Imagine you’re hired to do something on the basis of the work you’ve previously done: the client likes your previous work, and wants you to do the same for their brief – within limitations, of course. You have of course taken care to show only the kind of work you want to do, so that there’s no possibility for misunderstandings. But yet the inevitable happens: as the job progresses, the scope changes, and suddenly you’re being asked to do something that’s either a duplicate of what’s been done before – by somebody else – or worse, a mishmash of incoherent ideas that were clearly a case of design by committee and completely unsuitable for the original subject or brief. Sound familiar? Sadly, this is far too often the state of play in most creative industries, not just photography.
Fast forward a little bit. At the start, we might be idealistic and try to educate or explain to the client why what they are asking for will not yield the results they want; simply, you can’t apply the same approach as before and expect a different outcome. We might argue and offer to work for free to show exactly what we mean; after all, sometimes abstract concepts can be difficult to visualise without an immediate example, and this is what we’re best at right? In the end – we might give up in frustration. We might learn to be wiser further down the road and decline any such jobs that are starting to look as though the outcome may land up being different to what was originally suggested.
Taking a step back, we start asking ourselves why we started down this career path – and remember the satisfaction of outputting something tangible and definable on a regular basis, with the added bonus of feeling the satisfaction of having derived an elegant and aesthetically pleasing solution to usually an open-ended problem. At least a very small part of us likes the recognition, too; and hopefully with it, some sort of financial reward. We begin to harbour dreams that we might be able to hit this high every day, and get paid for it – perhaps not as well as if we were doing something less flexible, but the intellectual rewards make up for it, right? We try. And then reality hits: we’re back to doing the jobs we don’t think necessarily fit the brief because we still need to eat and pay the rent.
Here is the first dangerous tipping point: the more of these jobs you take, the harder it will be for you to get back to the kind of work you initially wanted to do. If all goes well – as well as it can – you will become known for that particular kind of work, and in turn receive more of it. And your ‘creative’ profession will be no more satisfying than the job you left; just more poorly paid, and without the certainty of regular income. On the other hand, if you don’t take the jobs – well, you might get lucky and have things pay off, but you might also get unlucky and be back in your cubicle the following month. Where is the balance? Can there even be balance?
Rationally, we should really be two people: the impartial professional who just gets the job done and executes with competence, skill and importantly no personal emotions biasing judgement – and the passionate artist who puts their heart and soul into ensuring every one of the smallest details is absolutely spot-on perfect. The problem with this is of course barring some sort of psychiatric disorder, there’s simply no way this is possible. Firstly, the kind of people who can actively abide such a rational approach tend not to be risk takers (i.e. won’t take the uncertain independent creative career path) and not usually quite so passionate about anything to begin with. Before you take exception to that: you really need to care to have passion, and you really need to have passion to be exceptional at anything – and none of that is rational at all.
Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, the sensible person isn’t going to get off on the creative part – if anything, that requires a bit of irrationality and nonsense to get there and produce work that’s dramatically different from ‘corporate safe’ expectations to begin with. (Perhaps there’s also a nugget of reason as to why so many corporate driven creative exercises still land up somehow being relatively safe, too.)
As a result, there are really only three kinds of professionals that survive long term in the creative industry: the craftsmen (at best) who do whatever job they’re asked with a reasonable amount of skill and care, and doesn’t hold overly strong personal opinions as to what the output should look like or how it should be done. Barring the kind of unprofessionalism that’s unfortunately frequently seen in developing parts of the world (some people think they can get away with false promises – simply don’t know any better – because they’re not wearing a suit), this kind of creative is the perfect fit for most corporate clients. A safe standard is expected and delivered.
The second kind are the rockstars, who are lucky enough (or strong enough of vision, personality and patron) to get away with insisting on having their way – and pulling it off to great success. There are both extremely few of these personalities and extremely few patrons to support them, because it tends to be a sort of chicken and egg situation: you usually can’t start off a rockstar because you don’t have the track record to make demands, and as a result, you can’t execute what you want, which means future proposals are still unproven, and so on. I suspect you can become a rockstar if you survive being the third and final type of creative, but you can’t begin as one.
The final – binary – type are those who are always going to feel a little uncomfortable. They do the generic and corporate work when they get it, because they aren’t rockstar enough to pick and choose assignments, but don’t get them that often because they aren’t willing to compromise as much as the craftsmen. They’re good enough to occasionally get blank slate assignments, which they relish because it reminds them of why they’re in the profession to begin with; but sadly those only remind them of the stark divide between the two very different types of work they do. We are always making the choice between how much compromise they can accept creatively, and how much they can accept financially – often, these two parameters are mutually exclusive. In the long run, this type lands up turning into either craftsman or rockstar – depending very much on luck and exposure. The binary state is an inherently unstable one and inevitably leads to an emotional rollercoaster – between soaring highs and days where you wake up thinking you’d be better off with a steady pay check, and knowing for sure what to expect.
I’m sure you’ve figured out by now that I’m sitting in the final category. There is work which I try to minimise visibility of online because it is not the work I ultimately want to do; it doesn’t give me creative satisfaction, but it does pay the bills, and consequently, I still accept those assignments. I can’t not show it because the risk-averse businessman in me says that work is work; on the other hand, I can’t show too much of it because I would rather be hired to do what I can instinctively run with rather than have dictated. In the end, I think it boils down to this: I want to be a creative, not an executor. I chose photography because it gives intellectual return on the shortest possible time scale; you have that high of seeing the product again and again, on a regular basis. It isn’t because I enjoy the gadgets or the hardware: it’s because I enjoy what they allow me to do, which is translate imagination into tangibility. Of course, observations in this article apply not just to photography, but pretty much every other creative profession, too; switching genres isn’t going to help. I suppose there’s probably a continuum along which large scale, long term collaborative projects like architecture sit closest to ‘conventional’ careers, and solo performers (direct to end consumer business) are at the opposite extreme.
The only conclusion I can come to is that we’re just along for the ride: all we can do is advance on both fronts and hope that one gains enough notoriety to start dictating terms all the time. The header image is an example of this: I love to shoot gigapixel forests, but the commercial applications aren’t immediately obvious; yet I’ve had commissions for this kind of work which wouldn’t have happened if I hadn’t shot them in the first place. In short: we can only do what we have to so we can do what we want to. MT
Ultraprints from this series are available on request here
Visit the Teaching Store to up your photographic game – including workshop and Photoshop Workflow videos and the customized Email School of Photography. You can also support the site by purchasing from B&H and Amazon – thanks!
Images and content copyright Ming Thein | mingthein.com 2012 onwards. All rights reserved
It is the week before the opening of her exhibition Interstices at Perth’s Lawrence Wilson Gallery and Helen Britton kindly interrupts her schedule to talk about her art. Around us spreads the usual commotion of installation. While some works are already afixed to walls or strategically placed on the floor, the space is filled with trestles, boxes, bubble wrap, ladders and the brrrp bursspp of hand tools as the install crew carry on with their tasks.
On the table in front of us, Britton smoothes out a piece that might serve as an adornment for the body. With care, she deftly arks the ends of a composition of hand wrought metallic forms into a perfectly balanced oblong. She lifts another from a box.
“Quick, while no one is looking, feel this”.
Touch is a privilege seldom granted to most gallery visitors. Shivering, tinkling, tiny metal shapes glide between my fingers. They are the colour of a lichen-filled European forest on a wet day. Gunmetal gangrene pine needles dripping leaf mould fungus, a barely there weightless dream flight of imaginings; one touch and you are transported. It is beautiful.
What is it about objects in the material world that hold us in their thrall?
Perhaps, lurking in the bottom drawer of your credenza, or proudly displayed in a lounge room cabinet, you have a cache of trinkets, things that sociologist Daniel Miller refers to as “stuff”; items of material culture that are imbued with social as well as personal meanings.
While for most of us, these objects may be a haphazard garnering of fancies mumbling with reveries, reminders of an irretrievable past, Britton has a more purposeful collection of touchstones that she calls “personal icons” from which her artistic inspiration derives.
After studying fine art at Edith Cowan University and completing a Masters of Creative Arts by Research at Curtin University, Britton has developed an extensive international reputation as a jeweller and maker of exquisitely crafted objects that are inspired by the various cultures she encounters in the world around her.
Although her studio is now based in Germany, she still maintains close ties with, and returns often to, Western Australia where its landforms, bush and coastal environments provide not only solace for her soul but also a source of inspiration for her work. As a celebration of the depth and breadth of her 25 years of practice, Interstices is captivating.
In one darkened hall of the gallery, on a seemingly ramshackle grey scaffolding, two dark articulated forms – trained eels or eevilish trains – trundle along a looping circuit that in some places is raised above the viewer’s head.
On a nearby wall, caught in a blast of downlight glare, are a set of boldly painted drawings reminiscent of sideshow alley posters, of European folk art chapbooks, of places seething with uncertain pleasures.
On an adjacent wall glimmer oversized lucky charms, while in front sits a display case of intrigue-fuelled jewellery objects: a firey red, glistering tiny horse is encased in a metallic cage – has it been racing too fast on the track; three little iridescent bluebirds are nestled (or are they trapped?) in an uncomfortable metal bed while a devil-faced ring chuckles to itself.
The gallery is thrumming with thrill seeking….. and trepidation. Board the ghost train! Take a gamble! Try your luck! Get your show bags here! Helen Britton is playfully teasing you with unheimlich tonight.
In one space, Britton critiques the institutional hierarchies of conventional art practice by cavorting with the violence of the decorative. Large scale drawings, lusty ornaments for impersonal white cube walls, echo the rich intricacies of body adornments that fill display cases.
In another area, industrial chic meets dystopian worlds where a floor sculpture – perhaps a mad architect’s model for an industrialized building zone; or is it an upscaled rendition of one of her works for the body – becomes the plinth for an array of jewellery forms that resonate with the clamour of mechanised modern life.
Suspended from the structure’s rigging or sited on its raised platforms, there are numerous rings, bracelets and necklaces composed variously of perforated or incised small drums; minature sprocket-like shapes and a conglomeration of metallic forms forged together as though they might be whirring noisily on a never-ending conveyor belt. It’s clever, thought-provoking stuff that jolts us unexpectedly into a baroque swirl of meaning making.
However it is in the centre of the room where public and private iconographies collide. On a simple unvarnished wooden trestle table lie numerous threaded collections of shells, of fish bones, of sea shore findings that record Helen Britton’s journeys between the physical worlds of Western Australia and Germany and personal memories.
Here and there, the self and the other, time and space, commingle around these portals for nostalgic reverie. By nostalgia, I do not mean the sweet endearments of an imagined past that is fixed indelibly in time, though I suspect such sentimentality may be one aspect in Helen Britton’s compendium of meanings that are available for playful consideration.
Rather, I am thinking of social historian Nadia Serematakis‘s notion of a painful longing that is imbued in the sensual and sensate forms of material culture; a longing that imagines other futures.
Embedded in the materiality of everyday life, in the here and now of viewing, these objects touch us with their familiarity and by their associative meanings transport us elsewhere.
These are the interstices of Helen Britton’s art that transfix me.
Interstices is showing as part of the Perth International Arts Festival until Sat 15 Apr 2017.
Ann Schilo was a former lecturer of Helen Britton when she studied at both Edith Cowan and Curtin universities in Western Australia.
I’m good at Monopoly, or at least I used to be. People stopped playing with me after a while.
It’s not like I’d rub it in when I won. I pride myself on not gloating. It’s just that the game of Monopoly sort of has rubbing it in built into the game. It’s rare to lose quickly at Monopoly. Usually, getting beaten takes about an hour. It’s a well-known feature of the game, so much so that on the rare occasion that someone does get decimated in one or two turns, it’s all the more embarrassing for them.
Artist Ash Thorp has dropped the second print inspired by his short film “Lost Boy.” “The Observer” is a 24″ x 36″ screenprint and costs $60 each. These are being sold as a timed edition through March 7th. Visit LostBoyWorld.com
Tom Whalen has an incredible catalog of posters and for the first time he’s offering mystery tubes. Each tube will contain three 18″ x 24″ screenprints, one mini-print, and will cost $50. These go up Wednesday (February 22nd) at 12PM EST. Visit StrongStuff.net
Mad Duck Posters will release this new The Third Man poster by AJ Frena. It’s a 18″ x 36″ screenprint, has an edition of 130, and costs $65. These will be available Wednesday (February 22nd) at 12PM EST. Visit MadDuckPosters.com.
The Bungaloo aka John Vogl has two great new concert posters up for sale plus art prints of each illustration. The info for each is below. Visit TheBungaloo.com.
Lotus Winter Tour 2017 by The Bungaloo
18″ x 24″ Screenprint, Edition of 50, $20:
STS9 NYE 2016 by The Bungaloo
18″ x 24″ Screenprint, Edition of 40, $30:
STS9 NYE 2016 by The Bungaloo (Rainbow Foil Variant)
18″ x 24″ Screenprint, Edition of 10, $40: