Promotion vs. Production

A few conversations and readings as of late has me thinking. There seems to be this sentiment that artists should hole up in the studio making work (or in the case of photographers out making pictures) naive to the workings of the art world. Steps to ‘get the work out there’ is actually frowned upon by some and the real photographers make work for 15 years before trying to get it exhibited or even looked at.
I have a hard time understanding this. Certainly making photographs is the bigger part of the motivation for what we do but like anything it’s much more complex than that. Does time out of the gallery arenas make for better work? I’m trying to think of examples of those who have all but been invisible to the public eye and come forth with strong projects.
Gary Stochl here in Chicago recently surfaced with 40 years of amazing street photography.
Alec Soth interviews Stephen DiRado, who though having some exhibit history has generally has also been underrepresented but making fantastic work.
It’s clear there really is no formula for art making, so where does this ideal of the artist as monk come from?


  1. Posted November 7, 2006 at 9:57 am | Permalink

    Honestly, I don’t know but I have some ideas. I’ve been touring schools and this monk concept you bring up seems to be a prevailing concept in education.
    A lot of schools require you to be in your studio at least 5 days a week. I find this rediculous when you are majoring in photography, unless you prefer studio work.
    The monk-like behavior also comes into play when students graduate. I am the only one in my class of 10 or so even working in photography, which makes me pretty sad since I thought I graduated with people far more talented than I am. I attribute that largely to rejecting the notion that the university setting should be an inclusive community.
    I think the monk thing is supposed to allow the artist to have ample time for critical reflection upon their work. I don’t know if that really works anymore though.

  2. Posted November 7, 2006 at 11:37 am | Permalink

    Stephen. You hit on something important which is the ample time for critical reflection. Though it seems as much is done discussing your work with others and outside the studio. How much is enough?
    Nice blog, btw. Love the pics.

  3. Posted November 7, 2006 at 3:20 pm | Permalink

    Just to be clear, I’m not suggesting DiRado is a better artist because he fails to promote himself. Nor do I glamorize his lack of self-promotion. I just think he is good. And whether produced by Jeff Koons or Henry Darger, good work deserves an audience.

  4. Dylan
    Posted November 7, 2006 at 3:27 pm | Permalink

    It’s a great question Brian. Honestly I think it is a faulty idea that stems from a few emotionally charged artist-monks. There is the modern notion of the misunderstood artist-genius, like Paul Cezanne or Vincent VanGogh, who toiled nobly in their caves for years. Their examples are so poignent and powerful that they seem to cast a shadow over generations. Really, I think they were the anamoly, and not only that, but misunderstood. Cezanne submitted to the Salon for years upon years, he just didn’t get in. It isn’t like he didn’t try. People make pictures for other people, they are intended for the world, not the studio wall.

    On the other hand, there is someone like Philip Roth. He met with immediate commercial success, and spent a decade or two in the literaly limelight. Only later did he bring up the drawbridge and retreat to Vermont to write in peace. He produced his best stuff in this period, but that is after years of having his work prodded and examined by the world at large.

    So get it out there. Once you’ve had enough of the idiocy, you can become a Monk and practice in peace.

  5. Posted November 7, 2006 at 6:35 pm | Permalink

    I didn’t think that at all and don’t mean to imply. DiRado’s pictures and your post on your blog made me think of the many others. I’m simply surprised that this idea of the artist more true outside of the public eye is still promoted and like the first response seems to come mostly from academic circles. DiRado is an example of how it can work, that passion and dedication to pictures alone can fuel the work. Though I do have a feeling that there are many who are of the Cezanne architype Dylan mentions.
    Again looking forward to retirement 😉

  6. Posted November 8, 2006 at 3:31 pm | Permalink

    I think that the idea of the artist monk is so prevalent in academic arenas because the academy is an enclosed world unto itself, where the practical considerations of getting work shown can be unnecessary. And in an environment like that the idea of just producing art for yourself and not caring about showing it to other people can be seductive, and also I think you can learn a bit from it.

    But ultimately I think it is a dangerous idea, because though it may provide plenty of time for critical reflection on yourself, I think you’re right, Brian, that that can be just done just as much in discussion with other, and often in ways that can teach you more than you can get all by yourself.

    There are times and people for whom hiding away and working in anonymity is called for, and times and people for whom it is not, but in the end, like Alec said, good work deserves and audience. And I believe the right audience can make good work better.

  7. Anonymous
    Posted November 9, 2006 at 10:13 am | Permalink

    It is true that I work somewhat under the radar but there are times in my history that I have had the museum shows, publications, and media play. These are all short lived; after the press release is a month old, it is up to the artist to keep the present work alive. It is a full time job, and light-years from my true interest in making the art.

    Living like a monk is not quite how I see it: My work is socially based; narratives of family, friends and places. I have been teaching photography at Clark University in Worcester, MA for 24 years (I’m 49). Many of my students have stayed in the business and stay in touch and are dear friends. A number of galleries sell my work from time to time, and I’m very fortunate to have a few loyal collectors who own lots of my photos. A problematic issue with my work is the amount of it, and the diversity. I have a number of concurrent series in the making, and with each comes an audience. It is next to impossible to label specifically what I do and makes the business of selling it a hard pitch for most galleries, or for curators to label.


  8. Posted November 9, 2006 at 6:55 pm | Permalink

    Stephen D,
    Wow. I firstly must say how amazed I am by your excellent work and happy Alec posted about it.
    Though I do think perhaps my initial post was not clear. I do not mean to identify you or your work as adhering to this philosophy of ignoring the goings on of the art world. I am interesting in the fact that often there is a big separation btwn. the business of being an artist and making ones work. Many schools merely send students out into the world with the great portfolio but often not the skills to get the work in front of a larger audience. This being adhered to an idea that any artist with concerns other than making work is somehow cheapened by promoting themselves.
    Alec himself is such a good example of how the work can be strong have substance and be seen by a broad audience.
    I guess I fnd myself frustrated when seeing really strong work and wondering why hasn’t anyone seen this before?

  9. Posted November 9, 2006 at 7:06 pm | Permalink

    There are a lot of photographers who do the work , because they love the process and results, all the rest is optional! I set some goals early on and achieved them and I now find myself mostly interested in just making the pictures!

    The geat thing about the dawn of the internet , websites , blogs , etc.. has been the far and wide dissemination of lots of great work. I have found it to be quite liberating!

  10. Posted November 9, 2006 at 8:49 pm | Permalink

    Brian, this is kind of on the side but a guiding factor in my career. Way back in 1987, I had a show at a museum, nailed a “big” fellowship, and I thought I made it at 29. Bt then the strangest thing happened, along with receiving my fellowship another unknown photographer received one. John O’Relly is his name and he lives in my town. BUT nobody heard of him. I made it a point to visit John. He was very shy and not at all welcoming. His partner Jim, also an artist was more receptive. Within seconds of my visit, I realized these guys were the real deal. The living/dining room of their house is a studio, every room serves on some level for puposes of making the art. I asked John where he stored his work. He borught me to a large closet, folding back accordion doors exposing 30 years of portfolios, each one marked with a date, sometimes by a month, others by a year. I asked John if he ever exhibited this work. “No.” He said. Going on to say, “I never felt I was ready, or good enough.” And of course it was all brilliant. It was right then and there that I realized that I was standing next to a genius. It was the most sobering, inspiring moment in my life. John eventually got the work out. In part because a gallery in Boston protected him, and sold the work quietly. John, by his 60s was showing in MOMA, Whitney, and every major gallery from East coast to West coast. The Addison Gallery put together a book and a retrospective show. There is not a time when I talk to John that he wishes for all of this attention to go away. He finds it very stressful and damaging to make the work without the pressures of public expectations.

    On my site

    Top row, far right, you will find an image of John, he is the guy sitting at the far end of the table. When I’m around John, I still see myself no more than a silhouette. BUT I have to say, I work really hard, and my studio shelves are starting to fill up.

  11. Posted November 12, 2006 at 6:53 pm | Permalink

    Stephen, wow, that story about John O’Relly is pretty amazing! See the “monk” thing works to impress, makes great story! Maybe the ideal of the artist as monk comes from a desire for authenticity of artist and their work rather than an idea of a carreerist. The work exists for the work and the artist, not the carreer. Not always true, but it does make a good story!

  12. stewart
    Posted November 12, 2006 at 9:41 pm | Permalink

    wow, I really have to work on writing full sentences and without so many errors in blogs…guess I tend to chicken peck type without editing! Basically what I wrote before was meant to say that somehow the idea of artist working away like a monk in seclusion just adds to the mythology of the artist, or adds to preconceived ideas of added value to the art by the artist’s life story. dunno…

  13. Posted November 13, 2006 at 8:55 pm | Permalink


    You are right, there is something so wonderfully pure about an artist working like a monk. John had a day job right up to retirement. So it never was a money issue to exhibit.

    His art was for his eyes, along with his partner’s critical judgment. Both men in the 1950s committed to being the best artists that they can possibly be. And that still stands true, 50+ years.

    How can one touch that?

  14. Posted November 15, 2006 at 10:52 am | Permalink

    Read this article. Sybil Miller sent it to me.

  15. Posted November 15, 2006 at 11:09 am | Permalink

    One more thing:

    The idea of the lonely artist seeking to create work for no other reason but to create beautiful art is founded a few basic ideas.

    Two examples: The 17th century painter spent most of his or her time in the studio, mixing paint and laboring over intense production work. The artist was rarely alone, though. Without the help of apprentices and students, many artists, such as Rembrandt , Rubens, or van Es, could not have created their work.

    Into the Impressionist era, the invention of the paint tube and manufactured paint enabled artists to take their canvas outside. This created the notion of the lone artist, such as “crazy” van Gough and “blind” Monet.

    Over time and great attention to both the old and new histories of art, the identity of the artist has been transformed. The artist, as now conceived, labors over their art for the sake of the art without any thought to monetary values.

    With the above mentioned artist identity, the idea of the artist spending great time selling work is seen as “selling out,” no longer creating the work merely to create the work.


  16. Posted November 15, 2006 at 11:27 am | Permalink

    Ryan, many good comments.
    Another funny idea of this ideology prevalent in schools is that one goes to school to exactly learn to be a ‘professional’ artist. If one is really interested in avoiding a career or outside influences in the making/conception of their works art school seems to be the worst place to go.

  17. Posted November 15, 2006 at 3:17 pm | Permalink

    In defense of art school:

    Art school is a place to learn. It is a place for students to be totally immersed in their art.

    I don’t necessarily believe that art schools–generally speaking–promote the lone warrior, monk artist. I think many art schools and programs have such high work expectations from their students as a means of discipline, “training” students to focus on their art.

    I don’t feel art school is a place where one should expect his or her highest work, but it may be a place where one may produce his or her hardest work. After all, figuring out the beginning can be the most difficult task.

    Brian, I agree that art school also discusses the idea of the “professional” artist. In my opinion, a good school promotes independent thought, a support group of fellow “equals,” and the means to create art, above teaching a student how to be a “professional” artist. It is important, though, that professionalism be taught at some level.

    It is also important to note that “professional artist” is not the same as a “commercial artist.” A professional artist devotes his or her life to the art, hopefully even gaining financial support from it. A commercial artist creates works for the sole reason of financial gain. I know many, many artists that successfully mix both areas. I also know many that only do one or the other.

    The fall of some or many schools is a poor mix of professionalism and promoting independent thought and creativity. The required 5 days per week still mirrors described sounds like an attempt to force creativity.

  18. Posted November 16, 2006 at 12:29 pm | Permalink

    I teach in an art dept at a liberal arts university. Many of our students double major these days. A trend to assure parents paying tuition that there will be a job wating outside of the arts. What I find interesting is that about 30% of my students find work somewhere within the arts after graduation. My job as a teacher is to help them eccelerate or explore a variety of opportunities within a relatively short period of time. The hard working students figure it out before graduation and have enough of a sense of self to sustain motivation beyond the university walls.

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