One of the best things most of us can do right now is stop asking so many people what they think of our art, whether that’s photography or not. Art is not a democracy, it’s a way of sounding your voice and when you allow others – especially unknown or anonymous others – to determine the direction of that art, you’re allowing it to be diluted. Yes, learn about your art and your craft from people you respect, but that will only take you so far before you stand at the edge of the place where art is done alone, without the input or concensus of others, and you leap.
There’s an unfortunate thing happening online these days. A photographer finds some commercial success, which is sometimes, but not always, an indication that their art is good. They teach some courses and a growing number of younger photographers learn what they can. And then people begin not to adapt the things they’ve learned, which is good, but to adopt them wholesale: to replicate. Soon a forum is started so these adopters can critique the work of each other and – forgive me for being a little too blunt – they all drag each other into homogeny and mediocrity. Looking to these teachers and forums is the surest way to dilute your own voice, or to ensure you never hear it. Art is created as a result of a journey inward, not when a certain amount of people “like” your work.
We flock to these places, and they’re different for all of us, because they are safe places. They allow us to think we’re making progress, and to be fair, sometimes, early on, there are things to be learned. But more than that I think we go there because we see a chance to for our ego to get a hit of approval, or a “nice capture,” which seems to be the drug of choice among new photographers right now. Art is a solitary thing. We do the best of it alone because it’s there where things are quiet enough and the other voices silenced enough that we can do our thing, wrestle through our process, fall down a few times, and create something authentic. Something that’s ours alone without being pulled to the middle by opposing voices.
Art takes courage. It takes courage to find our vision, and the voice to express it. Having a few people around, trusted voices from people who create work we respect, can help. But even those voices don’t know what’s inside you. They have no idea what you long to say, what things are bursting to get out. It takes courage to pull away from sources that tell you, “ do it this way” and to find your own way. It takes courage to step away from the atta-boys and the nice captures, none of which mean a thing, no matter how sincere the source.
Art is not a democracy. Photography has been said to be the most democratic of the arts, but that refers to access, not to what we create. Your work requires no votes to be authentic. It requires no endorsement. And it just might be that all those votes and endorsements are standing in the way of discovering our best work. It’s why I will not longer judge a photography competition, or enter one. I agree, you can learn something from competing. Maybe. But I don’t think the potential gains outweigh the loss. The idea that you can win at art is, as a friend recently said so well, as absurd as the idea that you can win at yoga. We trust the judges and arbitrars of taste so much all we can do is second-guess ourselves.
Art is about us listening to your voice, hearing what you have to say, look at what you are pointing at, with the medium of your choice. It is not about you listening to us. That’s conversation, and it’s pivotal to relationships, but it’s not this. It’s not art. If you need input, find one or two voices who will listen to you, hear your art, and talk to you about making it stronger. The more sources you try to get this from the more directions you’ll be pulled in, the more difficult it will be to find your own way, and the more likely it is you’ll create art that please no one, least of all yourself.
Don’t be an acolyte. Listen. Learn. And then move on in the direction only you can sense is the most authentic. Follow the fear, lean into it, learn from the failures. Then try again. Sure, it’s a little harder, but by God we don’t need more imitators and more art-by-concensus. We need boldness, authenticity, and the kind of imperfect, flawed, honest art that can only be made when you listen to one voice alone: yours.