As the “Other” gallery director of A Smith Gallery my daily life is awash in photography. Not only do I frame (many times more than thirty images) and hang sometimes up to three exhibitions in a month, we live in the back of the gallery – we are woven into photography, it sends us off to sleep and greets us in the morning. Currently there is much talk and speculation about where photography is headed. The phrase heard ‘round the photography world is “now with cell phones everyone is a photographer.” It may be slightly derisive, however, it’s true? One can argue until the cows come home about what constitutes a “photographer,” unfortunately for those with their minds made up – it is a very fluid and subjective thing.
It is my observation that photography currently, that is compelling and attention getting, is divided into three categories: experimental /conceptual, narrative/storytelling and one-off unique one-of-a kind images produced using alternative, analogue processes. And, of course, a really good photograph of any subject, taken with whichever camera and well-presented will always get its due. I think choosing the path to becoming successful/contented is not unlike an art student pondering and experimenting with what will become their oeuvre: painting, sculpture, ceramics or drawing?
The reason I am writing this is because Amanda and I do ten to fifteen reviews per month with photographers on all levels. For me it is a wonderful, immensely fulfilling and gratifying experience every time. We get to meet sincere, committed folks from all over the world. We are very lucky. Over the course of the reviews, we many times get asked about the direction a photographer should go or to comment on the totality of their entries. This can become a difficult moment. Not because their images are not good or well done but because they technically or expositionally are not kin. Naturally, because of the calls being based on a one word theme it can be hard to pull together images from a single body of work.
As a gallerist, an artist — a painter as well as a photographer, I come from a world that values and encourages “bodies of work.” From my experiences in school as well as with other working artists, many people chafe and rebel against the idea of constraining oneself to working within the “limitations” of a body of work. I had many reasons for resenting the suggestion that I explore a cohesive body of work, the least not being my ADD – what fun could that possibly be?
Focusing on one subject, one technique, one manner of portraying what you are seeing gives one the ability and freedom to explore and go deeper into the soul of the work. It opens the door and allows empathy to walk on in. It is my opinion that most compelling art is made when the artist has empathy for their subject. It allows for some sort of, hard to explain, reciprocal thing to happen – the artist is giving something to the work and the work is giving it back.
So, my two cents, for what it’s worth, is if you are a beginning or journeyman photographer and you are not satisfied with where you are in your journey or are not sure which direction to go — pick something and explore it. It does not have to be a particular subject. It can be a technique. Think about what moves you: gives you goosebumps, pisses you off, excites you, saddens you, touches you. From my experience you don’t know if you are compatible with or connected to a way until you take it out on a date.*
*I have to give credit to Dr. Keith Kesler for the “take it out on a date” phrase.