Sad to think of a man sitting at a table covered with cameras and lenses and special flashes and super fast memory cards, but with no one to photograph. The subject matter will always trump the gear. The gear is the little sprinkle of caviar on the top of the smoked salmon, on top of the cracker. It's mostly there for show. A little extra flavor. Some texture. The gear is not the main course.
But what do I know? I'm sitting here putting addresses on promotional postcards. How 20th century....
I wrote a piece yesterday about the ill effects of the web. But what I was really writing about is the way that the faux feeling of being part of an on-line "community" gathered around photography is counterproductive to the practice of satisfying photography. Watching and trying to emulate a few superstars who continually trot out their greatest hits; jobs done for huge clients with monster budgets, is probably the quickest way to impair your own sense of photographic self esteem.
The homogenizing influence of millions upon millions of hobbyists embracing the same "guidelines" and rules and styles means that so much creativity gets distilled out of the world of imaging. And when the riptide of a style strikes it's hard to get away from the undertow and swim back to shore. To do what you like in your work, separate from the buzz.
But I have a few suggestions beyond just the knee jerk reaction of telling you to turn off the web. These are suggestions akin to telling squeamish meat eaters to butcher their own meat. But they work.
First, I would tell you to slow down. You don't need to try every new style, new effect and new technique that comes sliding down the grease covered chute of popular photography. It's always better to work diligently inside a style and subject matter that really resonates with you. If you slow down and concentrate on the kinds of images that bring you real joy you'll find a tighter bond with your own work.
Stop looking at all the sharing sites. Humans get all hive motivated at the drop of a hat. When one style becomes popular the hive celebrates that style. It's just like our fascination with celebrities. After you've been exposed to a new fad a couple dozen times you start to believe that you NEED to do that style to stay relevant. Nothing could be further from the truth. And the styles shift all the time. To keep up you'd need to constantly try new stuff. It would be like changing clothes ten times a day. You'll never get anything else done and you won't find YOUR style. Most of the stuff on the sharing sites looks okay small. But would you want 99% of it in your own home? Big? On the walls? When you turn off the outside influences and sit quietly with your own thoughts about art and photography you begin to understand the way you like to see and share art. That's valuable. Everything else is unconscious imitation.
Do a project. Consistency of vision and subject are worthwhile goals for all artists. Set yourself to the task of creating a body of consistent work. Choose a subject that you love and explore it in depth. Ignore everything else. I spent a year once just doing black and white portraits with a square format camera. I learned so much and by the end of the year I had created a portfolio I really liked.
When you choose to do a project have a a goal. I find having a show of my work is both frightening and exhilarating. My current goal is to do 20 really wonderful portraits of athletes who are between 50 and 70 years old. Part of the goal is to do a show of the work. I need to find a venue. I'd like to do it at one of the local medical centers. I'm working on a style that will unify the show. I've given myself a year to select the people, make the portraits, do a small video interview to go with the show, make all the prints and frame and mat them. Wouldn't it be great to have those on the wall of a center devoted to preventative medicine? Wouldn't it be great if it changed some lives? But no matter where it ends up I will have met interesting people who've taken charge of their own lives and excelled. What fun role models. And the art will be my souvenir of my time spent with them. The prints will be part of the sharing.
I did a show a few years back about coffee. I photographed people with their favorite coffee cups or pastries, or both. The show hung in my favorite bakery for years. Part of the show was recently in one of my favorite coffee houses. It was a fun way to bring together some friends and celebrate my love of coffee and photography.
Start thinking beyond the screen. A lot of the images I show on this blog are scans from prints I've done. We get lazy when we aim small and aim for the screen. The reduced size covers many compromises in technique and presentation. When you slow down and do your art try to go through the whole process of bringing an image to life before you rush out the door to fill up more memory cards and hard drives.
Really explore the images in front of you. Edit them down. Make them perfect and then print them large. Not necessarily 20 by 30 but at least on a sheet of 11x14 inch paper. Print them till you love them. And learn from the process of presentation. Learn what you like to see, big. The art becomes both portable and present when you pull it off the screen and onto paper. Be sure to go through the whole process so you understand in your gut what you've really created. It will slow you down and bring your attention away from the process of getting banal "Great Capture!!!!!" comments and focus it on doing work that makes you smile. You are the first audience. You are not doing stand up comedy here, the purpose of your work is not to entertain a rowdy crowd. If I gauge my readers correctly your goals include creating something of value that will stand the test of time.
Finally, forget the online critiques. Find people in your own town, city, region whose work you admire and approach them about forming a sharing circle. Just like a writer's group. Or group therapy. You want to establish a tough group of like-minded artists who are there to help each other grow the work. You should expect real critiques, not adulation. And you should respect the group you create by only showing your best work and showing it well presented.
My over riding goal is to make great portraits. Portraits I like first. Then portraits my peers respect. Then portraits my sitters like. The micro-second, transient adoration of the web is far down on the feedback loop. Anonymous people have no skin in the game and expect nothing. They have no vested interest in pulling you up. No matter what the web philosophizers say.
Having a project will move you to take chances. If you shoot portraits you'll need to meet new people. Engage them and collaborate with them. You'll need to up your printing techniques. You'll need to discipline yourself to do the work instead of "researching" on the web. And you'll need to learn how to finish.
Having a goal for your work gives it extra meaning.
Sharing the work with live people standing in front of you builds real confidence in the work. Having real critiques is painful but helps engender real growth. Helping real, human, non-virtual friends succeed with their own art is part of a rewarding virtuous circle. Embrace it.
Dammit. Another blog where I forgot to flog a product. Next time...