Some Thoughts about the Artistic Experience

It interests me how photographers experience the world and, in turn, interact with it. It says a lot about them, not only as an artist but as a person.

Some are bold and brave. We’ll call these Group I. They stand tall and make their mark. They consider themselves leaders, not followers. They feel and exude confidence in themselves. And in the process they talk to others, they ask questions of others, they explore creative ideas with others; and they offer feedback as a way for others to understand better where they are coming from. They seek out others and reach out to them in warm, friendly, supportive and involved ways.

Theirs, consequently, is a highly interactive world. These kinds of folks feel a responsibility to do their best, but in the same breath they can also be counted on to cheer others on around them. They help make the world a better place to live – emotionally, physically and intellectually. Their are remembered for their artistic pursuits because theirs are self-expressive and self-revealing projects. They dig deep down inside themselves to find their true self which they then boldly show to the world, not as perfection but as a self in the process of evolution.

At the other end of the continuum are folks who concern themselves mostly with how they look and how they are perceived by others, and how they measure up to others. We’ll call these Group II. They worry more about ‘winning’ than on achieving their personal best at things they do in life, especially if they make some mistakes along the way.

Mistakes to these folks are cruel twists of fate that are embarrassing and disgusting. They slink away and hide in the shadow of a mistake so as to (hopefully) not be noticed by others. Consequently they carefully observe others and they readily take from others, but they rarely give back to the world around them, and never spontaneously. As a result, they are characterized by a fairly high level of basic life anxiety because they reside in an emotional cacoon that separates themselves from others. This cacoon is exclusionary, and it prevents real communication with others.

It also kills the creative spirit which is inherently an interactive one, not a competitive one. Creativity flows from inspiration, and inspiration flows from others.

Competition is fine, even essential, to some degree, but imagine how much nicer a world it would be if we weren’t all so focused on winning.

A Little closer to Home

The rest of humanity falls somewhere in between the above extremes. The question is, where? And why?

Take the field of digital photography, which is clearly being driven by hardware and software makers. The industry claims it is responding to consumer needs but I don’t see much evidence for that. What I see is an industry making photography news happen. They are in the business of telling us what we need in trade magazines that contain twice as many pages of advertising as substance.

This is an industry that seems to think we consumers are hungry for ever more pink Colorado sunsets on magazine covers, even though they look perfectly contrived and, in some cases, downright awful.

As I see it, the industry is being led by folks in Group II, not by those with high levels of self-actualization. Were there a huge cadre of self-actualized individuals at the helm of the photography industry, we would see much more focus on artistic networks for inspiration and self-growth. Indeed, today’s networks are expensive collectives poised against the competition in increasingly aggressive ways – offering up more legal advice than emotional and creative support. They definitely aren’t very inspiring. Yes, they are sharing their photoshop expertise with us but why? To help themselves sell books, mainly.

But do we really need one more book about color management? Or sharpening? There are already dozens of them out there.

Even most of the photo trips available today are driven more by economic than artistic forces.

Yes, photo workshops in the field try to drive home how to take perfectly executed pictures which is good, assuming that is your primary goal when you are out in nature. And they can help you manage your equipment and workflow in more effecient ways. I admit, they also offer opportunities to interact with other photographers – but then – do you really want to spend upwards of $7,000 for a week of poorly dispensed group TLC?

I can’t think of anything worse then spending thousands of dollars and otherwise precious time with an arrogant, belly-aching, highly ecotistical jerk who thinks he is God’s gift, even if he takes great shots. You know what I mean? And [he or she] might not even be the leader of the group.

You’d be better off joining forces with a cadre of friends and designing tours of your own, taylor-made to your group’s unique needs.

Back to the Drawing Board

It is never easy, but the more self-differentiated among us have to stand up and be counted.

We need to say NO! to industry trends that place equipment and stock sales above all else. We should be educating others, instead, about the need for more artistic space; for the establishment of more creatively oriented collectives; for more dialogue with fellow artists through written and video media; for more tolerance to see things differently; and for more collective soul-searching about why we photographers do what we do in the first place.

Photography, in other words, is not just about getting work accepted by Corbis. The art of photography requires a great deal more from us in the way of personal investment in our craft.

If we can just get everyone talking together, that would be a start. Right now a few vocal ones from Group II are shouting ME, ME, ME at the top of their lungs while the rest of us are sitting mute in our little gear-driven, name-branded cacoons, reticent to speak up.

The Moral?

Years ago I moderated AOL’s popular Nature Photography Forum that served as a kind of virtual club for many of us. It was a fantastic collective of folks from around the world who enjoyed getting to know one another. On an almost daily basis we talked photography, we compared equipment, we researched industry news and issues; but eventually we also engaged in substantial dialogue about the world and about ourselves as we became better acquainted. Solid friendships were formed there. Eventually, however, the ambience of this collective was shattered by wannabees who brought their Group II attitudes and competitiveness with them in to the forums. They poked and prodded, they argued, they shouted obscenities at times, they intruded on the dialogue process and, in general, they behaved like immature fifteen year olds who were clueless about the importance of personal relationships.

The more mature ones of us eventually left the forum, but we remain in close contact to this day and treasure our friendships despite the distance that separates us. And here is the best part: we are still learning from each other after nearly two decades of interaction.

So get off your duff and go find some like-minded folks in your own back yard, like a non-competitive camera club, for instance. Compare notes with them. Laugh together. Try out each other’s perspectives. Help each other stretch and reach for the stars. Walk in each other’s shoes for awhile. Dare each other to march to a different drummer. Show the world what makes you tick, not as a Nikon or Canon shooter, but as a person who is interesting and enjoyable to be around who also happens to love to take pictures.

This is the kind of process that helps turn a shutterbug into an artisan over time because it peels away defenses and injects inspiration.

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