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Wednesday, 14 August 2013


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[ Applause ]

The secret to great writing (and photography) is ruthless editing.

Nice column, it brings some points that I've been thinking off lately.

Most of what I shoot isn't seen by anyone. Film; because I've got no scanner to share online and
Digital; I'm lazy to upload and share getting little response in return.

I've been thinking of taking some of the best shots and keep printing them at a decent size. Then frame them. (Great 3 part series on TOP about it BTW).
Because I've got a big empty white wall in my room. At least someone will be able to see, even if it's for own indulgence at most.
The bit I've shared online (social networks however) has gotten little response. I think it will be better off printed, even if some is at 4x6"... Old fashioned for many of us youngsters.

Good artists need an audience, because the feedback will let them understand that they are actually good. Mediocre or bad artists don't want an audience, because the feedback might break any illusion they have of their own skills. I suspect that the fear of being shown up as a mediocre artist prevents many good artists from seeking an audience.

As a mediocre (at best) artist who once went looking for an audience and didn't find it, I can say that learning the truth (and freeing myself from worrying about other's perceptions) was worth the pain of rejection.

This is the kind of article that needs to be written about once a quarter, just to help us reset. It reminds me of a wonderful interview with Ira Glass on story telling, abridged here http://vimeo.com/24715531# and the full version starts here http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=loxJ3FtCJJA

Dear Bill,

But, the secret to HAPPY writing and photography is having someone else tell you how wonderful you are.

And, as friend and author Pamela Dean put it, "It's not the editors are more cruel than the general populace. They just have more opportunity."

pax / Ctein

I think you get one more in your brilliant writing pile today. Is this also related to the trait of many artists to torpedo their work by pointing out all flaws in their work while discussing it with peers or those they look up to?

Then it gets reworked and rereworked into some tolerable semblance of publishability, and off it goes.

Even All Shook Up had a B-side (That's When Your Heartaches Begin).

Some years ago during a photo workshop/cruise, a fellow photog was introducing himself by way of asking a riddle: “A photographer needs only two things – what are they?”. Most of the passengers wanted to answer with items like camera, lens, film, paper. Someone pointed out that we were shooting slides for this workshop. In fact, the riddlemeister was using an early digital camera with non-interchangeable lens. His answer? “A photographer needs only a camera and an audience – and the camera is optional!”

Excellent! Artists definitely do need audiences and this article was well written...
Thank you!

Great text, Ctein, and you're essentially right, of course, but it prompted me some cynical thoughts. What exactly is the 'audience' one can get these days? 'Likes' on Facebook, that's what! Make an HDRI composite image of a coastal landscape, at long exposure values, and lo! - several thousand 'likes' on Facebook. All of a sudden the one who 'shared' it is the next great photographer of all times.
Recognition from such audiences is misleading; it doesn't give the measure of a photographer's true value. I could go on and digress about what kind of recognition is needed nowadays, but it'd just take too long. Let's just say I'm happy enough if the guy I order my developments and prints has kind words about one or two of my pictures. (But then again he's also a brilliant photographer.)
I guess the best audience we can get is our peers - and even then we must take their words 'cum grano salis', for they may just be trying to be nice.
Of course, when you're really good, recognition from the audience will come naturally, but that kind of talent comes only once in every decade.

As a professional writer, I'm the most ruthless editor that I've ever met. I have to be, because the competition is so tough, and this is how I make a living. When friends have asked me to edit their stuff (I know a lot of writers) I warn them out front: I'm ruthless. You may not want to know what I'll tell you.

But: I'm also a painter. I refuse to call myself a hobbyist or amateur, because those have come to mean things that they shouldn't. I'm really serious about it, and pretty good at it -- my paintings are better than most of the stuff I see hanging in galleries in Santa Fe, where there must be a couple of hundred galleries. (Art is the town's main business, other than the Capitol stuff.) I know this because I'm just as ruthless about the painting as I am about the writing.

So what about the audience? I don't have one, for the paintings, and I don't want one. The problem is that selling is something totally different than art, whatever your art might be. And selling will not only corrupt what you're doing, it will suck up time. As a writer, I have to put up with a lot of bullshit from people in the publishing business -- that's just part of the deal. I spend two miserable weeks a year traveling around the country making appearances to sell the books (I like talking to fans, but I hate the high-pressure travel.) If I were to try to sell my paintings, I'd have to put up with the same kind of bullshit from the gallery and art people -- be nice to clients, be nice to gallery owners, suck up to critics. All just to get an even break.

So, I don't do that, and I won't, unless my head goes through a radical change. I finished a painting not long ago that my fiance loved. But I knew that I'd screwed it up -- the composition was just wrong. So, I ran it through my table saw. A nice dramatic crop. Didn't work out all that well, but at least I didn't have some dealer pulling on my shirt, telling me he could have sold it, and get me thinking about that. I did what I wanted to, and what I felt was right.

I think sales (and audiences) corrupt. And I don't think artists recover from that kind of corruption. You start bending what you're doing, to please somebody else. Once you start, it's impossible to go back, because *sales* is a learning thing, and once you learn how to sell, you don't want to stop. You're getting the most serious kind of approval, the kind where people pay you actual money, and it feels really, really good, so you bend a little more, and pretty soon, you're bending over...

That's one reason I think the best artists (of all kinds) often become reclusive as they age. They're simply trying to protect themselves -- and their art.

Thank you, Ctein. I needed that.

You nailed it for me. Details aren't necessary but I go through this all the time. Partly, I'm lazy about getting my work out there whilst many people are urging me to do so. So conflicted...

To John Camp: I don't know what kind of a painter you are, but give me a Kindle full of your books, James Lee Burke, and Michael Connelly, and I'm ready to head for the nearest deserted island for the next few years! Thanks for your terrific stories.

Dear Manuel and John,

I think a meaningful audience is going to be different for different people. For example, for me it's not really about the money, at least not in providing that sense of worth. I mean, Jim was giving me gobs of money for those prints, but that wasn't seductive, it was just business. But it does have to be a personal thing, I think. I don't get anywhere near the same sense of validation from an email. They're nice, don't get me wrong. But I don't get that "they like me, they really like me!" emotional hit. Any more than I do from the money. It's the "live audience" experience that resonates for me. Different emotional boundaries, I suppose.

So, John, I'd probably not be at risk of the seduction of sales possibilities contaminating my enjoyment of my art. I totally get what you're talking about, though.

Similarly, Manuel, facebook "likes" are meaningless to me-- I'm basically not a social network kinda person. But I know plenty of folks who are, for whom it's a meaningful interaction. They're not stupid, vapid, nor shallow, not by a long shot. It just happens to be a medium of interaction that works for them (and not me). If I were wired that way, even if HDR were my thing and theirs, then that'd be just fine as a source of validation.

Really, deep down inside, I don't give a flying eff about my "true value" as a photographer. All I really care about is what makes *ME* happy as an artist.

Don't pooh-pooh that. It's what works for you personally that matters-- this is not the kind of thing you can prescribe for anyone else.

pax / Ctein
-- Ctein's Online Gallery http://ctein.com
-- Digital Restorations http://photo-repair.com

Much truth there. I had been taking photos with a vague idea as to what I liked, but a sense that I might be a bit alone in that respect. I started putting them on Flickr, and gained a little audience, which made me think I maybe wasn't wasting my time. Then I gained a (mostly local) Twitter audience, and suddenly I had people sharing my photos and telling me which ones they liked, why they like them, and so on. The most important thing wasn't the attendant ego boost (ahem...ok, maybe a bit), but that it made me think more clearly about the photos I was taking, and the themes I was exploring. You can only talk into a vacuum for so long.

Personally I agree with John Camp's comments.

Hey, I think I went to that show! The gallery was owned by a guy who was a Bay Area food shooter who was originally from Buffalo NY (I think the gallery is closed now, but he owns one in Idaho or somewhere)...I remember all the work, and prints, being outstanding, and I dragged an art director, who I was working on a job with, along to see Marshall's stuff.

Interesting to note, the art director, who is a nice guy, and a pretty good art director, is one of those guys that doesn't understand why any one would want to shoot film, now that digital is around, and he can easily open photos on his computer. He kept remarking at the show: "How come none of the stuff I usually work with looks this good."

'nuff said....

I think a certain level of "angst" about one's work is fairly common for creative people, which, for me, whether a painting, a carved frame, a photo or a piece of furniture, is often tempered by some time and distance.

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.

You do realise those of us who bought in the recent sale are going to be obsessively staring at prints we were* delighted with to find that elusive flaw...

Or should we consider them as Persian rugs, "perfectly imperfect, and precisely imprecise” ?


(* and still am/are)

Perhaps I misread him, but it seems to me that John Camp is conflating "audience" and "market". They are not the same thing, it seems to me.

Yes, audience is important, but I believe it's important to draw support from the right audience. At some point a few years ago it began to dawn on me that having an audience isn't the same as having good critics. To wit:

Several times over the years I've had someone send me their own photo and exclaim, "I took a real Joe Holmes photo today!" Oh boy was it dismaying to discover that their "Joe Holmes" shot was just horrid, getting everything wrong. The light's all wrong, it's the back of someone's head, they've cut off the feet, the background is blown out! You miss the whole point of my photos!

Or hear from someone that me and another photographer are their favorites, and then discover that I really hate the other photographer's work.

I don't want to sound unappreciative of those folks who like and buy my work -- I'm sure the vast majority have excellent taste.

But I've learned that what I really value are the opinions of fellow photographers, peers, others who are struggling with the same issues and the same geeky pickiness and the same long experience as me. (This is one reason that sites like this one are so important.)

So yes, I definitely have a huge number of those "meh" days, but I've learned that the best cure is hearing from or getting together with other photographers.

One other note: these issues are well addressed in the wonderful book recommended here on August 5, Art & Fear by Bayles and Orland.

I just had an argument with my wife before reading this. She tells me that I don't know how good I am and that I need to create an online presence. I couldn't think of anything worse; I'm not a fan of talking about myself. But we need extra income. Your article has made me decide to do something about it--thank you.

Dear Tom,

Afraid I can't recall the name of the gallery, but it was right overlooking Union Square in San Francisco and the show was about a year before Jim died (I think). That the one you were at?


Dear Nigel,

Even better, I think you should convene a gathering of folks who bought my prints in the April sale so that you can closely compare all your prints and decide who got the really primo ones and who got the meh ones.

Yeah, yeah, that's a good idea!

(evil laughter)


Dear Joe,

There's more than one Joe Holmes who's a photographer. Maybe he got the wrong one? Though, as I think about it, the one I know wouldn't be much prone to chopping off bodily extremities either.

You hit the nail on the head with your comment about audiences. It's gotta be the one that's right for you. My essay isn't about some objective judgement by the world of one's merit, not in the least. It's entirely about what connects for a particular individual. Or doesn’t, as you point out.


Dear ed,

See my above comment to Joe. If John is conflating market and audience, then it's because for him they conflate. If I read correctly, for you they don't. Neither is a refutable position, nor are they in conflict, as you both indisputably know how you feel on this matter.

pax / Ctein
-- Ctein's Online Gallery http://ctein.com
-- Digital Restorations http://photo-repair.com

I think you should convene a gathering of folks who bought my prints in the April sale so that you can closely compare all your prints

Were it logistically possible (sadly not, I think), that would actually be a really cool idea.


Yep! That's the one! Nice guy that owned the place, told me all about coming out from Buffalo NY as a youngin' to work with a really hot guy in the food photography biz, then how he went out on his own in the SFO area...went to a few shows there before he closed and used to get his mailings and e-mailings, and yeah, your show was unfortunately right before Jim Marshall died...I also went to dinner at somebody's house, on that trip, who had a few Jim marshall originals hanging on the wall, so it was a pretty 'Jim Marshall' filled trip!

I particularly like these posts touching on similarities and differences across different creative disciplines. A book that I can highly recommend on the subject is On Creativity: Interviews Exploring the Process by John Tusa. http://www.amazon.com/Creativity-Interviews-Exploring-Process/dp/0413773485/ref=sr_1_5?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1376650744&sr=1-5&keywords=john+tusa

Interviewees include Eve Arnold, Antony Caro, Elliot Carter, Milos Forman, Muriel Spark, Howard Hodgkin, Paula Rego and Gyorgy Ligeti.

Dear Tom,

That was a fabulous show. I really loved Jim's early civil rights work. I've been saying to Amelia for years that she needs to find some way to promote that stuff; I think that's the work that'll secure Jim's reputation into the future.

The platinum prints were the best I've ever seen. Jim probably lived in the only city on earth where he could get both custom dye transfer and platinum printing done.

pax / Ctein

Ctein, Agree with all. You practically never see Marshall's civil rights work, and it's very important stuff. Also, I, as well, couldn't believe in the quality of the platinum prints, from 35mm original negs, no less, it was awe inspiring, as well as your dye transfers.

The art director I was with had never even seen a dye transfer or a platinum print, so he was suitably 'wowed'. What ever happened to people going to school and seeing/learning about the history and processes of the past? Gone...

BTW, agree with you about SFO, I can decide to shoot film or digital there, at will, because it's one of the only cities in the world where I can get support services for whatever I'm trying to do!

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