A couple years ago I went for sushi with Chase Jarvis and as we sat across the table talking about art and commerce and life and stuff, he expressed an idea that I’ve loved and played with ever since – that the task of an artist is this: to create, and to share, and to do whatever you need to do to sustain that cycle of creating and sharing.
I still love the simplicity of that paradigm. It feels right to me. But lately a couple other conversations have converged and have me wondering, what do we do when the sharing, of which we’re fond, especially online, gets in the way of creating? What do we do when it is sharing itself that sabotages the sustainability of the thing we love? What do we do when looking at the images others share leads to envy, comparisons, discouragement, or worse – imitation – instead of inspiration?
“What do we do when it is sharing itself that sabotages the sustainability of the thing we love?”
I love sharing my work. I love knowing it inspires. I love experiencing the connections with others that it does. And yes, I love the feeling of significance that gets sparked when someone likes or comments or re-tweets. But I do not love those things the way I love the quiet making of a photograph, the private wrestling with the muse that happens while I write a paragraph or a book. I don’t love those accolades the way I love holding a print in my hands the first time and knowing I made this new thing.
And that’s the problem. Those are solo activities. They are things I do on my own, first for myself, and they do not go well when they are tainted with expectations, obligations, and the clamouring of my ego to hurry up and get it out already so others can tell me what they think.
We have never, in all of human history, been able to share our work so immediately and so broadly. There used to be a rhythm to creating and sharing. It took a while to get our work out there. There wasn’t the urgency and the clamour for more that we face now. It took long enough for our work to get around that we had time to create in the lulls. The feedback took longer to return to our ears and we could create without the noise of that feedback distracting us. I wish I could remember who last asked me how I balanced my creative life with my social media life. If you’re reading this, I’m not sure I do. Balance isn’t something I’m known for. But I’ve been giving it a great deal of thought, because I think balance, or something like it, is getting increasingly important for me.
“Would a slower, more considered, more curated, flow of shared images be more sustainable? Perhaps it’s time we slowed down.”
Here are three thoughts I have about sharing my own work – thoughts that I don’t have answers to, but am batting around in my brain.
One. Is it possible that photography has dropped in value / demand as the supply as increased? There is so much incredible photography out there right now, it’s hard to know where to begin assigning value to it. That’s a commercial problem. But is the same not true when we ask people to pay attention instead of money? Would a slower, more considered, more curated, flow of shared images be more sustainable? Perhaps it’s time we slowed down.
Two. Could it be that the interactive nature of social media sharing has more effect on the images I make and the way I make them than I once thought? Would my work be better – or more authentic (and therefore better?) if it was created in isolation from all the thousands of images of others, and without the possibility to so quickly share work that perhaps needs a little more time to mature?More pressing, perhaps: is my ability to share with such immediacy, taking me out of the moment I should be present in, making photographs in, making – most importantly – memories in?
Three. More existentially, would I be happier if I spent less time looking at the heavily curated lifestyles of others? My God, I travel the world, and spend time with nomads, and scuba dive in water Jacques Cousteau counted as the most beautiful in the world, and still I feel the pressure to be like others. How hard might it be for others to resist living a vicarious life instead of living their own?
“More pressing, perhaps: is my ability to share with such immediacy, taking me out of the moment I should be present in, making photographs in, making – most importantly – memories in?”
The issue of sustainability is the most pressing for me right now. I’m considered prolific, but how long can I keep it up? I commented to a friend in Japan that I feel like I’ve created a monster – a beautiful monster, a monster I love – but a monster with a voracious appetite. But I have the time. And I have my entire adult life living as a creative professional so it’s not a new road, and I know ultimately that these are decisions we all need to make on our own. How are others wrestling with this? Have we created a monster we’re now obligated to feed, and watch nervously from the corner of our eyes when we should be making art?
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Hi David, you make a good point about isolation. I recently realized that my subscription to Outdoor Photographer had lapsed many months ago. Over those last few months I actually printed my first “big” prints from some of my “work” (if you could even call taking a nature shot from a lakeside dock while simultaneously making sure my two little ones don’t fall in and drown “work”). I think that isolation from the work of others really helped me gain my focus in selecting my best photos from last year and learning how to prep them for printing big. They came out beautifully too!
This exercise in printing actually made me realize something else. We’re spending way too much time posting and looking at online pictures made with $2000+ cameras that could just as easily been made with a $100 used DSLR and kit lens from 10 years ago. Pictures made with these state-of-the-art cameras, heck anything above 2 megapixels, are meant to be PRINTED! What’s the point of a huge MP full-frame camera with the world’s sharpest lens on it when you’re squishing all the detail down to 1024×768?
Print more. Post less.
Coming from the point of view of an enthusiastic amateur, I cannot express enough thanks for social media for enabling me to see exceptional photos taken by photographers such as yourself and others like you who share their work but also their words and philosophies that help me to evolve into a better photographer. How else would we ever hear of you and see your work? How would we see the photos from Africa, the bears and the trip across Canada, the underwater photos? This is inspiring of itself..you take the time to share yourself and what you see through the lens. And your writings are always thought provoking and make me think about my photographic vision. I say use the social media as long as it works for what you want to give to those interested..for me that gift is your view of the world. The time will come when the sharing will not be what you want to do and you will know when that time comes.
Excellent, thought-provoking, incredibly hard questions. Thank you for sharing what you are wrestling with!
There is an excellent book written by Nicholas Carr, titled “The Shallows” (What the internet is doing to our brains). In his book, Mr. Carr discusses the negative effect the internet is having on our ability to think deeply and linearly… Linear thought as well as deep cognitive thought are requirements for creativity! Every photo looks great on an i-pad/ i-phone/ lap top, etc…. Seems like many are satisfied with point/click/ drag to edit/ click a preset or two and call it good…
For artists that take a cognitive approach to creativity, this quick approach is simply not an option, spending years perfecting whatever technique their muse drives them toward. The joy of doing this work for our own satisfaction fades when our biggest concern is the number of “likes” the latest post receives….
Your point of holding a final print in hand is well taken and should be a goal for all photographers as they strive to pursue excellence. Not in terms of how many fools on the internet “like” it but in terms of personal satisfaction of achieving a true work of art! Too much instant gratification/ not enough achievement through failure/ hard work/ and taking the time to work toward mastery !
Both Billy Bragg & Amanda Palmer have talked abou the way social media tempts them to achieve the goal of songwriting – connecting ideas & emotions with fans – without the hard work of actually writing songs.
Social media shifting our priorities troubles me too. I’ve watching photographers near the start of their journey pull photos from social media because they weren’t hitting the right metrics. Is that commodifying our vision?
Perhaps more troubling is the way this social media focus affects our experience of the world. It cages us inside our minds. Photographic knowledge is as much about something that happens in our hands, our hearts & our feet. But social media, that’s all going on in our heads.
I have often wondered when I let social media swallow me up. It was a slow progression, as most addictions, as I realized social sharing became less about interacting with close friends and loved ones, but about building a “brand”, the next possible gig or what I thought my ideal client wanted to see. I look at my social stream now, and where the things I have done and the work I share is awesome, it still lacks my personality, something I used to let shine through. I stopped sharing fun images of me and my dog for travel photos to places I knew people wanted to see. Stopped sharing messy post mountain bike ride sunsets for perfect food photos for client I work with. I realized any brand that I was spotted holding or showing in my feed was an endorsement and I started taking it all way to seriously without even realizing it. And at the end of the day, I seem to feel less and less satisfied by it, yet unable to remove myself from it’s grasp.
I have given it pause and worry about it endlessly, as it is an all-consuming monster with a raging appetite that will never be sedated.
Well said, David. I think I spend more time “marketing” myself, than actually making photographs. That’s got to change!
It’s a constant tug of war for me. At times the creative process, at times the struggle to make the image I envision, other times to maintain or build audience for the encouragement of digital applause. All of those influence my creativity and spurts.
I find the most satisfying and sustainable are those factors done for myself to fulfill a vision or those done for someone I’m working for. The audience is not insignificant but not an equal portion of my motivation.
I read in Forrest Gander’s Late Summer Entry, a series of poetic commentaries on Sally Mann’s landscape photographs.
“The more intense the emotion the slower the speed.”
You surely do have an incredible schedule, David. I’ve wondered how you manage to keep it up and still create quality work, both in images and words. Also, how do you keep out the “spam” on your blog, Instagram, etc.? You don’t seem top prescan posts…
This so resonated with me David. It’s something I’ve been struggling with increasingly, particularly over the last couple of months, so it’s good to know that someone as high profile as you feels exactly the same!
the ego so gets in the way of living a balanced life – I mediated regularly to try and help with this, and whilst I’m sure it helps, it doesn’t take away that sharing urge that as you say detracts from original creativity.
thanks for sharing (!) your thoughts – so helpful !
Hi David…i Like your idea of slowing down. You are so right with this…if you have an answer let me please know…
the question is, how do we show our work without all these mess around us? Without FB, Instagram, …Only exibithion woult be nice…but very expensive…and most of the people are not willing to pay for it…
Only show your best work, but not on social media, because someone will steal it. I used to share the hell out of everything, and in the early days, that was useful in terms of constructive feedback. These days, I only show maybe one image from a session, after sleeping on it. Sometimes I don’t share at all if it is personal work.
I would say that the social media explosion has played a major part in devaluing the work of photographers. Only last week, I was asked by a young couple to add 2 pages of Facebook images taken by their friends to their wedding album.
Now that their wedding images have done the rounds online, they have lost interest in finalising their printed album design.
I spent five years as a music photographer. Bands and their management were quite happy to represent their image using pictures taken by fans on their smart phones, rather than pay for professional images (and sometimes restrict the photographer from even showing their images in their own portfolio)
It’s all become like a cheap wine – gallons of the stuff, but it takes longer to get drunk on it.
loved this: “What do we do when looking at the images others share leads to envy, comparisons, discouragement…”
good to hear, since we tend to feel like we’re the only ones getting too little, poor things done. Oh, and You feel the pressure to live like others, with your lifestyle between Grizzlies, Whales and Venice? I just hope that is also heavily curated, because it tends to discourage me =)
Sharing online can be a good way to not only get your work viewed by a large audience but also a varied audience as well. This can lead to positive and healthy criticism which can help your craft. On the flip-side, this can also be counter productive where now one starts creating images with the purpose of feeding the ego and before you know it you are creating for others and not yourself. IMHO, it is important to be able to find that balance where you share your work not for likes, retweets and comments but for a specific reason, eg to raise awareness on a certain issue. Let the likes and retweets be for a reason and not to feed the ego.
I do not like the idea of a curated view of the world in general. There are already such things for those that want them (e.g. 1x.com, etc.). I resist their expansion into anything that sounds like a mandate for all.
I do not support the censorship of art, even for a well-intentioned purposes. I don’t want to have to ask anyone before I share what I create. When I was a kid, abstract art was viewed with suspicion and those that championed it were surveilled by the FBI as potential communists (read up on the FBI’s war on art if you are interested). There is a ton of crap out there, but it is a healthy world where you can choose whatever genre you want.
You may not want to do such a thing, but the kind of systems could be used for that. Can you imagine if the Beatles had to gain the approval of authorities before being allowed to play their music? What about photographer Andres Serrano? Would “Piss Christ” have passed muster? How about Sally Mann’s “Immediate Family”? There is too much at stake…
I was thinking the same thing as Duncan as well — it’s similar to what the news business is now dealing with. It’s more important to be first than to be right. I think the fact that an image can go from my camera, via wifi, to my phone, to FB/Instagram/yadayada in seconds does mean that the quality of what I show is not ideal. And the truth is, it’s not like thousands of people are waiting with baited breath for that image. When I was shooting events, I learned that I had to at least process that one teaser image properly *enough* that I don’t cringe three hours later and have to go back and replace it, after most people have seen it anyway.
I have to agree with Duncan. Just as we need to slow down when making images, we ought to slow down when considering what to post/share. Just because so many other photographers and ‘camera users’ are posting photos left and right doesn’t mean that we need to follow that trend. Don’t be seduced by the pull of being ‘always connected’ despite what others may say or do.
Great post with much food for thought David.
I’ve had a post with the same title kicking around my head for a while now, but coming from a slightly different angle – that of editing our work. The obligation/pressure/desire/whatever it is to post often, to remain in the public eye, to not fall off people’s radars means that – almost by definition – we’re not sharing our best work. It might still be *good* work but it can’t be our best work, as it’s impossible for us to be at our best every single day and produce work that stands above the rest on a daily basis.
I remember Bruce Percy talking about how we’re all in such a hurry to post, we don’t let our images ferment and mature, and that we need to leave them to remove the emotion and see them objectively. So often the impulse when we get home is to put the memory card in, find the ‘best’, and publish it before we even make a cup of tea or say hello to our wife. Where did the hurry come from? It’s not like the whole internet is just sitting there waiting for us to upload our next work.” Come on, come on, come on, where iiiis it?!”
I think it’s particularly difficult for someone like yourself, where people constantly want to be brought into your world. I feel the guilt when I’m neglecting my audience, and hope that they understand my attention has to be elsewhere (if what I’ve been doing isn’t then ‘awesome’ I have a problem reengaging “You switched off for 4 weeks and that’s all you’ve got to show for it?!”) . For you, the feeling of being ‘always on’ must be very intense.
My only real conclusion is that the quality of our (by which I mean my) work would be better if we didn’t rush it out the door just to stay in the public gaze. Easier said than done these days.