My prints were strewn across the table. One of them teetered on the edge, almost ready to fall. The hushed silence was more than I could bear.
I squinted and turned away.
I must have been a ghostly white, standing there, wringing my hands, waiting. Say something,” I thought…anything…
It was 2008. For most people, it was beautiful spring day in Toronto. For me, it was terror unspooling. It was my first day in a workshop with Magnum photographer Christopher Anderson. And I was up for review.
He reached for a print and ran his fingers over the surface…
“There’s something there. There’s something in this scene. You see something. But it’s not there. You haven’t found it yet.”
For years, I wondered what I saw.
I wondered why I didn’t have that certain something that so many others seemed to possess. It felt like some people were just born with it. A preternatural gift to see with total and complete clarity, while I was stuck swimming in the muck.
Then, the other day, I came across something…
It was a description for an exhibit at a museum in New York, and instead of theory talk or stuffy words, it just described three types of art:
1. There’s Oh. That’s nice work. The type you respect.
2. There’s Oh my. That’s the work that’s a cut above good.
3. Finally, there’s OMG. That’s work that’s truly exceptional.
And that said it all.
See, we live in a fetishized world, where all the talk is about the gear and the software and the techniques.
The machine has won.
We’re all consumers now, wearing our war paint in the form of the brands we follow and the purchases we make. Ask people about Nikon or Canon and people go apeshit. Film or digital, and get ready for a street fight.
But ask photographers about Penn or Avedon, and you’ll see the shrug of the indifferent.
Or worse, blank stares.
It’s all ass-backwards.
In the procession of me-too photographers passing off well-worn tips as shiny and new, it’s easy to forget what it’s really about.
But OMG says it all.
Great art makes people gasp. It leaves them in shock and awe, whispering the words under their breath…Oh. My. God…
It punches you in the gut, because you never see it coming.
Not because it’s salacious or ridiculous or outlandish. And for damn sure, not because it’s technically superior.
But because it’s different, yet so infuriatingly obvious at the very same time.
In the obvious, you find the ring of truth.
But in the difference, you find you.
Not to say you should be different for the sake of difference, but if you want skin in the game, it has to start there. If you don’t have a sliver of distance from the norm, all we experience is the dull thud of sameness. There’s no shock. No surprise…
See the obvious. But show the unexpected.
Knowing the camera someone uses, their settings, their presets, their post-processing—these are questions of sameness. Questions to teach you how to replicate instead of innovate. Questions to teach you how to be like someone else instead of yourself.
The industry preys on this.
It’s a nice bit of duplicity.
We’re sold the party line: Find your voice.
Then we’re given the tools to make ourselves feel like we’re doing just that by doing the same shit as all the others. It’s like that quote that goes around:
“I’m unique. Just like everyone else.”
We chase the same looks, the same poses, the same locations. To the point that that stupid plane wreck in Iceland on the black sands is now banned, because too many people have gone there.
Why have filters have blown up? Because they make you look good without needing to be good. Again, it’s similarity under the guise of individuality.
Mediocrity is a parasite.
It takes a free ride off the host of innovation without giving back in the way of the insight, surprise, and the sheer joy of OMG. Instead, it swallows newness whole by assaulting it with a constant drone of clones until our senses are dulled to the original beauty of that innovation.
Welcome to the world of trend.
Not that there has ever been a world without trend. After all, trend is just a pattern of change.
But what was once a gentle swell of change is now a raging tsunami that will wash you away from the person you’re meant to be, if you don’t hold on for dear life.
Now, I get that everyone has to start somewhere.
That everyone has to learn the craft.
But the message isn’t that you don’t need to learn the basics. This isn’t a talk about copying…
It’s a talk about feeling your own power.
Never step away from that.
For all the talk of putting yourself into the work, there’s precious little about just what that means. The modern landscape thrives when we become vessels of replication. It thrives when we all chase the tribe of the cool, like a herd chasing the wind. It thrives, when we wither.
A look is easier than ever to acquire. Technique runs rampant. Capability is a commodity. It’s all a few clicks away now.
Do what others don’t.
Instead of learning one more technique, read a good book. Fortify your opinion. Find new ideas. Work on you.
If you let it, it will all spill into your work.
And there’s more value in you than ever before.
Technique is useless until you ignite it with ideas. Ignite it.
So, sure. Learn what you need to learn. But stay clear of the sameness trap. Don’t lose sight of the importance of difference. Study others, but find who you are. Learn how its done, but cherish your intuition.
Don’t replace your inner self with someone’s outer shell.
If you ask most people what they want, the truth is, they have no idea. They won’t know what to say. They won’t be sure what it really is.
How can you say something to others, if you can’t figure out what you really want?
So what do you want?
That thing Chris couldn’t find in my pictures that day wasn’t missing because I lacked the ability (though I did). It was missing, because I didn’t have a damn clue about what mattered to me.
That’s what real clarity is about.
And no one is born with it. It’s not a free ride. I thought I needed to get out of the muck, when in reality, I wasn’t diving deep enough into it.
You don’t need what others have. You just need that small bit of you. It’s powerful stuff, and a small dose will take you as far as you need. Further, even…
You’ll know when you’ve found it, because others will look at you, dazed and confused, wondering how you’re doing what you’re doing.
To them, it will feel like magic. To you, it will feel like effort, discipline, and an unwavering commitment to your ideas.
Either way, they’ll be staring, jaws dropped, saying “OMG.”
And you’ll realize that it was just the same thing that’s been inside of you all along.
Where taking a picture ends, you begin.