Look at the pictures. It’s not that complicated.
That’s what I want to say to photographers, curators and others who insist that exhibition-worthy photography requires artist statements.
Explaining the Obvious
The artist statement is a written statement of a photographer’s intentions, justifying his or her work. They are supposed to be brief, but seem to have gotten more verbose over the years.
Maybe I’m missing the point, but isn’t the beauty of photography that it provides a simple, direct way to communicate with your audience on a level that almost anyone can relate to?
You observe, take a photograph, print it or process it in a way that conveys the feeling you had when the image was taken, and then either exhibit it or publish it.
If the photographer has a story to tell, this should be clearly obvious to the viewer, shouldn’t it? The image is a success because the message is understood.
So if you need an artist statement to explain what you’re doing, haven’t you already failed?
Artist statements for photographers first gained popularity about 30 years ago, and today are ubiquitous. Why is this?
Here’s my theory.
While on the one hand the public has come to embrace photography as art, I’m not sure how many photographers truly think of themselves as artists. Deep inside, many of them feel they don’t belong in the same league as painters or sculptors.
So perhaps the artist statement is a form of compensation. You know what they say about artists with really long statements, right?
Trained in Vain
I originally trained as a painter before I realized I would make a better photographer. I was admitted to l’ecole des Beaux Arts in Montreal.
In those days, you got admitted by showing up with a portfolio of your work. If they liked your stuff, you were in. They did not care about your marks, because they knew grades had very little to do with talent.
These days, photographers usually study at universities. They are admitted based on their grades and, once enrolled, they begin signing up for photography classes. These courses are formalized in an academic structure so that students can be graded and diplomas handed out.
This formalization, in many cases, includes the homework assignment of writing an artist statement. The more cryptic art-speak used in this process, the better.
What better way to attempt to separate yourself from the ignorant masses? Especially when those masses are all carrying digital SLRs.
Playing the Game
I try to avoid writing statements regarding my own work. I only give in on this issue when I am given no choice by the curator, gallery owner or publisher.
When I am forced to play the game, I roll my eyes upward, take a deep breath, and try to compose something simple, short and honest. I use words and sentences that an average high school student would understand.
Frankly, I would much rather that third parties like curators or gallery owners wrote these statements themselves. It would be valuable to learn why a gallery chose a particular artist, and what is it about their work that attracts them.
Their comments would be far more interesting than some photographer droning on about his or her own work.