Reflections on Photography & Art Essay Series - Achieving your Personal Style - Part 2
16 - Don't try to please everyone
Do not quench your inspiration and your imagination; do not become the slave of your model.
Vincent Van Gogh
Inspiration thrives when you are excited about what you do and when you are excited about the prospect of showing your new work to people who you know will appreciate it.
On the other hand inspiration can be easily dwarfed if you expect part of your audience to be unpleased by your new work or when you know for a fact that criticism is to be expected.
At such times it is important to remember that you will never be able to please everyone. No matter what you do, some people will love your work while others will dislike it. This may sound depressing if you are new to this aspect of art, but unfortunately it is a fact of life as an artist. The solution to this problem is to develop a thick skin and to learn how to put this out of your mind.
This statement about the fact that negative comments will come your way no matter what type of artwork you do often comes as a surprise to upcoming photographers. To illustrate it I regularly use my own experience as an example. I do landscape photography, and my images aim at representing beauty. My website, beautiful-landscape.com, is named after my main purpose for my work.
You would think that such an endeavor would bring little or no criticism or negative feedback. Well, the fact is that it does bring some. Whenever I announce a new series of images, or publish a new photograph, I have people email me, or contact me in one way or another, to let me know how much better my work would be if I did 'X' to it. Some simply tell me that my work is no good, using far less considerate terms than I am writing here.
As the proverb goes 'Let the dogs bark: the caravan will go by regardless.' In other words, you can afford to ignore a certain amount of background noise, or in our case of negative feedback, no matter how adamant some of this feedback may be, and still continue moving forward. Another way to put it is to say 'Press on regardless' a concept I discuss in detail in my Being an Artist in Business essay.
After all, everyone is entitled to an opinion and it would be nonsense to believe that everyone has the same opinion or that everyone loves what you do. What matters is that you love what you do and that your audience loves what you do as well. It is up to you to consider those who regularly criticize your work part of your audience or not. Personally, I do not consider them part of my audience and I recommend that you follow my approach. However, the final call is up to you.
Just remember that trying to please an audience that, so far, has proven to be impossible to please is not conducive to renewed inspiration. Inspiration, when it comes from your audience, comes from an audience praising you for the work you just did and asking you to go further with your vision. It does not come from an audience that cannot be pleased no matter how hard you try.
While some criticism and gripes may be legitimate, and while listening to such criticism and gripes can help you improve your work, I have found that many gripes are simply not worth paying more than a cursory attention to, if any. If you do want to pay attention to gripes, group them into categories and address or answer each category once. As you will soon discover, the same categories come back regularly and once you have answered them you can simply give the same answer over and over again, or forget about them altogether.
In regards to negative criticism I want to point this out: you wouldn't listen to music that depresses you and makes you feel worthless on purpose, would you? Well this is exactly what you do when you listen to negative criticism. You are listening to words that are depressing and that make you feel worthless. These are not words praising your efforts. These are words putting your work, and yourself, down. These are words that do not respect how hard you worked and that have no intent on helping you go further, push you forward or fuel your passion. Let it go. Don't listen to it. Even better, tell those that speak these words to get lost.
17 - Expect detractors
You have to dream, you have to have a vision, and you have to set a goal for yourself that might even scare you a little because sometimes that seems far beyond your reach. Then I think you have to develop a kind of resistance to rejection, and to the disappointments that are sure to come your way.
As an artist achieving a personal style you have to expect detractors. You have to expect some people to question your vision, to argue that it is not worthwhile, to tell you they will have none of it, to state you will lose them as customers and to otherwise try to throw you off. Take it for what it is: an attempt at making you feel that your vision isn't worth much, if it is worth anything at all.
I am qualified to talk about this subject having received my share of such comments, either in person, over email or over the phone. If anything, they have further convinced me that my vision was real, that I was on to something unique, that I wasn't following the norm, that I was challenging the status quo.
For example, my open attitude regarding my process, and my statement that I enhance and manipulate my work in order to express the emotions I felt when I recorded the original camera image, has been the source of endless comments from the part of numerous other photographers and photography enthusiasts.
The publication of my essay on the subject, titled Just say Yes, in which I detail precisely how I respond to questions regarding whether I manipulate my work or not, was a watershed event in this regard. I had one person email me for example, to say that he hoped 'I would not regret publishing this essay.' I had another one tell me that writing this piece, and explaining my position, was going to be 'my downfall.'
Well, I got news for them, to use a popular expression. For one, I am still here and doing better than ever. For two, they were sadly mistaken because they confused art and facts.
Let me explain. What I do is art. First, I make no secret about it. It says so in the heading of my website, and my educational record is a who's who of the art schools and the artists I studied with.
Second, etymologically speaking, art is artifice. It is an impression, a gloss and an illusion. Art is not real. Art is the imitation of reality. In my view it is an imitation that better shows us what reality is, but it is an imitation nevertheless.
Face and Mountains
Rock art, Native American petroglyphs (images carved on rocks) and pictographs (images painted on rocks), has been a staple of my personal style for years.
While subject alone is not enough to define style, working with a specific subject for years does create a solid link between an artist and his subject.
I approach rock art the way I approach the landscape. My goal is to express my emotional response to the rock art panels I photograph rather than create a scientific record of these panels.
18 - Skill Enhancement Exercises
Musicians always come up with stuff I couldn't imagine, using my instruments. I can get a sense of whether something would be a good musical resource, but I don't do music.
I'm a toolmaker. It's always amazing what someone like Herbie Hancock, Wendy Carlos or Stevie Wonder, can come up with. What they'll do when you put something new in front of them is they'll turn a couple knobs and listen, and immediately get a sense of where to go.The muse talks to them.
Bob Moog, inventor of the Moog Analog Synthesizer
A - Design a short term and a long-term project
Write a description of your project.
Set a deadline for completing it.
Do this for a short-term project: a month or two maximum.
Do this for a long-term project: a year or so maximum.
B - Describe your comfort zone
List everything that you are not comfortable doing
C - Go to a location you like over and over again to photograph it.
This approach will force you to look at places that you know well in a new way each time you visit them. It will force you to search for something new, something you have not seen before. You will search for new compositions that you did not see or did not think of previously. You will search for new light and for a multitude of other things.
Because you cannot take the same photo twice and because you cannot take the photos you have seen from other photographers, you are forced to invent your own images of this place. As time goes by and you continue following this approach you will slowly but surely develop you own personal way of representing this place.
In doing so you are developing your own personal vision of this place. You are not only creating images that people have not seen before, you are also creating your own images of this place. You are not only being creative you are also being original. Originality is one of the trademarks of a personal vision, one of the tests you can use to decide if you have a personal style or not.
D - Follow your creative impulses
E - Master technique in order to focus on art
G - Listen to music while you work
H - Invent a new way to work
I - Don't rush it
Rhythm, in a way, also has to do with deadlines. There is nothing like a deadline to hasten us towards completion of a project, and indirectly generate the necessary inspiration to find the way to complete this project. Deadlines generate rhythm and impose a specific pace, rushed if one procrastinated or if the deadline is too short, or, more rarely, slower if the deadline provides more ample time or if one started the project early.
White Sands Branches
I rarely photograph details, preferring to focus on the grand landscape. This is a personal choice and there are exceptions to this rule, as demonstrated by the image above.
I use the same approach to photograph both details and grand landscapes. I could, for example, have used this detail as a foreground element in a wide-angle, near-far composition.
I decided to focus solely on the foreground here because my vision for this image was not of a near-far composition. Instead, my vision was of a close up showing the relationship between the shape of the branches and the sand ripples, both lit by glowing sunset light. My vision was also about emphasizing the difference in color between the warm sunset light on the branches and part of the sand ripples, and the cool blue of the shaded areas.
19 - Conclusion
It seems that perfection is reached not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing more to take away.
Antoine de Saint Exupery
The achievement of a personal style means following your inspiration and vision, being creative, trusting your own instincts, leaving your comfort zone and not being afraid to take chances and make your own rules.
Your personal style is an extension of your personality. As such your personal style is as unique as your handwriting for example. The mistake that many people make when it comes to personal style is thinking that they have to have a model and that this model will help them find the right way and the wrong of making art. Such a model does not exist because art has no rules. Art is whatever you want it to be.
As long as you do not approach art that way, the achievement of a personal style will continue to elude you. If you forever try to continue following the rules, or try to copy someone else's work, your work will remain commonplace and expectable. To be unique, to surprise yourself and your audience, in short to achieve your personal style, the artwork you create has to be yours.
Think of art as being this one place where anything goes, where you can be yourself and do what you want, whatever that may be. Think of personal style as being able to create something unique and extraordinary, something that does not exist in any way, shape or form, something that others will want to own and admire.
Personal style is therefore about being cutting edge. As such it carries with it the risk of exposing yourself to potential disapproval, because anything that is cutting edge is bound to elicit extreme responses, either total acceptance or total rejection. 'Mild' responses are rare once an artist develops a true personal style and this is one of the reasons why so many hesitate at doing what it takes to achieve a personal style. In other words, they are concerned, and rightly so, that the responses to their work will be polarized rather than neutral.
Having a defined and recognizable style means making decisions regarding what you photograph and knowing what is your subject. If you are unsure of your subject your audience will be unsure of it as well. As a result, it is unlikely that this audience will support your work. Why? Simply because if you are not sure where you are going they will not be sure whether they want to follow you or not. You are supposed to be the master, to decide where you are going and to show the way. The audience expects you to make these decisions and to lead them on the path to an understanding and an appreciation of your work. For this reason they cannot lead you. This is neither their role nor their inclination. This is not their purpose for looking at your work. Instead, it is your responsibility to lead them.
You must therefore make decisions about what is your subject, your approach, and eventually your personal style. Doing so is crucial because lack of decision in this instance means lack of following on the part of your audience. If you don't know where you are going, or if you believe that not making a choice will preserve all options for future decisions, your audience will drop you like a stone -if they ever give you any attention at all- to go see the work of those who have a firm idea of what they are doing. Audiences like strong positions. They like artists who know where they stand, even though the stance of this artist may be unlike the taste of a specific audience, or may be shocking, or again may be unconventional. They like a firm position because this is what is expected of an artist. In a sense, polarization of the audience is a logical outcome of art.
This series of four essays in now complete. In this conclusion I want to point out that although my focus has been photography, most of what I presented here is applicable to other artistic mediums, and that, eventually, the process I described is applicable to art in general.
This series is therefore not only about photography. It is also about the purpose of art and about the reasons why we create art. We create art to share a message with our audience. In the context of the visual arts, which include photography, we create art to share a different way of seeing, a different way of representing things visually. Eventually, when all is said and done, creating art is about expressing our personality and our vision of the world.
About this essay
This essay is part of Chapter 5 in Alain's second book Mastering Composition, Inspiration and Personal Style.
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 email@example.com
Alain's next essays on this site will focus on Being an Artist and on Being an Artist in Business. If you enjoy Alain's regular essay series, stay tuned as you will no doubt enjoy these next essays just as much.