Getting to the emotional core


A friend recently attended a portfolio review event for photographers. In reporting back on her experience, two things were very apparent. First, her work was very well received, which was a “pleasant surprise” to her. While the reviewers varied in terms of exactly which images they were drawn to, there was near unanimous agreement about one problem with her presentation, which is what I am going to build this week’s blog entry around, a lesson every photographer should heed.

I am going to paraphrase what my friend told me (and our circle of photographers/friends:)

Just had a most interesting brush with the fine art photography world…

I had five reviews, showing two sets of work. The comments were very positive. Mr. …. from …. complimented me on the … series, particularly the more minimalist images and said he was thinking of organizing a …. show and could he keep my particulars.

But he was not happy with my feeble attempt at an artist’s statement. He said I must go deeper, find some emotion, another layer – and he liked the other work, the ….. project too, and again said the statement must be stronger.

Ms. ….. of …… gallery, didn’t say a whole lot – but when I asked her if I was ready for prime time, she seemed shocked that I would ask. She gave me contacts at galleries in …….

Ms. ………….. is a wonderful, articulate cheerleader but really gave me the talk on artist’s statement – saying I should go deeper, find the emotion. As she looked, she was probing to find the reason I took the photos. At one point, she asked if I was coming out of a dark period in my life. I really have trouble entertaining the idea that there is such a psychological root for why I took the photos. But she insisted that if I knew what my work was about, the work would get better. I do believe that. She loved both series – saying “you have the work, get it out there.”

Ms. …… of the ….. gallery gave a wonderful workshop earlier in the festival on approaching galleries – and as a reviewer she gave me very substantial comments. When she said “so tell me about your work” it did not elicit the response she was hoping for. She kept throwing out thoughts as she went through the work. “Is it existential? Why so much red? Red equals life.” Of all the reviewers, she gave me the most concrete feedback.

Mr…… formerly of ……….. now teaching at ………. was all the professor type – the first 10 minutes was references to obscure (to me) photographers, color theorists . He looked at a few from each project, which he then proceeded to go through very slowly. He commented that “I see very well”, and noted I needed to work on sequencing. Then he paused on the more minimalist, more abstract work. He said portfolio was very good, but in need of a bit of re-editing.

All reviewers said my prints were beautiful. Ms. …. wanted the work from the …. series to be printed on matte rag as well. All thought the prints, when in an exhibition should be large, or maybe varied in size.

I should have paid more attention to the artist’s statement. But honestly, do I have to have a deep, psychological reason for what I take? I do believe that on a subconscious level, I am making decisions about what I take. And clearly my portfolios will be taken more seriously if I do get busy on clarifying this.

One person in the circle of photographer who received this info, who herself works in the psychology field chimed in:

“… something psychological guides us to notice and frame what we shoot. Yet I too get impatient with the long, esoteric artist’s statements that some people do.”

Then I chimed in, noting that part of what the reviewers said reminds us of the subjective nature of the reviewing process. The fact that all the reviewers focussed on her artist’s statement means that in fact, the statement needed real work. I wrote:

You should NOT be “a bit taken aback at the positive comments.”

As for the importance of the artist’s statement. Professionals (like me) photograph at the direction of other people, for money. Amateurs (or non professionals) do not HAVE to photograph. They want to photograph and they find the process rewarding. So the real question for a curator who may potentially exhibit your work (and by extension the question for you is) what is it about the process that you like?

After the obvious answers such as your going new places to photograph, photographing family, photographing events you enjoy, etc., then you should ask yourself, why do you do it? Your work in particular, is often not about what is shown but rather it is about how you react to that scene. That reaction is obviously intellectual, but it also has an emotional component. My suggestion is just to be open to that reality, explore it, think about it, talk about it, and mine it, emotionally speaking that is.

The reviewer who suggested my friend “… find the reason you took those photos” was really speaking to all photographers. The explosion in digital imaging means that we really have already photographed everything that is obvious, easy and generic. These days more than ever, great photographs are specific to the author and drawn from the heart as much as the head.

Such images may not always highlight how the author is “coming out of a dark period in life,” but photographs reflect our emotional states . Any photographer must acknowledge that “if they I knew what their work was about, (emotionally) the work would get better.”

That last point the key. Though some photographers can do it, most of us (me included) cannot wake up and just make work that is introspective. Doing that will yield work that simply looks forced, the byproducts of an exercise or an assignment. The best thing to do is to acknowledge that all of our best work is in some way introspective, embrace that reality and go from there.

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