A few days ago I revealed an epiphany in Chased by the Darkness. Spoiler alert! I said being chased by the darkness is a myth. Darkness doesn’t chase. Don’t let it fool you. Also, don’t let this epiphany fool you. Make as much chased-by-the-darkness art you want, because it’s cool and interesting. Stop scratching your head and read it already.
In that post, we talked about Jim Brandenburg’s 90-day project that became his book, Chased by the Light. Today, we talk about artistic integrity. Let’s stay with Brandenburg as our example.
I’m tired of seeing short cuts and cheats in an effort to establish an instant artistic reputation, or to get the most likes or follows or to go viral. Instant reputations are difficult to establish, aren’t they? Unless you’re going for a negative one, that is. Those are easy.
Before the book, Brandenburg created what became a world-famous image of a white wolf investigating the photographer from behind a tree.
This is only one of many close-proximity wildlife portraits in his portfolio, but the most iconic. It’s a close-up portrait of a wolf in the wild, not a photograph using an extreme zoom lens, made from the safety of a studio window. Brandenburg created these images in spite of northern Minnesota’s weather, sometimes at risk of mutilation or death. How? By not taking short cuts, by spending significant amounts of his photographic life in the midst of the subject’s home, earning trust, or maybe tolerance. He did it by not cheating.
Eventually, the wolves became comfortable enough with Brandenburg’s presence to come closer and closer. This happened over time, not overnight. Thankfully, they didn’t become so comfortable as to eat him. I’ve read that he was surrounded by packs of wolves and at times felt threatened. Still, he returned. It was worth the risk to him, because it was not about him. There was no look-at-me. There was look-at-them.
Not long ago, a professional photographer was honored with the World Wildlife Photographer of the Year title for an image of a wolf in mid-flight, jumping a split-rail fence. That image was proven fake. A few years before that instant reputation was established, another photographer promoted one of his own images as a death-defying portrait of a big cat in the wild. Upon closer inspection, that photographer had done such a poor job of digitally erasing evidence of the animal’s captivity, that he had accidentally left part of a metal chain in the image. The chain was attached to the collar of the captive animal. Another instant reputation earned.
Let’s compare Brandenburg’s approach to these so-called professional photographers. On second thought, let’s not, beyond this: One approach is a look-at-me attitude and the other is a look-at-my-work attitude; one places the artist in the role of subject; the other knows that the artist is the reflection of the subject in the mirror.
It’s time to stop wondering how we artists appear to the potential viewers or readers when we put work out there. Not only is that the wrong attitude, it’s the opposite attitude. When I do that, what I make becomes my own version of look-at-me, not because I’m trying to cheat, but because, in those times, I’ve become overly concerned about the reflection, because I’ve become the subject. Whenever I’m self-conscious about making art, I’m trapped. I end up trying and not doing, then I end up not trying.
So, today’s epiphany is that there should be no look-at-me in my art. Like the result, or love it, be offended or hate it, or don’t care at all. That’s on you, as it should be. If what I’m saying in art (or my chosen process) is only look at me, I’ve failed. If successful, it will be a reflection of my vision, and a reflection of me.
If you choose to look deeper at the reflection, again that’s up to you. My job is to simply spend enough time with my subject that I’m tolerated without being eaten.
I also had one more epiphany, but that’s the next post…