Wednesday, June 25, 2008

As Mel Brooks once said...

"A funny thing happened on the way to the Coliseum."

There is a group of photographers in Portland who gather on a regular basis. We critique each others work. Sometimes I don't get home until well after 10pm.

I attend several of these kinds of groups. One is devoted to casual conversations over beer and food. Another is quite serious about tools and technique. Yet another consists of artists, teachers, and professionals.

The Guild

The groups have gotten to know me. When I moved into Portland from the 'burbs I was still in my large format traditional silver print phase. People saw my work and commented positively about many of the images. Later, I moved into making hand coated Palladium prints from large to ultra large format negatives. About a year after I started printing Palladium, and after several very successful gallery shows, I jumped headlong into a war over photographic fundamentalism. Like all religious battles, things got messy.

Working with new tools and modeling my processes after traditional techniques I started to create images that thrilled me. I felt free to explore just about any photographic expression that came to mind. One evening I decided to share some of the work that I had processed just the week before.

It was late. People were tired. Some folks had left already.

Salmon St. Park Here

When it was my turn, I carefully arranged my photos for people to review.

I quickly sensed that some people were challenged by what I was sharing. As people started to comment and critique the images, it came as no surprise that they had a wide range of thoughts on the topic of photography. In short, my work was nothing like they had "expected" a "real" photograph to be.

I heard comments like "... these are not photographs...", "... I don't know what these are...", "... your images are flat... they lack depth...", "... do you realize that you are threatening illustrators by making it too easy?... they will loose their jobs over this!..."

To balance the whole charade were two photographers who came up to me afterward and said "... this is really great!", "You might be onto something... much like the Impressionists were onto something when they were tossed out of the Salons in Paris..." The last comment may be on the verge of overkill, still, my ego loved to hear it.

Old Pipes

I learned several things from the experience. I had a chance to witness the differences in how people "see" photography. It was at first surprising to watch people make assumptions about what is and what is not photography. There seems to a very clear set of "rules" about what a photograph is.

Thinking about this a bit, I have come to the realization that two things were at play. First, people on the inside of the business of making photographs have a very different view of the art than, say, the typical lay viewers, the Great Unwashed Masses. Where I had nothing but praise from the general public for me new work, the photographic establishment was, by and large, reacting quite negatively.


Second, I once again had the opportunity to feel the gulf between what I created, my intentions and hope for the work, and the way people actually respond. Depending on the viewer, the gap between "me" and "them", and the way people respond can be very large.

I am reminded of the unspoken responsibilities of an artist. While there are many dimensions and approaches to expressing art, I can see where it is helpful to provide context. There needs to be some way of connecting with viewers. In general, it seems to me that if an artist assumes a particular context, they may be missing an opportunity to connect with viewers. For on that night of late evening photo critique I had failed to hook my viewers in a way that was meaningful, accessible, or knowable to them.

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