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LETTER TO A YOUNG PHOTOGRAPHER
Michael A. Smith
1999 March 17, 1992
Here, Paula and I have been
far too busy, as usual. A few months ago we returned from another long
photographing trip out West, and since then have been working day and
night on the new book which will accompany my twenty-five year retrospective
at the George Eastman House in June. I suppose having a firm deadline
is a good thing. Paula tells me that without it I would be revising
endlessly, trying forever to perfect the book. It seems that I am compelled
to make things as fine as I can possibly conceive of them. I find, at
times, that this uncompromising attitude is a curse as well as a blessing.
Your letter addresses some
very important issuesissues crucial to what it means to be an
artist. You wrote:
I did some printing of
Shore Acres negatives this weekend. Im quite sure you would like
them. Sometimes I get very confused. Making traditional
landscapes like these feels very goodthey seem to come naturally.
So why not invest time, money and effort in doing more of this? However,
I sometimes wonder if it is not necessary to try to make or find landscapes
that reflect more of what I consider of our timesthere
is so much damage done to the environment that it almost seems sort
of senseless (and maybe too easy?) to continue looking for undisturbed
beauty. Maybe here in Europe (so extremely overcrowded), more so than
in your part of the world, one almost feels the responsibility to take
a more political point of view, to condemn what is done to the landscape
rather than to show its beauty. Maybe the answer is that a combination
of the two would work for me; or simply that I should make up my mind!
It may sound odd to your ears, but sometimes, in this part of the world
at least, one almost feels ashamed to opt for the more or less traditional
approach to the landscape.
Hans, many years ago, as
a young photographer, I too, grappled with the same questions. Eventually,
for myself, I arrived at answers. With the presumption that my conclusions
may be of some help to you, I will respond to your dilemma.
For the artist, the maker,
the function of art is, through the act of its making, the expressing
of what one feels. (This is so even if the art produced is not "expressionistic.")
Many years ago, I defined art as, "expression contained within
a form." It is the form which makes something art; expression alone
is not sufficient. An example: If you and I were having a conversation
about this, it would not be art, but if we were having that same conversation
on the stage in a darkened theatre, or if we were the actors in "My
Dinner with André," it would be considered art. In this
case the context would be providing the form.
Many artists have spent
their entire working lifetimes dealing with the question of the form
within which expression is contained. Some have even thought that the
sole function of art is to provide new forms. In fact, the function
of the avant-garde is to do just that. And with good reason. Old forms
are often insufficient to contain the expressions demanded by the timesso
new forms must be created if art is to remain a living force.
While the creation of new
forms is often essential, alone, it does not guarantee that the art
produced will be of valuethat it will have the ability to connect
us to the world in which we live and to each other. For art to do this,
the form must first of all suit the expression that it contains. For
example, the energy of an abstract expressionist painting contained
within an eight-inch-square canvas would be unduly constricted. And
a poetry reading in a huge stadium, without sufficient amplification,
would be absurd no matter how truthful and inspiring the words. Next,
not only must the form suit the expression, the expression itself must
have depth. New forms alone are not guarantors that the expression will
Art which has depth comes
from the corethat part of ourselves where the deepest natural
feelings of love and truth arise. Over half a century ago, Wilhelm Reich
discovered that human beings have three layers to their character structure:
the outer superficial layer where the veneer of politeness reigns, the
secondary layer where the rage that we all possess is contained, and
the core. People often talk about "taking off their masks."
Usually, what they are referring to is the stripping away of the superficial
layer and allowing what is underneaththe secondary layerto
reveal itself. When the rage and anger appear, they feel they have found
the ultimate truth. They are unaware of the core, unaware that there
is something deeper that remains after the anger and rage have been
fully expressed. Much art today that is politically engaged comes from
the secondary layer. This art expresses feelings that are often genuine,
but art is capable of expressing even deeper feelings.
Different cultures and centuries
provide different experiences of the world. Yet there is a common thread
that runs throughout all humanity. It explains why we still thrill to
the music of Bach, and why we find the cave paintings so powerfully
truthful, even in reproductions in art history textbooks. This common
thread connecting us is expression that has come from the core.
If the function of art is
to connect us to each other and to the world in which we live, it is
irrelevant whether a work of art is traditional or avant-garde. From
this perspective, ones choice of subject matter is also irrelevant.
What is relevant is the truthfulness and depth of the expression and
its synergistic connection to the form within which it is contained.
We live in a time when all
this, to a great extent, has been ignored. All too often, art is evaluated
according to the degree to which it is socially conscious and to the
degree that its content and style exhibit a political and/or anti-establishment
viewpoint. Certainly, there is a place for such angry works of art.
We humans have made quite a mess of the world, and it is necessary that
the situation be recognized and corrected. And the making of art is
indeed one way of trying to deal with the problems we have created.
But it is not the only way, and perhaps is not even a particularly effective
Because the angry voices
are loud and pervasive these days, those whose motivation for making
art that comes from their core rather than from their secondary layer
may feel out of step and a misfit. You wrote that "making traditional
landscapes feels very good. They seem to come naturally." I know
your photographs, Hans, and I know that they are not superficial. That
can only mean that your interaction with the world is not superficial,
that it comes from a deeper place. To work so that what we do feels
very good and comes naturally is no small thing. Making photographs
in such a manner is hardly anything to be ashamed of. It should be exalted.
As an artist, a maker, one
does not try to make art which comes from the coreone does what
one does from ones own heart. And if it is truthful and deep,
it may, in time, stand side by side with the great and moving art of
the past, and have the power to connect us and to effect truly lasting
change. So if you would like your work to make a difference, do not
be swayed by what you read and hear, by what is au courant. The rapidity
with which "movements" and "positions" in the art
world fall in and out of fashion surely indicates their superficiality.
In response to your comment
that it "seems sort of senseless (and maybe too easy?) to continue
looking for undisturbed beauty," may I suggest that you not go
looking for undisturbed beauty, but that you just go lookingwithout
preconception of what you might find. If you just go looking, who knows
what you might find? You may find undisturbed beauty that moves you
sufficiently to set up your cumbersome camera, or you may find something
about which to protest. There is no right or wrong in this. The point
is to follow your heart and to make the best pictures you can. Should
they prove to be deeply moving, and should they someday join the great
pantheon of art from the ages, so much the better. But that is not why
one makes ones pictures in the first place. Make your photographs
when you are touched unbearably and cannot restrain yourself, when it
is something you must do. Consider the finished print to be a bonus.
And if you follow your heart, whether your photographs are successful
or not, you will at least have had the pleasure of the experience of
their making. That is no small thing.
I hope you may find this
helpful. In time your questions will find answers. Do not rush them
or worry about it. They will come of their own accord when they are
May you continue to find
joy and excitement in your work.
Paula joins me in sending
wishes for every happiness to you and Nicole. We hope we will see you
here next year.
Warmly, with a handshake,
|© 2015 Michael and Paula|
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