Stairway to art (or, why I photograph staircases)

My name’s Ian, and I photograph staircases.

It’s not really an addiction. But if I see a ‘really good’ staircase and I don’t have my camera with me, I am annoyed. Quite annoyed.

It’s a longstanding project that’s been going for almost as long as I’ve had a camera (almost 9 years). It started out subconsciously as I just photographed what I like, but it turned out that I like staircases a lot and has become very much a conscious project.

Why staircases? Good question.

Lines. It’s the lines.

Stairs at Hyde Park Corner Underground station, London, UK
There are so many lines in this photograph that create geometrical shapes, depth, form and an incredible sense of perspective. It’s all about the lines!

The longer I’ve been taking photographs, the more I’ve realised that what I really love about it is the composition of lines and geometry. And where better to find lines and geometry than staircases? If they’re straight, they’re beautifully uniform. If they’re a spiral, they have wonderful geometric curves and contrasting straight lines. If they’re wonky, they’re unusual, but the lines are still there. With staircases, you just cannot get away from lines.

Arranging these lines in the frame to create balanced compositions and striking images is what this staircase project is about. Stairs also necessarily involve surfaces in different planes, and this usually means that the light plays on them nicely to create form. Of course, if you’re at one end of the stairs or the other, the staircase also goes into the distance, creating yet more diagonal lines and a strong sense of perspective. The lines are so simple, yet so complex in the way they can be arranged in the frame.

Stairs are everywhere

Yes, this means that no matter where you are, there’s always a staircase available to photograph. That makes it pretty easy to accumulate material for this project, but that’s not what I mean.

Staircases have been made by humans for centuries, in every culture in every corner of the world. They are a symbol of the intelligence that is universal among our species, and they demonstrate how we use this intelligence to manipulate our surroundings. Whether it’s a few rocks on top of one another, steps carved into a mountainside, or a wooden staircase constructed in a modern house, the simple idea of creating stairs to reach otherwise unreachable elevations is a triumph of human history.

Stairs at the castle in Lisbon, Portugal, have been there for hundreds of years.

One step at a time

Finally, stairs are symbolic of a concept that is crucial in the human condition. When faced with a challenge that seems insurmountable, you need to break it down. Into steps. And take one step at a time. And that’s precisely what stairs do. They break down an insurmountable leap into small steps and put the unreachable within our grasp.

Staircase in Naxos, Greece, that appears to lead nowhere

Not only that, but they take us to a different level, and this physical ascent is symbolic of the progress that can be made when we take steps towards an ultimate goal.

In short, staircases are symbols of human achievement, advancement and of hope, and they create wonderful compositions of lines and geometry. What better photographic subject could you hope for?

Here are a few more images from my staircases project – take a look at the whole collection on my portfolio site.

The three powers of projects

In photography, as in any art, it’s easy to lose your way. To photograph anything and everything so that you lose a sense of what you are trying to create with your photos. The result can be boredom, indifference, and a lack of motivation that eventually results in the camera staying in the cupboard. That’s where projects come in, and they can help in three ways.

1. Constraints breed creativity

If you can choose to do or have absolutely anything, it’s impossible to choose. You’re paralysed by the possibilities or you try to choose everything. It’s the same with photographic subjects. Although it doesn’t seem intuitive, the constraint of a project breeds creativity. It gives the brain something concrete to work with, a topic to explore and look at from all angles. It might start off with mediocre images, but the creative juices soon get going and you’ll find you come up with images that are much more original.

These images are part of a macro project I started just after my daughter was born, when my opportunities to get out to take pictures were limited. I ended up focusing more specifically on spiders in the garden, and over a few weeks, I went from obvious, fairly standard images like the one on the left to much more original ones like the other two.

What’s more, you can have projects that are open-ended, and when you’re stuck for knowing what to photograph, you can fall back on these to at least get you started. I have several of these ongoing projects – the longest running is a project of staircases, but there’s also shadows, lost clothing, harbours, panoramas and more.

2. You build a body of work

To feel like you’re getting somewhere, it’s nice to see your portfolio building. Projects give you direction and a reason for organising your images. As you shoot a few images here and there, you find these building up into satisfying collections. You also get a better idea of what is working for you in the project and what isn’t, helping you to make images with more purpose and direction for the project in future. One fantastic way of watching your projects build is to organise your collated images on a portfolio website. This not only allows other people to see your work, meaning you can easily ask for feedback if you want it, but also allows you to easily see how the images are working together and to chop and change the collection as you see fit.

If you use Adobe Creative Cloud applications, such as Lightroom and Photoshop, then you’ll have the option of creating a site with Adobe Portfolio for no extra cost. I’ve just done that, and I’d highly recommend it for a simple-to-use solution that gives a sleek and streamlined finish.

My portfolio homepage, made with Adobe Portfolio

3. Images are better together

It’s tough – no, impossible – to take those top-drawer photographs with every release of the shutter. The fact is, only a fraction of the images we make will deserve to make our portfolios as standalone works of art. Projects provide a different way to create art in which images contribute to a bigger body of work that ends up being bigger than the sum of its parts.

As an example, my ongoing staircases project has produced some unbelievably average photographs. I mean, they’re stairs, what can you expect. I like photographing staircases because of their strong lines and geometry, the way light plays on the different surfaces, and their symbolism of progression, advancement, improvement. Although many of the images include unusual or visually interesting staircases, each photograph is still essentially an image of some stairs. But together, these images create something much bigger.

Take the image below. It’s a staircase in Lisbon, Portugal. It’s slightly unusual in that it leads down onto the beach and the bottom steps seem to merge with the sand. But on its own, this image is nothing particularly spectacular.

Put it in a group of images of several other staircases in Lisbon though, and suddenly you have something. A collection of unusual staircases that say something about the place and create something of an atmosphere.

Now put this set into a collection of images of unusual staircases from other places, and this becomes something else again. At the least, it is an interesting collection that shows how the idea of steps has been adapted for various contexts. At the most, it is a commentary on the universality of staircases, on the singularity of our species and on the diversity, yet convergence, of our intelligence. It could also speak of the universal striving for progression and improvement.

Below is a selection from the current version of my staircases project. You can see the full collection here.

Try it

So next time you’re stuck for something to photograph, start a little project for yourself. It could be something that takes 20 minutes and produces one final image, or it could last a lifetime and evolve with you. It could be as general as portraits or trees, or it could be specific – all the piers in the UK, all the species of insect you can find in your garden, or each petal of a single flower. No matter what it is, a project has the power to free your creativity.

If you have any projects you’re working on or you have any great ideas for projects, we’d love to hear about them – just leave a comment below!