On a recent trip to Pittsburgh, my wife and I made our way to the Mexican Streets neighborhood to visit Randyland. Maintained and operated by Randy Gilson, this found art museum is a psychedelic technicolor oasis in the burgeoning artistic landscape of that part of Pittsburgh. With its meticulously placed vintage toys, ornately painted mannequins, and strategically placed mirrors, Randyland honestly and accurately reflects its creator’s vision of repurposing the unwanted and discarded ephemera of our lives and using them to craft something newer, more original, and perhaps more beautiful. Whenever I’m immersed in an environment with this kind of overwhelming singular artistic purpose, I tend to reflect on my own relationship with creation and art.
I thoroughly enjoy photography. I enjoy the entire process from the capture of an image to its final edit. And because I am mostly an amateur/hobbyist, when I participate in photography it’s a moment in my life where I can fully indulge the creative aspects of my personality without outside input, reservation, or self-judgement. I’m sure the “total control” aspect of my hobby is something that I need to speak to a licensed therapist about sooner or later, but I think it’s easy to see that photography is my creation safe space.
Even though I’m in my creative comfort zone when I practice photography, I frequently revisit the question, “Am I creating art, and if I’m not, what AM I doing?” Do I have an artistic vision when I take photographs and are my results consistent with that vision, or am I just taking technically sound and pleasing to look at photographs? If I was being 100% honest, I think my work more often falls into the latter category. I perceive myself to be creative, but I do not perceive of myself as an artist. I am the number one fan of my photographs, but I am also critical of my work, and in my estimation that work very rarely rises to the level of “art.”
This begs the question, if most of my photography doesn’t meet my personal criteria for art, what does? In the broadest terms, any creative endeavor can be branded as art, but do certain genres of photography lend themselves to greater artistic expression more than others? Certainly, I think any kind of photography can transcend its genre. A truly great piece of photojournalism can both tell a story and have artistic elements to it. Family portraiture and wedding photos can be mostly documentarian in nature, but over the years I’ve been lucky enough to get to know the work of some truly talented working photographers. These artists regularly rise above the constraints of their profession to create stunning photos that contain beauty and truth that is conveyed to audiences beyond their clients.
So if it’s not the type of photography that matters, is it the photographer’s process that dictates its art-worthiness? Does photographic art have to be established as a predetermined vision that’s brought to life by an artist’s creativity and passion? A long time ago I asked my very talented friend Benoît about his creative process when he does studio work. He told me he often fully envisions the kind of image he wants to capture weeks, if not months, in advance. He sees the shot in his mind first, then methodically applies his technical skill and creativity to bring that singular vision to life. Most of my photography works in polar opposition to that method. I almost always set out with no idea what I’m going to photograph and try to capture beauty and interest wherever I can find it. Very rarely do I “see” a photograph beforehand.
So categorizing process as an essential ingredient to creating art seems wrong to me as well. For as many artists that are out there, there appears to be an equal yet disparate amount of ways they come by their inspiration and creation.
To me, calling someone an artist is meaningful. It carries the weight and responsibility of being a standard-bearer of creative thoughts and deeds. I know my discomfort with the term artist probably all boils down to my insecurities. The fear of failure that constantly co-exists with trying to live up to the expectation that comes with any kind of label. To anyone who’s ever sat in front of a blank page for hours or looked through a viewfinder only to find nothing of note, that dread can be very real.
Ultimately, why does this even matter? If I like my photos, why do I care if I think they’re art or not? I’m not sure I can answer that question other than to say that if I continue with my photographic journey, it does matter to me if I get to that specific destination. I do know in my heart of hearts that something can be creative without rising to the level of art. My nagging fear is that I will never reach that waypoint in my own mind.
RANDYLAND PHOTO GALLERY