Much had been said, good and bad, about individualism. As a moral philosophy, it may lead to the best or the worst that a person can become: from hedonism to humanism and any number of other “ism”s in between. With few exceptions, though, creative artists are consummate individualists, interpreting their world and practicing their work to the beat of their own drum.
In a word, what defines an individual is uniqueness – the thing or combination of things that make them unlike anyone else. By extension, artists must measure themselves not only by the aesthetics or popularity of their work, but also by the degree to which it represents them as unique individuals, setting it apart from the commonplace and the mainstream.
The need for individuality further compounds the challenges of photography as a form of expressive art. Relying to a great degree on objective qualities inherent in our subject matter places limitations on the degree to which we are able to express our own sensibilities in our work. It stands to reason, then, that technical proficiency and fortuitous circumstances, by themselves, may not be sufficient ingredients for personal expression.
The inevitable question is: how can a photographic artist express their unique temperament, not just using, but also in spite of their subjects? Certainly, there is no limit to what may be added or altered when processing a photographic image; though such techniques are often self-defeating in that the artist may achieve their expressive goal, but lose their audience in the process. For better or worse, a choice of medium comes with both benefits and constraints. The most severe constraint facing photography is the degree to which it is expected to remain faithful to the objective representation of real elements.
What remains at the discretion of the photographic artist can be defined as awareness (the ability to intuitively perceive – or see – things that others do not,) and composition (the ability to uniquely arrange visual elements – founded in an understanding of visual perception – to create a unique order that suggests ulterior meaning beyond the literal visual elements).
Indeed, I believe that when a budding photographer had mastered the trivial technicalities of operating their equipment, and the tools to process and present their work; they should dedicate themselves wholly to the lifelong study and refinement of their awareness and composition skills.
Not to gloss over another obvious question, some may wonder why individuality is important, and why unique and original works should be considered in higher regard than those that merely satisfy common notions of beauty. Is it not enough that a work is beautiful and evokes a favorable response in the viewer?
Albert Einstein’s greatest mission, and greatest failure, was the pursuit of an elegant theory – an orderly and predictable framework – that explains everything we know about the nature of the universe. What we know today is that such order does not exist to the elimination of randomness and chaos, but rather that order is the result of chaos and unpredictability. If it were not for flaws in the uniformity of the universe, we would not have stars, galaxies, and planets. We ourselves would not exist were it not for random mutations and aberrations that allowed for natural selection and evolution. It is the elements of chaos in any order that give rise to the next order. The same is true in the evolution of art. Chaos and uniqueness are needed for growth and to propel new, more complex, and ever-grander orders.
Individualists are those who live outside the order, making the deliberate choice to be different and, in doing so, contributing to the betterment and advancement of those who are part of the order.
Ask a nuclear physicist and they will confirm that some particles bind together to make more complex structures, while others maintain an independent existence. Ask a biologist and they will confirm that some cells come together to form complex organisms, while others prefer to strike out on their own. Ask a sociologist and they will confirm that some people come together to form societies and organizations, while others choose to chart an independent course, challenging social convention and planting the seeds of change.
While any of us may choose the comfort of conformity and going with the flow, and the benefits that come with it in acceptance, safety, and recognition; there will always be those who are never satisfied leaving well enough alone. It’s a matter of temperament, more than anything. Happiness to some is in being part of something; to others – the desire (indeed, the duty) to affect change, to bring about the next order, to promote new knowledge and enlightenment by defying and disrupting the collective. It would be naive to think of it merely as a choice. Those who become individualists often do so at risk and loss. To them it is a calling – a moral imperative – and by attempting to be anything else, they may suffer even more profoundly.
If you are bound to be different – be different. If it were not for the different, the unique, the individual; we would never have the ordinary, the collaborative, the social. All that we know and accept as real is, ultimately, the result of a small difference perpetrated by a unique event that made the previous order obsolete.
In the end, it’s not the things you contribute to the order that define who you are, but the things you contribute to the chaos.
You must have chaos within you to give birth to a dancing star.