Vision Quest

The images that accompany this post are from a natural light session with model Michelle R. They were made in her apartment on a warm and sunny fall afternoon here in Savannah. I’m opening today’s post this way, hoping such an announcement will be seen as more than the thinly veiled plea for forgiveness, the petition for leniency that it is; all for me allowing so much time to pass between now and my last entry.

An embarrassment for sure; I’ve let more than a month slip by without a single word written, and even fewer images made or worked, as if my very worst intentions for myself and my work were coming to light. Yes, no doubt an embarrassment, but much more worrying, is it a sign of apathy?

I’ll readily admit my head has been in a strange place the past few weeks with regard to photography and art. Little in my gallery has been selling; paper and essential material costs continue to rise; my desire to create new work is somewhat diminished. I know I’m not alone in these matters. I’m one of several owning partners in The Gallery, and the only photographer. No single artist’s work, painter and sculptor alike, is selling well. Certainly, some are doing better than others, but none are doing as well as they did a year or more ago, including me.

My gallery partners complain about lack of motivation, griping their studios are over crowded, jammed almost with inventory. Work once referred to as ‘art’ is now viewed as product to be moved. I have a show opening in November at a local space in Savannah, (more on this in my next post), that I had originally conceived as a retrospective of my work with the nude; a planned 50/50 mix of old and new pieces. Now, it’s likely to be more of a 70/30 ratio, weighted heavily towards the old inventories.

What does all of this mean anyway? The unwillingness to proceed; the lack of feelings of urgency to move forward with the work; these are not good things. For the artist, I believe it’s about fear, something I wrote about in the beginnings of this blog. Speaking very personally, when I’m stuck, going in circles so to speak, it’s almost always due to fear. This time is different though, as fear isn’t the ringleader of this particular circus.

Fear is most certainly involved, but the primary obstacle I’m facing isn’t fear, but doubt – or perhaps more correctly, self-doubt. Self-doubt has caused me to question myself, my passions, and my intent. In short, I’ve been feeling depressed about the collective body of my work and in what direction it may or may not be going. Worse is I’m questioning whether the work has direction at all.

I don’t want to give the impression that I’m the type to sit and dwell on my problems. I’m not. (Alright, sometimes I am.) I don’t like to feel like this, and I want to deal with these feelings; so to do that, and do it effectively, I have to know where these emotions come from; why they’ve shown up. Knowing that, I can send them packing, hopefully to a point well beyond where they began. I don’t banish them; these feelings are important. I believe they’re required for balance; a ying and yang ideal. I do however severely restrict their access to me, and to the work. Or I try to anyway.

For the unprepared, looking deep within the self can be hazardous. What you find isn’t always what you’re looking for. The soul searcher must be ready to greet and embrace the unexpected. Sort of a ‘feel-the-fear-and-do-it-anyway’ thing.

I quickly found myself getting reacquainted with two old friends: fear, whom I’ve already mentioned, and change, whom I’m sure you’ll remember from some earlier writings.

But fear of what? And what sort of change? Well, those are fairly easy to identify and understand. I’ve been working to move from years of studio shooting, particularly with nudes, into more natural environments, especially environments where the light sources are continuous and natural. After shooting almost nothing but studio work for nearly a decade, it’s easy to see why the fear and change issues crop up. What’s puzzling is the lack of motivation.

I recently wrote of my desire to find markets for the work outside of Savannah; not additional gallery representation, but opportunities for exhibitions and shows. This is for the work as a whole, a collection, but it’s something I think the figurative work would benefit from the most. Putting all the work into wider circulation certainly isn’t a bad thing. To do this however, requires access to resources, namely money and time, two things I am currently lacking an abundance of.

Then clarity began to take hold. Looking further within, I realized I’d not shot any new images since mid-summer. More accurately, I’d not shot any work that was for me, for no other purpose than art; no reason other than to create. Of course I’d photographed during this time; documentary and forensic work for my day job, and trade obligations for a couple of models; but nothing from the heart. Mostly, I shot because I had to – and not enough because I wanted too. Figure sessions shot in August and September were done solely to fill gaps for the November show. An impromptu figure session with model Michelle R., where today’s images were born, was shot at the end of a portfolio development session; completely spontaneous and unplanned. That was my sole break in the trend, the only time I shot to create since sessions in July.

That realization was also the first moment of clarity; the first “ah-ha!”

The second moment of clarity came when I understood that I wasn’t shooting completely from the heart. Instead, I was dwelling on the marketplace, concentrating on what type of image would sell to what type of buyer. This is one primary reason I had been a lousy commercial photographer. The times I shot weddings were a disaster; commercial shoots for print adverts or catalogs were assignments which filled me with dread. Portrait sittings were the worst. Clients would see my work somewhere; either at a show or in my gallery, or they’d hear of it by word of mouth. They would look at my website (which at the time, did include a headshot portfolio, designed to draw fashion clients) and decide they wanted to hire me to photograph them or their families. Almost without fail, these people would then want to duplicate what could be done by a large commercial portrait mill, images typical of what’s published in church directories or corporate annual reports. When I would explain that was not my style, not what they saw in my portfolio, it was never pretty. My success as a commercial portrait photographer was short lived.

However, in the rare times I could convince a client to let me have my way with them – a tough process, especially when they’re paying – the results were almost always beautiful, emotive, and stunning. In most other situations, images that I shot for me, shot to satisfy my own vision, were always the ones that sold and sold well.

The third moment of clarity came when I acknowledged my vision – or the lack thereof. I began to understand that intertwined with all of this was the sense that my vision had been lost; well, maybe not ‘lost’ per se, but most definitely altered; even a bit distorted. Either way, this was something I’d only just become aware of. Regardless of how my vision had evolved, it wasn’t what it had been. Over the years, I’ve grown and matured with my photography. Vision and purpose were left behind, neglected. I’ve come to understand that vision must be nurtured, must be encouraged. If it isn’t it simply won’t survive.
I titled today’s post “Vision Quest.” For many indigenous peoples, particularly those of North America, the quest for purpose and guidance, the seeking of a vision, is both a sacred and personal obligation. The artist’s vision is no different, simultaneously being a very intimate and very public thing. To bring nourishment to mine, I’m revisiting art, looking beyond what I see in order to see why I see. For me it’s not just about photography; it’s about the work of my colleagues in Savannah, the work of painters and sculptors, the work of those I admire and appreciate. Reading is also a therapy of sorts; I’m just starting a book titled “Within the Frame: The Journey of Photographic Vision” by David duChemin. Another book I thoroughly enjoy, one I find greatly stimulates imagination and vision, is “Invisible Cities” by Italian author Italo Calvino. A friend of mine, a talented photographer and designer who introduced me to the work of Calvino, once told me she keeps a very worn and thoroughly read copy of “Invisible Cities” on her nightstand.

I’m starting to feel a bit better now.

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Typically, I’m not a newspaper reader, online editions included. I listen to NPR, catch the local news from time to time, or check in to the NPR website, Google News or something similar online. Once in a while though, some kind and considerate soul, in this case my wife, will point out something in print that I should see.

In the Tuesday, October 6, 2009 edition of the Wall Street Journal, in the Leisure & Arts section, was an article on photographer Robert Bergman. Never heard of him? Neither had I. Now, after reading the article, and doing a bit of searching online, I desperately want to get to MoMA (Museum of Modern Art) in New York to see his work.

Mr. Bergman, who calls himself ‘The Man Who Waited’, is living the story of the photographer as artist in modern America. He has become known for his simple and stark portraits of everyday folk. It was at the age of 63, having photographed for all of his adult life, that he made his first print sale to Agnes Gund, one of the country’s prominent collectors of photography and president emerita of MoMA. Now 65, selections of his work will be shown October 11, 2009 through January 14, 2010 at P.S.1 Gallery, a division of MoMA, and then at Yessi Milo in November, another New York City gallery.

The National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C. will also host the exhibit from October 11, 2009 through January 10, 2010. Mr. Bergman has published a book of his images, “A Kind of Rapture” which has been notably received by the art world. I’m going to try and find a copy for myself.

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