Don’t discount yourself
Mike Johnston (he of The Online Photographer fame) writes about the best-selling books among those he’s mentioned on TOP this year. I was not particularly surprised to see him wax enthusiastic about Frank Herzog’s Vancouver Photographs, because I would pick that book as the best of the crop of books I’ve bought in the past year. I’m very sad that the book is now out of print.
Most important, though, was Mike’s closing paragraph:
And don’t forget—no matter where you live, you could do a similar project in your own town or neighborhood. Someday, everything that is ordinary and unremarkable to you will be distinctive of this time period, and many of your pictures of things we take for granted today will be of things or people that have changed or gone. No one will ever take a photograph in 2008 again, for instance—think of that.
Beyond the Omar Khayyam quality (“‘the moving finger writes, and having writ, moves on, nor all your piety nor wit shall lure it back to cancel half a line…”), what occurs to me is that there are a lot of photographers out there, working steadily on long term projects. Some of those projects will go nowhere. Some will produce great art that will go unrecognized. And some will produce great art that will bring fame to the artist.
The thing of it is this: you can’t say “Oh, I’d work on a project like that, if I knew it would go somewhere and get recognition.” If you take that view, you never start. Every single project that ended up a big success started out as a project where some people would have thought “Why in the world would anyone waste their time doing that?” Of course, that’s true for projects which went nowhere, too. There’s no knowing without actually doing. It would be nice to know when we start out on a project if it was worth pursuing, but that doesn’t seem to be the way the world is put together.
What I think is remarkable was that Herzog plugged along, building this work, more or less separated from the mainstream of photography because of his working methods. There’s a lesson there, I think – trends come and go, certain kinds of work are in fashion for a while and then vanish forever. Anyone else remember the period when it seemed everyone was going out into the desert and making flash photographs of isolated bushes? Slot canyons, anyone?
The good news is that you don’t need a license to start. You don’t have to have paid your dues to start. You don’t need an art degree to start. All you need to do is pick up the camera, and start.
In the end, it seems, the only certain satisfaction there is in working on something long term like this lies with finding contentment in the process. There’s no predicting success and failure, and so it doesn’t make much sense to vet projects in advance based on whether you think the project will pan out. About all we can do is go, make the work, and let the chips fall where they will.
And if there’s a lesson to Herzog’s book it might be that a large collection of photographs of quotidian scenes can, in the end, make for a mighty compelling body of work even if it doesn’t seem to fit the mainstream conceptions at the time it’s being done.