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.
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.
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.
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.
… 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.