When we first start learning about photography most of us begin a voracious process of research. We want to know how to do stuff that looks "professional." We want to know who is at the top of the game in the specialty in which we're most interested. We start noticing the photographs in ad campaigns, in magazine editorials and on sites all across the web. When we're beginners we generally have two attributes: We're incredibly excited to learn the breadth and depth of photography and we are like sponges, soaking up so much of the visual environment in which we exist. Logging it away in our memory banks for future (mandatory) reference.
Many teachers have the idea that seeing works by masters and then having students imitate the works they like will help us to better develop as photographers. Almost everyone thinks it's a good idea to know the visual history of our medium. And we seem to go to that inspirational well again and again when we get stuck.
But all of this is a double edge sword that does two things: It teaches us how to make familiar images that look like everything else out in the photographic world and it corrupts the unblemished expression of our very personal approaches by implanting indelible, subconscious templates of the standards which we carry around with us, unwanted and maybe unknowingly; like a governor to our creativity.
Do you ever wonder what it would be like if we could erase the decades of seeing other work and go out into the world to see and to photograph in a way that would be absolutely and uniquely your own? I do. And I do because when I lift the camera to my eye I sometimes hear the jaded, internal, eternal conversation that says, "This is like a watered down Henri Cartier Bresson image meets that cool ad in Outdoor Magazine for Patagonia, combined with just a touch of Bruce Davidson." And that's generally followed by the thought that,"everything has already been done."
I remember spending time at a progressive pre-school here in Austin when my son was very young. And for some reason I was remembering just this afternoon the way many of the children attacked their art with such passion and lack of judgement. They marveled at how blue the blue was that came streaking out of their crayons. How deep and rich the yellow was as the paint spread across the paper from their chubby paintbrushes like flames from a rocket, and how dynamic and fierce the red was as they spread it around with their hands and let it soak into their imaginations.
And if they looked at another kid's art it was to admire, not copy. They admired without judgement and then stepped back into their own world of kinetic creation. They were their own audience and they weren't imitating something they saw in GQ or on Flickr. They were pushing through their art just for unalloyed joy of getting covered with color and making shapes and images that resonated with the flow of life as they knew it.
I try to get back to that state of joy with my photographs but sadly I seem to know too much. I know how to do stuff. I know how it's supposed to get done and what it's supposed to look like when I finish. And when I do finish a piece or a project my mind has a catalog of the acknowledged masters in the field and my work always seems to fall short in comparison to theirs.
Sometimes I have the idea that if I limit myself to one subject and try to do that one subject all the time, and in a new way each time, I'll produce work that surprises even me. Sometimes I limit myself to one camera and one lens but there's always some rationale that upsets the apple cart and makes my mind start thinking about the "lost potential" of not having some other "perfect" tool at hand.
You've seen me bounce from camera to camera in a vain attempt to mix up the way I work in the hopes that a temporary incompetence with the gear will create a handful of happy accidents but it usually just slows down the process.
The only thought that always brings me back into a creative cycle is the idea that, "Wherever you go, there you are." That to make more exciting art you must be more exciting. Or better, your ideas must be more exciting. In the end all the images are about what you think and what you select. If you've held firmly to the same ideas, notions, prejudices and tastes for the last decade or two or three it's little wonder that your or my creativity is sitting at the curb idling.
Sometimes it's good to take a deep breath and plunge into something we thought we didn't like or wouldn't like....just to try it. Like the first time a college girl friend convinced me to try sushi. The first time you paid for a massage. The first time you tried an alternative art or photo process or the first time you played laser tag.
I feel this way about video right now. I don't want to see anyone else's work in video. I want to start fresh. I'm purposely ignoring everything I don't already know about video because I think it's more important to know what I want to say than how I'll say it. I want to know how I see in video before I see how everyone else does it.
I think the way to original thoughts and impulses is to learn the bare minimum you need to know and then unplug yourself from the omnipresent visual grid, the matrix, and go off to experiment on your own. Chuck the books and educational websites. Turn off the galleries and the blogs and remove yourself temporarily from everything that works as a crutch to reinforce the unconscious standard and then--- just play.
My exercise for the week is to try to photograph "love." What I love. Who I love. How I express love. How strangers express love and how best friends express love. "It's the only thing that there's just to little off...." (songwriter, Hal David, who passed away recently). It's a different idea for me because I always leave the house looking for the classic photographic inventory of physical subject opportunities like, beautiful girls, majestic skies, yummy presentations of food, interesting faces and all the other obvious stuff. What does love look like? What does the taste of a perfect slice of pizza look like. What makes me happy and how can I share what "happy" looks like.
Anyone can copy a technique or a look. But know one can picture your universe of feelings and thoughts the way you can, if you really do it your way. Maybe the most powerful art describes a feeling or a passion instead of a subject.
After I learn how to see what love looks like to me and my camera I would like to make a little movie about the idea of love as the ultimate glue for our human society. And none of these ideas really have anything to do with the technical side of imaging. If you're reading this blog you already know all the facts you really need to know. Now we need to stretch and show ourselves what we love to see. Disconnected from expectation. Disconnected from the desire to do it "right." Really.
Wow. That was so not a Kirk Tuck style blog. But it's out there. How do you make your photographs special? How do you banish the idea that it's all been done? How do you block out all the references and just make work for yourself? No. Really. I'm asking-----
Comments are open. Fire away.