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This post and the next will be responses to cate songbird’s comment on my previous post.
I think I’ve asked you this before, but why do you do photography? And do you feel that your artistic vision is compromised by covering weddings (since practically speaking, that is a viable business)? Does one not have to do with the other or are they connected?
Why am I photographer?
I think I ask myself that question every morning.
I’m not sure if I really have a good answer. A lot of times I hardly consider myself a photographer. More like an artist or poet who likes goofing around with a camera.
However, I do recognize that my history with photography is a bit unique in comparison to other art. I studied piano because I wanted to be like my sister. I played percussion instruments because I couldn’t play trumpet. I started writing because some friends were into it. I played guitar because it was the cool thing to do. I sketched because my sister did. I painted a little because Bob Ross made it look easy. But photography…though I learned the basics from my dad when I was in high school, I didn’t become interested in it just because my dad was. It wasn’t an effort to be like him. He was hardly into it when I first started. I just thought photography was magical. You turn some dials, push a button, mix the film with some chemicals for a certain amount of time…and somehow you end up with pictures.
From the About page on this blog:
I went off to college and studied poetry. Photography took a back seat. I didn’t realize it at the time, but images were still the driving force behind what I did. Whether my writing was non-linear or more traditionally narrative, images always guided my mind and my language. When I got back into photography, during grad school, I discovered that my exposure to poetry and the other arts solidified my aesthetic choices when composing through a viewfinder.
I still remember this one moment when I told a friend about getting back into photography. I remember her saying, “Well, it’s about time!” I was a bit surprised by her response. (Hope you’re doing well out there Erica!) It made me think a lot about the role photography played in my life.
What does all of this mean to me? It seems to me that there’s something about how I view reality that fits well with photography. The way that my memory works, how I tell stories, how my brain tries to express things…it all tends to be visual. And though there are times when it seems that moving images would be better, most of the time my brain works best with montages of detailed snapshots.
So, why photography?
It’s got something to do with my brain.
Answers to the more complicated second and third questions to come. I’m working on them!
In the meantime, a poem I thought about while writing this post.
Why I Am Not a Painter
by Frank O’Hara.
I am not a painter, I am a poet.
Why? I think I would rather be
a painter, but I am not. Well,
for instance, Mike Goldberg
is starting a painting. I drop in.
“Sit down and have a drink” he
says. I drink; we drink. I look
up. “You have SARDINES in it.”
“Yes, it needed something there.”
“Oh.” I go and the days go by
and I drop in again. The painting
is going on, and I go, and the days
go by. I drop in. The painting is
finished. “Where’s SARDINES?”
All that’s left is just
letters, “It was too much,” Mike says.
But me? One day I am thinking of
a color: orange. I write a line
about orange. Pretty soon it is a
whole page of words, not lines.
Then another page. There should be
so much more, not of orange, of
words, of how terrible orange is
and life. Days go by. It is even in
prose, I am a real poet. My poem
is finished and I haven’t mentioned
orange yet. It’s twelve poems, I call
it ORANGES. And one day in a gallery
I see Mike’s painting, called SARDINES.
Believe in yourself!
Be true to yourself!
You are special!
Find your own true vision and follow it! Take those photos that you see in your head! Those photos that only you can take because you are your own unique individual with your own unique perspective!!
I’ve always liked the quote from the de-motivational poster for Individuality from despair.com:
Always remember that you are unique. Just like everybody else.
I’m tired of all that kind of motivational BS. It all falls right in line with the “American” Dream. Does anyone still believe in that shit?
It’s skewed from the start. We don’t hear from people who’ve failed. We don’t hear them talking about staying true to yourself or staying true to your vision. If we did, their words wouldn’t hold any weight. They failed! They don’t go around blogging about it. And even if they did, would we listen? And yet WE LOVE hearing from ‘successes.’ People who tell us that in order to succeed, we just need to stay true to our own unique visions. We don’t want the truth. We just want hope. And hope without truth…well, that’s just being stupid.
But wait…let’s take Vincent Van Gogh! Arguably the most talented painter ever. He stayed true to his vision! He stuck to his guns and toughed it out! He was a success! Oh wait…that’s right, he was only considered talented after he was dead. And what? Oh right…after he shot himself in the head.
What it comes down to is that being talented with a camera, having great vision, believing in yourself, working your ass off, conducting your business well, being a genius at marketing, doing great post-processing, striving toward a vision…it’s all merely what you need to play the game. Not to win. Just to play. After that comes luck, connections, luck, and did I mention luck?
How many people in life believed in what they did, tried their hardest, and failed? Honestly, I don’t know if we’ll ever know because they’re all either dead or decided to move on rationalizing that either they were mistaken, they didn’t try hard enough, they got screwed by someone else, or something else in life became more important to them. Some of these things may in fact be true, yet it might be that quite simply…talent and hard work aren’t the only things you need to be a success.
I suppose I should make a distinction though. Are you in the world of photography for the business of photography? Or because you’re a photographer? It’s a business vs artist distinction. Can you be both? Sure. I guess.
I get really annoyed at photographers who talk about staying true to one’s artistic vision because it will lead to a successful business. Bullshit! You can look at photography as a business and not care about your artistic vision. You don’t even need one! You can run a successful business without one…how many successful photog businesses are out there that are run by shitty photographers? Tons!
And yet, you can look at photography as a business, not care about your artistic vision, work hard, and then fail. Because it’s not just about hard work. At the same time, you can stay true to your artistic vision and run a great business and be a success. Or you can fail. Business success and failure doesn’t have to do with artistic vision. It’s a separate thing. Sure, they can influence each other, but having one doesn’t necessarily mean a thing for the other.
You want to be a success? Awesome! Welcome to the human race. You want to make lots of money? Do what you need to do. Show up. Play the game. Try to get lucky. Keep trying. The one thing you can be sure of is that if you never try, you WILL fail. So try and keep trying. And maybe you’ll succeed.
Staying true to your artistic vision is an entirely different thing. Don’t do it because it’ll make you successful. There isn’t a guarantee. Decide not to be an artist. Try your best not to care about artistic vision. Despise it. Beat it with a hose. Do everything you can to forget about being artistic. And after you’ve tried your best, if you find that you still care…that this artistic vision haunts you…then I’m sorry, but you’re an artist. And you shouldn’t stay true to your vision for “success.” You should stay true to your vision because it’s the right thing to do. It’s what you need to do. There is no choice. Success or failure, there is no choice. Your vision will lead you where it may.
But don’t go on and cheapen what it means to be an artist by associating it with some monetary reward. Will people appreciate your artistry? Maybe. Maybe not. Should that mean anything to you as a photog business? Maybe. Probably. Should that mean anything to you as an artist? Absolutely not.
Note of emphasis: Seriously, do your absolute best to avoid being driven by artistic vision. You WILL be criticized and you WILL be disheartened. You’ll have your spirits crushed and you won’t survive unless you’re somewhat crazy or feel that you have no choice in the matter…that your vision leaves you with no choice. And if you aren’t criticized or disheartened, you need to seriously wonder why not…meaning you need to ask yourself if your art is lame. If it is, beat it with a shovel.
I am extremely glad that I came to photography through the world of poetry. Poetry taught me many lessons that I think a lot of my photog peers are now struggling with. I feel a bit ahead of the game. (Which is a bit odd since I always felt behind in the game when it came to poetry.) Here’s a poem that taught me a lot.
by WS Merwin
I will tell you what he told me
in the years just after the war
as we then called
the second world war
don’t lose your arrogance yet he said
you can do that when you’re older
lose it too soon and you may
merely replace it with vanity
just one time he suggested
changing the usual order
of the same words in a line of verse
why point out a thing twice
he suggested I pray to the Muse
get down on my knees and pray
right there in the corner and he
said he meant it literally
it was in the days before the beard
and the drink but he was deep
in tides of his own through which he sailed
chin sideways and head tilted like a tacking sloop
he was far older than the dates allowed for
much older than I was he was in his thirties
he snapped down his nose with an accent
I think he had affected in England
as for publishing he advised me
to paper my wall with rejection slips
his lips and the bones of his long fingers trembled
with the vehemence of his views about poetry
he said the great presence
that permitted everything and transmuted it
in poetry was passion
passion was genius and he praised movement and invention
I had hardly begun to read
I asked how can you ever be sure
that what you write is really
any good at all and he said you can’t
you can’t you can never be sure
you die without knowing
whether anything you wrote was any good
if you have to be sure don’t write
If you find that you seek approval of your artistic vision, whether it be through financial success or however else, realize that your art is no longer guided by artistic vision. It’s guided by artistic vanity. Not even arrogance. At least arrogance is about you as an artist. Vanity is about fear of the opinion of others. You’re a tool for critics.
There’s nothing wrong with running a successful photog business and making decisions based on practical reasoning. But don’t you dare mix up an idea of artistry or artistic vision in it and think it has something to do with success. True thinkers and artists have been mistreated and ridiculed for centuries. And you think you’re different? Times may have changed a lot, but humanity hasn’t.
So go out there and kick ass.
I wish you luck.
Did I mention luck?
When the first faux-Polaroid apps came out for the iPhone, I was interested in them immediately. It was cool to think that you could get Polaroid type images right out of a camera…or phone for that matter. I had already been using Polaroid-type actions in Photoshop for years, so it made sense that someone would create an iPhone app for it. But I didn’t have an iPhone, so all I could do was admire the faux-Polaroids that other people were taking.
Like many people, I was first introduced to Polaroids when I was a kid. My dad had a Polaroid OneStep 600 LMS camera as well as a Kodak EK4 Instant Camera. I was amazed by the way the Polaroid camera would spit out its photo almost immediately with its distinctive whirring noise. (The Kodak had a hand crank. Also fun, but not quite as mesmerizing for me as a kid.)
Many years ago, I took the Polaroid, along with the rest of my father’s gear, since he hadn’t really touched photography in a long time. But even though I had these instant cameras, I didn’t use them for much. I used a Polaroid back for a Mamiya RB67 once. Other then that, I would just take the 600 LMS to parties and have fun. I always noticed how people seemed to love being around Polaroids. Even people who didn’t normally like to have their picture taken were willing to pose for the Polaroid. It was a great conversation starter, and seemed to liven up every party I brought it to.
When Polaroid stopped making film, I didn’t go crazy stocking up on film like many other people I knew. Everything comes to an end in life. It’s just the way life is. Death of Polaroid instant film…I could accept that. But then I started to hear murmurs through the grapevine, and before I knew it The Impossible Project started to release old stock film as well as films based on new trial formulas.
In August, as I was getting a bit tired of digital photography and a bit jaded with the marketing and advertising world, I decided to have more fun with Polaroids. I bought a bunch of film from The Impossible Project. Through a strange mix-up with them (an entirely different story in itself), they gave me a Big Shot. I had never seen anything like it before.
It was only a day or two later when I decided that I wanted to try other types of Polaroid film…which would require other types of cameras. I got my hands on a Polaroid Automatic 100 from Adorama. Then I went on ebay and got an SX-70 Sonar OneStep. And then I decided that I should have a Polaroid with all manual control…so I got a Model 180.
And you know what I discovered? I’ve become a Polaroid snob! Now, when I see photos from those wanna-be-Polaroid apps, I think it’s totally lame! Is it because I’ve spent a lot of money on film and cameras? Is it the traditionalist photographer in me? Perhaps it’s a little bit of those things. But I’ve come to realize that, for me, it’s all about the process.
There’s something special about looking through an inaccurate viewfinder instead of at an LCD screen. There’s a sort of bonding between you and your subject as you adjust the bellows to focus on a Polaroid Land Pack Camera. There’s a kind of magic when you press the button on a SX-70 Sonar OneStep, making it whir and click as it uses sound to auto-focus. And the way the prints come out…whether automatic or by you manually pulling the sheet out of the camera…it’s an entirely different experience from digital. An experience that an app could never replace. It goes way beyond clicking and shaking.
I’m still not a hater of the apps though. They have their place in the photography world. They offer an interesting variation from the standard digital. But if you are into photography and not into polaroids…well, honestly, I think you’re missing out.
If you want help diving into the Polaroid world, just let me know!
The wedding pics at the end of this post were from this past weekend. Congrats to Sheldon and Chen! I shot as second photographer for the highly talented Justin Ong. Check out his work!
Long live Polaroids!!
“Character is more important than being sharp,” said the interesting idiot (that would be me).
A lot of people have complimented me on the photo above. I’ve even printed it for someone to hang in her living room. I’m not sure what it is about the photo. Maybe it’s the perspective…maybe the colors…maybe a mixture of a bunch of things. Whatever it is…it seems to draw some people to it. But if you really look at it, it’s not really in focus. It was taken on slide film (Kodak Ektachrome 1600) with a manual camera (Nikkormat EL2).
I was conversing with some photography friends, bemoaning the fact that the digital revolution seems to have brought sharpness and clarity to the forefront of what people look for in photos. Everyone wants things to be crystal clear…no blurriness or fuzziness at all. Seems like whenever clients or anyone looks at a photo now-a-days, the first thing they look for is sharpness.
There’s a great quote out there that says, “Every time someone tells me how sharp my photos are, I assume that it isn’t a very interesting photograph. If it were, they would have more to say.” ~Author Unknown
It’s gotten me to the point of working with film again. You just can’t beat the grain and character. I’ve even started to get heavily into polaroids. I’ve picked up three polaroid cameras in the last week. (Posts about polaroids to come soon!!)
Some people have asked me what I was thinking when I decided on my yearbook quotes. I jokingly claim to not know. But the truth is that even at that age, I never wanted a life of comfort. I didn’t want things to come easy because I knew that it’s amidst struggle and pain that we really grow as people. When you’re hanging on for dear life…in those moments when you want to just die or not exist (and I’ve had many of those moments), that’s when you really learn about yourself, about life, and about God. You learn what you’re made of. You learn how weak or how strong you really are. You learn how you need to grow. It’s the only way you develop in character.
If I were to have another quote to live by now, I’d probably pick something similar. I’m still not really interested in a life of comfort. Comfort lulls you to sleep and apathy. Give me a life of hardship. That’s the only way I’ll really grow to become the most of who I can be.
I think we as photographers, photography clients, or people who appreciate photography, need to relearn how we view photographs. Clarity is about technology. Character is about emotions and people. Clarity comes and goes. Character…character stays with us.
Couldn’t you have picked something like, “I came, I saw, I conquered”?
Or even, “Shoot for the moon. Even if you miss, you’ll land among the stars.” ~Les Brown
But NO, you had to be asking for the long road from day one.
I started to learn about photography from my dad when I was in high school. Then I went off to college and studied poetry. Photography took a back seat. I didn’t realize it at the time, but images were still the driving force when I wrote. Whether my writing was non-linear or more traditionally narrative, images always guided my mind and my language.
When I got back into photography, during grad school, I discovered that my exposure to poetry and the other arts solidified my aesthetic choices when composing through a viewfinder.
My experience with poetry has also given me an appreciation for community. There isn’t as much money involved in poetry as there is in other genres of writing. This means that for the most part, poetry communities tend to be highly supportive and almost familial. (At least in my experiences.) Bringing that sense of community to the photography circles in which I find myself is very important to me. People are more important than pictures.
Once back into photography, I worked on personal projects using film. I switched over to digital in 2006 and covered music shows for some friends. I got the chance to work on artwork for a few albums, started to shoot product shots for my day job, and began covering weddings. Though I shoot most things in digital, I still have strong roots in film, and have become somewhat obsessed with Polaroids.
MFA, Creative Writing