One of the biggest problems I have seen consistently during the reviews that I have participated in over the last ten years is that many photographers do not know how to talk or write cogently about their work. (The other is the lack of a clear vision or, as I like to say, “pretty pictures with no punch.” More on that another time.)
While I believe strongly that the work must speak for itself, and that no amount of verbal deconstruction will make up for a poorly-conceived or executed idea, a good artist’s statement is essential if the photographer has any desire for recognition or progress, as well as to gain as much as possible from the review process. I have found over the years that the photographers who can speak or write clearly about their work also produce the most affecting and powerful images.
One could argue that that there is an inherent paradox in asking photographers to speak or write about their work; presumably if they could do it in words they would be writers not visual artists. However, just as the best works of fiction or non-fiction engage the reader on a number of different levels, so do the best works of art and photography. To read something really clear about the artist’s vision and process enhances the viewer’s experience of the work and, in the review setting––where often a photographer is presenting the germ of an idea as opposed to a fully-realized project––can make the difference between the reviewer not having a clue what the artist is up to and therefore giving a less favorable comment, and being able to provide constructive feedback. This is why I always read the artist statement.
The essential qualities of a good artist’s statement are clarity, brevity, humility and a keen awareness of the work that has come before you and inspired you. But first you have to have some idea of why you want to make the work and what you want to express with it––in other words, a concept, even a simple one.
Here’s a great example. I had the opportunity to hear Julie Blackmon describe how she came to make the kinds of photographs she does. She said that she had studied photography in college, and had been a stay-at-home Mom for several years. She wanted some artwork for her house, and she thought she could create something herself that would please her as much as anything she could afford to buy. She admired the work of the seventeenth-century Dutch masters, and she was at home, so her children were her natural subjects.
We are all familiar with the results, which are a fresh, contemporary and very original take on a familiar subject. The images speak to a sense of history, and are ironic and funny without being self-conscious or pretentious. Indeed, they have become almost as iconic as their inspirations. And her statement was short and direct, amplifying the vision behind the work while allowing it to speak for itself––which is, in the end, the whole point.
I first wrote this article after the 2009 photolucida, for their de-brief. It was then reprinted in Center’s online newsletter. It actually became the inspiration behind Center’s upcoming “Portfolio Bootcamp”, September 23-24, where one of the main topics of discussion will be–you guessed it: how to write a cogent artist’s statement. For more information on that very worthwhile seminar, please go to Center’s website, www.visitcenter.org.