To Be or Not To Be (Conceptual)

Not wholly applicable...but still funny.
Not wholly applicable…but still funny.

More years ago than I really care to admit (or at least it seems that way), a professor asked the students of a photography course in which I was enrolled, whether we defined ourselves as photographers or as artists.  I have no recollection of what context this discussion was happening in, nor what anyone else around me said about the matter, but I do remember shooting my hand up in the air instantly, declaring that I was a photographer.  Of course.  Duh.  When my prof asked me why that was I also recall being a little confused and somewhat defensive as to why I was being questioned on this point.  I said something along the lines of:  Well, I am a photographer because I take pictures, and use a camera, and it is easier to explain myself as such to other people because they always assume I mean painter or sculptor when I say artist, and I take pictures damn it.  Such a rock star answer from my brilliant 20 year-old self.  For whatever reason this moment has stuck with me for a long time, and I’ve thought about it frequently in recent years.  In fact, I’m pretty sure that at least one draft of my letter of intent for grad school applications involved this story.

For all intents and purposes, I am still defined as a photographer by some people… Like my family.  Try all I want, I cannot seem to make them understand what I do.  And since I frequently teach photography, my students assume I am a photographer.  But thats sort of par for the course I think…  I also just sort of love photography in a totally nerdy way, and so people just sort of assume…  My point here, if I really have one, is that I think I’ve fallen on the other side of my own argument, despite what others think, and despite my love of photo.  I am not a photographer, and in fact, despite my ridiculous, undying love of the photographic process, I’m beginning to believe I never was, at least not in any traditional sense of the word/occupation.  Which sounds super weird coming out of my mouth, but if you think about it in the context of the photographer versus artist question, and a few other things, it makes absolute sense.

I’m sure I’ve mentioned on this blog a time or two about how much I. F*#$*@%. LOVE. PHOTOGRAPHY.  And that I have a deep, nonsensical adoration for being in the darkroom.  This is all completely, 100% true.  But that love has also, in some ways, been my undoing since I graduated with my BFA.  While all of my work has been conceptual in some sense, my training has always been to turn my concepts into a tangible object.  It has also instilled the rather rigid view in my mind that in order for one to be productive, one needs to be constantly, physically making things.  Obviously my realization a few months back that I just didn’t want to make objects any more completely contradicted everything a good deal of my notions on art making.  Talk about  cognitive dissonance.

The really funny thing here though, is that looking back, I never really cared all that much about the physical photographs themselves.  I rarely printed more than 1 copy of any image, and frequently found ways to get around matting or mounting them (because to quote a professor, my mats were always “caddywhompus”).  I will take my cameras just about anywhere and do just about anything with it, meaning they get the crap beat out of them.  My negatives… well let’s just say they’re not really kept in archival or secure conditions.  But I persevered in my quest to be a photographer-artist person.  My work became photographically based installations and objects.  I tortured myself finding ways to turn experiences and ideas into a traditional art object.  I struggled in stupid ways because I refused to step away from photography.  I had allowed it to define my practice and myself.

It wasn’t until I got to grad school that it even occurred to me that my practice could be entirely conceptual, and that I needn’t rely on photography.  But I kept fighting that, trying to turn ideas in to something tangible, trying to make emotions and experiences concrete.  Attempting to find excuses to make photographs.  I’ve also felt a great deal of pressure (whether real or imagined) from various sides to be less conceptual and perhaps more intuitive.  Most of my peers here are very materials based and object focused,  offering critiques and ideas which lean in that direction, because that is how they think and what they relate to.  Even faculty has been trying to prod me into making things.  That’s what all of those material experiments and photographs were all about.  But I feel more and more disinterested in all of that…   Because even if I’m taking my old negatives and damaging/altering/manipulating them, they are ultimately still a thing and will be displayed as such.  Yuck I say.  Yuck.

There’s also this entire guilt aspect to wanting to make objects… I mean, as I said before, that’s the way I was trained (for lack of a better word).  So not only do I feel badly for ignoring what I was taught by some amazing people, I feel super criminal about not using my studio, if that makes sense.  I mean, I’m not building things, or painting something, or what not…  I spend more time thinking, reading, and experiencing things than I do actually making.  Its probably like an 80/20 split.  Thinking versus making.  I keep thinking to myself:  Shouldn’t I be making better use of the facilities?  I don’t know about any other programs, but its kind of like a mini contest among grad students around here as to who spent how much time in the studio doing what.  It’s like this silly reverse peer pressure thing where I feel like since other people are spending hours upon hours locked into their studios, I should too.  Even if there is no reason for me to be in there.  And on top of that, there is some serious guilt tripping thing that goes on when the faculty talk about how amazing our new studio facilities are and how we should be making better use of the space….  Ah.  It’s like a really great recipe for an anxiety attack.  And we all know how good I am at doing that.

In any event, I think a huge part of my graduate school journey thus far, has been coming to terms with the fact that I am, in actuality, a conceptual artist.  Not a photographer.  Not a photo-based artist, but a flipping conceptual artist.  Acknowledging that the object holds little importance to me other than as a record of the experience…  And it has been an insane struggle.  Especially in this last semester.  I don’t know why I keep fighting myself on this.  I don’t know why I can’t just ignore faculty and cohorts who try to aid and abet me in my self defeat.  But in the last few weeks I’ve become much more comfortable with this idea… Ideas.  I want ideas and experiences to be my art work.  I don’t want to make things anymore.  And if I do make things, they will be in support of a performance, or an installation, most likely completely ephemeral and not meant to be turned into an “art object.”

So while I will most likely always love photography like the big nerd I am, even though I will probably never again be a “photographer”:

I AM A CONCEPTUAL ARTIST, AND IT’S TOTALLY OK TO NOT “MAKE” THINGS.

As my friend Sunny would say:  D. U. H. Courtney.

D. U. H. Indeed.

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Whoops.

Hi.  I’m going to tell you a secret… I’ve totally been putting off (AKA avoiding) writing a post.  Which is why it’s been two months.  TWO MONTHS!  Whoops.

Whoops
Whoops.

By the time the semester was over (two weeks after my last post), I was completely brain dead, between thesis writing, grading my student’s work, final projects, etc.  As such I never got a chance to write a post before my final reviews (which went pretty well, just in case you were curious), and then the joyous month of May came.  This is actually probably a pretty good thing, because knowing me, I would have posted excerpts from my ridiculous thesis draft… *Shudder*   Anyway, May is my favorite because there is literally NOTHING that I HAVE to do.  There are always things I want to do, and probably should do, but no pressing deadlines, no anxiety inducing readings to complete, no meetings… So I kinda took a vacation… for the whole month of May.  Whoops.   I went camping with friends, spent entire days on the beach drinking, went hiking, cooked and baked up a storm, sat in my backyard reading…  It was pretty swell.

 

Sunset on St. Joesph's Peninsula. I saw dolphins here for Pete's sake!
Sunset on St. Joesph’s Peninsula. I saw dolphins here for Pete’s sake!
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I mean seriously… Who’s going to do important, grown-up things while there is this?!

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And who wants to be in the studio when they can be exploring this!?
And who wants to be in the studio when they can be exploring this!?
Different day, different beach... This is why I <3 Florida.
Different day, different beach… This is why I ❤ Florida.

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Some how this is the only cooking I photographed...
Some how this is the only cooking I photographed…

 

But here’s the thing… I was in the studio a few hours (like max 4… Shhhh, don’t tell my faculty!)  for most days, putzing around, but not actually doing much.  I was also doing some seriously voracious reading.  In fact in the month of May I read more books than I have in a long time, and they weren’t all for fun.  Bet you can’t guess which ones were for fun and which were for research!

 

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone/The Chamber of Secrets 

Believing is Seeing: Observations on the Mysteries of Photography 

Photography Changes Everything

The Antidote:  Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking

After Photography

Photography: History and Theory

The Unphotographable

The Great Gatsby

Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close

The Photograph 

 

 

Aaaaand, on those camping trips, hiking expeditions, and beach days… I spent a lot of time filming somethings which one day I will post up here, as well as talking and thinking about my work/practice.  But I kept avoiding writing a new post, because a) it had already been a long time, and b) that meant it was time to put my thoughts into words and to admit somethings.  Also I’ve been having serious guilt/anxiety attacks about NOT being in the studio.  And if I’m not in the studio, how could I justify spending time writing a blog post?  But you know what?  Not being in the studio has been the best thing ever for me lately.  My month long vacation has allowed my brain to reset and I feel like I’m in a really good place.  I’ve got tons of stuff I want to research, and a few ideas for work that I’m pretty excited about.  

In any event, I’ve got somethings on tap for the rest of the summer, even though I haven’t started most of the things on my to do list, like start the job application/hunt process.  *sigh*  I should probably talk to one of my committee members about that soon.  New posts soon with actual thoughts and art in them.  Even though I’m back working at Lafayette full time this summer (which is awesome but exhausting), the next six weeks should be pretty productive.  The husband got a residency for six weeks at the Contemporary Artists Center at Woodside in upstate New York, and he’s leaving Wednesday.  And everyone else that I hang out with is either going on vacation or moving away :(…. Sooooo, I’m on my own, which is a great excuse to lock myself into work mode and ignore the wider world.  Love it!

Now, I need to go photograph those shoes of mine… Yes that’s still a thing.  We’re on week 19.  And I hate it.

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