I had a wonderful, long, two-part chat with my good friend Melinda Green Harvey last night (check out her own blog here) about the meaning of photography and how we each move ourselves to higher planes of image-making. A challenge, we both agreed, is the need for approval, the desire for popularity, the quest for grandeur; Brett Weston, one of my favorite photographers (not just because of the first name, but thanks, Mom and Dad, for putting the pressure on me with that one), once wrote:
“I love appreciation and an audience, we all do, but I don’t photograph for anybody but myself. In general mass audiences are tasteless, and I’d rather have an audience of say a thousand people who really love and understand and appreciate my work than 10 million.”
That’s a viewpoint from which all serious photographers can learn. Is mass adulation the hallmark of excellence? Is the photograph without widespread applause less worthy, less visionary? After all, Brett Weston’s father, Edward, is considered one of the geniuses of twentieth century photography, receiving not one but two Guggenheim fellowships in his life, acceptance at MOMA, and recognition as a true master, but he struggled financially as his work often sold for little more than a penance. Does that fact diminish his brilliance?
We all search for external sources of validation as the litmus for our own worthiness as we pursue our art. Is it true that some photographs, some paintings, some sculptures are better than others? Absolutely; there is truly only one Michelangelo’s David. Only one Botticelli’s Birth of Venus. But in no way should that diminish the quest to create another, and my argument is this: The current notion of “If I create more and more, something in there has to be good” is terribly misguided. To rephrase in a cliche, “Even a blind squirrel gets an acorn now and then.” But does that constitute mastery? No.
What does make mastery? My contention is threefold: 1) Purpose; 2) Visual and Technical Literacy; and 3) Commentary. Purpose means we seek a specific image to make in a specific location because we know there is a fit, an opportunity for creation that matches the third element, Commentary. Once there, we use our carefully developed sense of visual literacy (yes, I mean we all need to study the masters of imagemaking, as well as design and color and tone) to hone our images and their careful and competent creation, which is then guided by Commentary. What are we trying to say about society? About ourselves? How are we working to make the audience of our image think and feel? Why?
I suggest that we re-evaluate our preponderance of digital fluff that is clogging our CF cards, our hard drives, our backup disks. Are they memory pictures? Grand indeed; memory photos provide us a link to our past, our own little dopamine high stored in 1’s and 0’s. But the others are what? Sketches? Passing thoughts? Da Vinci sketched mercilessly, and yet we know his painting from little more than the Mona Lisa and scattered others. Does this make the sketches masterworks?
You may be wondering at this point, “Where’s he going with this?” Just here: Melinda and I pondered the meaning of likes and shares, the digital equivalent of conversation in our twenty-first century social world. I suggest they are less the mark of quality, and more the mark of social support. Should we, as Weston wrote in the quotation above, d*** the masses and their taste? Let them eat cake? No, but neither should we let them determine whether or not the emperor is naked; after all, to ignore the reality is to show simple support (no pun intended) for the poor naked man as he walks down the street.
Thus, I argue we must show strength in our images well-made, striving always to make not more but better, and expect less in terms of likes as litmuses of brilliance. Rather, we should accept them more as that tap on the shoulder, that glint in the eye saying, “Good job. I’m happy you like this image. You’re progressing. Keep at it.” And so we should, following our own vision, our own journey toward the ideal, occasionally spurred on by a multitude of digital encouragement but not discouraged for the lack of it.
– 1 As quoted in Pitnick, R. (Jan. 8, 1998). “The Masterful and Messy Legacy of Brett Weston.” Retrieved from http://www.montereycountyweekly.com/news/local_news/article_e1cb7888-d7e8-56ce-bfe6-a9755431a39f.html.