‘On Ambition and the Photographic Lifestyle’


General Photography

There’s an interesting post over on Ian’s blog about ambition and the photographic lifestyle.

I don’t think I agree with what started Ian’s post, a couple of other ones (mostly this one) that he links to right at the beginning. I’m getting a bit tired of those endless complaints about how photography is supposedly only valid if it’s done in projects, because if you just look around a little bit you’ll see that that’s simply not the case.

A lot of this ties in with what I wrote about statements earlier: Photography as a lifestyle sounds great - it’s the archetypical image of the young (tormented, drinking, smoking, … - your choice of adjectives here) artist who can’t help but take images day after day, night after night. But if you want to take your photography anywhere (and let’s assume you want to do that) then you will have to start editing, you will have to start looking at what you see, and then you get what the military likes to call “mission creep”: You might end up in an area where it suddenly looks like you’re doing projects (even if in reality, you’re just doing what every successful artist has to do).

What I mean to say is that many people seem to confuse actual projects (“I’ll work on supermarket cashiers on night shifts, and I’ll photograph the right after they leave their shift, with my camera set up in the parking lot”) with the sum of activities needed to develop one’s photography.

And of course, when you go to a portfolio review you show “projects” - your photographs neatly arranged into a single, coherent body, with a little snippet about them, regardless of whether they are actual projects (“Supermarket cashiers”) or not. Most people complaining about portfolio reviews never seem to imagine what it is like to sit on the other side of the table. As a reviewer, you usually don’t want to look at just a bunch of pretty or not so pretty pictures - for that you can do random Google or Flickr searches - you want to meet unique artists who have something to say with their images (regardless of how they do them).

Needless to say, if you want to shoot “aimlessly” and then arrange it in some way that makes sense for you then go for it! Who says you can’t do that? There are tons of successful artists who work that way.

But please, please, please stop complaining about the art world supposedly not agreeing with what you do and/or how you do it! If your photography is fantastic you can take it to MoMA in a brown paper bag and dump it on the curator’s desk. The art world does not judge photography by whether it’s done in projects or not, it judges it by whether it’s good or not (and coincidentally, that - and only that - is the reason why so little of what is on Flickr ever makes it, the few exceptions notwithstanding). So if you think you’re being held back by some sort of establishment then of course that might fit neatly with your idea of yourself, but in reality you might be kidding yourself quite massively.

Of course, as Ian notes in his post, there are lots of other aspects to this, and you should read his post for a different take (just to make this obvious even to the casual reader, my comments above are not meant to be critical of Ian’s post itself).