Listened to an interesting discussion this evening from Jeff Curto, on his Camera Position podcast/blog. Jeff was describing what he considered the contribution of an arts background was to a photographer. I have had a very engineering focused education, with very little exposure to the arts. I've always felt somewhat limited as a result of that, particularly when I venture into what might be considered fine art photography. Often I just don't have the context to even understand work or to talk about it in a sensible way. I don't mean the obfuscated, cliche-ridden world of 'artspeak' but just to be able to find the intersections and shared ideas that can really bring work to life.
I often hear people discuss symbolism and archetypes in work and I'm groping towards what that really means and how to use it. Pictures that aren't what the subject is, but what else it is. Matters of colour theory or clever nods and winks back to other work. I've looked at a lot of photography but maybe haven't ventured far enough afield into other areas or types of artistic expression to really get the breadth or depth of knowledge that I'd like to have.
Jeff talks about the purpose of an arts background really being about exposure to a lot of ideas and art. Perhaps it could be considered as a guided, focused tour through the history of artistic styles. The study gives you the opportunity to synthesize ideas together in your head. To make connections, to spawn new ideas and perhaps avenues for your own photographic work.
To me that is quite a marked contrast to the much more teaching-oriented engineering discipline. There are right and wrong answers, much of the learning is understanding methods and mathematical approaches. Certainly at a deeper level it is also about exposure to and synthesis of ideas and concepts , but there seems to be something different going on with the arts approach. Knowing and experiencing is perhaps more important and there aren't right answers, just ideas.
Jeff also touches on another subject that I've kept coming back to in this blog. That's the idea of shooting things that you care about. Finding the things that you love or that you are passionate about and making pictures on, around or about those topics. That seems to be the best way to push deeply enough into an area to have the opportunity to do interesting work. On the flip side, I'm also keenly interested in photographing the things that scare me a bit or that I'm afraid of. Following your fears as well as your passions seems to be a powerful way to make good progress. Really I think that passion and fear are both parts of the same idea of following your strong emotional responses and trying to bring that into your images.
I've seen a big improvement in my pictures when I do this and also changes in my own life that reach out into other parts, helping with more than just image making. An upcoming work event will require quite a lot of networking and generally approaching strangers, making a quick impression, talking, making conversation. Used to be that was a particular area that I was uncomfortable with, but the last year or two of portrait photography has helped me develop just those skills. What was a bit of a concern now doesn't really bother me at all.
Jeff's discussion can be heard here and there is a follow-up discussion on his blog. Get involved if it interests you.