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Being an Artist

By: Alain Briot
View Profile1-Introduction
This has to be the most difficult essay I have written so far. Not to say the previous ones were easy. Truth is, each essay has become increasingly difficult to write as I progressed towards the end of this series on Photography and Aesthetics and moved from technical considerations, such as Exposure, Film Choice or even Seeing Photographically to more elusive and personality-based aspects of photography such as Selecting Keepers, Creating a Portfolio, and most recently Developing a Personal Style.

As I progressed towards completion of this series I managed to keep in balance the 'perilous' act of presenting information coming from personal experience in such a way that this information was useful to those who do not have direct experience with the subject. I feel I succeeded in this endeavor even when discussing something as private as personal style. It was a difficult act, somewhat akin to walking a tight rope, but it was feasible.

When it came to describing what Being an Artist is the difficulty increased ten fold. At first I assumed that I was facing the same difficulties I faced with the previous essays: that I was covering a subject on which little had been written about and for which I had to create nearly all new material. But as I toiled down the road trying to complete this essay I realized that the problem of describing what Being an Artist is was more complex. Why? For 3 main reasons.

First because defining what being an artist is, is a difficult endeavor. By definition artists are difficult to categorize and often defy classification altogether. Therefore any attempt to define what it means to be an artist is bound to be challenging at least and problematic at worst. Eventually there are just as many 'definitions' of what Being an Artist is as there are artists. While we may agree on some main common characteristics, how these characteristics are implemented in our lives, the importance we place on one characteristic versus another and what we consider of primary or secondary importance depends on each of us. It varies according to our unique situation, on our personality and on our previous experience. Someone who has been an artist all his or her life does not see being an artist the same way than someone who is just becoming aware that being an artist is a possibility. In the end all artists are unique individuals and each of them has a different idea of what being an artist is.

Second because being an Artist is not an activity one can do on the side. It is a lifestyle and a profession. While anyone can, to various extent, learn how to see photographically, select keepers, create a portfolio or develop a personal style to name but a few of the aspects involved in doing photography as an art form, being an artist is a choice one cannot make 'in passing' so to speak. Being (or becoming) an artist is a decision that requires a high level of commitment.

Third because when I tackled this subject I did not realize how hard it would be to describe what I do on a daily basis. I now know that doing something intuitively and being able to describe it accurately are two entirely different things. I also know, from having written this article, that one can be an artist without being able to precisely describe what being an artist is.

These three difficulties, which I need to point out did not become clear to me until I had been working on this article for several months, troubled me to no end. They troubled me because this whole series is based on the premise that readers will be able to do what the articles describe. It is built on the guiding principle that readers, while maybe new to the concepts introduced in each successive essay, will be able to successfully implement the contents of each essay if they spend the necessary time and effort.

Yet, I had to complete this article and to do so I had to find the necessary freedom to express myself and say what I had to say. To gain access to this freedom I concluded that there was no way I could cover the subject in such a way as to avoid making this article anything else but an educated statement about what being an artist is. I therefore say it loud and clear, right here right now before we delve into the heart of the heart of Being an Artist: this essay represents my opinion of what being an artist is. Your opinion might differ. My way is not the only way and your opinion may be just as valid.

Antalope 1
Antelope Canyon Panorama 1.

Fuji 617, Fujinon 90mm, Provia 100F

However I place one additional comment on the recognition that I can only write about my own personal experience of being an artist: I have extensive experience being an artist. I have thought about the issues that follow long and hard. I have considered the many aspects of each issue with great care. I have spent a lot of time, years in some instances, weighting the pros and cons of taking a specific position in regards to each of these aspects. Not knowing what those issues are yet you may find this last comment somewhat superfluous. It isn't but if it so appears at this time I invite you to re-read this introduction after you have completed your first reading of this essay.

Before I conclude this introduction let me say that as you read this essay you need to keep in mind that it was written by an artist. Maybe better than any of what I actually say in it, maybe more important than any of the actual contents I make in this text, is the fact that this essay is an embodiment of the concepts I describe below, an enactment of what I consider to be the main characteristics of an Artist.

What follows are therefore my views of what being an artist is. These views are based upon my personal experience and reflections as well as upon discussions I have had with artists and friends. As you read through it keep in mind that this essay, while a stand alone article, is actually part one of a two part essay. For reasons that I describe below I decided to separate Being an Artist from Being an Artist in Business. This article is the first of these two essays.

Let us now go where few have gone before and dive right into my opinion of what being an artist is all about.

2-Freedom of expression: let us be artists

There is no must in art because art is free.
Wassily Kandinsky

In my previous essay, Personal Style, we saw that personal style is about personality. In this essay we are going to see that Being an artist is directly related to personality because Being an Artist is about expressing your personality. To put it in a concise manner:

Personal Style is about personality.
Being an artist is about being free to express your personality through art.

Feeling free to express what you want to express is central to being an artist and we are going to look at what this means and at how you can find space for creative freedom in your life.

Being an artist is about being free to express your personality through art. Clearly, one can express himself or herself in numerous ways but to be considered an artist one needs to express himself or herself through an artistic endeavor. At this point some of you may remark that this leads to the question 'What is art?' It certainly does. However, answering this question is the subject of a completely different essay and I will not tackle it in this article. Let us just say for the present time that photography is an art form and that we will consider photography as the medium of choice for the purpose of this essay. Clearly, artists can express themselves in a variety of medium so we will also take it as point of departure that while photography is our primary concern we may very well, as artists, be creative in other mediums as well.

This being said the main difficulty of being an artist, in my estimate, is first feeling free to express yourself and second being free to express more and more of your personality, of your character. Why? Because there are a number of things that stand in the way of achieving this. Let's look at what those are right away.

People often tell me they want to become artists. However the next thing they say after that is list all the things they feel they cannot do. The conversation often goes something like this: 'I want to be an artist. But, of course, I can't do this, I won't do that, I certainly do not intend to go that way' and so on. The problem with this attitude is that even before they actually start on the path towards becoming artists most people limit what they will be able to do as artists. They start their artistic career by limiting their artistic freedom.

Art is about freedom and creative expression. Being an artist is first and foremost about feeling free to create. It is about expressing what is in you, expressing something that potentially others have not expressed before or have expressed in a different way. It is about expressing what you want and maybe even need to express. If you start your artistic career by listing all the things you cannot do you reduce your creative freedom while you really need to expand it.

Antalope glow
Antelope Glow

Canon 300D, 17-40 F4 L

I consider Antelope Canyon to be one of the areas most conducive to photographic creativity anywhere. Each time I go there I find myself creating new photographs. This one is no exception as I had never seen this particular composition and light glow before.

I certainly understand that there are subjects that you truly, and for reasons unrelated to creative freedom, do not want to address. I do to. For example, I made the decision a number of years ago to not express negativity in my photographs. However, this does not limit my freedom. Instead, it defines my personality. When I talk about this subject I do not say 'I cannot photograph this.' Instead I say 'I chose not to photograph this.' In other words I feel perfectly free to photograph negative subjects but I have decided not to cover such subjects at this time. I remain free to change my mind in the future if I chose to. And I know that should I decide to cover these subjects I may create excellent photographs. In other words, and to conclude on this aspect of being an artist, what is at work here is nothing but a personal moral decision not to photograph certain subjects.

As an artist you may make similar decisions in regards to subjects that you find objectionable, styles that you dislike or types of images that you object to. Doing so is normal and expectable as long as it is part of your character.

What is not normal or expectable is to rule out certain things as not feasible because you believe that 'only the masters can photograph them,' or because 'you are not good enough' or do not have 'the proper style for that' or even rule out certain achievements because 'you will never get there.' In other words before limiting what you do ask yourself why you are limiting what you can do. Is it because A-you morally object to photographing certain subjects, or is it because B-you feel inexperienced, insecure about your abilities or unsure of the outcome of your efforts? In my estimate reason A is perfectly understandable while reason B needs to be studied carefully. The underlying motivations for reason B need to be exposed and then discarded on the pile of 'creative freedom reducing obstacles' that all artists have to contend with.

3- Being an artist is a lifestyle, not a temporary situation.

At different moments you see with different eyes.
You see differently in the morning than you do in the evening.
In addition, how you see is also dependent on your emotional state.
Because of this, a motif can be seen in many different ways,
and this is what makes art interesting.

Edvard Munch

Art is a lifestyle not just an activity. One's art and one's life are eventually inseparable. One cannot be an artist without living a lifestyle which is conducive to being an artist:

Being an artist means having a lifestyle that makes creativity and art part of your everyday life

One cannot be creative 8 hrs a day, from 9 to 5. Similarly one cannot schedule 'creative time' say from 4 to 5 p.m. every Thursday. While you can certainly write this down in your planner, or in your PDA, whether you will feel inspired on that particular day at that specific time remains to be seen.

Fact is, the muses visit whenever they please and not necessarily during 'business hours.' It is therefore very difficult to schedule creative time the way one would schedule a business appointment. Certainly, it can be done. But there are no guarantees that you will feel creative during that time. To guarantee success in your creative endeavors you have to be aware of your creative impulses and design a schedule that works around them, not a schedule that demands that you be creative from 3 to 4 then do paperwork from 4 to 5 and so on.

Being an artist therefore means implementing a lifestyle that favors creativity, impulsion and freedom. Because this may conflict with other activities being an artist means learning how to organize your life so that you can handle these potential conflicts successfully.

Today, and specifically with landscape photography, workshops and photographic expeditions are an excellent way to schedule creative opportunities. A workshop is time you set aside to do just photography, usually in a place away from where you live and with like-minded people who share similar goals and interests. Workshop time is creative time, free from the constraints of everyday life. It is time during which you can focus solely on photography and on creating art. The first and foremost goal of a workshop schedule is to offer as much creative time as possible to the participants.

Celestial Star Trails

Linhof Master Technica, Rodenstock 210mm, Provia 100F

There is no limit to the number of possible images one can create from any given subject. I have never seen this composition before and responded only to my own creativity when I decided to do a star trail composition at this location.

4- Being an artist does not mean making an income from your art

Your pictures would have been finished a long time ago if I were not forced every day to do something to earn money.
Edgar Degas in a Letter to Jean-Baptiste Faure, contemporary art collector, 1877.

There is a widespread belief that a 'real' artist must make a living from his art.
In my view being an artist does not imply making an income from your art. Making an income from any activity, art or other, is being an entrepreneur, a business person, etc. It is not being an artist. In my view, as I said earlier:

Being an artist is about being free to express your personality through art.

You can very well achieve this without selling your art because according to my definition being an artist and making an income from your art are not directly related. One is not a requirement for the other.

Personally I was an artist long before I was making an income from my art and I will still be an artist if I stop making an income from my work. This situation is very common. Children create art without any idea that art can be sold. As they grow up and discover the income potential in their art people make a choice to create and sell their art or to continue creating art without trying to sell their work.

I so firmly believe that making art and selling art are two different activities that, as I also mentioned earlier, I decided to write two articles on the subject of being an artist: Being an Artist, which you are currently reading, and Being an artist in Business, which will be the next article in this series, #11. I made this decision because I needed to separate creating art from selling art.

This understanding came to me because of a question that I am asked quite often: 'How can I make it as an artist?' It took me years to realize that this question actually consists of two questions into one. The first question is 'How can I be an artist?' The second question is 'How can I make an income from selling my art?' These two questions are unrelated. The first question is the subject of this article. The second question, which can be translated as 'Am I a business person able to market art?' is the subject of my next article.

Very often, people take the decision to create art and to sell art at the same time. Such a decision makes things twice as difficult because it means learning two professions at once: the profession of Artist and the profession of Art Marketer. I recommend you start by creating art and that later, once you have assembled a portfolio, you decide if you also want to sell art. While doing both at once is possible it will make things twice as difficult and potentially create an extremely stressful situation.

Being able to make a living from selling your art is not what defines you as an artist. It's what defines you as a business person. Too often the two are considered together. The true test of whether you are an artist or not is not here. The true test of being an artist is finding out if you feel free to express your personality through your art.

Mnt Round cloud
Round Rock Clouds, Navajoland

Linhof Master Technika, Fuji 90mm, Provia 100F

Part of my Navajoland Portfolio, and created in 2004, the original idea for this image first came to me in 1987. At the time I only had a 35mm with me when I saw similar clouds hoovering over this rock formation. I had to wait 9 years to witness, and photograph a similar scene, this time with large format.

5- Being an artist does not mean exhibiting or publishing your work

I hear that my friends are preparing another exhibition this year but I must discount the possibility of participating in it since I have nothing worth showing.

Claude Monet

Just like being an artist does not mean making an income from your work, being an artist does not mean exhibiting or publishing your work. Granted, many artists, if not most, do publish and exhibit their work. However doing so is not a requirement for being an artist. It is a frequent outcome, and it is a desired outcome for many, but it is not a requirement.

This is especially important to understand if you are just starting a career as an artist or if you find yourself unable or unwilling to exhibit your work for whatever reason. Pressing the issue, by trying to get a show of your work at all costs in a gallery or a museum, and encountering tremendous difficulties while trying to achieve this goal, can be very discouraging and may erroneously lead you to conclude that doing art is not for you.

I say 'erroneously' because what you are experiencing is lack of success in organizing a show of your work. It is not lack of success in creating art. Since we have seen that creating art is central to being an artist your success at being an artist is actually quite high since, supposedly, by the time you are trying to have a show of your work you should have created enough artwork to fill the exhibition space you have in mind.

You may argue that the reason why you are not successful at having people agree to show your work is because your work is not good enough. This may or may not be true. There are numerous reasons why a gallery, a museum, or other exhibition space may not want to organize a show of your work. These reasons include, in no particular order, the fact that your work may not be the kind of work they usually exhibit, the fact that their exhibition calendar is filled several years in advance, the fact that they only exhibit artists whose name is already well known, the fact that your work is not matted and framed and that they do not want to cover this expense, the fact that they believe, rightly or wrongly, that your work will not sell, and so on. Note that these reasons have nothing to do with the actual artistic quality of your work. Instead, they have everything to do with either the business side of photography, something we will address in the next article, or with the concept of audience, something we will address right away in the section below.

Mnt valley
Monument Valley Shadows

Linhof Master Technica, Rodenstock 150mm, Provia 100F

This lighting situation occurs only twice a year, and can only be witnessed and photographed if there are no clouds. I have seen other photographs showing only the Left Mitten but I wanted to photograph both together to show the cause and effect behind this light phenomena.

6- Being an artist means having an audience

There are always two people in every picture: the photographer and the viewer.

Ansel Adams

The concept of audience is problematic to many students. When I taught English 101, at NAU in Arizona and MTU in Michigan, I had the hardest time in the world getting students to understand that they needed to write for a specific audience. When asked who was going to read their papers they inevitably answered 'anyone who feels like reading it.' What they meant was that I, as the teacher, was their reader. Who else was going to find and read their papers? Since this was not the answer I wanted to hear I had them describe a specific reader as closely as possible, down to the clothes this reader wore, the job this person had, the car that person drove, the house… you get the point. Yet, they continued to write for me because, eventually, I was the one who they believed had control over their grade.

We are now past English 101 and it is tempting to find this story amusing. However, let me ask you this question: who is your audience? Who do you photograph for, who do you want to look at your photographs? Often, when I ask this question during a workshop, participants tell me that they photograph just for themselves. They tell me that they enjoy the photographs they create and that they are not concerned with what anyone else thinks. Yet, invariably, those who give me this answer bring prints to the print review for me, and all other participants, to look at and comment upon.

Conflict often indicates problems and there clearly is conflict in the above account. If you only create work for your own enjoyment then why wonder what others think of it? Personally, I don't have a problem with any photographer creating work just for themselves and never showing their work to anyone else. But, I do have a problem with someone making this statement then asking for feedback from people, be they workshop participants or other.

I also have on occasion photographers who tell me, just like my English 101 students, that they photograph for whomever wants to look at their work. Just like my 101 students, they are at a loss when asked to define a specific audience and retract to the position that they are not discriminative, don't try to rule any one out, and that they photograph for all those who may find their work interesting. Yet, when asked who they show their work to, or who has a chance to see their work, it turns out that their audience is severely limited to either family members, other photographers, or a small group of individuals accessible because of their profession.

In regards to the above account here is what Al Weber, personal friend and long time workshop assistant to Ansel Adams, has to say about the subject. I think Al's statement says it as well as can be said:

No artist can reach every person out there. It is common knowledge that the most successful artists are those who have a known audience and can communicate directly. Trying to please or talk to everyone would be the same as making post cards
to look at while eating a TV dinner.

Al Weber
in Photographic Novels, the work of Martin Blume. May 2000

I also see a problem with photographers claiming to be artists yet saying they do not need an audience. Why, because, in my view, in addition to the previous partial definition of what being an artist is,

Being an Artist is sharing your view of the world with a specific audience.

This is true even if you are sharing it with an audience of one. Why? Because being an artist is sharing your vision with others. You can argue that you are your own audience, that you only aim at pleasing yourself and that you do not care if anyone else sees your work. That is fine and I don't have a problem with it. But according to my view-that being an artist is, among other things, sharing your view of the world—then if you are your own audience, and you do not show your work to anyone else whatsoever, you are not an artist, i.e. someone who makes art. If you think about this carefully you will find out that there few people actually fit in this category. Virtually all of us show our work to other people, no matter how few. You will also realize that in fact, when someone says they are their own audience and do not want to know what others think of their work, what they are really saying is that they are either afraid of what others might say or not willing at this time to face comments about their work.

Eventually as artists we are indebted to our audience because we need an audience to communicate with. Being an artist is about sharing and having an audience is being able to share our work with others. As such we are indebted to our audience for giving us the opportunity to share our work and our endeavors, for being willing to listen to us and for engaging in the dialog that we engage in through art. But above all, and with all due respect to our audience, artists eventually owe their loyalty to the pursuit of their vision. It is therefore important to remember that, as you pursue your vision, your audience can and may change to reflect your own changes in style, approach, presentation, etc.

7- Being an artist means having an appreciation for the arts

Without poets, without artists, men would soon weary of nature's monotony.

Guillaume Apollinaire

There is a widespread belief in our society that being an artist is not having a real job and that there is no real use for artists in society as opposed to doctors, lawyers, engineers, or any other 'accepted' profession.

One of the purposes of this essay is to challenge this belief. First, as we have seen, being an artist does not imply making a living from your art. This negates the belief that artists need to get a real job. They may already have a real job! Second, we need to acknowledge the fact that art is just as important as any other aspect of our lives. What would our lives be without art? What would our existence be if we did not have music, if we did not have movies or theater plays, if our walls were bare of any paintings, drawings, photographs, or any other type of décor, if our public parks or private gardens were devoid of landscaping and outdoor sculptures, or if wearing jewelry was not an option, to name but a few of the instances in which art is present in our lives. Clearly, art is as important as any other aspect of our lives. The first step towards being an artist is to understand this. You cannot be an artist unless you value art and the importance art plays in everyday life.

To me being a professional is being able to follow the standards required by a specific profession. In other words, and to take examples from professions other than art, it would be preposterous for one to say 'I am an engineer' without having the education, the training, the experience, the job position, the responsibilities, etc. that are expected of an engineer. In other words, being an engineer is more than just saying that you are an engineer. Being an engineer is being able to prove, through your actions, performance and professional conduct that you have the required knowledge, experience, abilities, training, etc. to do the work expected of an engineer. The same applies to any other profession.

Spider rock
Spiderock Sunset

Linhof Master Technica, Schneider 75mm, Provia 100F

The first time I saw the unique lighting situation depicted in this image I did so only seconds before the sun disappeared below the horizon. As a result I could not capture it except as a snapshot using a handheld digital camera. I returned 6 months later, knowing the lighting conditions would be similar, and had my 4x5 setup and ready although the weather was overcast. Seconds before sunset the sun came out then disappeared after a minute or two. This image shows what happened while the sun was out that evening.

Interestingly expectations are different when it comes to artists. Why? Because most people are unclear about what the requirements. the training, the education, the experience, the job position, and the other responsibilities of an artist are. They are unclear about it because the professional responsibilities of an artist are rarely discussed, because artists represent a minority and because what being an artist entails is something that few people are familiar with. They are also unsure of what makes an artist a professional because this is rarely discussed even less listed as a set of rules.

Let's outline several things that make an artist a professional artist, in no particular order:
- Education
- Training
- Dedication
- Skills
- Achievements
- Responsibilities
- Professional position
- Integrity

When looking at this list it becomes clear that these requirements, in their general nature, are no different than the requirements of any other profession. What is different is not the fundamental requirements that are asked of an artist. What is different is how people perceive what being an artist is all about.

In the light of the above remark it becomes important to make sure that people take you, as an artist, seriously. If people do not consider being an artist a legitimate activity, and therefore do not take you seriously, they will not respect you, will not respect your work and will therefore not enable you to succeed. Instead they will undermine what you do and work against you. If you cannot change the mind of such people get away from them as fast as you can. Don't push the issue, just let them be. Seek people who understand what being an artist is about, people who respect you, take you seriously and are willing to help you.

It is also important that you do not feel guilty about being an artist, about your creative freedom, or about doing what you like instead of getting a 'real' job. Being an artist is just as difficult as any other occupation, if not more difficult. There is nothing about it that makes one more privileged, or more fortunate, than if one had chosen another occupation. When someone tries to make you feel guilty it is nearly always because they are not happy doing what they are doing and hence jealous that you are doing what you like. This is a reflection of their choices, not of yours. There is no reason to feel guilty about having made the right choices for yourself. If anything, tell them to make different choices, to change their lives so they stop resenting what you do and start doing what they like, so they let you live your life without feeling the need to make you feel guilty about it.

Continue to Part 2 >
Alain Briot
© Alain Briot. Article used with permission.
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