Twice this past summer I met with a friend of mine who is a photo editor of a photography magazine (incidentally not the one I usually work with). He had come to an exhibition I held in early August and a few weeks later I stopped by his office with some work to show. Both times he told me my prints were jimi (地味), an adjective in Japanese which in English directly translates into plain / simple / sober / subdued although the nuance in Japanese is less a pejorative and more of a waypoint on the aesthetic scale of Japan. To better explain the concept of jimi I was going to quote from Donald Richie’s lucid explanation from his book on Japanese aesthetics but I can’t find my copy or even remember who I might have loaned it to.
Jimi, with a touch of out-of-date, I get it. I can’t really argue.
At the show he asked me why I exhibit only my black and white work, pictures that utilize essentially the standard photo technique (and subject matter) as Japanese photographers who were working several decades earlier. As for monochrome images, when something that starts out somewhat unintentional becomes inseparable from the way you’ve seen, thought, and worked through life for over a decade it’s hard to give a better answer than “because I like it and I find peace in the process it involves”.
At his office I was chided in limiting myself as an artist by not working more digitally, in color, and that with all my jimi pictures he warned of risking a reputation in Japan as a “Japanese Photo Maniac”. That is, a fan and not a photographer. (Still others here warn of being typecast as the “Camera loving Gaijin”) He said that my lethargy in making the effort to learn to shoot/work digitally or even print color film in a color darkroom proved my stubbornness. It wasn’t about “telling a story” or getting “good” shots- but about the direction taken towards the goals of an individual artist.
He asked what I was after, what I want to do with all this. What, exactly, is the point? Now with that question we were on common ground. I ask myself that all the time but the only answer I’ve found is to keep working. My black and white work- shot on the streets, printed in the darkroom, and matted and framed and exhibited in a white-walled gallery– He said these methods in this era in the world of contemporary photography results in simply masturbatory picture making. “Nothing will be born from this” I was told.
At this point it is necessary that I explain the fact that I found his remarks as a good set of challenges to come up against. All commentary was given in an open atmosphere and I honestly respect this editor and enjoy working with him. Since these are actually the sorts of things which have been growing in my mind from over the past few months hearing them so intensely direct and in person got me focused on dealing with figuring out the bigger picture, so to speak.
My first car was a 1983 Ford Thunderbird. Almost immediately after getting it I started seeing all these other mid-eighties Ford T-birds and Mercury Cougars out on the streets of my hometown. Likewise, after these talks with this editor, elements of our conversation started to jump out at me on the internet. Here are a few examples.
Is Stezaker a photographer? No. Does that matter? Evidently not – except to other practitioners who may think photography still has something to do with deep seeing, and then capturing that moment of deep seeing, in a split second. That is now in danger of fast becoming an irredeemably old-fashioned idea, both in the teaching of photography and in the market-driven curating of photography.
After that, in a post on Street Level Japan Dan Abbe shares a similar perspective through the introduction of the book “Seung Woo Back: Nobody Reads Pictures,” by Sunjung Kim & Suki Kim:
In this era of images, there is nothing beyond the production and consumption of images. Photography is, of course, at the core of these processes. However, the traditional method of producing images that consisted of wandering passionately in search of subjects and shooting photos of them, no longer guarantees the meaning of photographic images as it once did. The explosion of digital images challenges the basic assumptions of photography that have been its support for the last one hundred and fifty years. The myth of direct representation, whether of a dramatic moment or a beautiful scene, has started to collapse and is finally coming to an end.
Following the excerpt Dan suggests that:
Photographers who fail (or refuse) to grasp the insight contained here will be left behind.
Photography that is “irredeemably old-fashioned”, photographers who are threatened of being “Left behind”.
Just like with my editor pal’s thoughts in the previous part of this post, I find Dan’s challenge frustrating and interesting at the same time. (I do suggest reading the comments of this post as well for a fuller picture of his thoughts on the topic)
That left behind part- perhaps that’s where I’m getting stuck. Who’s doing the moving? And for what reasons? The Guardian article admits flat out that it is “market-driven curating of photography”. There’s nothing shameful in dollar chasing I suppose. Certainly a majority of the entire history of Art has been fueled by it. Likewise, the “controversy” of the 2012 Deutsche Börse win (something which I have no problem with myself) is in part aimed at making a buzz about, well, the Deutsche Börse prize. But outside of money and media buzz, what are the stakes? Integrity? Fulfillment of ones artistic potential? Fame? I have no idea what all a universal rubric aimed at evaluating such things would contain.
The reason I say this is because it’s often asked of myself & my peers – “what kind of camera/equipment do you use?” or “how do I get to work for so & so magazine” – those are not the questions you should be asking. You should be asking yourself whether you have the commitment and drive to constantly be making work for yourself, whether people are commissioning/buying your work or not. In the end that’s what will make you successful. Creating because you love to create…and not for any other reason.
The only amendment I’d make to his statement would be to create not just because you love to, but also for the insight or revelations you discover from what you have made. How do you define success as a photographer/Artist? It’s too obtuse of a question to ever be one satisfactory answer for everyone.
Even more recently I met with another editor at a different magazine, a man who shoots roll after roll of film through his camera each week; a photographer who makes pictures that utilize the standard photo technique and subject matter as Japanese photographers who were working several decades earlier.
I told him about being told to step outside my out-of-date comfort zone and to get with the times. He figured that if I was serious about doing so I probably would have already been doing it.
I don’t know the answers. If there’s ANYTHING that I’ve learned from the example of committed and talented photographers whom I’ve been able to meet and learn from in my life, it’s to keep going. Saying that you don’t have time, that you’re in a slump, or that your hands are full- Artists make Art, not excuses. If it’s really in you, you just do it. Prizes or fame or money be damned.
Of course this doesn’t answer why, or even begin to solve the issue of being left in the speculative dust of The Cutting Edge, or whether that even matters.
Perhaps there’s truth and comfort that in the end what’s left is the work.