The photographs that excite me are photographs that say something in a new manner; not for the sake of being different, but ones that are different because the individual is different and the individual expresses himself. I realize that we all do express ourselves, but those who express that which is always being done are those whose thinking is almost in every way in accord with everyone else. Expression on this basis has become dull to those who wish to think for themselves. I wish more people felt that photography was an adventure the same as life itself and felt that their individual feelings were worth expressing. To me, that makes photography more exciting.
Hermann Hesse’s novel, Narcissus and Goldmund, tells the story of two friends whose paths cross at a young age, at a religious cloister: Narcissus, who is wise and scientifically minded; and Goldmund, an accidental artist who in his younger years wished to live a pious, simple life ordained to him by his father, but instead ends up thwarted by his unconquerable passions. Early in the story, the naïve Goldmund, believing then that he and Narcissus are both destined to a virtuous monastic life, asks his friend, “Aren’t you exactly like me?”, to which the prescient Narcissus responds, setting the theme for the prevailing story, “I am not like you, not in the way you think . . . Some day you will think of what I am going to say to you now: our friendship has no other purpose, no other reason, than to show you how utterly unlike me you are.”
As I read Narcissus’s words, I recalled this similar statement by expressionist Edvard Munch: “My art is rooted in a single reflection: why am I not as others are? . . . my art gives meaning to my life.”
My fellow artists, how does your art express the ways in which you are not as others are?
If it does not, what have you to say about Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s claim, “Individuality of expression is the beginning and end of all art”?
Since childhood, my favorite pastime has been to roam alone in some remote and quiet place, surrounded by natural wonders, never knowing what marvels I may encounter, elated more by the possibility of discovery than by anything I could plan for. At some point, for reasons I can’t even recall today, I decided it may be worthwhile to bring a camera along.
At the time, I considered the camera as just a means of documenting my discoveries—as “artificial memory,” to use the words of George Santayana. Little did I know then how much more rewarding photography may be when regarded as a means rather than pursued as an end—as a catalyst and partner to discovery and creation, as a language and instrument to give tangible form to inner experience, as enabler of experiences I would not have had without it.
Photography to me is not just a technology for documenting discoveries after the fact; not just something to be practiced for its own sake without the rewards of discovery; certainly not (as seems to be the curious habit of so many photographers) as substitute for discovery or as the deliberate suppression of the very possibility of discovery, which is the likely outcome of preconception and imitation.
I never go out just to photograph. To photograph for the sake of photographing seems to me like writing for the sake of using a word processor. Whatever enjoyment one may get from exercising certain media and tools (which, granted, may be rewarding) and from becoming skilled in their use, the greater question is this: is it not a higher aspiration for an artist to employ their media and skill in the service of expressing something meaningful of one’s own. Is it a higher aspiration for an artist to not just master the means of expression, but to live, to think, and to experience one’s world such that one has things of one’s own worthy of expression?
When out in the world, free to commune with lives, places, phenomena, and mystery; free to surrender myself to curiosity; free to open myself up to beauty, awe, deep thoughts, revelations; free to place myself in the path of unforeseen wonders, why would I want to limit a-priori the scope of my possible experiences and rewards to just the mechanical practice of photography?
When free to roam, I do so often without knowing where I will spend the night, how long I will stay, how far I may wish to hike, where I may wish to spend the following days, what—or if—I will photograph. Grand or subtle, in body or in mind, what I hope for when free to live on my own terms, is adventure: the catch-all (if much abused) term for all things that by their nature cannot be preconceived.
When adventure lends itself fortuitously to creative expression in photographs; when I find myself inspired by some unforeseen revelation and creative epiphany to photograph, then—only then—I photograph. Sometimes.
“Every production of an artist should be the expression of an adventure of his soul,” wrote W. Somerset Maugham.
Fellow artist, how adventurous is your soul?
Look up the word art in any dictionary or encyclopedia and you will find several definitions, some distinct, some overlapping, some literal, some metaphorical. This is to say that not all art is art by the same definition. I recall visiting a Subway restaurant years ago. Employees there wore tags identifying them as “sandwich artists.” No doubt, among the many definitions of art there is one by which making Subway sandwiches may indeed be considered an art. Therefore, when one presents oneself to the world as an artist, it is fair to ask, for clarity, “by what definition is your work art?”
Certainly, a person may legitimately refer to oneself as a photographic (or other) artist in the same sense that a Subway employee is a sandwich artist, by which I mean one who applies practiced skill, perhaps even great talent, toward following a recipe or adhering to a template conceived by others, aiming to appeal to a common (perhaps even profitable) taste, to the exclusion of personal expression, imagination, experimentation, and creativity. This, however, is not the kind of artist I ever wished to be.
Among common definitions of art, those I choose to apply in my own work—the high bar I set for myself—define art as the expression of one’s creative skill and imagination. By this definition, neither excellence in manual skill nor the aesthetic appeal of one’s works are sufficient conditions to qualify one as an artist. Expression requires something to express—some elevated emotion or thought. Creativity requires novelty, demonstrable value, and non-obviousness. (Thus, any work copied or closely derived from the work of another person may only and forever be considered the art of the original creator, not of the copyist.)
“Great art,” wrote Edward Hopper, “is the outward expression of an inner life in the artist, and this inner life will result in his personal vision of the world.”
Fellow artist, what is your vision of the world? How does it reflect the depth and richness of your inner life?
In their 1943 manifesto, Mark Rothko and Adolph Gottlieb proclaimed, “To us art is an adventure into an unknown world, which can be explored only by those willing to take the risk.”
Fellow artist, will you take the risk? Will you adventure into the unknown world?
Writing about expressive artists, historian Ernst Gombrich wrote that they “sometimes feel as if they were on such a voyage of discovery. They want to see the world afresh . . . the artists who succeed best in doing so often produce the most exciting works. It is they who teach us to see new beauties in nature of whose existence we had never dreamt. If we follow them and learn from them, even a glance out of our own window may become a thrilling adventure.”
Fellow artist, what new beauties will you teach us to see? What thrilling adventures will you create for us?
“The refusal to rest content,” wrote John Updike, “the willingness to risk excess on behalf of one’s obsessions, is what distinguishes artists from entertainers, and what makes some artists adventurers on behalf of us all.”
Fellow artist, will you dare to be an adventurer on behalf of us all?