Artistic Growth and Branding

I recently saw a brief comment by another photographer that touched on something that has been on my mind for the past couple of years in a vague, somewhat oppressive way. In that moment, the form of what had been eating at me took shape and gained clarity. I wonder how many other artists have been struggling with the same thing, unable to articulate it, but feeling it all the same.

In this current age of lightning swift change and (in my own field anyway) unprecedented competition due to the sheer number of photographers entering the market in recent years, I have – like many others, felt the crushing pressure to define and maintain my “brand”.  Now don’t get me wrong…I think it is a necessary and valuable endeavor, and with the current glut of photographers, it’s helpful for potential clients to be able to quickly get a feel for your style, approach, area of concentration and expertise. But there is a dark side of this for the artist, and it often doesn’t make itself known until you are thoroughly vested…after all, it takes a tremendous amount of energy just to keep astride of the industry, and our thoughts rarely have time to meander on the larger questions.

A big part of it has to do with why we do what we do artistically – which then points, consciously or unconsciously, to our world view. If we are doing it simply because we find it enjoyable and decide to try to make a living out of it, it makes sense to latch onto the template of setting up our brand (which is often merely following whatever the current stylistic trend is) and adhering to it to build our business… and then there is the entire industry that is the ever-growing engine behind this endeavor. Fitting into that requires abiding by the “submission guidelines” so to speak.

Which brings me to the question. What happens when the artist realizes the medium is serving necessary commercial enterprise, but their artistic sensibility and intention outstrips that? How do we explore our meaning and message while maintaining our business, our brand, our clientele? The mortgage has to continue to be paid after all. Picasso had his “Blue Period”, Mary Cassatt had a period of exploring various techniques from other lands after drifting from the Impressionism of the day – along with so many other artists who went through experimental periods as their work ever-evolved into a maturing expression of their world view. We could do it on the side, on our own time, but a big part of the problem is even finding that time to explore other directions. It takes space. And silence. And spontaneity. It takes time, and failure, and experimentation.

I love what I do. I really do. But I also wonder what else there is in me, and how far I could push it – and what would transpire through that journey. What do I really want to say with my art? It is a deeply felt honor to get to speak to other’s moments through the medium, but there is still that undeniable urge to further self expression that continues to grow in intensity.

“Everything is gestation and then birthing. To let each impression and each embryo of a feeling come to completion, entirely in itself, in the dark, in the unsayable, the unconscious, beyond the reach of one’s own understanding, and with deep humility and patience to wait for the hour when a new clarity is born: this alone is what it means to live as an artist.”

~Rainer Maria Rilke

Just a thought…