October 23rd, 2014.
About two years ago, I wrote a post on this site which I called, "What Comes Next". I'd just experienced a challenging and delightful three day conversation in beautiful Port Townsend, WA, that would transform my photography and my pursuit of the arts. The conversation discussed creating impactful photography, vision, voice, and why each of us in the conversation were photographers. It struck a chord with me that oh so desperately needed to be heard. After three days of such intense and meaningful conversation, my brain was full of new ideas, but completely exhausted. In such an incredible way. I literally had no idea what to expect next. On the ferry home from Port Townsend to Seattle, I tried to wrap my mind around what had just happened. I wandered out onto one of the outdoor decks on the ferry, and a young man was out there - perhaps pondering things in his life such as I was. No doubt, we were both left with a feeling wondering "What Comes Next". I had no idea what it was, but I could tell that it was something that mattered.
"What Comes Next"
Fast forward 12 months. Almost literally 12 months to the day. I received an email during the day, subject "Something Important", which has lived in my inbox from the day it arrived and will live in my inbox until the day email no longer exists. And the subject couldn't have been more true. The image above, had an incredible impact that I couldn't have ever imagined.
For just one person.
The image didn't get 1000 likes on Facebook. It mattered just that much to just one person. I was sitting at my desk at work when I read the email. The context around the image that spoke to that one person, along with the impact the image had on her echoed through the email so much so that I had to get up from my desk, leave the office, and go somewhere quiet to gather myself together and try to comprehend that impact. It literally turned my world upside down. In a time when I thought images were graded on the number of likes and +1's, this changed my mind and perception entirely.
Sue, thank you. Those words meant everything.
I hope you were able to experience what comes next, and I truly hope I was able to help.
Brooks Jensen, in his book Letting Go of the Camera discusses ideas around making impactful art in a largely “democratic” art community. Democratic in the sense that, too often photographers today judge impact or success by how many comments are received on blog posts, how many people click on a Like or +1 button, or how many print sales the image makes. What Jensen has to say in his essay, “When The Flock Veers Left”, particularly resonates with me:
Most artists, in spite of the myth of the isolated and tormented soul, are firmly ensconced as part of a flock. It is just so easy to march to the beat of everybody else’s drum. In contrast, the best art comes from the heart. Once technique and craft can be successfully used, the artist’s real challenge begins — finding and producing from the heart. The next time the flock veers left, try turning right just for fun and leave the rest of the herd. Wander off. Look for yourself. And if you find it difficult to make a decent photograph, know you are on the correct and best path that leads to the most important artwork of your life.
Brooks couldn't have been more right. At this point in my photography I feel like I'm hitting a stride. I feel like the glimmer of impact that showed in the conversations built around ART in the images above (left, from 2011, and right, from 2012) have been some of the "turning point images" of my career as a photographer. And as such, my approach to photography and the images I make began to turn as well.
Images became not about the perfect landscape with a strong foreground element.
Images became not about the most beautiful reflection in a lake at sunset.
Images became not about the number of social media approvals.
Images became about asking hard questions.
Images became about finding a reason.
Images became about meaning.
In the time since that first transitional conversation, I've worked on a few different personal projects as well as some commissioned work that I really feel fits the bill of "work that matters". In each of these projects, the meaning was what fueled the work. It wasn't for a second I thought that "Hey awesome I can't wait to show these images to the Internet to see how many +1's I can get". That thought hasn't actually entered my head in a long time. The images matter for the intended audience, and the size of that audience (even if it is just one person) is exactly how big the audience needs to be.
Photography has become as much about finding my own voice as much as it has about finding out how to connect with my audience. For people following my photography online, they'll likely have noticed a decrease in post frequency throughout this year - and it's not because of a loss of interest in photography. In fact, it's the exact opposite. I've been focussing intently on creating work that matters. One such project I published as a book, and this all takes time to present the work in the most impactful way possible. I don't believe it's possible to publish the kind of work I want to create on a daily (or even weekly) basis.
There's a fairly well known "recipe" to creating a successful image in terms of social media activity, and while those images are technically near perfect, beautiful and wonderful, they offer little more than "look how pretty this is", or "look at my technical prowess". While there are always exceptions to the rule so to speak (and it's going to sound harsh), there's very often little to no depth in these images. They (usually) offer no meaning, and nothing beyond what's on the surface. They are (again, usually) more often than not, shallow and forgettable. On their own, they don't engage you, they don't force you to think or ask questions, and they certainly don't affect change.
Recently, Anna and I had the opportunity to visit Red Rocks Amphitheatre just outside of Denver, Colorado. When you visit this veritable mecca of music, you walk through the halls and you realise just how many bands have come here and performed. And it's not because they were appealing to the masses. It's because they had meaning behind their music, and it was recognised. When I walked out onto the stage, you could literally feel the power that comes from standing on this stage. The true meaning behind creating a body of work that had the power to impact generations of people.
Generations of people.
And that's crazy to think about. And this kind of art, through music, truly does command so grand a stage as Red Rocks. This all got me thinking specifically, what kind of work truly impacts people of all ages from all walks of life? As I walked out onto the stage, waves of all kinds of thoughts crossed my mind and I began to think about what kind of work I could create that has such an impact. I sat on the railing, and described to Anna a photograph that I was seeing in my mind - and I had her photograph it for me (see above). Thank you Anna, for helping me create this image to help tell this part of my story.
I've been very fortunate to keep the company of some amazing friends, thanks to the connections I made at ART. The people I've spent this time with, and the conversations that have come from that time, have been more than influential. Transitional may be a better world. Perhaps, evolutional.
I always try to keep a rough eye on the future. Knowing my direction is important to me. I feel like I'm at a point where I can see the crest of the hill, and incredible things are waiting at the other side. I have no idea how far out that is, but with respect to the very first post where I talked about "What Comes Next" and the fog around my brain at that time, what I can say now is that that direction is that much clearer. I know that I want my photography to mean something. Something that matters. Something that can (hopefully) impact generations of people.
This coming November, I'm regrouping with my ART cohorts and visiting New Orleans, with none other than the famed photographer William Albert Allard, to work on taking that next step. I'm filled with the same excitement as I was a couple of years ago after that first ART conversation.
I can't wait to find out what happens after "What Comes Next".