Being an Authentic Photographer

Took this in 1976. Still Love It, Because it Says Something to Me. Bonus Points: What’s the Punctum?

As I’ve mentioned before, I became a ‘painter’ for a while. I’d had no formal training, nor did I really know much about the history of painting as a representational or creative medium apart from having read about Carravagio and Picasso and van Gogh and Pollock. I knew what I was supposed to like, what I actually liked (van Gogh and Pollock!) and that was about it. Some of my photos hung in a gallery that also represented the Macedonian abstract painter Robert Cvetkovski, and it happened that he needed a place to stay while hosting a major exhibition of his work here in North Carolina, so he stayed with me for a few months. I watched him work and, being bored, decided to take a canvas and try to paint in a similar non-representative fashion. Hell, I thought, if he could do it, so could I. So I did, and, in my initial flush of excitement, foolishly thought I wasn’t bad at all. In fact, I talked the gallery owner into giving me a show, at which a pleasant, enthusiastic couple stood with me in front of one of my paintings and inquired as to my creative influences. It was at that moment I realized I was a poseur.

Basically, being the dummy I was (am) – and leaving aside the larger question of the Macedonian guy and his authenticity – I foolishly ignored the vast functional difference between what I was doing and what those did who created the genre of abstract painting, artists who sought to express deep convictions about life, emotion, and experience through what they knew about color, line, shape, and representation. My paintings of drips and blobs and primitive shapes – sometimes quite visually appealing – weren’t really art, because they weren’t authentic to me. They were, at best, decoration, which is what I see them as now, with the benefit of hindsight. I was mimicking creating ‘Art’, appropriating the symbols and modes of expression of others. I was a poseur.

Untitled, 2005. At Least I Didn’t Title it “Metaphysical Daydream Part 14“.

This concept of ‘authenticity’ provides us a way to differentiate legitimate art or action from those that merely pretend (the ‘pretentious’), those done in what Jean-Paul Sarte calls ‘bad faith’ – modes of expression not true to the artist or actor’s essential individuality. Authenticity is about using a form of expression that comes from within, not merely appropriating someone else’s form of expression. As long as what you’re doing is expressing who you are as opposed to signaling who you admire or who you think you should be to impress others, you’re not a poseur.

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Being true to your essential creative nature, as opposed to apeing other’s, can be frightening; you’re exposing the most vital part of yourself to other’s critical judgments, and other people can be clueless, mean, judgmental pricks [guilty as charged]. Sartre claimed that exposing your real self to the gaze of others could be so overwhelming it could cause mental, emotional and physical distress, what he referred to as “nausea.” Yet he saw this profound discomfort as necessary if you were going to be true to yourself ***. This was the price of being authentic. Sartre saw it as a process driven by discomfort, where to be true to your inner calling happened when the psychic embarrassment in being inauthentic became greater than the discomfort of expressing something true to yourself, in effect putting you out there for others to observe and critique. And that’s what happened to me: after that period of painting in ‘bad faith,’ after the profound internal embarrassment of standing in front of my work mouthing inauthentic babble about what ‘it meant,’ I made a decision to abandon the idea that my output needed to please or impress anyone but me…and in the process became a much better photographer and painter.

All this doesn’t mean you have to be completely unique, without influences – sui generis – to be authentic. I certainly have influences that show in my work. That’s the nature of creative expression – it always comes from antecedents that it can be linked to the current work and in some partial way help explain it without exhausting its meaning. Look at Trent Parke, the guy whose video I previously posted; if you’re a photography aficionado, you can see his influences, but those influences don’t define him. He’s added something to make what he creates his own. Likewise, it doesn’t mean you can’t be commercially successful. It doesn’t require you laboring in anonymity or critical irrelevance, trusting that someday someone will recognize you. It just means that you’ll need to ignore whatever commercial or critical pressures that encourage you to conform to anyone’s ultimate vision but your own.

Authenticity is the drive to achieve something from within, to create work you know feels ‘right’ as opposed to work that appeals to other’s sense of right. It manifests itself in devotion to your unique vision backed up with hard work to achieve it, the ultimate irony being that authentic expression usually appears effortless and belies the amount of work invested, while the inauthentic gives the unmistakable impression of “trying too hard.” The “Train Guy,” the guy I was critiquing a few posts ago, he’s trying way too hard.

*** Which begs the question: how can Sartre talk about being authentic when his entire philosophy is premised on the claim that we have no ‘true’ self but rather that we make it up as we go along?

23 thoughts on “Being an Authentic Photographer

  1. Rob Campbell

    I don’t understand why you knock your paintings, Tim. I think they work very well indeed; I also think that authenticity, in the absolute sense that I believe you’re using it, is pretty much impossible these days: there is just so much visual stuff out there that unless we live in a cave without electricity, there’s no way to avoid the influence of what we’ve seen. Yes, you do admit that influence isn’t all bad, but today isn’t the 50s and 60s: we really are overwhelmed with external influences; influencers… there’s a new career,

    Perhaps it’s more realistic to think of pesonal style as that which eventually develops in our later work, during the time when technique no longer poses questions and we just get on and do what has to be done. Maybe that’s when whatever we are comes through?

    Who do we really have as genuine stylists in contemporary photography? I can only think of Sarah Moon. She didn’t appear to go through a variety of styles: I remember seeing her very early stuff in Nova magazine, and in her Pirelli calendar. Today, she hasn’t altogether lost that look, even if that fast GAF 500 film no longer exists. What she seems to have done is to keep her sense of the unstated, the suggested rather than the clinical, and she still finds commercial outlets today, though she is perfectly capable of being crisply precise where required.

    For a longish while I felt Deborah Turbeville and she were two sides of a coin, but the more I absorb them both, the more different they become. Yep, similarly unconventional and not even regularly modelish models, but if anything, Turneville apoears to me to be that bit more location-driven than is Moon, who’d be perfectly happy working in a box. So to be fair, perhaps Turbeville is also an original. My old hero Hans Feurer: is he an original, or simply a stylist who has used long lenses so consistently during his career as to make any other photographer using them seem a plagiarist?

    Where would you place Sally Mann? Is she an authentic, or is it just her “family” theme that brought her worldwide fame? She does a lot more than that… maybe these three women have a touch of the romantically gothic, if that’s possible?

    (My eyes are a bit scewed at the moment, so please excuse any typos.)
    .

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  2. Lee Rust

    I like your paintings too. They invite they eye. They give the viewer a distinct sensation. You enjoyed making them. Mission accomplished.

    Ditto with photographs or just about any other kind of ‘art’. The idea that an official authoritative expert person has to approve of your work before it can have any value or meaning is just another manifestation of our mercantile culture. You don’t have to play along, especially if you’re not trying to sell your work into an existing marketplace.

    Maybe you’ll even generate your own marketplace… in which case you might get to have your cake and eat it too. The new Picasso! The next HCB! The expert persons will exult in their new discovery as they rush to announce your fresh new genius to their respective consumers.

    On a practical level, there are just too damn many images in the world these days. I read that there are now something like 380 billion photos taken every year, compared to about 1 billion back in 1960. That’s getting into some pretty big numbers. How important can any one of those pictures really be? To each individual photographer, they’re just as important as ever… but the chance of any one of them getting noticed and valued by a significant number of other people is getting to be vanishingly small.

    As for your opening photo, the punctum might be the weariness with which the woman seems to mount the steps, perhaps after a hot afternoon of tending the garden. It looks like she can hardly wait to pull off those stockings and put up her feet. Meanwhile, the photographer was so tired that he couldn’t even hold the camera straight. That’s what it says to me anyhow. Your meaning may differ.

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  3. Andrew Molitor

    There’s no such thing as punctum, it is the bizarre conception of an hysteric and not as a rule applicable to the general populace and their experience of photographs.

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    1. Leicaphila Post author

      Incorrect. It’s the doggy dish. If that ain’t a punctum, well then, I’m not sure what to tell you

      Reply
      1. Andrew Molitor

        I actually wrote a fairly long piece on this at one point, which you may peruse here if you like:

        http://photothunk.blogspot.com/2019/02/what-about-punctum-then.html

        The summary, though, is that “punctum” is defined by its creating an ecstatic experience of the “blind field”, of that material outside the picture, which is quite different from a rational “hmm, I wonder why the dog dish is there” reaction. This ecstatic reaction simply doesn’t exist for anyone who isn’t Roland Barthes, or at least similarly hysterical.

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        1. Leicaphila Post author

          Andrew: I think we’re talking about the same thing. Barthes is just using insider vocabulary – philosophical jargon – to explain what is ultimately as simple as “where the hell is the cat?” The “blind field” is the cat. It’s nowhere to be found in the photo; it has no existence in the photo, it’s a big nothing as far as the photo is concerned – and yet, when we look at the photo, we see that cat in our mind’s eye. For those of us who see the cat when we see the photo, we can’t see the photo without the cat.

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          1. Andrew Molitor

            Maybe? I don’t know for sure. I am pretty sure that he’s distinguishing between an ecstatic irrational sudden emotional epiphany — “cat!!!”, and a more reasoned, “I wonder if there’s a cat?” but it’s possible that he’s not, not really.

            But if so, then Camera Lucida is even more breathtakingly stupid than I consider it, and I consider it very very stupid indeed.

  4. Keith Laban

    I’d replace authenticity with honesty.

    As for developing a personal style – and I dislike the word because of other less fortunate connotations – the process should be an unconscious and evolutionary process that is largely based on the collective and progressive work of the individual rather than the influence of the works of others.

    Or rather, developing a personal style THAT’S WORTH A LIGHT is an unconscious, evolutionary process that is largely based on the collective and progressive work of the individual rather than the influence of the works of others.

    Once again, honesty.

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  5. Rob Campbell

    Tim, regarding punctum: are you sure it helps any, or do you perhaps wonder – as do I – that introducing such concepts actually confuses rather than helps photographers?

    In your own example of the lady fighting the little staircase: are you telling us that at the shooting of it, the bowl figured as anything more than an aid to the overall balance of the image, a subconscious decision based on graphics rather than anything of deeper significance?

    To me, the overall gist of the photograph is about creeping age: where once the same person would probably have skipped up those steps, today she battles herself to make it against the probably stiff joints, and were she British, she energises herself through anticipation of the possible reward of a nice cup of tea once inside, and chore accomplished. Of course, if living alone, that cuppa represents but another bloody chore to be faced before fulfilment. Unless you live it, you have no idea how the inevitability of nothing happening unless you, yourself, makes it happen is an enormity against which the daily struggle to survive. Cherish your wife, guys.

    Try as I might, that bowl refuses to fly the flag of a greater purpose than I have suggested. Okay, it indicates a possible pet somewhere in the overall narrative, but it might just be there to give the birds something to drink. But that’s terribly incidental… it hardly makes it into the realm of ambiguity (pour moi).

    Deconstruction can be an interesting path, but by definition, let’s reserve it for after the event!

    Rob

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    1. Leicaphila Post author

      I think it’s a pretty easy concept without much philosophical heft. It’s just something we find of interest in the photo that leads us outside of the photo to something else. It is totally subjective, simply what the viewer sees in the image that strikes him as interesting or thought-provoking, even if the thought is banal or common. As for the photo, I think it’s a good photo to use to illustrate what Barthes means by the term “punctum.” To me when I look at it I see the bowl and my mind goes immediately to why it would be there: a feral cat being fed? The woman’s dog? Is she going inside after feeding the cat? If so, where is the cat? Why isn’t the cat there? What’s the relation to the bowl and her going inside? The other punctum for me is the rolled-up hosiery she’s wearing.

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  6. Rob Campbell

    Keith writes “I’d replace authenticity with honesty.”

    That, too, is one of those difficult kinds of ideas to grasp clearly.

    When is a photographer being or not being “honest”: is it by avoiding clever lighting; by shooting nothing but his pet subject(s); by avoiding any commission that does not comply with the latter? Is it about not gilding the lily and thus revealing warts and all? Does it preclude all attempts at making things and people look beautiful, or at least at their best?

    I suspect that photography is one of those creatures where, the moment we try to get beneath its skin, we come to realise that there is pretty much no flesh there at all, that it is all surface coupled with the ability of putting together elements that perhaps (but not always) remain ambiguous – but logical – in their relationship within the frame. Frankly, were much of contemporary photography and painting seen without the viewer having any idea of who the author might be, our opinions of much work might remain more bleak than it perhaps is..

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    1. Keith Laban

      Honestly, what on earth did I mean by ‘honesty’?

      Remaining true to personal vision and direction whilst remaining unencumbered by that of others, perhaps?

      Gosh!

      Reply
  7. Henry Beckmeyer

    What makes this photo for me is that it is about a moment, and not an object.
    There are too many photos of objects, and we need more photos of moments.

    Reply
  8. 32BT

    It’s interesting how you can argue the importance of water in the desert while nobody listens because there is just too much sand all around.

    Here then is kudos to you for supplying us the water, the source of all life, in this sea of sand we find ourselves in these days:

    Thank you.

    Reply
      1. 32BT

        Certainly, or at least he seems to have a compass which isn’t easily distracted by shifting poles. Btw how did the operation turn out?

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        1. Rob Campbell

          Hi 32BT,

          The first eye is done, and the next one due on the 22nd of the month.

          First impressions through the new plastic lens were that I could seen distance detail as when I was a kid; the second, very noticeable thing was that the colour blue has returned, proving to me that I have been looking at this world through a pale yellow filter for a long time. I shudder to think what any recent colour work may have looked like, Another good reason for doing black/white. However, even that ain’t safe: contrast is now much better, too. Have I been producing quasi line drawings under the assumption they were full of tones?

          Writing is difficult, though, because the untreated eye blurs things; I also feel like I am looking through two slightly different focal lengths at the same time.

          For anyone interested in cataract removal: the process really is painless, the anaesthetic applied as drops. At least, in Spain!

          The experience is of a circa 1966 disco light show, but only of the lights. Sadly, the go-go girls do not come as part of the visual package. Perhaps now you understand better why I struggle mentally to stay within the bright zone of life… However, who knows what hallucinogenic wonders future anaesthetics may incorporate and provide as part of the “client experience?

          😉

          Reply

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