That’s not what we do.
Brooks Jensen, editor of Lenswork, recently posted a humorous podcast entitled “That’s Not What We Do” in which he recounts an incident while shooting in a park with a friend. He and photographer Joe Lipka were photographing at Fort Warden, WA. At some point, Joe went to the tourist center and got noticed by the woman at the service counter, who inquired about what he and Brooks were doing. Upon explaining that they were both photographers, the woman suggested they talk to the park manager, who was interested in buying some tourist shots to sell. Joe politely explained that neither he nor his other photographer friend take those kinds of pictures. Seeing that the woman was puzzled by his answer – after all, he is standing there with a bunch of camera equipment; what would all that gear be used for if not “taking pictures”? – Joe offered a the following line (that I suspect is familiar to most fine-art photographers placed in a similar situation): “We make pictures that don’t look like pictures of what we’re taking pictures of.” I only wish I were there to see the look of confusion on the poor woman’s face!
I guess it’s funny. I’ll admit I’m not so sure the joke isn’t on the photographers, though.
Here’s the deal from my point of view. I see three points that Lipka made:
- We’re artists. We do stuff that doesn’t look like what you expect. That’s what makes it art.
- You and the park manager aren’t artists. We know what you want, and you don’t want art, and you wouldn’t understand what we do because we’re artists and you’re not supposed to understand it.
- We think the fact that our behavior confused you demonstrates that you’re an inferior person. (if you listen to the podcast, note that Jensen called the worker at the customer service desk a ‘gal’ and listen for his patronizing chuckle.)
Wow. Even more amazing to me, Jensen seems to think the entire episode is funny, which given Jensen’s views on making art at Real People Prices strikes me as hard to understand.
Is art photography really limited to photographs that don’t look the things they’re photographs of? Is it really true that that’s not what we do? I don’t think so.
Why did Jensen’s friend think that the park manager wouldn’t be interested in their art? If I were a park manager, and people were making art in my park, I would want to see the art. I might want to display the art in the visitor center. I might want to have a permanent collection of the art, at the park. If I were a park manager and liked the park I managed, I might want to buy art made in the park or about the park in my own art collection.
But no. Jensen’s friend decided (and Jensen apparently agreed), without any evidence at all, that the art they made wasn’t what the park manager wanted. It’s as if they’re defining art as “stuff nobody would want”. And they view this attitude, constructed entirely in their minds and quite probably wrong, as a good reason to laugh at the confusion they generated in this park employee who was, perhaps, trying to clue them in to the fact that the park manager might want to look at their art.
No wonder people think artists are a bunch of arrogant jerks who look at the rest of humanity with sneering condescension. People think that about artists because, in fact, some artists are arrogant jerks who look at the rest of humanity with sneering condescension.
No wonder there’s no market for art, and the general populace doesn’t care about art. Artists have defined what they do as ‘stuff no one would care about’.
Jensen and his friend had the chance to take the artistic risk of being understood. They chickened out. All they did instead was confirm everyone’s worst stereotype of the arrogant artist. Everyone came out a loser.
It just makes me want to say bad words.