Sometimes I receive comments on the photos that I share on a social media photosharing website from well-intentioned, kind, concerned people who says things like, "You should smile more often in your photos." Or, "Why do you always look so sad?" Or even, "Are you okay? I am worried about your mental health." I have been asked to post photos in color so that the person would know that I was doing okay. The same people make similar comments about my "evident" sadness when I am the model for another photographer, my sweetie, when he is the creative director who asks me to strike a certain pose or have a certain expression in a photo.
And while I appreciate the concern from friends, I have to say that these comments bother me a bit too. My photos, while they represent a capacity I have to feel and express certain emotions, they are not a daily journal of my current emotional state. They are designed to evoke a mood or a memory, created to tell a story, to arouse emotion in the viewer. When done right, the photo can be haunting or piercing, questioning, or pensive. It can express longing, loneliness, grief, melancholy. Sometimes it just portrays a state of being deep in thought, of daydreaming. It also seems some people have a hard time detecting the subtle nuances in expressions captured in photos. They notice the lack of a smile but not the softness around the eyes or mouth. It is as if they lump portraits into two simplistic categories: happy and sad, missing all the variety of emotion in between. If a photo makes a person a bit uncomfortable, in my opinion, that's good! It means I have done my job as an artist, which is to give rise to an emotion. If a photo makes us feel something, then it is a piece of art. Art is supposed to make us feel.
I happen to be someone who is drawn to music that is achingly sad, soft, melodic. I adore Chopin as much as I adore Lisa Hannigan or Great Lake Swimmers. The photographic art that moves me is usually in black and white and very atmospheric, highly emotional. It's often filled with melancholy. I like books that explore love and loss. There is poetry and beauty in the shadows. We need them as much as we need the light.
When I create a photo, for the purpose of story-telling or giving a visual expression to an emotion, I am playing a role. I put on a costume, style my hair in a certain way, I pose a certain way, in order to bring a character, a story, to life. It's acting. Art is supposed to be dramatic! Most of the time I have an image in my head for the photo I want to make before I set up the scene or even step in front of the camera. These photos are planned and composed in my imagination ahead of time. They are researched and fine-tuned. They are not "selfies" which is another comment that annoys me, but that is a post for another time.
When a photographer makes self-portraits, viewers project many things onto the photographer/model, perhaps more so than in other art media. Other artists who make self-portraits have told me they experience the same genre of comments on their work. We make self-portraits for a variety of reasons. Often times it is simply because when we have time to shoot, we are always available, when another model is not. And so we put ourselves into the scene, we write ourselves into the story. Ansel Adams said that every photo is, in reality, a self-portrait. Something to think about.
As part of my growth process as an artist, I need to remind myself that their projections are theirs, and I do not have to let their discomfort make me uncomfortable. There are those who understand what I do, and they appreciate it. Those who don't get it, well, I need to allow them that and not allow it to bother me. All of this touches on the vulnerability and risk of judgment that comes from making art and putting it/yourself "out there." This journey is not for the faint of heart.
I would like the thank my friend, Chrystal, for suggesting that I write about this subject and for being a huge source of both support and inspiration. She is an exceptional photographer and a beautiful soul. Please do yourself a favor and check out her exceptionally evocative, work. Her plays with light and shadow, pose and texture are endlessly fascinating.
You can find some of Chrystal's work here: https://www.flickr.com/photos/cris717/with/29518870025/.
Thanks for reading. Until next time...