Thursday, October 15, 2009

Make the Voices Go Away!

Garden May, 2009

I was first drawn to photography after seeing other people’s photographs, the work of photojournalists, especially. This was the mid-1960s. To me, Magnum photographers were the kings and queens. Fashion photographers were right behind them. The old hardbound volumes of Travel & Holiday were a window on places and ways of life entirely different from my own. National Geographic brought up the rear with the exquisite color representations of the natural and built-up world. Bruce Davidson’s East 110th Street project brought it all home when it merged my interests in visual representation and sociology.

As I’ve tried to describe my own style over the years, I have frequently found myself unable to do so because I still felt like I had to get all the photographers whose work I’d admired over the years out of my system. That is, I found myself duplicating their pictures or at least proving to myself that I could take pictures in their styles. Looked upon several months after I made it, Garden May, for example, is nothing if not an attempt to channel Helen Frankenthaler.

Maybe we all do this. I don’t know. We attach ourselves to a single kind of work or style and ride it out. I know some artists shoot right past this derivative phase early on and get on to the important work of interpreting their vision. I know that many gallerists like to fit artists into neat, consistent niches.

I know enough about myself to know that my visual interests are too varied to adhere to a single subject or style. With the help of friends and a few other arms’ length observers I’ve been able to pinpoint some common attributes that help me begin to connect and be able to describe what I’m doing. I don’t know if I’ll ever truly propel myself out of the giant hairball of other people’s influence, or whether that’s even a necessary thing.

One of the guys who does podcasts about the art (rather than the craft or business) of photography recently challenged his listeners to steer clear of any other photographers’ work for a full month. Don’t look at it. Don’t listen to anyone talk about it. Don’t read anything about it. And while you’re at it, why not avoid all visual artists for that month.

I get his point. A little mental palate cleansing is a good idea from time to time. But as much as I might complain about having all those old photographers bouncing around in the back of my head, if I sent them all packing I think I’d be left feeling very alone.


  1. I guess there are always going to be influences, but then you make it your own in whatever way makes sense to you as an individual. I'd say your work has a recognizable style. Beautiful flower!

  2. Love your title. You know, there are meds for that. :)

    I'm not really all that worried about staying away from my "voices" because I find that what draws me to their work is not at all something I can really duplicate. The first case in point is Saul Leiter. His images fascinate me the same way some of James Joyce's paragraphs fascinate me. They don't just depict some ways they feel like they are life. It's all about their ways of catching an internal moment of ....recognition, with all its fuzziness and flaws and incomprehensibilty....and somehow with emotions attached. My moments will never be the same as Leiter's or Joyce's, nor is my technique all that similar. What I crave seeing over and over in their work, though, is that they hit the target. Somehow that is inspiring.