I have always thought of photography, or any other art I can think of, as a communications vehicle. The artist has something to say, and wants to say it to an audience. The audience gains something from the art, in the case of photography, from seeing the work. The photographer gains satisfaction, even if she receives no feedback from the audience. With such feedback, a powerful dynamic can occur. The audience is moved by the work; the artist can be moved by that reaction. It’s a win-win on what can be a deeply emotional and possible spiritual level.
Does that sound like something for a few privileged, lucky, and genetically-talented wunderkind? Dial the prose back a notch, and it’s something that everyone making photographs can enjoy, if they work at it. More on that later.
If you are unsure of your abilities, it can be hard to work up the courage. I’ve been doing photography for so long that I have no shyness there. However, I’m sure that I can relate to people who do. Until arthritis made me stop, I was a bad guitar player and a worse singer. My voice teacher used to encourage me to find places to perform. I never got past friends and family. I was acutely aware of my lack of talent, and, except in the most intimate of situations, that caused stage fright, diminishing my meager abilities even further. Still, when I could struggle through all that, I was satisfied in a way far beyond what I’d have been playing and singing to an empty room.
Photographers have an advantage over performance artists. It doesn’t matter how nervous you are; that’s not going to affect the images (although flipping through a stack on an easel with trembling hands may give you away).
You don’t have to start big. First, your family and close friends. Email is fine, but try to show some real prints, too. Then, Facebook, Instagram, or a simple web site. Then local businesses. First, offices: they always need decorations on their walls, and might be happy to have yours, at least for a few weeks. Then, more public spaces like restaurants. Enter photo contests, particularly ones with exhibitions where you can meet people who are seeing your work for the first time. Whatever path you choose, there are people who will want to see what you’ve done. It doesn’t have to be just Internet images and prints on a wall, either. Print-on-demand books, homemade books, and small portfolios are all great. Heck, coffee mugs, T-shirts, and calendars are fine, too.
There’s a huge bonus for you, too. Preparing images for a family occasion, a show, or a contest it a powerfully motivating experience. It will make you work harder, give you more focus, and make you a better photographer.
Maybe applying the word “art” to your photography makes you nervous. Maybe you think of yourself as a photographic journeyman. I claim that anyone is capable of making art, but let’s set that aside. There are churches, charities, and sports teams, community endeavors all over that would like a volunteer photographers. I’ll bet you already are connected to some of these. Offer them your services. Contribute pictures for web pages, newsletters, posters, press releases, and whatever else needs them. Get used to delivering an image under pressure. That’ll help your photography, too. Michael Kenna says that his time as a commercial photographer was really important in his career as an artist. You’ll do some good, get feedback, and get the satisfaction of communicating with your photography.
Now we get to the “or is it?” part.
I’ve always thought of photography as a communication process. Just like a composer needs performers, and performers need an audience, so does a photographer, right? But just this morning in a photographic forum, I encountered someone who doesn’t share his work with anyone except for a Flickr account with disabled comments. This person is concerned with resolution to the point where he thinks that the difference between a 42 MP camera and a 50 MP one is important to his photography. But he never prints. They only person who ever gets to see those 50 MP that are so important to him is him, on his 4K (about 8 MP) monitor.
To each his own, I suppose, but I feel sorry for the guy. He’s missing out on the satisfaction that comes from communicating with photography. He’s missing the external motivation. He’s missing the feedback, which can be intensely gratifying, but also clarifying, instructive, and can change your viewpoint and your work. It’s a bad idea to try to give your audience what you think they want, but I’ve hardly ever come away from an interaction with someone about my work without new insights.
This is a technology-heavy blog. That’s my bent. But for me, and I hope for you, the technology is only useful as a means to make better images, and better doesn’t mean more technically perfect, it means images that express your vision better. Insisting on 50 MP images so that they’ll look a bit sharper than 42 MP ones – a 9% resolution difference – when you’re pixel-peeping on a monitor at images that no one else will ever see seems empty and sad to me.
Mike Nelson Pedde says
I’ve often said that a Holga, a P&S, cell phone, DSLR and a Phase One IQ3-100 can be used to make good images, but I wouldn’t expect to make the SAME images with all of them. My TLR is important to me BECAUSE of its format and limitations. It forces me to think and work in a much different way than a camera with a 70-200mm lens or the ~28mm equivalent lens on my phone.
I appreciate it when someone appreciates my work, but I don’t shoot for them. I shoot for me. Similarly, I’ve seen work that makes me cringe, but I wouldn’t call it bad photography… just not for me. I think the best advice for beginning for photographers is to look at others’ work and go beyond the like/don’t like, 2-second response. Ask what you like or don’t like, how the photographer achieved that, what you would do differently and how you might use that approach in your own work. And then apply that same analysis to their own work. Don’t settle for mediocre; be the best you that you can be. ☺
P. S. As for that Flickr photographer, this might be relevant: http://www.naturephotoguides.com/blog/photo-consumption-conformity
I think everyone can benefit from feedback at some point (it depends on who’s giving the feedback, and it can also have a reverse effect), but the message someone sends in a photograph might not necessarily be to a large audience, it might be to a specific audience or it might just be to themselves to help them remember a place they visited.
You’ve compared a live performance (playing guitar) with something pre-recorded (a photograph). If you were to let your family watch you take a photograph or even if you were to take a photograph of your family, you’d still risk the effects of nervousness.
You can show photographs that have already been taken and printed, but comparing that experience with a live guitar performance is unfair in my opinion. It is comparable to handing someone a CD and standing in the room while they listen to it. A photography seminar would be comparable to a live guitar performance.
Nervousness is always going to affect the photograph. It might be the lack of courage to get close to a dangerous wolf, to ask a model for a specific pose or something else altogether. I mention this point because I don’t think your article quite portrays how much nervousness can affect photography; however, you’re talking about the final print, so it might seem like I am taking what you’ve said out of context. We’re all different, too. Personally I’d feel more comfortable in front of a deadly snake than I would taking a group photograph.
In summation, I believe it’ll affect the process (arguably more so for certain types of photography) but not the act of showing someone a final print. We’re sort of comparing apples and oranges; your article is mostly about displaying the final print.
There’s also familiarity to take into consideration. It’s easy to assume something takes less confidence when you’ve had years of practise or experience. For a lot of hobbies, 10,000 hours, drive and interest outweighs genetic lotteries. For things like singing, I think it is definitely a bit of a genetic lottery.
I too am very technical, and I think that the technical side and the artistic side often get mixed together on forums. It easily generates animosity, most people are biased, and while sensor size and the benefits of sensor attributes might be objective, the sensor size someone prefers to use is subjective.
While I’m in slight disagreement with your choice to compare a live performance to a print, your article has made me think about being more deliberate with my photographs as a means to communicate better. Even if the only person I’m communicating with is my future self i.e a photograph to go with a memory. It’s a good article :).
Jim, these articles that delve into the processes that happen inside those spaces in between our ears are what keep me coming back to your blog.