Ability, Accomplishment, and Art
Some time ago, I took part in a discussion regarding Ansel Adams. The question was "Was Adams a good
photographer, or not?" One person claimed he was not, arguing that Moonrise over Hernandez, NM
was easy to produce, because "That was shot near espanola NM 20
minutes from my place in Los Alamos. It was a grab shot on his part and I have easily duplicated it knowing in advance what to expect
(moon raise and setting) etc."
Sure. That's like looking at Michelangelo's "Pieta" and saying it would be easy to duplicate now that you've had it 3-d laser scanned, or that it's pretty easy to duplicate Mozart's Flute Concerto in C now that you've listened to it 1500 times, or even that it would be easy to reproduce one of Van Gogh's paintings now that you've seen it.
The question is not "Now that you've seen them, could you make the same photographs?" The question is "Can you make photographs of this caliber, without having someone show you where to put the tripod, which way to point the camera, what time of day to make the photograph, how to make the exposure, how to develop the film, and how to print the negative?"
The same person then went on to claim that "The problem with Adams was that his body of work is not that great considering how long he was at it. Considering how long he lived in Yosomite[sic] he didn't come up with a large amount of great shots. The grand view of the valley from the "tunnel" parking lot was just a matter of being there all the time and constantly shooting."
Yeah. It's true. Clearing Winter Storm was just a matter of being there all the time and constantly shooting. But suggesting that being there and exposing lots of film to build a body of work somehow diminishes the accomplishment completely misses the point.
It reminds me of the person at a recent show of work I'd done on the WA and OR coast. I overheard him saying "This is nothing special - I could make these if I just made a lot of trips to the coast, too." Now, maybe he could, and maybe he couldn't. The problem I see is that he's confused ability with accomplishment.
The difference is that he hasn't made those trips to the coast, hasn't made boatloads of boring photographs to learn how to make the exciting ones, hasn't spent the time standing in the cold and wet, hasn't gone back again and again to understand how the light changes, how the weather changes, looked at the same rocks so many times he's given them names.
And I have. And so the net result is that I've made those photographs, and he hasn't. It's not a question of whether he can, it's a matter of whether he has (or, if you insist, ever will).
The same guy looked at one image and commented "Talk about lucky - being there just when the fog was like that." And my response would be that
in my experience, the harder you work, the luckier you get. The image in question was made at 5:30am on a rainy morning during a break in the rain, after I'd been on the beach for an hour, wet, cold, and resisting the temptation to chuck it all and go get breakfast and a cup of hot coffee. I'm not complaining, nor am I bragging, I'm just pointing out that in the end, it's not enough to own the camera and lenses, and it's not enough to have the technical skill, you have to actually have your butt in the right spot at the right time and pay enough attention to know which way to point the camera.
What often appears to be luck to someone who hasn't actually done something is
actually more a matter of bullheaded stubborn hard work on the part of the
person who actually did.
I remember hearing an interview on NPR with some pianist, who played some little bit of some piano solo, and the interviewer commented "I'd give anything to play like that!" In response, the pianist asked "Would you practice for 10 hours a day for 20 years?" It turns out there's a world of difference between having the potential and doing the work.
In the end, saying that a great image was 'just a matter of being there all the time and constantly shooting' is rather like saying
"Well, Vladimir Ashkenazy isn't really very good, it's just a matter of sitting at the piano and playing all the time", or "Wayne Gretzky isn't really all that good, he just spends all his time playing hockey."
David Bayles and Ted Orland make the same point in a slightly different way. In their incredible book Art and Fear, they comment that 99% of the art you make will fall short of what you hoped for, and the purpose, the function of that 99% is to enable you to make the 1% that soars and actually exceeds your hopes and expectations.
This brings to mind the story of the oriental artist who was commissioned to make a beautiful calligraphic painting of a fish. The patron kept coming back to enquire about progress, and the artist kept saying "Come back later. It is almost done." This went on for months, for years. Finally, the exasperated patron went to the artist and demanded the painting. Without a word, the artist took out paper and brush, and in a few moments and a few brush strokes, created a beautiful, perfect painting of a fish. The patron then asked "Why, if it was the work of a moment to create this, did it take so many years for me to get you to do it?" The artist replied by opening a large cabinet. When he opened the door, hundreds of not quite beautiful, not quite perfect paintings of a fish came cascading out.
In the same vein, I remember reading about a pottery class where the instructor divided the class in half. One half would be graded on 'quality' - they would be graded on the best pot they produced. The other half would be graded on quantity - the more pots they threw, the better their grade, regardless of how good the pots were. The killer was this - in the end, it was the half of the class that was going for quantity that made the best pots. The group shooting for quality spent so much effort trying to craft one perfect pot that they didn't develop their skills; the group going for quantity threw so many pots that they couldn't help but improve their skills.
There's a common lesson to all of this - as artists, we can't really exercise much control of quality. And, as artists, we can't control luck. But there are some things we can control.
We can control craft, which means that we work meticulously and carefully. But that's not the same as quality. As Tom Stoppard once observed, ""Skill without imagination is craftsmanship and gives us many useful objects such as wicker-work picnic baskets. Imagination without skill gives us modern art." Craft is necessary if we want to produce quality art, but it's not sufficient.
And while we can't control 'luck', we can control opportunity. When we set out to make art, we're providing an opportunity to get lucky. By being on the beach when it's foggy, we've created an opportunity to be on the beach when the fog is 'just like that'.
All we can do is show up at the easel, sit down with the blank page, or stand behind the tripod, and make as much art as we can manage. Somehow we need to let go of the quest for quality, and focus on making the art that's genuinely ours, and trust that the quality will take care of itself.