Sign up here for my new photo walks.
I’m accustomed to a bit of fear in my life. Periods of anxiety and depression through my 20s and 30s (now in remission thanks to meds and Fiona) have made The Fear a bit of a familiar friend. The feeling can almost be comforting - the one thing that makes sense and relates to past experience. Maybe that’s why I keep putting myself in positions that encourage it. It’s certainly been a pattern over the years. Get stable, get bored, do something radically different, get paralysed by the enormity of what I’ve taken on, get the fear, get through it, get stable and repeat.
This recent adventure in Art has been an attempt to quash this pattern by creating a stable and safe space to do the radically different things I need to do, but it’s also been a classic exercise in ever expanding enormity. My main question is “What does it mean to take a photograph in a place?” which leads to questioning the fundamentals of photography and the definitions of place. Nothing too broad then. And now I’m about to run some walks which try to combine these quite high-level questions (which I can’t hope to have satisfactorily answered in four months) with a desire to make them coherent and accessible to all comers, because what I’m also interested in is the death of the elitist photographer and the effects of ubiquitous snapping and sharing by, and on, “ordinary people”. Nothing too broad there either.
I am, and always have been, my own worst enemy. And that’s fine. I accepted this years ago. Still, it’s not easy.
I have a few artists who have been great inspirations to me, partly for the work they do but mostly for the way that they approach their work. Brian Duffy is one of those touchstones with his combination of tech and art and his insistence, through the Modified Toy Orchestra, on being accessible in order to get his message across. A couple of years back he recommended a book, Art and Fear by David Bayles and Ted Orland. I bought a copy and found it interesting but it was only this week I found it relevant to my situation. The book is chock full of great phrases but never falls into the aphoristic tedium of self-help. I highly, strongly recommend it to anyone who is involved in any definition of “creativity” at any level. And it’s short - the first half has the good stuff and is only 60 pages long - which is always a good thing for a book to be.
This is the bit that encapsulates where my fear is at right now:
To all viewers but yourself, what matters is the product: the finished artwork.
To you, and you alone, what matters is the process: the experience of shaping that artwork.
When I was putting in the Arts Council proposal it was made very clear that while they were interested in funding artist development with long term aims, and that that was what I was applying for, there had to be an “tangible outcome” during the period funded. An artwork (in my case the walks) that can be pointed to as the result of the funding. This is both utterly reasonable and incredibly daunting. How, when I am in the middle of a process to find coherence, am I supposed to sum up that process in a coherent work? It feels like running before I can walk.
My first way of dealing with this was to use the iceberg metaphor, something I use a lot when talking about online activity. What you see of a person online - their tweets, status updates, essays, photographs - is only a small facet of their personality. It’s as real and honest as they would be if you met them in person, but it’s only a part, often carefully chosen and mediated. The same goes for this artwork, these walks. They will be honestly and accurately informed by the work I’ve been doing, but only partially. They cannot hope to showcase everything I’ve been thinking about and working on. And nor should they. For a start that would make for a terrible experience for all involved, and no-one wants that.
Also, no-one should be expected to care about my process over the last few months. I’ve been documenting it here (though not as well as I’d hoped to) but that’s mainly been for my own benefit. I wouldn’t expect anyone to read it all in great detail. If the artwork reflects my processes then it fails. It needs to be distinct, to stand alone. To be, in common parlance, a product.
One thing that’s struck me as I’ve been sitting awake in bed at 3am stroking the fearbeast (not a euphemism) has been how hard it is to market “art”. I’ve hit this a few times with Photo School. When we started we had big ideas about effectively teaching visual art. We’d look at composition and colour and light and reflect on how the great masters of photography practiced their art. But it turned out people weren’t coming for that. They were coming to learn how to use their cameras for their own ends. So after a few false starts we don’t bother with broad-strokes advanced photography classes now. It’s Beginners all the way. Oh, and the occasional workshop like Light Painting which is more fun than work (though much learning does happen of course).
I’ve long advocated the DIY ethic for creative folks. When the tools are there for the taking, as they have increasingly been over the last few decades from the photocopier to the internet, why go through a third party, making compromises and giving away percentages, when you don’t need to? and I still stand by that, especially for emerging artists who don’t have the weight to draw opportunities to them yet. You need to make your own world, not bend to other people’s ideas, else you become an also-ran.
But this distinction between the making and the presenting, the idea of process and result being so very different, has given me pause. I think it very possible for a single person to keep control over both, but they require very different head-spaces.
It’s something I’ve hit again with Photo School. When Karen (my oft-referenced mentor) first got in touch with Matt and myself she complimented us on our operation but asked about our own work. Matt hadn’t taken a photo he was pleased with for a year and I’d just been documenting the classes. We weren’t shooting for ourselves anymore. Earlier in the year a journalist from a major photography magazine asked me for my favourite five places to take photos in Birmingham. I easily came up with a list, having taken people on walks around them many times, but struggled to find photos of my own. (The article never appeared, so screw those timewasters.) I still don’t have a photo of Curzon St Station that I’m happy with and that’s because whenever I’m there I’m not in the creative frame of mind. I’m teaching, or I’m performing as a guide. The irony of this - that I can’t take good photos when I’m teaching people how to take good photos - is not lost on me
So it makes perfect sense that I’m struggling to both go through the process of developing my artistic nous and to prepare, promote and deliver four walks at the same time. They require very different things of me and of those who might be my audience. Because the people going on the walk cannot be expected to see more than that walk. To do otherwise is to fail them. The walk must stand alone. (It can of course lead to further enquiry as to why I did what I did, but that’s shouldn’t be required.)
In my original application I had to say what the public would get from the experience. Amongst other things I put:
- The experience of being involved with a live artwork.
- If the work has a post-walk section, the experience of co-creating a larger work.
In retrospect this seems foolish. How can they possibly be equal partners in this? Why would they even want to be?
I also said in the application that I’d use the audience we’d built through Photo School (450-ish newsletter subscribers) to promote the walks. I emailed them all last week and only a couple have booked. Have I misjudged? Is this a Beginners vs Advanced thing again? While I might be interested in extending and developing the Photo Walk model, is it naive to expect those who go on the walks to also be interested? Maybe I should have just said they were normal photo walks, just with new routes, and snuck the Art stuff in on the sly. To be honest, this is what I’ve been doing all along, dropping in little exercises and games that, if I’d advertised them, might have put people off coming in the first place, but which worked really well in the moment.
I’m not overly worried about the numbers. The first walk has 10 people so far, which is plenty, and the others will pick up once people know what the weather will be like. What I am concerned about is the balance. So far it’s mostly people I know. That’s not good. Although from a cynical, marketing myself to my artistic peers and potential employers maybe it is good. And that marketing side is an important part of this period of development - I need to be sustainable business if I’m going to take all this learning and do something important with it. I’m going to need people to take my practice and place it in a context that earns me a fee. That’s vital. But it’s not the process.
So, in conclusion…
The walks are important because they are the publicly visible surfacing of this publicly funded process I’ve been going through since August.
But the walks are only the surface and cannot hope to represent all the work that has gone into this process.
There is a solution. Another part of the process is the documentation. This is traditionally done as an exhibition but the idea of finding a venue and putting together an exhibition which very few people would see struck me as a waste of time and pretty pointless so I said I would:
- Produce a simple PDF “exhibition” to be viewed on smartphones when exploring the area.
- Produce documentation of process and results distributed via ebook.
I knew these were coming but I’d kinda put them as part of the Evaluation in my head - the stuff that comes at the end. It occurs to me now that they’re also outputs and can take on a lot more breadth than the walks, freeing up the walks to be what they need to be - enjoyable, fun days out informed, but not dominated, by artistic thinking.
I feel much better now.
Go read Art & Fear. You won’t regret it.