Topic: Commentary (120 posts) Page 1 of 24

A Photo Scandal

I am writing this at a time when the news recently broke about the photographer Nick Nixon's early retirement from his professorship at the Massachusetts College of Art and Design in early March, amid accusations of "inappropriate behavior". An investigation is underway.

I am going to weigh in here as my teaching career at the college level spans over 40 years teaching photography, just like Nixon's did.

Anyone with a long teaching career such as Nick's, whose time was spent teaching photography at undergraduate and graduate levels, has to ask  "was I ever inappropriate in the classroom, am I getting too close to my students, am I misinterpreting their praise for me, did I behave well, is my behavior beyond reproach?". Once I was a tenured professor (1988) this was really one of the only ways I could be fired, inappropriate activity with a student. I know I was acutely aware that anything at all off could put my career in jeopardy. For instance, I had a rule, that when students came to my office for advising, if my door had been closed, it stayed open while we met. I would tell new teachers this same rule when I hired them. Are there students who are manipulative and use sex as a way to get someplace in their studies? Yes. Negotiating this potential minefield is part of the responsibility inherent in teaching, I believe.

Of course, I am disturbed by accusations serving as a presumption of guilt in this "me too" time. And yet, imagine being the victim of inappropriate behavior from a professor? My heart goes out to those that were abused, either emotionally or physically.

So, we now have our own "photo scandal", the first in my knowledge in the New England community. (Update: there now seems to be another one, the case of Thomas Roma in NYC, with many accusations of teacher-student sexual contact.) So much pain and misery in so many ways. Was I still a professor teaching art in a college or university I would be on high alert, particularly if I was a man. Time to think over your curriculum, what you say and don't say in class, your behavior on campus and off, your attitude towards women. And remembering who the adult in the room is meant to be.

When being in a school and a longtime teacher, when a leader in the discipline in your university, where you are highly respected by peers and students alike it is somehow easy to see how this could migrate to a sense of power and autonomy that could promote an  "I can do anything I want" syndrome. 

Finally, what remains an issue is what will happen to Nixon's career as an artist. (Another update: the ICA in Boston announced first that it would keep Nixon's large somewhat retrospective show up through its run to April 22, then changed that and took it down four days early, at Nixon's request.) Will he still be showing, collected and held in high levels of esteem as a contemporary master of photography? Will the value of his work stay the same, dip lower or perhaps even go higher? Does this recent scandal condemn him? Remains to be seen. Time will tell.

Topics: Commentary

Permalink | Posted April 19, 2018

Creative People

Creative People. Different? Just like anyone else? Gross generalizations are always dangerous and unfair too. But by and large I think creative people do have a few things that make them different.

And no, I am, for once, not writing about myself. I have spent my life teaching many many highly creative people, both young and in college but also adults in various workshops and classes. 

Of course, everyone's creative in some way or another. Creativity can evidence itself at work or in a hobby or in a parent being creative in bringing up a child. I always  think of the office worker, slaving away in their cubicle, day after day, coming up with a new way to manage something or direct something to make for better efficiency or less cost or more quality in: whatever. That's creativity too. But being an artist places creativity at the top of the stack and being a professional artist makes being creative practically an all consuming activity. This gets us into thinking about talent, a word I don't have much use for. Talent presumes it all flows out on its own, as in "she was so talented". Talent also implies that there isn't much effort needed, that work isn't necessary. Bullshit.

I tend to think of creativity as being an asset that needs nurturing and hard work too. Writers must write, musicians must play, artists must make their pieces. I also believe ideas beget ideas. As a teacher this was an almost constant refrain: "go shoot", I would say. The student would reply they didn't know what to shoot. I would say it didn't matter. Doing is better than not doing. Acting is better than just thinking. I would say: "Pictures make pictures."

Creative: Inventive? Curious? Innocent? Driven? All of the above and much more. Artists of all kinds need these in their arsenal along with drive, motivation, a big work ethic, determination, little fear of failure, thick skins, wearing blinders (focus), joy in the making, self sufficiency,  single mindedness, passion, love, humor, ability to borrow, steal, assimilate, emulate, plagiarize (learn from others) and the ability to be sensitive to others' reactions to their works, to be able to hang in there in the face of criticism, bad reviews, or lack of public support, to be okay being alone. In my experience most artists are introverts, although this isn't universal. Also, most seem to be observers, standing on the edge of the circle, looking in. 

Very often artists will have a rich variety to their upbringing. Quirky parents, being moved around a lot, an important grand parent or relative. Almost always there is someone in their past that "gave them permission" to be themselves, to follow their own path. Late bloomers are also frequent: those that took awhile to find their art, perhaps trying many things first. But then, of course, there are the prodigies, the naturals who just seem to have been artists from day one. I always sought those out in the classes I taught because a prodigy could show the way for others new to making art. Very often someone so comfortable in their role as an artist could demonstrate that there really were no obstacles in the way. 

It's hard for artists to have bosses, I believe. Mentors, maybe. Those that they can see have placed creativity as key. But someone telling them how to do something, how to behave, what to do? Difficult. Creative people tend to want to be self directed.

Work. I would often tell students to work. That artists work. Talent's got nothing to do with it. I had no room for laziness in my classes, particular when our classes were often wait listed. For artists really do work. Visit an art school, a dance studio, a rehearsal hall, or a place like Penland in North Carolina and you'll see welders, potters, painters, glass blowers and yes, photographers, working away at all hours. 

Selfish. That's a hard one and something creative people need to look at. For, yes, artists can be selfish, in their own heads, not as aware of others' needs around them as they are of their own. Narcissists are really a pain, the need to be in the spotlight.The worst. Big egos can run rampant here. For many the concept of empathy and sympathy will need to be a constant refrain. I spent my whole career being around people that were artists and teachers. One one hand: a life involved in one's self, one's sensitivities and creative output making to create art work shown in galleries and museums. On the other hand a career where the teacher is really the least important. One a "take"vocation and the other a "giving" one. My teaching colleague Andrea Raynor would often say: "Teaching isn't about you, it is about them".  So very true. For me, as someone who tends to be in his own head and thoughts, teaching is a wonderful balance between the "me me me" side and the "all about them " side.

Lastly. What about fulfillment? Is making art a meaningful and fulfilling way to go through your life? Absolutely! But also frustrating, challenging, for most not a path to wealth, a career that can be lonely, and so on. 

It can be helpful to think of what the desired outcome is if you're an artist.  More on that later. As always, thank you for reading I can be reached at my email: here.

Topics: Commentary

Permalink | Posted February 20, 2018

Stop

If you've read this blog for a while you know that I am essentially apolitical, certainly here in this forum. But the recent killings in Florida make me so mad I am reaching out to you to try to effect change.

If you agree that AR-15 rifles should not be legally purchased and that the NRA needs to be cut off from directly funding politician's campaigns please do this: tell your representatives to stop this crazy situation of allowing these mass murders, tell them to make the necessary changes or you will vote them out of office.

Easy. Go to "Everytown.org" to  find and call your representative directly and tell them what you think.

Thank you.

This must stop.

Topics: Commentary

Permalink | Posted February 16, 2018

Commit

Commit to your work. Simple, really.

Work Hard.

Accept Discipline.

Practice.

Learn.

Talent is for novices.

Don't equivocate.

Sure, there are those that complacently muddle along, look through their camera occasionally, take pictures on a whim, bring their camera on vacation and accept the pictures that it makes. But not experts and masters. They work hard, often daily, to get results. 

Look, photography is both exceptionally easy and overwhelmingly difficult. It is easy to get very good results, especially in these times when cameras are very smart (this includes smartphones). But as a beginner improves, learns perhaps Lightroom and Photoshop (or analog) and starts to make prints, the bar is raised. This is a sliding scale. Improve and the stakes are raised and the degree of subtlety increases.  Get better and as you improve your eyes are opened to just how high the stakes are and how very difficult it is to become truly accomplished.

Hypothetical young student of photography named Jackie. She starts out, is tickled at the results from the first class or workshop, displays the work, gets praise, is encouraged to submit to contests, wins prizes or awards etc. Moving on, she decides to submit to portfolio reviews, applies, gets in, goes and is crushed, ground to a fine powder with scathing reviews of work that she is told is seriously flawed, returns home discouraged and despondent. Eventually, she reassembles (or not), dusts shoulders off and approaches again with perhaps some humility in the mix, some sense that there are levels and then there are levels. Crucial stage here: our student of the medium starts to look at other work, starts to become informed from the masters, in books and in exhibitions. She goes to presentations, lectures in her community and show openings.  She approaches people who work she admires and seeks to learn first hand from them. She looks at the work of the masters of the print and the true geniuses with unbelievable powers of intellect, sensitivity, premonition and perception. She slowly gets better, through hard work and photographing now far more frequently but with far less "star" pictures the result. Slowly Jackie understands the need to make more pictures but to raise the standards on if they are successful of not. Through practice and acceptance there is a discipline here where she is developing a perspective, an approach that she can begin to own. To make her own photographs, not to emulate others. This takes time and really hard work to get to.  She can begin to see her own approach as a characteristic of who she is, photographs that tell a story of her history and upbringing, with her own sensibilities and proclivities. Smaller parts of her pictures will take on more importance here; the figure in the back of the frame, the moment caught unbelievably in a fraction of a second, light causing the magic of highlighting and delineating, the softness and nuance of the framing making something heartrendingly poignant, the beauty of the scene found among the horror of a natural disaster. She has moved from that first success of something flashy, colorful and surface to photographs that convey meaning and depth, have a point of view and share that sensibility with increasing scrutiny and perspective. She receives growing praise on her work from those that matter, the professional critics such as gallery owners, museum curators and journalists, as well as her peers that she respects. This then boosts her to take risk, to go with her gut more for she now knows what her contribution can be rather than simply emulating within someone else's territory.

Committing is a first step to the realization that this is a discipline just like any other that needs hard work, intelligence, training, practice, determination, innovation, a sense of humor, humility and uncompromising standards of quality.

Topics: Commentary

Permalink | Posted February 13, 2018

A Creative Life

What is a "Creative Life" and how do you live it? I can't define this for others, I can only speak from my own experience in trying to lead a creative life of excellence during my lifetime.

I know people that have picked up creative pursuits and artistic disciplines, worked these through to completion and then moved on to others, time and again. I am far simpler, for, when I "picked up" art in my early twenties I stuck with it and am still in it. Initially, my introduction to making art was as a painter, studying under the enigmatic and frustrating Tauno Kauppi and later at RISD with Mike Ashcraft. Soon, photography took on more prominence studying under Harry Callahan and a little later, Aaron Siskind. It didn't take long for photography to win me over completely. Photography became my life. 

Did I know, almost 50 years ago, that photography could sustain me, provide an income working as a university teacher, or that I could maintain a consistently high creative output all those years? No idea. But a creative life involves just that: the requirement that new ideas, new approaches, and new projects spring forth time and time again, over a whole career. 

A creative life needs to be more than just a person's vocation and/or avocation. How challenges are faced, how difficult times are handled, how problems are solved or managed all are part of the larger concept of a creative life. I once watched Frederick Sommer cooking hamburgers on the stove at his home in Prescott, AZ and understood that he was making art then just as much as he was when photographing with an 8 x 10 view camera in the desert. Or my brother-in-law, industrial designer Marc Harrison, long gone now almost twenty years, walking through an old home my wife and I had just bought, seeing its potential if walls were knocked down to let light in to our new home in Cambridge in 1982. Or Ezra Stoller, setting up lights at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire one autumn day in the 1970's, to color balance the interior lighting with the daylight outside on assignment to make a cover image of a new library for an architectural magazine.

I wish I was more flamboyant and more creative in other disciplines. Although I play the keyboard and think of this as a part of my creative pursuits, I am not so very good. I admire those that seem to be able to do anything and I admit to the narrowness of my efforts. I am all photography, all the time. While grateful that I chose a medium so difficult, elusive and challenging (and fulfilling, I might add) I recognize the sheer obsession with just one, while hopefully making good work, has meant I have excluded a great deal else from my life. 

"Put art into everything you do", is something I have said to myself and my students over the years. This involves ritual, largely, or the kind of totality of existence a dancer displays when running to catch a bus. How we move when photographing, or approaching a subject through our extreme fluidity with the act, leaning on our intuition and muscle memory to feel what's right, when to change settings, focus or a lens. Practice, practice, practice, as the saying goes. Good art benefits from discipline, a strong work ethic, and a questioning spirit. 

"I wonder what it would look like if I...?" has been another constant companion for many years. This is armchair philosophizing, of course. Thinking conceptually, trying to put this with that, a location in a certain light, a tool with a certain method, an approach with a way of printing, handling the file, or using this developer, this toner, this paper in the analog and darkroom days. 

My creative life has been long and productive, for I have proven to be prolific, an endless challenge for curators and gallerists who would be happier with less to choose from.  On the other hand, I don't know that I would feel as good about the work had I made less. At least for this artist, immersion into what I do seems to have been crucial. That's not to say that parenting, friendships, relationships, a family haven't loomed large, for they have and still do.

Ultimately, as a professional artist, I can't separate what I do from my work, nor should I. The way I choose to live my life affects my art; everything is input, whether we know it or not.

I believe that a creative life does not allow much for complacency, apathy, a lack of energy or drive, being uninquisitive, lazy, or unmotivated. "Garbage in, garbage out" applies here and is what separates those who really do versus those that are posers and trying to look like they do. This is an oversimplification but it is frustrating and demoralizing to see those that are new, brash and lacking in knowledge and experience speeding ahead, receiving acclaim and recognition for work that is clueless and uninformed of the history of the medium or current practice. A "Creative Life" implies longevity, a long track record of accomplishment and a significant contribution. 

I've used this before but perhaps it can stand seeing the light of day again. This was the last paragraph I wrote in 2003 when applying to be a full professor at my university:

Thirty-five years ago, when the concept of being an artist for the rest of my life first dawned on me, I had little to show; no skills, little education, no ability to define what it would be like to be an artist and few mentors. But my job seemed clear: I needed to learn my chosen discipline and produce work. This I proceeded to do, learning as I went, adding a series of photographs or a group of pictures that were an idea, concept or an interest on top of a stack of others that would grow over a whole career. This program entailed life-long learning. Parts of my process would change: my understanding of the medium would grow and evolve during these years. Photography too would change; movements in contemporary art and society would affect me in obvious and subtle ways. However, the requirement was to make the best work I could, to stay active, to produce work that was qualitatively as consummate as I knew then how to make it. This I’ve done. As I grew and understood more about photography as an art form, and worked to master my technique and refine my aesthetic, I became more comfortable with my place in the discipline. I no longer was aspiring to be something. I was heavily engaged in the making. Finally, I have sought, quite simply, to make a contribution to the medium of photography.

A creative life? Well, yes, I  believe I have.

Topics: Commentary

Permalink | Posted January 8, 2018