There are many things I enjoy about being a Master in The Arcanum. My cohort of 21 enthusiastic photographers from around the country are an interesting mix of people with diverse interests and backgrounds, and I love learning about them and exploring their work. One of the strengths of the Arcanum model is the face-to-face critiques that occur regularly between myself as master and my apprentices. In these critiques, we use video chat software to connect and share in real time. I have completed several of these critiques and I am fully sold on this mentor/apprentice concept. For years I have held critique sessions during my workshops, but now I get to devote a block of time to a single artist and a small number of their images. The critiques are recorded and stored in the Arcanum’s Grand Library where all apprentices can review them. This allows the person who is participating in the critique to relax and converse with me instead of scribbling notes. It’s proving to be a immensely gratifying experience for me and I am proud to be a part of it. It’s a genuinely positive environment with none of the sniping and trolling found elsewhere in the online photography world. I’ve had it up to my chin with the deliberately destructive and discouraging bullshit coming from some of my fellow photographers. I consider The Arcanum a safe haven where creatives can gather and nurture each other while the zombie horde of narcissist assholes devour each other outside.
Last week I was just laying down on the cold wet pathway in front of the Portland Japanese Garden’s famous maple tree to make some images when another photographer walked by and said, “Do you have a new way to do that? Because that shot’s already been done.” Where I was in a good mental state to make a really nice photo when I sat down, I was now looking through my viewfinder and fuming. Sure, the shot has been done. Sure, I have done it before myself. But goddammit, I wasn’t hurting anyone by trying to improve on my previous efforts under the tree. Why did this grumpy dipshit have to walk by and say such a distracting thing? I made a few shots and then got up and moved on, much of my creative fire smoldering.
As I walked through the garden, dozens of other photographers were working to make images that they could be proud of. The fall color was just coming on and the light was nice. By all standards, it was a good morning to be making photos of the garden, but I was pissed. Pissed that a comment thrown by a passing stranger could derail my creativity. Pissed that my confidence wasn’t high enough to not be overtopped by his dirty wave of cynicism. In my funk I started to notice how the other photographers were interacting. There were beginners there, looking around for direction. I saw one following a more experienced and obviously-egotistical photographer. The Ego was talking about how he’d shot in the garden x-numer of times and how the color wasn’t really that great. He’d seen better. His tone conveyed the clear message that if you bothered to take a single frame you were wasting your time. The more he spouted about his greatness, the more novices he seemed to attract. With his camera clamped atop his tripod, I watched him talk for 15 minutes, but I never saw him make a photograph. The camera and his hulking bag were merely props in his one-man show and I was pained to see this handful of eager beginners soak up his negativity instead of making their own images.
Like many of you, I watch a lot of YouTube videos by other photographers and I often watch critiques. Most of these critiques are “Blind Critiques” where the photographers giving the critiques do not know who the contributing photographer is. In almost all of these videos, the critic starts by saying, “Don’t take what I say personally.” When they move on to the critiques, they usually make good observations, but often they are unduly harsh or arrogant. When I see it, it makes me die a little inside because I know there is an artist somewhere watching this video and it’s their art being chewed up. Perhaps they gain some knowledge from the experience. Perhaps they are encouraged to improve. I suspect for some, they are left defeated and anything but inspired to go out and try again.
It reminds me of my days teaching First Aid and CPR. When I worked for the Red Cross, I taught alongside nurses and firefighters who had years of experience with broken bodies and bloody scenes. In their classes they would often share stories of their exploits. I am sure to them their stories were informative and inspirational. To many of the students, they were terrifying. To someone nervously taking a life-saving course with the hope that they will never need to do anything they are learning, the knowledge that there are people out there who seem to enjoy being knee deep in gore does not do anything for them. I have had dozens if not hundreds of people over the years come up to me after classes and thank me for not trying to shock them. The research on layperson response to emergencies spells it out: those who have basic first aid and CPR training are often less likely to use it in an actual emergency than those without training. In response to this research, The American Red Cross and American Heart Association have progressively dumbed down the protocols for bystander first aid and CPR. They see the research and assume that people are unwilling to perform life-saving skills because they are too complicated. I see the research and know that a lot of people took the training, learned the skills and left afraid that they wouldn’t be as good as the people they learned them from.
And therein lies the rub with photography. As creative people, photographers have to learn quite a few skills to competently create. The traditional method of learning such skills is didactic: students sit and quietly absorb information from more experienced teachers. This one-way transmission of knowledge can work well to a point, but the technical skills involved in photography must be married to creative inspiration for truly great art to emerge. When the teachers are more interested in promoting themselves and their “greatness” than fostering inspiration in their students, the only product is admiration. I admire many great photographers. People such as Joe McNally, Trey Ratcliff, Elia Locardi, and Art Wolfe obviously possess special skill, talent and experience. Knowing this does not make me a better photographer. Knowing exactly what kit Joe NcNally uses and how he uses it will not make me Joe McNally. I shouldn’t even want to be Joe McNally! There is already a Joe McNally and he’s got that market sewn up.
I admire Joe McNally because of his mastery of portraiture, but also because when he teaches, he isn’t doing it to inflate his ego or promote his celebrity. Anyone who has watched that man teach can tell you that he does so with passion for his craft and compassion for his students. Even in a workshop with 500 people, he has a way of making personal connections with his students. He’s approachable and friendly. He’s humble. Knowledge + inspiration!
So when a photographer throws out discouraging comments or tells you not to take his or her criticism personally, they are really saying, “I’m talking to hear my own voice. There’s no need to listen.” If they are talking about your photography, your personal artistic expression, you are going to take it personally. When I give my critiques in The Arcanum, I expect my apprentices will take what I say personally. After all, if you don’t take your art personally, is it really YOUR art? As creative people, we need to seek out connections with other artists who will challenge our ideas and progress our skills in a respectful way. We need to not only avoid the trolls, but work to actively silence them. The best way to do this place them in a vacuum. Online, that is as easy as ignoring them. Out on the street is a tougher situation. The guy at the Japanese Garden sniped at me and I couldn’t ignore his comment. I wanted to follow him around and make smart-ass comments each time he stopped to take a photo, but what would that have done for me? Nothing good. Instead, I walked around for a while and then went back to work making images that make me happy. That guy may have cost me 15 minutes of creative time, but that is all. He has to live inside his dark cloud every day. A phrase I always try to remember in times like that comes to mind: When I wake up tomorrow I will be me, but that guy will wake up an asshole.
Be kind to each other and take your work personally.