What, Exactly, If Anything, Do You Owe Your Art?


Several things, I’m afraid.

1. Craft:

Foremost, make it well. The materials that you use, from software to storage boxes, and the climate you leave things in, finish, for better or worse, what the eye and camera can only start.

The Print, the 3rd book in Ansel Adams’ great technical series from the 1950s, is still the authority on thinking about printing and print finishing. Of course there are big technical differences. Long washes are no longer called for, but dodging, burning, spotting and the way the image sits on the paper and then on the wall are still necessary considerations, just done differently. No more yellow/red safe light, but now the quality and quantity of window light and wall color are just as important. Learn Lightroom™ , Photoshop™ , whatever file processor you like and learn it well enough to make your images alive on the page. Do not make muddy prints, even of mud. Make sure whites and grays are free of color casts. Use contrast and other controls intelligently. A friend once told me it took about ten years after grad school to gain enough knowledge of materials, and of himself, to know how to print. The mechanics are faster with digital, quicker to make mistakes and see them, but probably no faster to know yourself. Disbelieve me now, but remember in another 5 years that I had it right.

Use archival papers and inks, and have the right ICC profiles for them. Stay away from Walmart for your large prints or supplies. Go to museums to see how your ancestors’ prints look. Don’t settle for the first print unless you have your system, including your brain and opinions, under tight control. Calibrate your monitor, at least, and the printer if you feel the need. Cameras no longer need calibration, they are really, really close, although like color films, they have their particular nuances and biases. Learn about color spaces, what colors JPG and RAW; sRBG, Adobe 1998, ProPhoto RGB, and Bruce will hold and what colors your printer/paper combination will render. Find out who Bruce was, and be glad. But do not be intimidated. I went through the RIT Imaging and Photographic Science MS program so you don't have to. No matter how careful you are with camera, software, and printer settings, you may find a consistent, slight, annoyance in your prints: a tad too dark or too yellow or too soft. Do not toss machinery out the door or buy an expensive fix, find a simple workaround - a special layer saved in Photoshop, a preset in Lightroom, a radio button in the printer interface - that can be applied after the image looks perfect on screen that will make the print look equally perfect. Some highbrows may not approve, but a tool is a tool is a tool, all designed for carrying your idea, your intent, through to the end state. Stability of system and workflow are the goals. Perfection can be in that tiny extra step you don't share with your friends.

A foolish consistency may be the hobgoblin of little minds, but Emerson was analog. In digital, consistency works to your advantage. Don’t work with lights on sometimes, off others. Same with window shades. If they are up, and near your screen or eyes, work with only one set of climate conditions. (Too limiting? Leave the shades down.) Judge prints under the light they will be viewed by. I use a combination of 5,000K Ott-Lite (real graphic arts lights are overpriced. These are for people who think they are made sad by winter gloom. I say suck it up or move south) plus some daylight (no direct sun). I know, everyone advises you to use only the graphic arts 5,000 K standard, but no gallery or home uses it, so it isn't much good unless you are moving work from one graphic arts set-up to another. Find one matte and one (photo) glossy paper (cotton, alpha cellulose, or other natural fiber paper, not plastic based), without optical brighteners, and learn to use a couple of papers really well. Unless you really are a German etcher, don't use German etching paper.


2. Understanding

By understanding, I mean both the soft form, empathy for your subject and content, a sense of who your desired audience is, what they know and what they are willing to engage with; and the hard form, the intellectual search for what the images are supposed to be doing, and if in fact they are doing that, and the words, the artist's statement, that let you guide, not drag, your viewer along.


3. Statement

If you understand your conceptual intent, a process that starts when you find that third image and finishes sometime just before your statement is due (or just after), you can write about it. If you can write about it satisfactorily in less than one printed page, you likely understand it. Ideas are very word friendly, if it takes longer than a page, you don’t get it. If it is just platitudes (“I photograph old buildings because I love the light and shadows”) you don’t get it. If you find you can’t write something truly interesting about it, maybe there isn’t anything to get. Call someone you trust to tell you the truth, someone who knows something about art. Do not call a relative, a best friend forever, or anyone who owes you money.


4. Titles

This is simply personal: I dislike any title that is directional. It either gives me a description of the subject, which I probably can tell by looking ('Abandoned house, sunset"), or it tells me what you want me to see ('Serenity'). Both prevent me from having a conversation with the photograph. Sometimes they make me think you're a dope.

Numbers, fine. Obscure phrases or non-sensical words, fine. Date and place, the minimum for documentary, also possible for narrative, informative but non-directional. Some title or identifier ('Untitled, VII-163') is useful for selling and for finding in your files years later.


5. Marketing

I have only platitudes to offer here, marketing was never my strength. Your work has its own existence and does not want to spend it under your bed. It's hard to get an agent unless you don’t need one. Going to a portfolio review can be hard on the ego, but (a) if you want to be an artist, you have to have an ego, and (b) try to remember it is supposed to be about the work, not about you. But for some reviewers, it’s all about you, or all about them. It used to be you had to have a gallery before publishing a book, now it seems to be the reverse. I don't know.


6. Storage

The box the paper comes in is not a good storage box. Prints like the same temperature and humidity that you do, but they like it dark. No matter what your spouse or mother tells you, under the bed is just fine as long as you don’t forget them. Dust the boxes off occasionally. Look at the prints occasionally, especially when you are feeling like a failure.

Use some not-really-bright-white archival mat board, nice frames that fit properly at the corners, UV glass for long term display, especially in or near sunlight. Keep out of direct sun if you can. Use archival interleaf paper between images in storage, or special poly envelopes. Five years later they may need to be burned, but for now, they need to be respected for what they are: your history, your next project's ancestors.


7. The Future

I hope a museum or your gallery wants your work when you die (and the price goes up). If not, let your friends and family take them. Do not leave them all for your spouse to deal with; shred or trash them yourself so he/she doesn’t feel guilty.