Prints, Legacy and Inspiration

| January 9, 2014

The mind that is anxious about the future is miserable. –Lucius Annaeus Seneca

I’ve been thinking about prints recently and have had a few interesting exchanges with fellow photographers on the topic. As is often the case, such conversations led me to consider a few other topics. In particular, one friend mentioned prints in the context of an artist’s legacy. It’s a word I used in past essays but have grown reluctant to do so in recent years.

The artist in me, having been raised in modern western society, intuitively accepted that leaving behind a worthy legacy of works and words was “important,” but on closer examination I couldn’t quite find a satisfactory reason why.

I think that the concept of a legacy can be examined from three different perspectives: memory, myth and inspiration. In some contexts, they can lead to a mode of thinking that I find reasonable and desirable. But without making the proper separations among them, unintended consequences, such as anxiety and unwarranted vanity, may also ensue.

Memory

The desire to leave a legacy can be characterized as wanting to be remembered in a positive way. At a more fundamental level, we want the knowledge of our existence to persist beyond us as a form of validation that we used our lives well. This requires a small feat of cognitive dissonance that can be defeated by offering a reasonable answer to a simple question: for how long?

Yes, we remember some people for decades, centuries or even millenia after their passing. But that’s it. Zoom far enough and everyone is forgotten. Nobody knows the identity of the person who sculpted the Winged Victory of Samothrace; nobody remembers who invented cuneiform writing; nobody remembers the most venerable artist of the Mayan empire (there had to have been one). We remember people for some time, works and actions for a little longer, but all legacies vanish into the aether in time. Certainly technology may prolong these times, but at the same time it also greatly increases the pool of those who may deserve to be remembered. Do you know all the people who have streets named after them in your own neighborhood?

With delusions of “forever” out of the way, reality dictates humility. Recognizing that whatever impact we make is temporary, a more pertinent question is: what makes someone worth remembering so that their legacy may outlast them at all, if only for a short time?

We remember positively those who inspired us; those who gave us a sense of purpose; those who gave us courage and useful knowledge and important lessons; who set examples we wish to follow. We remember those who are exceptions, who stand out in ways we respect and admire.

But that is not enough. For a legacy to last beyond those who knew a person in life, it needs to assume a tangible form. We remember some artists for their art alone, but not many. Those artists we remember the longest are those who didn’t stop at making art, but who left a written legacy of their thoughts and musings, morals and feelings, lives and ideas and setbacks and struggles. Some were fortunate enough to have others write about them, but they are very few and far between. Too many artists fade too quickly because they never left such written records. If you want to be remembered – write. Images likely will not be enough.

Myth

Memory is problematic, however, in that its connection with real events diminishes and morphs quickly over time. Rather than rely on accurate accounts, legacies often assume the form of myth. This leaves the artist with a choice: we can allow the myth to unfold out of our actual lives and work, or we can manufacture the myth ourselves. Indeed, many well known artists did just that – invented their own myth. But there is a big down-side. When someone wants to control their myth after death, they also become beholden to it in life, always at the expense of contentment, which can only be accomplished when one lives according to who they really are, rather than who they wish others to think they are. Placing more importance on a posthumous false legacy than on actual meaningful experiences in life seems to me to indicate a level of vanity that defeats reason.

And yet, to a degree, we all manufacture myths. It’s what artists do. Picasso cleverly observed that “art is a lie that makes us realize the truth.” I will add that this also is what separates art from advertising, which is aimed at obscuring the truth. And so we can put myth in context: some myths are truthful, others are deliberately misleading. If a legacy is to be considered noble, I think it has to be the former.

Photographers are in a precarious position here. Some say they create to share their real experiences. I think that this often falls under the “lies that make us realize the truth” category. If it were true, we would not bother with careful composition or with embellishing color and contrast, or with long exposures of star trails. None of these are real experiences, and none are really needed to accomplish the much simpler task of sharing a real experience.

Some say they photograph for themselves, which is also questionable considering the immense machine of image-sharing, competitions and social media that has evolved around photography. Can any of us honestly say that we would still photograph if nobody else ever saw our images?

We all create myths, and the ones that persist make a legacy, but not all are Picasso’s noble “lies that make us realize the truth.”

Inspiration

This brings me to the most important question of all: why should any of us care what happens after our death? We can rationalize all we want, but any argument founded in reason only leads to one answer: we shouldn’t. Certainly it makes sense for someone to wish for their offspring to thrive and for their loved ones to be happy, but there is no rational reason why any of us should care about people who may not even exist until centuries from now.

It may be, then, that our striving to leave a legacy is only explicable by irrational thinking, social convention we choose not to question, or the philosophically thorny issue of altruism.

I believe that a better answer can be found in inspiration. Inspiration is the drive to be better. To be inspired is to act with the goal of doing something worthwhile. To inspire others is to instill in them a desire to better themselves and to pursue worthwhile goals. Intuitively we know that they are two sides of the same coin: inspired people inspire other people. Scientific studies prove the same – those who give of themselves, seemingly altruistically, are measurably happier and, by extension, healthier, more successful and more creative.

It doesn’t matter whether you are preoccupied with being remembered or with whatever myth may outlast you. The simple pursuit of inspiration gives others reason to remember you. When considered in this way, a legacy becomes the by-product of an inspired life, rather than its goal.

A legacy may well be possible without a life of inspiration, but that, to me, is the worst of all possible trades. If you are not inspired now, while alive and feeling and capable, what good is a legacy?

~~~

Therefore, I make prints simply because I love prints. They inspire me by their aesthetics and tactility far more than images displayed electronically. I don’t print under delusions of grandeur or for the sake of securing a legacy. I trust that if I make prints for the right reasons, and that if their qualities are in accord with their importance to me, there is a good chance they may continue to inspire others after my passing. And even if they don’t, I prefer it to the alternative of creating for the sole purpose of securing a myth.

Memories of Autumn

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Category: All Posts, Featured, Thoughts and Musings

About the Author ()

Guy Tal is an author and photographic artist. He resides in a remote part of Utah, in a high desert region known as the Colorado Plateau—a place that inspired him deeply for much of his life and that continues to feature in his images and writing. In his photographic work, Guy seeks to articulate a reverence for the wild. He writes about, and teaches, the values of living a creative life and finding fulfillment through one’s art.

Comments (5)

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  1. I had similar thoughts recently and as always you managed to write them down. Last year I was struggling to find meaning in all or any of my photographic experiences, at some point I realized that there is none. At that point I started to take photographs of what I saw, not looking for something, not searching objects for photographic sake, not selecting best composition, but taking shoot of the moment (if and when it was acceptable by my visual and compositional internal criticism), and then I got the Real photography, and I got urge to be in places to experience them, to live them, I got inspired by my own experience. And when I am in the moment I take the photograph and I am happy with it. And it is for me, if someone likes it, if it inspires someone (and it does) or if it helps my students or anyone – it’s great, and the it has all the importance in history. But is is my way of making notes of world experienced, of world I have lived.

  2. There is perhaps one other reason to think about legacy. If we feel that we have something unique to say, to express, would we not want to communicate our perspective to future generations?

  3. Bill Webb says:

    This paragraph caused me to pause and think: “Photographers are in a precarious position here. Some say they create to share their real experiences. I think that this often falls under the “lies that make us realize the truth” category. If it were true, we would not bother with careful composition or with embellishing color and contrast, or with long exposures of star trails. None of these are real experiences, and none are really needed to accomplish the much simpler task of sharing a real experience.”

    Before moving on with reading the essay I jotted down my thoughts, to wit. “As regards ‘Why create?’; I photograph and seek to optimize the images, learn new techniques and refine my ‘vision’ as a way of continuing education, learning, challenging myself; that I find beneficial to continued personal growth and to hone faculties that otherwise might atrophy due to aging of the mind. In short, it keeps me feeling vital.”

    As I read the rest of the essay I realized that we were more or less on the same page with inspiration at the root of what we do. That inspiration comes from different directions and motives depending upon the individual but it serves the same purpose – providing purpose, itself.

    Superb essay. Thank you.

  4. Guy Tal says:

    Thank you very much, guys!

    Martin, there is another way to look at it. Photography can be an extension of your real experience, enhancing them by allowing you to record some of what you felt and share it with others (or use it to remind yourself of worthwhile experiences in the future). But, it can also be something you enjoy in addition to these memorable moments. The process and joy of engaging in creative work can be rewarding and memorable in itself. You don’t have to choose one or the other, you can enjoy both, and increase your satisfaction, whether you are in the field or in the studio.

    Al, that is what I meant by the philosophically thorny idea of altruism. It is something that is intuitive to most people but is surprisingly difficult to explain philosophically or justify scientifically. The dominant theories suggest, as I alluded, that even altruism is founded in egotism and personal reward, rather than a completely selfless act.

    Bill, what you describe – taking joy in learning, creating and challenging yourself – is what some call an “optimal experience,” or “flow.” Anyone familiar with it knows just how rewarding it can be, making art not just about producing anecdotal products but about a having very profound inner experience. If you haven’t read it yet, I recommend the book Flow by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, which reviews some of the studies done on this subject.

  5. A very cohesive and clearly delivered essay full of intriguing, even inspiring 🙂 ideas, Guy. While we are dipping into the subject of ‘how to live well,’ perhaps some ideas from the Hopi are pertinent. They believe(d) that living close to the land is/was equivalent to living in balance. They also say that a life is not balanced, unless it takes into consideration the lives and well-being of those in the next seven generations. Is this altruism and thus ego based? I think the Hopi philosophy is or at least was deeper than that. I believe that part of the reason our world is as out of balance as it is, is precisely because we generally do not think of the long-term, the picture larger than ourselves, larger than our one single lifetime. To call this way of thinking altruism and therefore merely selfish and egotistical seems contradictory. Thinking unselfishly is one pathway to creating a higher level of inspiration. I understand that giving to charity and other acts of so called unselfishness usually have some selfish motive underlying them, but to say that unselfishness is selfish, in thinking beyond our own lives, doesn’t make much sense to me.