If you’re at the place where you no longer wrestle as much with the basics of exposure and focus, it could be time to work on the photographs themselves: on content and composition, on vision and the deeper aspects of your craft and art.
There are 4 questions I keep encouraging my students to ask themselves as they consider their next steps. I’ll write a short article about each of them over the next week or so. Here’s the first.
Is it you?
The idea of authenticity gets thrown around so much I think we can all be forgiven for wondering if it means anything at all these days. It does, though you don’t have to use the word in daily conversations over artisanal goat-cheese and kale salads while pushing organic craft-brewed beer past your well-groomed mustache in order to for it to be meaningful. In fact, it’s probably best you don’t. It’s a guiding principle, not something to talk at length about. Your work either is, or it isn’t. And only you can know if it is. The rest of us won’t know if your work is or isn’t you, but we sure as hell won’t get to know you to any great depth if the work doesn’t come from that deep place within. And letting your work originate there, and limiting your work to only the very best and most honest, is an act of vulnerability. It’s not easy.
“Authenticity still means something, though you don’t have to use the word in daily conversations over artisanal goat-cheese and kale salads while pushing organic craft-brewed beer past your well-groomed mustache in order to for it to be meaningful.”
Is it me? Being authentic means you do work that is deeply meaningful to you. It means not only showing me what you see, but how you see it, and pulling no punches and hedging no bets about your opinions of things. If you see the world as hopeful and beautiful, then show me that. If you see it as a dark place full of angst, then show me that too. Have you seen Banksy’s new art installation, Dismaland? Google it. Might not be your cup of tea because you like your tea to have less angst and taste a little less like dystopia, but my God is it ever honest.
Most of us begin by copying the masters, emulating their compositions, adopting their forms as our own. We try on different subjects and techniques until we find ones that feel comfortable, like they fit. That’s a necessary step for most apprentices. But there comes a time when you step away from the works of others, abandon the templates and find your own sense of balance and momentum. At some point you stop singing the songs of others and start writing your own songs. The more personal those songs are, the more honest and vulnerable you can make them, the stronger your work will connect to others. And I’m guessing, because it’s been my experience, the more honest the work is, the more gratifying it is to create.
“Are my images really me?” is a great question, but so is: “Is the work I’m doing still me?” It might be time to move on.
Being authentic does not mean you don’t edit or curate your work. It doesn’t mean you just put it all out there, every frame you’ve ever shot. Even the most authentic, honest, literature, comedy, or film-making, is tightly edited in order to be the most powerful it can be. It could be that the next step for you is to go through the public faces of your work – your online portfolios or galleries, perhaps – and ask yourself, is this work still representative of who I am, how I see, or what I want to say? We all change. So does our work. Hanging on to every image you ever made, and making the rest of us look at them, just creates a confusing experience for the rest of us. “Are my images really me?” is a great question, but so is: “Is the work I’m doing still me?” It might be time to move on.
Moving on doesn’t necessarily mean you stop doing one thing to do another. I still do humanitarian work, but my concern for humanity extends to the planet on which we live, and to those with whom we share this planet. My photographic work has expanded to reflect that in what I think is a move that is authentic to who I am, and whom I am becoming.
I’m not sure this is a one-time thing. In fact I’m pretty sure it’s the basic struggle of art. I’m also sure there’s no easy answer to this stuff. Maybe the questions, and the fact that we’re asking them, are what’s important. Maybe it’s the question itself that keeps us honest and aware. Still, if you’re feeling there are next steps to be made, it might be worth looking at your work, asking how well it reflects who you are and how you see. If it doesn’t, it’s time to create new work. Follow your curiosity, learn something new, follow the thread of other things in your life that most ignite your mind and heart and see where they lead. Just don’t stay where you are and let your paint dry up.
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Hey David – Every once in a while your blog posts really hit home. Authentic Work is one !. As a photographer, there is an interest to capture the world around me in a unique way. It might be a spontaneous put-the camera to the eye photo, or a meticulously planned photo shoot. Either way, there was something that sparked the neurons in my brain to take that photo. It is a process that is shared by all creative folks – painters, authors and musicians. The issue of “Authentic” boils down to creating something that is true to ones self, and not simply to appease the masses or to gain more ‘likes’ on social media. In my point of view, Being Authentic means putting it out there, putting your full “YOU” on the line. Being Authentic is producing and publishing the work that has meaning to you – to You, and not necessarily to the folks viewing your work. Being Authentic, means listening to your own voice and your own heart- and not simply following the creative trends. Being Authentic is putting out your personality, your emotions and your mood – and not adding a popularity ‘filter’.
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“… the more honest the work is, the more gratifying it is to create…” yes, & also the scarier it is. The social conditioning, from an early age, to be a cleaner, nicer, more socially acceptable version of ourselves is profound and almost inescapable. Honesty & authenticity can ask us to rebel against that. It’s certainly how I feel most of the time I think about the kind of questions you’ve asked here.
You are very right! This is where art, craft and soul comes together, isn’t it?
Btw, tried to reach you by email several times (about a proposal for a C&V ebook) but no response at all. Something went wrong?
Your last paragraph reminded me of a couple of quotes I’ve pulled from a favorite author:
“…it seems to me that knowing where we are going encourages us to stop seeing and hearing and allows us to fall asleep. …
Not knowing where you are going creates more than uncertainty; it fosters a sense of aliveness, an appreciation of the particulars around you. It wakes you up much in the same way that illness does. …
In fact, perhaps we only think we know where we are going as all the while we are really going somewhere quite different. …
The truth is that we are always moving toward mystery and so we are far closer to what is real when we do not see our destination clearly.” — Rachel Naomi Remen, My Grandfather’s Blessings, The Path,
“After all these years I have begun to wonder if the secret of living well is not in having all the answers but in pursuing unanswerable questions in good company.” — Rachel Naomi Remen
Thanks for being some of that “good company”!
The post is Very thought provoking read, it also confirms the way I see my path as true to Davids thinking, what ever that may be.
Be well all, Peace out!
I’m currently working on creating a new body of work, something more representative of who I am now. I’ve been finding that authentic voice inside myself gets drowned out by the noise of turning photography into what I do for a living; into my livelihood.
I’ll just be making some time now to follow my heart and create some personal work, to let go of my fear of failure and leave room to play. Thanks, David!
Thank you for yet another perfectly timed message! I was just having a conversation with a dear friend who was feeling lost and overwhelmed with her life at present…basically trying to meet the needs of everyone else, but at the expense of her own peace and joy. I finally said, “I’ve found it helpful to ask myself WHY I’m doing what I’m doing on a regular basis….and who am I doing it for?” It takes courage to be authentic, and courage to stay authentic whether in our art or in any other aspect of our lives. When our authenticity requires change it often means risking criticism from others who might not yet be comfortable with our new self and it’s creative expression….but I don’t think we can live joyfully unless we allow those changes on an ongoing basis.
Once again, great shout on this stuff. I think it’s a constant struggle within ourselves but as time progresses, we are fine tuned naturally. The problem is when we wrestle with ourselves in pursuit as this is evidently counter productive.
Thanks for the challenge…and thanks for the improved iPhone/iPad display of your post. Looks beautiful.
But mostly thanks for the challenge!
This is such an exciting idea. Breaking through to the next level of expression, shaking off fear and uncertainty to do so, getting in touch with the heart of how and why we do what we do…and then continuing in a determined and deliberate way. To quote my teenage daughter, “Yaaaaaasssss.”
God, that’s a lovely image, David.
The question I always have asked myself, “If not your work, whose?” No matter what anyone else thinks,
what you feel is the most important when it comes to art. No one else will ever see things quite the same way
as you, yourself do.