I first came across Robert Adams when I was looking for the answer to the question ‘why do people photograph’ and found his book ‘Why People Photograph‘ and then later I came across his book ‘Beauty in Photography‘. These small books are collections of essays covering topics such as collectors, humor, teaching, money and dogs and discussions of Photographers such as Edward Weston, Paul Strand, Laura Gilpin, Judith Joy Ross, Susan Meiselas, Dorothea Lange, Ansel Adams, and Minor White. I have enjoyed reading these books and get something new out of them as I reread them with a deepening understanding of photography as an art.
Why People Photograph must have been on my bookshelf for almost as long as I’ve been taking photographs, almost 10 years now, and yet it was only last year that I realized that Robert Adams can not only write but he is a well know photographer too! How many other holes in my appreciation of the history of photography could you drive a truck through?
I’m at my beginning of my exploration of his work, and I’m doing so by starting with his most recent projects first. Photographs taken around his home near the Oregon coast of the forests, coastline and meadows, very different subjects to the photographs of the American west increasingly spoiled by the urban sprawl that brought him to prominence. This work can be found in ‘The New West‘ a new edition of which will come out in the summer.
Over the last week or so I’ve been making a list of my top 12 influences, visual artists and their work that influence and inspire me. Consistently over the years Hiroshi Sugimoto has made this list. Born in Japan, Sugimoto moved to the US to study in the mid-70’s eventually settling in New York. While he’s returned to a number of subjects repeatedly over the years, including ‘American Theatres’ in which he photographs old movie theaters and drive ins using long exposures in an attempt to show time in his photographs; ‘Dioramas’ which are beautifully executed photographs of exhibitions in natural history museums and more recently of wax-work figures; ‘Architecture’ in which he photographs structures slightly out of focus which gives a sense of the form that the architect had in mind without you getting lost in the details and my personal favorite ‘Seascapes’. His seascapes, such as the one above, give a real sense of the vastness of the ocean that particularly appeals to me.
Check out the documentary below for more about Sugimoto’s life and work.
It seemed appropriate, given where my head has been in the last few weeks, to look at the collaborative group Ninety degrees Five this week. One of the questions that I’ve been asking is ‘as a beginning photographer how can you accelerate your improvement’ and realized that being part of a working group can greatly help. While I was thinking about that I was also wondering once you ‘make it’ whatever that means to you then what. Does the group that you’re a part of still work for you, do you move onto a new group that are more aligned with where you’re currently at? Where do the modern day masters go for feedback?
One of the things that came out of the Impressionists was a group sensibility within which the individuals still had a indue voice. I think that could also be said for this group too. The work hangs together as a whole and yet they clearly have distinct voices. Check out the videos below for more about the Pilabara project and South West Light.
After thinking a little bit more about mastermind groups it dawned on me that artists have been meeting in groups to discuss their work for centuries. Perhaps the most famous, and most written about of these artists groups, or friendship groups as I’ve seen them called, is the Impressionists.
The Impressionists found each other as kindred spirits who were working outside of the traditional French Academy system. As they worked closely with one another they developed a group sensibility of what they thought art should be. They experimented with techniques that would allow them to realize their ideas that were then shared with one another, providing support and validation for paths that might have otherwise been abandoned had they been working in isolation. In regular weekly meetings the artists would discuss successes and failures in the context of the group’s values, work through conflicts and anxieties and share contacts with dealers or masters. I can only imagine such a regular meeting would have been profoundly energizing.
Of course visual artists are not the only ones that go through a period of intense involvement with this kind of group. In a recent webinar that Dane Sanders hosted to support his Weavewriter product there was talk of ‘writers workshops’ that sound just like the kind of meeting that the Impressionists were having. My research into writers workshops lead me first to Pat Schnieder‘s book ‘Writing Alone and with others‘ and then to Peter Elbow’s book ‘Writing Without Teachers‘.
‘Writing Alone’ appears to build on the work by Peter Elbow which provides a framework for group interactions where there isn’t a ‘master teacher’ in the room. In this model the writer is hearing real world feedback from other members in the group about what’s working and what needs additional clarity. It is an interesting process for me because I had it in my mind that without a master in the room mediocrity would reign. Perhaps not.
Both examples above provide me with support for my ideas about the importance of a small group for artistic development, not necessarily to instruct in a formal way but to provide ‘real world’ feedback, encourage and to share resources that could be of help. They also make me realize that this is in essence a ‘solved problem’. There are existing groups that fit this model that you may be able to work with if you look hard enough, the Artist’s Round Table that Ray Ketcham and Sabrina Henry have organized looks like it fits this model almost perfectly. The resources are also there that could help you to develop one organically yourself if that is a better option for you. The only question is what’s stopping you?
I’ve been working through how to give meaningful feedback to other photographers about their work and in the course of that I realize that our reaction to work tells us more about ourselves and less about the photographer. That was certainly the case with my initial intersection with Wynn Bullock. Bullock is generally regarded as one of the most significant photographers of the mid-twentieth century. He was a close friend of West Coast photographers Ansel Adams and Edward Weston and a peer of Minor White, Aaron Siskind and Frederick Sommer. I remember seeing his famous photograph Child in the Forest from the 1955 Family of Man exhibition curated by Edward Steichen and dismissed him as not doing something that I was interested in.
I was recently given a copy of ‘Wynn Bullock: Revelations‘, a comprehensive look at his entire body of work that was produced to support the exhibition now showing at the High Museum of Art in Atlanta, Georgia. Of course there are a good number of nudes included in the book which was where he was as a photographer early in his career but then there are a large number of images such as the one above that reflect his interest in how to represent time in a still image. There are a large number of abstract color images that I also find very interesting.
In listening to the interviews with Bullock below much of what he has to say about his photographic explorations resonated with me. Well worth a look.
I continue to ruminate on the idea of artist’s communities and in particular what does it take to build and sustain an effective group. I was surprised to find relatviely little written on this topic until I asked, and answered for myself, the following questions:
What do you get out of it?
What do you contribute to the group?
What is the optimal size of such a group?
How would you answer these questions?
For me this kind of group would provide both support and accountability. It would provide me with access to experience that I currently don’t have, to feedback about current directions that I’m heading in and provide me with the impetus to keep going.
In addition to being generally supportive of others in the group I would imagine that in such a group everyone has overlapping skills but expertise in specific areas. Each member could as requested teach and share their unique expertise with the rest of the group to help all move forward.
I always feel as though if you are at dinner with a group of more than 6 you really only interact with your nearest neighbors anyway, ~ 5 others, so this is the right number for a dinner party for me and it feels about the right size to me for one of these artists groups. Small enough to be able to really know the other people in the group.
After unpacking this for myself I realized that what I was describing was what is now commonly referred to as a ‘mastermind group’, something that most people trace back to Napoleon Hill’s book ‘Think and Grow Rich’. I read this book 15 years ago and had a quick skim through it again when I was writing this. The language is archaic, making it hard work to get through.
Hill was of course focused on how you can accumulate money and the mastermind group was a tool that would let you develop and vet your plans with a team of people that complemented your skills. Not quite what I had in mind. I was thinking more along the lines of ‘to help you develop mastery and achieve your goals‘.
In more than a couple of portfolio reviews the folks that I was sat down with have asked me about my community. Who are the people around you that are able to share in the trials and tribulations of creating work? The people that can support you when you venture beyond what is safe and encourage you to go further.
What does your community look like?
Hopefully it will be diverse. You will have the never ending cheerleaders who will support and encourage you regardless of what you’re doing. You’ll have the people who will pick you up when you’re down. The ones that know just what to say to penetrate the negative self-talk that many of us can slip into all too easily when we’re way outside of what we think we know is good. Finally you’ll have the people who will give you straight forward and direct feedback. Having a good balance of these groups in your life really helps.
As an aside are you like me and hear the whisper of the critic more clearly than the shout of the supporters? I’m not sure why that is but it does seem to be a pattern repeated time and time again.
Having regular interactions with your community so that you all benefit is what makes communities work. Mostly you need to show up and participate.
I’m also finding that if you are to grow from those interactions you need to ask good questions. Perhaps this is an obvious to you, but it hasn’t always been to me. As I’ve grown more sophisticated as a photographer I wish that the questions that I’ve asked have also grown in sophistication but they haven’t. All too often I look for approval – is this good? do you like it? Does that sound familiar?
Better questions lead to better answers which in turn allow you to move forward. The simple question ‘Do you like it’? almost demands a simple yes or no answer. A more involved question such as ‘what do you think of when you see this image’ or ‘what could make this stronger’ requires more of the viewer and may well result in more informative feedback. The associations that people may surprise you and suggest ways in which you can extend the work.
I’d be delighted to hear your thoughts on community – how to build community, how to sustain it for the long term and anything else you want to add to the conversation – add them in the comments section.