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.
Tell the World, Share this Post.