In many ways I am the stereotypical amateur photographer.
An older white male. A collector of camera equipment. Compensated sufficiently elsewhere that I never have to rely on my photography to generate an income. A potential dilettante who takes just enough interest in the art to move me out of that category yet not really enough to move me into the photographic artist league.
Just like thousands, I might say, tens, even hundreds of thousands, of my fellow photographers.
Is this a bad thing?
Yes, if I really want to be taken seriously as an artist. No, if I simply want to enjoy what I do with a camera.
That’s the issue. I inhabit the borderline between these two options, never really settling into either.
Why is this? Why does this divide even exist?
Much of it has to do with how I, or others, define an ‘artist’. An artist has a vision, something to say. Something, moreover, than can be articulated and placed into the context of a philosophy of art.
But there’s more to it, isn’t there? There’s the problem of audience.
Art is requires a creator and a viewer (or listener, or any other sense). Without that audience, is it art at all (a corollary to the famous ‘tree falls in a forest and no one hears it’ conundrum’)?
These days, thanks in large part to the internet and photograph sharing sites, it’s almost laughably easy to get an audience. This ease is seductive. The problem is that this audience, as measured by number of visits or likes or comments, is such a pronounced source of ‘strokes’ (to use the language of transactional analysis) that whatever art you produce becomes biased towards the accumulation of this acclaim. And in doing so, it becomes homogeneous, lacking in differentiating qualities, accumulating instead an abundance of trigger aspects that ultimately speak far more to the audience’s expectations and preconceptions than to any vision derived from the artist’s own imagination.
But strokes are important. We all desire them. The question is – how much? I’m fortunate that other aspects of my life, work, family, other hobbies and interests, provide plenty of satisfaction. I feel no overriding compulsion to be praised for my photography. Yet – naturally enough – I still like it when I am.
It’s this psychological conflict – the twin yet often opposite desires to be liked and to be true to a certain way of looking at the world that I find meaningful – that can derail my motivation when it comes to photography. A tortured artist sounds romantic but most often it simply means an unproductive artist.
So how do I – or you – overcome this?
Firstly, you really have to decide which side the equation really motivates you. Are in the game to be praised or in it to express some idea or concept that really concerns you? Ironically, it’s actually much easier to go the ‘praise’ route – all you need to do is find the paradigm that generates the most popular acclaim and milk it for all you are worth. If you are technically accomplished, it comes even easier. Of course, the price you pay is the loss of originality and an outlook that you might consider to be truly personal, but that may not matter.
The other approach is just as likely to leave you in the wilderness as it is to gather acclaim. Ironically technical accomplishment is largely irrelevant here; what matters far more is imagination and a creative impulse. Skill with a camera will help you fine tune your vision, but without the vision to start with it’s not going to substitute for substance. Furthermore it’s only sustainable with a very healthy ego, a strong belief in the rightness of what you are doing. Not many of us have that to begin with, let alone the strength to sustain it over a lifetime of creativity.
Maybe that’s why out of the thousands or even millions of photography enthusiasts worldwide, there are really not that many that one might call artists. For every well-known and successful art photographer, there are hundreds languishing in obscurity. Deserved in some cases, perhaps, less so in others.
But even the undeserving (through a combination of lack of imagination, vision, skill and originality) get credit for trying. Their results may only please their creators – and that’s enough. It’s easy to get caught up in the intellectual analysis of art and forget that photography is functional too. As a record of people, place and events. A visual diary of people’s lives. That is important – maybe more important, in truth.
And therein lies the true significance of the title. It’s worth remembering when I find myself getting too involved. Sometimes art need to be artless.