This one might be more for me than for you, but I had to get it out and this is where I do that kind of thing. I’m hoping there’s someone out there that needs to hear it, someone for whom this will bring some creative freedom.
Remember being a kid and climbing to the top of whatever we could find, chanting, “I’m the king of the castle, and you’re the dirty rascal”? Maybe that was just a Canadian thing. As we got older those of us that weren’t by nature sociopaths realized all we were doing was isolating ourselves and the game was no fun when we were alone at the top.
It is very easy to strand ourselves on the high ground. In our search for significance – or our hopes that our images are significant – it’s very easy to find that high ground in any place but in our photographs themselves.
Nothing is like film, they say. “Digital” is ruining photography, they whisper. I only use prime lenses, they brag. I will never use anything but a Leica, and I never crop my images. I don’t “do Photoshop.” Real photographers only use manual mode.
It’s true. Film is beautiful. It’s unique as its own thing. And yes, digital technology gives way to certain temptations for artists and changes in the art itself. Prime lenses are beautiful. So are Leica cameras. And if you work better in manual mode, and don’t work on images in the darkroom, digital or analog, then great.
But when those things – and you can pick your favourite from a long list of potential badges of honour – become a substitute for the hard and humbling work of making compelling photographs – then you can keep your high ground. The rest of us will be slogging away in the dirt, trying to grow, to challenge ourselves, to hone our craft, and to make something that is alive, something that speaks for itself and that transcends questions about cameras and brands and which f*cking lens you used.
When your badge of honour is the brand of camera you use, the weird constraint you placed on yourself, or how hard you think you work to make your photographs, and it’s not the experience of the image itself, then it’s no wonder you feel a little bit alone up there. Because photography might be all about you, to you, but the rest of the world is looking for something more: for life, for truth, (or a break from the truth), for something real, vulnerable, sensual. They are looking for soul. For depth. For beauty and a distraction. They want the muse to unexpectedly push them up against the wall and kiss them hard.
“They are looking for soul. For depth. For beauty and a distraction. They want the muse to unexpectedly push them up against the wall and kiss them hard.”
And – listen – when the muse so seduces them, they aren’t for a moment asking themselves who made her dress, or how it was made and from what. And your bragging about such trivial things, trying to catch my attention with your not-so-subtle fake cough about film and lenses and whatever bullshit you think is important to you, over there in the corner – you’re just wrecking a beautiful moment. And if your muse is trying to get your attention, well, you’re probably going to miss that, too.
Photographers, I have this sneaky feeling some of us have forgotten something fundamental about the experience of art and wonder and the transcendence that’s possible with what we make: it’s not about us. It can be about something so much more. The muse, for her part, doesn’t give a shit about your gear or your pretense. She cares only for your vision and your willingness to give expression to it. And that’s the stuff that will become inspired and inspiring. Let her do her thing.
“Just be sure of this one thing: that you love the muse and what you create together more than the ever-changing tools you happen to use to create. “
And more to the point – for the rest of you, for those of us who just want to do our work and wonder if we’re missing something by not using the right gear, the right brand, the trendy processing, the old film camera, whatever: you aren’t. And if you are – if film or primes or pinhole cameras or some other precious thing suddenly becomes important to what you’re doing – you’ll know. And you’ll embrace it, struggle with it, use it for what they bring to your process, and you’ll make the same mix of awkward sketch images and beautiful master prints. And the success – or the failure of those – will not ultimately be credited to that gear, but to the dance between you and the muse that has always made the kind of art that opens eyes and hearts.
Just be sure of this one thing: that you love the muse and what you create together more than the ever-changing tools you happen to use to create. The tools matter, they are necessary, but they aren’t where we put our hearts. That beautiful, lofty, messy place is for the muse, and the dance, and the art alone.
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