I have been pondering, for some time, about the relationship between the work an artist produces, who they are as a person, and how one affects the other. The more I teach, the more frequently I hear descriptions of projects as “about life,” “about me,” about “how I see,” about “the perception of time.” I still, have yet to know what any of these mean. If you’re taking a photograph to begin with, it’s about life, it’s about you, it’s about how you see, and it’s about perceiving time. Am I wrong? When I hear these, I give the same response over and over again, which is this… peel away the layers, and figure out what this is really about. Because inevitably, it’s who we are, as individuals with unique perspectives on the world and life, that pushes the work beyond generic. I often get blank stares back.
The stares are understandable… because what does peeling the layers away mean? And how does one go about doing it? What am I really asking of them?
At the heart of it, what I am after, is authenticity. I want an honest account of what the intention is behind creating something. But it goes beyond that. It’s that I also want to know that who they are is represented in the work, I want to be shown something I haven’t seen before and offered a reason to give a shit.
But it goes beyond that too.
I came upon this quote from Robert Adams, “At our best and most fortunate we make pictures because of what stands in front of the camera, to honor what is greater and more interesting than we are. We never accomplish this perfectly, though in return we are given something perfect - a sense of inclusion. Our subject thus redefines us, and is part of the biography by which we want to be known.”
And then I watched this:
And then I studied these:
And as I take it all in, I wonder… would I feel as much affection for his work, if I didn’t have as much respect for the man? It’s a worthy question to ask because it gets to the heart of what I’m trying to teach… that who you are as person is who you are as an artist. I strongly believe that if you respect your subject, it will come through in the images. On the flip side, if you are a shallow human being, if you genuinely don't care passionately about the work you're making—if you're in it for other reasons—that as well will come through, even if it means in subtle clues. You the individual and you the artist are the same. One informs the other, you travel together, grow together, fail together and ultimately, are life partners.
If you aren't yet sure of your place in the world, of what you believe in, of why you want to take certain images over others, and most important, of what you are compelled to take, then it may be more important to invest time in finding out who you are than to learn about how your camera works, or what kind of film to use or which competitions to enter. Because the depth (or lack thereof) of who you are as a human being is always embedded in your images.
I strongly believe this to be true for any kind of artist, whether it's one documenting the economic downturn or another photographing tree stumps. What I’m hungry for is evidence of a rigorous editing of intent, a purpose that is clearly defined and executed.
The work that stands out, that makes the most sense, that won’t let go, that haunts me, is that which has been stripped bare to reveal a core of an idea and of a human being—work that is at its essence, raw.