When Everybody is a Photographer: Educating Photographic Artists in the Era of Mass Imagery
In September 2017, I exhibited work at the China Pingyao International Photography Festival. I also gave the opening remarks for their Photography Education Symposium. This post is adapted from those remarks.
Let’s begin with the obvious: we’re all photographers now. With over half the world using smartphones, estimates for the total number of photos taken in 2017 range from one trillion to fourteen trillion. Using the midpoint of those two figures, that comes out to 242,000 photos per second.
Nor has it ever been easier to see or share these photographs. Deloitte Global estimates that 1.8 trillion photos were shared online in 2016.
As for quality, it’s never been easier to make photographs that look good. That’s thanks largely to all the software that’s out there—much of it cheap and easy to use. As artificial intelligence expands, this trend will only accelerate.
Put these factors together and there are simply more technically competent, visually interesting photographs—“good” pictures, if you will—out there than ever before.
So what does this deluge of images mean for the photographer as so-called artist? What does it mean for educators who teach would-be photographic artists? That’s the question I responded to for the Pingyao Photography Education Symposium in September 2017.
Before I continue, keep in mind the following. I’m focusing on photography as an art form. That means I’m not talking about commercial photography, or the possibly blurry line between the two. I also recognize that the entire issue of photography as an art may be irrelevant or moot to some people. If that’s you, then you might want to skip this piece. But if not, consider reading on.
To paraphrase what Chuck Close said a long time ago: Photography is the easiest medium in which to become technically competent and the most difficult medium in which to develop a personal vision.
Close said this in the darkroom days. It was true then and I consider it even more true now. The key point is personal vision, which is hard to define, as it probably should be.
I’ll try anyway, by at least laying out some broad strokes. Personal vision in this context implies a unity to the artist’s imagery, something that runs through a substantial portion of their work. This “something” can range from the obvious to the very subtle. It can include elements and combinations of elements we commonly think about: content, theme, formal configurations around colour, shape, line and so forth. This unity can also be more subtle, more elusive—an animating spirit that courses through a body of work, felt or sensed though difficult to articulate. All of these possibilities suggest the existence of, to use Twyla Tharp’s term, an aesthetic spine, that runs through the artist’s images.
My view is that what’s distinguished photographers as artists in the past will continue to set them apart in the future—only with more urgency in the mass imagery age. The photographic artists will be the ones who go qualitatively further than photographers who simply take so-called good pictures (the latter being nothing to sneer at by the way). They will continue to be the photographers who have developed a distinct and powerful personal vision, communicating it in way that engages their audiences.
I look at a lot of pictures through my personal explorations as well as in portfolio reviews and the workshops I lead. I’ve seen the work a lot of photographers who make excellent photographs. But I’ve seen much less work that presents a developed and convincing personal vision, never mind a strong one.
Using this focus, the original question can be framed a little more precisely: How can educators facilitate the development of personal vision among students aspiring to be photographic artists?
One point: I’m not staking this claim around the matter of personal vision based on any particular movement or school of art, those things arguably less important than ever. No tradition, old or recent, has a monopoly on the concept.
Helping our students develop personal vision
The points that follow aren’t exhaustive or new. I think they’ve always been crucial to good practice. But I do think that, in the particular context of a culture of mass imagery, they’re more important than ever.
1. Artists benefit from being self-aware, self-reflective, and self-critical. Having an intimate sense of what they care about the most and using that to drive their work is critical.
Developing this kind of consciousness is more likely to give birth to work that reflects a personal vision. It may not be sufficient to generate a personal vision, but it is necessary. An artist needs to know what distinguishes their personal way of experiencing the world. In more emotional terms, they need to know what it is they care about the most. To put it in literary terms I paraphrase Camus: it’s important to find those two or three things that lay your heart open. It’s out of that exploration that an authentic personal vision, powered by a visceral conviction, can emerge.
Though some may be able to do so, this consciousness isn’t necessarily something the artist can articulate precisely in verbal terms. It may exist on the level of a “felt” or intuited consciousness. But this awareness is one that they tap into—on some level—when it comes to their practice.
An important point to note here is that the content of an artist’s work needn’t directly address what he or she most cares about. What’s critical is using this consciousness to animate and energize their work, the content of which may be elsewhere.
Of course, how to develop this consciousness, and how to facilitate its development in students, is no straightforward matter. Different teachers will use different approaches depending on their backgrounds, their comfort levels, their experience and competencies, and the profiles of their students.
Adding to the difficulty of the task is that students, like everybody else, are easily distracted and often have defences in place against getting closer to such insights, which can be uncomfortable and even threatening.
Something I'd like to make clear: In no way am I suggesting that this kind of self-awareness is a pre-condition to the work of making pictures. Quite the opposite, in fact: working, getting one's hands dirty if you will, is almost certainly the best way to develop self-awareness. To use this language again, work is a necessary though not sufficient precondition to self-understanding.
Overall, from an educator’s standpoint, this component of developing awareness is more like mentoring—perhaps a psychological or, if you prefer, a spiritual mentoring—than it is straight instructing. (I would, however, argue that the best teaching has always included this component). It’s about attending and engaging the student as a complex human being as opposed to simply a would-be receptacle of skills.
2. Don’t worry about winning over a crowd.
For a host of reasons—the digital era and social media being the overarching ones—the appeal, even imperative, to be popular is more powerful than ever. The quantified signifiers of pseudo-affection—likes, click bait, followers—have become the reinforcers that digital marketers and data miners use to monopolize our attention and drive their enormously profitable bottom lines.
Referring not only to the present but times past as well, Chris Hedges remarked: “To win a crowd is not art; for that only untruth is needed, nonsense, and a little knowledge of human passions.” Put simply, it’s not that hard to be popular. If you want to be popular, being willing to express pretty well anything—and it seems like the barriers to this decrease exactly as the incentives for it increase—combined with a rudimentary understanding of human emotion, particularly group psychology, will get you far. Technical skill helps, but that can be purchased on the market. Again, this is not a new phenomenon, but it is arguably one that has grown and widened in the social media era.
The problem with being motivated by popularity is threefold. First, there’s a tendency for more people to produce more of the same, since practitioners look externally—often to the same, or similar, audiences—for validation. Second, there’s a decreased incentive for the practitioner, in this case the artist, to carefully and critically look at what’s unique to their own vision. Third, what’s produced may be undeveloped and lacking in depth because crowds are fickle and tastes change.
Now, there may be artists out there who say, “Fine, but more than anything, I want to be popular.” To which I’d sincerely congratulate them on their honesty and say that’s your decision so I’ll gladly leave you to it. But I’d suggest the caveat that if an artist is principally motivated by this goal, their personal vision may not develop as fully.
I mention this to educators as a reminder that our students are likely facing greater day-to-day pressures to be popular than we did. These pressures are evidenced not only anecdotally but in research studies on anxiety levels in college students. There's a pressing need to encourage and nurture a spirit of independence and resilience in our students, reassuring and explaining how being unpopular and unfashionable is okay and may well be even fruitful.
3. Don’t just leave yourself open to uncertainty, embrace it.
Nothing new here—as human beings, we gravitate to certitude. The problem is that while certainty may be more comfortable, it also stifles creativity.
We may not be able to help our students become comfortable with uncertainty—that may be too ambitious to for anyone—but we can help them become more accepting of the discomfort of uncertainty. We can help them understand that not only is uncertainty normal, uncertainty and even chaos can be beneficial to developing a personal vision.
Taking this a little further, I’d suggest that we might want to consider letting our students know that art needn’t be didactic or message laden. We may want to suggest, through examples and discussion, that when it is that’s often precisely when art becomes most boring and puerile. Starting out with an agenda—whether it’s one based on a sense of pristine theory or rectitude—may make things appear clear but it tends to shut down complex conversations, the most important ones being those going on inside oneself. Being on the side of angels may feel good but, when it comes to art, it can also be a giant bore.
So, from that, my suggestion is that as educators we:
- Help students understand that it’s okay to feel lost in their work, that this is part of the creative process.
- Encourage students to stay with and explore these feelings of being lost, discouraging them from resolving uncertainties too early. The words "I don't know" can be signs of strength, not weakness.
- Encourage them to continue to experiment, and that rather than succeed too early in the process, they learn to accept “failure” as part of the path to success, however defined.
- Remain conscious of not trying to answer our students’ deeper questions for them. Sometimes we do this because alleviating their uncertainty can relieve our own anxieties and because “solving problems” is affirming (and, yes, ego-boosting) for us. There are times when a more appropriate response is something along the lines of “I don’t know the answer to what you’re looking for, but, perhaps, I can help you find your own answer. Eventually.”
4. Artists need to know their craft
This is another point that’s old as the hills. Relying on giving instructions to others—such as the printer who knows everything about Photoshop and the digital printing process—without being able to take the reins oneself is a lost opportunity. Of course, it’s appropriate to tap into the expertise of specialists, but devoting time to learning and applying the craft of making images leads to unique discoveries that are part of developing that personal vision.
Some institutions and teachers do this very well; others less so. There’s nothing wrong with instruction based on theoretical and aesthetic matters but an emphasis on craft shouldn’t be sacrificed. There is, of course, a healthy interplay between these factors. My opinion is that artists need to make themselves responsible for understanding their photographic tools as fully as is required so that every decision they make is based on aesthetic considerations and not technical limitations. Not that there haven’t been exceptions to this “rule,” but I think most students benefit from teachers who emphasize this kind of attention to craft.
A few last points, briefly
It might seem that my suggestions are in a direction contrary to current trends in the culture of mass imagery and mass sharing. That may be so. In that spirit, I leave you with a few other thoughts....
Because so many things now encourage us to speed up and be “efficient,” perhaps we should consider encouraging our students to slow down. Though I don’t miss the darkroom, its extended pace did teach me some things I needed to learn, one being the usefulness of contemplating images for longer periods of time as opposed to making the rapid fire changes that are so easy with Photoshop: patience combined with the value of looking and time, in other words.
On a related note, because of its ubiquity and the ease with which it’s produced, photography exists more and more as a medium of distraction. We might consider reminding and showing our students—and ourselves—that photography can also be a medium of concentration and attentiveness.
None of this means turning away from the present or the future. On the contrary, it means engaging both more attentively, with an appreciation for the past, the engendering of a sense of context. Concentrating on the last ring of the tree doesn’t mean neglecting the rings that preceded it. Having an understanding of history, of the history of one’s medium, and an understanding of other media (not only the visual), all become assets that further leverage an understanding of oneself.
I end this brief piece with the question: What images will we looking at years from now? What image will we want to look at? My bet is that they’ll be the images where, most powerfully, this message was sent by the artist: “This was the world I lived in, my intimate world. It was what I saw, what I processed through my thoughts, what I felt through my emotions, and sensed through my experience and spirit.”
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