Being an Artist - Part 2
8- Being an artist is knowing how to react when you are told that 'Artists are Lucky!'
It is essential to do the same subject over again, ten times, a hundred times. Nothing in art must seen to be chance, not even movement.
The belief that those who are successful are lucky is quite widespread and artists are particularly plagued by it. I have yet to find an engineer being regularly accused of 'being lucky' with his or her engineering. Bridges, cars, buildings, power plants, machines, computers, software, etc. are rarely said to be the result of plain luck. Most people realize, without being experts, that a lot of thinking, knowledge, training, effort, know how, planning, money and more are behind any successful engineering endeavor.
However, when it comes to art in general and to photography in particular, luck is very often cited as the reason behind the existence of a particularly stunning image or series of images. At shows and exhibitions, or during personal conversations, I regularly hear statements such as: 'I guess you just hang out at [place your favorite location here, let's say for now the Grand Canyon] and get lucky.' Or, 'You can't plan that [meaning a rainbow, lightning strike, snowstorm, etc.]. You just have to be lucky to be there and have everything work right for you.' Or, 'Luck plays a big part in what you do, doesn't it?'
By extension the belief that 'luck does it for artists' extends beyond the artists' creations and right into the artist's life. In this regard it is common for me to be told: 'You are lucky to be doing what you like. I, on the other hand have to …' or, 'You are lucky to make a living doing what you like. I on the other hand, have to ...'
I used to argue endlessly about the lack of validity of the comments above. In fact, I built a library of quotes, remarks and smart comments about the uncanny nature of luck such as 'luck favors the prepared mind', 'luck is preparedness in the face of expectation', 'The older I get the more lucky I seem to become', 'I wonder why I am so lucky and you are not' and so on.
Last year I finally saw the light, so to speak, and made a decision which transformed my existence. I decided, quite simply, that in regards to luck resistance was futile and that it was better to subsume rather than eternally argue a moot point. I therefore gave up my arsenal of counterpoint quotes about the nature of luck and adopted a very simple response to any and all statements about me being lucky in any and all aspects of my life: 'yes'. Today, when I hear any of the above statements my answer is automatically a resounding 'yes.' 'Luck plays a big part in what you do, doesn't it?' 'Yes.' 'You can't plan that, you just have to be lucky. Right?' 'Yes.' 'You are lucky to do what you like, me, on the other hand…' 'Yes.' 'You are lucky making a living doing what you like, most people have to…' 'Yes.'
Two things happened after I switched to 'yes' as the answer to the assumption that success as an artist is the result of plain luck. First, I freed myself from the desire to argue the point. When you agree 100% to something there is no argument possible. I agree, therefore you are right, case closed. Second, these conversations now end just as fast as they start. Obviously those who make such comments about luck are interested in seeing what my reaction will be and when they realize that I agree with them they lose interest.
But something else happened which I find to be the most interesting consequence. After hearing me say yes a number of people go back on their initial statement and start to say things such as 'Well, I guess it's not that simple.' Or 'Luck is only part of it, you have to know what you are doing.' In other words, they make the case I used to make themselves. From my unwavering 'Yes' answer, my lack of concern for arguing the point, my agreement to their preposterous statements, they deduct -rightfully so- that something is up and they go back on their statement, amending it ever so slightly.
My point is that if someone is willing to believe that the results of a lifetime of study, passion, devotion, efforts and much more are caused by pure and simple luck there is nothing I can do about it. To destabilize such a belief will take more time and effort than I am willing to spend. I much prefer to save my energy to create art. Laughter, in this instance, is the best remedy. Let's laugh at the preposterousness of this statement, and let's laugh by agreeing with it.
And then, after all, maybe I am lucky? Who knows and who cares. Does that change anything? No! I still have to know what I am doing, I still have to do everything I was doing so far, I still have to have the knowledge, experience, passion, devotion, drive etc. that I need to have in order to do what I do. Maybe I am lucky? Well, if so, great. I'll take it because it can't hurt. Why fight it? Why not free myself from the belief that my art has to be the result of hard work? If certain people want my work to be the result of luck I see nothing wrong with it. After all, luck maybe just another term for inspiration.
The final point in this regard is that it doesn't really matter to me, as an artist, how good art comes about. What matters is that it does come about and that it exists. That some people explain the creation of art through luck is fine with me. That others explain art as being the result of talent is fine with me. That others explain it as being the result of fortuitous situations is equally fine with me. That others say that thanks to my parents I led a sheltered life and therefore was able to preserve my artistic sensibility is similarly fine with me. And if some want to believe that it is the result of years of training designed to foster an inherent talent, that is also fine with me. In short, any and all explanations about how art comes about are fine with me. Why? Because I am an artist, not an art critic. How this position plays out is the subject of the next section in this essay.
Antelope Arch Light Shaft
Linhof Master Technica, Schneider 75mm, Provia 100F
I have photographed this arch in numerous different lighting conditions, but this is my first successful image with the light shaft going through the arch. The creative possibilities offered by Antelope Canyon are endless and the technical difficulties offered by the location offer a true challenge to any artist.
9- Being an artist does not mean being an art critic
The painter must enclose himself within his work; he must respond not with words, but with paintings.
Being an artist and being an art critic are two different professions. When you are an artist and show your work to your audience, people will write, talk and make comments about your work. Don't fear this, welcome it. Avoid labeling your work or explaining it too much for in doing so you remove the mystery that others perceive in your work. Allow the viewer to interpret and discover the work for themselves. Provide an open door through which people can look at your work in different ways. Keep the window open for your audience to interpret your work. It goes along with claiming one's freedom and with providing this freedom to your audience as well.
As we have seen being an artist is defined by the ability to create art and live a lifestyle conducive to art. Now what defines being an art critic? For me being an art critic, when looked at as a whole and from a distance, is having an opinion about what is good and bad art. In some ways, being a critic is seeing the world in black and white, as a dichotomy, in terms of what the critic likes -and is therefore 'good'- and what the critic dislikes -and is therefore 'bad.' Being a critic is not about shades of grey, about nuances, about slight variations between tones. It is about sharp demarcations, about taking sides… about being critical.
Certainly, being an art critic is also, and ideally, being knowledgeable about the history of art, about art theory and, in respect to the visual arts, about visual art theory. A good art critic will be intimately familiar with the writings of Roland Barthes, John Berger, Walter Benjamin, Edwin Panovsky and many others. But one can have read all these authors and not necessarily be a critic, as we are going to see.
At this point you may want to say 'I can do both. I have knowledge of art history and theory, I have an opinion about what art I like and dislike. I like to share my opinion with others and I think that all this is part of being a well-rounded artist.' You can say that and if you do you are 100% right. All this is true.
However what matters is who you are. Are you first and foremost an artist, or are you first and foremost an art critic? That is the real question and it is for you to answer, not for me. I know that, personally, I am first and foremost an artist. However, as I just said, I am very well read in art theory having worked on a PhD. in Visual Theory, having a comprehensive knowledge of both the history of art and the history of photography and having spent countless hours reflecting upon what is art as well as studying the work of many other artists in numerous mediums.
I also have an opinion regarding what art I like and don't like. Notice that I don't say 'an opinion about which art is good or bad.' To me, that is for the critics to decide. Personally, I know what I like and don't like. That is all.
Finally I have a desire to share my opinion in these matters. However, I don't do this as a critic either. I do this as a teacher and as an artist who wants to share his knowledge. Again, I am first and foremost an artist, then a teacher knowledgeable about art theory and history. What I am not is a critic. As I said who you are is for you to decide. My goal is to help you make the distinction between artist and art critic, not decide which one you are.
Now you may add that many artists are highly critical of their work. And you may ask 'does that make them art critics?' My answer would be that it depends how their critical outlook on their work manifests itself, what shape this outlook takes, what appearance it presents.
Let me explain. It is normal, expected and encouraged for an artist to reflect on his or her work. After all, this is how we progress, evolve, and move forward in general. We need to be able to say 'If I did this again I would do things differently. I would try this other approach for example.' Or we need to be able to say, 'I wish this cliff wasn't so red, or this water so blue, and I intend to change that.' But notice that we make these comments to ourselves or to others only in passing, as if we were thinking aloud. This is part of the process of growth that all artists experience.
It becomes a different matter when such comments about one's work are made in public. Imagine an artist giving a talk at the opening of a gallery show of his work and imagine hearing this artist say that his work isn't very good because he wishes he had done this and that differently, that the work would be better if he had got the foreground sharp instead of blurry, that he would have a much better print quality if he had used ImagePrint instead of the Epson print driver and so on. This attitude, which it turns out is rather commonplace, is not part of being an artist. Instead, such an attitude is indicative of an artist who has become his own critic. My point is: do your art and leave the critique to the critics! Don't do their job for them. If your points are valid, if the 'flaws' you are concerned with are indeed visible in your work, let the critics find out about it. They should be able to see them. If they don't see them your concerns are most likely to be due to fears rather than to actual shortcomings in your work.
The point is that what you are so concerned about may not matter at all to your audience. These 'defects' that you are pointing out may be more the result of your own lack of confidence, your own insecurity, than the result of actual shortcomings on your part. The thing is that no matter where we are from a technical or artistic standpoint, we can all improve and get better. In that sense there is always something that needs improving, something that is not working as well as we wish. Let it be and let the critics find out about it. It is their job. Your job, as an artist, is to create art. The job of a critic is to critique art. While you may be aware of your own shortcomings, keep them to yourself. Why? Not because doing so is 'hiding the truth' or being dishonest about your art. It is not. After all, what you have done is visible to all in your work. It is hard to hide the contents of visual arts since by definition it is after all, visual! No. Keep it to yourself because bringing attention to what you perceive as 'defects' will in turn bring your audience's attention to that aspect of your work and very possibly reduce their enjoyment of your work. You see, they may never have seen it if you hadn't mentioned it, but now that you did they can't think of anything else.
I recommend you let the audience, and the critics, be the judge. I also recommend that when you talk about your work you focus on positive things and not on what you think you did wrong or what you think doesn't work. When you listen to what people have to say about your work you will be surprised at how few actually share your concerns. You will also be surprised at what else they see that you didn't notice, probably because you were so absorbed in finding out all of your 'mistakes.' Don't forget that mistakes are the foundation of art. As Picasso said the goal is not to prevent mistakes but to foster them.
Antelope Canyon Panorama 2
Fuji 617, Fujinon 90mm, Provia 100F
Another example of how Antelope Canyon can be continuously rediscovered if one visits this incredible place with fresh eyes and an open mind. For this essay I have purposefully selected a large number of photographs from Antelope Canyon to illustrate the fact that certain places foster creativity more than others.
10- What about talent?
Genius is the ability to renew one's emotions in daily experience.
I once had a discussion with two friends. One said 'Art cannot be taught.' The other said 'Art can be taught.' They asked me my opinion. I said they were both right because while talent cannot be taught there is a lot one needs to learn about art before one can make use of their potential talent. Granted, talent may arguably be responsible for making a huge difference in the final outcome, in the creation (or lack of) of a masterpiece. However, without the required artistic knowledge on which to base one's potential talent no work of artistic value will be created.
So what is talent? In a way talent can be defined as being:
The ability to make the best artistic use of the resources available to you at a specific time.
Talent by definition involves competition. Why? Because how can you tell you are talented without comparing yourself with those you believe are not talented? Similarly, how can you be more talented than others if you do not compare yourself to others? Mozart was, or so we are told, more talented than Salieri. Dali offered himself as the leading painter of the Surrealist movement and as, or so we were asked to believe, the one whose talent was showing the way. Others, such as Magritte, followed suit. Ansel Adams and Edward Weston 'traded paint', so to speak, with the generally accepted conclusion that while Weston was unquestionably a pure artist, Adams had a more well-rounded set of skills which eventually allowed him to gain fame and fortune while the later eluded Weston all his life.
Was Mozart more talented than Salieri, Dali more talented than Magritte, Adams more talented than Weston, or vice versa, for each of these three pairs of artists? Fact is, we don't know, can't tell and are left with personal opinions about which artist(s) we like or dislike. Talent cannot be quantified. One has it or not, it is about that simple. Any discussion of talent, when it comes to comparing artists of a certain caliber, is eventually an exchange of opinions and not a scientific conversation.
Talent is present in all disciplines, not only in art. Talent is eventually that 'spark' that some have and others don't. It is this elusive quality that makes all the difference between something good and something great. It is the ability to use available resources in a way that no one else has thought of, whether that use is more creative, more all-inclusive, more thorough or something else altogether. Talent has different names in different disciplines. For speakers and writers it is eloquence. The story of Demosthenes, a gifted orator in Ancient Greece who learned to overcome stuttering by practicing speaking with pebbles in his mouth, shows perhaps better than any other story the relative importance of talent versus physical limitations as well as the importance of talent versus training. Cyrano de Bergerac, whose eloquence is at the epicenter of Edmond Rostand's story, overcame a physical malformation, namely a huge nasal appendage, by learning to make fun of himself better than any of those who were trying to ridiculize him.
In many disciplines talented practitioners are simply referred to as gifted, or as brilliant, or again as geniuses. What is similar in all professions is the lack of a specific definition, the absence of a consensus of what this gift, this brilliance, this genius actually consists of. Talent, eventually, is a mystery. While we enjoy its presence and its outcome we can say but little about its implementation.
But what are those 'resources' that talented individuals make better use of than common mortals? It depends of the field you are involved in since talent is present in any discipline. There are talented engineers, talented accountants, talented racecar drivers, pharmacists, masons, mechanics, etc. And of course there are talented artists, working in all artistic mediums.
So what makes a talented photographer? Well, for one, as the story I first told shows, talent is but little without technical excellence. Why? Because talent cannot make up a lack of knowledge. If talent is being able to best use the resources available to you at a given time, then you have to learn exactly what those resources are made of and how they can best be used. You have to become the expert in what those resources consists of. Then, and only then, can you go above and beyond what anyone else has done so far with those resources.
What is too often the case in art is believing that talent alone will make up for any and all shortcomings. It will not. Talent is not a remedy for lack of knowledge, lack of study, lack of work, lack of passion and so on. Talent is the icing on the cake so to speak. You have to have a 'cake' for talent to shine. Talent is inspiration, imagination, thinking out of the box (or inside if you drive a Scion ; -) , etc. Talent is the ability to exceed your limitations and those of your equipment, within limits. If you follow Formula One racing you know that no amount of talent on the part of a driver will allow that driver to turn a Minardi into a Ferrari. One may become the best Minardi there is only to be outdone (greatly) by a less talented driver in a Ferrari. That's just the way things are. It is not necessarily fair, but it needs to be understood for what it is.
Antelope Canyon Panorama 3
Fuji 617, Fujinon 90mm, Provia 100F
I have been asked why I photograph Antelope Canyon so much and not other comparable places such as, say, The Wave, a favorite of many photographers. Simply because I see no limit to creativity in Antelope while I find other locations more limiting, at least at this time.
11- Skill enhancement exercises
Exercises for this article are somewhat more challenging than for the previous articles in this series. This is because, as I explained in the introduction, this subject is far more involved and requires a more important commitment on your part.
Nevertheless I planned the exercises below so that they prove helpful towards helping you discover if you are an artist or help you become a more well-rounded artist, whichever your situation may be.
A-Write an artist statement.
There is nothing quite as useful as explaining why you do what you do, how you got to be where you are, and where you plan to go from here.
B-write a history of you as an artist
Do a 'history' of your life as an artist. Find old drawings, photographs, sculptures, paintings or any other artwork that you did over the years, from the time you were a child until today, and put them together in a collection. If you no longer have these drawings describe them in writing as well as you can, on a single page of paper, and add this page to the collection in place of the original. Better, re-create the missing piece now, as best as you can. It will be different from the original but this re-creation may lead to some interesting artistic breakthroughs.
C-Portrait of the artist as a young man (or woman)
Describe yourself as you were (or as you remember yourself) when you just started your artistic career. The exact age you were at that time will vary from one person to the next. This may be you as a young child, or you as a young adult, or you at middle age, or later, or earlier, or at some other time. This is personal, but what matters is that you describe yourself as precisely as you can - the way you looked, what you thought, what your dreams were, your goals were, your aspiration were at that time. This is a sort of 'resurfacing' process, a sort of going back to the source, of remembering what things were like back then, before the baggage of life accumulated upon you, upon your goals, your aspirations, your dreams, etc. It is a return to the source, to the spring of inspiration, and the key to this return is your memories of this past time. Make these memories as vivid as possible in your description. If you do not feel like writing then draw, or paint, or create a musical piece, or a sculpture, or anything else that embodies your memories. Do not let the disappointments of life, the many turns and twists that your existence took between then and now, prevent you from making as complete a description as you can. You need to return to the state in which you were back then.
D- Make a list of the misconceptions you had about art before reading this article.
E- Do you hesitate about whether to be an artist or not? If yes, what stops you from becoming an artist? Make a list of what stands in the way.
F- What is your position in regards to 'Being Lucky'? Have you been told by other people that you are lucky in regards to your photography? Do you think you are lucky? Take time to reflect upon this issue. Specifically, consider how your position in regards to luck influences first your own work and second the way you look at the work of other artists.
G- Go out and create the photograph(s) you have always wanted to create. Do it right now! We all have photographs, or artwork, that we have wanted to create for a long time but have been waiting until 'we get better at it' to create. With this exercise I ask you to wait no longer and instead go out and create this artwork or photograph right now. Don't hurt yourself and don't do anything silly, but do face your fears and the reasons you haven't' created these images yet. In my estimate the only true manner to face these fears is to go out and do it. Art is about creating, not about thinking when we are going to create. So go out and create the one image, or the images, you have wanted to create for years. I know it isn't easy but if not now, then when?
Horseshoe Bend with Flowers
Linhof Master Technica, Schneider 75mm, Provia 100F
This is my most creative photograph from a location I visit just as often as Antelope Canyon. It is also the least 'classical' in the sense that to include the flowering bush I had to hide half of the Horseshoe Bend. However, in doing so I created tension and conflict in the image while inviting a visual comparison of circular shapes: the flowers in the foreground and the Horseshoe Bend in the background.
We live in a world that fosters the technical rather than the artistic, the mechanical rather than the organic and a financial rather than a mecenistic approach. Art goes against all of that. While it can have a technical aspect, such as digital photography has, art is eventually about expressing yourself, about what inspires you, about sharing your view of the world with others. What medium you use, as well as all the technical intricacies of this medium, eventually fade away when compared with the message expressed in your work. Who knows the size of the chisels used by Michael Angelo and whether they were made of hardened steel, Damascus steel, or some other metal. Only experts know which film Ansel Adams used to create Moonrise, Hernandez, NM. I am sure you can find additional examples to further this argument. If you can you know how little people will care10 years from now about whether you used Microdrives or Compact Flash cards to store your Raw files. Case closed.
We also live in a world that loves placing boundaries on what we do. By definition being an artist is not having boundaries about what we can create. However, this is less and less the case these days due to the limitations that artists impose or see imposed upon them. During a recent workshop, while talking about my Paris photographs, I was asked what was my definition of landscape photography. My answer was 'just about any subject that is found outdoors.' This question surprised me until I realized that it emerged out of the perceived conflict between my wilderness landscape photographs and my Paris (or other cities) landscape photographs. I had never perceived this as a conflict as I consider the Natural Landscape and the Urban Landscape (to simplify) as being both Landscape photography. However, to a 'purist' I suppose there can be a difference. Not to me though, and that is my freedom to decide. A lot of photographers feel bound by similar limitations. If you are not free to create how can you be creative? And if you are not creative how can you be an artist?
On a different level art cannot be judged by how much money it brings back to you. Whether you make no money at all, or make an obscene amount through the sale of your art, are not accurate commentaries on the actual artistic quality of your work. I have experienced both, and I know that neither situation was generated by the quality of my work. The artistic quality of your work, and the amount (or lack) of money your work generates, are two separate things.
Finally art is by nature a mecenistic activity. I believe one doesn't choose art as a career. Instead, art chooses us, for better or for worse as they say. In this regard you have to make the best of a difficult situation and in this endeavor several options are open to you. You can decide to try and make a living with art. Some are very successful at this, and in this respect I can only send you back to paragraph two, above, of this conclusion.
You can also decide that art is something you want to do for yourself and for a limited audience, without trying to make money with it. That is a fair decision, one that will go a long way towards protecting your artistic sensitivity from the school of hard knocks that you will be forced to attend should you want to make an income from your art. That decision will also go a long way towards freeing a lot of your time from activities such as marketing, salesmanship, show attendance, record keeping, taxes, and other activities that are required of you as an artist in business.
You can also decide that art is art, that it is your 'sacred haven' the part of you no one but a select few will ever get to see. You can decide to shun the public spotlight, the ten minutes of fame promised by the media that lure many of us towards creating a public identity and presence. This last choice, which in a sense is at the opposite extreme of the 'art for riches' approach, is maybe the one that will give you the most creative freedom. Whether the results of this choice are worth it or not is for you to decide.
Finally, keep in mind that art is supposed to be a fun and creative endeavor. If doing art is stressful, problematic, gives you headaches and keeps you awake at night you are definitely not doing it right. You need to free yourself from what is stressing you out when you are trying to be creative.
I mentioned the expression artist in business and in this essay I made a sharp distinction between being an artist and making a living from your art. This is because I truly believe that those are two entirely different activities. The former involves being an artist while the later involves being a businessman. I therefore decided, as I mentioned already, that the 11th article in this series will be 'Being an Artist in Business'. If this sounds like something you want to read, or if you have any comments on this article, make sure to drop me a line at email@example.com
In the meantime, as all the other installments so far, this series continues to be a suivre.
About this essay
This essay is part of Chapter 7 in Alain's first book: Mastering Landscape Photography.
About Alain Briot
Alain Briot creates fine art photographs, teaches workshops and offers DVD tutorials on composition, printing and on marketing photographs. Alain is also the author of Mastering Landscape Photography and of Mastering Composition, Inspiration and Personal Style. Both books are available from Amazon and other bookstores as well as directly from Alain. You can find more information about Alain's work and see his photographs, writings and tutorials on his website at http://www.beautiful-landscape.com
Alain welcomes your comments on this essay as well as on his other essays. You can reach Alain directly by emailing him at firstname.lastname@example.org