The other day I received one of the most impactful and unexpected emails that I've ever received. It's taken me a little while to fully understand and comprehend the contents of that email because put simply, what was said of my photography could well be the most important piece of feedback I've received thus far in my pursuit of my art.
The email came from my good friend and fellow photographer, Sabrina Henry. The email was about a friend of hers, Sue, who Sabrina had discussed photography with, discussed her own art with and discussed pursuits such as ART (Artist Round Table) that she'd developed to help others (myself included) with their own art. Until Monday, I had no idea that these discussions had taken place. Sabrina and Sue had in fact talked about ART experiences after the round table last year, and some of the attendee reactions (such as mine) at some length. I had no idea, but Sue fell in love with the image I posted, entitled "What Comes Next", alongside my reaction post (included in the previous link, and on this post, above).
Tragically, Sue was diagnosed with an aggressive form of cancer late last year and passed away on Sunday. Sabrina had a chance to visit with Sue on Friday before she died, where Sue had an opportunity to again bring up my photograph. Sabrina's email to me on Monday was to pass on Sue's final thoughts on how much she enjoyed my image and how much it meant to her. The image brought her a peace and comfort, helped to allay concerns of her family left behind, and helped her to accept that she was about to move on from this life to what comes next. She wanted me to know that my art has an importance and to encourage me to keep pursuing it.
I was floored when I read this. Humbled. Proud. Sad for my friend Sabrina who lost someone close to her. Sad for Sue and her family. Elated that my image could comfort someone so much at the end of their life. Shocked that my art could have such an impact. Grateful that someone thought to encourage me in such a way. Proud that my art could have such an impact on someone. Left utterly and completely speechless that my art could have such an impact on someone. I very much (and probably always will) consider myself a student of this craft we call photography so reading this email was a complete flurry of thoughts. It took me a little while to grasp at what it all meant to me. Sabrina has written on her blog about her experiences, and I very much encourage anyone reading this to click over and read her post, too.
Brooks Jensen, in his book Letting Go of the Camera discusses ideas around making impactful art in a largely "democratic" art community. Democratic in the sense that, too often photographers today judge impact or success by how many comments are received on blog posts, how many people click on a Like or +1 button, or how many print sales the image makes. What Jensen has to say in his essay, "When The Flock Veers Left", particularly resonates with me:
Most artists, in spite of the myth of the isolated and tormented soul, are firmly ensconced as part of a flock. It is just so easy to march to the beat of everybody else's drum. In contrast, the best art comes from the heart. Once technique and craft can be successfully used, the artist's real challenge begins -- finding and producing from the heart. The next time the flock veers left, try turning right just for fun and leave the rest of the herd. Wander off. Look for yourself. And if you find it difficult to make a decent photograph, know you are on the correct and best path that leads to the most important artwork of your life.
David Bayles and Ted Orland talk about a similar concept of Approval in their book Art & Fear: Observations On The Perils (and Rewards) of Artmaking which supplements Jensen's sentiments on the matter quite nicely:
The lesson here is that simply courting approval, even that of peers, puts a dangerous amount of power in the hands of the audience. Worse yet, the audience is seldom in a position to grant (or withhold) approval on the one issue that really counts -- namely, whether or not you're making good progress in your work. They're in a good position to comment on how they're moved (or challenged or entertained) by the finished product, but have little knowledge or interest in your process. Audience comes later. The only pure communication is between you and your work.
Last night, after having these thoughts from Sue flow around inside my head for a little bit, I went out to photograph the sunset in the mountains here in Washington. I was reminded of these excerpts from their respective texts. The scene I was photographing was a mountain above a lake that was catching some of the late afternoon breeze across its surface. The colour of the sunset perforated the sky, the mountain glowed pink in the evening light, and I stood there and watched it all unfold. It was supremely peaceful and beautiful. Instead of hitting any kind of usual process I would turn to when photographing a sunset... I walked around for a little bit and thought about the scene in front of me. Aside from the swarm of mosquitoes fighting each other for the best spot to latch on to my arms, technicalities of camera settings, composition strategies, foreground elements, or anything remotely routine for me were furthest from my thoughts. What I was actually trying to think about most was what impact I could create with this photograph. Why am I photographing it? What matters about this photograph?
I never knew Sue and it's unfortunate that I did not have the opportunity to meet her. I think that we would have had a lot to talk about regarding photography. The message that she passed on to me via Sabrina will be one that I never forget. It's already impacting how I approach my photography. As this year's ART approaches, I'm going to have a lot more of a chance to think about her encouragement, the message behind it, the reason I explore my ideas through images, and all the facets of impactful art beyond photography. It's a very exciting time.