Finding Our Creative Voice

One of the issues that I often find with those who are trying to find their own creative voice is the inherent need—or maybe desire—to please others. I don’t think anyone is totally immune to this, especially at the beginning of their creative journey, although some may have different ways of dealing with it than just complying.

Now, possibly, I should have made this into one of my “A Photographer to Know” threads as I certainly hope you will take the opportunity to view the work of the artist who inspired me to write about this topic . But I felt that there was a more important issue that she addressed in a lecture I found of hers and will present below with a strong urge that you take the hour or so to listen to—LISTEN being the most important thing even if the work doesn’t strike you. But let me digress a moment.

It was a couple of weekends ago that my wife and I visited Houston and, as we normally do, visited several different art museums. There were several stunning exhibits to be seen. Many of these were photographic but those certainly were not all that we visited. I often find inspiration in other art forms and how what has been done there—even seemingly insignificant things—might help clarify or move my work forward. Even revisiting the same work is never the same, hopefully, as I have grown since my last encounter and will be able to see/experience new things—of course, this can be incremental and nearly missed or much more concrete and enlightening in some cases.

One of those shows we saw (for the first time) was on the Painter/Photographer Marilyn Minter entitled: “Marilyn Minter: Pretty/Dirty” at the Museum of Contemporary Art. The first video found in this link will give a good overview of the work and what issues it deals with.

Most of the work was very large and it was nearly impossible to distinguish the photographs from the paintings unless you got very close to them as they were so incredibly detailed–and yet often largely out-of-focus or blurred. This was particularly incredible to me, a non-painter, as to how she could create so many “layers” of imagery that were of varying detail and color—something very easy with photography. The work might not be everyone’s thing but I think it shows how photography can be pushed in many directions (she creates many of her paintings from photo montages put together in Photoshop but they keep an organic feel to them).

I entered the exhibit with a sense of reservation from the appearance of some initial work. While I try to be open, I admit that I have my biases and what I was seeing was hitting against some of those in the wrong way. Fortunately, I am aware of these things and recognize them as “my issues” immediately, which then allows me to bypass them in ways I may not have been able in years past. By the time we finished—which included several complete viewings of the entire show, I was left in awe of what she had done.

This result alone would have been enough impetus for a “Photographer to Know” thread but my interest in learning more allowed me to find a wonderful video lecture she had given to some graduate art students. Now, while I want you to know about her work and what she has done, there were so many wonderful things said and put on the table about art and the pursuit of our own voice there that I felt that the importance of hearing those rose above my interest in your knowing just her work—which you will be exposed to in the video.

Warning: Before you jump into the video below or maybe even visit Marilyn’s website (the links above are not an issue), understand that while most of her work is very sensual and not overtly sexual, there is a series of what she even refers to as her “pornographic” images—they are paintings. It is very short in reference to the overall video content. So linking to the video below may not be safe for viewing at work or may not be something you want to experience. I can’t make that judgment for you but I do think the video has some very important perspectives on the creative process and the struggles to find our own voice.

In my last post here, “My Photograph Sucks!” I had linked to this lecture as another source of the idea that a successful image is not something that just happens with every click of the shutter or painting stroke, but is the result of many other tries that don’t work out as well, those things that were essentially our sketches or steps to a successful image—we generally only see an artist’s best work.

But maybe the overall value in this video is that it is one of the best I have ever seen that chronicles so many of the issues that can prevent us from actually finding our own true voice as artists. She addresses so many of the blocks and obstacles to actually finding and then pursuing OUR voice and where and how that can open even more avenues beyond our current view of things.

Regardless of what you feel about her work the important message there is just to be willing to do those things you feel you want and need to do without regard to what others think or how others respond. We need to find OUR voice, not the group voice. Whether you like her work or not, she is doing what she wants which has resulted in high-end museum and gallery shows, high-profile fashion and celebrity photo shoots because her work is so unique–much the same as with Sarah Moon–not because she is doing the expected. She found HER voice!

Here is the link to the lecture:

A Photographer to Know: Sarah Moon

In my last post I indicated that I was going to talk about the choice of equipment today, I lied.  Well, not really, it’s just that while I was writing apparently “someone” threw a switch and I ended up writing what you might want or expect to hear rather than what I think you should hear.  As I pondered this, Sarah Moon’s work came to mind and I thought how relevant it would be to present her work before we get into the discussion about equipment.

Sarah Moon is a highly regarded fashion photographer and has been since the 70’s when she stopped modeling and started shooting full-time–that is also when she adopted the name Sarah Moon.  She was the first woman to shoot the Pirelli calendar and has created work for the top fashion magazines and companies around the world.

In contrast to the work of Henry Wessel that I presented earlier, Sarah’s work has a much more organic, romantic and emotional sensibility.  Her work often transcends the subject and can reach us in unexpected ways if we are open to it–it allows the mind to wander away from what is presented on the surface.  Great art does that and while I think Wessel’s work also allows for this, Sarah’s goes different places–maybe more personal, internal places.

To some, it might actually seem she doesn’t understand anything about the technical aspects of photography–her work is blurry, out of focus, blotchy; her highlights are often blown out and shadows blocked; and sometimes the film processing looks totally incompetent.  If you think that way, consider altering your thoughts to the fact that just like Ansel Adams was a master of his process, Sarah is a master of her process–they just have a different aesthetic preference about how they express their view of the world.  I learned Ansel’s process but I absolutely love Sarah’s.

One thing that I read about her somewhere was that she grew up near-sighted and didn’t have glasses.  When she started shooting, she just thought that her photographs revealed how things looked–at least how she had always seen things.  I don’t know how true this is, however, I do know that many wonderful ways of seeing happened because people were just “stuck” with some camera that produced a certain type of image (often less than perfect by modern standards) that ended up meshing with their way of expressing the world around.  The question might be the old chicken and egg, did the camera suit their way of seeing or did it change their way of seeing.  Regardless, the two were happily married and made wonderful babies!

The first video here is narrated by Sarah (an assumption as no narrator is listed in the credits) in a more stream of consciousness way about her process of shooting and is heavily oriented towards her fashion work.  It is extremely interesting, IMO, and if you don’t shoot fashion I still think you could identify with and interpolate her process, frustrations and breakthroughs to a sense of what the artistic process is like.  Even if you have experienced this yourself, it is always nice to see how someone else works and how things are, or can be, different.  This can open up new channels of thought or simply make us aware that we all experience similar things with maybe our own unique twist.

The second video covers a wider range of her work and just has a musical sound track.  I know this one has some nudity–tasteful but maybe not something you can watch at work.  I don’t think the first one had any but you may want to consider watching it where it wouldn’t matter.  I hope you enjoy these as much as I did.

By the way, I do expect to come through with the equipment post on Friday.

Of course, I would love to hear any thoughts, comments or alternative perspective you might have.


“A Photographer to Know” will be one of the regular features of this blog. The purpose is to present the work of recognized artists in the field that may not be as widely known to most. Liking or not isn’t the purpose, but rather it is about exposure to what others are doing and/or how others are thinking about or using our medium. By looking at the work of artists in any medium, we can build our own “visual vocabulary” on how visual problems are, or can be, solved.

A Photographer to Know: Henry Wessel

Henry Wessel was introduced to photography during college(early 1960’s) and was immediately hooked on how the camera rendered the world. Within a decade he had already received a Guggenheim Fellowship, had a one person show at the Museum of Modern Art in New York and started and finished a Masters in Fine Art.

His photography seems to me to straddle a few different genres: landscape, street and social documentary. But what really stands out for me is the way he renders light as almost searing his subjects, as well as his sense of the ironic and humorous.

Henry’s work was included in the 1975 seminal exhibition, the “New Topographics: Photographs of a Man-Altered Landscape”, which had-and continues to have– a significant impact on the field of photography– especially landscape photography. This work signaled a shift away from the traditional, romanticized view of the world that we recognize in work by people like Ansel Adams to one of a more detached view of man’s interaction with the land.

Personally, it took me years to warm up to this new work but, then, I had my nose buried in my own photographic interests and there weren’t many resources (no internet) available as there are today, which is a wonderful thing for those interested in learning and developing.

Although I knew the work of most of the photographers included in the New Topographics group, Wessel somehow escaped my radar. When I first saw his work, just a few years ago, I was really surprised that he had been part of that group based on the limited images I had seen. His work seemed to have more of a point of view and personality than often attributed to that group. It was much more like some of the street photographers I was aware of, such as Garry Winogrand and maybe even a little Lee Friedlander.

As I researched his work more deeply, I did find images that were more in line with the New Topographics group, however, even if those seemed more “banal”, the way he used light and shadow was amazing—and different than what we see more commonly.

When we encounter things that are done in a different way than we might do them, giving it our attention isn’t a matter liking or disliking or of our wanting to copy or emulate a style. The value is that in looking and noticing we can gain knowledge of alternative ways of doing things. We see how doing something different can affect a subject and the look of a photograph. This allows us to store this information in our “bag of tricks” as it were and gives us more information to draw on to realize our intent for one of our photographs. Drawing on these resources doesn’t just mean a linear, or direct use of something we’ve learned but maybe we make a more random connection between things that seem unrelated and we end up solving a problem in a unique way.

So, in addition to looking into his work for those wonderful moments of irony and humor, it is worth notice how he uses light in a different way than we might. Notice how he often uses a frontal, or nearly frontal (light from behind his position), light and how he allows his exposure to push the limits of the brightness of the image. His use of flash is on-camera and unapologetic, he wants to “draw” his subject with that searing light.

My initial exposure to Wessel was through the first video below and I really appreciated his passion for photography and his comments on his way of working—as well as the photographs. What he presents here with regards to the “animalistic” response might seem contradictory to some of what we have covered in The Idea: Part I, but we will be addressing how this all comes together in Part II.

These next two videos cover more of his work and his philosophy and way of working. They are both wonderful to watch—I continually return to these and have probably watched each 10 times while preparing this post. There is always some new thought that catches my attention with each viewing—probably because when I hear one, my mind races off and I don’t hear what comes after that until the next time I watch it!

So, “Let me take you on a walk and we’ll start here…”  excerpt from the last video.

I’d love to hear your comments on Henry or any part of this presentation.

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“A Photographer to Know” will be one of the regular features of this blog. The purpose is to present the work of recognized artists in the field that may not be as widely known to most. Liking or not isn’t the purpose, but rather it is about exposure to what others are doing and/or how others are thinking about or using our medium. By looking at the work of artists in any medium, we can build our own “visual vocabulary” on how visual problems are, or can be, solved.