On Making Art Photographs

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Making art photographs, remembering that one definition of art is that it has to be useless (see 3-3, On Art), mostly means figuring out how to put food on the table. It also means figuring out how to arrange your life around your art process & practice, which demand increasing amounts of time, money, and storage space.

The decision to be an artist at a professional level is binary. If you can avoid it, you should. If you can think of painting, pottery, or photography as a hobby, you should. If you think you could devote all your time to it after you retire, you should. There must be nothing on the 'con' side of the page that you can't walk away from. High comfort and low stress levels are not part of the future, not even for the 1%. Once I read that ten years after grad school only 5% of MFAs listed 'artist' as their profession on their tax returns. Ten years is the blink of an eye, barely long enough to figure it out.

Unless you have external support - a spouse, a trust fund, an indulgent relative or a Medici-like benefactor - you will need to work for money. That Paris one-room garret costs a couple of thousand a week on VRBO now, and an expresso is 4 Euros if you stand up, 5 if you want to sit and watch people.

There are two schools of thought about day jobs. Some photographic artists will tell you how energizing it was/is to also work for money in photography - studio assistant or manager, film loader on a set (not so much anymore), printer, framer, whatever. Working for a pro teaches you a lot about being a pro, but also a lot of other practical and maybe philosophical stuff as well, including how thick your skin needs to be and how to move furniture without injuring your back.

Other people will tell you that after doing some part of that all day, you'll have no mental energy left for the medium when you get home. That it is better to work with your hands all day, not with your brain. Coming home physically tired out but mentally in tact lets you work on your art longer hours. I have tried both and agree with the latter - do something outside of your medium, and keep notes of the ideas that pop up during the day. Because they will and no matter what you think, you won't remember them exactly right. First thought, best thought.

Please do not think you can easily do the occasional wedding or party and get by. Wedding and event photographers get little respect, but work their asses off, often with uncooperative, inebriated subjects. At a wedding, only the bride actually wants you there. Everyone else, groom, wedding party, family, guests, thinks (a) you're a pain, and (b) that they could do as well with their phones. And either you give the newlyweds the files, so there are no reprint fees in your old age, or you promise on pain of a law suit to keep them organized and ready for as long as they or their kids shall live, amen.

What kept me from working as a photographer more than the few years I shot for suburban weeklies and the occasional work for attorneys was the fact of a boss. The papers I worked for were small and loosely run, photographically. Karen Hamilton and I, the entire photo staff for seven weeklies, picked our own shots, did page paste-ups, wrote our own captions. Karen was friend and teacher and boss, and we worked well together, but in other circumstances I had trouble pleasing clients. Mostly I thought I knew better; often I did (see more about being a photo snob, essay 3:3 "On Art"). But for whatever reason I could never bring 100% of my attention and loyalty to someone else's idea. Solving their problem did not bring me joy. Turns out I only want to make pictures for myself. So a non-shooting day job, whether designing optical systems for medical digital-to-analog cameras, teaching teen-age and adult workshops, adjuncting at colleges, or photo-product development, a job was always essential.

What becomes important is finding a job that requires the least amount of time away from your real life. Biggest buck for the bang, as it were. College teaching is by far the best gig. Luckily, the more you want to be, need to be, can I say deserve to be? an artist, the more likely the universe will help you out.

So you've flipped that binary switch, art/not art, to art. What do you need to have interior, in place, when you arrive and what blanks can learning fill in? That is, what can be taught to you and what can't? This is actually the critical question, the one I always get in trouble for. Tenet, axiom, principle, even dogma, call it what you will:

You cannot teach, or be taught, creativity.

And the sad but true corollary, the unstated result that follows as darkness follows the day: 

Not everyone is creative.

At this moment Amazon is listing 33,652 entries under 'creativity' and 165,526 under 'creative', with more coming tomorrow.

So what is creativity? Well, it isn't substituting decaf espresso in the tiramisu recipe or knitting a sweater from a pattern, no matter how complicated. More likely it's inventing a whole new dish or knitting a two-necked sweater from burdock brambles (my friend, Pia Walker). It might not be wholly inventive, but it sometimes it is taking something and applying a personal shift or combination to it. It stands on the shoulders of its antecedents, but it adds its own time or place or comment or delicious touch. There is nothing new under the sun, no picture that hasn't been made, but it hasn't been made by you, from your point of view. If you can make it in a way that starts a conversation with a viewer, or with another picture, and that conversation points to something, then creativity is happening.

So what about art school? Fraud? In a manner of speaking, possibly. There is much that can be taught and some that cannot. Accounting can be taught, but what's at the heart of being a ground-breaking mathematician cannot. Checkers can be taught but how to be a chess grand master cannot. Art school can make you a better artist, but you need to bring your own creativity in a brown paper bag. What can be taught in service of making you a better artist? There are what I'll call the mechanics (using the hardware and software, the chemistry and the physics, the tools and supplies), and what I'll call the conversations, the way that you and your work converse with an audience, and with each other; the way that you converse with and gain from other artists; the way that you converse with your work; the way that you converse with yourself.



You can learn camera basics, the software used for storing and altering image files, lighting, enlargers, steel reels, ergonomics, good habits, etc. All are teachable, all are learnable. They can and have been reduced to writing with illustrations. It might be as awkward as describing how to tie a shoelace, but it is doable. You have to teach yourself, over time and experience, how to choose and use cameras, lenses, bags, and tripods. Others can introduce you to them, give you advise and their stories: but no one can get it for you.

Elsewhere I talk about cameras in particular (see 1.2) but here I want to address the flow of energy between us, our equipment, and the subject and its environment.

At the edge of these mechanical things are the observations and uses of light. There are exercises, assignments, even note-taking kinds of things for linear learners and the orderly. Thankfully, digital cameras record the information you used to have to write down and be able to find - distance, focal length (especially useful with zooms), shutter speed and f/stop; date and time if you set them. However, I'd rather have someone sit in some simple or complex place for a few hours a day over many styles of weather and watch the light, even sketch the light. Better to get an interior feel for the light — quantity, quality, direction, height above the horizon, color — than to try to gain control over it, make it into something it isn't. Jujitsu, right? Using your opponent's strength in your favor?

Don't hope for or try for absolute control. Natural light and living subjects means adding a portion of chance to the work. Don't be upset; step into the flow. Sometimes, in the name of honesty, it just is what it is and you're the one who has to either adapt or come back another time.

In an artificial lighting situation light is highly controllable. You can block it, supplement it, raise or lower it, cut its power or aim it where ever you want. Light can be beaten into submission, cut off at the knees, or it can be seduced, followed, watched, coerced. Good lighting looks like no lighting. Good lighting looks like good light.

Light converts: into beautiful, into frightening, into calmness, into rage.



As Sam Spade says to the Fat Man in The Maltese Falcon, "I like to talk." (If you do not know this book, you are leading an incomplete life.)

Through the course of an education, formal and not, and a career, there are a number of conversations that one has. Actually, there are only two, but they repeat over and over: mentor to student to mentor, and student to student to student. Try to spend time in each role.

Mentors and students blend together over time. Unlike the pure teacher-student relationship, the direction of talk changes between mentor and student. The student may not even be a student: maybe an employee, a younger artist that the more experienced artist thinks could be helped on their transition from learner to practitioner. Mentors show up in strange places, unannounced. No one walk up to you and offers to be your mentor (unless their supervisor suggests it. This is a corporate thing now especially when diversity is the goal. But mentoring by fiat just isn't the same.)  I have some experience on both sides, always in a surprising fashion. Just out of grad school, having learned nothing relevant to the real world, Karen Hamilton became a mentor out of self-preservation at first - there was more work than one person could handle and she needed to bring me up to speed.  Later on, at a slower pace, we discussed pictures, picture editing, page layout, how point of view was more satisfying than objectivity, assuming that even exists, and how the photographer, and the newspaper, have the last word. In my undergraduate days a both grad student and a teacher in printmaking and a teacher in photography became short-term mentors, each sharing generously and informally. (Side note: I have heard from this teacher again after close to 50 years. Who says the internet isn't a force for good?)

There are especially the important conversations that happen within a project. Definition: a project is a group of photographs one works on until (a) there are enough to produce a complete body of work, and (b) one has learned all there is to learn about this project, and new pictures are derivative of old pictures.

A body of work is done:
When no picture is without reason, and none is missing.  

Assume that there is no project. Assume that the universe is chaos with particles - photographs - wandering around, aimlessly as far as the Viewer can know. The project-less Photographer continues to make photographs Crow-brain randomly, looking at the images with care, but not with intent. An image will pop up that is simply more interesting to look at than the others. Fix and print it, say 5 x 7, and pin it to the wall where you will see it everyday. Note, I say print it, not use it as a screen saver. All on-screen images look alike, and they don't look look like, or demand the same respect as, a photograph on paper. Look at the image often, but expect nothing. Repeat the process until there are three images. The second image should be a response to the first, the third a response to the other two. Two is not enough, four is too many. With three, you let them be and just watch and listen. They will have a conversation, timidly at first, like strangers on a nude beach, then more boldly. You may listen in but not join.

While you try to figure out what they are telling you, shoot more often, but fewer images, keeping the look of the three in mind. As more become entitled to join the conversation, make a way to keep them separate and handy. As the group hits maybe 20-30, do a first edit, but don't throw the seconds away just yet.

First edit does not involve a conversation, it is one sided, done intuitively. You may be working slowly towards your intent, but you don't want to reduce it to words yet, you might cramp it. First edit follows the Zen-like (or Zen-lite) "First choice, best choice". That is, respond to whatever you are responding to, and be generous. In case of doubt, include. First edit will likely happen several times, with the goal of keeping the group at a decent size, maybe 3x what you envision the final number to be, plus or minus. And this might change, so play it loose for a while.

Next conversation is about scale. The photographs will show you what size they want to be; you just have to make a selection of prints from too small to too large of one or two typical images, developed as you see them right now. You just watch and listen, the prints will do the talking. You may find over many projects that one project wants to be large, another small; on a wall or in a book. Don't assume any particulate destiny. And please don't offer a photograph in different sizes for different prices. Sorry, but your photographs are not there to do your bidding or match a couch - they have lives and hopes and dreams of their own.

The true second edit come when its ready to come, and not before. You've been shooting, of course, and with an ever-better idea of why. It may not fit into words yet, but some understanding is bubbling up to your frontal lobes. Start writing drafts of meanings. The second edit, which could get you down to within a few images of where you think the project should be, is a conversation, but it operates on a photographer:intent basis, while the final edit will work on an intent:photographer basis. If you don't understand the difference just now, when you sit down to try it, it should let itself be known.

Throughout all of these steps, and especially in the next one, sequencing, I talk as if the photographs, particularly the group of photographs, makes its own contribution, holds up its own end of the conversation. That's not meant as a metaphor. The work of art, of which each photograph is now a dues paying member, has a significant voice in its intent, its meaning; in the conversation.

The work may not have an intent you can easily recite. They may be joined by style, or by quirk of personality. Regardless, they are not arbitrary. Thoughtful or intuitive, the sequence is the photographer's last, best chance to point the audience along a particular path of engagement.

Sequence is not just order, it's encouragement to engage with the individual images and the group of images in a particular way, and a reflection of how they engage with us.

Oh Father, let us be subversive. Let us be opinionated.
Let us have points of view. Let us be manipulative.

I put work on a wall, or between covers, and ask strangers, like a five year old tugging on their sleeve with a school drawing, "Look at what I made." The child, fearing nothing, will tell you what you are looking at. The adult, this adult, has no such temerity. I would not dream of dragging you over and explaining a picture to you. I would not have an artist's statement that tells you what to think or expect to discover.

If the work is to live, it must live without me hanging around. Each picture must offer what it can of our intent. Subject, print syntax (size, tone, paper, etc,) and all the cartography of photography must be contributing at their best. Individual pictures must uphold those standards plus more. For a group to function as a work together as well as individual images, they together must capture and reveal as much of the intent as necessary to lead an engaged audience, and no more. No pictures without reason, none missing. While each picture must stand on it's own merits, the work as a whole is the essence of a single thought, pared bare.

Sequence is used to control the viewer, it is neither arbitrary nor composed of couplets that look nice next to one another. A 2010 article by the critic and historian James Elkins, School of the Art Institute of Chicago, cites surveys that indicate the average museum goer spends 2 seconds looking at a painting, 10 seconds reading the wall text, and then another glance at the painting before moving on. The Louvre calculates that the average visitor spends 15 seconds looking at the Mona Lisa, the most famous painting in the world.

Well, shit. If the Mona Lisa gets 15 seconds and is the highlight of most tourists to Paris, what do you think your work is going to get? Understand now, you have spent most of your adult life working to make a few good pictures a year. You struggle and sacrifice to rise to the select few who are shown in good galleries or museums. And some texting bumpkin gives you two seconds and a backward glance while wondering where the men's room is to convey your life's thoughts? It seems to me to be on a par with giving thirty years to a company and getting a gold-colored, battery-operated watch and a supermarket cake. But without the middle class life and the 401(k).

So you are entitled to subvert. Encouraged to manipulate. And you can do that using two tools, strength and exploration of metaphor, and sequence.

Don't dismiss metaphor as the simple substitute of one thing for another, less obvious thing. Without metaphor there is only blatancy, and blatancy sparks strong defenses. Eddie Adams' (1933-2004) photograph from Viet Nam showing the public murder of Nguyen Van Lem by a police captain won the 1968 Pulitzer Prize not because Adams stood on soapbox in Central Park to harangue against the war, but because of the strength of the metaphor in approaching the larger, more nebulous subject was too powerful to ignore. Not that it ended the war or anything, but it stated a truth in all its nakedness.

So the content of your project is contained in the metaphorical use you make of some object, mood, light, or other visual, captured in your pictures. Do you think your audience gets it just because you put a year or two into it? Only a child can get satisfaction out of having others simply look at her work for what? 20 pictures at 3 seconds each? One minute? Oh, please.

Your desire as an artist with something to engage about is that you can hold your audience long enough to get through to them, even at an unconscious level. For me, observing people at a gallery showing my work, the best sign I can get is when someone reverses direction, goes back to look at an earlier image in the sequence, I hope with a new understanding or a new question.

The sequence is devoted to manipulation of the audience. If a project hangs together metaphorically as well as realistically, then the forms of the metaphor recall one another. If I have done my job well, one picture will spike a new possibility for a previous picture, and the viewer will move backwards and give that picture, and the ones between, an extra few seconds each. Another fucking three seconds. Is that too much to ask for? I don't care if you buy anything, I've long given up on that, but I would like to jog you awake once in a while.

The sequence is a score for a piece of music. The silences, the pauses, are as important as the notes. Someone said writing a novel isn't hard; just get the opening and closing sentences, and the middle sort of fills itself in.

Having found first and last, I'll walk the table (mostly I use small prints) and make placements based on previous and coming photos, the rhythm between them, the back and forth. Lots of placement and re-placement. Any picture that can't find a home probably no longer belongs. And if you find there's a picture missing in the rhythm, go out and try to find it.

The in-between pictures should not be thought of as pairs that go together - the whole has to flow, with intensity, with rest points, shouting images and quiet moments, like a piece of music. Hitchcock knew that you shouldn't try to maintain suspense at a pitch, you have to give the audience spots to catch their breath before they are ready to rise and plunge again. Pieces refer to one another, metaphors repeat or show up in disguise; they carry and change implications, carry the intent.

So first picture, last picture. First picture has to engage the viewer right away, needs to captivate visually long enough to introduce the possibility of a metaphor, the idea of a narrative, the nugget of the disguised intent. Last picture has to either end the conversation satisfactorily, or leave them wanting the next episode. I often ask students, "My wife and I leave your exhibit and go for a drink. What do you want us to talk about?"

Henry James had three criteria for judging the worth of art. What is the artist trying to do? Did the artist do it? Was it worth doing? More than a hundred years later, those are still good questions.

As a side comment, please remember to be present when you are making work, that is, be conscious, be aware, enjoy the physical world as well as the intellectual one, both when exposing (your self) and when processing (your ideas).