DAMNED IF I DON'T
(This post originally appeared December 15, 2018, in my now-defunct photography blog THE KICK.)
In Steven Pressfield's The War of Art, a motivational book for artists, he makes a salient point about what drives creative people to create: “We must do our work for its own sake, not for fortune or attention or applause.” Indeed, in its truest, purest sense, the creative impulse is a thing wholly apart from thoughts of potential financial success. At least, that's the case for me. Which may seem odd, given that this post is part of a photography website that includes BUY buttons and a shopping cart. I could easily argue that I believe in my work enough to ascribe an arbitrary value to every photograph. But in doing so--in assigning any kind of dollar amount to my work--it's hard for me to escape the feeling that any aspect of commerce compromises the very creative process itself. I do firmly believe art can and should exist for its own sake.
So then why does this website even exist? Why sell my photos if doing so flies in the face of pure artistic expression?
Well, for one thing, new camera lenses (especially prime lenses) won't pay for themselves. Nor will an upgraded camera body. My current camera is a Canon EOS Rebel, which I bought back in 2016. I love this camera, which was a considerable step up from using my phone for street photography. I've gotten a lot of use out of my Canon and its two kit lenses (18-55mm and 75-300mm) in the last couple of years. But I've had my eye on a couple of new lenses for a while now (50mm and 85mm). I can certainly afford them, but in my mind, I want money from selling my work to cover such costs. It's my way of keeping photography a self-sustaining endeavor. Maybe this is a bit short-sighted and naive on my part, this idea that art can sustain itself.
But consider this:
Earlier this year, I was incredibly fortunate to have two photographs selected for this year's annual issue of Kurt Vonnegut's literary journal So It Goes. Better yet, I was invited to present my work at VonnegutFest in Indianapolis. (I'm working on a separate post in which I go into much deeper detail about this trip--my first to the Hoosier state.) As readers may already know, in addition to photography and writing novels and reviews, I also created a line of greeting cards called Melancholy Greetings. My entire trip to Indianapolis was funded by the greeting card business. All of it.
This isn't to say that I flew first class or stayed in a 5-star hotel, as both things are untrue. But all the same, I was able to make such a trip because there are people in the world who willingly exchange their hard-earned money for something (many, many somethings) I've created. You can't put a price on that sort of fulfillment.
That is, until you do.
Which brings us back to the very existence of this website, to the reluctant mingling of art and commerce. I realize I'm incredibly lucky that my photography is hanging on walls in homes I will never visit. My work represents me at my best, even if behind the scenes I question whether I'll still be taking photos a year or even a month from now. At times I believe I was born to have a camera in my hand, that photography is my true calling. I cannot deny that photography--not my writing, nor my drawing--sustains a deep and constant need for self-expression.
But then I question why I'm still doing this, if I can't fully devote myself to something that brings me such immediate and obvious joy. I'm damned if I do, damned if I don't. Maybe what I'm experiencing is a crisis of faith--in that I'm unable to take a necessary leap of faith--in myself, and in my work. My compulsion to take photos is strong, to the point that I sometimes dream that I'm taking the perfect shot.
One last thing:
Yes, this website exists to share my work, and to offer people the chance to buy it for themselves, if they so desire. But I've also been known to freely give away my work, be it photos or novels or greeting cards. It's not the best business model, generosity. Generosity may nourish one's soul, but, ultimately it won't feed one's family.
In The War of Art, Steven Pressfield posits an interesting question: “Of any activity you do, ask yourself: If I were the last person on earth, would I still do it?”
For me, art has never been about fame, or fortune. If anything, over the years I've repeatedly demonstrated a knack for breaking even. For all the hours and all the miles I've devoted to filling a camera roll with thousands of meticulously edited photos the world will never see (or purchase), my answer can only be an unequivocal yes.
Yes to the attendant doubts, yes to the many highs and lows, to the fleeting transcendence of capturing the perfect shot. Not just in my dreams, but with eyes wide open.
Documenting the world in words and photos.