Do Awards Make the Artist?

AwardIt was recently pointed out to me that a critical piece is missing from my photography resume — contest wins. The only response I could muster was the excuse that, “You can’t win if you don’t enter. And I never enter.” I laughed when I heard myself, because the statement is literally true, but it also revealed some barely hidden feelings I have regarding photo contests. I love my photography. Other people love my photography. But not everyone loves my photography. When I look at the pictures that win contests, the winning photos are usually amazing, and very different than my work.

I’ve never felt that I make the kind of pictures that please judges. Now I will tread lightly here, because I definitely don’t want to disparage anyone’s work, and I don’t want to be unrealistically high-and-mighty about my own. But here goes: there are some freaking amazing photographers out there — those who consistently see, create, and capture scenes that stand head and shoulders above the rest. Some of them are pros. But there are a whole lot more who remain staunchly and proudly amateur despite doing very, very good work.

If we face facts, the “pretty good” amateurs greatly outnumber the relatively few professionals. Many amateurs have the means to travel to exotic places (because many day jobs are better compensated than the job of pro photographer), they can afford to attend high-priced photography workshops, and/or they shoot millions and millions of pictures per year — it’s their obsession. (I know plenty of people who fall into several of these categories).

Out of those billions of pictures taken by the hundreds of thousands of “good” enthusiasts, it’s mathematically likely that you’re going to end up with quite a lot of truly “amazing” photographs. (I’m not a mathematician, but I’m sure somebody can back me up on this.) A lot of amateur photos that win contests seem to be the result of being in the right place at the right time, and having enough skill and presence of mind to point and shoot at what’s happening in front of them. And with the shear number of photographers walking around with cameras, those amateurs are often the ones who are most likely to be present and ready to capture the amazing moment when it happens.

One highly respected pro I spoke with had this to say: “if you put the vast majority of pro work up against the best of the best amateurs, the amateurs win every time.” He went on to say, “the pros are usually pros because they can produce ‘good’ work consistently. But there’s a lot more to being a pro, like understanding the needs of your client, managing your photoshoot team, budgeting (both time and expenses), processing and archiving images, bookkeeping, and everything it takes to run a small business. The amateur shoots exactly what he or she wants to shoot, and can spend as long as they want (and as much money as they want) to get that one shot that ends up winning a contest or going viral.”

So what about my work? I exist somewhere on the periphery of the pro world. I have a full time job that has nothing to do with photography so I can feed and house my family while spending some of my free time making, framing, and selling my work as art. I make rather quiet pictures that a lot of people find pleasing — but I do it mainly because it pleases me! So when I do consider entering a contest I look at my pictures differently, and instead of printing what I want to print, I print what I think will impress the judges. And editing my work in hopes of pleasing a judge is not something I enjoy. I get that it’s important for a resume to show that others have thought highly enough of my work to give it awards. This seems to be the only way that some have of evaluating the work of others. So I will be entering contests and juried shows throughout this year, and I will be carrying my camera everywhere and hoping to grab that one killer shot that could win a contest, but I am not altering my style just for the sake of getting an award.

Here and Now

Bloom where you're planted

Early spring cherry blossoms at the Chinese Reconciliation Park, Tacoma, WA.

I have the opportunity to produce a gallery show of my photography this year. Can’t say when or where just yet, but it’s in the works and is definitely going to happen. To that end I’ve been reviewing a lot of my new and previously unproduced work looking for common themes and something I can pull together into a cohesive showing that says something larger about my art.

What I keep coming back to is my basic ethos that I want to be able to make a good picture wherever I am — to remind people that beauty is all around us. Secondarily, but maybe more importantly is the limiting factor that attracts me to photography in the first place. Unlike painting or drawing, photography begins by capturing a single, actual moment in time. Sure that moment is affected by how I use my eyes, my brain, and camera. But a painting or a sketch are more truly the artist’s interpretation of a moment, or can be made up wholly from the artist’s imagination. What I choose to make is art that could not exist without my collaboration with a force that’s outside of my control.

In fact, I’m fascinated by time and humankind’s relative understanding of it and need to control and measure it. The most common belief is that time is an endless one-way stream. Once a moment is gone, it will never be repeated exactly in the same way again. I might choose to put myself in a beautiful faraway and exotic place, or a few steps from my front door — that’s just geography. But wherever I am, when I choose to take a picture I step into the flowing stream and pick my moment as it flows swiftly by. When I’ve done my job as an artist, I hope to have captured that moment and found a way to say something universal that exists completely outside of time.

Anyway, that’s a lot to think about right now. All the above messy stuff that goes on inside my head, as well as my evolving views on photography, art, time, and life will be the subject of my next show. I look forward to making an announcement soon, and hope you’ll find a way to join me!

All Float On…

Float TankI just finished my second session of floating in a silent, dark tank of water for 90 minutes. It was a very cool experience. Completely relaxing. Almost meditative. My second session I think I fell asleep. It’s supposed to be a good catalyst to improve my creative flow. And you know what? I think it worked! A local business offered two free floats to artists in exchange for a piece of original art inspired by the floating experience. For my own part, I did it because I want to take my art in a slightly new direction, but I was experiencing a slight inspiration blockage. The trick for me was to both concentrate on the problem I wanted to solve, but to not obsess over it. I’d have to say that floating helped, and soon I will be showing some of this new direction. Intrigued?

You can find out more at Northwest Float Center, 6th Ave., Tacoma. …And very soon I’ll be posting an image of that hinted-at new direction.

Debating the Darkside: Business vs. Art

Art and business have coexisted since at least the time of the Renaissance. Newly rich merchants, families with old money, and the ultimate business — the Catholic church — have long financed the lives of artists thus providing the means that allowed them to keep creating. 

Well known artists like Michelangelo definitely ran businesses, complete with accounts payable and receivable; professional facilities in the form of a studio/factory; and students and apprentices acting as employees. These early professional artists even marketed themselves by becoming members of royal courts, and cultivating relationships likely to bring them lucrative commissions — an early form of social marketing!

But artists have long hated being labeled. So the debate about being called an artist or a business person; as well as deciding what is art and what is not, continues to rage.

I think about these issues a lot. But an article written by an acquaintance of mine is spurring me to respond with my two cents on the difference between art and business. Josh’s original article can be found on his blog.

First, I think I can clarify the debate by starting with some definitions from Merriam-Webster online:

  1. Business: a usually commercial or mercantile activity engaged in as a means of livelihood: dealings or transactions especially of an economic nature.

  2. Hobby: a pursuit outside one’s regular occupation engaged in especially for relaxation.

  3. Art: the conscious use of skill and creative imagination especially in the production of aesthetic objects; also works so produced. 

One concern of Josh’s article is the importance of deciding whether your pursuit of art is a business or a hobby. M-W’s definition of hobby says it is an activity pursued mainly for relaxation, while a business is an activity engaged in as a means of livelihood. What I think Josh misses, is that not every artistic pursuit falls into these two categories. In fact, the word hobby can have truly negative connotations — often being used as a put-down by those who consider themselves serious about art when describing other less serious artists.

In the art world, who doesn’t fall into one of these two categories? How about artists who use their creativity to deal with evils and injustices they see in the world — and sometimes to thrust this work into the public eye to shine a spotlight on these issues? These artists may not be interested in turning their creations into a business, but their work can not be considered a hobby. Or how about that little-known artist Vincent van Gogh? He passionately devoted his life to painting, but never sold a single work while he lived. Was painting a hobby for him?

So what happens when the art of a so-called outsider (like van Gogh) is discovered? There are modern cases of shut-ins, or secretive graffiti artists whose work is suddenly discovered and embraced as true art. Their work can end up in public and private collections, and the work can be represented by professional art dealers who make sure the artist is well compensated. Consider the very secretive street artist Banksy who is likely getting rich while few even know his true identity. Just because an artist begins making money from their work does not mean they automatically become a business person in the traditional sense.

In Josh’s article, he goes on to say that as an artist, if you sell your work you have a responsibly to “consider what the customer thinks is valuable and change your work accordingly.” This statement is completely wrong, and I think it’s important to make the distinction about what separates an artist from a business person in other industries.

In most industries, a product is created to meet a need. If that product meets the needs of enough people, and the business can reach enough potential customers, that company has a good chance of being successful. Then if the business stays tuned into the needs of the public, they can tweak an existing product or invent entirely new products to sell. Speaking from personal experience though, as an artist-first/business-person-second, it’s critical that I begin by creating a work of art that is unique to me. It first needs to communicate what I want to say, and look how I want it to look. If I’m going to put my name on this “product” it has to be completely true to my vision.

Only after I’ve created MY work of art can I think about how to sell it to others. The moment I start taking the pulse of the market first and creating second, I have reversed my emphasis and become less of an artist. If I were to start creating art and tweaking my output because I thought it would sell better, I would have to reverse my formula and become a business person/artist. It’s a small but important distinction!

To wrap up today’s discussion of this issue (I’m sure the debate will continue for a long, long time) I want to make a point about how this discussion relates to another even BIGGER issue — the ongoing debate to answer “what is art?” While I can only answer that question for myself, the longer I’m around the easier it gets to say what is NOT art (think Thomas Kinkade). This art-as-a-product is any work that is created because it is likely to sell, and not because the artist felt a deep need to express themself. 

As an artist, I am not merely creating products. I create because I have a deep need to express something that is unique to me. I hope that others appreciate what I create, and that my creations make a lasting impact. But if that doesn’t work out… I’ll just keep doing what I want. Satisfied that I am doing what is right for me.

“Oh I Never Get Sick…Oops!”

Despite often saying “I never get sick,” I woke up yesterday with definite signs of a cold. Today, there’s no doubt. Of course I usually say “I don’t get sick”  because I believe I can escape sickness by denying it. This one snuck up on me. I was kind of low after realizing my photographer’s co-op was not going to work the way I had hoped it would. I want fellowship with other art photographers — in fact I need it — but am not going to get it on my terms. This is one of those times that I just have to slow down, and let things happen more naturally. I’ve planted the seed, now I have to let it germinate. Forcing more water or more sunshine on that seed will probably just drown it.

So what does one do when self-employed, enjoy working outdoors with a camera, and you find yourself stuck inside on a day that’s suddenly turned rather sunny and pleasant? How about a long round of photo editing and tackling that long-procrastinated web research? I’m looking for art conferences, festivals, and educational opportunities for the year. I’m committed to increasing my exposure in the art world this year, and taking every opportunity to network with other artists. If anyone has suggestions, let me know.