Be Your Self (or… Learn the Difference Between Creativity and Emulation)

“The Self is the Way the Individual Structures Experience.” Erik Erickson

I’m amused by ‘photo critique’ forums, where people post photos and solicit comments from others. The assumption, I suppose, is that others will offer constructive criticism that I can use to improve my photos. If that’s the point, count me out. If I’m using photography as a medium for creative expression, why should I give a shit what someone else thinks of my work? It’s my work, the expression of my self; what could someone else instruct me about that? The futility of asking for aesthetic advice from other people seems to me self-evident: Allow other’s advice to color your self-expression and it’s no longer self-expression.  

This is an inherent problem in ‘Art Education.’ Most students don’t make the kinds of work they claim to admire. Rather, what they make is work that emulates successful work previously made by others, work that’s become recognized by the Academy as worthy. The irony, of course, is that the work students are taught to consider worthy and seek to emulate was itself most likely ignored or misunderstood or critically panned when made.

Strong, adventurous, challenging work is always unusual, mainly because so few people have enough confidence in the legitimacy of their own creative impulses to resist the practical influences that dumb-down real individual expression. And it’s usually only recognized with a good amount of hindsight, while the average and uninventive is too often mistaken at first glance as significant. Think of van Gogh, laboring away in painful anonymity, or Jackson Pollock, who “traded” paintings for food with his big-hearted Long Island grocer neighbor, after which the grocer would throw out the paintings as junk (can you imagine being that grocer’s heir?). Last time I was in Amsterdam I walked past the line for entrance to the van Gogh museum. It extended out the door and wound at least a half-mile down the street, tourists lined up in the thousands just to look at the paintings he couldn’t give away a century ago, while the bloated, mediocre history-piece paintings hung in fashionable salons during van Gogh’s lifetime are vanished into irrelevance, seen now as the derivative, uninspired crap they are.

Judging excellence via popularity is always a mistake – popularity usually being the product of the lowest common denominator (e.g. Kenny G. a better jazz saxophonist than Dexter Gordon? Rod McKuen a better poet than Fernando Pessoa? Thomas Kinkade a better painter than Edward Hopper?). It’s the dynamic that brings us the banalities of pop culture – Hollywood and syndicated television recycling the same trite formulas ad infinitum, Bill O’Riley History books and Dr. Phil pop psychology – the mistake of equating good with what comforts the sensibilities of the most common.

I have a rule that guides me in assessing whether I should pay attention to, or better yet, spend my money on, works of popular culture: the more a given work – a book, say, or a record album, or a movie – is breathlessly lauded via popular media, the less likely its worth my serious attention. I can think of very few ‘next great things’ that ultimately possessed any staying power. That’s not to say that I haven’t derived fleeting enjoyment from a Karl Ove Knausgaard book or a Vanilla Ice song [editor’s note: yes, Vanilla Ice. My Czech girl played me his “Ice, Ice Baby” song in the car the other day. Granted, it’s not mid-60’s Dylan goes electric brilliant, but that’s a great song when you get past the fact that it’s Vanilla Ice]; it’s just that I’ve learned the difference between transient emulation and true works of genius (genius meant in the sense the Ancients understood it, as a quality of work that transcends trends and fashions, reputation and fame, works that abolish time and place of origin).

The word genius is Latin in derivation. In Roman antiquity, it described the guardian spirit of a person or place, a spirit that linked the person or place to a particular fate. Like the Greek daimon, your genius was your unique singularity, the spirit that followed you from birth to death. It was your fate, your singular destiny. As such, it couldn’t be taught, and it couldn’t be identified to you by others. It could only be recognized by you, recognized and assented to. You would know it when you heard it. Surrender to it and it would take you where you were meant to go. Listening to others could only obscure its voice.

*************

Untitled, 2005, 30×40 acrylic on canvas

Above is a painting I did in 2005. I like it, but I’m not especially proud of it; it’s just something I did back then. Other people seem to like it. It hung in my office for years, and visitors would often comment on it. When I told them I’d painted it, they’d often get a look – part disbelief, incomprehension, admiration, dismissal – although almost everyone professed to like it. Mixed up in all of it were notions of class, education, taste, expectation. Complicating matters is that I don’t really think of myself as a painter; rather, I was a guy who painted for awhile until I tired of it and moved on. I had to do something with the paintings, so the better ones I hung as decoration.

People often mistake the painting for a Pollock. I wish. Granted it does look like something he might have done. And that, frankly, is the reason I don’t consider myself a painter, and that canvas nothing special. The larger issue is this: Does this painting reflect me? Or is it simply a well-crafted emulation of the creativity of others? That’s the difference between honest Art and wall decoration.

Untitled, 2005, 30×40 acrylic on canvas

Above is another of my paintings, done about the same time as the first one above. Nobody I know likes it. My wife hates it and refuses to have it hung in our house. God forbid that we hang it in our backyard cottage that we Airbnb. But …. I love it. It speaks to me. When I painted it I wasn’t attempting to do anything but create something unique to me. When I was done I said “Yup,” that’s good, just like that.” It wasn’t meant to be anything but my own. If people were to ask me what it means, I’d reply “damned if I know…but I like it.”  If people don’t like it, well, that’s their problem.

*************

There’s always the accomplished – those who claim a further competence – who are only too happy to critique your work, usually for a price, no less – the portfolio reviews by recognized or self-proclaimed “experts,” the photo workshops, the weekend seminars. I’ve never had a portfolio review or attended a seminar, but I have studied photography in institutional/academic settings, and I have never – not once – received criticism or advice that assisted me in any other than a marginal way; in fact, most of it, if it did anything, temporarily diverted me from the path I was on and should have been on. “Experts”, whether they be at your local camera club or they’re the Curator of Photography at the Met may, at most, be able to help you with the how, but they’ll never have a clue about the what, those things that resonate with you and that you’re capable of giving back distilled through your own unique consciousness.

If I could recommend one way to become a better photographer, it’d be to develop your own way of seeing and the rest will take care of itself. The simplest way of doing that is to think about what you want to say and not necessarily how to say it. In other words, have something to say and you’ll already have found the proper way to say it, the how being embedded in the what. This will have the added benefit of making your work your own and not derived or copied from someone else’s. Nobody but you can tell you how to do that. Speak out of your own experience; speak what you believe. In the words of Henry David Thoreau, “Dig up some of the earth you stand on, and show that.”

14 thoughts on “Be Your Self (or… Learn the Difference Between Creativity and Emulation)

  1. Lee Rust

    Before the internet era, “great art” was whatever the aesthetic marketeers said it was, because they alone controlled access and distribution. Wealth and fame might accrue to those artists who got the stamp of approval, but all the better if the artist was dead and the marketeers didn’t have to share any earnings.

    Now that any creatively motivated person can display, promote or sell their works online, the game has changed. If someone presents themselves as an artist, who is to say whether or not they are great? As long as the viewer ‘likes’ the work, does it really matter what anybody else may think?

    I’m not schooled in Jackson Pollock, but I have a general idea of what his paintings look like… and they look just like your paintings. To me, the second one is more interesting than the first because it seems like something dark and dangerous is happening behind a screen of barbed wire. Is the wire keeping us out, or is it keeping that something in? Maybe your wife thinks it’s too scary to have hanging around the house.

    Genius.

    Reply
  2. CZ Shire

    Funny you say people hated that second painting, the first one looked like a Pollock imitation of some sort but the second one had personality, and shapeshifting abilities (its like snakeskin, rust, birds on telephone lines and more). I would trade you groceries for it.

    Reply
  3. Rob Campbell

    It’s a pity you have apparently given the cold shoulder to your painting. I think you do it well, but have to disagree about the “hit” order of the two examples.

    The first one is something that would give pleasure over quite some time, I believe, whereas the second, with all its heat, would annoy the hell out of me, just as I imagine it would your wife, which I’d guess is why she wouldn’t like to have to see it every day. Maybe too much visual violence with which to live?

    Van Gogh. He became my favourite artist a long time ago, but in later years I would find myself asking myself whether it had more to do with sympathy for his sad life than with his work per se; did the drama outshine the reality of the canvases? Still don’t know what I really feel on that score. The prices simply confuse the issue unless one is able firmly to ignore them, which since they are, for me, nothing but dreamsville, it’s easy to do.

    Photo critique online: I think it may really be more about looking for plaudits than advice; can anyone really believe any longer that a good eye can be bought, taught or even learned from remarks from faceless writers? God, maybe they really do!

    Photography tends to become a wee bit self conscious when photographers start to think of themselves as artists; it’s dangerous territory to tread and I think any feelings of self-congratulations are always best left until after the event, by which time it isn’t so perilous a position to inhabit. Thing is, if you work as a professional art photographer, in the sense of galleries rather than to commission, then I think you put yourself into a really hot seat, where your worth is going to be measured by people who want to make money off you, not by what you can bring to their product, which is a whole different deal. An advertising photographer can grow rich doing great campaigns and retain his relative anonymity, which can be an invaluable thing to have. For an art photographer to lose popularity is a shaming, public death.

    Reply
  4. Nico

    I would buy the second painting without any hesitation, Tim, if it were for sale and if I could afford it…

    Reply
  5. Dan Castelli

    You should copy at first. It’s part of the learning process. You’ll never duplicate what H C-B or Ansel Adams produced, so don’t worry about it. Eventually, your own style will emerge. I’ve always liked the gentle humor of Elliott Erwitt. His style appealed to me. I don’t try to emulate him, but his work gave me some direction, and I’ve used my camera to make photos of how I see my world. Similar, but different. But remember, Erwitt will never be me.

    Reply
    1. Rob Campbell

      That’s a tough route to follow. I tried doing that for a year or two as a kid without a camera but with a box of paints. I’d go to the local museum, buy postcards of Van Gogh et al. and copy them at home. It was easy to tell if you’d pulled off a reasonable attempt because the original (second-hand) was always available. Nothing very creative there…

      But photography – you have no chance. You can’t recreate the atmosphere of something you’ve seen, find the street or buildings, and if you do, it’s probably gonna rain. If your love is fashion, stop right there and don’t go breaking your heart over it: those magazine pix are out of your league. I know this the hard way: not until my muse came along, out of the blue on a model test, did my own stuff start to take shape and build a career. Without that coup de foudre nothing would have changed and I’d probably have resigned myself to a life of provincial mediocrity. Photography, being specific, always demands more than just vision: it needs something to put in front of that camera. And it has to be the right thing.

      So is there more to it? I don’t really think so. If you practise until the cows come home it will make no difference if the thing isn’t in you. If it is, you need no practice, you just need to go with it, find the resources – fiscal, geographical or human – and you’ll find yourself doing it. Simple as that. Okay, granted, you have to learn how to do the mechanics, but that’s not the creative factor, or all you’d need is the camera manual. Lots have those, but lots don’t make good pictures.

      At least, that’s my take on the matter.

      Rob

      Reply
  6. Dan Castelli

    Your points are valid, especially about the impossibility of recreating the specific conditions present when the photo was made. Isn’t there an old saying you can’t dip your toe in the stream twice..?
    So, what are we to do? Stop taking photos? It’s all been done before? Is it easier to be creative if you’re an artist or musician or writer?
    During the late 1960’s, I ran with a group of people who were devotees of Ansel Adams. They bought the LF cameras, they tested every single piece of equipment, they mastered the zone system and they produced beautiful images made in New England; not the American west. In a sense, they emulated Adams by seeking out majestic landscapes (and mastering the mechanics), but it was original work. Was it all in vain? Same technique, different mountain? I don’t know.
    But I think I do know this: There is the person who makes art (you can pick the medium) after a period of time being instructed in the field and will be competent, but then there is the person who has no choice but to make art; it’s in their DNA. I need to take photos. I see too much happening around me to be a passive observer, I must put it on film. It would drive me crazy not to do it. For me, it’s not, nor has it ever been a hobby. If my style/approach/equipment choice seems to be similar to a ‘name’ photographer, then that’s just a coincidence.
    Thanks again for a thoughtful posting.

    Reply
    1. Rob Campbell

      It never having been a hobby is exactly where I stand, too.

      Unlike your own position, where you see things going down around you that you can’t let yourself miss, my position is different: most of the time it’s in my head and has to be made with the help of a second person in front of my camera. That’s why I run through so many goddam flat periods where I lack the heart to bother taking the camera outside.

      In efforts to get out of the deep hole – it’s a hole because being retired, there are no models anymore – I took a very early love for Saul Leiter’s oeuvre and tried to take it a few thousand miles east of NY and look for things below the surface in reflections, shop windows etc. in the little Mallorcan town where I live. Sometimes I convince myself it’s worth the fight, but eventually I have to stop deceiving myself and then I go into drift mode for a few more months. But I usually do remember to remove the batteries from the bodies when I feel it coming on.

      Thing is, I realise it’s a very destructive and corrosive situation but am powerless to change it. That said, I would not have changed direction given the chances again today. The good times were so goddam intense that they are still worth it now as memories. Apart from the purely photographic part, they allowed my wife and I the opportunity of seeing so much of this world that would have remained out of reach but for those gigs that took there.

      I guess it really does become our life.

      Rob

      Reply
  7. Ezequiel M. Mesquita

    Great food for thought, in a moment I’m soul searching about a direction for my creative output. (Not that my subsistence depends on that, thanks God). Sometimes I’m puzzled by the popularity of some pictures in my Instagram feed that I’m not so proud of, and my favorites go pretty unnoticed. I’m not very fluent in abstract paintings, but find your second one far more interesting and inspiring than the first. Kind of a music score, and the crimson background seems cheerful to me. I think of a red strat guitar. But to others it lookee like barbed wire and menacing. I suppose that’s the best part. To express yourself and that others can relate to in the way it best resonates for them. Regards!

    Reply

Leave a Reply