Continuing where I left off in part one. I still haven’t stopped thinking about the main question as it applies to Vivian Maier and Charles Cushman. And how it applies to my own work as a photographer.
How much of being an artist means editing your own work?
Photography is unique among the arts in that discards are both preserved and often indistinguishable from keepers.
Even given the uniqueness of photography, that I lump all photography together here is a bit unfair. There are huge difference depending on the format the photographer is using. Digital is distinct from 135. 135 is distinct from 120. Roll film is distinct from sheet film. As the cost per shot increases, pre-exposure editing increases and it becomes easier for someone to make assumptions about keepers, discards, etc. without the photographer’s direct input.
This distinction probably explains a lot of why Maier is being treated as an artist while Cushman is being treated as a pioneer of the vernacular. Even though Kodachrome was not cheap, with our eyes now, small-format color photography is the mass-market standard while medium format black and white just looks like art.
I’ve noticed the same with my own photographic work—both in terms of my own gut reactions to it as well as the reactions I receive on flickr. Medium format is more artsy than small format. Film is more artsy than digital. Square is more artsy than rectangular. Black and white is more artsy than color. And this reaction occurs with both “art shots” and “snap shots” I’ve taken.
I find that I often prefer the square medium-format black-and-white shots more than the rectangular digital ones. That I am not alone in my reaction leads me to suspect that the sheer dominance of rectangular color images causes us to notice anything different and treat it as somehow more art-worthy. Maier’s work just looks more like what we expect art to look like.
My own (admittedly inadequate) editing reinforces this belief as well. I routinely toss 60% of my digital images before I upload. I routinely keep 90% of my medium format ones. My behavior with 35mm film is about in the middle. The more a shot costs me, I’m less likely to experiment or cavalierly blow a frame just for the heck of it and I’m more likely to spend a long time composing and visualizing.* Yes, I miss some shots, but I’m already editing before shooting so I have a higher keeper rate.
*That I have similar behavior depending whether I’m in the first half or second half of a roll of film is its own phenomenon. In the first half of a roll, I’m less disciplined than I am in the second half. But in the last 10% of a roll, I’m even less disciplined as I try and “finish it off.” That’s why we have cats though right?
To say that Maier and Cushman are completely unedited sells them short as photographers. But the question of how an external editor can shape our perception of their work, and what this implies about their status as artist, remains. And I can’t stop thinking about it because I can’t help but apply it to my own work.
I don’t claim to be an artist. At the same time, I know there’s an art edit in my photostream. Finding that edit, or one of those edits, is something I need to work on—something I am working on. I also know that I will need help with this. I suck as an editor of my own work and am overly-inclusive in what I like rather than being extra-critical and expunging everything which I don’t like.
Not that this is a completely bad thing. I shoot for many different purposes and the categories are not strictly defined. Despite being in the digital age, I will take documentary family snapshots with black and white film and equipment older than I am. And I will frame and compose with an artistic eye and intent.
I don’t think that I’m unique either. We all need a second set of eyes to look at our work. The more critical that second set of eyes can be, the better.