Being Different

"Do as you please" should be the only rule

By David Vestal Back to

In today’s photo art market, “being different” is the path of conformity. Every photographic artist is more or less required by dealers, curators, and collectors to “be different.” Different from what? No one knows.

A few years ago someone in a college photo art department wrote and illustrated a book titled Breaking the Rules. I’m sure it was meant sincerely, but its title should have been Following Fashion, because that’s what it did and recommended. That’s what many photographic art authorities do and recommend. They try very hard to be different. Giving elaborate titles to ambiguous works is a popular expedient.

Breaking is the right thing to do with rules. I’m for that. But really break them. Rules about pictures are ridiculous. If you react against them, they still control you. You’re obeying them in reverse. So don’t do that.

There are three main ways to go: conformity (aka being different); rebellion or reverse conformity (aka being different); and doing as you please, which is my choice.

Phonies and artists

Every phony calls himself an artist. It’s all too easy to make high-sounding claims that fool one’s self and others. To differ from the “different,” make no claims. To photograph is enough. Just do your work to satisfy yourself. We can’t know in advance what will please others, but we know what we like, and that’s the thing to work for. Picture-making is not a popularity contest.

I like what André Kertész once said in French (his English wasn’t good) in a TV show on his work: “I am an ordinary egotistical photographer, and I work to please myself.” Right. He didn’t care about being different, so he really was different, in the best way, without effort. Trying too hard to be different makes many photographers so much alike that they are interchangeable.

If we know who we are, as Kertész did, that helps. A birth certificate and a passport provide a label that helps tax collectors and such file clerks find us. Our real self is something else, and has little to do with that. It’s a mystery to others, and most of all to ourselves. We cannot know ourselves objectively. We’re too close for that. We see others from our viewpoint, not theirs, so it’s easy to know things about them; but we can’t fully know anyone else, and we never know more about ourselves than we’re willing to know. That’s not conscious and we can’t control it, though experience may help. We are less rational than we think, and see ourselves in wish-colored mirrors. We see the problems of others better than they can, and they can see our problems better than we do.

Everyone is almost entirely the same as everyone else; and each of us is entirely unique. Both conditions are real. There can only be one you and one me. We are all different, and we are all about the same. The similarity lets us understand each other. The difference lets us show others things that are new to them. What else is photography for?

What to do? It’s not hard, but it’s elusive. We need to relax and stop trying to figure ourselves out. It’s easy to know what we like and don’t like, though we can be fooled. A friend who taught elementary school was convinced that he loved his pupils dearly until he left his teaching job and took up photography. Then much to his surprise he saw that he had never liked the little monsters. It was hate at last sight. What a relief. Those virtuous thoughts were not his own. They were what he thought he should feel, not what he actually felt. Once out of the situation that had imposed false feelings, he saw them clearly.

We need not be imprisoned by a job or a profession. We have more choices than we know. The psychologist Willard Beecher pointed out that we have no difficulty choosing what to eat first from a plate. He also spoke of the grazing principle: A horse in a field eats the nearest grass and when that’s gone moves on to the next-nearest grass. We can do what is at hand and go on to the next thing. He said he always felt at ease because if no one came to him for advice, he was a good short-order cook and could always get work anywhere. Status didn’t worry him.

Before about 1970, when photography was first recognized as art by art mavens, it was a pleasure to leave the rooms of paintings at the Museum of Modern Art and go to the photograph room. The paintings were good, but the photos provided something they didn’t, a sense of being in touch with reality. It was like seeing life instead of pictures of it. This is no longer the case. I think that is because many art folks are out of touch with reality, so they go for photos that look like paintings and not like mere photographs. They hold out for photos that fit in with what they see as art. That lets them feel safely different. The choices these people make show that they are dilettantes. Their not-so-photographic esthetic is exactly that of the camera-club kings of 1900 to 1969. They are conformists who think they are the revolution. They want us to be different instead of being ourselves. But we are already different enough, as long as we don’t join the herd that always keeps trying to be different.

In the early 1900s, photographers with art aspirations were led by Stieglitz into the Photo Secession, named after a Viennese art movement. Their stock in trade was to imitate the look of painting. Soft-focus pictures with fictional themes were made to seem important by giving them imposing titles and frames. They felt that any photograph that looked like a photograph was contemptible. To be true art it had to look like art. It had, in short, to be different. The reason most Photo Secession photos look so much alike is that they all tried to be different. Some of them are good regardless. There are no rules.

The Photo Depression

In the 1930s, a small group of American photographers worked for the U.S. Department of the Interior under the social historian Roy Stryker, in a bureau named the Farm Security Administration (FSA). They took ain’t-it-a-shame photos, often gritty and ugly, to show the public how bad things were for farmers then. Their pictures were often printed crudely by the FSA’s lab. When Stryker thought his photographers were getting artistic instead of doing the job, he’d punch holes in their negatives to bring them back to the path of virtue. The intelligence behind the FSA photo project was not always great, but the photographers had talent. Their photos looked like photos, and sensibly redefined photography as a recording medium that works best when emotional content is presented clearly. This was the Photo Depression. Some of our best photographic art came from it, and here’s a secret. Some of it still comes from unfashionable photographers who make photographs that look like photographs. This is considered terribly crude and dated by people who think that “media” is a singular noun for TV and magazines and blogs, as if they were all the same. And those media (the plural of “medium”) do all look much alike because they all try to be different in the same ways.

In today’s gallery and museum world, many of the photos on the walls try to look like painting of any period since 1914, and not like photographs. All this in order to be different and pass for art. It’s curious how many mediocre photographs imitate bad painting, and how many mediocre paintings imitate bad photography. High culture marches on. Today such art photography is the Photo Recession. It imitates the Photo Secession’s imitation of painting. And as before, most of those photos look alike because they are trying to be different in the same ways. Another form of conformity is to make photos that are not at all interesting. These look alike because they are alike, and they are boring, a vital advantage. Banality is considered excitingly different, as is conceptual art, which consists of describing something the describer doesn’t do. And there is appropriation art, which consists of copyright violation. All of these anomalies are alike in their identical des- perate efforts to be different.

I choose to differ from all those different art photographers by photographing as I please. No label need apply. I invite you to join me in photography that makes no claims and doesn’t try to look like anything it isn’t. This won’t win us places in art history or top art-auction prices, but it’s enjoyable and somehow also real, as the struggle to seem different can never be.

About the Author

David Vestal
David Vestal is a photographer and teacher whose publications include The Art of Black & White Enlarging (1984) and The Craft of Photography. His photographs are exhibited internationally and are found in numerous private and public collections including New York City’s Museum of Modern Art and the George Eastman House in Rochester, NY. The wit and wisdom of his commentaries have long earned him a strong following among readers.