Thursday, February 07, 2008


I've been watching Luminous Landscape Video Journal # 17, the interview with Jay Maisel. You could argue that a tour of his 'junk' collection is irrelevant but you get a strong sense of who the person is. Near the end of the interview they discuss having confidence in your work, the belief that you are better than most. Jay goes on to say that he feels photographers should be arrogant, they need to feel that when they show someone one of their images, the person will never quite look at the world the same way again.

I've written about emotional impact of images but I like this as a definition of a good image - one which will in some small way (or large) change the way the viewer will look at the world.

One might be excused for thinking this is pretty grandiose and impractical for all but a small minority of images, perhaps of famine or war or suffering, but what of a picture of a hand that makes the viewer look at his own hands the next time he's sitting on the can, perhaps turning his hands around, looking at the aging spots or wrinkles, the scars of a life times experience. Maybe it's one of my machine shop images which if I'm lucky will change the way a viewer looks at machinery in the future - as not just functional but as something with shape and curves and lines, something even to be enjoyed, perhaps touched or picked up instead of walking past.

Clearly not every photograph is going to to that for every viewer - it's clear from the images I have shown on this blog over the last couple of years that many images are only liked by some people. There are people who 'don't get' Pepper # 30, who cannot see beyond something that belongs in a salad.

So it would in fact be arrogance to believe that every one of my images (or yours) is going to affect every viewer, but the best of our images, for some of our viewers - yes I do believe we need that confidence or arrogance to feel we can change the viewer.


My camera World said...

I agree that as an artist and not just a tourist or pretty picture photographer it is good to have some arrogance and strong belief in your approach and visions.

I am with a local camera club in Ottawa and I enter many competitions. The judging while good varies in how the understand the subject matter and at times they tend to spends too much emphasis on the classical compositional elements.

Having some arrogance that you are right in your approach is good so that the photographer is not brow-beaten into only doing standard classical images.

We need people who are radical and not afraid to try to venture into the extreme to have this art form expand an grow.

Niels Henriksen

Ted Roth said...

Many thanks for your affirmation of arrogance. One may look back at the arrogance of Beethoven or Michelangelo and know that few of us qualify for that kind of flaunting of tradition and humility. However, the alternative to confidence in the quality of ones own vision is to subject oneself to being blown every which way by the fickle winds of other people's tastes.

On the other hand, I'm struck by the example of Van Gogh's (no model of self-confidence!) who often sketched the same scene several times in slightly different styles and sent his sketches to different correspondents based on his understanding of their personal tastes. I could never suggest Van Gogh, although lacking in self-confidence) lacked personal vision, and clearly he derived some benefit from his correspondents' varied outlooks on his work.

The trick for me is in balancing my own confidence in what I have seen and managed to capture against curiosity about how it strikes other viewers. I find my struggle for clarity and honesty about what I'm trying to do is the only way to navigate between my own confidence and the views of others. Staying honest to oneself isn't always easy, and I find it can be undermined as much by others approval as their disapproval.

Thanks again for inciting this discussion.

George Barr said...

The thing about Van Gogh was that he was bipolar (manic depressive) and when depressed he didn't produce anything and felt his work was junk, and while manic was overly confident but also highly productive and a bit crazy - I can certainly see that his moods would affect the quality of his paintings, the number of them and who he thought might appreciate them.


chuck kimmerle said...

Geez, I hate to be a negative nellie in two consecutive posts, but I'm uncomfortable with the notion that the validity or relevance of a photograph, or any piece of art for that matter, is dependent upon the pride/arrogance of the artist. In my view, there's TOO much artistic arrogance, which contributes a great deal to the void between artists and the general public.

I do (sort of) understand the point that Jay Maisel was trying to make, but would rather the word "confidence" were used in place of "arrogance". I see nothing redeeming in one's arrogance, and in fact see it as a hindrance to both growth and betterment.

Brooks Jensen had an interesting and somewhat relevant column recently in which he stated his opinion that too much of photography is about the photographer, and that, I am assuming, would include attitude.

I don't think there's any question that photographers (artists) need confidence both in their voice and in their talent, but there's a wide gulf between being a confident artist and one with an overbearing pride.

I dunno, I suppose it could be argued we differ only on semantics, but am not so sure.

George Barr said...

Chuck: don't know if you watched the video - Jay and Michael talk first about confidence in your work, Jay making the point that nearly every serious photography he meets is convinced his work is in the top 2-5%, and makes the point that perhaps this much confidence is essential to be a successful photographer (mind you successful and good are not synonymous). It was after this that he brought up the specific area of arrogance - that of believing your photography has an impact, that it can change people and how they look at the world.

Most serious photographers I have met or corresponded with believe they see things others don't so perhaps it's not unreasonable to extend that to being convinced that by showing you the things that I think only I see, I am going to make you look at things differently.

There's no doubt that arrogance is a derogatory word and instinct makes us rail against it's use when applied to us - confidence sounds so much nicer - but perhaps arrogance is closer aligned to over-confidence or confidence in the absence of confirmatory evidence, but regardless, it's the word Jay used and went on to explain what he meant about it.

Let's be realistic - I take thousands of images. My recent book had 180 images, some just illustrative so say 80 images that I thought were good. If I feel that each image changes someone a little bit, how much change can I expect from all 80, or to put it a better way, if someone changes just a little bit in the way they look at the world after seeing my work, how much change can you ascribe to each image individually - not a hell of a lot, and possibly none since it may require the body of work to produce any reaction at all, other than a polite 'nice picture, next please' from the viewer.