When I was little, nothing made me happier than drawing. My mom used to say that I could draw before I could talk, though I find that hard to believe given how I tend to ramble on. Art supply stores were better than any toy store to me growing up — pencils, marker pens, crayons and tempera paints were on every Christmas and birthday wish list. My mom — a wonderfully creative crafter — happily obliged and fueled my growing obsession, always encouraging me to pursue what she called “my gift.” She loved to tell the story of how, after seeing the American Freedom Train with my dad in 1976, I came home and “drew it perfectly from memory.” My stepmother also nurtured my budding creativity. A painter herself, she intruduced me to oils, watercolor and papier-mâché. For most of my formative years and into high school, I wanted to be a Disney animator. I couldn’t tell you who the starting pitcher of the Dodgers was but I could rattle off the names of the Nine Old Men at a moment’s notice. My high school art teacher, Mr. Andrew, submitted a portfolio of my work to Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, which earned me a Saturday scholorship illustration class with a real Disney animator. Throughout high school and into college, my singular focus was on art and then, without much warning or fanfare, it stopped. I made the realization that I would never be Pollock or de Kooning or Rauschenberg and that my work would never hang in galleries or museums and if that was the case, then what was the point. Why bother? I didn’t pick up a brush for pleasure for 20 years.
It took me those years to realize that it didn’t matter where, or even if the things I make are displayed anywhere outside of my own home or studio. That’s not the point. The point is that they exist and were made and released into the world. The point is to make — to conjure an intangible something from the ether of nothing and mold it, shape it, form it into a tangible something. The art is in the transformation. That’s the point and it’s something that I didn’t realize when I put my brushes down. I thought my art was about me and that the value I placed on what I made — and subsequently on myself — was tied solely to what someone else would pay for it. As I’m writing this, a scene in The Right Stuff just popped into my head. It’s the scene where the astronauts are getting their first look at the Mercury capsule — I mean, spacecraft — and they’re asking where the window goes and what about the hatch with explosive bolts. The scientists tell them that this is the final version and there is neither a window nor a hatch with explosive bolts at which point Gordon Cooper says, “Do you boys know what makes this bird go up? Funding makes this bird go up.” Gus Grissom chimes in with “That’s right. No bucks, no Buck Rogers.” If I couldn’t be some sort of artistic Buck Rogers, paid handsomely for the inspiration from on high for which I was the only vessel, I didn’t want to bother. Ah, youth.
When I did start to paint again, it was from a completely different place and, in fact, happened quite by accident. I was looking for ways to print my photographs on different substrates and I found a book called Digital Art Studio by Dorothy Simpson Krause. I began to explore some of the techniques presented in the book and even reached out to Ms. Krause with a few questions, which she was kind enough to answer. Over the next two years, I produced a new body of work that was unlike anything I’d ever done before. Every piece was an exploration of process — emulsion transfers, new types of mediums, different surfaces and substrates — and every piece went exactly where it needed to go, rather than where I thought it would or should go. I found happiness in the accidents. I built up surfaces, scraped and sanded them away, used bold colors and strong, graphic images and patterns without giving a thought to what I was “trying to say.” I simply let the work be what it needed to be and immersed myself in the doing — driven by the process, you might say.
If you’ve listened to On Taking Pictures, you’ve heard me paraphrase the words of both Seth Godin and Stephen Pressfield many times on the subjects of resistance and doing, which I believe are inexorably linked. If you are unfamiliar with either of these names, I would recommend The War of Art, by Stephen Pressfield and while there are many great Seth Godin books, I might start with The Dip. In a nutshell, Pressfield’s Resistance is the little voice that tries to convince you that what you do is worthless — that you are worthless. “Resistance is an impartial force of nature,” Pressfield writes, “like gravity and the laws of thermodynamics. Resistance is clever. It knows if it personalizes its manifestations, it can deceive us and slip past our defenses. It’s like the software that enables direct-mail marketers to send us letter and e-mails addressed, “Dear Susie.” It’s bullshit. Resistance doesn’t know who we are and it doesn’t care.” Silencing the voice of Resistance is one of the keys to shipping, which brings us to Seth Godin, who says — again, I’m paraphrasing — that the only things we have control over is when we start and when we ship. “If you’re doing your art in a room by yourself, it’s not art,” Godin says. “It’s not art until it changes someone else.” I’ve asked several members of the museum community here in DC what makes art Art with a capital A? Overwhelmingly, the answer revolves around transformation, both of materials and of perception. Getting what you make into the world is the final step of what you can actually control. You can’t control what people think — whether they like it, love it, hate it or ignore it is out of your hands. And the likes, hits, pokes or hearts don’t mean shit. “Ship often,” Seth Godin wrote. “Ship lousy stuff, but ship. Ship constantly. Skip meetings. Often. Skip them with impunity. Ship.”
For me, shipping means letting go of the “with what” and just focusing instead on what. Like my friend Jeff Newton told me the other day on the phone, “it’s always better to be doing than thinking about doing.” Sure, I’m still on the fence about my next camera, but I’m tooling up and making in other areas. In the coming weeks and months, I’ll be shipping and sharing several projects I’ve been working on for a while, such as my new book, Photography by the Letter, moving my Instagram Live painting sessions to YouTube, new episodes of Process Driven and some very exciting collaborations with other artists and photographers.
Are you shipping? If so, I’d love to hear about it. If not, what’s holding you back?
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Resource Magazine just released their list of 16 photography podcasts you should be listening to in 2017. Wouldn’t you know it — On Taking Pictures is number five. Thanks guys!
I admit, I sometimes still wax poetic about being a photojournalist, until I see the absolute horror that many of them have to document. Here’s a fascinating NY Times article about Catherine Leroy, called The Greatest War Photographer You’ve Never Heard Of.
Billy Weeks calls himself a “documentary still photographer.” In this terrific TED Talk, he talks about how he got started and why he feels that “the still photograph is one of the strongest communication elements in the world.”