Post from April, 2012

To Make Good Art, Find Your Type and Embrace It

Sunday, 29. April 2012 23:38

Last weekend, I was cameraman for an acting-for-film workshop. Among the issues that came up were questions and suggestions about auditioning and getting jobs. The instructor advised students to learn what type(s) they were and then go after roles that were that type. She went on to say that actors should be comfortable with what types they can and cannot play believably.

Her basis for all of this was that film is an intensely visual medium so it is very useful to know how you come across on camera. This enables you to go for roles that “fit” you physically, which means that you can be visually convincing for your audience. At the same time she said that the camera will pick up your personality whether you want it to or not, so it makes more sense to admit that your personality informs your work.

Essentially her advice was to find out who you are and who you can be and embrace that. It seems to me that this simple instruction might be sound advice for any artist in any medium. Perhaps those of us who are not actors need to discover who we are as artists and embrace that and let it inform all that we do artistically.

Perhaps then we can actually make art that represents us and our world view and our values and emotions and all of those things that we were going to do when we first started. And that would guarantee that we would put ourselves into our work. Perhaps then we can allow ourselves to ignore the fusillade of advice that bombards us daily about how to sell our work, how to advance our careers, how to modify what we do so it will better fit the marketplace.

But then what about those careers? How are we to sell what we make if all we do is make art that represents and pleases ourselves? The workshop instructor’s answer to this question was, “Money follows bliss,” another version of the more familiar “Money follows passion.” As simplistic as it sounds, almost every career guide echoes this idea. If we are blissful or passionate doing what we do, it is likely that that will come through, and we will do a better job and create better artifacts. And it is equally likely that viewers of our work will see the quality and the passion and reward us.

If we try to be all things to all people or if we try to produce whatever is trending in the marketplace, we do a disservice to ourselves and to our talent. And we may find that if we wander too far from our own “type” of art, from who we are, our work can become confused, unconvincing, forced, or trivial.

This certainly does not mean that we cannot change. Most of us do change; many of us evolve. Some of us care about different things at different times; those changes can certainly be reflected in our work. Others of us have much the same interests and concerns that we had decades ago, but we may develop new ways to express those concerns and interests. Regardless of who we are or how we express ourselves, what is important is that we allow ourselves to create work that reflects us, and does so honestly.

None of this means that we can disregard auditions or juried shows or gallery exhibitions or having an internet presence or networking. But it does mean that that we can believe in what we are presenting, that we know what we are offering is real and valuable and genuine—and ours. It may take a little longer to find our audience that way, but we can and we will.


Category:Audience, Creativity, Originality | Comment (0) | Author:

What’s Important – the Image or the Artifact?

Monday, 23. April 2012 1:28

An acquaintance of mine recently declared that he was going to hang no more prints in his home; from now on it was to be only originals. To me this means that there will be no more lithographically printed images on his walls, but only things created by the artist. It also means that those pieces hanging on his wall will be one-of-a-kind. But I wondered what this person would do with regard to photographs. What constitutes an “original” in photography is open to discussion, if not debate.

Photographic prints do not have the uniqueness that hand-drawn or painted pieces have. This is particularly true of digital prints, which can be reproduced infinitely, with each print being just as good as the previous one. What then constitutes an “original” photograph?

There are several responses to this question. The first is to issue prints in limited editions, a procedure used by many fine art photographers. The number of prints in an issue is fixed, but different series of different sizes or formats may exist. Generally the purchasing public relies on the photographer’s integrity to guarantee the originality and scarcity of limited edition prints they might buy. Some US states have laws that regulate photography editions; some do not.

This procedure is not without its difficulties. One of these came to the fore recently when a collector sued renowned photographer William Eggleston after Eggleston created a new issue of images that had previously been printed and sold as limited editions. The new images were of a different size and printed using a different process. At stake, according to the lawsuit, is the value of the original collector’s images; he maintains that the new issue has devalued the prints he owns.

The problem gets a little cloudier with open editions, that is, editions that are essentially infinite. Then whether it is an original or not usually depends on some rules of thumb, such as whether the photographer actually printed or directed the printing of the image, or whether was it done by someone else or after the fact.

The second response to the problem of original photography is to somehow create a unique artifact. There have been two articles in photography trade magazines in recent months on making encaustic photographs, one about a photographer who uses the process and one how-to article. Even though each piece is based on the same digital print, each is unique because of the manual encaustic process used. Thus each is an original, and some would say much more than a photograph.

There are other solutions. Some photographers, like Gregori Maiofis, make prints using archaic and complicated chemical process which induce small differences print to print. This guarantees that each image in a limited edition is original.

Also recently I had a conversation with an instructor of print-making who had spent an entire semester working with a graduate student developing a process by which photographs could be used as a basis for creating plates for intaglio printing. Since each print is hand pulled and because of the unavoidable variations in every printing, each image would essentially be an original.

On the other end of the spectrum are photographers who celebrate the infinite reproducibility of the digital image.  Counted among the reproducibility advocates are those who appreciate the giclée, a reproduction of a hand-drawn or painted image. Digital files are made from the originals; then reproductions are produced using a giclée printer. Some are accepting of giclées because of their quality; some consider them mere copies. The advantage of any digital reproduction is, of course, that the image can be duplicated in an affordable format.

Money and quality are always issues, but the question really is are you interested in image only, regardless of how it was created, or do you want to own an “original” artifact?

Category:Originality, Photography | Comment (0) | Author:

Should Provocative Art Carry a Warning Label?

Monday, 16. April 2012 0:09

In case you were not aware, Houston has been home to the Fotofest Biennial for 26 years. The festival turns the entire city into one huge photographic art studio. And there are as well a number of activities both for photographers and viewers. Usually I try to get to as many of the spaces (97 this year) as I can. So yesterday a friend and I wandered through several spaces looking at contemporary Russian photography.

Every time I visit Fotofest, I come away with new ideas, feelings, and opinions. This is not a recounting of this year’s—I’m not done yet. Rather it is a look at one incident that occurred yesterday. Reactions to most of the images we saw were fairly predictable: liked some, disliked others; appreciated some, not others; discussed some, left others uncommented.

Then we got to a piece named “Abortion.” The piece was series of nine or ten photographic images of a young woman undergoing an abortion. The photographer had then drawn on the photographs and made notes (in Russian, of course). The images were numbered and then placed out of sequence.

My friend said, “This piece tests the limits of open-mindedness. I think that I am offended. There should be a warning sign.” She went on to say that you consider yourself open-minded and then you see something that goes over the line—and you didn’t even know that there was a line. She acknowledged that art had provoked her before, but this offended her. That, she declared, was a unique experience because it was the first time in her life that she had ever been offended. And she didn’t quite know what to do with the experience.

Later conversations revolved around whether photographing something, drawing and making notes on it, arranging it, and hanging it on a wall constituted art and on the photographer’s intention. We agreed that we couldn’t decide exactly what the he was trying to do. Although the piece certainly had impact, it was not a convincing anti-abortion piece, nor was it effective pro-abortion propaganda. It was not reportage. Perhaps not being able to read Russian was preventing us from understanding. This, however, was not an issue with other images and series of images we saw that day.

But my mind kept going back to her comment that there should have been a sign. The images were too small and placed too high on the wall to be examined by young children, but the question of adults was something else entirely. How is one to determine whether the art you make will be offensive to someone when there are so many people who are easily offended?

Or is this a curatorial issue? Many theatres will warn audience members when the subject matter or language of a play is considered “adult.” Movies, at least in the US, have ratings. Both of these approaches allow potential viewers to make more informed choices about whether to see the work or not. And I have been to exhibitions of visual art (usually photographic) that have a sign notifying those about to enter that the images will be graphic or explicit or whatever. I’m sure that some people appreciate such warnings. It would seem odd, however, to label individual pieces with such warnings.

Although I have made up my mind, whether the piece was art or not is certainly open for debate, as is the question of whether it is good art. It did do one of the things that I think art should do: provoke the viewer. I don’t think this is the only legitimate goal of art, but it is certainly one of them. And if it provokes to the point of offence, maybe it’s something you shouldn’t see, but then, maybe it is. And if it teaches you that there are limits to what you are willing to view, then perhaps that is useful information.

There are things that we all prefer not to look at, but perhaps, once in a while, confronting something that makes us uncomfortable may not be a terrible thing.

What do you think?

Category:Aesthetics, Audience, Photography | Comments (3) | Author:

Separate Yourself: Maintain Your Artistic Vision

Monday, 9. April 2012 0:43

One of the things that separates the artist from the rest of the world is his/her vision. As Jason tweets, “Anyone can pick up a camera and make a photo. A photographer expresses a vision.” This is true of painters, poets, novelists, playwrights, sculptors movie-makers, song-writers. This is also what separates the “one-hit wonder” from the working artists who continue to produce month after month.

There are two main problems with artistic vision. One is making work that does not match you vision. I once worked with an actress who was upset to the point of tears that she was not connecting with the role the way she wanted to. She talked about how sometimes she just couldn’t get there, and it didn’t matter what others thought; what mattered was what she thought. She had discovered the truth that was perhaps put best by Nobel Laureate Isaac Bashevis Singer when he said “Every creator painfully experiences the chasm between his inner vision and its ultimate expression.”

The point is not so much that you don’t get there, but that you try with everything in you to realize your vision. I’m pretty sure that you never do. At least I have never known an artist who was able to. Sometimes we come close, occasionally very close, but we almost never fully realize our vision. And knowing that, we still press forward. We begin every project hoping that this time we will achieve our vision, regardless of what experience has taught us. And often we get closer, so we do it again and again and again.

The second problem with an artist’s vision is maintaining it in the face of innumerable distractions and pressures. Photographer Stephen Salmieri says, “In a medium which is so profuse with ideas and techniques and technologies constantly invented, I found it necessary to cut a clear and precise path to chart my trajectory and to keep my ideas consistent and in the forefront.” Even those whose art does not involve cutting-edge technology face similar problems. There is always a new technique, a new pigment, a new material, a new approach.

Now add other pressures and distractions: networking, maintaining a presence on social media; establishing a career path, dealing with the current emphasis on sales and marketing. And all of these areas have sub-areas that also need attention.

The real trick is to maintain your vision. It is easy to change the direction of what you are doing because “your skills would fit nicely into that niche” or “your audience would like your work better if you just changed this or that” or “you could really make a fortune if you only. . .” The problem is that in each of these cases, you are not only modifying your art, you are creating an even larger distance between your vision and your art. Or you may be modifying your vision itself.

Being an artist can be frustrating. First, you have to deal with the gap between your vision and your art. Then you have to deal with forces that pressure you to modify your vision or distract you from it.

Before you begin to waver, look at some other artists who have had similar pressures. Singer-songwriter Harry Chapin, for example, refused to modify his “too-long” ballads despite of pressure from radio stations. Did he suffer financially? Maybe, but when he passed away, he was, according to his widow, “supporting 17 relatives, 14 associations, seven foundations and 82 charities.”  There are others who have held to their vision; likely they are the artists you respect.

Maintaining your vision and working to express it are not easy things, but necessary. Your vision is what makes your art your art.

Category:Creativity, Originality | Comments (1) | Author:

To Make Great Art You have to be Fearless

Sunday, 1. April 2012 23:29

One of the biggest problems for any artist is fear. Fear goes by a lot of names: self-doubt, insecurity, hesitancy, self-protection, risk-aversion, being realistic. And it has many consequences: we procrastinate, we revise rather than release, we decline to enter shows, we don’t send manuscripts to publishers, we refuse to consider marketing, and then we spend our time rationalizing why our work is not getting out there.

In its more severe forms this syndrome can result in the work never even getting done. After all, what is the point of making art if no one is going to see it, rather, what is the point of making art if we’re not going to show it to anyone? So digital images don’t get printed or even taken, stories don’t get written, that piece of sculpture in our heads never advances beyond the sketch stage, the movie exists only in a partial screenplay. The list goes on.

All of this is natural. We want to protect our art. It is, after all, ours, and we know it is fragile. It’s much easier to think this way than to admit the truth: we are fragile and we are so bound up to our work that we often can’t tell the difference. We must protect ourselves. And the two easiest methods of protecting ourselves is to show our work to a very limited set of viewers who will say nice things, or to not show our work to anyone at all. We can just look at it ourselves, or, sometimes, just think about what it would be like if we actually made it.

There are very few artists who have not experienced at least one form of this fear; some have experienced it in all its forms. It is what keeps visual artists entering the same local juried shows and not attempting regional or national opportunities; it is what prevents actors from fully realizing the characters they are trying to create; it is what stops the screenwriter from pitching his/her latest work to anyone other than the friend who wants to produce; it is what causes the composer to play his latest creation only for family and a few friends.

This is a very real, serious problem for a lot of artists. Fear, in one or more of its incarnations, has been the occasion for a number of articles, blog posts, and even books. Writers from Julia Cameron to Seth Godin have discussed it and have offered solutions. Just this past week two articles appeared online. One on Virtual Photography Studio is called “Is the ‘F’ Word Creeping Into Your Business and Personal Life?” which discusses the impact of fear on both your work and your life. The other is “Overcoming Doubt and Fear” on Empty Easel. In this article, Aniko Makay discusses her way of dealing with artistic doubts and fears.

If these articles or the authors mentioned don’t tell you what you need to know, there are plenty of others out there. Just google “overcoming fear” or “overcoming insecurity.” You might consider the following method; it may seem a bit simplistic upon first reading, but it can, in fact, help.

  • Name the risk. This sometimes is not as easy as it sounds.
  • Imagine the worst case scenario of taking the risk.
  • Decide if you can live with that.
  • Imagine the best case scenario of taking the risk.
  • Decide if you can live with that.
  • If you can live with both outcomes, you can live with anything in between. Take the risk.

Given the individual artist, some risks may not worth taking, but many are. We just need to recognize that. Often we get into a cycle of worrying about potential outcomes and not moving forward with our work. It’s an easy cycle to fall into. But taking risks is something that we have to learn to do. To make art we have to be fearless.




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