It seems that I’m constantly returning to this theory that photography/art needs to be seen in context and that the artist needs to have some kind of intent behind the work. In fact, I would argue that the concept is more important than the images themselves (but usually includes the object in some way or the process/ritual).
This is purely opinion, and we all know what opinions are like, right? I’ve argued my position about context and intention with a lot of different people. A few people agree with my theory, however, most don’t.
Every artist can relate with the frustration of feeling like a fraud, or a fake. You might feel like the work you do is trite and clichéd – that you’re not working from an authentic place – it’s normal to feel this way occasionally if you’re serious about what you’re doing. However, most aren’t.
Some days, you might even feel like throwing in the towel; quitting and leaving all of the frustration and emotional distress behind. I’ve felt this way on more than one occasion. I try to use it as a barometer for what I’m doing and why I’m doing it. Although it’s not pleasant to go through these experiences, I think it keeps me honest – both to myself and to the viewers of my work – and that’s very important to me.
But what about people that are taking photographs and getting them exhibited, published in books, magazines or even on the web. Most have no context and certainly no intention. They’re simply random photographs made in an antiquated process or with something that’s been discontinued, or is considered “old school”. I don’t want to point to specific people or publications, but you know what I’m talking about, it’s easy to find online. The problem isn’t what’s there; the problem is what’s not there. I know I’m painting with a very broad brush here; there are a few artists that are both inspiring and impressive. However, most aren’t.
Most photographs that fit into this category are acts of randomness, an exercise in complete serendipity, or complete happenstance. Some appear as complete technical exercises, nothing more; nothing serious – nothing that the artist is actually contributing can be seen – there’s nothing wrong with that, per se. However, when it becomes a large group of photos that make no sense, or are simply copies of other people’s work, it’s a big problem. At least it is for me.
Last year, when I was in Paris, I was asked if I was worried about teaching the Wet Plate Collodion process to people and having them copy my work and my style. At the time, it struck me as an odd question, but it did resonate with me. Over the years, I see more and more images that are made in a very similar style of mine, but without any context or intention. For many years, I’ve tried to define my style and articulate my preoccupation with “the other” through photography (a very difficult thing to do). I have a long history with marginalized societies (I’m part of several), I’ve explored the questions surrounding this topic and made photographs that speak to my passion. It’s not random, it’s not a “kick” that I’m on, and it surely isn’t because the images “look cool”. It’s serious work to me and to a lot of viewers that take the time to understand the context and intention supporting it.
The only thing I would ask other artist/photographers to do is to consider context and intention in their work. Can you defend your work? Can you answer the tough questions? I try to think about my work as much as making the work. Don’t ask the viewer to figure out what you’re trying to say, that’s your job. And if you don’t know what you’re trying to say, maybe you should consider spending some time to try and find out.