This article is by Keith Bond, Regular contributing writer for FineArtViews. You should submit an article and share your views as a guest author by clicking here.
Recently, I had lunch with a local fine art photographer friend of mine, Cole Thompson. He was showing me some of his recent work from a trip he had been on. He told me that he will have to live with the images for a little while before deciding whether to upload them to his website or not. Some of the images he knew would sell well, but they were too predictable. They were postcard shots. Cole didn’t want his work and reputation to be diluted with works that weren’t consistent with his goals and voice as an artist.
Image after image Cole said would be trashed. There was only one or two that he knew he would keep for sure and one or two maybes.
I asked him what percentage of his photos is ever released to be seen by the public.
“One percent?” I asked.
He reflected for a moment and said, “At most.”
We had a fascinating discussion on the topic.
You see, Cole wanted to be in control of his reputation as an artist. He wanted to be in control of his message; of his story. Only the best images are released. Only the ones that he loves. Only the images that have the quality he expects and contributes to the message he wants to share. Only those which are pure expressions of his vision are shown. By being selective and critical, his work reveals who Cole is as an artist. If he were to release everything he ever shot – both good and bad – the message would be diluted. His work wouldn’t have the focused message he carefully tries to get out there. Many of the photos may be technically good, but don’t reveal his message. These, too, get cut.
It’s possible that Cole might sell more work if he weren’t as selective. He admitted that. But he said that his definition of success is not how much he sells. Success to him is to be true to his voice. He wants to do fine art work, not “landscape porn”. He wants to create work that is a reflection of who he is as an artist.
As a painter rather than a photographer, I don’t have the luxury of selling only 1% of my work. I wish I could. But even still, there is a large percentage that never sees the light of day. I may not be as selective as I should be, but I am getting better. I am careful not to let anything out of the studio that isn’t at least at a certain level.
Cole said that his collectors would probably love some of these photos and would likely buy them. But the photos weren’t up to his standards. They didn’t express HIS message of what his art is about. They were formulaic or trite or predictable.
I agree with his philosophy. We, as artists, do need to be self-critiquing. We do need to realize that not everything we do is up to par. Not everything is at the level it should be. Even works that may be up to par in technical terms, but lack genuine, sincere expression should be left on the cutting room floor. Like it or not, we are often judged by our worst works.
Have you ever heard someone say, “So and so is hit and miss with his art. He’s got some good stuff, but a lot of stuff isn’t very good.”
Perhaps you’ve seen an artist’s work and thought the same thing. What was your overall impression of the artist? Did you consider him a good artist with a few duds or an average artist who got lucky a few times? Be honest. Certainly it depends upon what percentage was not up to par.
I should interject here that there is a difference between well done art that isn’t your taste and art that is of poor quality. Even my very favorite artists have works that I don’t like. That’s okay. But the quality is still there. More importantly, they are following their voice.
It is true that you will grow over the years and your early work will not be as good as the ones you might reject now. But they will be judged with that in mind. They show a progression in your work and career. They reveal growth. Contrast that with artists who have good and poor artworks displayed side by side from the same point in their career. That is a different matter. That reveals inconsistency and an inability to self-critique. It reveals immaturity in their work.
I suspect that most artists show the good and poor works side by side early in their careers. As they grew over time, they are better able to weed out the poor works and show only the stronger pieces. I don’t know if that is true of all artists, but I have a hunch that it is common among most. In my early career, I showed a lot of bad paintings along with the few good ones. I wish I could take most of them back.
Do you want to be defined by your worst work or your best? Show your best work.