Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Stuck in a Photographic Rut

I was in the supermarket a couple weeks ago with my wife and child when we bumped into a friend of ours. Maria is a photography professor at one of Philadelphia’s art colleges. We’ve been friends for several years and I greatly admire her work as well as the historical retrospective photography exhibits (link at end) she has produced and curated.

She told me how much she enjoys reading this blog. I was grateful, a bit embarrassed, and curiously, I began to feel guilty for not spending much time writing about photography. (I also feel guilty about not updating my website in forever!) 

"Rocky's" deceased wife, Adrian
I started thinking about the fact that in my blog, I’ve gravitated toward using photography as a means of documenting things, to prove I was there – the real world. Originally, I would write about a particular fine art photograph that I made, how I made it or perhaps the details related to my bringing it into existence. Now, the photographs at times do no more than punctuate my words. As a result, my photography recently has become more journalistic than fine art. The images are not exactly snap-shoddy, but they have veered off my intended path. While it’s true that I’ve continued to enter some juried art shows and attend events to sell my work, these mainly involve older images.

Available at
I suppose I could just continue the documentary-style photography and hope someone will archive it all into a book like Michael Lesy did with Charles Van Schaick’s Wisconsin Death Trip. But I REALLY like making fine art photographs! It’s a way of creating fantasy out of reality for me. So how do I get back on track with what I truly like to do? Or better yet, achieve a better balance between the fine art images and the documentary photos?

I began thinking about a presentation that my friend Maria made a few years ago to the Photographic Society of Philadelphia. The presentation was a slide show and lecture about her recent trip to Italy. Maria creates wonderful fine art photography. Her images in the presentation, however, were travelogue photos of the Italian countryside and its people. Hers are the type of travel snapshots you would expect a seasoned professional photographer to take. Maybe I need to hone this skill.

"Death" in the English Cemetery
Travel, of course, is a great way to get your creative juices flowing. I was in Italy too, a few years ago, but only came back with tombstone photographs! While the English Cemetery in Florence was beautiful, perhaps I should have looked at the rest of the beauty around me. (If you’re a cemetery photographer, by the way, Italian sculpture has everything else beat!)

Get Out of Your Element

Making photographs outside your usual stomping grounds is certainly a good way to get your creative juices flowing. However, you don’t need to travel all the way to another country for a change of scenery – often such new experiences appear in your own back yard. For example, I attended the Kinetic Sculpture Race in Philadelphia’s Kensington neighborhood recently to enjoy the festival and take photographs. Even if a certain kind of art is not your forte (e.g. building bicycle-powered vehicles), you can still get ideas from other people’s creativity. After seeing the Amish buggy, I realized that I should make a trip to Lancaster, Pennsylvania to see what Amish graves look like. Hmmm. Never even thought about that! In addition to the wonderful vehicles, the woman standing next to me in the crowd was a member of the Dumpster Divers of Philadelphia, a group of artists who create art out of trash (I’d always wondered what those people looked like!). When you talk with artists who work in a different medium, your own creativity can be stimulated.

If you feel like you’re in a rut and want to get out, there are all sorts of catalysts standing by, waiting for your call. Travel is just one of them. A photographer can learn things by hanging out with other photographers, but why limit yourself? While I certainly expect to learn some new things when I attend the AGS (Association for Gravestone Studies) conference next month, I already live in this world. It’s useful to jump the rails and land in an entirely different sphere every so often. You can learn things from wildly disparate sources, like seeing how the arts and crafters display their wares at art shows and talking with painters and sculptors about how they create. Such experiences help you see things from a different perspective. Everyone has artistic skills to share – for instance, I’ve gotten useful get tips about marketing my work from a friend who is a competitive BBQ chef.

Amish zombies at Kinetic Sculpture Race
Not being an academically-trained artist, I need all the help I can get. In my quest to create more of a balance between my documentary photography and my fine art work, I like to refer to those who have gone before me, to learn from their experience as well as my own. A reference I recently stumbled upon is Deanna Wood’s “Emerging Artist” blog. She has an archive called “Helpful Posts” which covers many of the anxiety-producing details that artists find themselves dealing with. Topics include “Hanging Artwork,” “Writing an Artist’s Statement,” “How Galleries Choose Artists,” and my personal favorite, “Rejection.” Since you REALLY would like nothing more than to just create your art, it’s helpful to have these essential things laid bare in front of you. Eliminating the guess-work of the real world helps me to concentrate more on my make-believe world.