Does Your Art Say What You See?


apple heart, photograph

“To learn how I see, is something that cannot be taught, but must be learned. It is too easy to be the photographer that is expected rather than the artist within.”

– Brooks Jensen

[This is the same apple from my last post, just a few days later. In these cold winter days, the birds have made good use of the last few apples hanging on the bare trees. I was struck by the heart-shape created in the fruit.]

I’m reading one of my Christmas presents, Letting Go of the Camera: Essays on Photography and the Creative Life by Brooks Jensen, a favorite writer of mine on the subject of photography. The point he is making in this quote from one of his essays is one I ponder often.

We have all been taught in various ways what to shoot and how to shoot it. The work of other photographers implicitly describes this to us and we intentionally or subconsciously do as they do. We take workshops and read books where we’re taught how to be a photographer. People have expectations of us when they hear we are a “photographer”. They picture scenic landscapes, beautiful flowers or perhaps portraits of kids. They (and we) often provide neat boxes within which the work should fit.

The best other photographers can do through their work is to show us how they see. And I love this about art, it’s ability to tell us something intimate about someone else. Not all photographers reveal this through their work, but the best ones do.

Yet somehow, through the process of making our own work, taking our own photographs, we must learn how we see. And this doesn’t mean figuring out how to take the pictures that fit within the neat boxes others associate with “photography”. It means understanding more about ourselves, a process that is fueled as much by life’s experiences as it is by experiences in a workshop.

As we develop this understanding and learn to convey it in our work, we can hope to be one of those artists who, through their work, shares their own personal vision with others.

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8 responses to “Does Your Art Say What You See?

  1. The trouble with expectations is, they erect barriers to looking and seeing.

    One recent solo exhibition I attended had no wall text. Viewer had to rely on their eyes, not on words that fore-told what they’d see. There is no substitute for the looking, looking, looking. It’s only after a lot of looking that the eye begins to see.

    • Maureen

      Words that try to explain what it is we’re seeing rarely improve the experience of careful viewing. I can appreciate words and images together when each can stand on its own yet together they are a complement.

  2. I have read this book you speak of and LOVED IT! Very thought provoking. I found myself underlining many things for later reference.

    I hope to be learning to see for the rest of my life. I know i see things now that I never saw a few years ago. I suspect that will continue to change. I feel this is in part due to my gathering more life experiences…. the longer I live the more I’ve seen… the more I appreciate things I might not have before.

    Great work with your Blog Bob.

    • John

      Thanks for the supportive comment! I like Brooks Jensen because he is very pragmatic and down to earth and is happy to question all of the tenets of photography.

      I suppose one of the best ways to improve one’s art is to gather as many substantive experiences as possible. Julia Cameron recommends “artist dates” where you schedule time to do some that will feed the experience appetite – doesn’t have to have anything to do with art.

  3. I create, in part, to know myself…it takes real guts to be self, not a reflection of what we think other people expect. Constant work, sometimes I hit it, sometimes I miss the mark. But the effort is worth it, me thinks.

    • A real challenge – we have to somehow learn who we are (a never completed task) and then have to have the courage to show that to others through our work.

      I’m sure it is hard to imagine the people we would have become had we not embarked on the artist path but it would be hard to replace the self-inquiry the artist is constantly confronted by.

    • My dear friend Nancy Rotenberg is a big Cameron Fan. I have been reading her now too.

      Do you listen to Brooks podcasts? Very good.

      I find creating titles for images very hard. I am NOT a wordsmith. I’m being encouraged to write a book… talk about outside of ones comfort zone! Ugh… That said… I do like folks who can add words to images and do it well. There are times when I feel words can really enhance the image… other times they are better left alone.

  4. Wonderful post, Bob. I will have to get Brooks’ book – it sounds terrific. It is an ongoing goal to discover one’s self, and to share who we are through our images. Freeman Patterson has been great at encouraging this in others, too. I know that I see very differently than I did 10 years ago, even 5 years ago, and I love the process of seeing the world and photographing it through the new filters of continually new experiences.

    What a great apple!

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