Learning to Be Part of the Whole

Recently, the excellent blog A Photo Editor posted a piece titled Why Does Everyone Think They Need a Photo Book?, which explored the compelling desire among emerging photographers to publish their work in printed book form despite the fact we live in a digital age. The author asks Joanna Hurley, president of illustrated book packaging agency Hurley Media, the question that serves as the title of the post. Her response includes the following:

“[The] desire for recognition and acclaim [via book publishing] is not new; what does seem new to me, looking at this from a perspective of 35 years in the publishing business, is that desire often overtakes perspective, and the sense of where one really is in one’s career as an artist, that is, where the work is, and whether or not it is truly ready for a book. While doing a book at the right time and in the right way can jump-start or revive a career, if you do a book too soon or at the wrong time, and without any kind of creative team behind you (such as a publishing company), then it can look like vanity because there has been no one objectively vetting the work and helping you shape its presentation into a coherent, well-designed narrative.”

In the blog and Blurb book era, “vanity,” or rather the “vanity press,” has been given a little more leeway, as many photographers gain recognition through alternative vehicles with projects that are self-motivated and self-funded. Hurley later concedes, “the ease of communication and the many venues available to artists for sharing their work online can foster a wonderful dialogue that in the end can deepen and strengthen it.”

So far, I’ve been rather reluctant to engage in the conversation, which accounts for my delay in coming to the online scene. I like to call it learning; some might call it lurking. And now I’m finally ready to set aside my fears and get some work out there.

But it wasn’t always like that:  long ago, in a midwestern city, and a genre not too far away, I was a young, aspiring artist eager to make my work known. Pulling together a manuscript of poetry, I had it Zeroxed and spiral-bound and sent it off to a dozen friends and a select number of established poets whom I could vaguely claim to know. The poets responded with kind and instructive criticism that gently informed me:  you’re not ready yet.

How could I be? Sure, I wrote a lot, but only read poetry selectively, maybe a few poems here and there, and had little capability of considering a volume for both its parts and for the piece as a whole. Although my manuscript was loosely bound together by a narrative line, I had no idea what was keeping the whole thing together. My inner critic was very active, but my inner editor had never clocked in. I wrote for several years before turning to photography – from one form of imagery to another, each of them prizing both voice and vision.

Maybe it’s age, maybe it’s experience, who knows – but I’m at about the same point in my photography career as I was then, with poetry. The difference is that I know quite well I’m not ready for a formal collection of my work. Heck, I can’t even get myself to blog regularly. I guess I’ve learned that a book is more than just putting a whole bunch of pictures (or poems) together. In its simplest form, it’s about the story you’re telling, how the images speak to each other, and to you. Again: voice and vision.

Still, there’s something to be said about seeing your work in collected form, whether you or they are “ready” or not. Pushing the “publish” or “post” or “upload” button can deliver a certain amount of satisfaction, regardless of how many “likes,” “shares,” or “reposts” you get. In this age, blogging is making. And seeing your work on the screen, out there separate from you, can also provide a measure of editorial distance. Back in my writing days, whenever I’d send out a poem to a literary magazine, I’d often realize only afterward which final edits I should have made. And when I pull together photographs for a long-form project or for a competition, it really makes me think about the strength of the individual photographs, and the harmony of the whole.

Personally, that’s a lesson that has only come with age and experience (shall we call it the passage of time and paying attention?) and plenty of servings of humble pie. Before, I was only trying to figure out how to set myself apart; now I’m learning to be an individual who is also a contributing part of the larger community. A student of the bigger picture, when I’m open to it.

I’ll close with a quote by Joanna Hurley:

“In the end it boils down to the artist’s sense of himself and his creative process and when it is truly complete for a particular body of work. I do believe that a sense of self-awareness and perspective on one’s work are among the qualities that distinguish a truly great photographer or artist of any kind. I am mindful of a quote by Georgia O’Keeffe in talking about her work painting flowers, ‘to see a flower takes time, like to have a friend takes time.’”

Blog, write, shoot, and create onward, my friends.

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