Few of you know that I've been keeping a photography journal since 2009 – in longhand no less! I'm also reading photographer Edward Weston's famous "Daybooks" from the 1920's and 30's. I believe many of us today – particularly artists – could benefit from keeping a journal, so I've decided to transcribe my entry from last night for those who might be interested in how I use journaling to explore my own artistic output and to plot future direction. With so many of us having a few extra hours on hand these days, this could be a good time to grab a pen and push it across some paper. Warning: by its very nature, this entry does involve quite a few words. 😉
Journal Entry – Chungking Studio – May 4, 2020
I spent most of today re-organizing jpgs of my art installation photos. I previously kept this documentation of my exhibitions in a folder that contained copies of press I've received. A submission I was working on would benefit from the right installation examples, and an exhaustive search led me to assemble (and keyword!) all the images I could find. I often ponder how essential it is to keyword images meant for sharing on the web, but at least they need to be labeled with where, when, and what in addition to photo credit.
Week eight of the novel coronavirus quarantine makes the undertaking of these longform projects possible, even when they are not particularly urgent. I often marvel that the huge percentage of the time I spend on my art career is administrative work of this nature. Essential? Perhaps not, but documentation of exhibitions seems valuable, and photos that are not organized and labeled are unlikely to have much, if any value in the future.
Clearly any artist serious about their career needs to collect documentation like this for current use and towards any potential legacy. Many of us have the aspiration for our work to be remembered. And that raises interesting questions about our own self-awareness about the import of what we create. I choose not to delve too deeply into this existential quandary, rather to just accept that documentation of exhibitions, awards, and accomplishments generally clearly represents best practice despite the significant time commitment.
For every Edward Weston, who was clearly aware and concerned about establishing a legacy of his life's work, there must be many, many others who made similar efforts only to be completely forgotten. And of course, there are a couple of important photographers like Vivian Maier who appears to have had little interest in exhibiting or preserving her work, in her case only rediscovered because of extremely fortunate events after her death (much to our own collective good fortune).
At heart lies the necessity that any successful artist must have some degree of self-confidence in their work, enough at least to continue their creative process.
With regards to self-confidence, perhaps the more the better to confront the great challenges required to make good work and find recognition for these efforts. That surely leaves a very large contingency of artists who overestimate the value of what they create. Since much of this is unknowable during the course of things, perhaps it makes the most sense to just carry on and hope for the best.
recently read E. Weston's journal entry from 8/14/1930 which addresses "public applause" and fame. More interesting, he writes about the true essence of art: "These painters, and the photographers who imitate them, are 'expressing themselves': Art is considered as a 'self-expression.'" What follows is his basic rejection of "pictorialist" photography and his championing of capturing the true nature of things – their essence – absent of personal interpretation. Basically, the Group f64 rejection of the type of photographic approach they felt was trying to emulate painting. This dogma led to the concerted effort to trivialize and reject photographers like William Mortensen – someone I've come to admire a great deal.
Group f64 compliant:
Abandoned Whaleboat – Infrared Exposure – Half Moon Island, Antarctic Peninsula – 2020
I believe Weston's argument is dated – fueled by the desire/need to establish photography as an appreciated art form at the same level as painting. Striving to be like painting was seen to undermine photography's unique and valuable differences and attributes. While I appreciate the important work Weston, Ansel Adams, and others did to establish photography as artistically viable, I don't share their penchant for deep focus and "unsentimentality." As I happen to be reviewing my own work from Antarctica, it seems I feel comfortable working within f64 ideals with my black and white infrared photography, and completely rejecting Weston's assertions about pictorialism with my pinhole work. Weston writes: "I am no longer trying to 'express myself,' to impose my own personality on nature, but without prejudice, without falsification, to become identified with nature itself, to see and know things as they are, their very essence… Art is weakened in degree, according to the amount of personality expressed."
I am a fan of Weston's work and his writing, but here I categorically disagree with the entire premise. Firstly, I believe Weston's best work is an expression of himself – his "vision" is inexorably tied to who he is, his experiences, and what he feels. Further, I believe that most of the work I value and respond to most deeply is personal and informed by emotional response on the part of the artist. My goal is to channel more of my feelings into my work. Cerebral output is necessarily distant and cold. Such work has value, but not as much to me as more emotionally-based self-expression. Even the most abstract paintings move me most when they are imbued with tangible, visceral emotion.
I absolutely embrace my own pictorialist work. And I am determined to push myself towards more emotional engagement with my photography. I have no doubt that following my emotional instincts will produce the best images. Easier said than done. But being acutely aware of my quest to create more emotional work is the best path to ultimately achieving the goal.
It seems that right now the emotion I most easily channel is melancholy. It is a bit embarrassing as that seems amongst the cheaper, least noble of feelings. And yet it has a powerful pull for me, even more so as I grow older. Clearly, melancholy is an essential element of most of my pinhole photography. And the goal of this work is specifically to be self-expressive – to imbue each image with my own reaction to the person, place, or thing that I photograph. The purpose of predominantly capturing images of Antarctica with my pinhole rig was to try to interpret something unlike ALL the other photographs I have seen.
Edward Weston would be so disappointed, but then he did not live in a world so oversaturated with photographs. In his time, there were innumerable subjects worthy of exploration – the world was a "blank canvas" with so many low-hanging fruit to make your own. Which is not to say the challenges he faced were any less than today – only different. And despite the significant work he did towards establishing photography as a legitimate art form, current trends – the ubiquity and ease of capturing photos today – seem to have re-enlivened all the old (and tedious) arguments. We live in a world of breathtaking imaging potential, but now more than ever, establishing a deep emotional connection to the viewer is the most effective way to cut through the clutter and create something enduring.
Maximum Twilight – Pinhole Exposure – Antarctica – 2020
Transcribed word for word from last night's entry. I welcome your thoughts and comments below.
Sign up for occasional News & Events emails: