If we want to grow as people, much less as photographers, we need to be challenged and to challenge ourselves from time to time. If we fail to do that, both we and our work start to go stale. Of course, the challenges we pose to ourselves aren’t without their own perils. Sometimes we find that our reach exceeds our grasp; we may not yet have the skills to pull off what our ambitions and dreams tell us should be our next logical step. Other times, we just might acheive what we set off to do, only to find that the people who’ve understood, encouraged, and nurtured our work up to a certain point suddenly decide that this new direction of ours isn’t quite their bag.
Some artists find a zone that’s comfortable, or highly profitable, and settle there. Year in and year out, they produce the same predictable stuff that’s earned them plaudits and a nice living. Some part of them might yearn for something new or different, but they’re afraid of what might happen if they suddenly change course. Others may tread a new path briefly and, stung by what they perceive as a backlash, decide they’ve gone a bit too far off track. Others still will just stubbornly go where the muse leads them, their audience (or lack thereof) be damned.
Part of the problem, I think, is that we tend to view this sort of thing as an either/or proposition. We can either follow our vision, or we can be profitable. I think that’s what’s given us artists like Anne Geddes, Thomas Kinkaid, or Garth Brooks. They’re predictable, and in that predictability, there’s a level of safety, both for artist and audience.
There’s an equal and opposite problem, however, when an artist decides to romanticize their own inaccessability. Yes, you can be obscure for the sake of it, and wear the fact that you tend to alienate people like a badge of honor, but if you view art as a primarily social activity,* the antisocial attitude isn’t helping anybody.
A healthier middle ground, I think, comes both in acknowledging your audience, and having the same faith in them that you’d have in yourself. As my mother’s fond of saying, “There’s an ass for every seat.” Not everything you do is going to be a park bench that seats thousands, but it also doesn’t have to be a game of musical chairs sans chairs. If you don’t make a point of routinely leaving your audience in the dust, they’ll keep up. It won’t always be the same audience; some will be as prone to drifting in and out as others will be to stick around from start to finish. But if you respect the craft, respect your audience, and respect yourself, you’ll always find someone willing to meet you halfway even if not everyone likes or “gets” it.
Be willing to make a strong statement in your own voice. If you’re trying to be everybody’s everything and you want everyone to like you, someone’s going to dislike you just for that. All of this comes down to one very simple question: who are you, really? What makes you who you are, which in turn makes your photos what they are? What is there in your craft and art that can only be seen and realized by you and by nobody else? Okay, so that’s three questions, but really, they all come back in some way to that initial question. Some of the best art — The Rite of Spring, Joyce’s later works (here I’m thinking Ulysses and Finnegan’s Wake), the mature works of Jackson Pollack — succeeds not because it aims for a mushy universalism, but because it’s as highly specific (and, sometimes highly controversial) as it is. Your work doesn’t have to be polarizing, need not provoke riots in the aisles, doesn’t even have to be obscure or confusing to half the people who view it. What it should be is completely, irrevocably, and irreducably yours.