Photography blogs are boring and make me want to go on a terrible spree. Welcome to the antidote.
Seeing as this is the time of year for giving, rejoicing and generally drinking in the splendour of life, I thought I’d write a blog post almost entirely about fear and uncertainty. Let’s open with the first uncertainty, my uncertainty about the title of this blog post; “who does he think he is, calling himself an artist? He doesn’t know how to use a paintbrush, he doesn’t have a tiny little thin beard in the shape of a lowercase ‘l’, he didn’t even go to an art school!”
I’ll admit, the moment I splurged out the title of this post, I recoiled upon reading it back; my synapses fired and tumbled stupid little electro-messages along my fingers, vomiting as they went. Once they reached my fingertips, some words did a come up on the bright rectangle. I’ll admit, that is how most of my writing happens and the nonsense that ends up in these blog posts doesn’t usually concern me, so what is it about that word, ‘artist’ that makes us scoff and sneer?
I feel like we have a difficult relationship with the word ‘artist’. We feel like we can call painters and sculptors ‘artists’, but not photographers, illustrators, film directors or writers. We will, however, refer to a singer as an artist. I just glanced at the post title again, and I do feel uncomfortable calling myself an artist.
For the past few weeks, I have been doing everything I can to finish my first ever major project. It will take the form of an e-photobook. The majority of the work has been putting it together, deciding what order the images are to go in, which images to use, taking regular steps back to attempt to get a handle on whether it actually makes sense or whether there’s any sort of story whatsoever. It’s been exhausting but I’ve learned a hell of a lot. I think. Or maybe I’ve learned bugger all, I don’t know. All I know is I’m way outside of my comfort zone and, as excited as I am that this is finally coming together, I am also terrified that it’s bilge, nonsense, a mess. Maybe that’s why I’m not comfortable with calling myself an artist; I had no set process going in to this as to how I would present it, maybe a few years in art school would’ve given me the grounding in how to effectively structure what is essentially an art project.
Then again, in the process of creating this photobook I am not acting as a photographer, I am arranging the images in an attempt to tell a story and to get people thinking about the subject matter in question. Isn’t that what an artist does?
Maybe you’re right, maybe my time could be better spent putting this much mental effort into making the project as good as possible, as opposed to wondering what label to give myself. But labels are comfortable and grounding, they help us make sense of things, of ourselves. There is a fear associated with not knowing exactly what we are, it troubles us. We’re all familiar with the process of growing up, parents and teachers telling us that once we get through those difficult teenage years and figure out who we are and what we want to be, we’ll relax and find our place. We’ll tag ourselves appropriately and feel more settled.
Maybe that’s why my last three or four weeks as a Photo-Put-In-Orderer have required such mental effort; I had to make up my own processes and methods as I went along, to take me from the madness of “does this combination make sense? Is it interesting? I have no fucking idea” to “alright, based on the process I’ve put in place, that works and that fits”.
After gobbing out a load of wordbilge onto this screen, I reckon I understand the problem. I don’t think I am an artist, the word sticks in my throat and leaves me feeling sheepish and daft, like a daft sheep with a sticky throat. I think the problem is not with the associations the word “artist” has, but the lack of scope we attribute to the word “photographer”. There are very few photographers today that just take photographs; we edit, we arrange images, we process, we create photobooks or other pieces of (oh shit, here comes that word) art using our photos, we print them to be hung in galleries. There’s a lot more to being a photographer than pressing a shutter button.
I’m happy to not be considered as an artist. To me, photography feels closer to writing, to storytelling, than it does to art. The older we get, the more comfortable we get with our personal labels and the less comfortable we feel moving away from them – from pushing out and adding a label to our collection. I was recently looking at work by Olivia Bee and the recent work created by 20 year old Christian Hopkins, simultaneously admiring their work whilst feeling a little stung by how creative it was, perhaps as a result of a desire to photograph due to shutting myself away for a month to get on with this project.
I showed the work to my wife and, as we discussed the creativity and imagination that comes with youth, she pointed out that they “have the courage to just go for it”.
Courage was the word I took from that conversation, she had nailed the essence of it. It’s that courage to ignore your inhibitions and create something for no other reason than simply wanting to. It’s the courage to not worry about whether what you are doing is art, eliminating that fear and realising that something can have value and be interesting, emotive or beautiful in some way without having to ask yourself and others if it’s art you’re making.
How about we all stop chasing the ‘art’ tag and treating it like the pinnacle of aspirations and just go with ‘here’s a thing I made I’m really happy with that you might get something out of’?