westside road 36, photograph
“I cannot convince myself that a painting is good unless it is popular. If the public dislikes one of my Post covers, I can’t help disliking it myself.”
– Norman Rockwell
How immune are you from the opinions of your audience? Do you find yourself being influenced by their favorites? Can you feel completely comfortable with something no one else likes?
I must admit that I experience a certain deflation about a piece that I think is a winner that meets with no interest at all from others. At best it makes me questions my judgement, at worst it makes me relegate it to the reject pile. A rare few I keep in my favorites folder, but I’ve stopped sharing them – they’re just for me.
I don’t think one should blithely say that the opinions of others should be ignored – it’s the rare artist who makes their art only for themselves. On the other hand, too much importance attached to these opinions can result in rudderless artmaking.
For me the secret is to pay attention to the opinion of those whose opinion I respect or whose criticism comes with more to ponder than just a thumbs up or down. Something that starts out as a personal favorite, when examined from this perspective, can turn out to be a stepping stone to something better. Some pieces are keepers, some are there to point the way…
rose 25, photograph
“Vermeer found a life’s work in the corner of a room.”
– Irwin Greenberg
There are worlds within worlds.
One of my favorite short stories is The Aleph by Jorge Luis Borges – an aleph is a point in space which contains all other points. Anyone who gazes into it can see everything in the universe from every angle simultaneously, without distortion, overlapping or confusion. A concept full of hope and potential.
As an artist you define the scope within which you create your work – it might be your room, your house, your town, country, etc. The physical scale of this boundary does not limit the reach of our exploration. It may feel that way at first, or at some point – you may want to believe that if you could just broaden our range, go to this or that interesting place, your work would jump to the next level.
It’s rarely true.
The solution is not to find a way out, but to find a way in. To enter the aleph.
“It seems to me that a photographer who takes [images without an underlying idea] is exactly like a pianist who repeatedly plays the scales.”
– Brooks Jensen, Letting Go of the Camera
I struggle constantly with this issue of taking photographs that are just visually interesting and taking those that are inspired by an idea. Especially since most of my work falls in the “fine art” category (as opposed to photojournalism or editorial). I feel like I should have an idea in play before I take the picture but, to be honest, I’m usually looking around for something that I know is or can be made visually compelling. Most of the time I don’t sit around coming up with a specific idea and then go out in search of images that express that idea.
I think a lot of it has to do with what one considers an idea. How broadly can it be defined? How important does the idea need to be? For example, I just completed a small project where I photographed rolls of paper in my studio – the idea was to capture their geometric qualities in an abstract fashion, to reduce them to curves, lines and shapes. I guess this is an idea, though not a very important one. But some of the images were pleasing to look at.
Jensen believes good photography is about ideas but does allow that the just-visually-interesting shot (what he calls tones and zones) has value – they’re necessary exercise akin to playing scales, just insufficient on their own.
I’ll take solace in this for now. As I go out and do my zones and tones work, I’ll remind myself that I’m just doing my scales (something I refused to do when learning to play the piano!).
“Do not quench your inspiration and your imagination; do not become the slave of your model.’
– Vincent van Gogh
As an artist I have a double-edged relationship with my subjects.
On the one hand, I look to them for inspiration. On the other hand, I make them yield to my imagination. This give and take exchange should permeate the entire creative process, from the moment a piece is started until the finishing touches are applied.
I pay special attention to van Gogh’s admonition to not become the slave of my model. As a photographer it is all too easy to find an interesting subject, capture it’s image and consider it done. Doing so tips the scales in favor of the subject (model) at the expense of the imagination.
A subject with no imagination is boring, imagination without a subject is too personal. A balance is needed. Sometimes a subject that is too impressive on it’s own can dominate the conversation – consider how many wonderful paintings have been made of very mundane subjects or how uninteresting cliched photographs of Yosemite have become.
Once I’ve captured an image, the give and take begins, the dialogue with the subject starts and the imagination must be given its voice. I try to make sure it is heard.
not quite myself, photograph
“Collage is the noble conquest of the irrational, the coupling of two realities, irreconcilable in appearance, upon a plane which apparently does not suit them.”
– Max Ernst
Sometimes I like to experiment with “photocollage”, taking textures or multiple exposures and layering them to combine them in unique ways. Working with planes of content, manipulating them in ways to convey new meaning, breaking them down, reconstituting them. The dissonance that results from combining or breaking apart is stimulating.
The lines are blurring between photography and general mixed media fine art as photographers start incorporating new elements in their work and other artists begin to use photographic components in theirs. I like this ambiguity as it creates new space for both types of artists to explore and find new meaning.
Instead of relying on the subject alone to make the point, this approach allows me to layer additional information through how I add to it or change it. It’s very exciting to look at the photographs I take and hear them ask me, “And now what?”.
Anything that perpetuates the creative moment and inspires you to look for more to say is good.
“Do artists ever really take a vacation?”
– Eileen Doughty
If they do, I think it is rarer than for most.
First of all, for few artists is their art just a job. I suppose there are folks like this, especially in the commercial art world, and maybe they need a break from the grind. But for most artists, they get nourishment from their art. Often a break from that kind of sustenance is actually painful.
Secondly, artists tend to view everything they do as potential material or inspiration for their art. So even when they’re not “working”, they’re working. I’ve done some of my best work when I thought I was doing something else entirely, like being on vacation.
Finally, what’s more fun than making art? Vacations are just going to a new place to make help you make some more art.
The integration of doing what you love (making art) and the rest of your life is just another one of the perks that comes with the territory.
“The secret is to follow the advice the masters give you in their works while doing something different from them.”
– Edgar Degas
Another needle to thread as an artist. To what degree do you follow and to what degree lead?
I like to look at the work of others, particularly those much better than me – fortunately a large sampling to draw from! But what to do with what I see?
Sometimes I actually will try to emulate the work pretty closely, though this is more as an exercise, typically to learn a new technique that I can use later.
More often I go through a process of trying to identify those qualities that I admire. If I can extract those in abstract form from the actual work, it’s more likely I’ll be able to use them later in a more personal way rather than be overly influenced by what I’ve seen. Though too abstract and I don’t take away enough. I’m always teetering in between the two, trying to find my balance.
As artists we’re constantly editing, sorting, and evaluating everything we see. We absorb it, let it churn away in our internal incubator and then try to put it to good use in our work. Each step involves decisions about following and leading…
transits 65, photograph
“Why not acknowledge that all representation is an act of abstraction and that all abstraction must be conveyed through the act of representation and be done with it?”
– Peter London, No More Secondhand Art
And with that London puts to rest one of the ongoing debates in the art world! And he’s right, of course.
The process of taking an actual object and depicting it as an art piece involves a complex act of abstraction. All sorts of decisions go into what to include or exclude and ultimately the art is not as “complete” as the real object. Which is what can make it more interesting to us because we are invited to react to the unique way the artist has decided to abstract the reality into his/her work.
Then there are many qualities which do not manifest in the world as any specific object: intimacy, longing, consummation, delicacy, rarity, etc. The artist has to invent images to portray these immaterial qualities. What is abstract, without reference to a specific object in time and place, must be given form through an act of representation.
So every work of art has elements of abstraction and representation in it. With this understanding, perhaps the artist will not feel compelled to identify with one camp or the other and needlessly limit their mode of expression.
In fact, your willingness to explore both sides of this coin will expand your ability to create your world and your place within it, and that’s what it’s all about!
“The blank space can be humbling.”
– Twyla Tharp, The Creative Habit
Tharp is referring to the empty room in which she has to choreograph a new dance, though she also mentions the virgin canvas in front of the painter or the empty page staring at the writer. Most artists have their equivalent to the “blank space”. The first step beyond that blankness can be the most challenging.
I’ve been thinking lately about whether photographers face that same situation in our work. We can always create an image by clicking the shutter – it may not be a very good image, but going from nothing to something is pretty straightforward.
But I am familiar with that feeling of “how do I start?”. For me it comes when I try to think of something to photograph that I care about. Which images to capture is my blank slate.
I’m part of a small photography group that meets monthly and all the members have to decide upon a long term personal project to work on next year. What to do? What will challenge, inspire, interest me? While I don’t often feel I’m looking at a blank canvas once I have an idea of what I want to shoot, getting to that point puts me in the same mental space. It’s one I have to work to get beyond.
I’m about to choreograph a dance of images and I’m feeling a little humbled right now…
view from lombard, photograph
“The trap is perfection: unless your work continually generates new and unresolved issues, there’s no reason for your next work to be any different from the last.”
– David Bayles and Ted Orland, Art & Fear
Phew! What a relief. I can now stop trying to achieve that pesky perfection in my art!
In reality, I am so often aware of dissatisfaction with my work. I can look at any individual piece and see how it lacks something and, on the rare occasions when I feel perhaps I had success with some image, I can look over the body of work of which it’s a part of and note the failure of the whole to rise to the level of it’s best part. Even with my best work, I find something new I wasn’t aware of before that I feel compelled to address somehow.
For which I am grateful. Can you imagine how boring being an artist would be if each piece were a triumph? We need the occasional success but it’s the overall insuffciency of what we do that propels us forward to try to do better. Few activities in life depend so completely on not realizing our aims to have a chance to someday achieve them.
Just one of those quirky qualities of the artistic landscape…