I first saw Dale O’Dell’s photography at a local Prescott Arizona Art Gallery. I was impressed with his creativity and imagination. Dale goes beyond the typical photograph and combines several images and techniques to create fascinating surreal pieces of artwork that stretch the mind. Since then I’ve met Dale and gotten a glimpse into his creativity and even offer my computer repair services to him. I continue to admire Dale’s talents and ingenuity and was pleased he agreed to write a Guest Blog for me. Hope you enjoy it!
WHAT IS PHOTOGRAPHY NOW?
Competition within conformity
Whenever I speak to art and photography groups the audience is supposed to learn something from me. They usually do, but I always learn something from them. After a lecture I gave to a digital arts club I was asked to critique and judge their monthly assignment and I selected prints for first, second and third places. The first-place photograph was a lovely desert landscape image that I found very intriguing. As it goes with ‘winners’ (and I really don’t like the concept of ‘winning’ and ‘losing’ in the arts, but that’s the competitive system our society has designed for us) the creator of the first-place image wanted to talk to me after the ‘judging.’ As it turned out his image was of an obscure place in a State Park I’ve visited many times; Valley of Fire State Park in Nevada.
I told the photographer I’ve been there many times, I love the place, it’s beautiful, and it can be seen in the backgrounds of over half the car commercials on TV today – but where’d he find that particular spot? I’ve never seen it and I am pretty darned familiar with Valley of Fire.
“Oh, just download the eBook about Valley of Fire, it’s got all the obscure photo-spots identified complete with GPS coordinates,” he told me.
I found the eBook online, paid the four bucks for it via PayPal, downloaded and printed it out. And sure enough, there were all those obscure locations, clearly marked with GPS coordinates – easy to find! Perusing the eBook I decided I needed to go back and photograph some of those things.
I had the same thoughts a year ago when I was researching The Palouse, a beautiful area of farmland in eastern Washington. Yes, The Palouse was someplace I needed to go to photograph and as I did online research I found a lot of information. There were numerous ‘photo workshops’ held at The Palouse, I also found ‘photography maps’ complete with marked locations of ‘red barns,’ ‘lone trees,’ ‘abandoned buildings,’ etc. etc. I downloaded and printed that map and used it when I was photographing the area.
I’m sure the Valley of Fire eBook will be just as helpful as The Palouse ‘photography maps’ I used when I was photographing that area. But what is going on? There are maps of photographic hot-spots now?
It seems that photography is no longer an act of discovery.
I do online research before almost every location shoot I’m more and more amazed by the sheer amount of photography-specific information available. There are workshops where ‘experts’ will take you to ‘photogenic’ locations where you can shoot all the same photographs for yourself that have been shot before. You can find maps where you’re practically told where to place your tripod, which way to point your camera, which lens to use and what time of day to shoot.
I was once in Monument Valley – a place where photo-workshops are held nearly constantly, where city-dwellers can come and shoot the exact same ‘western’ photos everyone else does – and a fellow pointed to a photo on a brochure and told me, “I shot that!”
“Good for you,” I replied, “Does the Park Service pay a decent license fee for using the photo?” He gave me a confused look and then said, “Oh I didn’t shoot that photo; I shot one just like it.”
“Good for you,” I said again and then walked away, shaking my head and thinking, yeah good for you, you shot a photo exactly like one in a brochure, how unoriginal.
But to the amateur (and many pro) photographers, originality doesn’t mean much, what they’re trying to do isn’t about being unique, creative or original, it’s about competition and conformity. They see these pretty places, see other photographers’ photos and think, I can do that. I’m sure some think they can do it better, but most just want to ‘do it too,’ to shoot their own version of a timeworn, cliché image. They take zero risks whatsoever, they’re shooting the same, pre-approved cliché images and adding nothing of their own vision (assuming they have a personal vision) to the scene. These aren’t the people who go to the Grand Canyon, point their cameras, look around in frustration and think, what could I possibly photograph that hasn’t been done a zillion times? No, these are the folks who point their cameras at the same thing millions of other people have seen and think, Yeah, now I can get my photo of it!
It’s competition-within-conformity. It’s conformity because they’re all shooting the same thing. It’s competitive because photographers are thinking, my picture is better than the other guys’.
Competition-within-conformity isn’t confined to the amateurs and camera-clubbers, we can find it among commercial photographers and fine-art photographers as well. Look at any energy company’s annual report or capabilities brochure and you’ll find the same stock-and-standard executive portrait and you’ll also see there are only a few ways to photograph an oil well at sunset. Very few corporate or industrial photographers have a point of view, they’re all essentially interchangeable because there’s only so many types of photographs that are acceptable to corporate clientele, and too much originality is too scary for them. We can’t really blame the commercial photographers for this, they’re in it to make money, earn a living and provide a service. Their ‘success’ isn’t based on art or creativity but rather, on figuring out just how close they can get to the edges of the creative box and still make an acceptable image.
But we can blame the ‘fine art photographers’ because they’re the very ones who call themselves ‘fine artists’ while safely staying within the comfortable bounds of what’s accepted as ‘fine art.’ Like corporate photographers the fine artists also know their clientele, and for their ‘success’ they’ve also got to stay within their own box of acceptability. Right now, in terms of contemporary ‘fine art’ photography, the box is full of documentary photographers and there’s very little room for anything else.
I once asked a curator at a Major Museum what it would take to get my photography noticed by someone in her position and she actually answered with: “Study what successful contemporary photographers are doing, and do that.” That advice is institutionalized conformity at its worst, and very bad advice too!
I’ve examined all four corners and all six sides of that box and I’ve memorized it. There’s nothing new in it for me (although it’s a comfortable box, it’s too crowded) and I don’t want in. But where exactly is ‘outside the box?’ It’s far from the crowd, on a trail blazed by yourself; it’s alone and scary and original and outside the box is someplace where some people might not like your pictures because they’re different.
If you’re really trying to discover something original with your photography you won’t find a map of all the cool ‘photo spots’ because the map doesn’t exist, you’ll have to make that map yourself. Originality doesn’t come in a box either. Originality is so far out of the box that you’ll have to become a free-range artist to pursue it.
It’s very lonely and frightening so far away from the box of familiarity out on the free-range of creativity, seeking to discover something new. It’s risky and the outcome most sane people try to avoid is when the ‘audience’ doesn’t like your pictures. Competition-within-conformity is risk-managed creativity that almost always guarantees a positive outcome – people will like your pictures because they already like all the preexisting pictures that look just like yours.
Yet I printed and used the map I found of The Palouse and I’ll use that map I just downloaded of the obscure locations within Valley of Fire State Park; aren’t I doing the same thing?
Yes and no.
Sure, when I get to Valley of Fire with my new map I’ll find some of those locations I’ve not seen before. And sure, I’ll probably shoot some typical stock-and-standard images (which I won’t show as-is). But I’ll shoot it my way and I’ll shoot photos with an eye towards future digital composite images. For me, I’m not using these maps to shoot the same photos others have, I’m simply taking a shortcut by using someone else’s research. Yeah, sure, I’m at the same place but I’m there for a different purpose and that purpose is to specifically not to make the same photo as everyone else. By using others’ information and research I’ve saved the time and effort of finding the place while accepting the challenge of photographing something different at the same place. Finding the interesting location isn’t a process of discovery, the discovery now is how to create new art from the already familiar. It’s a personal challenge!
When a commercial photographer makes the same image as another he’s rewarded with money, payment for services. The client is happy because they can relate to the image, the image brings the comfort of familiarity.
When an amateur or camera-clubber (and even many pros) makes the same image as another photographer they’re rewarded with acceptance. The image is rewarded or ‘liked’ because it, again, is familiar and relatable. These images require no analysis, interpretation and very little thought, they’re pretty – just like all the rest. They’re easy and safe.
When a ‘fine-art’ photographer makes an image that’s similar to other ‘art’ images their image is also accepted because they’ve faithfully stayed within the box of ‘fine art acceptability.’ It’s artistic safety within the confines of the pre-accepted.
All three of these types of photographers are rewarded with positive feedback that makes them feel good about their imagery and themselves – which are their goals. Discovery is not their goal.
For the few of us (maybe up to 10%) who do wish to discover something new, to blaze a new trail or go (artistically) where no one has gone before the path is much more difficult. Our images aren’t pre-approved before we make them. We don’t have a ‘built-in’ audience that already knows about, relates to, and likes our imagery. The newness the ‘ten-percenters’ seek requires more thought from the viewer. Yes, the viewer must work harder with our pictures because there may not be very many preexisting similar images as reference. With truly creative art the viewer has to decide for themselves if the work is ‘good’ or ‘valid.’
A lot of viewers (and ‘experts’ like curators and gallerists) are reluctant to express an original opinion about truly original art. They prefer the comfort of ‘running with the herd’ and expressing their own acceptance of the already-accepted.
Competition-within-conformity is a great way to receive positive feedback on your artworks, but it’s not a way of discovery.
You can view Dale’s creative photography on his website
Jody Miller is a professional photographer specializing in Horse Photography, Equine Photography, and Equestrian photography. Her work can be viewed online here in her gallery section, and she is also featured at these Arizona Galleries: Arts Prescott Gallery, Sedona’s Village Gallery , Easy Street Galleria in Carefree and Dragonfly Arts in Cottonwood.