French photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson was an early adopter of 35mm film photography. He is regarded as a pioneer of candid street photography and modern photojournalism, although he straddled a variety of genres throughout his long career. Cartier-Bresson is quoted as saying that “Your first 10,000 photographs are your worst.” I’m starting to think he may have been right.
I have crossed the 10,000 shot line. I’ve been a photographer for fifty years so the negatives, prints, and slides have piled up over time, and now digital files have been added to the collection. My educated guess would be that I reached the 10K number around the turn of the century. I recently faced the dreaded, boring task of scanning the boxes and boxes of prints which have been stored out of sight for years. Digitizing photographs is a tedious, repetitive, slow process, that occasionally rewards you with a fond memory or a totally unexpected surprise. The real reward however, is the freedom to dispose of those photos should you choose to do so.
What I learned from that exercise is that for many years I was not a very good photographer. I wasn’t totally surprised by that realization. Photography, like any other pursuit, requires practice in order to reach an acceptable level of proficiency. The photos I produced during my formative years consisted of banal street photography, mediocre portraits, meaningless landscapes, and average nudes. The positive side of the equation is that I spent countless hours in the darkroom where I learned to develop and print black and white photographs. That experience led to some successful experimentation, and also laid a solid foundation of understanding of the basic principles of photography. There is no better place to learn about exposure than in the darkroom.
Leaving the city and the darkroom behind forced me into shooting color film and slides for a few years. The change of environment — from gritty urban streets to the wild coastal forests of Vancouver Island — meant that I was seduced into photographing pretty things: pretty beaches, pretty whales, pretty trees, pretty eagles, pretty sunsets. The problem I discovered was that pretty things are just that: pretty things. They demand nothing of the viewer. It becomes a one-sided conversation, so consequently they tend to get boring very quickly. A photo of an eagle on a tree, regardless of the flawless composition, the rich colours, and superb sharpness, will always be just that: a photo of an eagle on a tree. The photographic equivalent of a Robert Bateman painting: exquisitely executed and excruciatingly boring.
In 1971 the American conceptual artist John Baldessari made a famous announcement: “I Will Not Make Any More Boring Art.” Just a year earlier John had made the unorthodox decision to cremate every painting he had made between 1953 and 1966. After he had burnt all of his early works, and placed the ashes in an urn shaped like a book, John began painting text on canvas and he called it ART. He also took photographs with intentional bad composition and he called them WRONG. In a 2010 interview by Calvin Tomkins — for The New Yorker magazine — Baldessari talks about his work of the late sixties and discloses that “So much of my thinking at that time was trying to figure out just what I thought art was.” That is an interesting question for someone who taught art for three decades: in schools, colleges and universities. That thought is reflected in his painting titled “What This Painting Aims To Do, 1967”, which I have appropriated and replaced the word “painting” with the word “photograph”. It looks like this:
I only became aware of John Baldessari about a year ago. It was through a fantastic six-minute video titled “A brief History of John Baldessari” narrated by musician Tom Waits. I was a bit surprised that he had fallen through the cracks of my awareness, as he is such a monumental (literally) and influential figure in the art world. I am somewhat glad that I came late to the party. On one hand, by the time I started to investigate his collection, Baldessari had silenced his early critics who persistently tried to dismiss him as a one-dimensional artist. On the other hand, I missed the opportunity to see his retrospective exhibition “Pure Beauty” at the MET in 2010.
My Baldessari moment — as it relates to the ideas expressed in “What This Painting Aims To Do, 1967” — happened around 1980; roughly a dozen years after I started my life as a photographer. I got bored with pretty things as I realized that my photographs lacked impact. They were too ordinary. I started to bend the rules and invent imagery. I freed myself from conventional thinking and got started on my way towards being a creative artist. I felt super-charged, energized, free. The years that followed were some of the most productive and creative times of my life. I gave myself permission to color outside the lines, and I loved what it did. I started making photographs to please myself, and no one else. No compromise.
I have learned that there is no guarantee that someone will like the art you make, so you might as well create things that you enjoy. Just because I find Robert Bateman’swildlife paintings kitschy and boring it does not mean others agree. The man has sold over a million prints of his work over his career. That makes him one of the most commercially successful painters in Canada, yet you will not find any of his paintings in any of the county’s major public galleries. The Art Gallery of Ontario “would not touch me with a ten foot pole” Bateman quipped. That reinforces my belief that taste is subjective, shunned by some, loved by others.
Popularity is not necessarily the best indicator of quality, and if it were, can you guess which restaurant would be considered the best in the world? You got it, the one with the clown. By the same token, the best photographs in the world would be: sunsets, baby animals or decorated coffee foam. Spend any time on social media and you’ll see what I mean. So, who gets to decide what is a good photograph? In my estimation I would say that… you do. If an image of a sunset speaks to you, and makes you stop and look again, so you are moved by its beauty, and you perceive it as an effective execution of a good idea, then you have elevated that photo to a place of distinction in your mind. To you, it becomes a good photo, regardless of what anyone else thinks.
In a parallel way, the process that I go through while creating an image is not that different from what a viewer may experience when looking at a photograph. I strive for a dialogue, for sufficient intrigue to make me look again, and I certainly aim for an effective execution of the idea. My photographic trek has been long and fruitful: from beginner, to amateur, to enthusiast, to semi-pro, to professional, to starving artist. From the thousands of images I’ve shot — a few have have found their place on walls — whether it’s in private homes or commercial galleries, which always surprises me a bit, as I’ve remained true to myself and very selfishly I only make photographs that please me. I do what I do regardless of its commercial value, regardless of expectations, and regardless of fashionable trends. I strive to not censor myself in content or expression.
Perhaps Henri Cartier-Bresson was right, once again, when he said that “It is an illusion that photos are made with a camera… they are made with the eye, heart and head.” So I guess the advice from the Master would be: look, think, and follow your heart. So… if you enjoy photographing pretty things, fill your boots.