How do you find your voice...give your images 'soul'?
This is a very deep subject, and I hope it produces some serious discussion.
I had the pleasure of meeting and spending the evening and all day today with photo historian and critic A.D. Coleman.
The grad. student's took him to breakfast this morning, and we had a very nice conversation about things loosely related to photography.
He critiqued the undergrad's work this morning, and the grad. student's work this afternoon. Along with his lecture last night, it has been a very very interesting and educational few days.
I have been a commercial photographer for the past 10 years, so I don't come into a critique with thin skin and expecting everything to sound rosy.
I showed him my book that I usually show to prospective clients, which holds about 40 prints. Most are commercial in nature, a few are figure studies, and a few are humorous visual observations.
He leafed through the pages without saying a word, had a slight smile to his face, but his expression didn't change much.
After closing the book, he paused for a moment and then started his comments about my work.
He was very generous with his praise for my technical abilities, my problem solving abilities, the way I ply my craft, etc... I thanked him for the kind words, and he continued.
What he said that he didn't see in my work was what *I* was about. What I was like, what I thought was important and what I had as a photographic voice.
I said that as a commercial photographer it is difficult to step outside of that box and find my true artistic voice. I said that when I go out to take photographs for ME, that I try to find those things that bring me peace, solitude, contentment and beauty. Mostly they are landscapes in the western tradition.
I guess my question is, how does one help their images voice, how do I give them soul?
I know that when I look at my work I can tell a lot about my self. Even though I don't consider myself an activist with my imagery, the fact that I am a sucessful commercial photographer speaks to my commitment to the free-market system, I'm prompt, throrough, pay attention to details, can communicate with my clients, etc...
What I think that he is asking to see is some type of political statement in my work. Some type of activist attitude or some kind of narrative that the viewer can infer meaning into.
I will digest his comments for a few days and send him an e-mail to possibly ask a few follow-up questions, but mostly to thank him for the thought provoking discussion.
I'm not sure I entirely buy all of his comments about my work, both the positive ones and the negative ones, but he certainly has me thinking about the ways I can strive to help my non-commercial (and possibly even my commercial work more to a point), have *MY* voice.
Thanks in advance...
I don't think he was looking for some type of political statement, more than likely, he was looking for images that speak about what you are most passionate about. As a commercial photographer, you have had to learn to shoot things in a way that are commercially pleasing, not necessarily personally pleasing - since you showed him your "commercial" portfolio that is what he saw. What you should show him, is your personal images - the ones you are most passionate about.
You ask how to develop your voice - that is something I have been trying to do for the last 30 years. I finally realized that in order to do this, I needed to understand who I am, and what type of person I am. Once I understood that, I felt able to ignore those types of photography that didn't speak to who I am, and concentrate on those that do.
Learn about yourself first, then you can learn about your "voice".
I know who I am, and so far I've had to be honest with myself in that I haven't found a compelling enough subject to make it my 'cause' or push me to become an activist for anything in particular.
If I were to try to place some labels on myself, then I have to try to figure out how to show them visually.
In a nutshell, I am a politically conservative, religious (but not to the point of being a zealot), married w/two kids, enjoy my home, my neighbors, my extended family, self-employed, somewhat sucessful commercial photographer. I also like custom building off-road vehicles, enjoy maps, history, reading, camping, exploring/trekking and breathing the fresh air. I also feel this need to share some of the things I've been blessed to recieve, with others. I'm pretty cynical and skeptical about most things, but at the same time give people a lot of leeway and the benefit of doubt more often than not. I have a dry sense of humor, like movies all the way from Pee-Wee's Big Adventure to 2001, to Shawshank Redemption. I listen to classic Rock, Steely Dan, Pat Metheny and also enjoy a good opera now and then. I watch Fox News with a dash of NPR for good measure...run from conspiracy theories and anyone who believes that they have a stranglehold on morality.
How do I convey those things in my photography without being labeled a right-wing conservative whacko?
Or, more importantly, why should I even care? I'm starting to think that I shouldn't care, and I should just make the images that make me happy and say to Hell with those who don't necessarily like it.
My comments will be brief.
As I grew up I found my work changing all the time.
I thought it might have been due to changing equipment over the years: camera types, formats, lens lengths, films, etc.
As I look back I realize my work was a reflection of who I was at the time. I have quite a collection of pretty pictures, but there are those--my favorite few--that I never get tired of because they speak to me. I've seen hundreds of well done photographs, some with subject matter that just took my breath away, but in the end, still just pretty pictures.
There's a lot to be said for "f/8 and be there", but until you start to put yourself into each image, the work produced will have a sterile taste to it.
As I look back, my work seems to be finding its own course. I sometimes call it reflections from within expressed via reflections from what is outside or, what I can make the camera see.
I think that each image we make is what our opinion is at that time and for that subject. As time goes on--sometimes as the light changes--so do our moods, opinions, and mindsets about the world around us.
We take something that strikes us; we identify it through language, and then we take it out of language, to something deeper. As the print is rendered, with enough technical expertise and/or a little luck, we tell without words what we felt when we snapped the shutter.
I think to make images that speak to others requires an ability to express what is within ourselves through our eyes. This takes time. This takes trust. Young photographers must grow into this. I see it come through living life experiences, hardships, joy, learning, growing. I think one cannot find a voice without something to draw on.
If a person is honest with themselves and keeps producing work, I think the voice makes itself manifest through the work. Perhaps this is what I simply hope for myself.
Interesting subject Michael.
It's my heart that speaks for me, not my voice.
IMO an image has soul when my heart skips a beat with excitement, or wrings my heart with sorrow.
If 'I' don't get these feelings, then my work has missed the mark.
I'm always interested to hear critiques, but don't have to agree with them. Take them with a pinch of salt.
It's interesting to see though how over time global influences and my own little life's circumstances influence my work.
Last edited by Nicole Boenig-McGrade; 09-28-2005 at 04:15 AM. Click to view previous post history.
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Originally Posted by Michael Slade
It's possible you're taking the critic's comments too literally. I doubt he was looking for full scale biography or profound political statement in your work. Sure, some photographers' works incorporate either or both of these things, but gawd, wouldn't it be horrible if they all did? How exhausting.
I think successful photography can be about much smaller things. All we do when we take a photograph is let others borrow our eyes for an instant to see what we see and, hopefully, convey why it's worth seeing. Doing that with consistent honesty can't help but be revealing of ourselves.
But it's also possible that amateurs have a shorter route to this openness. They have the luxury of choosing both what to photograph and how to do it while professionals, though maintaining some control over "how," mostly have the "what" dictated by clients. After a professional lifetime of that, the "whats" must become pretty interchangable.
The critics comments, just as what follows, is but one person's opinion. If either has value for you, take it and use it. If not, leave it behind and go on down the road.
What I learned a number of years ago, when the tool I used to put food on my table was a camera, was that I was dancing to someone else's music and that dictated to a large extent what my dance looked like. The final results needed to be what spoke to everyone . . . not what spoke to me. Perhaps what your commercial clients want is a technically perfect image which speaks to the man on the street and has as little of "you" apparent as possible. Perhaps another way of viewing it is that the "you" in the photograph is secondary and not essential.
Those of us who are non-professionals have more choice in our music and our dance. This may tend to allow more of the our soul to show in our images. We each start from our own unique position. The first questions I ask myself about my images is, "Does this image please me?" and "Does it speak to me?" We have different clients and mine allows me absolute freedom to express myself. My photography today is part of my path and part of who I am as a human being. It is an outward expression of me. When I worked as a photographer (many years ago) my photography was part of what I did as a human being. The two bodies of work are different.
I have been photographing for a relatively short time from an artistic perspective. A took a workshop at the Maine Photographic Workshops and when the instructor looked at my work she said that I was searching for something. That was two years ago and my work, while it has improved in quality, still has this searching theme to it. Sort of all over the map. What I realized is that this is in fact a reflection of my life. I am searching but I really don't know what it is that I am searching for. I don't know if I will ever find it but I will enjoy the journey and continue to learn more about myself through my photography.
I would not briefly that the comments about giving images 'soul' is also about making images that show a point, that show a strong "aboutness". An image can be a faithful depiction of something, be well-balanced visually, etc. but still not come across as saying something.
All images say something, but it can pay off to make that statement louder and/or heavier with meaning. Compare "this is a car" with "this car driven my daughter to the airport when she left home to go study abroad, and it has left echoes of sadness in me to see her depart". OK, it may not be heavy with reflection, but in essence, my point is that we can point at thing, or we can talk about it. It's easier to conceive of with words, because, well, we use words most of the time to make a point. Again, it's not necessarily about being lyrical (like the statement I use as exempl), or political, but it has to be something.
Take Edward Weston's pepper: why is it that the picture is not just about a pepper? Well perhaps because it's SO much about the pepper that it starts to carry other meanings.
I have wondered this of my own work on occasion. I am a chemist by trade, so I have to be objective in my work. Not much of 'me' comes out in it. Aside from photography, I write short stories, but they are based on the characters and situations in various television shows and are considered fan fiction. Sometimes,I wonder whether I can even be creative . However, I do these things because I enjoy them.
Originally Posted by Michael Slade
When looking at my pictures, I often don't see the things that others like in my work until they point it out to me. This is possibly the reason that I look at some pictures I see and wonder, "Why did the photographer take a picture of that? I would never have thought to take that shot."