This week's column by Ctein
I know lots of authors, artists, and singer/songwriters. When we get together we talk about the creative process in remarkably similar ways. I've no doubt that my feelings and reactions are not universal (everyone differs) but they cut broadly across ages, media, and genres. What we all seem to need is an outside audience.
What got me thinking on this particular path was spending a chunk of time a few years back hanging, to my serious delight, with the brilliant and talented Kathy Li (who few of you have heard of and fewer have seen, since she doesn't have a website of her work, damn her eyes, and I'll be getting to that). Among many talents, she's an avid amateur photographer*. On one afternoon, she showed me a candid portrait of me she'd made that I really liked; it is very much one of the more successful efforts at capturing me that anyone has done. Perhaps only DDB and Kyle Cassidy have done better. Then she showed me an extraordinarily evocative photograph of a luminescent red tide that had me intensely staring at her itty bitty iPod Touch for minutes. [By the way, you can see both these photos in Kathy's Featured Comment below. —Ed.]
You can't see her work, because she hasn't bothered to put together an online gallery. She doesn't think she's very good. But really, how bad can someone be if they show me two photographs I like that much in one afternoon? I mean, I ain't the ultimate arbiter of taste, but I've got a bit of an eye. It can't be crap. But, nah, she doesn't think she's worthy.
Another friend freezes up in the face of potential sales. He's a good photographer. Intellectually, he knows he's a good photographer. He's not as divorced from reality as Kathy. But when it comes to selling his stuff, he makes me look like Steve Jobs, and I am pretty bad at this, truly I am. He doesn't even have to dither over what to offer. People have already asked for his work. He just has to put it out there. It would do his ego immeasurable good. He always has an excuse. They're palpably stupid and illogical excuses...to everyone except him. I'm convinced that on some level, he just doesn't feel like he's good enough to deserve an audience. Which is bulls*$#. And irrelevant.
Most artists have good days and bad days. Mostly we have meh days. Good enough, but.... And that's when all the doubts creep in. Oh, there are those good days. I have actually made a handful of dye transfer prints in my life that I think are perfect. 99.9% of them, not so much; I can see a wart, a flaw, in design, composition, execution, something that keeps it from being ideal. I grit my mental teeth just a bit and move on. Same with my writing. I've written a few columns that were effortless and as perfect as I'll ever write. My Jim Marshall eulogy and my Photo-Fetishist columns were like that. They just sprang, full-blown, from the brow of my muse on to the screen, almost as fast as I could dictate them, and they sang. Why? I dunno, ask my Muse. Maybe her Muse inspired her. Maybe it was just the right cup of tea that morning. Or maybe the phase of the moon. Whatever, she was rockin'.
Other times, she'll just churn out the words, and I'll find myself writing four, maybe five, thousand words in a day, because I won't want to be doing anything else, and they'll be fine, but not perfect. Good enough. And sometimes it's a horrible slog; she doesn't want to write, and I don't want to write, but it has to get written. Then it gets reworked and rereworked into some tolerable semblance of publishability, and off it goes.
Except for those incredibly rare shining moments, whether it's photography or writing, it feels only good enough. That's where it starts to go off the rails. Because any even-semi-successful artist is one of their own worst critics.
This is not a character flaw; this is not an insecurity; it is not something that can be fixed by good therapy (or drugs). It is a necessary part of our success. We need to be more critical than most our our audience, so that we can be sure of getting rid of all the warts that they would notice. That's the way to be sure (well, hemi-demi-semi-sure) that they will enjoy the experience we're handing them. We have to be better than them; it's what they're paying us for.
Consequently, those of us who toil mostly in isolation, mostly in the company of our own minds, witty and entertaining as that company may be, mostly live with our own very worst critic. We lack perspective. That can only be provided by others.
I can recall, back when I was printing Jim Marshall's photographs, that I reached a point where I started to doubt the quality of my work. Printing the same photographs repeatedly, I became intimately familiar with every single flaw and failing they contained. It's not that the prints were bad or anything like that, but to my eye they didn't look terribly good. In the back of my brain there was this nagging little thought, "Gee, I can't believe Jim is willing to pay me so much money for prints like these." Intellectually I knew that there wasn't anyone else likely to be able to make better prints for him, but, still, the work I was turning out wasn't making me feel very good.
Then one of the galleries in San Francisco mounted a major retrospective of Jim's photography, the black-and-white work being represented by platinum prints and the color, of course, by my dye transfer prints. I went to the opening and for the first time saw a substantial body of those prints in their proper venue: nicely framed, well lit, and being admired by hundreds of attendees. Suddenly, I could slip into their heads and see the prints the way they were seeing them, and I realized that, damn, I'm good. I mean really, really good! Which is what everyone else had been telling me, but I'd been losing the ability to see it for myself.
That's why artists need audiences.
©2013 by Ctein, all rights reserved
*(Author's note: turns out there's also a Kathy Li who is a professional photographer in London—that's a different one.)
Columnist Ctein finds an audience on TOP on Wednesdays.
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(To see all the comments, click on the "Comments" link below.)
Featured Comments from:
David Brown: "The ending story about seeing your prints 'in their proper venue' struck a real chord with me. I've been at this over 40 years. I did wedding and commercial work, and ran a company darkroom for several years. I, too, thought I was good, but never had enough conviction to really put much personal work 'out there.'
"Then, ironically, came the Internet forums. Through them, I met many other local photographers with like interests, collaborated with a few of them on a big project, and began exhibiting. My work held up as well as anybody's!
"But the best moment was at a large gathering, all of us showing prints and discussing. Also present were a number of student photographers. One young lady picked up one of my prints and said one word: 'Wow.' Oh, my dear sweet girl, that is the right answer."
Paul McCann: "Distance lends enchantment. When, after a period of time, I revisit something I have done, all the flaws that were screamingly obvious have faded."
Ed Grossman: "This post, and the comment by John Camp, made me think more than 99% of the material I encounter online. To me, that's the very definition of success. I owe both of you either an adult beverage or ice cream should I ever be in your cities."
Kathy Li: "Ctein. *koff*. Over here.
"See. I needed this audience... :-D :-D :-D Thanks for raising my self-esteem, O my booster! I will never forget our World Fantasy Con together. (I sooo wanted to be at Fourth Street when you wrote about you, DDB, Singer, and tea all coming together. But I was prepping for this little quaint shindig called Comic-Con.)"