What Does It All Mean?

Jessica Todd Harper recently asked me one of the best questions someone has asked me regarding art and photography. Jessica was preparing for a lecture at the International Center of Photography that evening and emailed:

It’s funny- every time I talk about my own pictures I am haunted by the feeling that I’m making it all up. I am constantly frustrated by how little I understand, in a rational sense, the artistic process. I mean, I have lots of theories, but at the end of the day, it’s such a mystery why I am compelled to make what I do. Do you ever feel this way? Your work fits so beautifully into the greater conversations we are all having about consumerism and what public spaces look like now. And your pictures make elegant illustrations within that greater discussion, but that is just the intellectual part. Do you think making pictures is an intellectual exercise? When I think of how I feel when I am taking pictures, I am not aware at all of my brain working. And if I do become too aware it seems to ruin the “mood”.

Thinking about this makes my head hurt. Aside from the issue of the content of the pictures, why would one choose to do such a thing with their life? It’s certainly not easy, lucrative or even normal.
In graduate school I had this amazing class in which we looked at the history of photography this way. Trying to analyze why a person takes up such a project, what the project might be and was it successful. We came to understand that most art is created through a combination of mission (an attempt to do, say or affect something) and therapy (to find some kind of deeper understanding of self through the creative process). I often see younger students making work that is much more therapeutic (and in most cases not aware of the fact). The work is a way of reconciling, finding a sense of self, or dealing with past demons. This process can be at best healthy, at worst it can project this stuff towards others. In fact looking back at history there are so many great examples of work done in this way, the most celebrated being Van Gogh, but for instance even the Steiglitz portraits of Georgia O’Keefe seem to hit this note of trying to understand something through photographing it, (in this case the dynamic relationship btwn. the two).
As for me, early on I fell into this first camp, trying to find out who I was, where I might belong and how I make sense of the world through making pictures of myself and my friends/family. In graduate school I felt that I wanted to address something bigger than my own personal drama but rather the larger human drama. This was coupled with recent political/social events that also made clear that our own lives are a small bit of the whole. But again I wonder does it satisfy my self of self, quell anxieties by giving me purpose?
I watched the movie Kinsey last night and thought of this very thing. What makes a person take it upon themselves to engage in such a huge project? To educate masses of people on fundamental truths regarding sexuality. Yes, the project defines the authors self but I might argue that if that were the case once the project reached any kind of notoriety the author would feel complete and the project would end.
From our earliest days we can recognize shapes, humans begin to investigate, we’re curious about ourselves, the world and each other. Maybe it’s a simply a more existentialist investigation.
I love asking myself this big question simply because it can never be answered.

note: post title borrowed from Jon Gitelson


  1. Posted November 27, 2006 at 11:59 pm | Permalink

    kinda on point:

    when i am teaching photography i try to remind students that although fstops, exposure, composition, color theory, the limits of the frame, (and on and on) can get overwhelming, to trust their gut and instinct when shooting…it is in editing where we not only edit for compelling images,but where intellectual strides happen…where strong GRoups of images come together and drive meaning forward

  2. Posted November 28, 2006 at 9:53 am | Permalink

    I’m with you on this, Brian. I think about it EVERYDAY and it’s a killer.

  3. Posted December 1, 2006 at 4:38 am | Permalink

    I think Jason hits the nailon the head “it is in editing where we not only edit for compelling images,but where intellectual strides happen…where strong GRoups of images come together and drive meaning forward”

    For me I have found sharing my images more widely on line has helped inform me about the external work – the user facing expiernece in ways that a hundred gallery shows could not.

  4. Posted December 9, 2006 at 2:15 pm | Permalink

    Ha, this is a great dilemma.
    Recently, I was photographing late at night and it was roughly 19 degrees, so there I sit out in the middle of a dark cornfield waiting for the sun to come up, freezing, drinking coffee like its my job, and I start thinking this exact same thing. What the hell am I doing out here? Is this at all normal? Why wouldn’t this be considered normal? Is this an indulgent act? Is this therapy? Will doing this expand my thoughts to a broader horizon? Affect someone else life? Is that truly what I am hoping to accomplish? Will this fulfill me? Is it supposed to?

    …I often wonder this as well.
    When you speak about separating the two, making art for oneself, and making art to educate? I feel that most of the time doing one often leads to another. Many artists find comfort in making work from a first person point of view, because its what they know best, yet when the work is out there, no matter how it was made the viewer determines the affects, whether it educates them, relates to their life, or simply doesn’t speak their language.

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