You’ll excuse me if I haven’t got all the Burtynsky out of my system. Sometimes a work really gets into me in a good way, and I’d like to explore some of the issues a little bit longer. One of the more practical things I think about is when will I reach a level of skill that I’m comfortable with? When will I find a project which can be, as Burtynsky says, “a life’s work”? In a Twitch Film interview, he speaks about coming to the project that made him known when he was in his 40s:
Between 1985 and when I opened my business in 1990, there’s a gap there where I didn’t really produce any personal work. I thought I was sunk as an artist because I couldn’t ever get out of my own creation as a business; I thought it was just going to eat me alive. Then I was encouraged by some really key people to go out and back into the world. As he put it to me, “What would you do if the business were off your back and you could just do whatever you wanted to do?” I immediately answered, “I would go and shoot quarries because they’ve been on my mind for the last four-five years.” He said, “Do it. Just go do it. I’ll buy 10 of the prints but you’ve got to make them.”
So he snapped me out of an insane period of my life where I was working seven days a week and fourteen hours a day, exhausted. I started researching quarries and then it was that quarry series that really was the beginning of my larger acceptance into the world of art and my larger acceptance internationally as an artist. It was the beginning of the path towards an international presence and towards the ability to become totally self-sustaining as an artist.
And I think that’s a huge question. How does an artist or photographer sustain himself without having achieved any amount of presence?
By coincidence, I came upon this Malcolm Gladwell New Yorker article that touches on this briefly:
Late Bloomers: Why do we equate genius with precocity? Gladwell sorts artists into two piles (a bit of an oversimplification, but it’s illustrative, I suppose). There are the so-called geniuses who make their name right out of the gate, when they’re young, by dint of what we consider raw talent. Then there are the late bloomers, who struggle through much of their career and only hit upon the idea or work that makes them known later in life. As an example, he contrasts two writers – Jonathan Safran Foer and Ben Fountain.
Foer becomes a recognized writer right out of college – while still in college, in fact, after taking a creative writing course on a whim and travelling to Eastern Europe for 3 days to search out his roots. That was the basis for his novel Everything is Illuminated. Fountain, on the other hand, started out in real-estate and quit his job to sit at his kitchen table and begin to write. He worked for 15 years before achieving renown with a book of stories called Brief Encounters with Che Guevara, for which he travelled to Haiti 30 times.
Gladwell goes on to make the depressing point that the marketplace does not support artists who develop over longer periods of time. They must either eke out a living doing something not directly related to their work, or rely on the kindness of others. Fountain, for instance, relied on his wife, who was in essence, his patron.
That word has a condescending edge to it today, because we think it far more appropriate for artists (and everyone else for that matter) to be supported by the marketplace. But the marketplace works only for people like Jonathan Safran Foer, whose art emerges, fully realized, at the beginning of their career, or Picasso, whose talent was so blindingly obvious that an art dealer offered him a hundred-and-fifty-franc-a-month stipend the minute he got to Paris, at age twenty. If you are the type of creative mind that starts without a plan, and has to experiment and learn by doing, you need someone to see you through the long and difficult time it takes for your art to reach its true level.
This is the final lesson of the late bloomer: his or her success is highly contingent on the efforts of others. Sharie [Fountain] might well have said no to her husband’s repeated trips to the chaos of Haiti. She could have argued that she had some right to the life style of her profession and status—that she deserved to drive a BMW, which is what power couples in North Dallas drive, instead of a Honda Accord.
But she believed in her husband’s art, or perhaps, more simply, she believed in her husband. Late bloomers’ stories are invariably love stories, and this may be why we have such difficulty with them. We’d like to think that mundane matters like loyalty, steadfastness, and the willingness to keep writing checks to support what looks like failure have nothing to do with something as rarefied as genius. But sometimes genius is anything but rarefied; sometimes it’s just the thing that emerges after twenty years of working at your kitchen table.
So on some level, we equate genius not always with the caliber of the final product but with the method in which it’s produced. So it seems late bloomers have to depend on others in what is considered a somewhat undignified position in this society, or suffer the distraction of building a side career or business that has nothing really to do with the work they want to be doing.
But I suppose that isn’t really surprising. What alternatives are there?