Stop worrying so much about your skills, and learn to think creatively. That was my favorite piece of advice from photographer and artist Pauline Goyard.
This advice flies in the face of traditional photography education, workshops, classes, and other forms of advice that drive home the point of skill acquisition. We are constantly learning to light, learning to pose, picking up post-processing tips, and honing our technical skills. What we don't often learn to focus on is creative vision, which is something this Adobe Masterclass teacher has in spades.
Pauline Goyard is a French photographer and digital artist whose dark surrealist fine art is both eye-catching and gut-wrenching. While she began her career as a graphic designer, it never gave the sense of fulfillment photography offered, so Goyard soon opened her own studio and began working full-time. Based now in Bali, she creates fine art that is highly personal.
If it is a skill that allows us to express creative vision, why focus on creativity first? According to Goyard, if you have a strong idea, you will pick up the skill set you need to make it happen, which makes sense, because skills that do not apply to a vision are useless. Granted, this approach is much more suited to artists who have something to say than to craftsmen who are simply trying to make a well done, repeatable product. But even for craftsmen, focusing skill acquisition on abilities that serve their creative purpose makes it less likely one will spend time gaining skills that will not be useful.
And in the pursuit of technique, Goyard makes it a point to learn from creatives outside of her discipline. This, she says, allows her to look at tools and form her creative approach from a new perspective. For Goyard, the camera is one of many tools that helps create her final vision, where the ability to think creatively is the key:
Technique is not as important. You have to have a strong idea, a strong concept. When you’re a beginner, it will suck. It will be hard to make it look good. But when you start out being a very technical person, you can’t grow into being a more creative person. So, it’s better to grow in creativity, and then, you’ll find a way to learn the process, the skill, the camera, instead of doing it the opposite.
This concept might seem backward to many photographers who have been encouraged to dedicate themselves to building technical skills, but if the creativity and vision are not nourished as much, if not more, there is a danger that the resulting work will be lifeless, without an identifiable viewpoint. “That’s why I'm a strong believer that gear is not that important. It's not about what you have; it's about what you want to say and how you show it. Focus on the message, and then, you’ll find a way to say it.”
To build her skills, Goyard has taken Photoshop tips from animators and lighting tips from event production crews. She encourages people not to look only to other photographers for creative inspiration, but to open themselves up to the entire world of creative arts. “This is what is going to make your work unique and different.” And Goyard’s work is absolutely unique.
“I was an angry kid,” she laughs, and there is certainly a dark, surreal tone to Goyard’s work. That comes back to how she sees beauty and how she visually represents her feelings around personal struggles. For Goyard, perfection isn’t interesting. She finds beauty much more compelling when it is dark, imperfect, or broken. “You can try to look pretty, or you can try to look pretty and interesting and deep and emotional, and show your vulnerability.”
Approaching her work this way allows Goyard to process her feelings around negative emotions in a way giving those experiences a recognizable face so they can be identified and dealt with. Then, when she sees her experience in visual form, she can recognize that there is beauty even in that darkness. “Yes, it’s messed up, but there is a form of beauty even there.” And when she shows that vulnerability, it proves that beauty is not found only in perfection.
So, once she has a creative vision, how does Goyard go about creating her fine art? The first step, she says, is to get as much right in camera as possible. Since her ideas often come fully formed, she does not want to have any unnecessary work in post-production. She poses, lights, and prepares her models in advance for the work she knows she plans to do during post-production. And while it might look like there are a lot of editing techniques in her artwork, Goyard says she actually keeps things very simple, often only using a single brush and painting the effects in. The believability of her editing is often in the simplicity of it.
One of the things that allow Goyard to continue creating without suffering burnout is keeping her attention divided between multiple pursuits. So, while her fine artwork is what she is best known for, she also continues to do standard portraits and graphic design as well. Focusing on fine art takes a lot of emotional investment, and if she were to do that as her sole income, it would be far too easy to find herself physically and emotionally drained. Goyard knows this firsthand because it was focusing purely on photography while living in Paris that brought her to such a depleted state she felt the need to walk away from her life and move to Bali.
Photographers will often focus on their work and their business to the point where they lose the joy of creating in pursuing success. Unfortunately for Goyard, this focus led to a decline in her health early in her career that forced her to come to terms with the burnout. At that point, she felt as if she had no choice but to leave her life behind and move to another country to start over. That bravery and willingness to fail is a large part of Goyard’s creative process, one she doesn’t compromise with fine art.
While she still works with portrait clients and will do commissioned work for them, she keeps her fine art separate, because it gives her room to fail, which she considers an essential part of the process. Her fine art is a safe space that is hers alone. She plans to sell prints and approach galleries, but she says there is something she likes about not having to rely on her fine art for her income because it remains free of the financial pressure that might contaminate her drive to create. This makes her ability to make a living through diverse means even more essential and drives home the point that there is nothing wrong with photographers diversifying their income. In fact, diversifying often allows photographers to weather economic storms and deal with changes in the market without going under.
Another thing that helps photographers stay afloat, Goyard says, is building a strong network of creatives. These are not only the people you can go to for advice and critique but the people who partner with you as you grow in the industry. To build this network, Goyard attends creative events, speaks at events where she can, and uses her social network to get introductions to people she’s interested in working with or learning from. She recommends photographers go to workshops, talk to vendors at conferences, and check out co-working spaces that will introduce them to non-creatives who may need photography services.
All of these steps have contributed both to her growth as an artist and her expanding reach within the international photography industry and community. With such unique work and such an introspective, thoughtful approach, combined with an amiable nature and openness to share, I can only imagine her influence growing.
Toward the end of the interview, I asked Goyard the question I have been focusing on during the course of this interview series: what is your why? I am always intrigued to hear what motivates people to create, and Goyard had one of the most profound answers I've heard thus far. She said: “the beautiful thing about humanity is to find a way to make something beautiful and meaningful out of something that was painful.” And that’s why Goyard says she feels ambivalent toward “pretty” images, because this profound transformation “is never about removing the pain or the imperfection, it’s about keeping them and transcending them into something that’s worth keeping and worth living through.”
Lead image shared with permission of Pauline Goyard