Music was a big part of my life growing up. My family loved music. My friends loved music. Actually, I’m pretty sure everyone loves music. I can’t think of a single person I know that is indifferent to it. While music comes in many different flavors — rock, country, jazz, rap, alternative, punk, ect. — eventually you will be dancing to your own beat.
The music that we eventually migrate to isn’t a quick process. We are exposed to all kinds of music and at some point we find that a certain group of musicians really speak to us and our lives. It’s music that seems custom tailored to us. That’s not the reality of course. The musicians probably don’t know you, but the perception is that you’re cut from the same cloth. They are the kind of folks that walk your same path and you feel connected to them. Their words and music help you understand your own life.
Dancing to Your Own Beat
Music is a great analog to photography. There are and will continue to be so many different types of photography that speak to different groups of people. I think of the different music enthusiasts. All of them love music, but invariably both love and hate certain types of music. Similarly, all people will inevitably gravitate toward the specific type of photography that speaks to them. These people may also be repulsed by photography that they don’t feel a connection to. Some photographers think that if they do “good” work, then that work will speak equally to everyone. This isn’t the case. Artwork isn’t consumed in a vacuum. You have an audience and what your work conveys to that audience will have a large impact on the quality of your art.
The easiest way to speak to an audience is to be part of it. To reemphasize, many people who feel a connection to art assume it stems from a connection to the artist. There is little differentiation between the work and the person. This is a natural association since the assumption is that art is an extension of the person whether this assumption is fair or not. Most audiences want to believe that works of art arise out of some kind of artistic authenticity. My advice to you is to not disappoint your audience in this respect. Seek out art that reflects who you are and what matters to you. Be part of your audience and you won’t have to worry about being labeled a fraud later.
Be a Consumer
When I was in graduate school, my building was just across from the music school. I rubbed shoulders with serious musicians and hung out with them quite a lot. They had a really hard regimen of practice to adhere to. They were required to spend a great deal of their out of class time practicing. So it surprised me that they spent so much of their free time listening to music. Whether it was going to concerts, or supporting their friends performances they were consuming music at a borderline unhealthy rate. It was a real eye opener to me. You start to realize that the only way you will put up with the rigors required to perform at a high level is if you are already obsessed with the product.
Are you obsessed with photography? Who is your favorite photographer? Have you really digested photography that speaks to you? These are questions that must have an affirmative answer if you are going to create work that speaks to your audience. I see too many photographers who place far too much importance on their own work and spend little time actually understanding the art. If you have little or no understanding of what draws you to a photograph, how can your audience be expected to understand? If you are an avid consumer of photography, over time your mind will be acclimated to what aspects of photography are importance to you.
Have an Opinion
Some people only listen to vinyl records. Other people won’t listen to music made after 1979. I know people who won’t listen to music more than 5 years old. There’s some that won’t listen to music unless they are at a concert. I know people who have all kinds of opinions about music and they all have their criteria for for what’s good and what isn’t. A lot of these criteria are eccentric, but regardless of what you think of their opinions, they know where they stand and what matters to them.
You don’t come to these narrow conclusions about something you love without a lot of thought. They’ve consumed a lot of music and have decided in no uncertain terms what they love and what they don’t. They are not alone, there’s usually a tribe of people like them that have come to the same conclusion and they are eager for music that speaks to them.
I typically buy my photography gear used. One day I found a good deal on a really nice zoom lens and we met up at a local shop. While I was testing out the lens I talked to the photographer selling it and I was intrigued by why he was selling the lens. He had decided that he wanted to shoot exclusively on film. I asked him why he wanted to do that and he told me that to him it required a finer craft to shoot with film — there was less room for error. He also said that the texture of film had a nicer feel than the digital images did.
As he spoke to me you could tell how much time he had spent coming to this conclusion. He wasn’t trying to figure out the reasons as he was speaking to me. It was part of who he was as a photographer. Figure out who you are as a photographer and you won’t have to convince an audience why your work matters, they will understand.
There was an interesting little commercial that came out recently for Squarespace (not a sponsor). The commercial depicted John Malkovich in his new venture as a clothing designer. He says in the commercial that so often he is a figure in someone else’s dreams, but sometimes he would prefer to make his own figures and have his own dreams. This was an interesting insight that delves deeper into the heart of a professional than I have heard before.
In life, we are all both makers of our own dreams and participants in others dreams. I don’t think any of us would be complete if we didn’t have both. Understanding this dynamic is important because we tend to focus on our own successes. It’s important to remember that being part of a community includes both give and take. If you’re a force for good in your photography circles and help out other people, that process will return back to you in spades.
photo credit: Ryan McGuire