By now it’s clear I like to share things, such as my writing and photographs on this blog, and I believe you should share, too.
As regular readers likely know, I was featured in the “Why I shoot film” series on EMULSIVE about a year ago, shortly after my friends Craig and Andrew were featured, too. Since seeing Craig’s post, I’ve followed them all.
Recently, Kristen Smith (@KristenwaCamera) was finally featured herself. I’ve followed Kristen on Twitter a long time, and her passion for photography borders on obsession. Her energy and curiosity inspire me regularly.
As I read the interview, though, I realized I was hardly familiar with her work at all. She’s digging her way into exploring the concept of “home” and making strides toward learning to convey its meaning to her viewers. I see much potential there, and find myself wishing she shared more.
And then I start to realize there are a lot of people in the film community whose work I wish I knew more of. To Kristen and all those others, this one’s for you. And it’s for me a bit, too — in spite of how many photos I post on this site (around 2,000 now), most do not represent my best work.
Let us suppose first that photography is a form of art, or that it can be. This was not thought to be the case at first, but by the early 20th century the Pictorialism movement was enjoying some success convincing the art world that photography was worthy. To me, whether a given photograph is art requires some understanding of the photographer’s intent when making it, because photographs can be simple record-keeping or a variety of other things. But much of it is, at least in part, art.
Next, let us suppose that art is a form of communication. While this supposition, too, remains the subject of debate, there is a lot of support for the idea that art can be communication. Once again, it is not necessarily so, and a certain amount of intent may affect whether a specific photograph is communicative and how effectively it communicates. I would argue that all successful art conveys a message, though it may not always be the exact message intended by the creator.
At its most basic, communication consists of a sender, a receiver, and a message. There are also means of encoding and decoding, and the medium, in the middle. In the case of photography, we must suppose that the sender is the photographer; the means of encoding are silver salts and paper or plastic (and a lot of chemistry); the medium is the photograph itself in whatever form it takes, be it digital or a physical print; the means of decoding is the receiver’s vision and all the experiences and cultural influences that affect them; and the receiver is the viewer.
The message, of course, is dependent upon the photographer’s intent. What is the photographer trying to convey with an image? A photojournalist might be attempting to share an event of historical or local significance in a form that transmits more information to their viewer than written words can. An artist may be attempting to convey a specific emotion, or another concept of cultural or philosophical importance.
When the photographer successfully creates a photograph that conveys their intended message to the intended viewer, photography succeeds perfectly as a form of communication. When there is a breakdown in any of the six parts of communication, it fails. This could mean the photographer was unsuccessful in committing their intended message to film or to print; that the receiver was unable to discern the message due to cultural or linguistic differences; that the photograph was unsuccessfully transmitted via the medium; that the message wasn’t received at all; or that something else interfered.
The most complete form of breakdown is when the message is not received at all, let alone decoded correctly. And if the message is never sent, a breakdown is assured.
The Unseen Photograph
A photograph made is a message encoded, and the photographer, its sender. A photograph unseen, though, is a message unsent.
Lately I’ve been pondering why I photograph. I imagine if you asked a dozen photographers that, you’d get a dozen different answers.
My answer is that I hope, one day, to assemble a body of work that tells a story (or several stories) about The West, both as it exists today and as we now see the afterimages of how it existed twenty years earlier, or fifty years earlier, or even more. But if I compose that story and never share it with anyone, is it even a story? With a nod to Schrödinger’s cat, I propose that a collection of ideas or photographs, the scenes that make up a story, is only a story in potentia until it is told, at which point it either succeeds or fails to convey the creator’s meaning; until that time, whether it is a story or not is indeterminate.
A photograph unseen by others is similarly indeterminate. It may succeed or fail, but as long as it remains hidden it is only art in potentia.
A famous recent example of this kind of indeterminacy is the story of Vivian Maier, a photographer-nanny in New York and Chicago who died without ever sharing her massive body of work. She became an internet darling and her work stormed the art world after her death, when others bought up Maier’s negatives and began to share them and look into her past. It remains unclear what her intent was when she made the hundreds of thousands of photographs she left behind, and probably will remain a mystery forever. And while some of her photographs appear to be very good, it’s not really possible to discover whether they succeed or fail without some inkling of her intent.
This is not to say that there is no value in creating art for oneself, but there are two ways to think of that.
Some work is created with others in mind, and if it doesn’t align with the interests or message of the creator, it can become tedious. Doing work for hire that doesn’t interest you is a recipe for burnout. You’ll never do your best work, and might even find yourself doing distasteful work, when you’re working only with someone else in mind. It may not even be possible to be true to your own vision, and going against your own interests is anathema to what drives most creatives. The importance of creating work for yourself — work that aligns with your own instincts and with which you are satisfied — is well documented. But creating work for others, whether it satisfies you or not, still is sending a message to whatever audience it’s created for.
Still other work created for oneself is that in which you, the creator, are both the sender and the recipient. Making art that satisfies you and you alone can be the most rewarding kind. And I’m definitely not saying that there is no value in creating something for yourself alone, with no intention of sharing it. Often, even when the final goal is a piece meant to be shared, there may be tests and experiments, and tangential works, that we create for our own education or enjoyment along the way.
But in the end, it’s my contention that we can’t fully achieve our potential without sharing our work. We can see, after all, through only our own eyes. To truly understand our own work, we must learn to see it through the eyes of others.
What you stand to gain
Your instinct upon being challenged to share your work may be immediately to get defensive, concerned that I’m entreating you to put your work out there as bait for trolls and egoists who would rip you to shreds. Nothing could be farther from the truth.
I urge, instead, that you steel yourself against those shallow attacks, and share your work in spite of the threat from self-righteous assholes. You stand to gain far more than you can imagine if you can separate the wheat from that chaff.
The wheat, in this metaphor, is the valuable critique — constructive criticism. Despite the fact that it can be painful to hear someone else tell you that you’ve missed the Decisive Moment, I’m willing to bet that often you already knew, or at least suspected it, before sharing such an image. Hearing from others what you may already have known deep down can help you learn to trust your own instincts more and make you a better self-editor.
When you find it difficult to separate wheat from chaff — or “haterade from productive feedback” — you may find it useful to refer to Ann Friedman’s Disapproval Matrix in order to identify what’s worth your time (and the emotional energy that goes with it) and what isn’t.
Sharing your work with others, in spite of the risk, offers a wealth of possibilities for self-improvement. Beyond improving your ability to select your own best work, you also become armed with a wealth of misfires from which you can learn and improve your technique and your seeing. When your vision and others’ interpretations don’t align, you’ll have an opportunity for self-examination and a chance to see from the viewer’s perspective, both of which can inform your technique and vision as you craft them (for an artist’s vision is ever-changing).
In some cases you may even have missed the most important element of a photograph. You were going for one thing and managed to capture something that works even better without realizing it (see, for example, the photo above of the shoes in front of Audine’s in Arriba, Colo., which I didn’t even see when framing that photograph). There’s no denying that luck can play a part. And it may take someone else’s eyes to point that out sometimes. It’s another opportunity to learn and grow, too.
Furthermore, your work may end up inspiring others. And if it inspires them to pick up a camera, so much the better. Where would you be if those who you find inspiring hadn’t shared their work? I am always thrilled to see others appreciate my work, but if I were to actually inspire someone else, that would be beyond my imagining.
If you’re hoping to sell your work, be aware that you can’t sell something no one knows about. You must, in that case, not only share your work, but take that a step further and market both your work and yourself. In addition, understanding the reactions of others can help you to better understand the audience for your work as you develop your sense of your viewers.
As time goes on, sharing your work with others can help you adjust your direction on a long project, or narrow your focus if your intended subject turns out to be too broad. By synthesizing the opinions of others you can mentally poll their interpretations and change course when you recognize what’s working and what isn’t.
Through all of this, though, don’t ignore negative or unexpected feedback. It’s easy to outright dismiss things that seem totally off-base, but if they are anything other than worthless trolling, you’d be best served to at least consider them for a moment. Dispassionately reflecting on the wide variety of reactions you’ll get can serve to help you avoid building an echo chamber; if all the feedback you’re getting is sycophantic and disingenuous flattery, you risk becoming full of yourself and losing your valuable self-doubt.
In spite of that, some positive feedback is always nice. Especially if it helps you find the positive in work about which you had misgivings, it may help fuel your aspiration and motivate you. In the best circumstances, sharing can kindle an ongoing discourse with viewers; a self-sustaining conversation that offers more insight as you continue to improve and share new work. At worst, others’ ideas may act as a kind of external brainstorming session that can at least give you new ideas.
Most of all, sharing forces you to learn a modicum of humility and develop your open mind, without which you will eventually self destruct. Sharing leads to learning and improvement, which leads to further sharing, which leads to… you get the point. Each act of sharing gets you something that can’t be gotten again; the exact moment and circumstances and viewer and the work you share form a decisive moment of their own unlike any other opportunity for growth you’ll ever have.
We are our own harshest critics most of the time. While the last thing we generally want from a critique is to have smoke blown up our skirts, it can occasionally be nice to hear that our work is appreciated by others. Ignore the haters, listen to the thinkers who ofter thoughtful criticisms, and let yourself occasionally bask in the praise.
In the interest of fairness, I invite any and all critique of the five images attached to this post in the comments below. Please, pick them apart and help me improve my next batch!