Looking back over the last four years I seem to have made so many definitive pronouncements about the right way to do photography and the wrong way to do photography. As though there is one shining path that everyone must take to be a real photographer. But all the rules I've learned and all the stuff I wrote is based on a time when photography was a different undertaking. I came of age at a time when the craft was maturing. We were turning away from straight documentation (how photography renewed painting by making it obsolete...) and embracing an exploration of not just the world around us but our interpretation, our slant, on what the world looked like through our own individual lens. And our own local and regional biases.
And, until recently, it was a period in the parabola of the life of photography which required both learned and practiced skills (in everything from camera hold to chemical mixing) and financial sacrifice. The financial sacrifice was as daily as our shooting. This made us selective and it made the generation of images less quick and less available. The time lag between shooting and being able to share was also much, much longer---think days and weeks instead of minutes and seconds.
But images are now the endlessly reproducible, intrinsically value-less, MP3's of art. The cost of creation and replication is measured in fractions of pennies. The distribution is painless and immediate and the choice is endless. The old analogy was "trying to get a drink of water from fire hose." The new analogy is: "trying to fill a dixie cup from a tsunami." How we interact with images has changed completely but have we/I made the evolutionary transition? Can anyone whose experience was birthed in a previous age make the wholesale jump into a new age without the momentum of his old baggage pushing him off the path of unrelenting progress? And would we even recognize the markets if we saw them?
I had to photograph this upside down.
I visit Michael Reichmann's Luminous Landscape website frequently. On that site the feeling I get is of a group of well to do men of a certain age (over 40?, over 50?) who've decided to embrace the new tools but ignore the newer art. The site is a rich resource for learning best practices in landscape photography but the work they show is of a certain period. An aesthetic frozen in the amber of a different time. As is mine and as is the "works" and discussion on every other "respected" site on the web. We are the codification of how things have been done. From my railing about the stinky baby diaper hold to my reverence for the look for old, medium format, black and white images. Even to my selection of human subjects. My prejudices are so worn and predictable. I don't want to make portraits of fat people. I don't think everyone is beautiful on the outside and unfortunately that's all my camera can show. I'm like an engineer doing best practices for the manufacture of vacuum tubes in a microchip era.
As amateurs we make the mistake of looking to established professionals for inspiration, guidance and as sources to emulate but they are the ones who are marking the milestones of history past. To endlessly recycle a variation on an "Avedon" or to "cover" yet another Ansel Adams masterpiece with our own less invested version just adds to the giant, planet wide haystack, which makes finding the little needles of diamond and gold harder and harder.
I guess what I'm really thinking and trying to say is that there is no right way. No one way. We all have choices. We can continue to go out and explore our own worlds with the idea that we are only creating for ourselves and, in that case, it matter not a bit if we are derivative, if the images are blurry, if we're copying Terry Richardson or Chase Jarvis. It doesn't matter if we use a big Nikon or a little Olympus. It doesn't matter if we shoot raw or jpeg as long as we find our own joy in the process. Alternately, we can go through a painful transition that is comprised of abandoning the past and going on an endless quest to find what our most personal vision is. In some cases only to find that it's about comfort and routine and safety and that we were never cut out to walk the lonely paths of our most revered artists, like Josef Koudelka or Joel Peter Witkin. And in the end the failure of our mission to break from the nest and move away from the strong, magnetic pull of the assimilated/collective vision is too overwhelming and yields up no rewards and no real treasures.
I grew up in America at a time when everyone got a trophy and every middle class child of even moderate privilege was consistently told that everyone could grow up to be whatever they wanted, even president or olympian, if they put their minds to it. But the truth of the matter is that it's not true. The olympians are almost entirely physical and psychological outliers. Becoming president is in the hands of mischievous and malicious gods in cahoots with the tendrils of fate. And not everyone is an artist. No matter how hard I try I cannot will myself to be "more creative" more insightful and more talented.
Each of us can take time to attain clarity about why we photograph. And maybe, when we do, it will clear the air for us and make us happier to do that which we can. With more sense of accomplishment.
Whatever art there is in our photographs it is far beyond equipment and opportunity. To do work that we can like, and that others can find something in, we need to add value to what we see. We do it through style and point of view. The secret is to show people a thing or a person or a subject in a way that's never really been seen before. But here's the sad truth: The world is shrinking by leaps and bounds and so many of us are using the same tools, hunting the same visual prey and consulting the same references that the images are becoming homogenous. Pasteurized like whole milk and robbed of their distinctive taste and pleasure.
We have become almost circular in our reference. And it's destroying the surprise and the wonder of the images that we share. That's another reason to abandon our "heros" and to remain insulated from the world of photography at large.
And that's why we end up talking about the gear. It's fun, it's objective, it's hierarchical and it's usually easily attainable. Everything that art is not.
Just a thought, you're always asked if the cup is half empty or if it's half full. In reality, when you sip the last fragrant ounce of delicious coffee the cup is still full. It's full of air. Oxygen, hydrogen, nitrogen and trace gases. And it is now full to the brim with.....potential.
I hate having to add this note of explanation below but......
This particular blog is not about depression, bitterness and anger. Just a series of questions that all aspiring artists should ask themselves from time to time. Coupled with one big question: why do we do this? Which leads to the biggest existential question: Why are we here? And while I'm here, which camera should I buy.....?
blog note: Hey! Reader. Consider leaving a comment. I like the feedback. Thanks, Kirk