Ever since I took a short online course in photographic aesthetics through MOMA, I’ve found myself going over and over the reasons why I take pictures.
There are plenty of alternatives. To garner acclaim, through display or competition entries (and winnings if lucky). To document my life. To transform my view of the world. To express, through choice and technique, a particular vision. To keep myself busy. To encourage me to visit new places. To look again at familiar places. To accumulate images to manipulate digitally. To generate artifacts. To play with chemistry. To put pictures up on the web, here and elsewhere. To be seen. To see.
All of these elements – and more – play some part. But perhaps the most pronounced divide that affects my photography is that between the social and the personal. Bridging this is the most difficult aspect of my art and one that I have not yet fully achieved.
How does this play out? Firstly through expectations. When I photograph with a social purpose in mind, essentially an image that is placed for public display, I find myself caught in a conundrum. Do I put out images that I know people will like? Or do I put out images that I like, even though there is no guarantee anyone else will? This relates crucially back to the making of the photograph. Am I making a piece that is deliberately crowd friendly? Or am I making a piece that is truly meaningful to me?
In the early days of my photography this question never really arose. My improvements were all technical and I was proud of them as such. I was learning how to make a photograph. As such, I frequently emulated what was out there and was satisfied with the emulation. But as time went by and I became more assured that I could make a technically competent photograph, it was no longer enough to emulate. Even when such emulations garnered a lot of praise, often from fellow photographers. Technique was no longer enough. Praise was no longer enough. Indeed, I began to become distrustful of both, realising that I was becoming boxed into a set of expectations.
This is how it stands today. Because I have become suspicious of the social aspects of photography, I do not enjoy making social photographs. Even though, for example to enter and maybe win competitions, social photographs are more likely to succeed and be judged successes. Instead my art has become more introspective, moving in directions away from the mainstream (such as embracing the niche interest of film photography). Whatever technical accomplishments I have gained remain, but my work is moving ever more towards the personal and my own peculiar set of passions and involvements.
I might still feel deeply unsettled and uncomfortable about this, ever nagged by the desire to fit in to some perceived standard of what photography should be, were it not for the insights provided by that dip into the world of photographic art. Successful art – the best successful art – works according to its own particular vision, a vision that is often at odds with prevailing fashions and fads. The greatest artists have always been willing to transcend expectation. It’s this insight that is helping me integrate into a coherent concept of what and who I am as a photographer. As I indicated at the beginning of this post, I’m not there yet. That’s why I am writing this! But I will get there, even if it is at some cost (like pulling myself away from seductively pleasing social interactions that work to undermine my particular vision by fostering conformity under the banner of excellence). Ultimately, everything boils down to what do you want out of your photography? Love of process – yes. Acclaim – yes, but with many caveats. Permanence – yes, but with no expectation of recognition of such, a contradictory concept I know. A historical record – absolutely. Artistry – yes, yes, yes.
A convoluted and perhaps over-thought analysis. In truth, my photography is simply an expression of my own character. I am and have always been an outsider. Whenever I get in with the in-crowd, I want out. I feel suffocated by conformity and expectation. Social success provides seconds of pleasure and a lingeringly bitter aftertaste. All I really need to do is to accept and acknowledge this. The art will follow.