When I was invited to participate in this panel on “Life as a Photographer”, it was expected that I speak about things like “working with a publisher”, “pitching a book idea”, “managing a book project”, etc. Those are interesting questions, to be sure. But when I was first approached, my thoughts about “life as a photographer” headed in a rather different direction.
The first thing I asked myself was, “how does life as a photographer differ from life as anything else: a plumber, a bus driver, a nuclear physicist…?”
If I am a commercial photographer then perhaps the difference isn’t so great.
But what if I consider myself a “fine-art” photographer? I put that word inside quotation marks because wary of labels that pigeonhole people or kinds of work; nevertheless, I think we all understand the general distinction.
To me the distinction goes something like this (and I’m not making value judgments; not saying that one kind of photographer is better or more gifted than the other):
– a commercial photographer produces images on demand to meet a buyer’s specifications; he works for immediate reward (he gets paid for his effort)
– a fine-art photographer produces images that suit himself, not necessarily in response to demand from any particular person; though he would love to be adored and famous (speaking for myself here),
he expects neither reward nor recognition of any kind; he is sustained by the belief that his genius will be appreciated after his death; it’s a lousy business model!
If I am a commercial photographer then photography is my job; to succeed I need a high level of technical skill and the ability to understand what clients want and then deliver it; in this general sense, life as a photographer is not different from life as any other kind of professional.
So what’s special about life as a “fine art” photographer?
To answer that, I have to ask another question: What am I trying to do as a fine-art photographer?
I could reply that I’m not trying to do anything other than indulge my personal desire to create images.
But many people would say that an artist must have a clear and deliberate intention – the photographer-as-artist should be trying to “say something”, or make the world a better place, or wrestle with his inner demons in public – or something like that. This is what we are expected to describe in those “artist statements” that curators and granting organizations are always requesting.
I’ve written so many artist statements that by now I may half-believe what I say in them. But the truth is that they always feel forced and pretentious to me.
On the other hand, there’s no getting around the fact that I am indeed trying to do something when I produce images. Just watch me at work: I’m deliberate when searching for things to photograph; deliberate when I click the shutter; deliberate when I produce the final image with photo-editing software. It all absorbs a lot of time and energy and intellect. It’s a directed effort, not a haphazard process.
But can I be articulate and specific – à la dreaded artist statement – about what exactly it is that I’m trying to do? No; it’s mysterious, which is as it should be. The creative process is a mystery.
Insights come from unexpected places. The most insightful book I’ve read about the urge to create art was written by Keith Richards, the Rolling Stones guitarist and songwriter. In his autobiography, Life, Richards revealed his fascination with the motivation behind artistic creation. He wrote:
“What is it that makes you want to write songs? In a way you want to stretch yourself into other people’s hearts … It becomes almost an obsession to touch other people.”
That’s as good an explanation as I can provide of my own intention as a fine-art photographer. The bottom line – this is my interpretation of Richards’ words – is that it’s about trying to communicate on the most fundamental level possible. For me, at least, it’s a more profound kind of communication than is possible with the words used in ordinary conversation.
Really, it’s about trying to do the impossible – draw other people into your head and have them see the world as you envision it. No one else can know how I experience the world visually – photography is an imperfect attempt to share my own experience.
So I think “life as a photographer” is a constant search for ways to, as Richards put it, “stretch yourself into other people”. It’s about trying to narrow the unbridgeable gap between my mind and yours; to give you a hint of how another human being sees and interprets the world.
And there’s a second part to “life as a photographer”. Here again I quote Keith Richards. He talks about the time when he and Mick Jagger made the transition from being performers to being performers and songwriters:
“We start to think like songwriters, and once you get in the habit, it stays with you all your life. It motors along in your subconscious, in the way you listen… The radar is on whether you know it or not. You cannot switch it off… [To provide yourself with material] you start to become an observer, you distance yourself. You’re constantly on the alert. It’s a little of Peeping Tom to be a songwriter. You start looking around and everything’s a subject for a song.”
That’s a perfect description of what “life as a photographer” feels like: “detached observer”; “constantly on the alert”; “everything’s a potential subject”.
So there are two pieces to life as a photographer. There’s the desire to communicate in a deep way; to share what’s going on within my mind; to never give up on the impossible task of showing other people how I make sense of the world. Ultimately the effort fails (we are all the prisoners of our own consciousness), but the inevitability of never getting it quite right is what keeps you going.
And it’s about being in a state of high-alert, hyper-aware of your surroundings, seeing the world in terms of its potential for image-making.
So there you have it. And thank you Keith Richards for helping me explain “life as a photographer” better than I could have done on my own.
Bio – Mark Schacter
Mark Schacter’s photography encompasses subjects ranging from landscapes to urban and architectural to industrial. Three books of his photography have been published: Houses of Worship (2013), Sweet Seas. Portraits of the Great Lakes (2012) and Roads (2010). He compares his approach to photography to “the way an archaeologist might search for clues about an extinct civilization. I see landscapes and cityscapes as being filled with traces of human striving – attempts to build things, enjoy life, raise families, create wealth or simply leave behind physical evidence that will outlast a human lifetime; evidence that says ‘someone has been here’ “.
His most recent exhibition, a selection of 20 photographs from Houses of Worship, opened at the Photopolis Festival of Photography in Halifax, Nova Scotia in September, 2014. His latest project, West, can be seen on YouTube, in high-definition, at http://youtu.be/zU1dRHynaQU
Mark lives in Ottawa, Canada. A broad selection of his work can be seen at www.luxetveritas.net