Jay Em No. 9 and a Treatise on Social Acceptance of Art

Jay Em No. 9

Jay Em No. 9

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.”[1]

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.


    1. Thanks, but don’t ever hesitate to disagree or modify the argument. This is a discourse in progress, a thought the collective may take into greater depths of conversation.

  1. Today, I was thinking about this: it’s important to have enough confidence in our vision that we are truly able to follow it, even when it seems like it is taking us the wrong way. I believe that if we were doing it the right way, the vision’s in charge of us, instead of the other way around. And so, I am just now taking a deep breath and getting ready follow a path that had not yet revealed itself to me when we spoke last night. Stay tuned…..

    1. I agree wholeheartedly. The image is prescient, an otherworldly force none of us understand as we make them, regardless of visualization. We gotta go wit da flow, man. 🙂

  2. Brett, great thoughts and very thought provoking. I would have liked to listen in on you and Melinda’s conversation, like a fly on the wall. I think it very useful to compare photography to other visual arts, and probably everything else too, like writing. I have a sister who is an artist – she struggled in the absence of the ‘likes’, shows, or sales for about 30 years but kept to her vision and her way and eventually the excellence of her work was recognised. Now she is making a good living in a highly competitive area (London/Europe). The living has not changed her approach and individualism, nor have pressures from her gallery/audience.

    It is a lesson for me as someone that has only started exploring a visually creative world in the past two years. I see many problems with how I approach photography, but am still excusing it on the visual and technical literacy learning front. I have not yet found out how/been ready to insert some intellectual element to most of my work, at least not in advance of the shutter click! That part is really a great deal more work than mastering the technical. I am thinking about it, a bit, these days.

    My sister was thinking about her vision when she was a kid, that is where she started, and continues. Her ideas are not bound to her technique, quite the opposite as she will learn, fearlessly, any new media needed to execute an idea. This suggests that probably I will never be a great photographer, as I constantly skip around the edges of thinking about what I am doing, or trying to do. Like so many others I probably take too much pleasure in learning to control my camera. But I do know that whatever plateaus are out there, I have a ways to go before rising to my limits, so that keeps me going.

    Thanks for this post, it helps to focus one’s mind on these things from time to time.

    1. Well written. I have often pondered the genesis of art, and I’ve come back again and again to a statement made by a master photographer: Painting has a low entry threshold on emotion and expression, but a high entry point for technical mastery; photography has a low technical entry point, but a frighteningly high threshold for emotional expression. Why is that? I’ll use an example of a photographer whose work I greatly admire: Jennifer Hudson. A painter uses a brush, a canvas and an imagination to create a world, which offers the chance to make new within the studio. The photographer must manipulate, construct and organize The Real, a fact that includes working to understand the intersection between The Real and The Mind. Furthermore, The Real brings with it a staggering level of The Aesthetic, which is bent on distracting us from contemplating the aforementioned intersection. Translation: Seeing is tough.

      Your sister is fortunate; those whose ideas are simply vehicles needing artistic fuel for movement are few and far between at such young ages, especially when most others are so blind even to the beauty of their surroundings. But you are fortunate, too, for you’ve lived with one of those rare people who are born to express. Soak it up, and keep shooting and thinking. Art is a journey, and to be painfully cliche, the joy is in the traveling and experiencing, not in the destination. We are all richer for our exploration.

      1. Thanks for the thoughtful reply Brett. I agree, and an exploration is what I am in the middle of, and enjoying immensely.

  3. Thanks for a very thoughtful post Brett. I don’t know about the Guggenheim awards, but I got that financial struggle thing down pat. 🙂


    1. Mark,

      Ha! I think Edward Weston and Ansel Adams (among many others) would agree with you. Ansel Adams was pretty darn hand-to-mouth financially until he was about 70 years old, when Bill Turnage took over the marketing and management of Adams affairs, turning Ansel into a millionaire in his own lifetime. Weston died poor.

      I was talking with a friend of mine yesterday who used to be an editor at the Geographic, and we commiserated about how random publishing and show opportunities are; sometimes they find us, sometimes we can’t buy a spot in a show. I think it’s just the nature of our field, and perhaps it’s why we’re all so intense; after all, no intensity = no eat. 🙂

      Thanks for the comment!

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