After digging through over one-hundred years of family history, with forty-one of those years in the same house, I finally found a box of my own personal history. This happens to almost everybody; our parents die and we’ve got to go through their stuff, and sometimes we find some of our own stuff in the process.
I came down from the dusty attic with a box and said to my 85 year-old aunt, “After three weeks of going through the family history, I’ve finally found some of my own. Indulge me for a moment while I show you some pictures.”
“I guess this is important to you?” was her reply.
Silly me, I should be used to this by now, after all, I do have a history with this family. Never mind, Auntie, I’ll look at it later, alone.
And I did. I brought that box home with me. I couldn’t bring everything, there just wasn’t enough space in the car, but I brought enough to get a good reintroduction of my early photography. The box contained black and white prints mostly; prints made by me, in my old darkroom in the garage. There were a few negatives, a few thirty-five millimeter transparencies, and some early photography awards. My personal history and the roots of my own artistic development, all in a box no one cared about but me. On the comfort of my own studio floor, without uninterested family members present, I examined the contents of that box (labeled ‘1974’) with the eyes of a mature artist with 37 years’ distance from his origins and came to a somewhat less-than-comfortable conclusion.
I thought I was better than I was.
My memories didn’t quite square with the evidence spread out on the floor around me. Apparently I was not a genius. I’d been a decent-enough young photographer but I certainly wasn’t the brilliant artist I thought I’d been. Sure, sure, we all tend to inflate our resumes, obituaries and memories and maybe I’d indulged in some personal ego-stroking when thinking about my own artistic beginnings, but the view with today’s eyes is I was more adequate than brilliant, back then.
I’d like to think I’ve gotten better over the years, which may taint the perception of my early artist-self. I do recall conversations with other photographers back in 1974 and we all were going to be brilliant when we ‘grew up.’ Well, as time has it, we grew up, but I’m the only one who stuck with it and attempted to attain the ‘brilliance’ we all thought we’d acquire. Those other photographers from 1974 are now accountants, business-people, parents, employees, cubicle-monkeys and non-artists. So maybe my ‘brilliance’ wasn’t in the art, but was merely sticking with the art? It is also possible I am a fool, but at least I can claim to be a thoughtful and introspective fool, with his own personal art-history. I can trace my foolishness back to its origins. And I can see the roots of my own artistic development in those early works. No, I didn’t drop from the womb as the instant, Salvador Dali-esque type genius I thought I was ---I had to work at it. And I’m still at it, but now I can analyze where I was and compare it to where I am. As they say in politics, I’m ‘making progress, moving forward.’
But how did I get here?
First, and most obviously, it was not the result of genius. In the majority of my early works I saw no evidence of genius or brilliance, but there were a few images that showed ‘the spark,’ and I’ll get to those later. The first and foremost thing I noticed when going through those early pictures was that I was a good technician. I remember easily learning the ‘science’ part of photography and it shows. Most of the prints have not faded in these past thirty-plus years in the uncontrolled environment of my parents’ house attic. Fixing and washing was apparently done properly. And most of the prints (mainly 8x10 inch and 5x7 inch B&W RC paper) are of normal contrast and exposure. Technically my old prints are good, but science is easy to learn (if you try) and, to me, a lot of what went on in the darkroom was more like following a recipe than ‘making art.’ The ‘making art’ part for me was done in the camera, compositionally, and not in the darkroom (with a few notable exceptions). When I look at the artistic attributes of my early work, it’s rather pedestrian. It’s obvious I learned the ‘rule of thirds’ and other compositional stand-bys. I learned how to ‘pan’ the camera correctly and my sports photos, while unremarkable, were in-focus and composed well-enough. As a young, entrepreneurial sports photographer at my brother’s little league baseball games, I recall selling quite a few prints of ‘kids-in-action’ to their parents. Although there’s nothing to indicate I had a future with Sports Illustrated, I did well enough. I also learned early on to make do with what I had. What I had, as a young sports photographer, was an Argus A-4 camera with a 44mm lens with a leaf-shutter that had to manually cocked for each exposure and a wonky film advance knob. Certainly not the 600mm, motordrive kind of pictures we’re used to seeing in sports magazines today, but merely adequate (not too many pictures of center-fielders though). Making do is something I learned early, and still have to do today.
My landscape photographs were as banal and unremarkable as the Texas landscape where I lived at the time. As primarily a black and white photographer my early works showed no eye for light. The recognition and exploitation of ‘good light’ was something I learned later ---much later. A sensitivity to ‘good light’ wasn’t something I learned in college either; I learned it from a year-long assistant/apprenticeship with another photographer who did have an innate ability to find and use great natural light. ‘Light’ for me was an acquired skill and I don’t see any evidence in my early works that I had any ‘natural’ perception when it came to light.
I found very few portraits, snapshots or ‘people pictures.’ I owe this to my life-long introversion and (somewhat) dislike of other people. It was pretty cool to find 1970s era concert photos of rock bands like Yes, Supertramp and Jethro Tull. Those were merely ‘adequate’ pictures as well, notable only by the fact that cameras haven’t been allowed in most rock concerts for a long time now.
Compositionally I was ‘safe.’ Apparently I’d read, learned and followed the compositional ‘rules’ and I saw no ‘non-standard’ or ‘innovative’ or ‘risky’ composition in my early works at all. I consider myself a ‘formalist’ to this day but I do try to ‘shoot outside the compositional box’ from time to time, although still it’s not natural for me. When I look at these works now, I feel that at the time, if there were ‘rules’ to be followed (art-rules or photographic-technical) I followed them and exploited what was considered ‘safe’ but I really didn’t take any chances until much, much later. I can now see that I was trying to fit a ‘standard’ and wasn’t confident enough to ‘break the rules.’
All in all I was a rather adequate photographer with above-average technical abilities for my youth. This discovery was rather disappointing as I’d held my early photography in such high esteem ---until I saw it again.
Not that ‘adequate’ is all that bad; I just thought I was better. Cognitive-dissonance dictates that I must reject a ‘feeling’ that conflicts with a ‘fact.’ I’d ‘felt’ I was better, but the new ‘facts’ of those old prints laying on my studio floor tells me I must reject my warm, fuzzy feelings about my early artistry and pay attention to the ‘fact’ that I just wasn’t quite as good as I thought I was.
But among the boxes of unimpressively adequate photographs I did find some that showed ‘the spark.’
The pictures I found where I can reasonably construe there was a ‘spark of brilliance’ were the ones that I’d either ‘directed’ or used some darkroom-trickery. The studio photos, the posed actors in the high school play, and the set-up shots were my best. When I’d ‘imposed myself’ on the situation had resulted in the best photography. I did better when I ‘took control’ or ‘directed’ than when I just showed up and took the shot. I didn’t know it at the time, but apparently I was a much better ‘advertising’ shooter than ‘editorial.’ I found composite prints I’d made at the age of fifteen that were nearly as good as Jerry Uelsmann’s. I’d built miniature sets in forced-perspective that I’d photographed for my high school newspaper that won awards. My Kodalith high-contrast film experiments were successful. Basically, what I found was my ‘straight’ photography was average while my ‘special effect’ or ‘set-up’ imagery was superior and showed ‘the spark.’
Interestingly, now that most of my work is digital, I don’t think like a photographer much anymore. Back then, not thinking like a photographer (despite advanced use of darkroom techniques) provided me the means of making the best imagery. When I was ‘one of the photographers’ my work was merely adequate, but when I set-up the shot, or directed the people in the picture, or printed two negatives on one piece of paper or built a set to be photographed, only then did my work contain the spark of what it’s become today.
I also kept at it, which helps as success is the result of not quitting.
Since I thought I was so much better than I really was indicates I had a healthy ego ---perhaps too healthy. My Dad, whose recent death was the cause of this re-discovery of my own art-history, used to criticize me for ‘thinking too highly of myself.’ I tried (and failed) to explain to him, back in the day and more recently, that since he didn’t think that much of me, I had to do it myself. I mean if you don’t think highly of yourself or your work (to a point, keep the ego in control) who will? Perhaps it was my delusional sense of artistic self-worth that made me keep at it?
And I’m glad I kept at it. I’ve gotten better. I have something to contribute. I thought I was a genius but I wasn’t; I thought I was more talented, and I was wrong. But here I am anyway. And maybe in the end, hard work is no different from genius? No, I wasn’t as good as I thought I was and I’m OK with that. I do think I’ll keep those old pictures to myself ---I don’t want to spoil anyone else’s delusion. And regarding that Ego thing, if I really did think too highly of myself and my work, do you think I’d of admitted it, written it down and shared it?