Where Do You Fit In?

water marbles, photograph

“To be original one needs to learn the ideas of other painters in order to be different from them.”

Edgar Payne

During a portfolio review recently a reviewer told me that all photography is inevitably a collaboration with the work of past photographers and that I should understand my role in that collaboration. In other words, I needed to know the work of others and be able to explain my work in relation to theirs.

I know many artists struggle with the issue of the influence other artists have on their work. We all want to find our own voice and yet we all want to learn from others. A strong argument can be made that all art is to some degree derivative and that it is only in modern times that originality became so important to artists.

But this reviewer was making a slightly different point – they weren’t commenting on whether the work was original, but whether there was any reason to be doing it at all. Their point was that art must be understood and can only be evaluated in its historical context. The question posed by the reviewer was “Why, given what others have done with this type of work in the past, are you doing it now? What are you  trying to say that is relevant today with this subject?”. The implicit assumption was that if I couldn’t explain this, the work had no meaning.

I’m not sure how I feel about this. I don’t necessarily care what others have done with similar work or why they have done it. I may be interested in the work as a source of inspiration, ideas, techniques, etc. But I don’t really feel that I need to be engaged in a conversation with other artists, living or past, about my work. The conversations I’m more interested in art is with myself and with others who view my work. I suppose some of them are familiar with specific artistic traditions and may want to know how I fit in.

I’m afraid I may need to let them figure that out for themselves.

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6 responses to “Where Do You Fit In?

  1. ” . . . they weren’t commenting on whether the work was original, but whether there was any reason to be doing it at all. . .”

    Being a rather simplistic thinker, I have but two reasons for doing what I do:

    1) Because I have to.
    2) Because it pleases me.

    To feel I must know all that has come before and that I should be familiar with the history of photography (and photographers) places too heavy a burden on my shoulders. I’m not working on a cure for cancer here; I’m just making pictures!

    Carol “shallow thinker” Leigh who, by the way, admires what you do

  2. That sounds rotten (well not really the word I’d like to use). Why? To me the reviewer is making sound like you have to have an arts degree and extensive study of art history (or photography history) in order to be an artist. That’s just plain bull.

    You can work in isolation and develop a style, which to you is totally without influence, until some day someone comes along and points out the work of someone else (living or dead) which is so similar it seems impossible you didn’t know about them.

    Art does not need to be understood or have any historical context. Why would it? It goes toward people having to classify and label art instead of just reacting to it and enjoying it for what it is.

    For the image above, do I have to define why I like it, or can I just like it. Do I have to explain my reactions to the colors and composition and the history of other photographs employing similar colors and composition in order to really appreciate it? No, I don’t.

  3. “Their point was that art must be understood and can only be evaluated in its historical context.”

    Fortunately, most people aren’t art historians, are they?

    I would turn this response around and say that IT is only posed by art historians with their own boxed in milieu.

    For example, I was at Hearst Castle recently. Most people know WR Hearst plundered, ahem, imported, European treasures. I was viewing a particular statue, admiring it. She and I existed just in that moment. I don’t know if she was created last year or last century. I know not her style, the background of who first chipped stone into this particular type of form.

    Just that I enjoyed the moment with a beautiful piece of art.

  4. Bob,

    I think that everyone follows a different path – and absolutes are impossible.

    I wonder sometimes about people who give out advice that you were given – maybe that was the right way to go for them – but definately not the right way for everyone to go.

    It’s not math – it’s art. It is often quite difficult to create words to explain it and it comes from a hidden place inside. I think that originality comes from maybe turning away from influences a bit – but still being able to see them out of the corner of your eye. (maybe!)


  5. Hmm…I’m not sure I’d bother with an interviewer who questioned the authenticity of your ‘work’. Everything comes from somewhere. We don’t exist in a vacuum. It is what it is.

    That being said – love the softness in this image!!

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