While it is tempting to constantly compare ourselves to other photographers, it’s important to remind ourselves of what we already know: the quality of art cannot be measured in numbers.
This time of year is always one of my favorites in Los Angeles, not just because hearing that other parts of the country are still covered in snow, which causes me to look out my window at the perfect 70-degree day. Not because it’s Coachella season and hoards of people are living it up just a couple hours away. I’m far too old and not nearly cool enough for all that. But rather, I’m excited because this is the time of year that the Lucie Foundation puts on the annual Month of Photography Los Angeles.
A curated collection of photo exhibitions, portfolio reviews, and panel discussions descend on the city for a thirty-day, stretch taking over exquisite gallery walls and makeshift gallery walls alike. Even in a city of four million, the photo community is relatively small and tight knit, so the events also tend to serve as a month-long family reunion: a great chance to catch up with old friends, make new ones, and see the work that everyone has been producing.
Of course, in the age of social media and instant gratification, there’s a good chance that we already have a least some idea of what our peers have been up to. But nothing beats a traditional print framed against a white wall — photography in its purest sense. There are few activities I enjoy more than strolling slowly but steadily along a line of photographs, arms clasped neatly behind my back, my decidedly less than 20/20 vision leading to an easily detectable squint as I tip-toe in for a closer look when one image stands out among the others.
It’s one way or another with me. Either an image captures my attention or it doesn’t. Either it speaks to me or it doesn’t. There’s nothing about that reaction that makes me special. We are all hardwired with our own preferences. The ability to quickly discern our own level of interest is as human as opposable thumbs.
Naturally, there is the other set of reactions. You know what I mean. While a casual observer may look at a picture and mentally swipe right or swipe left, as photographers, there is often an involuntary impulse to judge an image based on another spectrum. How does this work compare to my own?
Not that I consider myself to be an overly competitive person. I’m not a zero sum guy. I believe a rising tide lifts all boats and am generally happy to see others succeed, even if they are, by business standards, my competition. So, my responses don’t tend to be based on a sense of wishing it were me up there on the wall.
Instead, I tend to react to a really great photograph in same way I react to a great film, using my inside voice to gently exclaim: “Wow, how in the heck did they do that?” I find myself completely blown away by a concept or an execution and stand in awe of the mind(s) that generated it. I wonder, if given the same concept, how would I have handled a given subject. What would be my final image? Would it compare favorably to this one I see hanging on the wall?
Of course, that’s a ridiculous question. You can’t objectively compare art. There aren’t enough words in the dictionary to objectively prove one artist’s expression superior to another. Certainly, we all have our opinions. And our opinions are valid. But they are, at the end of the day, subjective.
Never is that more proven to me than when I take a reluctant step away from staring at the photographic masterpiece to view the next image in line. Whereas the previous shot filled my eyes green with photographic envy, the next image is just kind of, well, blah. There’s nothing wrong with it, per se. It’s just that I know I have a hundred images just like it sitting in my reject folder back at home. Many of those rejects, in my mind, are far better than this one. Yet, to my subjective taste, I didn’t think any of them good enough to even show in my portfolio, nor would I have expected them to be selected for an exhibition.
That’s not to say that my work is simply so awesome that even my bad shots are amazing. That would be far from the truth. In fact, my gut reaction that my version of this image is better than the one hanging on the wall is itself subjective and completely devoid of any scientific merit. At the end of the day, it’s only my opinion. I’m not wrong. But neither is the curator who thinks otherwise.
And therein lies the moral of the story: beauty is in the eyes of the beholder.
I remember when I was in college, I was dating/trying to date a woman who, in my estimation, was quite simply the most beautiful girl I had ever seen. Everything about her just brought me to life. Her physical beauty. Her inner beauty. Her intelligence. Her talent. It was like living in one of those Hollywood romantic comedies where theme music plays every time she enters the room and scenes that don’t include her always seem a bit dull as you patiently await her return to the screen. If it’s not clear yet, I was gaga in that wonderful way that you only seem to experience in your teens and twenties and will likely only make the rarest of appearances in the decades to come.
At the same time I was courting her, my roommate at the time was nursing his own crush on a girl who would one day become his wife. Knowing about my relationship with my dream girl, he said to me, “Can I ask you a question?” “Sure,” I responded, having just walked into the room and still coming down from the romantic high of an afternoon spent with the girl. “Why her,” he posited. “What do you mean?” “I mean, why Jane (not her real name)? I mean, she’s cool and all, but she’s not really all that attractive.”
Now, I’m positive that at the time, he used a different time-period appropriate term instead of “attractive.” Hot. Tight. Dime-piece. I can’t really remember. And we’ll put aside for a moment the objectification implied in the words of a teenage boy. But, all that aside, his words took me by surprise. It simply never occurred to me that anyone else in the world could ever look at the girl and see anything less than the most beautiful woman on Earth. And while it certainly didn’t change the way I felt about Jane, it did help to illustrate a point that would play itself out several times in the years to come.
In my mind, Jane was the most perfect being on Earth. In his mind, the woman he was dating was the most perfect being on Earth. We were both right.
Evaluating art is much like evaluating a romantic partner. Everyone has their taste. Everyone is entitled to their taste. Just because your version of a woman in a red dress standing in front of a brick wall isn’t chosen over another photographer’s image of a woman in a red dress standing in front of a brick wall doesn’t make your image inferior. A thousand and one decisions go into determining what work is recognized and what isn’t.
Technical specs are nice. There is such a thing as a shot being technically bad, like being (unintentionally) out of focus or some other camera misfire. But even technical mistakes can be beautiful in the hands of the right artist. In mean, really, are you going to tell me that Robert Capa’s imagery of soldiers storming the beaches of Normandy is anything less than awesome because they suffer from a bit of camera shake? Of course not.
Artists bring to their work an entire lifetime of their own experiences, influences, and perceptions of beauty. Likewise, a curator makes their selections based on a lifetime of experiences, influences, and perceptions of beauty. And then, in the end, we evaluate the final product based on our own experiences, influences, and perceptions of beauty.
It’s not math, it’s philosophy. There’s nothing objective about it. So, next time you find yourself in a gallery, either publicly extolling the virtues of a particular print or privately trolling the artist on the wall for not producing an image you deem to be worthy, keep in mind that we all see the world differently. We all value art differently. Stay focused on appreciating the beauty in the world that surrounds you and offering your own version of beauty to help make the world such a diverse and wonderful place.