Connection Through Art
This is all about originality, and that's a really terrifying thing in a lot of ways to really dissect and figure out what is original and what might not be original and just everything that goes into creating an original story within your work. But it's important to remember that fine art is meant to be your voice, your story, above anyone else's, so we can't not talk about it. We have to talk about originality and really figure out what that means for us. So creating an original narrative. What is that? What is an original narrative? Now I'm using the word narrative very specifically today because narrative is a story. So I'm not talking about doing something that's never been done before. I'm not talking about inventing a new part of the photographic medium. If you do that, amazing. If not though, focus on your story. Original for the sake of us defining originality is just going to mean original to you. I think it's important to point that out, because it's so easy to get overwhelm...
ed with the word original and I think that that is what holds way too many people back. We get it in our heads that original is something that's unattainable, that it's something that we'll just never be able to fully reach as a goal. Because we're not original or we're not unique or we have nothing to say that hasn't been said before. I believe that's fundamentally not true, but it's also just one of those things that we have to get over now before we even begin diving into this class. Originality. If it's not doing something completely that's never been done before then what is it? And I've defined it with these four words: technique, concept, experience and presentation, because these are the four different steps of creating art. You have to have a technique to create art, you have to have a concept, at least in some way, whether it comes later or before is up to you. You have your own experiences that you bring to the table and then you present that in some way. Now, let's just say that you have been in a position where maybe you had an idea and you try to create that idea and then you see somebody else that's done the same thing, have you ever had that happen to you where you're like, I got an idea, oh that's really similar. Oh they did it better or whatever the case may be. Of course this has happened to me over and over again. I've had an idea, I go online, what seems like the very next day and oh, there's that picture that I've been wanting to make. Okay it happens a lot and we're gonna talk about how to work through that scenario, but the reason why I bring up these four words: technique, concept, experience, presentation, is because we often think, oh I have an idea but I bet it's done before. Or oh I have a technique that I wanna do but that's been done before. It is so unlikely that all four of these things that go into creating an image would be the same that somebody else did in its entirety that it's so not worth worrying about. So let's just say I have an idea, like okay, I wanna create an image with a girl in a flowing dress on top of a hill. How many times has that been done? Over and over and over. It's not a bad idea but it's been done a bunch of times, so if I can go in and say, okay well that's the concept that I wanna create, that's just one part of this four part system, so if I can figure out a technique that's new to me, if I can figure a way to present this that's new, if I can bring my personal experience into this, then of course it will be different from somebody else's image that is of a girl in a flowing dress on top of a hill. Why are we dwelling on this? Because to some people, you'll think, well obviously. Obviously you just have to do something different and then you'll be original, but the problem is that too many people will never get past that way of thinking. They'll never ever think to themselves, oh I just have to change one thing and that it'll be different enough. Too often we hold ourselves back and we simply won't create because of it. I can't even tell you how many personal experiences I've had where I have an idea, I think it's been done before and I never pursue it, but in the moments when I have an idea, I know it's been done before but I pursue it anyways, something completely different comes of it and in fact, some of my favorite works have been ones where I've thought, oh this is gonna be cliche, and then it ends up being completely different than what I ever imagined by intentionally trying to bring my personal experience into it. So that's why we're going to focus on that today. I'm very excited to focus on that. Let's talk about originality. Now, I thought a lot about originality, I thought about it for months and months, for literally the eight months that I have been putting this course together I've been thinking about this topic all the time. How do you become original? And I'll tell you a little story that occurred a couple of years ago and it's really what set me on this path to find more originality in my work. And this is something that I've mentioned a couple of times to you guys and this is a story about a portfolio review that I've had two years ago now, I think it was. And I went into this portfolio review and I didn't know what to expect, I'd never had my work looked at before, I had never been in that situation. I had a few reviews where it was okay, I got some feedback and it was all right, but I wasn't really learning anything. I finally sat down with a woman who owns a gallery, and I gave her my work and her response to my work was unexpected, because so many people hadn't really cared, they were kind of like seeming like they just wanted to go home and not really look at anything anymore. But she really responded and it was in quite a negative way. And what she said to me was, "You're not an artist." She said, "You're not an artist, you are not creating "work with any depth, you are not creating anything "that would stand the test of time." She said, "If you wanna be an artist, you need to layer "your inspiration." And those words really stuck with me, layering your inspiration, and I left there thinking, first as many people would, stomping my foot and saying, "She doesn't know what she's talking about, I'm an artist. "My inspiration is very layered." And then as I kept thinking about it, I thought, you know, maybe her delivery wasn't super nice, but what she said was kind of true. Now I will never agree in saying that someone isn't an artist in any situation, but what I do agree with is that my inspiration was not layered, it was quite shallow. I always thought about creativity as the first thing that pops into my head. Okay what do I wanna create? Okay there must be a reason for that, okay I'm gonna do that, instead of really taking the time to ask myself what I wanna create and then taking a step back from that, instead of just plowing forward with the first thing that I think of, saying what's the first thing that I think of, now let's deconstruct that to a place where I can put so many levels of inspiration in there that it turns into something even more amazing, and that's what I started to do, and I'm gonna show you what resulted from that meeting and how I started working differently, and I'm not saying this happens every day. It's really hard to create good art and it's even harder to create amazing, timeless art. And I don't aim for that every day. I like to have fun with my camera, I like to have fun in Photoshop, sometimes I don't layer my inspiration. But I want to encourage all of us to start to think in this way of how can we add multiple layers like an onion as the metaphor is, to our images so that they seem a little bit more like there's something under the surface to explore, rather than what you see immediately. We're gonna talk all about that. Now I've got a few images here and these are my early images versus my newer images. And my point in showing you this is not to say that one has a more original narrative over the other. It is to say that one has more layered inspiration over the other, because I would actually argue, and this is just a moment of honesty for me that my first works that I created in 2009 when I first picked up my camera, I would actually argue that many of those works are more original than what I've been doing lately, and that's kind of difficult for any artist to admit because you don't wanna admit that maybe you've gone backwards in your process in some way, but I do think that it's true because I've become very comfortable in my craft and you start to do things that maybe people like over and over again and not that it doesn't feel genuine but maybe there are so more layers that I could be exploring, some more original narrative. But in terms of layers and in terms of really thinking about how can I add more depth to my work, that I feel I have accomplished in more recent years, versus my previous work. So this image that you see with the circle and I'm laying there in the circle was actually just a trash can. I went outside, dragged it up my stairs into my apartment, laid in it and then put it back. I'm sure it was very clean so don't you guys worry. And I laid in a little trash can there and I took this picture, then I remember explaining this out loud and saying this is about rebirth and I wanted to be able to see my spine and I wanna be really wrapped up in this little bubble and that was my inspiration and I represented it very simply in a way where if I had to break down the simplest way of portraying rebirth it would be that. And then I paired this image with this one here with the birds because this one was taken just a couple of months ago and my inspiration was the same, my inspiration was to create around the theme of rebirth. So how did I do that this time that's different from before, instead of it being a very simple scenario with the simplest way that I could create, instead I decided to add layered elements. So we have the bird's nest on the head which is a symbol of home, we have the birds in the air which is a symbol of flying free and between these symbols that we're putting into the work, it creates this scenario which I might call rebirth. Maybe a molting of one's life to become something else and fly away. Maybe you see something different, but that's the thing here is that the image that I started with, there aren't that many stories that you could put into that, whereas this one has so much more going on, and same with this one here that I have, I took this first image in 2009. And my thing back then was find a place that looks cool, lay down and play dead. Every single day for a year. Like I went everywhere. I worked in this building, I always loved the parking garage so on my lunch break, I went down, wrapped up in a sheet, took a picture and left. And I'm proud of these pictures, that's the thing that I wanna say is that I am not at all embarrassed of what I used to do. I think it's highly valuable to look at where you started, and then ask yourself how can I build on this thing that at one point resonated with me so much. Why did I feel like I had to go into that parking garage and lay down and play dead? What was it about that scenario? I started asking myself these questions, but something that comes with layering your inspiration is not only figuring out why you started creating in a certain way but fixing the how too. I mean I don't care if you've been shooting for 30 years and you consider yourself the biggest pro in the world or if you just picked up your camera a month ago. It doesn't matter. The fact is that we can all improve on our craft. We can all improve, and if you believe that you can't, then fine, maybe you think you've reached the pinnacle. But I would argue that if you feel there is nowhere else to go in your craft, then maybe you need to switch your craft, maybe you shouldn't be doing photography anymore if you've reached the highest point in your career possible. I believe that if you keep exploring and asking yourself how can I get better at this, you're going to continuously discover new things about yourself. That's so exciting to me, so I look at this image and one thing that I notice is the lights in the image, for example. I didn't know very much about photography, I had been shooting for maybe three months at that point. And this is something that I simply wouldn't do now, that I know more, I wouldn't point my camera right at those lights and let them blow out like that and be really, really highlighty and lossless. Lossful. We'll just say that, whatever. Losing information in the highlights. So we've got the parking garage, okay. What was I going for here? Honestly I don't know. I just thought it was cool to play dead in this place. So how do I take that and then translate it into something else? I went and I looked at this image and I said, you know what, I'm honestly not sure what I was trying to communicate. I'm honestly not sure. And that's okay, so then I said, well what would have compelled me to take this picture? One, I love dead things, I just do. I can't explain it, well I could explain it, but that would take a long time. I just love dead things and I loved playing with mortality and playing with that idea of what happens when we die, just as a conceptual little piece to play with in my art, so that's what I thought about when I looked back at this image. I thought about that and I thought, have I ever dealt with that theme again in my work? And then I moved over to this image, which doesn't seem very connected. No one's dead in this picture, there's no parking garage, no clear connection, but I love the idea of this hand, like this over arching hand that can control everyone like a puppet, you know? I've always thought that was such a fascinating visual and that's how I translated that fascination with death into something a little bit more layered where maybe this is the hand that controls all of us or however you wanna think of it, and then, I've got all these little people down here who are pushing that hand up through the floor, so her perception is that there's this huge hand coming to control her but the reality is that it's just more of her subconscious pushing that hand up to control herself. This is all very abstract, but, hopefully it makes the point that there's a lot more to think about in this image versus the parking garage image. And then finally just one last example, and another, you can see the pattern emerging, playing dead in a bed sheet. This was in an old silo I think, just on top of a mountain, and I remember creating this image really well, I was incredibly excited about it when I did it, I thought this was like, I had reached the point in my career at four months where it couldn't get any better than that. Then I look back at it and of course I'm like, all those highlights, all that graffiti, I would never want graffiti in my picture, and oh my hand looks so awkward and just things like that that I look at and I recognize now that there are more places to go with this, and so this is just one final example of where I am now in my career, choosing locations very purposefully. In fact, this location with the tree, there was a road behind the tree, there was a car zooming past. But I made it my own. Back then I didn't know how to get rid of that graffiti, so I left it there. Now I have the tools to be able to create something more authentic to my vision with more layered inspiration. Here's a little overview of some of my death stuff before. And this is, I think it's equal parts embarrassing and exciting to me, because there are things that I'm like, oh I wouldn't do that ever again, but also, I'm like, you know what, dang. I really had a vision, and I'm proud of that, whether you like it, hate it, it doesn't matter. I also like it and hate it on different days, that's irrelevant. But I started out having something to say, with a very distinct way of saying it, and if we can all get to a place, whether our art is good or bad to start, that doesn't matter, where we have something to say and we know how that needs to be presented, think of the places you can go from that starting point, that's so exciting to me. So as I mentioned, I've got some new stuff up here. And this is where I'm at right now, in the last year. All but one were created in the last year. And it's very indicative of the work that I've been doing, and like I said, I believe that there are so many more depths to discover, I believe that maybe this narrative that I'm telling is not as original as when I started. Something to keep in mind that I'm very aware of my work, I'm very aware of critiquing it, I'm very okay with other people telling me things like this, because here's the thing, we as artists get so caught up in right now. What am I doing right now, is this good enough, will this get me to where I wanna go? When in fact, this is a journey and it's meant to be a journey and that's why I love the word narrative, because we're creating an original narrative, not just right now in this moment, what we create today, but over a very large period of time. And I hope that I never see the end of that journey, I hope that on my death bed I'm still trying to make something that's even better than before. So (sighs). This is something that I will talk about a couple of times in this class. The fact that we connect most with something when we see ourselves in it. Now, this should apply to our art. I don't just mean this about sharing your art and letting other people connect, but literally making art. If you see yourself in what you're trying to make, if your experience informs that art, if something that only you can bring to the table is informing that piece that you're making, you're gonna feel so much more connected to that piece of art, and I'm sure that many of us have had that experience where maybe we have a client that we're shooting something for, we create something for them, and it's fine and maybe you are excited about how it turns out but if you flip that experience and you create something just for you, think about how much more satisfying personally that's going to be. And I think that our personal satisfaction with our own images is going to be heard and translated to so many different people visually that the work that we create for ourselves first and foremost is going to be infused with that passion that we have and other people will understand that. I mean there's absolutely no way that somebody would look at my images and think that I'm just doing this for other people. It just wouldn't, first of all, who would want it? That first question of like, do people even buy your work? Cuz it's really weird. Trust me, I get all the time, and then there's the other question of okay, well if you're doing this for yourself, then why? Isn't that what you would wanna know? If somebody of their own volition goes out and makes something, don't you wanna know why they were compelled to do that. If somebody's being paid to make something for someone else, you don't need to ask why. You know why, because there's money being exchanged. Not all the time, but that's the assumption of that experience, whereas when you're doing it for yourself, and you don't know if you're ever gonna get paid for that work, the question of why hangs over everything that you do and that is what connects one person to something else is the why. Not the how, not the what, but the why. Now I love the word curiosity. It's one of my favorite words, I already said yesterday that story and passion were my favorite words, but curiosity is number three, okay. Number three favorite word in the English language, and probably any language. Curiosity is, it's like our intuition, it's an artists' intuition. And I say that because if you ever are curious about technique, a process, a concept, a location, anything, and you follow that curiosity, that's going to be perhaps the one and only thing that leads you to what you're meant to be creating, is your personal curiosity. And that's how it started for me, I started creating these deathly images, me laying dead in different places, and I didn't think once about how other people would perceive that, I didn't think about the fact that I would very soon be receiving dozens and dozens of emails from angry people saying that this is inappropriate, that I shouldn't put this online, that their kids shouldn't be viewing it. I never thought about that happening. I just had a curiosity about death and I started to express that in any way that I could. And to this day, nine years later after I started creating, that is still my curiosity. I'm still pursuing that same curiosity but at different depths and different ways, through different mediums, and that's very exciting to me, to follow your curiosity, to let that be the thing that guides you. Now, I went around and I was asking a whole bunch of people through the course of putting this together, and I started to say, what holds you back from creating? If you're gonna put something out there, what is it that you feel is stopping you? And nine out of 10 people said this. Subconscious copying. And this is what I mentioned earlier. You've seen a lot of art, we're all on social media, we've seen it, how do you know that you're not using that as inspiration to create your work? And it's really hard, and my answer used to be, well stop looking, just stop looking, just block everybody and don't engage. That was not very good advice, I think. And it worked for me on a certain level. I don't follow many people online, it just sort of is overwhelming for me to do that, but I do follow some people and it's very, very plausible that that work is making its way subconsciously into what I do. And my point in bringing this up is mostly to just touch on this idea that you might be copying somebody, you might be. We all might be. This picture might be just like somebody else's, maybe I'd seen it before. But you know what, here's the thing. We don't worry about this in almost any other part of our lives, right? Like you don't go to a department store, pick out an outfit to wear and then be like, what if I saw someone else wearing this and that's why I'm picking this out? We don't do that, ever. We don't think about it with what we wear, what we look like, the activities that we choose to do, but we think about it in our art because art is supposed to be original, because art is supposed to look a certain way. My advice is to stop thinking about that, to just let it go. You know what, if you put a bit of somebody else's process into yours, so what? One day you will outgrow it, and that process will transform and mold into something that is completely you. We are not expected to be anything. We are not expected to create at the highest level possible all the time. Now I've had people email me before and say, "You copied my picture." I've had people comment on my pictures and say, "This is obviously a copy of someone else's picture," and you know what I say to that? Maybe. I didn't mean to. Their picture's great, I really like it. I don't remember seeing it, but maybe. You know what, we take things from everywhere. Don't worry about it so much. You know what, if you're watching this and you're going to create and you're like, oh this is too much like Brooke's, so what? Do it anyways. Just do it. I don't care, you have my permission. Steal away and then transform it into whatever you want. I could talk about this forever so I'm gonna move on. I get really heated up about this (chuckles). So, it all comes back to this idea, do you have a personal connection to what you're doing? To the concepts that you're using, to the techniques that you're utilizing, do you have a personal connection, and if you do have a personal connection, then that art is for you to create. And if you don't have a personal connection to it, and you're honest with yourself and the reason why you're trying to create this thing is because it's really cool or cuz you saw someone else do it and you really liked it, try it personally for yourself but maybe try to incorporate things that are a little bit more personal to your experience and see how that goes. I wanna talk about point of view. This is sort of like a very hot button word, point of view, style, things like that, along with originality. And I feel like it's not clearly defined often enough, this idea of point of view, you should have a point of view. Like if you're in any portfolio review, pretty much, they're gonna say, "What's your point of view? "What point of view do you have?" And I study writing all the time, so I'm very much currently ingrained in this cycle of learning about narrative and prose writing and things like that. So point of view is something that I studied a lot over the last few months in trying to prepare for other creative endeavors, and this was the first definition that I found online which is a particular attitude or a way of considering a matter. So when somebody says what's your point of view, think about how do you usually approach life? What is your attitude for different situations? And that can directly help you with your art, thinking about, "Well, gosh, you're right. "What is my attitude?" I have a great example for this, and my example is that I used to think about death. I used to think that my thing was being dark and creepy, and if somebody used to ask me, "What is your style? "What is your point of view?" I would say, "I love death." Do I really love death, no. I tremendously do not want to die, like really. And in fact, it terrifies me, so why would I start saying, "Oh, I love death." One is because it was a silly, playful way of answering that question, it was like a cop out. What's your point of view? Oh I love death. No you don't. Really? So then I started thinking, well, what is my point of view then? And then I asked myself in life, toward any given situation, what is my attitude? And I hope, you know, that it's reflected that my attitude is a very positive one, that I would never say that I'm dark and creepy. Now my images might look that way but my attitude toward life is extremely hopeful and positive, so I started transforming the way that I talk about my work and instead of saying, "I love death," I started to say that I find beauty in darkness. And then that became my way of putting point of view into my work. As a result, my work was no longer flat. It was no longer one layer. It was now multifaceted because I not only had darkness, I also had beauty. I not only had sadness, I also had hope. And when you have those juxtapositions, you have point of view. You have a certain way of looking at the world. Now another definition of point of view is a narrator's position, so this is literally like with writing, a narrator's position in relation to the story being told. And I really liked this because we are all the narrators of our story, in life, in our art, both simultaneously. And what is our position to that? So I was portraying myself in these deathly situations, but my position as the person writing this story was not the one who is dead in the scenes. It's the person who pulls back and embodies somebody who is perhaps hopeful and dark. That's my position as a narrator in my story, and I want to understand both sides of that story so then I can write it properly. The last definition of point of view is, the position from which something is observed. Really similar to the last one, which is literally, where do you stand in relation to the world around you? Where are you in relation to your story? Are you an active member of that story? Are you standing back to watch it? Where are you in relation? So these are some things to think about with point of view, just, this idea of point of view being something very active that we have to engage in instead of something that maybe just comes naturally, it's a quick thing that you say. Really think about how does your point of view define your work and who you are as a person.