There is a village in China where thousands of painters make their living together, painting away their days in spartan studios, covered in paint, surrounded by canvases. The village is called Dafen, and it intrigues me because, for all the technical prowess possessed by the painters in that community, it is not known for its art. Not really. That is to say it’s not known for it’s own art. It’s known for being the world’s largest source of counterfeits and copies of art. Want a Mona Lisa but don’t have the 500 million it might cost you? You can get one in Dafen for a handful of dollars, relatively speaking. And it’ll be a very good copy. But is it art, and was it made by an artist?
Hypothetical questions about art interest most photographers about as much as the debate about how many angels can dance on the head of a pin. We’d rather just do what we do and let others decide if it’s art, and I’m so with you on that. Sort of.
The thing is, if art is more than just technique and imitation, no matter how perfect that imitation, then it requires something more than years of practice. It requires us. It requires interpretation. It requires that we bring something of our own to the table, preferably something that means something to us, something that’s a part of us. It requires vulnerability and soul and thoughts of our own.
I spent years living in Dafen, at least symbolically. I think many, if not most, photographers do the same. We learn our trade there; we take the first steps to mastering our craft there. And if that’s all we want, we can spend our lives there, happily copying the ideas and art of others with increasing perfection. The images will get sharper with time. But they will not come any closer to being yours.
If you want to get really, really good at your craft, stay in Dafen. Go where every photographer is going. Do what they are doing. Put your tripods in their holes in Iceland and the Faroe Islands. Make yet another photograph of the Dead Vlei in Namibia that is indistinguishable from the previous ones. You could become extraordinarily skillful in your craft. But it won’t be art; it won’t be more than just a copy until you leave Dafen.
I suspect many of the craftsmen who live in Dafen do so for much of their lives and they make a living there and find joy in other things; I’m not for a moment trivializing that if that’s enough for them. And it might be—the painters in Dafen are extraordinarily good at their craft. I’m speaking to those who keep putting their brushes to the canvas and wishing with all their souls that they could bring their own thoughts and ideas to the work they create; to the ones who want to explore something more with their paint, who want so badly to try things their way and see if it sticks.
I wanted to write something really practical for you, like “three tips to do this or that,” or “four ways to make something better than it was before.” Those things are helpful, especially as you learn your craft. But I kept coming back to the idea of this place where we tend to camp out and make more of the same because it’s safe and requires little more than that we strive for perfection. And I know many of you want more than that. I want more than that too. I’m hoping this metaphor is helpful to you.
To those of you who do want more and have a frustrated streak of anarchy within you: f*ck the rules. Colour outside the lines. Fill your canvas with blazing colours and leave the muted browns for Leonardo DaVinci. He had his chance. Find your own way. You have one life: do you really want to spend it imitating others?
It takes one thing to leave Dafen: courage. But where will you go? I have no idea. What will you paint if not the Monets and the Dalis and Turners? I haven’t a clue. But whatever it is, it’ll be yours. And there will be wide margins for error and experimentation and exploration: frightening to anyone who’s never made so much as an imperfect brush stroke. It takes courage to point the camera the other way, to trust your own taste, to do more than what is expected. To open yourself up to the world through your art by saying, “Here it is—here I am—take it or leave it,” knowing that far more people than not will choose to leave it.
There’s something different about you. Probably something that kids at school saw right away and teased you about. Likely something (or a collection of things) that you’ve spent considerable effort to hide from the world. They’re the weird-shaped edges you keep trying to iron out, but they’re part of you and are there for good, so they keep springing back. They’re the things that make you feel a bit like a freak. By definition, they’re also what make you extraordinary. Exceptional.
We’re all trying so damn hard to blend in that we have no chance at standing out. And that’s a shame, because if you just let your freak flag fly, you’d find it was that to which people were the most attracted. The real you. The messy you. The you who had the courage to leave Dafen and try it your way. Not to be different, but to be you. Imperfect, weird, intriguing, fantastically human you. That’s the kind of person who makes art, not copies: someone who is truly him or herself, not a copy of someone else.
Practice your craft with all the skill you can muster, but if you want to make more than sharp copies of something you’ve seen before (or just of what you’ve been told a good photograph ought to be), then you’ve got to do it your way. Don’t show me what something looks like: show me what it looks like to you. Show me what you think and feel and imagine. Don’t camp out on craft and copy if you long for more.
I don’t often do disclaimers, but I feel it’s needed here. Dafen is a real place, driven by real economics where real people labour with great skill. I am using Dafen purely as a metaphor, and in the knowledge that in the real world we do what we have to to put food on the table. This article in no way seeks to deny those realities, nor do I mean to imply that there might not be those in Dafen who are doing their own thing and creating art. But as a metaphor, I think it’s helpful. Forgive me if I have oversimplified that metaphor in the interest of making my point. What is important to me is the dignity of the individual, and there are many paths toward that.
PS – Want more like this? I send these articles out every two weeks to photographers around the world who want to improve their craft and explore their creativity and I’d love to include you. Tell me where to send it and I’ll send you a copy of my best-selling eBook Make Better Photographs, as well bi-weekly articles, first-glimpse monographs of my new work, and very occasional news of resources to help you keep moving forward in this craft we love.
“Each and every one of your emails inspire and motivate me to want to jump right out of my chair away from my computer and shoot for the love of it . Thank you David.” – Millie Brown
Like Rollo May, you have a distinctive way of slapping us silly, David.
Since I read May’s “Courage to Create” 3 or 4 years ago, I’ve been trying to do better than living a life in Dafen. Can’t tell you how many times I’ve stood at an iconic location–even in beautiful light– and left the camera in its bag merely because I didn’t have anything I wanted to say and “the world doesn’t need another photograph of that valley. / flower / bird / street / etc.”
It’s a hard creative life to always be so serious in our art-making. We can easily fall prey to paralysis by analysis (see above), which places one in that deep ravine just outside of Dafen.
Your article reminded me that every ravine has a way out, simply by climbing. Thanks again. And I intend to.
Now this is posted on a Creative Cloud group – how appropriate 😉
A well considered item David that touches on what us creatives can easily struggle with, I know I do and I have deliberately not engaged with photo books or internet sites too much … I try to be me and express myself with my images – where ever that takes me!!
Making it pay is the struggle – maybe I need to share more 😉😉
Thank you 🙏🏿
” The art world is a tough place to try to make a living. Until you’re dead, it seems.”
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This is a beautiful story, well told.
thanks for sharing your wisdom and your art, David.
Thank you David for an inspiring article.
My photo buddies and I just happened to be discussing the subject of “creating” vs “imitating”. What are your thoughts about being influenced or inspired by another photo and then creating your own spin on that subject?
By the way our photo club presented some of your photos (the ones you took in Venice during many rainy days) which were really well received. Thank you for sharing them.
Hey Rod – Thanks for the note. When it comes to creativity I think the more honest among us acknowledge that on some level everything is derivative. We steal everything as a starting point because nothing is uniquely ours alone. Some starting points are more obvious than others but go back far enough and they weren’t ours to begin with. What makes it creative is what we do with it. What we bring to the table, how we add to it, take the conversation a step or two further down the line. It is our own spin that is what makes it ours, and I think the more we add to it, or take it in a new direction the more it’s ours – our expression, our exploration, our contribution. Just taking a photograph of a sculpture on the streets is not art. It’s copying. But do so as a person walks in front and creates a juxtaposition, makes a new statement, or raises new questions, that’s creative. Or so I believe. Thanks for the note and the kind words!
A large percentage of photographers I’ve met don’t want to create art or “make” great images, they just want to “take” images and go around shooting those classic views and landmarks we’ve seen thousands times before. And there is nothing wrong with that, if that’s what they want to do and they get enjoyment from it. I don’t make or create images most of the time, I just take them. I have no interest in creating art with my photography 90% of the time. Most photographers have little interest in making a living from these images, therefore the pressure isn’t there to create a unique brand position to stand out and get noticed. Shooting classic landmarks is like collecting stamps, you just stick another one in your album and check the box that you now have it. A rewarding hobby for many!
Yup. I thought I made that clear. For those for whom collecting is enough, that’s totally fine, but “I’m speaking to those who keep putting their brushes to the canvas and wishing with all their souls that they could bring their own thoughts and ideas to the work they create; to the ones who want to explore something more with their paint, who want so badly to try things their way and see if it sticks.” The rest will keep doing what they are doing. I’m just not speaking to them. They don’t need or want what I have to say and I’m good with that.
Thank you. I read this and got a lot of comfort from it at a time when a metaphorical resident of Dafen had thought it was appropriate to give me instructions on how to obtain a balanced exposure
What a wonderfully written piece. Thanks so much for putting this out there. It seems you wrote it just for me. Thank you thank you thank you
I was having trouble with my internet, yet again. When it did start up again I saw your latest email about ‘letting go’. I read it and loved it – I dither on the edge of the ‘normal’ photography and ‘art’ photography. I love experimenting and finding new ways to create an ‘inner world’ based on what we see every day. I personally love the results of such experimentation, others don’t get it at all – it doesn’t matter though, just so long as I look at that image I created and smile. I saw the link to the previous email (‘leaving Dafen’) and immediately identified with it. These last 2 emails have given me the impetus to continue on my merry way producing the images I love not necesarily the images that the public love! I won’t ever make a fortune out of it but keeps my creative spirit alive!
Life is much easier when you’re not worried about what others will think about you.
Excellent article and the metaphor about Dafen illustrates the concept perfectly.
What I keep coming back to in my mind though is that judging by the financial success of the Dafen community, it seems people would rather spend money on a cheap (but well crafted) copy of a masterpiece, than an equally well crafted original by one of these artists. What does that say for us as photographers who want to break free of the craft to pursue the art of photography? Maybe nothing for me, since I’m not trying to make a living with my camera. But for other very fine photographers who make their living that way, it seems the general buying public they rely on for income has very little appreciation of original work. Indeed they would rather hang a mass produced poster print of an Ansel Adams masterwork in their living room than an amazing original landscape by a relatively unknown artist. Why is that?
Why is it? Probably because art is most valuable to those of us who make it. It’s rare that it will ever be the exception and go on to fetch millions at auction, and that’s OK. Ansel Adams is known, he’s a brand, and he’s low-hanging fruit for the uninitiated. The art world is a tough place to try to make a living. Until you’re dead, it seems.
Great post! I love the movement in the photo! Almost looks like a cubist painting.
This is exactly the kick in the butt I needed, thank you!
A fellow blogger sent me here after she read my latest blog post. You see, in it I was saying much the same as your thoughtful post and she thought I’d find yours of interest. She was correct. I began my own blog post with this quote: William Klein said, “Be yourself. I much prefer seeing something, even if it’s clumsy, that doesn’t look like someone else’s work.”
So, in my clumsy way, I hope that at least some of my work doesn’t look like someone else’s work. I’ve often been afraid to share some of my clumsy attempts fearing others may not like what they see or see what I am seeing. With my post I was simply saying that I’m going to embrace how I see things, even if it’s clumsy to someone else.
I really appreciate your post and metaphor. Thank you.
Great piece as always. FWIW, I think art is far more about the artist personally, than about the work; whatever the chosen medium. To misquote someone famous, “art is what artists do”.
Totally agree, Nick!
Great article, always a pleasure to follow your blog: Im looking forward to see your work now when you left Dafen. My personal opinion is that you have left Dafen a long time ago 🙂
Thank you, Kaare!
Thanks so much David for the clarification. I get a feeling where my journey is going to 🙂
But first, I have to finish the Master Your Craft course (two more series to work out) and thereafter I’m already longing to experiment like hell with all my learnings. And the best of all, I really begin to love my photographs more and more. Luckily, I do not need to earn money with them. I just enjoy to hang them as posters in my office.
Thanks, Michael! I can’t wait to see the results of your experiments!
That is the hard part. Being self assured that what you are producing is not total crap and actually worth the effort.
I enter my photos into a few online contests/sites. Not really in any hopes of winning, but because entering makes me go through, assess and process my images (A little weird I know, but I would rather be out shooting (where the joy in this craft resides for me), not processing, and all too often my images languish on the hard drive unless I am driven to process them)
I have noticed on three sites I use that the winners are all glossy, saturated eye candy. Obviously the most popular and thus the most appealing to others. The other site purports to be very artistic, but again largely not images I will ever make. In the absence of any other feedback, it is hard to keep producing the type of thing I like. My stuff will never have mass appeal. Or be held to arty enough to those of artistic demeanor.
So; am I an idiosyncratic artist or just producing dreck?
” In the absence of any other feedback, it is hard to keep producing the type of thing I like” – yup! That’s the struggle. But if you love what you make and you love the process of making it, then make it, share it, and go out and make more. Train your tastes, find some voices that can push you to the next step, and you’ll never lack for something new to struggle with. Welcome to art-making, my friend. 🙂
I have run into the same thing with my photos…noting that the winners of the competitions did not share the same aesthetics that I hold dear. In those cases, I just remember that the Impressionist painters were rejected from the Paris salons at first, their work ridiculed as a mess. And who is remembered and revered now from that time period in painting? The Impressionists. Follow your heart…full steam ahead!
Full steam ahead, indeed! I like your enthusiasm, Lin!