Saturday, October 9, 2010

Take a Deep Breath

I won't drag out the vulgarity or the anger to address Charles Yesenczki's blog post, and in no way do I expect to receive even half the response, but I do have something -- I suppose it's rather recycled -- to say on the topic of photography, and it seems like now might be just as appropriate a time as ever. Especially after seeing the Cartier-Bresson exhibit at the Art Institute last weekend and feeling just, ah, in love, engaged, and bright-eyed about the possibilities of communication and expression in this particular medium.

In the time I spent as a photography student in college, I felt like I constantly fought for my credibility (most of the time against some invisible, mentally-contrived audience... some of the time against fellow photographers... but fighting and fighting nonetheless). Why did I feel this way? I overheard someone (rather, an "award-winning" photojournalism student) once say, "I can't imagine myself taking photos like these," in reference to my commercial class's work in the hallway display case. "What do you mean?" "You know... photos that don't matter."

I think, in the end, it is difficult for us to determine what work "matters" on a specific scale and what work doesn't. That's because YOU can't possibly know the entirety of my intentions (even if I so neatly spell them out)... and even though I have made several jabs at assuming yours, I can't accurately do that, either. And what's the scale, anyway? How do we establish that something like a photograph is meaningful?

The work that matters to me is the work that I care about doing.

In college, I identified myself as a "commercial" photographer. That's what my transcript reads, anyway. I didn't have a knack for shooting the news -- maybe I didn't have the interest, at least for awhile, either. On the other hand, I don't necessarily know if I had the interest in producing promotional/advertising photography. I guess I just wanted to have more of a say in the outcome, and of the two sequences, commercial seemed to fit my ambitions. Either way, it's all a pretty silly. Now that I find myself out of college, I consider myself a photographer. Labels aside, I take the photos I want to take, and I feel the pressures to fit in, to receive validation, to establish fans, and to seem utterly mind-blowing slip further and further away from concern.

I don't know if it was simply my sequence or my physical presentation or my social "associates" or, hell, even my gender (sorry to toss that card out there, but I do think it's pertinent in this particular field, especially professionally) that made me feel so stifled and invisible in VisCom, but I battled those shitty, ridiculous feelings until the day I graduated. Maybe perfectionism is to blame (or maybe a strong competitive nature that is now substantially weaker) for the standards I set for myself creatively, professionally, and, damn it, personally. If you're feeling stifled, I think it's important to examine why, to confront those fucking terrible feelings, and to fight them! Keep fighting them!

I found myself truly loving and admiring the work of so many beautiful and gifted photographers at Ohio University, and surely it was the inspiration of Charles and others that pushed me to step outside of the commercial world and consider the bigger picture. I started looking a little closer at everyone else's work to feel a little closer to my own. To everyone -- even those who I may never reach again and who may have no interest in reaching me -- thank you.

In the end, I don't think that entering contests is right or wrong. Certainly if you are proud of your work and you want it to reach people, there are effective ways of doing just that, especially if you're "just getting started." However, it's important to remember why we are where we are. And what keeps us going in a desired direction.

I did enter CPOY this year. Taking a step back, I can wholeheartedly say that I am proud of the work I produced in my final year of college, strained as it might have been, and I do find the work meaningful to my life and my journey as a young photographer. I felt relaxed and content submitting my work... probably because the pressure to rise above the rest of my classmates for a petty pat on the back wasn't there. Probably because I've realized that it's all so damn relative (and thankfully the Illustration category is virtually overlooked, ha). In the end, I just wanted to share my images with a greater audience so that they may captivate or touch, if even slightly, someone else. Maybe they are just a bunch of pretty "meaningless" photos to you. Maybe. I have never won an award in photography or received any formal acknowledgment for the photo work I've done. The reality is that I may never.

But thankfully, the impact of the photographs does not rely on such things out of my control.


Gregory Bodwell said...

That's a wise post. It gets really tiring comparing oneself to every other photographer and even the one's not there. Trying adapt to be the one who'll land the internship or whatever is most sought after. I'm going to take some of this advice and just take some photos that I care about. PhotoJ, Commercial it's all photography. I'm going to shoot what I care about. (and I'm also relieved that the Illustration category receives little attention)

SRM said...

This is a very thoughtful and dignified entry, Erica. I have a lot of respect for what you do and what you show, and I find it a bit disingenuous of that fellow photographer to quip that he never wants to 'stoop to the level' of taking pictures 'that don't matter.' Artists everywhere worry about this. It takes an ego-maniac to claim that his art matters while other artists only produce crap. Who qualifies another to make such claims? Who has the fucking right? In my own field, I've encountered these attitudes. People passing judgment. People making assumptions, making broad generalizations about what it means to be an artist. The point of all of it is not to be the most esoteric, to alienate others with your supposed wisdom. The point of art is to fucking share it. Either you're using it to explore yourself or explore the world around you, but in any case, you're sharing. And all art, no matter the medium, means something to somebody. Everyone has a favorite painting or picture or song or show. Everyone has sacred texts. And all of those texts are meaningful. We create meaning through our engagement with one another and what we produce in our lives. Any asshole who is self-important, who feels his work is superior to anyone else's, is probably too cynical about art to really understand. It isn't any less frustrating, but at least you know where your own intentions lie, and that's good enough.

As always, I love you and am very, very proud of you.

Sarah Hoppes said...


I completely agree. It is a waste of time to worry about rising above and comparing yourself against other photographers. The important thing is to shoot whatever makes you feel creatively fulfilled, regardless of genre.

Katie said...


I wish I could derive what actually happened here.

Erica, could you explain further? Maybe by a personal message of sorts?