The Medium is Irrelevant
The other day, a friend sent me a text message with a link to a podcast, along with a single sentence that read, “If I could be a small fraction of the photographer Sally Mann is, it would really be something.” This friend is a terrific photographer but, like so many of us, he sometimes gets stuck in the rut of comparison. I get it. I really do. Sally Mann is an iconic photographer, but one of the most challenging—and I think harmful—things we can do as artists is to unreasonably compare ourselves and our work to others. It stifles our own voice and it assumes that we are somehow capable of producing their work in the first place. No matter how much I try, I’m never going to be Robert Rauschenberg or David Carson or Shepard Fairey. I simple don’t have their aesthetic, their raw talent and ability, nor do I have the life experiences that helped to shape them. There’s a Bastille lyric from a song called Quarter Past Midnight that really resonates: “We want the bodies on the billboards, not the lives underneath them.” I think that’s true. We can become so preoccupied with comparing ourselves to others that we forget about developing ourselves and our work. And here’s the thing, the world doesn’t need another Sally Mann, or Robert Rauschenberg or whoever you happen to be comparing yourself to. The world needs you—your vision, your interpretations, your life experiences. And if you’re not true to those, you end up, as my friend Father Bill Moore used to say, “painting with someone else’s brush.” Remember, when asked how to make more interesting pictures, the great Jay Maisel responded, “Become a more interesting person.” Regardless of whether that story is true or simply an urban legend that’s been passed around the photo community for years, it’s terrific advice. And it works no matter what your particular discipline is. Whether you want to make better photos or music or paintings or novels or films—the medium is almost irrelevant—the work is a reflection of what you bring to it and who you show up as when you make it.
So how do you become a more interesting person? For me, I think a lot of it is about input—art, music, movies, books—basically, anything that gets me asking questions. One of the things I’ve done for years is to look at the things that inspire the people who inspire me. For example, I learned about authors like John Dos Passos and Nick Hornby from Rush drummer Neil Peart, who was a voracious reader. Watching interviews with film directors like Martin Scorsese or Steven Spielberg opened up a world of cinema that I never would have found on my own. Even talking with guests on my podcast Process Driven has been a treasure trove of new art, music, movies, and a hundred other things that have become fuel for my own making.
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You can also look at and think about what the people you admire did and let that inspire you without trying to directly replicate their work. For me, that might be Rauschenberg’s use of found objects or the fact that he bought unlabeled cans of paint, meaning that his color palette was often a surprise. I’ve done something very similar in my recent work, leaning into unpredictability and deciding on color, texture, and even composition in near real-time, rather than pre-visualizing every piece before I ever pick up a brush.
Look at what’s missing or what they didn’t get to. Think about what’s not there. Is there either a technique or a concept that they may have started but never finished or fully explored? And can you take some of those unfinished ideas somewhere new that’s uniquely you?
I think we also need to think about the why in our work. Are you trying to get a big following, make a lot of money, interest potential collectors? Maybe money is not the prime mover and you’re looking for prestige in galleries, museums, or academic parts of the field, or you want your work to convey something that seems to be missing from what’s already out there. There’s too much to get into here, but it definitely feels relevant and worth spending some time on.
For me, looking at the work of others is an integral part of my creative process. At some point, comparisons are inevitable, whether it’s because of my color choices or the techniques I use. Nobody—nobody I know anyway—creates in a vacuum. The challenge when we’re talking about comparison—and this is true for many people that I’ve talked with about this, including the friend who sent me the text message—is not to disparage our own work (or ourselves, for that matter) simply because it’s not the work of our heroes. Each of us is a mind shaped by a unique set of lived experiences that inform how we see, how we respond, and how we express ourselves. As I said at the top, I couldn’t produce the work that Rauschenberg made if I had a hundred years because I’m not him. But even if I could, the world doesn’t need another Rauschenberg, or Spielberg, or Sally Mann, or more work that’s simply uninspired and duplicative. The world needs the uniqueness of you, informed by everything and everyone that inspires you.
Do you compare yourself or your work to others? If so, how does it affect the work you make?
The Paris Review recently posted (or, maybe re-posted) a fantastic interview with the great James Baldwin. In it, he talks about what inspired him to became a writer, why he left America for Paris, and some of his inspirations. If you aren’t familiar with James Baldwin, I recommend his novel The Fire Next Time or I Am Not Your Negro, which is a documentary based on his unfinished novel, Remember This House.
If you’re a new subscriber to Iterations, you may be unaware that I’m also a podcaster. My show Process Driven is a series of deep-dive conversations with creatives from a variety of genres and disciplines and my show Deep Natter is basically an ongoing conversation with Sean Tucker exploring the philosophical and practical sides of creativity and art making. You can subscribe in your favorite podcast app and get everything I release in one feed.