Editor’s Note: This is a post from 2011 that really resounded with this audience. Chris’s knowledge that he shares here is always applicable, so I hope you enjoy revisiting it!
My name is Chris Orwig and I am a photographer and a teacher. While this post is about photography, my goal is not to help you take better pictures but to help you become more creative and alive. I hope to stir things up a bit with a few simple ideas, some pictures and quotes. Here’s to breaking out of our routines and to starting something new!
Who We Are
Photographers are an interesting bunch. We are different and diverse yet bound by a common desire to capture and captivate. The best photographers are those who have discovered the key to a full and vibrant life. It is the insight that comes from making photographs. For by doing this we discover that life’s small mysteries and moments can be magnified. Somehow we get more out of life with a camera in hand. When we take pictures, we see more clearly, we remember more deeply, and we live more fully.
Who We Aren’t
I like things that are hand made—my young daughters’ drawings, pencil-written notes, and the old driftwood gate in our backyard. There is something special about those things that cannot be mass-produced. This interest is one of the reasons I make pictures. As photographers, we aren’t technicians who repeatedly follow the same steps. We create our own path. We are driven to create something that is one of a kind. We want to expresses our unique voice and vision. It is something we have to do. Taking pictures satisfies an internal thirst. It is an essential part of who we are.
More Pages Possible
When I was a child, my mom told me that there was no such thing as “bad art.” This of course was a complete lie. Yet, it was a lie I needed to hear. It informed me that the goal of art was the creative process of discovery, experimentation, and fun. To this day, I cling to this lie as truth. As photographers, many of us are afraid of art. Who me, an artist? No, I just take pictures and many of them aren’t even very good. The same can be said of creativity. Who me, creative? No way. I like how Paul Arden puts it, “Creativity is imagination and imagination is for everyone.”
I think it is about time that we reclaimed our identity as creative artists. Who cares if your pictures aren’t perfect. Being an artist is about more than that. Art isn’t about what you make, but it is about how you make it. Art is about who you are. I like how Seth Godin redefines things a bit. He says, “An artist is someone who uses bravery, insight, creativity, and boldness to challenge the status quo. And an artist takes it personally.” Creating art is about giving and getting more from life. As Carlos Jurado said, “Art allows us to expand the dimensions of our everyday life.” It expands who we are, how we see, and how we use our time on planet earth. The end result of pursing art is nothing short of a personal revolution.
Robert Henri knew this full well. He said, “When the artist is alive in any person, whatever kind of work it may be, he becomes inventive, searching, daring, self-expressive, and creative. He becomes interesting to other people. He disturbs, upsets, enlightens, and opens ways for a better understanding. Where those who are not artists are trying to close the book, he opens it and shows that there are more pages possible.”
Good Photography Requires Fight
An artist is someone who doesn’t give up. In fact, giving up isn’t even part of the deal.
The great photographer Walker Evans put it this way, “When I first made photographs people thought those are just snapshots of the backyard. Privately, I knew otherwise and through stubbornness I stayed with it.”
The problem with most of us is that we are too soft. We follow popular opinion and listen to the voices that say one thing is good while another is bad. We defer to the experts and neglect to nurture our nascent ideas. This impedes the growth of what could be some of our best ideas. We forget that while all good art is courageous and goes against the tide, it almost always starts off as small and uncertain. If we yield to the experts, abandon our own ideas, and pursue imitation rather than originality then we give up and this softens our edge. Why not counter this trend and tenaciously stand tall?
Being a good photographer doesn’t flow from following another’s path. It comes from inner strength and resolve. It comes from your gut. It requires a private tenacity that consistently chants, I will not give up. It comes from the conviction that whatever the outcome, the creativity and growth are worth it. Good photography requires fight and maybe even rage. As Dylan Thomas wrote, “Do not go gentle into the good night. Rage, rage against the dying of the light.” In tribute to those who have gone before us, the least you can do is stand up and make your voice heard.
Stitched with Hope
My most valuable photographic education came from an unlikely source. During graduate school, I was required to volunteer at a hospital. I was assigned to work on the cancer floor. My job was to simply visit and listen. Day in and day out I visited and eventually became friends with people who were dying. By spending time with someone who is dying, you can’t help but learn a lot about life. It was from them that I learned about loss and about how to take pictures.
To this day, I make many of my pictures with them and others in mind. The best way I can describe it is with WS Merwin’s words, “Your absence has gone through me like thread through a needle. Everything I do is stitched with its color.” My photographs are stitched with the hope and loss of their lives. They taught me about the brevity of life and the importance of savoring everything. The camera became a means to actualize this desire, and a passport to go out into the world and to soak up small and otherwise forgotten moments. With the camera I could see and do more and expand my vision. The camera is a powerful tool. And wielded with respect, the camera can open our eyes and change who we are.
Fresh Baked Bread
You’re starting to see that I’ve found photography to be something that is autobiographical. We make pictures because of who we are. Rodney Smith sheds some light on this. He said, “Everyone has a story. Whatever that is, it is the grist of what your pictures should be derived from.” The grist is the good stuff that is left over when separating the wheat from the chaff. It is the grain which is set apart in order to be ground to make bread. That grist might be the most important tool that you carry around in your camera bag.
We’ve heard it a million times—being a photographer is much more than carrying a camera in a bag. Creating a good photograph demands more than technique and skill. Good photographs require that we use our mind and our heart. If we want to make pictures that cause change, we must be the first ones changed by the pictures that we make.
Imperfection and Illumination
Photography is an art and craft that requires an immense amount of passion, precision, and excellence. Photographers have high standards so it’s easy to become critical. When we are changed by the pictures we make, all of those imperfections fade away. Just like in the song written by Leonard Cohen, “Ring the bell that still can ring. Forget your perfect offering. There are cracks in everything, that’s how the light gets in.” The best photographers, and the best photographs, are those that shine from the inside out.
On Your Mark, Get Set, Go!
Henry David Thoreau’s words are on the mark. He said, “A truly good book (or a decent blog post) teaches me better than to read it. I must soon lay it down, and commence living on its hint. What I began by reading, I must finish by acting.”
The action I’m hoping for isn’t just a comment or a tweet. I and the community at large would love to hear your thoughts. My true hope is that this post will be the beginning of something new for you. Perhaps today is your day to set sail and to start making photographs with a reignited passion for your world.
Thanks Scott for the opportunity to do the guest blog post and for the privilege to share!
“Photography is savoring life at one hundredth of a second.” Marc Riboud