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Photos Get Physical

This assignment ran from Feb 1 to Feb 22, 2016.

When was the last time you printed one of your photos? For some young photographers, the answer may be never. For more than a century, photographs were experienced as physical objects, as artifacts on paper. Fast-forward to the digital age, and photos are primarily shot, shared, and viewed electronically.

As Olivia Newton-John once said, let’s get physical. Your assignment is to explore the tangible side of photography. I make artwork from my photographs by cutting up prints and reassembling the pieces into surreal collages glued to illustration board. The piece shown below is called Columbus Moment and features the Smithsonian's Arts and Industries Building in Washington, D.C. Working with prints allows me to push the sculptural potential of photography. You could do the same by creating a new artwork from prints of your photos.

Or you could explore how photos activate public space. JR, a French street artist, uses large portraits pasted to buildings in slums to give a visual voice to the disenfranchised people who live there. How could a print of your photo interact with and inform a particular place?

Interested in time travel? A print of a photo shot in summer and held in the same place during winter would show the passage of the seasons. A portrait of you at some point in the past included in a photo of you now could reveal how you have aged or how your mood has changed.

You must use your own photographs in your creation. Any manipulations to your images should be done physically (cutting, burning, pasting, etc.) and not using Photoshop. Please feel free to interpret this assignment broadly; I expect that my mind will be blown. The caption will be crucial for explaining the concept, and the final image should be compelling. Above all, have fun.

Curated by:

Darren Smith
Deputy Editorial Director, NG International Editions
Assignment Status
  • Open

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  • Closed

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  • Published

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Published Mar 4, 2016.
Thank you for your contributions!

Extra Submission!

Posted feb 18, 2016

More is More: Some of you have asked about having the opportunity for an additional submission. Ask and ye shall receive. You may enter a fourth image, if you so desire.

The Final Touch: Make sure the final image of your creation is as well-executed as the concept.

Other Options: Some of the submissions have used materials I never would have expected, such as brown sugar and a rock salt lamp. These examples have combined materials in unique ways. Others among you have made compelling collages. I applaud these efforts. While fascinating, these are not the only ways to approach this assignment. You could also place a photo of yours within an environment (pasted to a wall, etc.) that engages with that place in some way or with a person shown. It would be interesting to see more of this option where the print and the real world intersect.

The Clock is Ticking: February 22, 5PM EST is the deadline! You only have a few days left to submit your photo.

Compose Carefully

Posted feb 6, 2016

Thanks to everyone for the projects submitted so far. This is a difficult assignment because it requires conceptual thinking and a significant investment of time and technique. Pushing outside your comfort zone will hopefully lead to some eureka moments. Here are some reminders on what is required and some tips to help guide you...

Use photos you have taken: The assignment requires the use of prints of your photos, so no archival images or old family photos you did not shoot.

No Photoshop: Any manipulations of your prints should be done through physical means (cutting, tearing, etc).

Compose carefully: For collage projects, think of a composition in the same terms as you would for a photograph. What will main subject be? How will you guide the viewer's eye through the image? Avoid the "refrigerator effect," where you jumble a bunch of prints together into a confusing mass, like family snapshots on a fridge. Think about how you will create depth and move viewer from foreground through background.

Explain in the caption: The caption is crucial to describe your concept: what did you do and why?

Execute, execute, execute: The best idea is easily ruined by a poorly executed final image. Both the concept and final submission need to be stunning.

Go to a strange place: This assignment allows you to look at your archive in a new way, or create something entirely new. Avoid the literal, and try pushing this into a more surreal or symbolic space.

Darren Smith

Darren Smith

Deputy Editorial Director, NG International Editions
Darren Smith supervises the 37 local-language editions of National Geographic Magazine. From Brazil to Iran to Japan, the magazine is reflected through dozens of cultures, where local teams of journalists make original stories to satisfy the curiosities of their diverse audiences. Having windows into these other worlds is a source of endless fascination for Smith, who is embarrassed to admit that, aside from English, he can only speak a little French. Un très peu. Outside work, he makes art from his photographs. He takes many photos of a subject, creates a new composition with prints, cuts them up into pieces and glues it all back together on illustration board. The final effect is surreal and kaleidoscopic, allowing him to reconcile how the world is with how he sees it. He has exhibited his artwork in Washington, D.C., New York and Paris.