I am often at a loss about how to respond to certain feedback on my images. Among the comments that baffled me recently was this: “Very nice landscape.” I wasn’t sure if I should thank the person who posted it, since I can hardly take credit for the beauty of the landscape. Also, was I to assume that my own contribution to the image – composition, processing, visual expression and presentation – went unnoticed or was not deemed worthy enough to compliment the image, rather than the subject? Or perhaps I should take some credit for the simple tasks of carrying my camera to a location, for the trivial accomplishment of making a correct exposure, or for getting lucky to find interesting light?
Certainly wonderful images can be produced with relative ease using automated tools and in well-vetted locations by almost anyone, but what exactly do I have to take credit for if I did not also contribute something of my own mind and creativity, my own knowledge and skill, and my own expressive goal?
Many of us photograph things – landscapes and people and architecture, among others – which already possess inherent visual appeal, making it relatively easy to make pleasing photographs of them. It can be argued that when a photographer ventures beyond literal appearances, he or she may be ‘gilding the lily,’ in a sense. And certainly there are many examples of photographers, especially in their formative years, trying a little too hard to accomplish impact by way of exaggerated perspectives, processing effects and so on. As some will learn, sooner or later, this is a self-defeating strategy. In time more people will discover the same techniques, same locations and the same tools, and if that’s all that makes your images unique, soon enough your work will become obscured by an embarrassment of riches.
Self-expressive art, on the other hand, does not rely on anything that can be easily mimicked or plagiarized; it relies on the creative mind and unique personality of the photographer. And, while some such works may still be copied, so long as the photographer invests in evolving his or her own expressive powers, rather than becoming consumed in a futile chase after the next new technique or location, he or she will be able to produce original work with consistency. This photographer will stay ahead of the copycats without the need to rely on progress and developments made by others, and find great pride and satisfaction in well-earned accomplishments.
Some art mavens like to promote the idea of ‘stealing like an artist.’ In my mind this falls under the category of advice that sounds good at first blush but in fact comes at a very high cost. Such an approach, when taken beyond just being inspired by someone else’s work, may indeed make it easier to produce attractive images, and benefit one’s productivity and perhaps even material success, but it falls apart when one realizes the true cost – cheating yourself out of the personal rewards of pursuing creative, original work, which can be immense. It is exactly because such work requires great investment of time and attention, the learning of expressive (rather than technical) skills, experimentation and the occasional failure, that it is so satisfying when successful and in a way that far exceeds what any tool, cover version or inherent aesthetics can deliver.
I don’t believe I am worthy of taking credit for beauty created by natural processes or by other people. I also don’t feel I have accomplished much if my images are deemed worthy only because of aesthetics already inherent in my subjects. I am an artist, and as such my goal is to have my work also represent, and be appreciated for, my own skills, creativity and original ideas.