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.
Perfectly written and perfectly timed. Thank you.
I’ve got nothing to add except “fuck yeah!!”
Interesting article. Competitions can be fine as long as they are judged fairly. It’s what we’re used to in many walks of life from garden fetes to music awards. What I detest are the current trend for highest votes versions which turn the art into who has the most followers
I wish I knew how it would be possible to judge a work or art “fairly.” Everybody has their personal preferences and even if you were to choose a work that coincided with your preferences, how do you draw a line between first, second and third place?
Seems like a very arbitrary process to me…. I wouldn’t want to have to do it.
David, it was a pleasure to hear you speak at the What If conference in Bali. You were one of the most inspirational speakers I have ever heard. I was sad that I didn’t get to catchup with you in person and chat more. And in this week in Australia with so many others stressing out and entering awards, and asking me if I am entering, I keep coming back what you shared that the conference and here in writing I reflect again. I love this piece and have shared with many other photographers. Thank you for being you.
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Great words to live by as an artist. Thanks David. I recently ran into a group of artists (I won’t name names) who I got into an argument about what is “original work”. They didn’t consider photographic prints “originals” and I had postulated they were original because originality is far beyond the medium the art is presented on…. anyways. Thanks for your post. It came at the right time.
Here was my blog post about the whole ordeal – http://bit.ly/1aZai8a
Thank you, once again, David, for your excellent perspective. It’s always so refreshing and rings so true.
David, I have had misgivings about all the different contemporary share sites, contests, etc. and this post eloquently shines a light on the issues that I’ve wrestled with. Thank you.
Wonderful thoughts here, and so very true. Photography should be a moment of creation, and not one that is driven by how many “likes” one can garner on Facebook or what contest I might be able to enter this into. Art is art – a moment of creation, or trial and error, of connection and realization. Each artist brings our own personal experiences, thoughts, life into the piece – and if we are true to ourselves and our vision, we will look for our validation within, not without. Because, in the end, if we do not believe in our vision, neither will anyone else.
Beautifully written, David. A great reminder, and, as usual, perfectly timed.
True words David. I think that we are all too caught up in how many likes an image gets on FB or how many people viewed the image. Personally, I have fallen into that trap in the past, but it was fruitless. Eventually I found myself saying things like “I wonder how many likes this will get…” Then I knew I was in trouble. I now focus on what I want to communicate, and that is the key. I find creating my own projects works too. The important thing as you said is to have a Vision and to follow it, even if the crowd says thats the wrong way!
Thanks again for the insight!
You put into words and helped clarify what I’ve been feeling about my photography lately and what direction I want to go. Thank you.
Thank you so much for saying what is not said today in the world of photography. I have been trying to find my voice for 6 years now and I am guilty of all the things you have said in this article.
Yesterday while doing a photo shoot I was trying so hard to be like “blank” and do the right thing that the more I tried the worse the situation got. I finally said screw it I am just going to photograph how I photograph. So I changed lens and changed my approach.
Instantly I was back to being me and my subjects could feel the difference.
That photo shoot and this article came a just the right time.
Thank you for speaking and sharing your truth about photography and the creative process. You inspire me to stay focused on the inner journey of how I experience the world around me through the lens of my camera. I have never been into the gear or competition and recently have found my self challenged to answer the question I ask of myself, “What am I supposed to do with my photographs?”. The answer I continue to hear is to “Share them” and “Enjoy them”. That’s where I find the Joy in the creative process!
There is that delicate balance of walking the line between listening to your own voice and the influence external inputs.
As there are weak supports, there are also strong supports…
The weak supports tell us what to do, the strong supports allow us to question who, what, when where and why we are doing something…
…and the strong supports are strong enough to back away and say go for it… where as the weak ones say be just like me and support me.
I don’t want to focus on one minor point to a much bigger message but it’s interesting that I have never really consider sports a form of art until now. Either it be yoga, gymnastics, figure skating or diving – we watch and accept judging based heavily on technique alone. The goal here is to be exactly the same as the book describes. At what point, does photography become colouring by the numbers?
“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.”
May I print this quote on “post its” and stick it to all those hipsters out there? 😉
This is why I follow your posts. You are not about the gear or the competition. You make available wonderful products for learning the craft of photography, but even more so you are about following the individual’s unique inner vision.
Refreshingly sane in the midst of all the hype.
David, excellent words. They mean a lot coming from someone who IS successful on their own, and often it seems unexpected, terms.
It did remind me, though (laughingly), that I recently put 5 images into a (free) contest, because I happened to look at the entries and saw so much… ahem, sameness… that I decided I should put something different in, just to (hopefully) jog someone into thinking, “Oh, you mean photos don’t all have to be HDR with no soul?” Oops – judging others, my bad!
Your post come in the right time for me David. Sometimes I feel, that I lost my joy in photography and I think I`m little bit too serious about what i`m doing. I learn from few other photographers and I always thaught – oh, man, I think this (MY) photo is nice, but mr X probably would criticise this.So I think It`s sucks !
So I decided to put away my mind for some time and put my feeling, my heart. I think it`ll work for me.
Once again, your words land in just the right place. Thank you!
At the same time that I feel very comfortable with your view I recognize how often I am pulled (or is it better said, I let myself pulled) in the direction which stimulates me to stop listening to my own voice. The whole world is judging and even I want to listen to my own voice often I do care what others think about my work. Probably it says more about my own uncertainty than about the others.
So thanks for this blog, I keep it in my personal notebook for those moments I am a bit weaker and need to be stimulated listening to my own voice.
Well said David, well said… especialy the part regarding contests…. thank you….
David, this post comes at a great time for me as I’m at one of those spots where it’s getting hard to push and wrestle through the process and its tempting to try to find a new trick to hang my creative hat on for awhile.
Thanks for the reminder!
Thanks so much for this awesome read! I needed it. I’ll never win! Especially at Yoga! Is there a thread of Pearl Jam’s “Just Breathe” in this blog? I need my photography as a creative outlet, I’m not sure what I have to say but there is something I need to share. I’m in Whistler getting ready to participate in the Tribal Bike gathering at Mecca known as Crankworx. This blog really set me on the right step! Thx
This was a great article to pull me back where I want to be with my art. Thanks!
Forgive me David, I know this is your forum, and I don’t wish to overstep the bounds of good behavior, but the more I have thought about your words something else on subject just won’t let me be.
All these “Photo Contests,” think about the logistics. First, people are making a lot of money off entrance fees. Second, hundreds, if not thousands of people enter, so what are the odds; the jurors are so overwhelmed, how can they make good choices, plus, as you have said, who are they, even if well known, to judge your work except on technical merit, and if you are not technically proficient, why on earth would you enter.
OK, I’ll shut up now, and thanks for your understanding…
Well said, but apparently you CAN win at yoga; or at least you can beat it… http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_DA09R5N_Ik
An inspiring read and great refresher, I couldn’t agree more David!
So, I can’t say this often, but I agree with everything you say here 100 percent.
As Picasso has said, to search means nothing, to find is everything, and you must find it within yourself. Not to say you can’t have influences, no need to re-invent the wheel, but in the end you must do exactly what you want to do, no matter what anyone else may think.
Over the course of a lifetime, I have found that if you are true to yourself, others will relate to it. Not everyone, but enough folks will see the value of your individual vision to make it all worth while, and even if they don’t, as Van Gogh suffered though in his life; the world would still be a poorer place without his work in it.
This is perhaps the best thing I’ve read in a while online. Thank You David.