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Motivation is a photography blog that discusses the creative aspects of photography. The posts will include thoughts about images and their interpretation, photographers and their work, technique, workflow, my ongoing projects, and perhaps even the occasional off topic rant.

Art and Fear, Part I

If you have read some of my recent blog posts you have probably noticed that they've been a bit on the philosophical side lately. That is probably because I have been reading Art & Fear by David Bayles and Ted Orland.

First things first. I have to thank Billie for coaxing me into finally buying and reading the book. It had been on my “To Read” list for some time, but ended up being one of those books that I just never seemed to get to. Billie’s comments on some of my prior posts convinced me to finally get to it. It was clearly a mistake to have put it off for so long!

Anyway, turns out I’m perfectly normal. All the issues that concerned, confused and, even to a certain extent, tortured me are all par for the course….the course of (OK, having read the book, I can say it) being an artist. It would, after all, seem that if you take your photography seriously you are an artist, even if you don’t make your living from it. It would appear that all the fears and confusion that I have ever had regarding my photographic work is all normal, expected and even, dare I say, healthy and perhaps even integral to being an artist.

I believe that, without question, this is a book that all artists should read. And I think that the definition of "an artist" could and should be used quite loosely here. My wife does a good deal of objective, formal research writing and I have even recommended it to her. She writes. Good writing is an art. And, truly, you have to immediately love any book that starts off with the following quote from Gene Fowler. “Writing is easy: all you do is sit staring at a blank sheet of paper until the drops of blood form on your forehead”.

It is exceedingly difficult to talk about Art & Fear without quoting from it. I thought what I would do is to choose several of the issues that have been troublesome to me (and that have been reflected in past blog entries) and use quotes from the book as commentary that addresses those particular issues. I will clearly note the material that is being quoted from the book.

First, and this would fall into the fear and uncertainty category, I tend to look at my finished work and think that it isn’t ‘good enough’, that it could be better, that it could ultimately be perfect if only I made a few more adjustments etc., as described in this post and in this one as well.

David Bayles and Ted Orland address this issue several times:

“All that you do will inevitably be flavored with uncertainty—uncertainty about what you have to say, about whether the materials are right, about whether the piece should be long or short, indeed about whether you’ll ever be satisfied with anything you make. Photographer Jerry Uelsmann once gave a slide lecture in which he showed every single image he had created in the span of one year, some hundred-odd pieces—all but about ten of which he judged insufficient and destroyed without ever exhibiting.” (page 19)

“If you think good work is somehow synonymous with perfect work, you are headed for big trouble.” (page 29)

“Nonetheless, the belief persists among some artists (and lots of ex-artists) that doing art means doing things flawlessly—ignoring the fact that this prerequisite would disqualify most existing works of art. Indeed, it seems vastly more plausible to advance the counter-principle, namely that imperfection is not only a common ingredient in art, but very likely an essential ingredient” (page 30).

“To demand perfection is to deny your ordinary (and universal) humanity, as though you would be better off without it. Yet this humanity is the ultimate source of your work; your perfectionism denies you the very thing you need to get your work done.” (page 30).

In this post, I had raised the issue of working on a long term project. An excellent comment was made that mentioned the difficulty of working for long periods of time when there is uncertainty regarding the outcome. This uncertainty can sometimes erode motivation. Regarding this issue of uncertainty Bayles and Orland comment:

“Uncertainty is the essential, inevitable and all-pervasive companion to your desire to make art. And tolerance for uncertainty is the prerequisite for succeeding” (page 21)

To Be Continued