WOMAN"S BUTT. Some rumors surrounding the project however were downright vicious and very untrue.

Of course I would get some harmless teasing about the fun I must have had shooting naked or nearly naked women. On some particular shoots, there are some men (and women) that would have actually paid me to be my assistant. While I do enjoy the sight of unclothed women like most any heterosexual man, I honestly took no pleasure from having a completely or partially nude woman standing in front of me. I was simply too busy working. My complete focus during a shoot was to eliminate distractions in the setting, make sure the lighting and composition was correct and that the subject was posed in a flattering manner. Even with that said, many will still sarcastically remark "yeah yeah yeah…tell us another one" in disbelief but that is the honest truth.

I would have never thought a photography exhibit of mine would create so much attention and "talk". That said, all throughout the shooting, the only discussions I had about the project were with only participants or those very few close friends of the project. I only heard of all the "talk" about the project third hand. Unlike other projects, it was odd that I did not get the occasional "how is the project going" from people who know me nor comments from local photographers who routinely ask me about projects I am working on. There was simply an odd silence.

It did amaze me how wide spread discussions about the project actually were. One example was early on when I got a call from a friend who lives up in Goochland. She was having lunch with a group of women in the far west end of Richmond who started talking about this project as a result of the Richmond Times-Dispatch. She said she just kept her mouth shut the whole time listening but finally confessed to the group she knew the photographer. She said that the discussion was all very positive and one woman, with a NYC publishing background, thought the concept was great.

Once the project was on display, I was in a waiting room for an appointment up in an office near Midlothian. The head of the practice, who I did not know nor ever met, saw me in the waiting room and came up and told me how much he enjoyed the exhibit. I was sort of dumbfounded but nevertheless amazed by this.

I went into a local Wawa and the gal who was checking me out at the register bluntly asked "aren't you that photographer with the naked people?". My first thought was that I was about to be blasted. I lowered my head and confessed I was indeed the photographer. To my surprised, she went on to say how she didn't understand why those people were all upset over the project and how she felt there was nothing wrong with it at all.

Way before the public reaction of the exhibit, I knew this would be the most ambitious project I have ever attempted to shoot. All along, my major concern was over the "quality" of the final photographs and that they would ultimately be found "interesting". The "talk", while amusing and annoying at the same time, didn't bother me nor influenced the pursuit of putting this project together.

There are no pretentions that these photographs are examples of great photography. I could shoot all better if given another opportunity. That said, as a collection, I was satisfied with the end result. This satisfaction was reinforced by the comments I did received from the actual participants as well as a wide variety (age, sex, race, social standing, etc) of people once the project was "exposed" to the public. Comments coming from some local serious photographers about the technical side such as lighting, etc. were also most gratifying.

Neither Kimberly Ann nor I anticipated the crowd of people who came to see the project that Friday evening of the opening and would continue to come over the following two months. Many would come back to view the project multiple times. Overall, the goals or the project were met or exceeded. We got people down to "Old Towne" and there can be no argument over that but of course there are a very few who criticize the "process".

Unlike other projects we have worked on together, Kimberly Ann and I certainly had our share of knockdown and drag out fights over the course of this project but despite all of this it really boiled down to a comment that someone told me...."Despite any problems you two may have had with each other along the way, look at the wonderful project you two created together. There is a lot of good when it comes to the combination of you two and the results are proof of that."

In all honesty, neither of us would have been able to do this project alone. In short, while the process may have been brutal at times for both, it was our combined talents and a very odd synergy of two very different people, a symbiotic relationship of sorts some psychoanalysts may actually find fascinating to study, that created "a short film" titled "Old Towne Exposed".


Find the creators and the project on FaceBook! Become a "friend" of the creators and a "fan" of the project in order to keep up with what we are planning to do next!

 
 
 
 
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