For Jennifer, Whomever You Are.
Jennifer is a composite of all the students who’ve asked me to look at their work online and offer some advice. My advice has changed over the years.
I’m a second-year photography student. Would you look at my work and offer me any advice?
Thank you for the invitation to spend some time with your work. I know you meant for me to look at your work and give you advice based on that, but I only know how to struggle with the making of my own art, not yours. I could make suggestions about colour or composition but they’d only bring you closer to making your work look like mine, and no one needs that. Only you can discover what your art will look like. So here’s what I’ve got. It’s what I wish I’d heard sooner:
You’re young. I still think I am too, but it’s relative. You’re at the very beginning of this process and much as you think you are beginning to know who you are now, well, Life has a way of changing that person, and with it her art. You ain’t seen nothing yet.
So since you’re at the beginning, spend more time working on the artist than the art. Be patient with her. Allow her to express her wants and desires and chase hard after them. They’re likely to change along the way. Chase them wherever they lead. Learn to listen to, and trust, that voice.
Take risks. Take more risks.
Be heartbreakingly vulnerable with the world and your art.
Don’t take yourself too seriously.
Call bullshit on safety and face your fears daily. Don’t be afraid of the unknown. Discovery only happens in the unknown.
Do your work. Always do your work. Even when it’s shit. Keep doing it. Because making lots of bad art is the only way to get to a place where you’ll one day make great art. Failure is a much more faithful teacher than immediate success (which usually isn’t what it seems).
Look at, and study, the work of the masters. Form strong opinions about that work, and be willing to change them.
Look at the world with all your senses; seeing is about perception and that’s a whole-being kind of thing. Experience life, don’t just shoot it. You can’t photograph well what you haven’t experienced.
Colour outside the lines and ignore the so-called rules. Look for principles instead; they last longer and serve us better.
Lastly, through all that, learn your craft, and be so good at it that no one can ignore you. But never confuse craft for art. One is a means, the other an end.
Your work is beautiful. It’s a great start. But right now, the harder, more interesting task ahead of you, is to tend the garden from which the better fruit will one day come: you. Obsess about the work, we all do, but remember that in 5 years you’ll look back and see this work – as it is for all of us – as only a starting point. Don’t get too hung up on it. Your best work will always be ahead of you. It’s true now, and it’ll be true in 25 years. We never “arrive.” There is only the winding, beautiful journey as we chase our changing vision and the muse that’s always a few steps ahead, just disappearing around unexpected corners.