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Monthly Archives: April 2015
Every artist that you know or follow is looking for an audience for his or her work. How do I know that? Because if you’re aware of their work, it’s because they chose to make it public, and if they chose to make it public, it’s because they want people – an audience – to be able to see it.
Naturally, having a website and a blog, I include myself in the category of artists looking for an audience. Looking for an audience is a funny thing, though. If you look too hard for one, it can create problems for your work. This can arise, for example, when you start making work based on what you think your audience wants too see. Go down that road too far, and you run the risk of losing touch with why you started creating work in the first place. Rather, the creation of work may become an exercise in repeating past successes to please your audience, or becoming preoccupied with trying to ascertain want your audience wants to see so that you can provide it to them.
On the other hand, in an ideal world, you would want to sustain the connections you’ve made with those who have taken an interest in your work. Changes in your artistic vision or process may result in changes to the work you put out, which can run the risk of alienating those who have followed your work. It’s not trivial to worry about if your audience will come along with you should your work branch off in a different or unexpected direction.
I suspect my thoughts have wandered off into this space as a direct result of the making of a number of abstract triptych photographs over the last week or so, including the image in this post, “Triptych, Feathers No. 1.” Over the past year or two, I’ve devoted a lot of my photography time to making landscape photographs. Probably most of my audience (small though it may be) (but again, thank you sincerely to everyone who’s taken an interest in my photography) has come to know me for this kind of work.
Perhaps oddly enough, I’ve never thought of myself as a landscape photographer. Early on, I made a number of abstract diptychs, triptychs, and other kinds of subject matter. While I love landscape photography and don’t anticipate stopping it by any means, I’m excited to have rediscovered a passion for these different kinds of photography, and I look forward to working them into my repertoire. I’ll just be wondering a little bit if my audience will come along for the ride.
Want to know where this image was photographed?
It was photographed on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. Just outside the front entrance of the National Gallery of Art. With a nice view of the U.S. Capitol building a few blocks to the left, and the Washington Monument a little further down the Mall on the right, and any number of iconic monuments and views within easy walking distance in just about any direction.
You wouldn’t know that from looking at the image, would you? I imagine the information in the image is sufficiently non-specific that it really could have been photographed just anywhere.
Truth be told, I was out with my camera that day with the intention of photographing those very monuments and views I just mentioned. I was, in fact, on my way down the Mall to photograph the Washington Monument in the composition that I ended up using in the image from my previous post.
However, first I became distracted by some really interesting twisted-up trees lining the wall of the National Gallery. I probably spent an hour making a slow circuit of the building, setting up my little travel tripod to photograph each of those trees in sequence (I haven’t posted any of those images yet, but they came out quite well and I hope to post them in the near future).
When I finished that up, I began to make my way toward the Washington Monument, but I became distracted by the composition made by the branches and leaves of this tree. I studied it out for few minutes and was torn by indecision, because I already was late in getting to my intended destination at the monument before the afternoon light faded away into evening. But, my inner voice was telling me there possibly was a good photograph here, so I (almost reluctantly) again set up my little travel tripod to make a few captures of this tree.
By the time that was done, I made my way down to the Washington Monument and, as expected, the light was pretty well gone by the time I arrived there. I basically missed my opportunity for the photograph of the monument I wanted, but fortunately I was able to return the next day to pull it off.
If you’ve read the title of this post, you might think my point is that having been distracted by the first set of trees at the National Gallery and then the second tree that is in the image of this post cost me the photograph I was after of the Washington Monument.
That’s actually not my point at all, it’s just the other way around.
If I had been too focused on getting to the Washington Monument, or had been distracted by all of those monuments and views I had come to photograph, I would have missed what I think turned out to be good images of this tree and those others I mentioned earlier. You might say I was distracted from my intended goal by the photographs that I ended up pursuing, but I prefer to think I avoided the distraction of the photographs I had intended to pursue in order to obtain these that I actually saw.
In my experience, it’s usually not the photographs you intend to take that end up being the good ones, but rather the ones you actually see that you weren’t expecting and have the willpower to follow through on.
Good artists copy, great artists steal.
- Pablo Picasso
There’s a school of thought that says that if you are an artist, you should not look at the work of other artists. Though stated in different ways, the basic rationale seems to be to keep the influence of other artists away from your own work, such as where looking at the work of others may create an obstacle to finding your own vision, or where you simply may end up imitating the work of others rather than developing something original to you.
Personally, I’ve always felt okay with looking at the work of other artists. For one thing, I enjoy viewing art, and I would not want to deprive myself of this simple pleasure simply because I am a photographer. Moreover, I think it’s okay to be inspired by what others have done, be it a certain technical approach, a choice of subject matter, or so forth.
For me, looking at the work of others is like holding a mirror up to my own likes and dislikes. Sure, I can appreciate the work of another on its own merits, and it’s fun to discover new artists and to be exposed to different kinds of work, but it’s when I look at a particular work more deeply and analytically that I begin to see my own preferences and tastes.
In photography, for example, perhaps a given photographer may not photograph subject matter that I’m drawn to, but maybe their images have a high-key look that I like. It may make me realize that I like the look of high-key images, and perhaps that I may want to try that approach in my own work. Or perhaps a given photographer produces work having technical aspects I don’t like, but maybe they photograph portraits, or still life, or other kinds of subject matter that I might not otherwise connect with. It may make me reconsider my approach to that kind of subject matter in my own work.
Inspiration is different than imitation, however. For myself, I’ve always drawn the line at the point where viewing a particular work of someone else would want to make me go out and simply re-create that work in whole. If I ever reach that point, then I may have to reevaluate my approach to looking at the work of others.
Which is why the image in this post gives me some pause. I would be lying if I said I was not thinking of photographer Michael Kenna’s images of the Eiffel Tower when I photographed this view of the Washington Monument, particularly Kenna’s “Eiffel Tower, Study 10.” There are obvious similarities – each is of an iconic tower framed by trees. Moreover, my motivation in pursuing this image quite honestly was to frame the Washington Monument in a manner analogous to that in which Kenna used trees to frame the Eiffel Tower.
Did I cross a line with this image? Not by any kind of objective measure, I think, in as much as I did not set out (and in fact did not) literally re-create Kenna’s image. Subjectively, the question is a little harder and, ultimately, one that I think can only be answered by me based on my own standards of what constitutes imitation versus what constitutes inspiration. While it’s as close as I yet have come to mere imitation, in the end, I’m reasonably satisfied that this image is innovative enough to fall within the camp of inspiration.
Here’s a question for you: which comes first, the photograph or the experience?
In my observation, most landscape photographers tend to answer that the experience comes before the photograph. I’ve heard the same story over and over again, where one begins by enjoying the outdoors, then starts to bring along a basic camera to document his or her outdoor experiences, and eventually graduates to higher end gear and an interest in developing some serious photography skills. Not that there’s anything wrong with this, of course, but in this progression, the interest in photography follows from and is secondary to the outdoor experience.
My background is just the opposite. My interest in photography preceded my interest in getting out into the landscape. Whereas I’ve always been fascinated with photographs, I’ve not always been an outdoor enthusiast. Truth be told, I probably began spending more time in the outdoors as a result of following my lens to where the photographs are, rather than the other way around.
For example, this photograph was captured on a weeknight after working hours in Rocky Mountain National Park. If seeking out and capturing a photograph hadn’t been the primary motivator to get out of the house that evening, I doubt I would have made the hour or so drive just to have an hour or so of daylight to enjoy the (admittedly spectacular) evening.
The difference between the photograph and the experience is a real one. When I go into the field, I’m unabashedly seeking out great photographic opportunities. My goal is not so much to enjoy the outdoor experience as it is to have my creative eye stimulated by the natural environment, and to translate that stimulus into a tangible photographic print. I suspect that many would say this approach gets things backward, that the purer approach is simply to be in nature, appreciate the landscape, and then be moved to create a photograph of it.
So be it. My opinion is that there are many equally valid paths to achieving great photographs. It is a no less valid path to approach the landscape simply out of a desire to photograph it than to photograph the landscape simply as an incidence to being in it. Being in the landscape for the purpose of artistic expression is no less valid than artistic expression that follows from a desire to be in the landscape.
If anything, photography has opened the door for me to enjoy the natural experience in a way that I probably would not have acquired otherwise. In the same way that some outdoor recreationists discover a passion for photography they might not have known but for bringing a camera into the field with them, photography has opened the door for me to an expanded appreciation of the natural world I otherwise probably would not have but for my interest in exploring the world with a camera.