Art and Freedom
Other essays in this series
San Juan Reflections
My first photography teacher, Scott McLeay, once said that a gallery which represented him got upset when he brought them images done in an entirely new style. They said their customers liked Scott’s original style and may not like his new style. They also said they would have a lot of explaining to do in order to make it clear why Scott changed his style. In short, seen from the perspective of the gallery owner, they were not happy. Seen from the artist’s perspective, Scott was’t totally free to do what he liked.
There are a lot of things that may control an artist’s freedom. Certainly, galleries are one of them. They cater to a buying audience that comes to know an artist mainly through his or her style. If that style changes drastically, as in Scott’s case, this style may no longer be recognizable by the audience and they may move away from investing in this artist’s work. This is all about marketing, not about the quality of the work. It is about business, not art. It is no different from a car manufacturer deciding to produce a different line of cars, one they never produced until now. A lot of explaining will have to be done, and it better be done right or the public won’t buy the new models. In recent history I can think of Cadillac moving from luxury cars to high-performance luxury cars. The move worked, thanks to Cadillac getting successfully involved in racing and managing, also successfully, to use their racing success towards selling their cars. I can also think of BMW introducing “station wagons” and managing to resolve the apparent conflict with their prior line of luxury and performance cars, by making the point, essentially through advertising, that a station wagon can be just as powerful, driver-oriented and full-featured as the cars they previously offered.
But marketing is not the same as creating art. In the two examples above, the decision to change to a new type of cars was taken before the marketing campaign was launched. In other words, the change was made on the basis of a perceived need in the target market. In turn, this need was met by the new product, and a marketing campaign was designed to explain, essentially through visual means, how and why this new product fit into the heritage of each specific brand.
With art the process is quite different. When an artist decides to change his style this change is not motivated by a perceived market niche. Rather, this change is motivated by the artist’s need to reach another level in their work, to work with a new subject, to go further down a specific path, to break new ground or again to explore ideas that have not been explored before. For me, because really I am mainly talking about myself here, change comes from the desire to reach a new level of freedom with my work.
You see, there is more than marketing considerations to take into account when we look at why an artist does or does not change his style. Certainly, if a gallery refuses to sell your work because you changed your style, this is something to consider. But, the good news is you were able to change your style. What if you cannot change your style? What if something is stopping you and preventing you from doing so? What if you see no alternatives to your current style? What if you cannot imagine taking photographs that are different from the ones you are taking now? And, perhaps more importantly, what makes some of us able to change our style while some of us are unable to change their style?
For me, being “stuck” in a given style, subject matter or approach, comes from not feeling free to change any of the variables I work with. Why is that? Essentially because of fear of criticism, negative comments and yes, at times, fear of losing part of my audience.
Is this fear rational? Probably not. Most fears aren’t rational. But fear it is and rational or not it is hard to stop it. It is hard because you first have to become aware of it in order to put an end to it. It is hard because you also have to accept that someone will not like what you do and may even get upset. This is an interesting thought because, after all, why should someone get upset because I changed my style? After all, this is my work and my life, not theirs! So why should they care? I am not sure if I have an answer. What I do know is that all of us, to some extent, feel threaten by change and that some people find change more frightening and unsettling than others.
I also know from experience that any change I made to my work has met with both approval and disapproval. My recent decision to acquire a Canon 1DsMk2 and work with it jointly with 4x5 has generated an immense amount of comments, comments that are rarely, if ever, related to the actual photographs produced by either camera. Some have said that “I joined the dark side.” Others have asked “why?” and I had to explain that some photographs just cannot be created with 4x5, or with 35mm, and that with both cameras I am able to enlarge the scope of my subject. I was also asked “why I purposefully decided to reduce the quality of my work?”, or “stepped back to amateur status,” and so on.
I recently created two portfolios using a Lensbaby, a lens featuring plastic aperture rings placed in front of the lens and focused by pushing or pulling on a built-in plastic bellow. This lens, by these very features, is able to create a truly original look which primary attribute is its lack of formal reference to traditional photography. When these portfolios were published I received emails saying that “the Lensbaby was the most useless piece of photographic kit ever created,” that ‘the same effects could be done in Photoshop using the blur tool or blurring filters,’ and that this was "as far from 4x5’ and “a disgrace when compared to my previous work.”
Certainly I also received extremely positive comments. For example, I was told that my work “had entered a new phase”. Others mentioned how much they “looked forward to what was going to come out next.” Some realized that I was freeing myself from a lot of the unnecessary limitations that are placed upon landscape photographers and encouraged me to “continue on this path.” Some even went as far as to say how much they enjoyed seeing “a freer and more playful side of Alain Briot.”
Comments, clearly, go both ways, either positive or negative. It is, eventually, up to me to decide which ones I remember, which ones I consider meaningful. As with most things in life, the good and the bad coexist (see my previous essay on The Desecration Panel). One can walk towards one or towards the other. It is a personal choice. Look at the negative comments and you will become negative yourself. Look at the positive comments and you will become positive yourself. Once you understand this simple truth, you start to smile when you receive negative comments. This is how you know healing has started.
Some conclusions can be reached from the comments I mentioned, and in a way these conclusions are the purpose of this essay:
First, when you look at the responses I received, it becomes clear why an artist may be wary of changing his style. There is a penalty for doing so. But, the good news is there is also a reward. As I just said, it depends whether you look at the positive or the negative side. Look at the positive, laugh at the negative, and you are welcoming change. Do the opposite and you will be paralysed at just thinking of change.
Second, learn to see beyond the surface of the comments you receive. For example, a lot of the comments I receive make little sense. The one about being able to re-create the Lensbaby effects in Photoshop is particularly funny in this regard. My answer, when I first read it was “Yes, that can be done.” Then I thought, “But why is it a criticism then since this person is basically telling me that these effects are OK?” I came to conclude that the commentator considered it OK to create such effects in Photoshop but not with a lens. If done with software it came across as image manipulation and it was acceptable. If done in the field, by using a Lensbaby, it came across as a form of photography the commentator was not comfortable with. This was a reflection of the commentator’s level of freedom more than a reflection on what I was doing. I was a lot freer than that person and that may have been upsetting to him.
As it turns out this last point is often the one at work. Critics are by nature quite limited in their level of personal intellectual freedom. I am tempted to say that this "comes with the territory." One cannot spend his time criticizing others without becoming extremely critical of themselves. In turn, this criticism ends up limiting what they think they can and cannot do. Eventually, they get their hands tied so closely behind their back that they are only able to create the most banal and commonplace images. This is precisely why I decided not to be a critic in any shape or form and why I enjoy being an artist first and foremost. Being a critic comes with a high price when it comes to inspiration, creativity and freedom, a price that I am not willing to pay.
So how do you free yourself, how do you become more creative, how do you create images that come out of your heart and not your mind? I just gave you the first answer: don’t be a critic. I expand on this very topic in a previous essay in this series: Art and Facts. If you haven’t read it yet, do so after you finish this essay (it won’t be much longer, I promise, I am almost done).
The second answer is to find out what is stopping you from feeling free to create. Is it something someone said, is it your parents, your teachers or someone you know? Is it you? Did you give yourself permission to do what you like or do you feel you first have to do what others have done before? Do you have to become as good as the masters in order to have the right to do what you want to do? Do you have to copy others before you can create your own images? What would it take to free yourself from all that stuff? What would it take to free yourself from all that stuff NOW?
The third answer is to stop thinking and start feeling. Inspiration comes not from the mind but from the heart. So, to invite inspiration you need to open your heart and silence your mind. Feel the subject, don’t analyze it. This approach clearly requires a more detailed description than what I can do in a paragraph so I will come back to it in a later essay in this series. As I always say: stay tuned
So there you have it, or at least part of it. Freedom as an artist is a central consideration, a central concept that directly informs the art you create. Freedom is controlled by both external and internal sources. External sources include your audience, your critics and any other individuals who either had or currently have some influence over your creative output. Internal sources are your own beliefs, both conscious and unconscious, as well as your personal attitude, i.e. whether you are an artist or a critic, or whether you operate from the heart or from the mind.
Yours feeling freer already,