Self Assignment. My answer for why I shoot personal work.
Why do you shoot personal work?
Cary Norton: Short answer: I shoot personal work because it’s what gives me the greatest sense of personal satisfaction. Photography is how I’ve learned to navigate life. Photography as a career can be problematic for me—something so intensely personal ones worldview/coping mechanism/raison d’etre (to be overly dramatic) intertwining with commerce sets the stage for conflict (internal, mostly, I guess). The compromises I make creating images that aren’t fully from/for myself (i.e. editorial, corporate, et cetera) creates an emotional need for me to make the work that moves me, whether I recognize it or not. And so I find myself shooting photographs that make me happy.
Longer answer: I shoot personal work because I have to. I found photography in college and pursued that as my career without question—but morphing photography, which has always been intensely personal for me, into something on which I rely for my life, has been a mixed bag. I’ve had several genuinely perfect jobs. Jobs where I was given an idea and the freedom to explore that how I saw fit. Jobs where I’ve been dealt an awful hand (weather, bad subject, et cetera) and managed to pull out beautiful work that I’m still proud of. Jobs that feel more like breathing than working. But they are the exception, obviously. Most jobs are just jobs, but I try to shoot everything as though I were shooting it for me, even if it’s a photo of something I couldn’t care less about. I strive for the FEELING I get shooting personal work no matter what I’m shooting. That feeling is why I take photos in the first place. It’s a fundamental part of who I am now. Making photos of my life is how I’ve come to cope with life. I don’t mean that in a bad way at all. I just mean that, through all the stuff you can go through in life—all the emotions, twists and turns, gloriously beautiful parts of being alive, and all the stuff that knots your gut—it’s all so overwhelming. Photography is how I’ve learned to absorb it all and deal with it. For instance, in retrospect I can tell you almost every girl I’ve liked since I started shooting. I wear my emotions on my sleeves as a rule anyway, but man, the photos say it all if you know what you’re looking for. Also, having a camera, even if it was just my phone, was indispensable last year when my grandfather was passing. I’ve lost people in my family before, but never had the impact been so direct and intense. During his last days, I cut myself off from everybody that wasn’t in my immediate family and used Instagram to communicate what I was going through, more or less without words.
Also, a good bit of the personal work I end up shooting is my every day life. This, for me, is crucial. I don’t get too caught up in shooting that I don’t live in the moment, but my mind works so visually that shooting intensifies my experience. By that I mean something like this: When I shoot it I am engaging the experience visually which means I’m creating in that moment which means I’m more likely to remember it. Not only just recalling what we did at some point in the future (I’m horrible at remember that way), but if I look at the photo I took I can recall my emotional state when I shot it, the what and why of the composition, and all the moments in between. In waiting for the moment I want to photograph, I get to watch the others flit by and it gives the photo I do take in the moment more context in my brain. I don’t know, it just all lives together in my head like that.
Personal shooting also let’s me experiment with photographing in different ways and with different cameras and formats. I embraced 4x5 because I wanted a challenge (and how do you not want to shoot large format after seeing Avedon’s American West?—which is basically inevitable if you shoot for a living) and that’s turned into all kinds of learning. I’ve always shot film but shooting large format has made me slow down even more and learn more about how to interact with who I’m photographing, and it also gives me the ineffable joy of developing the film. That’s another reason I shoot for myself; It’s really fun. I get to be in control from start to finish and don’t have to answer to anyone but myself if the project succeeds or fails.
And I managed to forget probably the most important part of personal work for me—people. As private as I like to be, as a rule, I really love people. Shooting personal work let’s me connect with people and have no agenda except to try to learn about them, and life, and myself through that experience. Having a camera in my hand gives me an excuse to break through the barrier of not knowing someone. Shooting helps me form new relationships and keeps me engaged with the world around me.
I love that B & H has a tumblr if for no other reason than to inform about stuff like this.
MUST. FIND. A. PROJECT.
Build a new camera out of something weird or modify something I’ve already got….hmmm.
Worldwide Pinhole Photography Day is April 29th. What are you doing?
"the fact of the matter is, i want everything we do—that i do personally, that our office does—to be beautiful" - saul bass (from the above video)
video via APE
I had a realization today that it is absolutely not possible for my to shoot enough photos. I was watching a video about Marc Hauser, seeing image after image float by, and I became somewhat overwhelmed by the volume of great images. One after another after another. Some of his work reminded me of Avedon, some of Penn, but mostly I was just fascinated at the breadth of the work. On and on. Between the video and his site, he’s just got a ton of work. Granted, he’s been shooting for a billion years. Much like a lot of the other photographers I enjoy, their work just comes out of their ears. They seem to always be shooting.
And all that got me thinking, too, about personal work. The above shot is a simple 4x5 shot of bridge here in town. Typical, mundane. I can’t decide if it’s boring or not. I was compelled to take the shot. The lines were pretty, or whatever. But does that make it interesting? Even if just for me? And if it is interesting to me but no one else, is it any less valid? I don’t know. Nothing is really happening in the shot but the structure and lines and light all grab me up and shake me around. But is that enough?
I read a quote the other day by David Alan Harvey that goes like this:
“You must have something to say. You must be brutally honest with yourself about this. Think about history, politics, science, literature, music, film, and anthropology. What effect does one discipline have over another? What makes “man” tick? Today, with everyone being able to easily make technically perfect photographs with a cell phone, you need to be an “author”. It is all about authorship, authorship and authorship.”
This has always been a struggle for me. As long as I’ve taken photographs, my modus operandi has been to have a camera on me, live life, and react to what is happening around me. Intuition and reflex dictates my photos as much as my thoughts (but they also influence each other simultaneously). This feels like I am not in control, and I haven’t figured out if I am. And if I am or not, what am I saying? Is this idea of authorship as specific as I interprut it? Does my “something to say” have to be concrete and explainable? Is the documenting of my life enough? If I have no idea what I’m saying, am I saying something? Am I just too lazy to figure out what it is I’m already saying?
The work I make for myself, whether I end up liking it in the end or not, is fundamentally a reaction to life. My current main portfolio, or whatever you want to call it, was curated by my friend Jared Ragland who has such a keen eye. The grouping of my work he made for this site is far better than I could ever hope to put together. Maybe it’s my emotional attachment to the shots or knowing the backstory, but his objectivity let him draw a line between shots I’d never have even considered. This is exciting for me—to have someone else digest my work and spit out something that makes sense to them—but makes me wonder (imagine that) about what this body of work says about me. I get a glimpse into how my work appears to others, as well as getting to see all the interconnections between my life experience that I’d never have seen before. But does this mean someone else is saying something with my work about my work? Where does this leave me?
I guess it all comes down to the idea of not being in control. And perhaps that idea of feeling the need to be in control is rooted in the idea that I use photographs to make my living.
There are two roads in my head when I think about work for money and work for me.
The first is that the work I do professionally should be indistinguishable from the work I do for me. Then I’m a “true” artist or whatever (even thought I hate a lot of about that word/title) and I feel more validated about my personal vision or interpretation of the word. It feeds my ego, I guess, to think that the way I see things has value.
But then there’s the second road which is more pragmatic and WAY less idealistic. That road recognizes that you don’t sell stuff only with gritty, black and white, sort of weird images. Color sells. Happy emotions sells. Images that can be repurposed sell. Function over form, I guess this road is called. But the same things that make my personal work fulfilling for me aren’t totally divorced from me on this second, perhaps. Surely I could employ the same intuition and connection to surroundings and people to create images that really say something, but also serve an important function for industry (which, let’s face it, is my main target since I’m not really trying to make a go of being all-artist-all-the-time, right?).
Of course, selecting road two means needing to be in control of other things that are outside of my comfort zone. Business crap is the worst. And my brain does not gravitate toward it. But I digress. Without really answering my own questions.
One place where I see these roads overlap though, is non-profit work. At least to the degree that I can merge serving a purpose and engaging people/life the way I think I do best. But I’ll leave that conversation for another post.
I’d love to hear any thoughts on personal work you may have. Or your ideas about the division of business and personal work. Or your weird blend of the two. Anything, really. If you have reaction…I want it.
Hey cool…B&H mentioned my lego camera in a blog post. Thanks!
I feel pretty wimpy compared to a couple of these, for sure. I still want to get my hands on some TECHNIC pieces for the Mark II, but only with time.