Defining one’s work - On Statements


At some stage, all photographers arrive at the point where they define their work. This is a crucial part of the photographic process: “This is what I’m doing here, this is what it’s all about, this is how I’m doing it.” In the fine-art context, this is known as the artist’s statement. It’s very worthwhile to talk about statements in more detail, especially since there are quite a few pitfalls to be aware of.

Of course, there are many different ways of writing one, and - needless to say - there exists a fairly large group of people who refuse to do it (I’ll call them the refuseniks). Another fairly large group of people sees statements as little more than “bullshit” (a term regularly used in emails sent to me) put out by gallerists to make a quick buck (let’s call them the cynics). I know I won’t be able to convince either the refuseniks or the cynics that statements make a lot of sense; but everybody else might get something out of talking about statements.

It’s probably most interesting to look at two extremes: The refusenik position and the complete opposite.

A few weeks ago, I went to Berlin, and I had the chance to look at some students’ work and give some feedback (in art-school lingo, this is called a “crit”). I always enjoy doing that because it not only exposes me to new, very fresh work, it also allows me to directly interact with the photographers, and it forces me to react to work in an honest and ideally smart way.

At a crit, my usual approach is to ask the photographers to tell me a little bit about their work while I’m looking it. In the context of a crit, this helps me approaching the work and the photographer, and it gives me an idea of the way she or he works.

Of course, with no information whatsoever given, part of the purpose of doing a crit at a photo/art school falls apart: How can I react to the way the photographer approaches her or his work if she or he refuses to tell me? What is then left is for me to take in the work and based on what I know about photography, on my own personal preferences, and on whatever else it is that has to do with processing photography in my brain react to it.

Needless to say, in many cases what I see in the images is not what the photographer intended to be there. And it might be different from what someone else might see in the images.

In Berlin, there were more students than usual who claimed that the photography had to speak for itself, and anyway, if they had wanted to talk about photography they would have become writers and not photographers (which, of course, is a quintessential German attitude, but lest you non-Germans snicker, I’ve seen it elsewhere, too).

I think this kind of attitude is fundamentally flawed. What seems to be behind this is the idea that once you start talking about your work you’re taking away all its meaning, or you’re turning it into some kind of conceptual work. These are two of the options. Another option, of course, is that the photographer simply doesn’t know what her or his work is all about, or that she or he is afraid to talk about, being worried about saying something that might sound wrong or not mature enough or whatever.

This is the same kind of thinking you hear when people complain about having to write a statement. According to some people, a statement is the biggest fraud you can imagine, an imposition of an art world that doesn’t really have anything to do with art, and if those people weren’t so busy making pictures, they’d erect barricades in front of Yale’s photo school to protest the art world treating photography this badly. How dare professors and art critics demand a statement?

In that photo class in Berlin, there was one particular case, a photographer who shoots extremely beautiful photographs, very accomplished, a very unique style; and there were two bodies of work up - presented as one. Apart from me, two other people had joined the crit: one of the directors of the school and a b/w street photographer (whose idea of photography couldn’t have been any more different from mine), and the teacher of the class, a Yale educated photographer who mostly takes colour 8x10s. The three of us had had quite a few arguments about what a good photo was (there was a minor altercation about street photography). But without any kind of effort, without talking about it or coordinating it we agreed that the photographer who couldn’t say anything about her work had in fact two bodies of work up - which we then separated easily (all the other students in the class agreed with our selection); and then it was us three, trying to find out what this work was really about.

We never managed to. And then came the zinger: I forgot who it was, but one of the other two critics said: “Listen, if you can’t tell what your work is all about, someone else will define it for you.”

That’s really it. If you refuse to tell people, some critic (or whoever else) will define the meaning, and there’s nothing you can do about it. If that’s what you want, remain silent, refuse to write a statement (which, btw, doesn’t have be full of art speak - that’s just a convenient red herring).

I doubt this will convince the statement refuseniks to re-consider their position, but it’s an extremely important thing to realize: I have yet to meet a dedicated photographer who is not driven by some deep urge and by a very personal idea of something she or he wants to show. Why keep that a secret? What’s wrong with sharing that? If it’s not about some very specific concept, it might be about a feeling, or about a general idea - but even that can be talked about or indicated, without ruining anything. And would you feel happy about other people saying what it was, probably inevitably missing the real reasons?

Oh, I know, the refuseniks will now say “But if the work is good, it cannot be misunderstood.” Except that unfortunately, it doesn’t work that way.

This is a post that neatly and very smartly summarizes the ideas behind the refusenik approach: “I think a lot of people don’t believe in the idea of ‘misunderstanding’ work. Can work be misunderstood if one believes part of the art process is the myriad of interpretations a viewer brings to the work? What if someone believes that art is not about some sort of succinct communication (a view blasted into mainstream society by the graphic and commercial arts) and is instead about something more organic, more mysterious?”

Here’s the thing, though. First of all, writing about your own work does not take away from the mysterious - provided it’s well done (both actually, the art work and the writing). And in the context of an art school, that’s just not a way to work: If you refuse to talk about your work, how can you expect to learn something if you don’t give your teachers, your fellow students, and yourself a chance to understand the work and your own process a little more?

If your work consists of two very obviously different parts, and everybody sees that, but you don’t see it, and you can’t even talk about what your work is, then, all mystery and all things organic aside, you’re in deep trouble as an artist. You really are.

Of course, I there also is what Bradley Peters in an email to me called “the polar opposite”: A photographer overdefining her or his work. In his email, Bradley notes that this doesn’t get talked about as much; but it certainly seems to be very common, too.

To quote Bradley: “Instead of not being able to define what one’s work is about, the [photographer] ends up having a very well defined idea, but the work just ends up being an illustration of that idea and leaves very little room for anything else.” Just yesterday, I did some portfolio reviews, and I ran into this more than once.

There are many different aspects here, too, and I’ll probably miss many of them in the following; but it might be worthwhile to talk about some.

First of all, as an artist you will never be able to perfectly define (or predict or predetermine) how people will react to what you produce. Somebody will always find something that you have never thought about, and that’s basically what makes art art. Art is about freedom, and as an artist you want to give your audience that freedom, that possibility to explore and to experience. The more you take that freedom away, the more your art suffers, the worse it gets (btw, this is why so many public art projects are so unbelievably bad).

If someone sees something in your art that you have not seen that’s a good sign - and no artist should aim at restricting this, no artist should refute anything here.

In an art school context, what I have run into is young artists having an idea and then fleshing it out in unbelievably elaborate detail - adding new details when photography is coming in that doesn’t quite “fit” what they have. It’s like putting yourself into a straightjacket, and when you notice you still got some wiggle space you ask someone to pull it even tighter. This is how you then (at best) end at the “illustration of that idea” Bradley talked about.

Somewhere else in his email he writes: “I don’t think there’s a problem with talking about one’s deep urges or a personal idea […] but I have also seen where this information sometimes becomes a crutch. It’s a way for people to talk ‘around’ the work rather than ‘about’ it.” (my emphasis)

Ultimately, there might often be the same fear that makes some people refuse to talk about their work: You’re so worried to actually discuss your work (and to discover flaws or ways to improve it) that you build a big, solid shell around it, which nobody is supposed to pierce. You’re hoping to prevent a debate.

The following is a very neat summary of what a statement is about:

“An artist statement has two functions:
“Providing a written context of the photographer’s intentions, thoughts and working process for a portfolio of photographs which is particularly insightful when the photographer is not there physically to speak about the work.
“And, allowing the photographer to organize and structure their thoughts so he or she can be in command when presenting themselves and their work to others that allows for the work to be experienced in an engaging and meaningful manner, particularly in determining what to say and what not to say.”
(Paul Turounet, found here)

I’d personally expand/modify this a little, but it’s a very good way to look at statements.

Another angle is provided by a collector and his view on statements, found here: “In some ways, an artist’s career can be thought of as the ultimate exercise in word of mouth. Galleries are constantly trying to place important works with well known museums to validate their quality. Positive remarks by an influential critic are circulated to the mailing list. […] When you’re early in your career, there is no word of mouth yet, and very few opinions have been formed. This is the exact moment that the statement was designed for; it is the one opportunity to frame the discussion before it goes its own way. If you decide not to take it and leave the work open for interpretation, fair enough, but you missed the chance to anchor us somewhere.” (my emphasis)

(this post is a slightly edited compilation of posts, originally published on my temporary blog while this main blog was unavailable)