Sunday, August 5, 2012

Inspiration comes from doing

French Breakfast, © 2012 Paul J. Romaniuk

I have enjoyed collecting inspiring quotations and images from artists I find inspiring and love sharing them with others through venues like this blog and Facebook. But recently I’ve been questioning what “inspiration” is or should be, and how it fits into my artistic practice. Because the truth is, I have never felt a need to be “inspired” to go make work, but I certainly do struggle with distractions and decisions about what to work on.

My musings on the meaning or role of inspirational quotes/work has come more sharply into focus the past week during the Olympic Games. The television coverage includes up close and personal videos on the trials and tribulations of some of the individual athletes – the barriers or personal tragedies they had to overcome, or the sacrifices their families had to make to help them. I find these spots very emotional and touching, and I often think that the athlete in question is such an inspiration. Yet I have never found myself leaping up off the couch and establishing a training regimen, or bounding down the stairs to the studio to begin furiously working on projects. The same has been true for many of the quotations I’ve come across, or work that I’ve seen.

This introspection is helpful because it makes me realize that for something to be truly inspiring, it has to provoke an action, not just a reaction. Watching those Olympic features, reading those quotations can fill me with feelings of being inspired, but they are acting as placeholders for action, and really are just distractions. I get to feel something, but there are no concrete results. I’ve realized that there is a huge gulf between collecting inspiring quotations and originating them: the difference of having personally experienced something, and understanding its importance.

I now realize why there are a couple of quotes that have resonated very deeply with me for quite some time. Chuck Close said “The advice I like to give young artists, or really anybody who'll listen to me, is not to wait around for inspiration. Inspiration is for amateurs; the rest of us just show up and get to work. If you wait around for the clouds to part and a bolt of lightning to strike you in the brain, you are not going to make an awful lot of work. All the best ideas come out of the process; they come out of the work itself. Things occur to you. If you're sitting around trying to dream up a great art idea, you can sit there a long time before anything happens. But if you just get to work, something will occur to you and something else will occur to you and something else that you reject will push you in another direction. Inspiration is absolutely unnecessary and somehow deceptive. You feel like you need this great idea before you can get down to work, and I find that's almost never the case.”

Richard Serra said more succinctly “Work comes out of work”. I don’t know if Georgia O’Keeffe ever said anything on this subject, but she was known for going to the studio faithfully every day, even if she just stretched canvas or swept up. I think the key thing these artists recognized was the need to establish a habitual routine of working, which in turn strengthens the neural pathways that compel them to go to the studio and make work. And the benefits of that routine in jumpstarting productive phases in their practices.

For the past two months I’ve been working on a couple of projects on a daily basis: continuing a series of lumen prints and exploring the potential of wet plate photography. I found that each time I made something, I got excited, and was inspired to make more. Even when the results were disappointing, as they were recently when I attempted some photogravure prints, taking the time to sit with the disappointment brought inspiration because I found myself getting excited about making line etchings again. I know that I will sort out the problems with the photogravures, but by making those attempts now I also got inspired about pairing up gravures with line etchings. Reflecting on these experiences has made me realize why those quotations of Close and Serra resonated with me – I knew from my experience that true, pure inspiration is sourced internally, and comes from doing.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Turning Towards Self-Publishing with Lauren Henkin

In my last post on why I’m skipping the “Photo 2.0” upgrade, I outlined the signs I’ve seen that artists are leaving the on-line, digital realm of presenting work and returning to, or newly embracing, physical objects as the output of their artistic practice. None of this is surprising because people who buy and collect art are looking for physical objects, be it original works, fine prints, sculptures, or hand crafted books. They appreciate the choices artists make about the process that was used, which paper was used, what materials with different textures and smells were used, the size and shape of the print/book/painting. These same choices and opportunities create work that can be experienced on a richer, deeper level that is more compelling to both artist and audience.

Leading these changes are artists who are not only producing fine art objects, but are selflessly helping others who want to extend their artistic practice in that direction. One such person is Lauren Henkin, a remarkable artist from Portland who in recent years has produced a series of extraordinary hand crafted fine art books of several compelling bodies of work. Lauren has a full time day job, and takes on art projects that might last a year from initial concept to completion and require many late nights in the studio. Yet she also chooses to spend a great deal of time and effort encouraging other artists who want to improve their work and produce finely crafted work, by maintaining a pretty busy teaching schedule. Her drive and generosity of spirit is truly remarkable.

This weekend I was one of seven students in a two day workshop Lauren gave at Lúz Gallery in Victoria entitled “Turning Towards Self-Publishing”. Having taken a workshop on marketing previously with Lauren, I knew that I could expect a well organized, comprehensive presentation given with clarity, kindness, wit and with a sensitivity to the different needs of individual students. And that was exactly the experience I had in this new workshop.

I think one of Lauren’s great gifts, and what makes her an outstanding teacher, is her generosity in sharing her personal experiences and stories as they relate to the subject at hand. In this case, she shared the pitfalls and mistakes she went through with her first book project; she share financial details, and time commitment requirements of her projects so that we could fully understand the scope of each of the different book projects she’s completed. There are not many teachers who would be so open about their experiences.

The topics covered in the first day and a half were comprehensive, including details on how to finance a project, how to find and work with collaborators (e.g. designers, bookbinders, letterpress artists), how to learn the difference between different types of handcrafted books (important for conversing with various dealers and librarians), how to structure a project from beginning to end, when and how to build an audience for your book, how to market the book, how to increase your chances of recovering the costs of the project and gaining income beyond that.  We also looked at many examples of different fine press and artists’ books in our hands – Lauren shipped four boxes from her personal library to share with us. We were introduced to the wide variety of paper choices for bookmaking, and cloth/paper choices for binding from sample books that she brought. There was also a presentation on elements of designing a book, and inspiring examples of the many different forms artists’ books take.

You’re probably reading this, thinking that no matter how well organized the workshop was, that sounds like an overwhelming amount of information, and how could anyone possibly retain enough of it. In addition to the excellent instruction, Lauren had prepared a 65 page course manual that can be used by each of us as a resource after the workshop. In the words of one student “this manual alone is worth more than the cost of this workshop”.

The final afternoon was spent looking at prints each student brought of bodies of work they were considering for a book project. Lauren engaged the entire class in considering each other’s work, how it related to the intent of the project, what were the strongest images that relayed that message, and how could those images be effectively sequenced. This was done in a very supportive, sensitive way and was in itself a great learning experience.

I took away three important lessons from this workshop, each of which I think illustrates what a great teacher Lauren is, and how well she connects to her students. The first important lesson was her caution that making books takes time away from photographing/drawing/painting – i.e. making content. She encouraged us to think carefully about that and whether delving into book making was consistent with the goals of our art practice. The second important lesson was her encouragement that everyone take on a project that would have be consistent with the time we were prepared to devote to it, even if it was a small project that didn’t involved producing a bound book. While she had given us the information and tools to tackle complex projects, it was clear that she supports and encourages artists who are willing to take on a book project regardless of whether it’s relatively simple or complex. The third important lesson was her relentless requirement that whatever we choose to do, that we do it to the highest level of craft possible, out of respect to the quality and beauty of the images we are each producing.

It’s that final lesson that has defined every outstanding teacher I’ve ever had, and Lauren is firmly in that group.

Sunday, March 4, 2012

I'm Skipping the "Photo 2.0" Upgrade


When software companies offer an upgrade to a program, users inevitably have to weigh a number of factors in deciding whether to buy the upgrade. Among those factors are desired new features, whether their needs are served by the upgrade, cost, and ease of use. The software companies use various tactics to persuade us to upgrade: it's faster, it's got many new features, old versions are no longer supported, you're in danger of falling seriously behind if you don't upgrade. These tactics typically play on our vanity/anxieties and create this atmosphere of fear of being left behind. And they generally work well, unless the upgrade is deemed to be so bloated and so much time has passed before its release that it is already out of date.

I had never heard of the "Photo 2.0 Upgrade" until I rejoined Facebook back in the summer. I had been completely unsatisfied with my experience with Facebook before, and had gone to the extreme of having my account absolutely deleted a few years ago. But during the summer I met a number of people while taking workshops that I wanted to keep in touch with, and Facebook was the best way to do that. And in general using Facebook to keep in touch with fellow artists and new friends I've met in person has been great.

What does this have to do with "Photo 2.0"? Well, during the course of my explorations on Facebook, I joined several photography-related groups. Through these I encountered a small "band of brothers" who have been advocating the new dawn of photography based on the perception that the hindrances to artists getting their work distributed and recognized through the "old" gallery system were being completely swept away by access to the internet. Yet with this democratization had come a problem, according to the advocates - now that everyone had started promoting their work this way, it was making it difficult to find the truly excellent work amongst all the average work that was flooding onto the net. And so this band of brothers set themselves up to be the arbiters of outstanding art on our behalf  by assuring us that rather than wade through the murky waters ourselves, they will decide who is producing the best images, the best photo books, etc. In other words, they have set themselves up as the new gatekeepers/tastemakers while disparaging the gatekeeper system of yore. Physical gallery shows are viewed as being tolerable by the new advocates, but inferior to on-line presentations. Physical photo books - tolerable but only until whiz-bang interactive ebooks are out - we're assured that's what everyone will demand.


In a nutshell, I'm skipping this upgrade because I know that Photo 3.0 (see below) is already taking shape. The Photo 2.0 upgrade is outdated, redundant, bloated beyond belief and has few features useful to photographers. The leading advocate of Photo 2.0 has been getting free dinners and invitations to speak at conferences and meetings about his brave new world of photography for five years. Going back to the software analogy (it's really their analogy, not mine), the successful software companies push out major upgrades of their products on a roughly 12-18 month schedule. Two years is pushing it, beyond that the software is basically considered dead or abandoned. I think it is safe to say that Photo 2.0 is dead.

And it should be dead because it is redundant, bloated and almost useless to photographers looking to effectively promoter their work. Photo 2.0 is redundant because it relies on gatekeepers/tastemakers, a shockingly small group of them who seem to spend more time self-referencing and cross-referencing each other on their web sites, Facebook, Twitter etc. than they do actually promoting the best photographic work. Their target audience is primarily photographers (those are the people who are going to validate their efforts by providing content for their web site) so they are doing nothing to get the best work in front of collectors, or to expand the market for photography by bringing in new people who have never collected photography. You are far better off working with a local gallerist, who will definitely bring your work to the attention of collectors, who works to introduce new people to collecting art, thus expanding your market, and who in this day and age has a web site which puts your work in front of the global market.

I consider Photo 2.0 bloated because even through the filter of this band of brothers, far too much work is getting exposure, and done with an implied stamp of approval. While looking at the work of others is part of a vibrant art practice, it is only instructive if it's done in a very limited and thoughtful way. Most of the Photo 2.0 related sites put up "featured" images on their home page for 1 day, then replace then all the next day. They also often have large "collections" of images by featured artists which quickly end up in the "archives" which is probably visited very infrequently. And they promote themselves by playing to the anxiety/fear factor by implying that if you aren't willing to provide content to them on their terms, or aren't constantly checking their sites for important work by others, you are going to be missing out on high impact exposure and knowledge. It's all a load of bs, and it encourages behaviour that is detrimental to an artist's development. Furthermore, anyone whose work is featured on a site this way is getting little to no benefit because it's presented in the most superficial manner for the briefest of time.

So if Photo 2.0 is stillborn, where are we at? For those who have kept an open mind, open eyes and been observant, the future of photography has already arrived. Smart photographers are using social media to keep in touch with each other, and to make occasional, considered announcements about new work. Some also document projects in progress to give a bit of a "behind the scenes" look which allows prospective collectors to form a more personal connection to the artist and the work in progress. Many have a web site for formal presentation of recent work, and others keep a blog to talk about the motivations behind their work which helps build relationships with potential collectors. And most are either remaining committed to producing physical objects in the form of prints and books or are returning to those modes of production in combination with digital approaches after a foray into the completely digital realm. Rather than rigidly adopting a completely on-line or completely analogue approach to making, marketing and selling work, they are finding the right blend of tools that is most effective for them.

The signs are everywhere. I was at a talk in the fall given by Dan Milnor about book publishing. There was some discussion of ebooks, and a high school teacher in the audience shared that he had asked his students whether they preferred physical photo books or ebooks and was surprised (pleasantly) that they all said that they far preferred physical books. Another contributed that students are bored with the digital methods they grew up with and are so familiar to them and are excited about learning analogue methods for producing work. While people continue to declare film is dead (or is not dead) and analogue methods of making photographic images are fading away, there's ample evidence of photographers reinstating darkrooms, learning other fine art methods of producing photographs such as wet plate collodion, cyanotype/kallitype/platinum printing, photopolymer gravure printing. And none of this is surprising because people who buy and collect art are looking for physical objects. They appreciate the choices that go into the process that was used, which paper is used, what materials with different textures and smells are used, the size and shape of books, the type of printing. People are turning their backs on sites like Flickr and Facebook where they find the discussions about photography to be superficial, and are meeting in person with others to engage in a more thoughtful discussion. In two instances last year, workshop groups that I was a part of have gone on to have informal critique sessions; one group has organized a group show at a local gallery.

The key here is the decision by more and more artists/photographers to maintain control of their art practice and the eventual outcome of that practice. They use the on-line and analogue methods in ways that fit their needs, not someone else's. They are respectful of their potential collectors, and of other artists by not flooding sites with constant promotional materials, or constantly showing the same images from a body of work (both of these activities lead to visual exhaustion and are counterproductive). They build relationships with other artists and gallerists in their local communities to work together to build a better appreciation for art in general and to expand the size of the local market for art. Some are selflessly bringing the work of other artists to the attention of many people through on-line blogs. These people represent the tribe that I want to belong to.