Positive Negativity

| February 15, 2016

There is nothing so wrong as accepting a thing merely because men who have done things say it should be so. ~Alfred Stieglitz

Among the most rewarding and liberating things I have come to accept about my work is that much so-called “common sense” advice is entirely not applicable to accomplishing my creative goals. In fact, I consider expressive art—art founded in the personal thoughts and feelings of a singular mind—to be the manifestation of those things that make an artist’s temperament and approach unique and uncommon.

Those who study prehistoric art may be familiar with cave paintings, such as those found at Chauvet-Pont-d’Arc Cave, Lascaux Caves, or the Cave of Altamira. Artistically speaking, these paintings are astounding in many ways, but one particularly jarring fact about them that is often overlooked is that they are very similar in style and content. The reason it is important is that the paintings at Chauvet are dated to be about 30,000 years old, while those at Lascaux are dated to be a little over 17,000 years old, and the ones in Altamira even more recent than that. For many thousands of years, art has almost not evolved at all.

Take a moment to reflect on how much art has changed and diversified in just the past couple of hundred years: naturalism, impressionism, expressionism, cubism, fauvism, and many other “ism”s, not to mention fine-art photography. The richness of art in our day is owed exactly to those who, at fortuitous times, diverted from what has become normal, sometimes leading to great spikes of progress. In evolutionary biology this phenomenon is known as punctuated equilibrium, and I believe that it can easily be identified in the evolution of art, too. Expressive art, in particular, evolves by the efforts of individuals who adopt different patterns in their work from those of others, rather than those who seek to be like others.

It is a worthy exercise for any expressive artist to consider and acknowledge not only those things we inherited from the giants on whose shoulders we stand, or what common trends characterize our own era, but also those things often accepted by default that may not necessarily be applicable or useful in the expression of what makes each of us unique. To wit, I offer here a few of mine.

Curtain Call

No Awards

The pernicious influence of the prize and medal giving in art is so great that it should be stopped. History proves that juries in art have been generally wrong. ~Robert Henri

A distinction I do not possess, nor particularly care to earn, is “award winning.” Competition, in my mind, is one of the most pervasive and harmful things for an artist to be motivated by. To compete is to strive to be better than others by the arbitrary opinion of some arbitrary judge or panel, or by popular appeal. Competition implies placing greater importance on how you measure up to others, or how others perceive your work, rather than on the personal, inner, rewards of engaging in creative work, or the importance of the things you wish to express, which may not necessarily be widely understood or popular.

At its most sinister, competition may bind your perception of your own self worth to the opinions and so-called rules of others. It saddens me to think of so many sensitive and creative would-be artists whose voices may be drowned out or repressed to a point of never expressing themselves just because some random jury—often lacking in understanding, flexibility, or insight—failed to appreciate their genius. This is especially problematic in photography where such juries generally are selected from those “in the industry” or who have accomplished commercial success in some random genre, rather than those with demonstrated expertise in, or appreciation of, artistic expression in a more general sense.

Likewise, with such an abundance of competitive photography venues, the designation “award winning” has become entirely meaningless. Note how many photographers proudly declare themselves to be “award winning” without also mentioning the specific context in which their awards were won, who determined the worthiness of their work, and by what criteria.

Even some of the most prestigious contests in photography, and especially photography involving natural subjects, still are judged by such limited criteria as: “which picture is prettiest,” and without regards to creativity, originality, or personal expression.

I am not “award winning” because I have no desire to associate the value of my work with such simplistic assessments, and because in truth I don’t really care if a random person or panel finds it more or less worthy than that of others. I engage in art primarily for inner reward, rather than outer affirmation.

Special Relativity

 No Checklists

A way of certifying experience, taking photographs is also a way of refusing it—by limiting experience to a search for the photogenic, by converting experience into an image, a souvenir. Travel becomes a strategy for accumulating photographs. ~Susan Sontag

If I’m aware that a given composition has been photographed before by someone else, it ceases to be interesting to me in a creative sense. No matter how aesthetically pleasing, if already done by someone else all other renditions will forever be cover version and not originals; and for quite some time now I have lost interest in making cover versions. So long as I am capable of original thought, my goal is to express myself in original work. As such, I have little interest in checklists of iconic “must see” photographic locations, and other recipes for duplicating images already made by others. I find it sad and defeating that some of my own original works have now become items on such lists (and copies of them now even hang in some otherwise respectable venues). I do not consider it a compliment to duplicate someone’s work or to seek out, let alone publish, their “secret” locations. In fact, I find it disrespectful to the hard work of creative individuals and to the sanctity of some places whose nature often is radically and irreversibly changed when they become popular.

If my own experience is to be trusted, the joy to be had in finding original expression, in immersing oneself in the creative process, in seeking new means of expression and new things worthy of expressing, and in finding one’s own personally meaningful subjects; outweighs whatever meager sense of accomplishment there may be in copying someone else’s work, and certainly more worthy than whatever bragging rights one may find in stalking those who are creative in order to plagiarize their work against their will.

Winter is Over

No Formulas

Here, then, is the beginning of a vicious circle. Because “beautiful” poems make the poet beloved, a great quantity of poems come into the world that attempt nothing except to be beautiful, that pay no heed to the original primitive, holy, innocent function of poetry. These poems from the very start are made for others, for hearers, for readers. They are no longer dreams or dance steps or outcries of the soul, reactions to experience, stammered wish-images or magic formulas, gestures of a wise man or grimaces of a madman – they are simply planned productions, fabrications, pralines for the public. ~Hermann Hesse

Let’s be honest; blazing skies at sunrise and sunset, wide-angle near-far compositions, etc., while often spectacularly beautiful, have become the photographic equivalent of fast food: momentarily satisfying, requiring little creative effort, and lacking any characteristics to distinguish the sensibilities and expressive powers of their creator from those of a million others.

For many years now I focused my work on intimate compositions for this precise reason. Making images for the sake of eliciting a few “wow”s and with no deeper effect or appreciation has lost its appeal for me after realizing just how easy they are to accomplish by simple formulas. The same, I confess, seems to be the case with images whose appeal is solely founded in technique and repeatable visual effects: starry nights with, or without, the Milky Way; deliberate camera motion, etc. All seemed at one time fantastic due to novelty, but the ease with which they can be (and are) replicated has made them useful for drawing attention with relatively little effort, but entirely ineffective as means for creative expression.

I am an expressive artist. I wish for my images to express things that are unique to me. For that, aesthetics are important but secondary. When they become the main attraction in an image, self-expression takes a back seat, if it is present at all.

Fleeting

 No Shortcuts

… if you keep this vision clear you may make something which is at least a photograph, which has a life of its own, as a tree or a matchbox, if you see it, has a life of its own. … For the achievement of this there are no short cuts, no formulae, no rules except those of your own living. There is necessary, however, the sharpest kind of self-criticism, courage, and hard work. ~Paul Strand

If I had to sum up my approach to making photographs, it would be this: experience before aesthetics. If the experience of making the work is not rewarding, whatever other benefits may ensue will not be sufficient compensation for pursuing it in the first place.

Personal experience has taught me the immense rewards of what psychologists call flow—an experience so rewarding and enjoyable that it is worth pursuing for its own sake, regardless of material outcome. Such experiences, in the words of psychologist Mihaliy Csikszentmihalyi, “occur when a person’s body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile.” Put another way, they are not easy and require investment of physical and/or cognitive effort to accomplish. And they are worth it.

~~~

My point here is not to admonish anyone to adopt my points of view, but rather to suggest that there may be great value in examining your own motivations, rather than accepting as given those of others. I am not seeking to argue with anyone who holds different positions than my own on any of these points; after all, self-expression by its nature has to be subjective, and for each of us to decide for ourselves. If your work is rewarding to you and is consistent with your sensibilities and morals, and you are at peace with what it is, how and why you create it, and what you hope to accomplish, then by all means do not take my words as any sort of inalienable truth. If, however, you are still seeking that “thing” that will make your work your own; or if you feel that your work is not as rewarding to you as you hoped for it to be, consider some of your methods and approaches, keep what is useful and do not be afraid to discard or change what is not.

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Category: All Posts, Featured, Thoughts and Musings

About the Author ()

Guy Tal is a published 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 (18)

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  1. Lesa Corrine says:

    Excellent Article Guy..I absolutely concur.

  2. Pat Denino says:

    Good words. You’ve said clearly what I’ve sensed in my own work. Thank you.

  3. Lori Ryerson says:

    I am not in disagreement with your thinking, Guy, but not everyone can be in the place you are now without experiencing their own growing pains to get there. Your last paragraph especially compels me to relate this experience.

    In my early days of photography, I did look to competitions, because it seemed the thing to do. Most of them had very little validity in their end purpose (a t-shirt, a camera bag, a chance to put that “prize winner” on the resume). I simply could not bring myself to enter them.

    But there was ONE contest I did enter. There was no prize money, no t-shirt, nothing but a spot in the next edition of the magazine as a “winning entry”. I entered specifically because the man who was adjudicating was a photographer whose work I truly admired. In fact, not just his photography, but his writing and his whole approach to life, in general, was something that struck a chord. It was very early days for me, and I approached the entry with great trepidation. I knew I had something but, like a colt getting her legs to work, I was still unsure of myself, and needed the validation of someone I felt was established, and with far greater skill than my own.

    Long and short: I didn’t “win”, but I did place. And that was enough for me; it was a thrill beyond belief in those days, before I found my rhythm, experienced my version of “flow”. The knowledge that I could produce something that could make this one photographer actually stop long enough to even glance at my work, through hundreds of other submissions…I tell you, Guy, back then, it meant the world to me. And I am completely certain he has no recollection of it, nor should he; he was in his own phase of growth back then, and this was just one step in his own journey.

    I have never again entered another competition. But this one that was judged by Guy Tal? Well, sir, that was the shot I needed back then to make me feel that I could do this, that I might just possibly have something to offer as an artist. It made me want to do more, and do it better.

    Good we’ve both grown away from that. With much thanks for the wisdom and time you share with the rest of us.

    • Boyan says:

      I think that Lori’s experience is far more representative of a typical artist path. Few start confident enough in their vision and path, the good ones eventually develop it. The Beatles started out essentially as a cover band before finding a voice. So while Guy’s words are a meaningful foal for many, they are not necessarily a good path to get to the goal.

  4. Well said, Guy. And Lori, love your story!

  5. Jim Crotty says:

    It’s a journey. It’s a process. Each of us is at a different stage but your insight most certainly helps light the way forward for all of us to “experience the flow.” There is no true destination when we are all learning, constantly, but the journey refines our vision. Loving the light and going with what moves you is most important but I understand where you are coming from in analyzing true intention. All artists must go through it. Thank you.

  6. Great article Guy. It expressed so many of my feelings at so many levels. I am probably one of the only St. Louis based outdoor-landscape photographers that does not have a photograph of the Gateway Arch in his portfolio, despite constant requests.

  7. Brian Welzenbach says:

    This is an excellent essay. To me, the most logical approach is to spend time really getting to know the subjects, whether it be a person, a rock, or a landscape. There is no short cut to this, but I feel it is the only way to create a uniquely personal work of art. For nature photography, this is where intimate landscapes come in. How many people take a close look at what is right next to their feet?

    In general, I think most photographers have a genuine interest in nature, but when it comes to inspiration, they seem more inspired by photography. Instead of paying attention to what they respond to out in nature, they see some photo in a magazine or website that they like, and then they go out into nature with that image in mind. We all go through a phase that is similar to this, but ideally we need to go beyond it, and your essay gives important insights into how.

    Brian

    • I totally agree. But when I got into photography long ago I never went through the phase of being influenced by photography. And now I view it from a totally different perspective, and am not diverted or delayed.

  8. Jose Antunes says:

    Nice reading in the middle of a busy day. As always. Thanks for taking the time to put this down, word after word. It makes one feel that she/he is not alone, after all. Your text might help some to take a detour from the “competition mill” and move towards an understanding of what they really want to experience when they point a camera to the world around us. Because, that’s what it is all about, from where I see it.

  9. Misha says:

    “If your work is rewarding to you and is consistent with your sensibilities and morals, and you are at peace with what it is, how and why you create it, and what you hope to accomplish…” – isn’t this really the heart of the matter? It may sound like a value judgment, and I don’t mean it to be, but in my experience most who practice photography don’t really know what they want out of it. Maybe this is why contests, social media validation, and the like are so rampant in this discipline. It’s the journey of self-discovery that counts, if one accomplishes this, then the art will follow naturally.

  10. I agree. Well, mostly. During a camping trip through the Pyrenees, I really loved going into the caves and seeing all the amazing art. While much of it is the same in style, there are exceptions. For example, in one cave, there is a small sculpture carved from hardened muds left in an alcove by an ancient river (the cave is now dry). It is a lion in profile but with the face turned toward the alcove’s opening. It looked familiar to me, and I later realized why. It very much looks like Picasso’s paintings. Though in actuality it’s the reverse: Picasso’s work resembles the ancient art. Was Picasso, who grew up in the same region, inspired by this art? Art has evolved, but I think some of the styles invented long ago are copied by or inspire more modern artists

  11. Dave Benson says:

    lots to ruminate on…. and the ideas certainly present food for thought…

    … I think I still see and or read a but… and Lori’s story is one of those buts for me…

    I am still drawn to sunrises and sunsets a few times a year… but I aspire to capture in them the feeling I am experiencing at the moment…

    … I am still tossing about the “cover” concept… and trying to relate it back to an earlier blog where you developed the concept of the writer and artist in a musical composition… i.e…. a Mozart piece presented by a modern day symphony… giving credit where credit is due… I have recently started including the name of my “printer” (the person, not the machine) when I have a canvas produced from one of my files… something to chat further about in a couple of weeks… 🙂

  12. Peter Higdon says:

    Great article. I’d like to comment on your paragraphs on ‘No formula’ and ‘No checklists’. I came to photography 12 years ago after a life time in science and computer science, with the ambition of recording what I saw and felt walking around by favourite stretch of the English coastline. With no background in the visual arts, I avidly read the popular photographic press and was, probably predictably, brainwashed with endless rules, formulae and checklists. I realise now there is a very pernicious side effect to all this: if the scene in front of you does not fit the rules, then you don’t take the picture! This effectively censors what you can say about the world in a photograph.

    I finally got out from under all this a year ago when I started a project to document my local country park over a year. The park is just 92 acres and situated in the flattest part of East Anglia – no mountains or waterfalls, no long sublime views. If I had lived by the rules, I probably would have managed about a dozen images in the year. Instead, I have concentrated on what I wanted to say about the park and tried to find a composition that said it in the strongest way. The result has been that I have created over 180 images that give me far greater pleasure than anything I did before using the rule book approach.

    For me there is parallel between computer programming and photography. To write an effective bit of software, one must first start with the idea of what is to be achieved, then code it. For me, my photography is infinitely better, if I start with what I want to say then create the image. If I go looking for an image without the idea, the result is unhappy to say the least.

  13. Great Article, Guy. Coming from an “Award-Winning” photographer I can appreciate your words. You’re right, it’s a hollow marketing expression unless you have a context to put it in. I know photographers who’ve used that moniker because they got an award in a local camera club or county fair. But contests, and winning contests, does add some level of validation that leads to confidence that those starting out and growing into the artform may lack at first. There’s nothing wrong with being, getting, or giving validation… and at times it takes the form of an award, so be it. (And as for Lori’s comment and her last paragraph, it was all I could do to help mentally insert the sound of a snare drum rim-shot: Buh-Dump-Bump Bump.) As for myself, I smile a little, since on one hand I haven’t entered a contest in well over a decade, and have on multiple occasions had ‘awards’ given to me through no action of my own, and on another, I’m judging a photo contest today.

    I think by far the greater issue is not in the person seeking validation for their work, but as you said, in the great Trophy Hunt where the mentality of unoriginal composition is further entrenched by media and workshops that continue to cater to bringing clients to those spots amidst a chorus of “Give the People What They Want.”

    That’s kind of why I embrace the non-negativity aspect saying yes, Go Get Your Trophy shot. Seek out an Award or Three. Then move on. Seek out your own vision, abandon the need to get the earth-shaking Ohh-Ahh moment so you can watch that like-counter spin up like an out-of-control odometer, and seek out that which is meaningful to you as your own person. Chasing after the Candyland sweetness that is the Trophy shot, or seeing just how many awards you can reap and tout may be satisfying in the short term, but it certainly isn’t a healthy long-term diet for a photographer, and as you point out, utimately meaningless to a true artist.

  14. John Barclay says:

    Lots to think about as usual Guy. Important ideas to contemplate especially for those ready to take the next step in their artisic journey.

    My observation is that each needs to follow their own unique path (and that sometimes includes sunrises, sunsets and cliche’ images) until they gain the confidence and courage to express their own vision/voice. I had a student on one workshop come with two pages of thumbnail images that he wanted to copy. These were MY IMAGES from this location. I was somewhat surprise and did not know what to say. He spent the entire workshop finding and duplicating each one. We chatted at length after the event and he told me this is how he learns. He then spoke about not trusting his ability to “see.” My job became crystal clear. I needed to encouage him to belieive that he could see and find his own unique images and in so doing feel the great joy that comes with it. I am happy to report, he went on to become a fine photographer who no longer needed to copy others images.

  15. I am a great fan of your work. Your writing is also as artistic as your images!

  16. Brad Mangas says:

    There are consistent motivations to discard the things that are not working. I find myself sifting through thoughts, desires, and struggles of purpose. The attempt to put one foot in front of the other is very strong. The sense of direction is what causes angst and contemplation.

    It’s kind of strange, I feel good about direction and purpose at the same time scared of not recognizing wrong direction or wrong purpose. I guess it is “my struggle” to find the star lite that illuminates my path. The darkness only makes the light brighter and the path more visible when finally found.