Saturday, May 9, 2009

Defining one's work

A few weeks ago, I went to Berlin, and I had the chance to look at some students' work and give some feedback (a "crit" in art-school lingo). 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.

The one thing I have learned from crits is that often, there are photographers who have no statement and who might even refuse to tell me what the work is about. 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 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.

You can also run into this kind of thinking when you hear 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.