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.