Garibaldi Lake, B.C. Shot this the other day on my hike, trying to make the best of a spectacular view in harsh light at noon and the smoke of nearby forest fires. Shot with my G9 and a 2-stop graduated ND filter. The image has nothing to do with shortcuts per se, but for the reality that there are none to this spectacular place. Want this view? You have to hike there. (Can’t wait to go back for a couple days to shoot this place in softer light!)
I was just in Oscar’s, my favourite art book store in Vancouver, picking up Greenbough’s Looking In: Robert Frank’s The Americans, Expanded Edition, published by the National Gallery of Art, Washington. It’ s a massive tome of a book that would break your foot if you dropped it, and I can’t wait to dig in to it. But it got me to thinking.
As I dig deeper into this craft a couple things happen.
The first is that I love it more and more, increasingly believing in it as a means of expression and art.
The second is that I’m pushed to look back towards the so-called masters (I’d call them masters, they’d probably reject the term outright) and to study their work, how and why they created what they did, hence the book.
The third is a growing, increasingly stubborn rejection of the notion of shortcuts. In fact, I find myself thinking about a line from the movie Himalaya when the brother, a monk, says he was taught that when two paths diverged in front of him he should take the harder of the two. Robert Frost would say the one less travelled. I suspect it’s less traveled because we’re all looking for shortcuts and forsaking the harder path. But here’s the thing, the shortcuts won’t get us there. And the harder path is what makes us better artists.
Shortcuts in art lead to cliche and propaganda. They lead to artists more concerned about the product than the expression, and they lead to art that denies a basic truth about humanity, and that is: there are no shortcuts. No shortcuts in love, in health, in spirituality, or even the wildly pragmatic world of business. Sometimes there are shortcuts to the local Starbucks, but that’s about it. A pursuit of shortcuts creates shallow art, if it’s art at all.
A pursuit of shortcuts does something else. It deeply discourages the growing artist who tries them, and finds them leading nowhere. The shortcut drops the earnest artist in the middle of nowhere, with no map or water, then vanishes. It leaves us with a sense of “now what?” and in the end we’re forced to walk back to where we started and make up for lost time on the path we ought to have trod from the beginning.
Art is pretty hard to define, but I don’t think you can separate the product (the end) from the process (the means). So what am I saying? Well, on the one hand I’m back to reminding you – and myself – that it’s just plain hard. It is. There’s no secret to success or photographic virtuosity, and if there is one it’s this: it’s a long, hard, but glorious road with no shortcuts. On the other hand I’m trying to encourage you – if you’re feeling frustrated about your craft because it’s taking a while, and it’s proving to be harder than the camera makers and the Shoot-Like-A-Pro websites told you it would be, that’s good. It means you’re in the same boat as all of us. The difficulty and challenge of the craft, the way it stretches you and demands more of you than you expected, is not an obstacle to getting where you want to be, it’s the path to getting there. What’s in the way is the way, to quote Lao Tse.
Don’t give up. Keep at it. Take baby steps if need-be. But keep taking them. Daily. And in time those steps get a little more sure, a little wider and faster. Trip, fall, get back up. And in the mean time, find a way to get out of yourself, out of your niche, and look at other photographers for a while. See how people like Cartier-Bresson, Karsh, Avedon, Arbus, or Frank – to name a very few – or contemporaries like McNally, McCurry, or Leibovitz, for example – pursue their craft. Look forward by looking back, or through the eyes of others. Just lay off the shortcuts, because they’re only sabotaging your journey.