The Uses of Futility

By David Vestal Back to

Here I am, constantly taking new photos and printing old and new ones. I know that for lack of time, money, and energy, my printing can never catch up. And I’m not famous, although some solid people like my work. Seeing that fame-and-fortune-wise it’s all for nothing, I should be miserable, right? The dealers who sell my prints at prices I could never afford sell few enough so that my income from their sales in 2008 was less than I spent on photo supplies. Meanwhile many photographers whose work seems worthless to me, as well as a few good ones, fetch enormous prices at auction. A newsletter that comes to me by swap, The Photograph Collector, recently published the information that a print by some famous photographer I’ve never heard of sold for only $18,000, a price the writer felt was hardly worth mentioning. Nowadays $100,000 and up per print is common, and prices in the low millions are occasionally paid even for good stuff, as well as for the usual trash. Some collectors will buy anything that’s promoted enough. Need I say that’s ridiculous?

So why do I, though green with envy, still not suffer enough to get into art history and look good there? Partly because I know a lot of art history, which shows that many of the best are consistently neglected while they live, while folks with great immediate sales and publicity end up in museum basements, where their work fills gaps left by better work, long stored there, but eventually recognized and moved up where we can see it. That, for instance, is the story of El Greco. His stuff stayed in the basement for a century or so. On his rediscovery, even poor work went on prominent display because of his name: I don’t mean his real name, something like Theotokopoulos, but his trade name, which means The Greek.

Envy and despair

I don’t know if it’s still on view at the Art Institute of Chicago, but a big early El Greco that looks more like a Tintoretto held a prominent place when I studied there, in spite of a glaring defect. It shows Christ ascending to Heaven through rings of clouds and angels and whatnot, a pretty strong way to give an illusion of deep 3D space. But he blew it, perhaps for business reasons. A little group of brightly-dressed people in the lower left corner jumps, visually, way out in front of Jesus and His Clouds of Joy. They are the art patrons who paid for it. The score was SON OF GOD 1, PATRONS 4.

By making the patrons even more prominent than Christ, he may have been trying to make sure he’d be paid. This, by the way, partly explains the renewed advent and growth of portraiture during the Renaissance. The patron went from being down in a corner to filling the whole picture. Like Karsh and Avedon in our time, those painters earned much of their income by making the rich and powerful and their wannabees look not merely good, but exceedingly important. It also helped when those picture-makers did good work.

Another reason my envy doesn’t fill me with despair is that the constant publicity inflicted on photo- auction kings and queens dwells at length on their personal misery. Being robbed of all privacy by fame doesn’t comfort them. They are not left alone, but are forced to play a public role that is sometimes phony and always takes up much of their time. That’s no recipe for happiness. They become slaves to reputation. Newly published diary notes by the late Susan Sontag, who wrote a remarkably ignorant best-seller mistitled On Photography, show that her private thoughts about her own worth confirm my low opinion. It seems that at the end of her life she finally came to see it. A little late, but maybe better than never.

Well, I’m free from all that. Right or wrong, I like my work and enjoy doing it, and my days are not invaded by what popular cliché now calls “the media.” I don’t use the internet except as a source of factual information: certainly no e-mail. Once I was sent a big package of e-mail wisdom, hundreds of pages about photography from sources that included some college photo department heads, and on the whole it showed astonishing ignorance. Those teachers of the young seemed to believe everything they’d been told in school, and they’d learned nothing since. In my art- school training, one of its best lessons was how wrong art teachers can be. No one intentionally taught that, butit was and remains self-evident. The same goes for critics and curators and art dealers, and we shouldn’t
neglect photographers. Not all are incompetent, but those who really know what they’re doing are rare treasures. As an old painter long ago told Gertrude Stein, there have always been, and always will be, art and official art, and we should never mistake either one for the other.

The role of enjoyment

A letter from a good photographer who teaches brings up the problem of a talented but dissatisfied student. She does good work, but says that although it is praised, it is not what she wants to do. She has something to express that doesn’t get into her pictures. She says she wants to get more of herself into them, but doesn’t know how. That seems to me like misdirected competence. I suspect that she knows good pictures by others when she sees them, and that she goes out looking for the photos-by-others that are out there in the world, waiting to be taken again, and of course she finds them. I know of no sure way to get one’s self into one’s photos, but looking for good pictures won’t do that trick. It isn’t really a trick, and it can’t be taught. The closest I can come to a useful suggestion is, photograph just as you please without worrying about whether the picture will be good. Photographing just as you please may consist of relaxing and photographing what you enjoy seeing. That’s what I do, and my photos contain all the me I want in them, and maybe more than I want. I don’t think I am as interesting as the best things I see, and I want to show what is most interesting.

To steal a line from Picasso (because it’s true), I do not seek, I find. This just happens: it takes no effort beyond paying attention. When I see something that pleases me, I photograph it if I can. I can tell you, it’s no way to get recognition or make big money. Yet many of my photos please me when I’ve printed them and seen the prints. To get there I must also print a lot of maybes, most of which turn out to be flops. I’m never quite sure they fail until I see the prints.

It helps to be willing to fail, because failure teaches you at least as much as success can. Going through old work later has shown me that I often photographed better than I knew at the time. I passed over many pictures that I am now pleased to find and print for the first time.
I didn’t recognize them when they were new, and finding such photos now is reassuring. I guess that’s one reason why I’m satisfied with what I’m doing. It seems to be privilege enough.

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.