Last week we talked about making a commitment to creating work every day. Let’s talk about the other side of the fork in the road.
For photographers, especially in the digital age, it is relatively easy to snap a picture. Cameras today have auto settings that allow any photographer from novice to professional to never have to make a creative decision beyond what to shoot and when. This is what makes digital photography quite enticing to people of all levels and abilities. Furthermore, let’s just suffice it to say that you can fill a memory card with thousands images and never, ever print a single one.
I am not going to debate the issue of what makes one a novice or a professional here, though, I am going to assume that if you have committed to the creative habit that you have also moved well beyond the rudimentary procedures of image making.
After you tell someone that you are a photographer (or even a sculptor, painter, or artist of whatever) at some point someone is going to ask you that dreaded question: “Can I see some of your work?” and what will you say if you have not printed any of it? That someone might be THE someone you’ve been waiting to show your work to all along. So, will you fumble for your IPhone and show them your Instagram profile? Will you say, “Oh I have a Flickr page” or “It’s on my website”?
These are not bad answers but as Brooks Jensen, editor of the popular photographic magazine Lenswork, points out it does cause us to confront a fundamental artistic conundrum: the ‘(capital P) Problem of (capital C) Completion.’ Jensen goes on to say: “There is little satisfaction in showing your negatives, your contact sheets, your test strips, and your unmounted, un-spot-toned, roughly worked prints.” (Brooks Jensen, “One Hundred Prints”, pg. 36, Letting Go of the Camera: Essays on Photography and the Creative Life)
Maybe Jensen is from a bygone era of photography. He has made much of his work in the wet darkroom, pouring over negatives and sniffing chemicals that are bound to make one sick – in the head that is. Maybe he’s just a dinosaur. Or perhaps you think there is little value finishing a digitally created photograph. Perhaps, you even question whether or not there is even such a thing as a “finished” digital photograph. The camera does a pretty good job of doing what it does.
Well, I suggest to you that just like a photograph produced on a black and white or color negative, photographs that reside in perpetuum within the digital realm have not been completed. They have as much of a right to a physical presence as an image created on film. They deserve your full undivided creative attention as well.
If you are an artist of the proliferation of Gary Winogrand, creating tens of thousands of photographs, digitally or with film – hell, even if you take a couple of photographs a year – maybe its time to consider a 100 Prints Project as suggested in Jensen’s book Letting Go of the Camera. Jensen learned so much from the project he undertook in 1986 that he did it again in 2008 or 2009 (unfortunately I am not sure which). He created a body of work which is both exhibit-able and salable.
Taking the picture is easy but creating a cohesive, polished, edited and potentially exhibit-able body of work is quite another. You must dedicate yourself to the effort just as you would to the effort of photographing, painting, writing or sculpting on a daily basis. To me, this is really where the heavy lifting occurs and, I believe, it is just this task that separates the professionals from the amateurs. Because now you have to evaluate the work you have created and get back to the question that might have stopped you from creating in the first place: “Is the work any good?”
You’ll have to be honest and upfront with yourself about the quality of your work, and about the skills you have acquired creating work up to this point. As you embark on a project such as this you will find out what skills you need to acquire to take your work to the next level. And then, beyond that you’ll define the qualities and characteristics of the work you have created that make the work successful to you. You may define your personal style. Certainly, you can ask for input from others but I think this process is a truly solitary one in that you’ll be asking yourself hard questions that really only you can answer.
To that end, are you up to the task of taking six to eight weeks of time to culling through your already produced images to find the strands and strains of connected subject matter, editing them (this means any cropping, contrast adjustments, burning/dodging), printing them, and finally matting them? Really, the amount of time and the number of images is insignificant, what matters is that you set a time period within which to accomplish the goal of producing viable and show-able prints.