The Philomath Open Studios Tour wrapped up on Sunday, and participating as a studio this year was both fun and challenging. Talking to so many people as they came through, I got some interesting questions and comments. The only comment that really stopped me in my tracks came from a couple of other artists participating in the event. We do an artist “pre-tour” of all of the studios, so we can see each other’s work and be able to refer people to the right studios if they are looking for something specific. It’s one of the most fun parts of the whole event, and for me it’s been the way I really get to know the other artists.
“You should call your work something other than photography,” they said, “Your work doesn’t look like any photography I’ve ever seen.” They went on to explain: People may skip my studio because they have an impression of what photography is, and they aren’t interested. I’m losing the chance to get my work in front of them by calling it photography.
I found myself with a pretty strong internal reaction to their suggestion. As I tried to explain my feelings about this as photography, I struggled to find the words. My immediate reaction and inadequate explanation left me uncomfortable. Was there something to what they were saying I should listen to? These folks are my artist friends and peers, and they have my best interests at heart. They respect my work and want to see me succeed.
So, for the last couple of weeks, I’ve had a renewed internal dialogue around this question: Is it photography or not? Should I change the way I position and market my work? I’ve answered this question before. But I needed to answer the question for myself, again, in a way I could confidently explain it to others, especially artists in other mediums.
Yes, my work is photography. I will continue to call it photography, even if there is some fallout along with that. Here’s why…
My work starts as a photograph. The seeing and framing through the lens of the camera is vitally important. My art wouldn’t exist without the starting photograph, and the capture of the starting image is one of my favorite parts of my process of creating in this medium. I spent years and years learning to coax beautiful images out of the camera, from the technical expertise of exposure to the creative expertise of composition, and I use that experience every time I take a new photograph. Even if I’m altering it significantly, it starts with the photograph. I want to honor that.
I also want to honor the medium. Photography has a rich and interesting history. It is a wider and deeper medium than the general public understands. Most people’s interaction with photography is from what they see in the media — photojournalism and commercial photography — or their own experience with snapshots. Mobile photography is even less understood. Most people haven’t necessarily seen or explored fine art photography. They don’t know the range of art that the term “photography” truly covers. Why not help educate them, just a little bit? Why not expand their definition? We are never going to get past the limited perception of what a photograph is “allowed” to look like, if some of us don’t stand out there and push those boundaries.
This is where I had to stop and examine myself closely. Am I hurting myself, my ability to get my work in front of people to connect with them through my art, through taking on some one-woman crusade to expand the definition of photography? Am I hurting my sales by sticking with the “photography” moniker? I don’t think so. I’ve had many photographers tell me in the past that you can’t sell photography. People don’t want photographs. Given my results as I ventured into art fairs this year, I’ve not found that to be universally true.
But that fundamental belief — people don’t want to buy photographs — must be a driving factor behind some of the practices I’ve seen a few photographers use. I’ve witnessed people who are using altered photography techniques selling their work as nebulous “fine art prints.” No acknowledgement of the starting photograph. It’s not a lie, per se, because they truly are fine art prints, but it’s an omission that leaves the medium up to the imagination of the viewer. Let the viewer think it’s a reproduction of an original in another medium; what they don’t know doesn’t hurt them. That may be ok for other artists, but it would feel dishonest for me. Almost self-negating, as if I need to hide my medium in order for the work I produce to have value. And also not respectful of the artists who have spent years to hone their craft in other mediums. My work may end up looking a bit like a watercolor or some other medium, but it’s not. I don’t want to claim it is.
I want my work to stand on its own, for what it is. A photograph. An altered photograph, sure. But it starts as a photograph.
My art is a piece of me that I put out in the world. So when I make a sale, I want it to be an honest and heartfelt transaction. How I put my work and myself out there really matters to me. I want to connect with people openly and with integrity. I want to have a dialogue about what I’m creating, how I’m creating and why. I want to hear what the viewer has to say, how my work makes them feel. I want to honor all of those who came before me, who taught me, who paved the way for me to create in this medium, too.
So I will continue to call my work and my medium photography. I’m a photographer, and I’m proud of it. I’m happy to have the dialogue about what makes it photography. I relish a good discussion about the art of photography, and like the idea of opening some minds to new ideas about what a photograph can be.
And the folks who aren’t interested, who chose not to come to my studio because of their preconceived notions of what photography will look like? It’s their loss, not mine. They don’t know what they are missing.