As the default photo editor of a magazine, I run into the same issues time and again when photographers submit their portfolios. I absolutely hate having to turn down good images and good photographers, but there are reasons that necessitate that I do, and they all stem from the fact that: Photographers, you seriously need an artist statement.
Most of the images I get from younger photographers have a kind of Instagram feel to them, and I don’t just mean filters. What I mean is that instead of carefully selected images culled for a specific purpose or series, we have an endless stream of images with no organization. And if your portfolio website is Tumblr and without menus, what you need to imagine is a lowly photo editor who absolutely needs to find a cohesive set of images, and she’s been up all night on deadline, so she sees one of your images on a website and clicks to get a better look, but there is no discernible way to navigate. Instead of looking at your work, she will close the window. Now, an artist statement can actually help solve part of this issue—though you really just need to figure out your menus for the other part.
What an artist statement can do is organize your own thoughts and help you decide why you’re taking the images that you do. Because, at first, you’re just a little speck in space, gravitating to one black hole or another. After a little while, you’ll realize you’re actually a planet on a set orbit, but you just didn’t see it at first. So once you’ve figured out why you are the way you are, you’ll have the tools to drive your photo work in a specific direction. And you’ll be able to coherently tell a photo editor what you do. Because I’ll let you in on a little secret: so many portfolios that I see look exactly alike to me. Not even a little alike, but exactly alike.
So what makes you you? Your artist statement will help you know. Your artist statement will be an evolving creature as your tastes and beliefs evolve, but it will also help you avoid falling into the trend trap. One of my favorite Tumblr sites right now is Kinspiracy, which documents the eerily similar Instagram photos from a specific artsy subset of people. These people appreciate pretty things that are well placed, and I would absolutely never ever publish any of their images in my magazine. They do not tell an interesting story. They are not shot from interesting angles. They strive only to be as good as other images they’ve seen, but they have no merit on their own, outside of the zeitgeist. I guarantee you none of them have an artist statement. Or, at the very least, not a good artist statement.
So what’s in a good artist statement? Well, it’s not artist-speak.
What I see in a good artist statement is the answer to why? You can go on and on about what something is or how it is for pages, and I still won’t care. I can see what something is from looking at it. I can also see what it could be if there had been more direction. The why can’t be found from an external source, though, and that’s an issue with people. The why has to be stated from your own person opinions and perspective.
For instance, in the last issue of The Picture Professional, we published a portfolio by Italian photographer Carolina Amoretti. She has these “totem” faces she constructed from food goods, and they were aesthetically gorgeous, but they also had a story that was inherent in their construction. These faces were to replicate the kinds of “god faces” we’ve seen throughout history. In using food to construct them, she found she valued food as the great equalizer of humanity. She wanted to create great art that was peculiarly accessible, even if people weren’t quite sure why at first. Carolina Amoretti had a great artist statement, and it informed the construction of her photographs. I emphasize the word “construction,” because she didn’t just wait until the images were done to write something. She crafted her message as she was making them.
In my early playwriting days, a teacher once told us to take the whole first day of class writing out a “credo.” I had no idea how this exercise would affect the rest of my life, but it did. Now I instruct all the artists I work with to write out their own credos. A credo, in this case, is an evolving list or statement of everything you believe in or care about right now. Before I wrote my credo, I was just writing funny plays about teenagers screwing with religious adults. I think I had some talent, but I didn’t have direction. But after the credo, everything clicked. It made sense. I knew why I was writing about this stuff, and it was because I was still a kid at heart, who had a severe distrust in adults and religion. I realized that was on my mind, and if I really honed in on that, focused my energy on those themes, I would get my best and most personal work. Because no matter what celebrity or pair of jeans or house you are shooting, your work is you, and you are essentially selling yourself.
I’m going to make a bold statement: all of the best photographers I’ve known have had evolving artist statements in place. If you are a photographer or writer or designer or any other kind of working artist, what I want you to do right now is get out a sheet of notebook paper and just start writing down every single thing you care about or believe in right now. When you’re done, fold it up, place it in a drawer, and go out and make work. Your artist statement is your road map, and it will show you the way.