Your Artist Statement (Oi, come back here!)
Don't run away from me now, you were doing so well 😉
Yes, we've all read artist statement that make us want to reach down our throat and pull everything out. Unfathomable, pompous, unhelpful. But don't judge those too harshly and don't think yours has to be that way. Because it's really rewarding to try to create one. Art is about meaning and intent as much as about craftmanship. Your artist statement explains your intent to people who don't know you personally. That's all. It doesn't have to be - it shouldn't be - pretentious gibberish.
Are we cool? Not running away no more? 😉
What purposes does an artist statement serve?
Notice the plural. Stick around.
1. Your artist statement brings you clarity about your own photography
Unless you've followed formal art education, chances are your photography is purely instinctive. You see something interesting, you compose and you make a photograph of it. In fact, this may be the most salient difference between insider art and outsider art. Those on the inside have received that training and view their creation as a construct. Those on the outside react to an instinct.
Now, if you're at that stage in your photographic development where you've occasionally made shots that blew your mind, blew your friends' minds and may even have generated a few sales, but you don't really know why or how, then you haven't completely formalised within your mind what it is that triggered your attention on those occasions. Unlike an academic artist, you reacted to a scene rather than build or deliberately seek one out. Your technique, your eye, your post-processing skills may be great. But there's no structure or deliberate drive to your creative process. How many photographers on Youtube can you think of that exhibit extraordinary technical skills in lighting, or Photoshop or printing and never show a photograph you'd want to pay serious money for and hang on your wall? They have the craft, but not the formalised intent.
Working on your artist statement will force you to wade through your photographs, pick out and analyse your favourites, look at the best ones from other photographers and work out for yourself what it is that makes those so good.
2. Your artist statement helps build your brand
And there you go running off again. Ugh ... 😉
Brands are not evil. Marketing is not evil. Don't let a few bad apples cloud your judgement about the purpose of a brand.
Initially, a brand is a symbol burned onto cattle to identify the owner's ranch. It's about staking out one's turf. And company brands do exactly the same. When 10 companies sell breakfast cereal, one may claim the lowest-price territory, another may claim the healthiest territory, another may claim the most fun territory, or the energy for sports territory, or the traditional recipe territory, the crunchiest, the tastiest, the most eco-friendly, the most equitable, ... Some of those differentiators are very strong with a certain public, others are weak.
Brands which are able to display attibutes meaning a lot to a large public, are nearly unstoppable. Think Apple: elegant design, quality, efficiency, robustness, ease of use, great customer service ... Some may retort that Windows is more this or more that or that some other brand cost 80% less, Apple still is one of the richest companies on the planet, in human history. So is Amazon, with a completely different set of attributes. Branding just works. Branding matters. A lot.
What does all that have to do with art?
Well, for one thing, the myth of the starving artist isn't one anybody should particularly like. If you are going to work hard on creating stuff you pour your heart and soul into, there's absolutely no reason you should have to give it away for a pittance. Your statement will help (a bit) with that.
The reality of the photo world is that Uncle Bob and his camera has ruined the profession for all but the best pros. So many cameras are being hauled all over the globe that, by design or accident, some great photographs are made every second. This has two side effects.
(1) A single pro has a portfolio that can hardly compete by the best shots of a billion amateurs, some of who are very good photographers themselves.
(2) Since we are being innundated by very average photographs, standards of quality have declined significantly. So, many buyers will be happy with a free and fairly decent photograph rather that a very good and expensive one.
Artists, however, do not suffer the same fate. Because their work isn't about a product or an event, but about a worldview, no comparisons apply. Art is deeply personal. And your statement explains that to others. It helps them see the world the way you do, understand and appreciate your photographs, and connect more deeply with your work as a whole.
3. Your artist statement makes you more desirable to collectors
You may sell the odd photograph to a passer-by and the exchange will be mutually beneficial. But collectors offer a whole other level of satisfaction.
Collectors can spend a life time searching for and acquiring work that resonates with how they think, feel, see the world around them, understand art. Remember when you were a kid collecting famous player cards or comic books. Art collectors feel the same fever every time they find a new piece that fits in their private world of art. It's not about money, it's all bout relationships. With other collectors, with their inner self, and with artists. When collectors buy your art, a bond is created that can last for years or decades.
This is why Phr isn't a marketplace in the Amazon sense, but a community-focused, relationship-building hub.
And your arstist statement is often the first thing anyone who likes your photographs will learn about you. You never get two opportunities to make a great first impression 😉
Why are some artist statements so incomprehensible?
At least to me, some are. I'm probably a dufus.
The reality of the commercial art world is that it is populated by art graduates speaking to other art graduates (and pseudos who like the association with fancy talk). They followed the same courses, learned the same concepts, express them in the same manner. To them, those statements make more sense than to us commoners. It's a circular world with its own conventions. Penetrating it is hard without lineage / education or sponsorship. It doesn't mean the people on either side of the semantic wall don't share a common love for art.
Some may use complex verbiage as a protective measure against the hoi polloi. Too bad for them. People erecting walls all there life usually end up alone in their walled garden. Others may have a deep level of thinking and real mastery of the language and enjoy phrasing something as important as their statement in the most beautiful way possible. As hard as that may be to the layman, it is rewarding to try. Others still may be misguided in thinking that a complex veil will elevate their work. Disappointment is a part of learning, I guess.
All this doesn't matter. When an artist statement truly reflects what the artist whishes to convey in her/his work, you will know immediately whether you want to connect with that person and body of work. That's what the statement is for. Hello, my name is Pascal. I've loved photography and mysterious images all my life. Here are the people who have influenced me and here's what I'm trying to convey in my own photos. It doesn't have to be more elaborate.
How do you craft an artist statement ?
This will require a separate micro-course. My point on this page is only to explain how a genuine statement of your sensibilities and artistic intentions will create a bond with other artists and collectors (it's my contention that collecting is also an artform, by the way). And that, as a result, the alignement between a good statement and a body of work consistent with it will help create a strong brand for you and make your prints more desirable.
Asking yourself how you create it is the first step. Just look at your favourite photographs in your portfolio. What do you like about them? Are there common themes/techniques/subjects/genres/... Let that mature for a while and see whether you can tie that to your past experiences, your education, your job, your spouse ... And just write it down. Keep it simple. Remove the fluff.
For instance, I can tell you I like the symbols and meaning deep beneath the surface of things. And I like mysterious images. To me, the photograph above is Provence condensed into a square. The hills, the vegetation, the traditional cloathes worn on more occasions that you'd think. I love square photographs because of how they force you to create a composition rather than inherit the dynamics of an elongated frame. And I love how the old lens created a sense of mystery in the blur. This photo is in perfect alignment with my artist statement.
A good way to start is to look at your best photographs and ask yourself WHY? Why dod you take that? WHY do you like it? WHY did you process it the way you did?
If the answers to all the whys for all your photographs align, you have your artist statement right there. If not, dig deeper by asking WHY again about the reasons you found in the first pass, and so on.
For example, why did I use a long focal length to photograph the building above? To compress perspective. Why did I want to compress perspective. Why did I want to compress perspective? To reduce the shape to a bare minimum geometry. Why did I want to do that? Because I'm very interested in symbols, callygraphy ... Most of my compositions will have a different first level answer but most will boil down to my love of symple, powerful symbols. That's a part of my statement right there.
Concluding thought: a famous artist with a long carreer can craft a complex statement that explains her take on some human condition, environmental issues ... As beginner artists, maybe it's better for us to have statements that ask questions, rather than provide erudite answers. Whatever explains your passion is great. It doesn't have to be an essay, 3 lines of questions can work.
So, give yourself a zero if there is no consistency at all in your work and you have no artist statement. A low score (around 3/10) if you have thought a bit about your photographs and managed to find common threads and write them down. A high score (7/10) if your statement not only communicates very clearly an intention but this is substatiated very evidently by your series of photographs. 10/10 if you are Sebastiao Salgado.