Tuesday, May 26, 2009

On Ambition and the Photographic Lifestyle

Bryan Formhals, over at La Pura Vida where he has a history of featuring interesting and relevant commentary, made a post responding to a quote by Blake Andrews, which I’m reprinting here:

“The photography-integrated-into-life method is decidedly unfashionable. The huge majority of photographers I saw at Photolucida were more project oriented. The prevailing model is to develop a concept of something that has photographic potential —often of personal interest but not always— and then methodically take photographs of that project until a body of work is created, with the ultimate goal of showing the work at Photolucida or similar venue.

The potential pitfall of this method is that the resulting photographs can seem secondary to the project. Often the artist statement conveys all the information required and you needn’t look at more than a few photos to get the gist of it. Such projects may be appropriate for the idea-centric art world but they enslave photography as a tool, not a lifestyle.

I think photographs should come first.  Arrange them in projects later if you must or else leave them as is in a big loose stack. Either way, photography that is integral to life seems to me to be the strongest because it comes from purest motivation: the very simple need to translate the world into photographs. Of course I am biased because this how I approach my own work, but it’s what I like to see in others too.”

This is something I have run into while reviewing portfolios myself, as well as being the subject of portfolio reviews. I think it may be considered obvious by some, but it’s important that it is still pointed out. It’s almost like no one talks about it because it’s so obvious. It’s just “the way things are.”

Bryan responds:

“Put simply, I don’t think the fine art photography establishment has much respect for [the non-project based] photographic philosophy or method (look at the general derision toward street photography and family photography for example).  I know plenty of studious, intelligent photographers out there who treat photography as a way of life  and don’t have any sort of fine art ambition.

Maybe that’s what it comes down to: ambition.  I have this feeling, one I certainly can’t prove scientifically, but somehow I think having an ambition to make it in the fine art world interferes with your photographic intuition to some degree.  There’s a danger that the conceptual part of your brain and eye will smother the intuitive part.  Is there a way to find a balance?  Of course.  Do I have any idea how? Nope, but I do think mixing the vernacular, “integrated-into-life method” with the project method can lead to some very exciting photography.  But will the fine art world pay attention?”

While there is an extensive history of recognized fine artists working with a diarist approach to photography, Bryan is referring specifically to our current commercial art world, dominated by photography contests and portfolio reviews.

It’s a fair question and one I felt warranted response. I left a comment there, but I’m reprinting it here as a way of inviting you to keep the discussion ongoing.

I think even with ambition, there is often a wall you hit.

I know I’ve had trouble explaining to people that a project is about visual sensibility. Often they want a quick subject: “I shoot heroin addicts” etc.

Like, with Gray Days, it really is a more poetic sequence, about the images themselves, not about subjects.

The art world is dominated, for the most part, by a fanatical adoration of subject (so work can be easily promoted and blurbed about) and object (as in the actual salable print or sculpture, etc.)

So basically, art “projects” tend to be about some “interesting” subject, in a series of a manageable length, lets say 10-20 pieces, which can be split up and sold as singular objects with assigned value.

When people talk about the art, they talk about the prints themselves, creating this value based upon less interesting aspects such as size or edition, or more ethereal criteria like “quality.”

When someone’s photographic career is discussed, “What do you shoot?” might be the most common early question. “What do you shoot with?” is probably a close second. Almost immeasurably rarer is “How do you shoot?” The answer is often a lot more interesting, though.

Concerning “what,” the photographic subject is often a player in a game of “bet you haven’t seen this before,” a game that only retains it’s excitement as long as “new” or “exotic” subjects are successively displayed for your viewing pleasure. The second question, asked more often by technical junkies (or a lensbro, as illustrated above), is usually only interesting to said equipment-aware inside crowd.

The third question, which I think should be asked more, helps us learn how others see, how they perceive. When people ask this question, my attention is held for longer, I become inquisitive about their mode of living, their subjective reality. Variations on this question: “How do you see?” or “Why do you shoot?”

So, a conversation at a portfolio review often follows a predictable formula.

“What do you shoot/shoot with?” followed by a discussion based upon subject + project = object.

The job of the photographer in this situation is to find and then pitch the subject, which they then do a project about, transforming the subject into an object that can be consumed and sold in a commercial setting, the gallery. Obviously there are variations, but 90% of the conversations between reviewer and photographer follow that kind of organization.

As I mentioned above, the problem with this approach is that the interest to the viewing public is almost a literal translation from the original objects pictured. I’ve often felt, in a gallery, that it would be more interesting to just have the still lives displayed as installations, the people in front of me to talk to, the actual subjects themselves, even with contemporary photography that’s quite “successful.”

The photographer often reacts: “But that’s impossible, I can’t bring that stuff in. And then it wouldn’t be something I created anyhow!” Well, maybe you can’t, but others do. It’s not impossible. They have, they did. People are putting up installations and performances and taking viewers to the interest right now. Maybe you should think of yourself as a curator instead, if that helps – you just have to do what is most interesting.

So what’s so special about photography? Photography is about the individual vision, whether it’s concerned with controlling context, aesthetic interpretation, etc. It’s not really about the subject, at least it can’t be just the subject that’s interesting.

This is, often, the same reason I’m not as interested in lifestyle work – it would be more interesting to actually be living that lifestyle than looking at pictures of it, and since many of those situations are actually within reach (party photography, drugs photography, a fair amount of sex photography), why would I be looking at photographs of some other people doing drugs and being cool when I’m already bored with it in real life? Or could be doing it myself at that moment, instead?

So I’m more interested in people who photograph because they are interested in what photography does. How it helps them understand their world, how it helps them organize, or find mystery, or express their mood. To an extent, every photographer understands this, but not enough allow it to be their primary creative force (as the quotes above talk about.) Regardless of their individual approach, a personal vision is so important.

The Bechers shot silos, yes, but the way they shot them was what was interesting. No one cares about silos, not really. They care about the idea of cateloges, the idea of grids, the idea of a centered and organized vision. Terry Richardson shoots sex, sure, but it’s his vision that moves with a particularly succesful brand of asshole. Eggleston, Goldin, even Ansel Adams in his way, though outdated in the importance he places on the print.

It’s a tradition that started, like all photography, in the dark rooms, and has been in the galleries for generations, but does seem strangely separate from the “emerging artist” culture we see at events like Photolucida. Maybe we are all trying too hard to be organized, to sum up our life’s work in a speed dating situation.

Many of the people who do amazing things on the net, often flickr but not always, care more about this mood, life, or overall sensibility that comes out of a body of images. For many of these artists, the print fetishism of prior generations just doesn’t exist. It doesn’t matter how many times pieces are reproduced, and while many have the ability to create a good print or beautiful book, they print their work in zines, post it on blogs, hand it out in any way possible.

I love this way of working, and I think self publishing places like Blurb can be used to add a little more permanence to these publications, but I don’t see it necessarily even wanting to become the art/gallery world as it is.

A lot of this comes from the art school, where we are constantly asked to do projects, but the art school mode comes from the commercial world, since they are trying to train us to be viable.

In some ways, it’s totally positive. They want us to get in the mindset of constantly doing work so we don’t fall out of it after we graduate. On the flip side, it tends to burn out and frustrate people who would rather be working with longer periods of more organic creativity.

To be fair, portfolio review events are invaluable for the introductions they make – but they only show that value through ongoing relationships. Likewise, it is important to be able to recognize your subject matter and give it the attention it deserves. I just think it doesn’t need to be the primary obsession – the actual act of image making, the understanding of what images do, should take that role.

Anyway, there will be a balance. Commercial spaces with lots of funding will be able to continue to taut their bookings as highly influential and important, and blogs like this one will continue to feature work by people found at the edges of the art world, but only time will really tell what the most important photographic trends are right now. I think a good deal of them are these more home-brewed projects that tend to find their way into the public consciousness.

Further discussion and response:

Jörg Colberg at Conscientious

Bryan Formhals at La Pura Vida

Camden Hardy’s Blog

posted by Ian Aleksander Adams at 11:20 pm