A Beautiful Anarchy

In Pep Talks, Rants and Sermons, The Craft, Thoughts & Theory, Vision Is Better by David55 Comments

Self Portrait, iPhone.

There are rules for engineering bridges, and flying airplanes. There are laws about how you drive a car and file your taxes. There are no rules or laws in art. Art is a beautiful anarchy, a place wherein we express – or try to – the inexpressible, to “eff the ineffable” as author Nick Hornby once wrote.  Art is a place where we play and do and create, and share, according to our will, our whim, and our stubborn determination. It is the one place in which we can ask the question “What if?” with near total abandon, and (mostly) free from consequence. There are no art police, and no authorities, and those who would be should be eyed with suspicion or torn from their high places.

Your art, the thing that stirs from your heart, mind, and soul, the thing that moves you, and I hope, moves others, is a free agent, and the moment you begin to ask “What should I do? or “How should I do this?” you allow you art to teeter, to lean towards conformity and away from authentic expression. Unless it’s the muse herself to whom you direct the question. The same is true of your path in the creative arts if you make your living there; why do we do this at all if not for the freedom to beat that path into whatever direction that suits our fancy, or to paint the cobblestones any damn colour we please? To do what we should in art is bondage. To tell others, with our art, what they should think or feel or do, is propaganda. And to tell other artists how they should do their art is presumptuous, and unkind, and tells the muse we’ve learned nothing at all under her influence.

We need more anarchists in photography, more people willing to abandon the stupidity of megapixels and brands and red stripes on their lenses and get back to making beauty for the sake of its joy. We need more people that make photographs that surprise us, not mimic others, and more people creating simply to create, and to share their work as a gift, not a request for praise. We need a resurgence in pinholes, film, wet plates, and any damn technique that makes you happy and in which you find your muse. We need to scrap the word “professional” because it implies authority, and simply allow everyone to be an artist, their work judged by its own merits not the camera used to create it or the clients that paid for it. We need people who understand how composition and light makes us feel, not which third of the frame to use, or which light is “bad light.”

Photography is still young. As an art it is still in its awkward, beautiful, childhood, but we stunt its growth, and our own, when we seek and follow the so-called rules, instead of just getting on with it and doing our work: making and sharing photographs that please our eyes and our hearts, that say – even imperfectly – the things we can’t find words for.

I’m about to get on a flight to Milan, via Frankfurt. 3 days of private lectures in Switzerland, a week with an old friend and my camera in Stockholm, then to Italy for 2 weeks of Within The Frame Adventures. If I’m quiet, that’s why. Maybe just sign out of Facebook, close the browser, embrace your inner anarchist, and go make some photographs…  See you soon!



  1. But there is nothing wrong with professional photography. Im a professional.

  2. I am a photographer and I am planning to get certified as a certified professional photographer. Photography is a great and noble professional that is why I took a course from the New York institute of photography. David I enjoyed reading your post very inspiring. I like the title A beautiful Anarchy and I also like when you said the paragraph that we need more anarchist in photography because I actually am an anarchist, and you are right when you said that. Thanks David

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  4. You know, your words really spoke to me today–I’m on a journey towards greater authenticity in my life and I’ve felt that edge; the edge where art teeters. Thanks so much for your post (and all that you share)!

  5. David,

    Sometimes your words just sing to me in beautiful flowing prose. Is there a trigger; a mood that calls forth words like, “There are no rules or laws in art. Art is a beautiful anarchy, a place wherein we express – or try to – the inexpressible…?

    Thanks and safe travels.

  6. This post “sounds” like Return to Innocence. 🙂 Thanks!

    Have a great trip to Italy, and be prepared for hot weather.

  7. I am currently living in a country where the gov’t is working hard to create ‘rules’ around art in its various forms. What is defined as ‘good taste’ ‘mature taste’ is funded and encouraged, what is seen as ‘low taste’ or ‘immature taste’ is ignored, given no funding or censored. This Beijing Opera (our all-time favourite music, right????) is given a huge chunk of funding, but modern music is all but ignored, and squeezed into corners. Modern art is not supported when it does not conform to certain ‘harmonious’ principles ie does not say what the gov’t wants it to say. Artists and writers are imprisoned for not conforming to the rules.

    This also tells us that what is ‘good’ is also culturally based – we need to be aware that what we see as ‘good’ can be seen quite differently in other cultures.

    I wrote in my blog about a great art space that provided cheap studio/living space for artists being torn down and replaced with a traditional art centre. As if China needed more …

    But the gov’t is actively discouraging modern art/music/sculpture/photography in favour of traditional art forms in all of thee areas.

    When we look at this process, it is easy to see the effect ‘rules’ create, whether they are self imposed, ‘artistically’ imposed or externally imposed. Creativity is lost, expression is limited or censored, and we all lose.

    Piles of stories abound of artists, musicians, scientists breaking the accepted rules of the day, being castigated for it, and today being famous and seen as ‘old masters’ to be emulated.

    Break the rules – create, express. Who cares if you are the ONLY person who likes the outcome today!! If it is truly good enough, it will survive into the future, even if you aren’t here to see it. 🙂 And be grateful that you CAN break the rules without serious consequence!

  8. Whenever I think I have things somewhat in order, I read a post like this that knocks me for a loop, and causes me to rethink my stubborn position on what makes a good photograph, or what skills I think I should be honing, or what techniques I should be practicing.

    It’s all up in the air, as it probably should be.

  9. Thanks, David! You always seem to know just what to share at the right moment!

  10. Great post David. I think the advent of digital photography has had some unintended consequences. We have these toys now that will crank that shutter so fast I don’t know how you don’t see smoke in the viewfinder and lenses the size of a Howitzer. We spend thousands on gear that, when you boil it down consists of a box with a hole in the side. At least in the days of film cameras you only had to change a roll to see how hollow it was on the inside. Don’t get me wrong, I love digital photography and I too suffer from “red ring disease” (a couple of days without seeing it and I start to itch) but, they are still just tools to catch the light I see. Many still believe photography doesn’t qualify as art simply because we use that box. They are allowed to be wrong. Remembering that how we see what we see is much more important that what we look at it through is, is the first step to unleashing the inner anarchist in all of us.

  11. Hi David, I have been listening to your webinar on GoingPro. Very insightful to say the least. You opened a whole new perspective on photography. The Create and Share aspect is to the point and will keep me shooting with a different state of mind. Thanks for that.

  12. David: thanks for explaining, now i see your article in a different light. and i start to become a linguistic researcher 😀 it’s very interessting, because i react to “authority” and “rules” completely different then (seemingly) most people do. i think my “vision” of the world is very different. for me an authority has to be given that authority by me – only i can appoint someone or something as an authority (i mean everyone has to appoint for themselfs). maybe it’s because teachers often couldn’t awnser my questions. maybe it’s because the “official truth” often didn’t (and still doesn’t) make sense. i don’t know. every authority has to earn that authority first (and then keep on proving to be worthy my trust).

    i think many people waste their time and energy either to obey so called authorities or to destroy them. but thats a battle that doesn’t lead anyone anywhere. instead just walk away and find your own way. i feel you where telling people to join the battle. that was my point.

    i have to agree with Tom Kostes, maybe he did put my concerns in better words. your article seemed to me to play the cords of those who proclaim “no rules” from the point of lazyness and mediocrity. i know you’re not standing there, just your words give all those who don’t even try an excuse. like: “i just say i don’t care what anybody thinks. i just say it’s beautiful and then it doesn’t matter.” i think we want everyone to try and try even more to get somewhere. we don’t want anyone to stay in the staus quo.

    a T. S. Eliot quote: “we must not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time”. i think we want to encourage THAT and not the “i don’t have to explore because i know the place well enough”-kind of approach.

    Piotr: thanks 🙂
    not having the freedom western cultures percive as such can teach you very valuable lessons. whatever those lessons are – never forget them!

  13. The rules and all the other guidelines we have now exist because someone broke the rules that existed before. What is considered right or “inspiring” now is based on work done by those who bent the existing guidelines of their time.

    It is ok to say “I know what I like” and it is ok for me to hear “I don’t know much about art”. To understand or appreciate much more than the rules requires some study of art history and even more to understand the way that photography is related to that history, both as a reaction and an attempt to find its place in that history. I don’t know what I like as such since I am adding to my knowledge everyday.

    To expand that appreciation of more than what you do now, takes study and an attempt to understand the intent and messages behind what we find incomprehensible. The popular opinion of what is good is normally an appeal to the lowest common denominator and static. What is popular now was the forward edge in the past, not progress.

    My tastes are mine but they don’t preclude me from appreciating things I wouldn’t hang on my wall and they certainly don’t mean I can denigrate others work because I don’t understand them–yet.

  14. I certainly can’t argue with what you say, but I’d rather own an Ansel Adams or a Picasso than a Kincade.

    The former, for me, inspire, the latter causes me to want to call the “good taste” police! 😉

  15. Author

    Tom – Re. “The only problem I see, is that many use the “no rules” credo or the “beauty in in the eyes of the beholder” credo to push a lot of less than inspiring crud onto the public, saying no one has the right to judge it, because it’s art.

    If that were totally true, Paul Anka and Wayne Newtown would be equal to Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen and we all know that’s not true.”

    I think the problem with this is that we do in fact get to judge, in the sense that we all decide what we like and dislike, what we think is good, what we think is crap. But the creators of that work – brilliant or crappy – have the right to create it. Now, I’m not going to argue with you that Dylan and Cohen work for my tastes WAY more than Anka, Newton, or Kenny Rogers, but to others (with suspect taste in music, apparently) they might be VERY inspiring. We’re not talking about taste here, but about authority, and I don’t want someone standing on high telling me how to create any more than I want them standing over Paul Anka. For me this is about choice, and freedom to express. The freedom to create great art, or to pursue that possibility, free from rules, must also allow the freedom to create crap art, free from the same. Even if it’s Anne Geddes or Paul Anka. That’s the price we pay for this freedom, and it’s easy to shut our eyes and ears.

  16. “We need people who understand how composition and light makes us feel, not which third of the frame to use, or which light is “bad light.”

    I agree with so much of this. I especially get tired of the “bad light, good light” idea. Like you, I live in the Great Northwest, the skys are beautiful here at any hour of the day, fantastic clouds, sun bursts, etc. Even totally cloudy days have their mystique, in truth I will capture anything that interests me or captures my imagination.

    The only problem I see, is that many use the “no rules” credo or the “beauty in in the eyes of the beholder” credo to push a lot of less than inspiring crud onto the public, saying no one has the right to judge it, because it’s art.

    If that were totally true, Paul Anka and Wayne Newtown would be equal to Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen and we all know that’s not true.

  17. Torsten wrote:
    “david, you mean the right thing, but go the wrong way”
    I think you both mean the right thing only from other position, and both can be right.

    Torsten, I love your opinions. You are from East Germany, I am from Poland, the same experience?

  18. Author

    Torsten – We are both arguing for choice, and I think that’s what matters. I think we are using the word “rule” very differently. A rule differs from a principal or simply an accepted common sense, it’s created and enforced by authority.

    I don’t sense you being disrespectful. It would be disrespectful to simply ignore what I write, or not engage in the discussion. But where we fail to agree on a common definition to our words we will fail to agree on anything derivative of those words. So perhaps we should be looking for points of agreement. Or perhaps I should ask you to substitute the word “authority” when you read the word “rule.” I’m not sure. But when I discuss principles, guidelines, I mean them in a very different sense than the word “rule.” Rules are to be followed without question, and art is about asking questions.

  19. david, i think i’m lucky because i grew up in east germany. we had rules and i learned that those rules were for public circumstances only and in private circumstances i was free to speak and behave differently. i realize by now this was a blessing – i don’t have that condition that just because someone calles something “rule” i either have to surrender completely to the “rule” or have to fight it with every fiber of my body. i have learned to walk upright in spite of “rules” and do my thing. and if someone calls something a rule i turn on my brain and make a grown up judgement – does it help or hinder me?

    i think for you a rule is a rule when somebody says it is. for me a rule is a rule when it’s a directive or a guideline – with no regard to the label anybody puts on it.

    this may sound silly, but i’m serious:
    it’s a rule to take of the lens cap when photographing. most people obey this rule. you say not to obey this rule because anarchy is the way to reach beautiful things. i say: have the freedom to choose and think what this rule is doing for you.
    it’s a rule to point your optics to the thing you want to show (including reflections etc.) you say: don’t obey this rule because it’s a rule and we have to destroy it. i say: have the freedom to choose and think what this rule is doing for you.
    so i wonder why in ALL of your photographs you obey those rules when actually you say they don’t exist? just because it seems simple and nobody puts the official label “rule” on it (perhaps the manual does) it is still a rule. you could call it principles but its still the same [i’m not a native english speaker – but look up the meaning of “principle” as i did and you find the word “rule” for sure. you can call an elephant an ant but it’s still an elephant.]

    i dont argue because i want to be mean or dissrespectfull. i argue on this because i think for some reason you’re putting your readers in the place of the teenager instead of showing the way to maturity.

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  21. Hi David

    I live in Switzerland. Would love to meet you while you are here. Is it possible?

    Kind regards,

  22. Great to hear you are coming over to Stockholm. Just be ready for April weather, yesterday it was snowing, today +10 C. Enjoy it.

  23. “Each artist going in his own direction at some time
    walks on water.”

    – Minor White, Photographer

  24. David, I cheer for these types of posts. I wish folks would forget the “rules” and just realize that as you grow and expand as a photographer that you begin to find your footing and create a “method to the madness” that is uniquely your own. There will always be principles of design that we all respond to and lean towards as we frame up a photo but what takes it to the next level is your own vision for that one exact moment. Thank you for voicing this yet again. Safe travels and happy expanding 🙂

  25. Author

    Sorry, Torsten, I just don’t think we’re ever going to agree on this. I didn’t say there were no principles, but you’ll never convince me there are rules. Who makes them? Enforces them? I never advocated feces on walls, I but there’s got to be room for Picasso to paint Guernica and for Jackson Pollock to splatter his canvases. And really, in the end, this piece is written for photographers who need a nudge away from the rules, not as a manifesto. I’ve got no interest in picking the issue apart or parsing out each word, but you want the rules and I say they don’t exist (though principles do), so it might just be time to move on. As for my hoping for something more from photography, I can live with you thinking it’s hypocritical of me. The thing is, I have no need to defend myself, nor my position. I was throwing my ideas out to generate thought, if it galvanizes your own thoughts on the matter, that’s great. But I’m not going to argue about it, especially when we can’t agree on the starting point.

  26. david, you mean the right thing, but go the wrong way. just a quote: “And to tell other artists how they should do their art is presumptuous, and unkind …” the very next sentences you are “unkind” and “presumptuous” because you tell everyone how they should do their art. don’t count pixels, don’t do this and don’t do that and instead do the other thing … sorry, but that spells hypocrisy.

    it’s not easy because humans try to correct the wrong in the world by doing the oposite. like everyone who is against racism and votes for a black president because he is black is just again a racist. to not be a racist you just don’t care about race. in no way. period! and when you want people not to cling to so called rules it’s not the way to preach anarchy and make the rule breaking the new rule to follow (yes david, you do it too!).

    one of your favorit quotes seams to be: “for art to be art it has to point at something”. and with this in mind you can never ever proclaim “there are no rules in art”. to a superficial degree thats right. BUT how can one point at something with no rules? people have to see you pointing and understand that you point. there are the rules of pointing. there are the rules of your tools. there are the rules of communication (i could recite great poerty from goethe and you could not appreciate it because you don’t understand german). there are the rules of human nature. rules, rules, rules. but thats ok.
    why is it, that in photography seem to be only people who are either rule-nazis (“the rule is our leader!”) or rule-anarchists (“there are NO rules.”). grow up – there are other options than the two evils.

    anarchy in art is just pooping at the walls. it’s like the toddler sitting in a pool of mud splattering something and then being proud of the mess.
    yes – there are phases in creation that need to be more like anarchy. but there need to be other phases too. if art is just doing something with no rules – then let the monkeys do it! let them splatter the feces on the walls. thats the “beautiful anarchy” … no, it really is just meaningless crap on the wall.

    to see it in a different light: as a child we have to follow the rules. we are constricted by the rules. wich is neither good or bad. then we grow up a little and become teenagers. now we rebell and break the rules. wich is neither good or bad. and then we become adults and have learned our own way around with the rules. how much is it good to break them, when do we prefer to obey them. a real mature grown up is neither the follow-every-rule-guy nor the break-em-all-guy. but why can’t we as photographers ever grow up? it’s allways just toddler or teenager. 🙁

  27. Hey man, great post.
    There is any chance we can see for a second in Italy so I can shake your hand?

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  29. What if you scrapped the references to art and photography here and applied the ideas to life and work in general? Isn’t it time that we all started doing and making and sharing things “that please our eyes (and our other senses) and our hearts, that say – even imperfectly – the things we can’t find words for.” ?

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  31. Have fun and keep safe. As always you give me the incentive to try harder.

  32. Not a lot of photographers have the ability to tell something through text also. You do. Thank you

  33. Photography is still young – that is a lovely concept, and allows us to feel part of the explorers in this field. As explorers there is no point in following a super-highway when there are so many places to go that have no paths.

    Have a great holiday, great ITF and enjoy the explorations.

  34. “We need to scrap the word “professional” because it implies authority, and simply allow everyone to be an artist, their work judged by its own merits not the camera used to create it or the clients that paid for it. We need people who understand how composition and light makes us feel, not which third of the frame to use, or which light is “bad light.” Fantastic writing David! Great post! Have a safe trip!

  35. I don’t have to say the obvious warnings about Italian walls, nor do I have to say have fun (because, of course you will!), so this is really just a message of well wishes and safe travels. I can’t wait to see what images you bring back from Europe.

  36. That’s a real inspiration coming from a professional photographer to an aspiring photographer… thank you for sharing…

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