Ian MacDonald, on giving a creative friend some advice in a time of doubt:
Success is really an iceberg. On the surface you see the rewards and accolades, but underneath it is nothing but blood, sweat, failure, hard work, frustration, set backs, disappointment, and resistance.
I was invited to give a talk at the Jackson Civic Art Association Tuesday night on my still life photography: what was my thinking, what were my techniques, etc. It was also a how-to for other artists to think about making their own still life paintings, drawings, or photos.
It’s a good way to really think about your own projects. If you have to explain the whole thing, from idea to execution, you get really intimate with your process. I feel like the talk was good for me and helpful for them.
And many of the group members did come up and compliment me on my presentation. “I really appreciate the length of your talk,” one lady told me. “Some people are up there for hours going on and on about technique.”
That’s another thing: can you show and tell in an efficient time frame?
In another life, I was probably a teacher. Coworkers at my last job nicknamed me “Professor Dave” because of my presentation style, and my love for getting up on a whiteboard and scribbling out thoughts and ideas. I see talks like the one I gave Tuesday as part lesson, part performance. It’s fun for me.
It was also fun to break down my inspirations, thinking, and planning during the still life project.
If there’s any solace in this election, it’s that struggle and angst breed great art.
From World War I (Modernism!) to the Vietnam War period (Woodstock!), when people are upset, they tend to make great things. Heck, during the George W. Bush years, a lot of people took their protest and turned it into memorable work.
Art is coping. This time, I’m sure we’ll see lots of great stuff.
In Sound City, Dave Grohl’s love letter to the legendary, hit-making studio in California, he and other musicians gush about the “real” process of getting guys in a studio and recording music live, on two-inch tape: “the human element of creating and recording music.” ProTools has its place, many of the artists say, but there’s nothing like analog.
We’ve heard this before, of course. Everyone from filmmakers to photographers are returning to (or, in the case of movies, never leaving) film.
Lots of words get used to describe this process: magic, alchemy, mystery, human. Digital is too “easy.” You can fix everything with digital. Etc.
For many, it’s a return to what is known. Analog is more familiar to those of a certain age. A lot of what Grohl and Christopher Nolan and other film fans seem to be saying is, “You missed the good stuff, the good old days.”
Those of us who adopted photography as a hobby or profession in the digital age don’t know what a dark room is like because we’ve never used one, and may never step foot in one.
(A side note: my college newspaper had a darkroom attached to it, behind this sweet swiveling circular door, and I did spend some time in there – but never to actually develop or print images. I remember photography students spending a lot of time in that room, and I’d catch glimpses of what they were working on when they brought their prints out into the light.)
We seemed to have this big upswing, in the ’80s (music), ’90s (movies), and 2000s (photography) toward digital art making. In the last decade, that digital tide has swung back, and more and more artists are experimenting with analog again. Call it the Maker Movement, call it hipsterism, call it whatever, but vinyl records and photo film seem to be doing okay again. Not great, but not dead.
So it is with blogging – away from federated, silo’d social media platforms and toward artists and writers owning their material.
Maybe we’re all learning that perfect isn’t the goal. The goal is to make something great, imperfections and all. Something human.
This time last year, I was knee-deep in working on my documentary, Albion Anagama.
I learned a lot during the making of that film – about ceramics, and artistic process, and teamwork.
I also learned the value of a dedicated space to do creative work. In this instance, Ken built a fabulous studio on the outskirts of Albion, Michigan, complete with kilns and a garden and lots of space. He and his team had just about everything they needed to do work right there, from music to materials.
The idea of a dedicated work area appeals to me. In my recent house-hunting sojourns, it’s fun to see a basement workshop, or a dark room custom built for a film photographer. Even a simple office works.
At work, I find that taking my laptop and going somewhere fresh and new is a good kick in the butt to get work done. It’s not dedicated space, but it is a new space – and that helps me get some things accomplished.
If you start thinking about it — forgetting about all those oh-so serious problems for a while, photobooks really are incredibly versatile and flexible beasts. They come in many shapes, sizes, editions, … Now, given that nobody is legally required to make a photobook, and given that if you wanted to publish a photobook you could literally do anything you want (as long as it fits the work), isn’t that the best possible situation to be in? Shouldn’t that trigger exactly that creative urge that photographers usually profess to be interested in?
Sky’s the limit.
And so what if no one buys it? The creative exercise is good for you.
My family took a trip to the Jackson County Fair a few weeks ago, as we do every year. It’s something we look forward to each year: the food, the animals, the people watching. All the lights and sounds and colors make for great photo opportunities. It’s a lot of fun.
Each year, in the 4H pavilion, the fair hosts contests – everything from antiques to crops to artwork. Last year, I entered some photos for the first time, and did pretty well. This year, I opted not to, just because the deadline passed and I had other things going on.
Looking through all the entries this year, it struck me: There were a ton of great photos, and I hadn’t heard of any of the photographers.
As much as we may follow other photographers that we like, and check out exhibitions of nationally-known artists, there’s a ton of great work being made right in your own community, by people you’ve never met. You may work with one of these folks. Or they may make you coffee. Or they pick up your trash.
They work just as hard as you do, find great scenery like you do, struggle with creativity and energy just like you, and wonder about getting their work seen – as we all do. They’re all out there hustling, trying to find their photographic voice, and entering a little county fair competition to get some confirmation of their vision.
We struggle so much with marketing, and self promotion, and creative struggles. Meanwhile, our neighbors are out there making stuff, and entering it into a competition to earn a few bucks and a ribbon.
Maybe they have something to teach you (or vice versa). Maybe you should look them up and go make something together.