Continued from Part 1…..
I mentioned earlier about the young woman who helped me understand the relationship between the photographer and the photographs. I have also mentioned that some people will delight in pulling you down or simply not be ‘into’ what you do. So, who should you listen to? Well, here’s a short list:
The Insightful: those who comment insightfully on what you do – the people who ‘get it’ – and either leave you with very positive remarks or constructive criticism. Their insight tells you that their comments are well-worth listening to. This may sound self-evident, but think how many times people have criticised but not uttered a single word that indicates they are able to close the gap between the inside if their head and your own?
Top Photographers: anyone who has reached a vey high level in their art should be listened to, whether it’s a curator or photographer. This does not mean that their verdict is final (which is why I completely reject the validity of one person portfolio reviews), but that you really should hear what they say and tease out every last drop of detail. At a minimum, if critical, it will highlight the obstacles you face in the industry and criticism you may hear from elsewhere. The reality is that you may have seven out of ten master photographers show no interest in your work (or actively dislike it), one who likes it and two who absolutely love it. If you met the first seven in a row, you’d likely end up feeling broken and disillusioned, so the message here is ‘numbers and perseverance’. Universal appreciation is simply not going to happen. A committed fringe of those who strongly connect with your work is more realistic. ‘Like’ is unimportant. ‘Love’ is where it’s at.
As an aside, I had one very famous photographer walk into an exhibition of mine, which showed work from Russians and Royals, A Tree Falls and Terrestrial Cosmos. He only gave a glancing look from the middle of the room at the first two and was very complimentary about Terrestrial Cosmos, which was only present in portfolio format. Although he was not rude about the first two, he was fairly dismissive, intimating that the work was typical reportage and therefore of no interest. While this is an entirely fair comment (its his opinion, right?) I did find it slightly ironic due to the number of people who had reached precisely the opposite conclusion after looking at the work and made of a point of telling me so. What is more important? The one big name and his view, or the 50 photography lovers? Its hard to say, but its something to think about.
You also need to know your judge! The chap mentioned above is not a people photographer. Where people occur in his images they are more like props, with no human depth. He’s more conceptual than that and so I hope it is clear that I am not saying this as a criticism, just as a characterisation of his work. Therefore it should have been no surprise whatsoever that he would show little interest in the human nuances shown the first two projects and be drawn to the much more conceptual Terrestrial Cosmos. I was happy to be flattered by his interest in the latter and to ponder his criticisms and disinterest in the former.
The Networkers: These are the gallery owners, the journalists, the critics and the master printers. These people see a lot of work and can give you great insight into where you work nestles in terms of contemporary photography. Some have clear prejudices (only interested in conceptual work and reject aesthetics entirely, for example), but others will see things differently. I made the decision some years ago to get Russians and Royals printed by a master printer (Robin Bell). Robin prints for the biggest names in photography, alive and dead. He’s knocking out images from the Brandt archive one minute and Martyn Colbeck the next (with a little Ian Berry in the middle). This means that he is not only extremely talented and knowledgeable, but also well-connected within the photography word and able to solicit opinions. When my work was being printed, various photographers saw it being dried and flattened, so I got to hear what they thought (through Robin). This sort of casual information is priceless. Quite a few years ago it led to a meeting with a senior guy from Getty Images and we had a long discussion about my work with fifty 20×16 prints in front of us. Now that was helpful…. as was the first meeting with the book publisher.
Your Own View: Thus far, we have talked about what other people think of your work. Naturally, this has a feedback effect on what you think of your own work. It will force you to re-evaluate certain elements and hopefully give you a more confidence in other areas. As you progress, you will be expected to spend more time talking about your work and if you are anything like me, you will not enjoy this at all. You may even loathe it. However, it is important and there are several reasons for this:
Firstly, not everyone in the photographic world is confident appraising your work without words to steer them in the right direction. Sometimes, these words are crucial for contextualising what you have done and so can make or break opinions.
Secondly, curators and journalists appreciate having a starting point for publicity material and your ‘artist statement’ is very helpful to them.
Thirdly, people will want to engage with you at shows and discuss your work. As much as I despise writing them, artist statements do help you sharpen up your thoughts and can make these engagements a bit easier. People not only want to look at your work, they will want to understand everything behind it, including you….
…. more coming in Part 3….