What Makes It Art?

Today I’m in the process of going through more than 700 photographs today from yesterday’s shoot with Melissa and Elizabeth. As I’m going through the initial editing process, just over the top of my computer monitor I can see my classic art images rotating on a large electronic picture frame. They are beautiful images. I wonder if what I created yesterday will end up on that frame. Are they art?

There are many wonderful things going on in my photography world. I am continually grateful for the level of recent interest in my work from people who really understand the art world. Clearly what I believe in, and what I am creating with my photography is not only inspiring to me, but to many others as well.

The only frustration that I seem to be having these days is finding collaborators to continue to create my art with me. This morning, in the Sunday New York Times, there was an article about the muses of several great artists including Picasso, Klimt and Modigliani. And a book I just finished called “We’ll Always Have Paris,” devotes a large section to Man Ray and his muses. He has been a particular inspiration to me in my work. I have been fortunate over many periods in my work to have a few subjects that will definitely be listed in any biography written about me as muses that helped me create something that was out of the ordinary.

So who makes a good muse for me? I’ve been asking that question a lot lately. I think if I look at the list of women I’ve had the good fortune to create photographs with, a pattern does seem to emerge, although with any rule, there are exceptions.

First, and a question I’m asked quite often is, where do I find potential subjects? Making a quick list of women I’ve photographed nude over the years, I’ve come up with about sixteen subjects. I very well may forgetting some I’ve worked with in the last 15 years. A majority of them were either friends who only modeled for me and never modeled for anyone else, or part time models who worked on a very limited basis with other photographers. The small remainder were what I would call professional models who worked successfully with many other photographers and made a good part or all of their living from modeling.

While I wouldn’t say that my best photographs were always from the non professionals, I would say that of the professional models I’ve worked with, I only really made a great long lasting connection that yielded extraordinary art with just two of them. And I’ll admit it was truly great work. One of them was local for at least the majority of the time and, in actuality, I would say was only semi professional in that she was also an actress, yoga and dance and fitness instructor while we worked together. The other model would fly in a few times a year to create. I’m not mentioning names simply because I don’t wish to hurt anyone’s feelings.

But I would say the non professional models have, over the years, made an equally significant contribution. On the whole perhaps a greater one. I think because my relationships with them are more casual and long term, there seems to be a connection that I don’t have when I simply hire people to model for me. I’m fine with hiring people. I’ve been hired myself for many things in my life, but sometimes there is a different dynamic to the situation when it’s a strictly business relationship instead of one that is being done because the parties involved want to create something truly amazing. It’s not about the payday, it’s about the work.

So yes, once in a while I have a tremendous experience photographing someone minutes after I meet her, but that’s extremely rare. One of my favorite photographs of all time is the second frame I exposed shortly after I met one particular model. Is it because we just managed to dial into each other so quickly? Was it something I said to evoke the emotion and feeling I wanted for the image. Hard to say at this point.

There have been other times when 20 minutes into a several hour shoot where I’ve hired someone, I can just tell, I can’t wait for it to be over. The chemistry isn’t there and I know I’m not going to be happy with the photographs. I kick myself for spending the money on a wasted shoot, but sometimes it literally is rolling the dice. I always struggle with the business side of art. Sometimes mixing the two just kills any sort of creative spark that might be there if the situation were more about the art and less about making a living.

But working with non professional models has it’s own set of challenges. Since most of the women who end up shooting with me have never done anything like this before, it’s a delicate process that can take years from the “Wow, she’s interesting. I wonder what she would be like to photograph, to actually shooting.” But in that time, we learn about each other’s philosophies on art and the world and human nature and men and women, so by the time we do decide to create something, there is a fairly significant connection. Those are my favorite collaborations. Sadly, too few and far between much of the time.

And I think at the end of the day, that’s what I look for in a muse. I’ve had stunning women in front of my camera, but because they didn’t inspire me on an emotional or mental level, the pictures suffered. Photography can be like a dance and when we’re stepping on each other’s toes or listening to different music, the results are never what I hope they will be. There are a lot of beautiful women in the world, and I’ve been fortunate enough to create inspiring images with some of them, but if I am not engaged by something beneath the surface, it’s an exercise in frustration.

I guess that is what makes art special. It isn’t easy. But there’s nothing I’d rather do than keep trying to make it.

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