I’m just at the edge of developing a level of mastery with photography, and the whole process feels like a jumble. It’s not as if there are discrete steps and a logical path. Rather, I make progress in fits and starts with falls and do-overs all along the way.
I want to live and work in the space we call fine art – where pictures are made with the aim of compelling the viewer in some deep and abiding way to feel, remember, and live within the frame.
I want feedback. I need the eyes of respected peers to judge and evaluate my work. It might be safer to declare that my photographs need only please me, and this is true enough. After all, it is unwise to substitute someone else’s judgement for my own. But it is equally unwise to make pictures in isolation and to stubbornly refuse advice and suggestions that might bring me closer to the best version of my creative work.
Toward this end, I submitted six photographs to Slow Exposures, a juried exhibition celebrating photography of the rural south. I was on the fence about submitting, and this primarily involved the issue of finances, as we are family that lives within our budget. In the end, I made allowances, and paid the $50 submission fee.
I did not get in.
And this news was met with equal parts grace and longing on my part.
I can pick up the broken pieces of this dream and make something beautiful. I can take this disappointment and turn it into creative fuel for my next photographs, my next personal projects.
There are big heartaches in life, the loss of a baby or the cancer of a husband, and there are smaller ones like not having my work accepted in a show. But big or little, the heartache is always more about the loss of what might have been than the actual event.
If I had gotten in to the show, my husband and I would have made a grand road trip to Pike County Georgia, taking side adventures along the way. I would have had the opportunity to meet some of my favorite photographers, like Ashleigh Coleman and Rosie Brock. I would have been so honored to see my work alongside theirs.
And yet, I see the not getting in as a blessing, too. The truth is simple. We cannot afford to spend money in this way. There is the cost of entering the show, the cost of framing and shipping the work, the cost of travel and food and lodging. It’s expensive.
Still, I am proud that I tried. And I will try again next year.
I am reassured by the wise words of David duChemin .
It is doing the work that protects me from myself and keeps me making good work. And if it’s not good, it’s definitely mine. And when it’s really ours, the stuff we make, it’s good. It doesn’t matter what the judges think. It doesn’t matter what public reception is. Those are absurd metrics that feed the fears rather than calming them, even when we win. Especially when we win.
When we make art that is truly ours, that is authentic, we put ourselves at great risk. For in the moment we put our work out there to be experienced in the many ways the world will do, we put ourselves out there. We walk into the room, lie on the floor and roll over to expose the underbelly of our souls.
It’s supposed to be scary. The moment it’s not scary is the moment there is nothing at stake. The only ones with nothing to fear are the ones risking nothing, the ones well protected behind their walls. You can’t make art there. Art is made in vulnerability and openness.
Scared? You bet I am. But the fear tells me I’m doing something vulnerable and that’s a first step toward any reasonable definition of good. It tells me I’ve got something to lose. It pushes me to do the only one thing that has ever worked, or will ever work to deafen the voices: work.
The reward of the artist isn’t in how well it’s received. That’s out of our hands, a bi-product appreciated by a chattering mind and a hungry heart, but it’s nothing we control. We control one thing: whether or not we do the work.