After making myself a promise to keep up to date in my photography journal, I went several weeks (or maybe even months?) without making an entry. Truth be told, I allowed myself to slip into an empty void as far as my academic life goes. (A side note: This entry was written during the York University Strike which kept all undergrad students locked out of their classes for 12 weeks).
Everybody saw it coming. With all classes suspended, and a parade of picketing students to face at every attempt to enter a more motivating atmosphere, you find yourself putting everything on hold. While pending papers and projects are clearly not going to offer any satisfaction, and the pressure to complete them is diffused, I had hoped that it would be a time to flourish with my photography.
I realize today that I was wrong. While I still have been taking the odd photograph here and there, I feel like I have reached some sort of depression as far as my passion goes. I have been avoiding thinking about this slump because I like to feel in control when it comes to photography. It has only been about two years since I seriously picked up the camera with a sort of goal. That goal was to improve the overall quality of my photographs. This would include composition, aesthetics, lighting, and my favorite of all: “Perfection”.
I put a lot of pride into my work. Only the very best photographs are the ones I share with people. It is a strange obsessive compulsion and most definitely an ego driven game. I am pretty sure it stems from my first photography teacher; The Internet.
When I first started taking photography more seriously, I was an active member of a great little group called dpChallenge. It is an online community of mostly hobby photographers who get together to share their work. The community is based around a game or challenge in which a subject is named. Every participant must then go out and shoot photos of what they feel relates to the subject best under a specified set of rules. After selecting their pride and joy, they enter their photo into a challenge, where members can vote on each image using a scale of 1(bad)-10 (good). Voters are also encouraged to leave little nuggets of suggestions or critiques, but often these take shape in the form of abbreviated sentences.
While I learned so much as far as technical photography goes from this ‘sport’, I feel it may have set me up on the wrong foot. Perhaps the constant competitive pressure drove me into building on some great technical skills, but it never trained me along the lines of this medium as an art.
I have not really taken all too many courses in visual art, and even in high school I was more geared towards theater. Taking an upper year course in photography is forcing me to bend my work in a way I have not before. This is not necessarily a bad thing, but in hindsight, I can truthfully say that this is probably what started my setback.
Perhaps to clarify where I am coming from at this point, I should take it back a few weeks.
I was pretty pissed off to say the least. I had spent hours on shooting what I thought were some pretty damn good photos. Once in the darkroom, the meticulous printing process drained me. I probably spent more time on perfecting each print than I did planning and shooting the entire project (including the reshoot after botched chemicals bleached my frames). I felt ready for the first critique of the year.
My work was torn apart. “Cheesy” “90’s magazine editorial” “B-Movie Horror Frames” “X-Files” were some of the terms used by classmates to describe what my photographs conveyed. While a few people assured me that they were technically great, my intent was completely lost. I knew exactly what I was going for, and I was pretty sure it was rather clear in the photos. I don’t have any problems taking criticism, but something about this critique really bothered me.
Right after me, it was another student’s turn to be taken under the crosshairs of opinionated artists. He had printed what looked like three completely underexposed snapshots. At first sight they appeared to be three black squares. What took me by complete surprise was the fact that everybody seemed to love it. I decided to keep my mouth shut, because I felt I was in an overly ‘critical’ mood by this point.
I can find a great amount of meaning in his work, but at that point, I felt it was an insult to my understanding of a ‘good’ photo. What little bit of the subject was visible, was at dead center of the frame with flat lighting. 2 (that’s a dpchallenge rating).
I went home that day, brushing the critique off. I assured myself that my work is great, and that I am just not a fine art photographer. I had landed amongst the wrong crowd.
But deep down, I felt slightly taken back. As is normally the case on an ego trip I looked at some of the accomplishments I had made, and went back to freelancing work and doing headshots to finance some more equipment. I told myself that if I was earning money for my photography, it must be worth something to somebody.
At the same time, however, I had this expanding, nagging feeling inside. I chose to ignore it in hopes that it would go away. But during a long car ride home from Munich last night, I realized how much I was bothered by my recent unenthusiasm towards photography. I think part of what is causing this is that I have backed myself into my own clichés. I have worked out my routines, and I stick to them because they have proven to be successful in working towards my original goal: To improve on “composition, aesthetics, lighting, and my favorite of all: “Perfection”.
I think this critique was something I really needed. I did not find it helpful at the time, because most comments were geared at an element I felt was not my own. “Fine Art” Photography. A label.
I am still in the process of defining myself as a photographer, and I have thought that “fine art photography” may not be my thing. “I am interested in journalism. I am interested in advertizing. But I am not a ‘black squares’ kind of guy.
This kind of thinking is bullshit. It probably put me in this rut in the first place. If I want to improve as any kind of photographer, I can learn so much from the fine arts that will flow over into other fields of the medium. Coining terms to categorize work is very limiting.
I still have much to improve on as far as the technical side of photography goes, but I feel I have hit a sort of plateau at this point. I have gotten into the habit of buying new glass, or adding another light to my collection of toys when I feel this way. Usually this ritual gives me another unknown to explore, and a corner to expand into. This is photography as a craft.
At this point, I need to break into another unknown. The question that remains is how. I am starting to understand that within fine arts, the key lies in making work more abstract. This is more easily said than done. How can I make my work more abstract?
Coming from a Cultural studies background, I have gotten used to putting an overwhelming amount of thought into analyzing and deconstructing art. I have been trained to look for meaning, and clearly describe and state what I see. I have caught myself attempting to apply this workflow into my photography. Come to think of it, I do it more so for this class than for work outside of it. I can again boil this down to the problematic approach of labeling different forms of photography.
If I want to work my way out of this photographer’s block, I need to start producing more authentic work. Work that is more raw, and especially, work that is more abstract. I need to strip down some of my routines and clichés. I feel the need to simplify my work. I want to present my ideas in their raw form.
The funny thing is, I feel that if I were a painter, I would want to remove the realism from my work. How can I bring this out in my photography?