Art can be transformative when artists take an active role in what ultimately is an ongoing creative process. If you’re still copying others or repeating your own early successes, you’re not growing. It’s difficult to recognize when your creative work is derivative of the limited influences closest to you, unless you make moves toward expanding your frame of reference. Seek feedback from other artists. Take ownership of your tastes by studying the greats, even those whose work may not align perfectly with your own interests, and most certainly those whose work stands as a direct affront to the meaning and purpose you search for through your creative endeavors. The smaller your frame of reference, the more likely you are to endlessly repeat what you already know, which ultimately is merely yourself. Self-indulgence is a tricky thing, because it super-charges the ego, but it does absolutely nothing for growth.
One of my favorite quotes on photography comes from Julia Margaret Cameron, the 19th century British portraitist who took up photography late in life and said of her first experience:
“From the first moment I handled my lens with a tender ardour, and it has become to me as a living thing, with voice and memory and creative vigour.”
That quote is the inspiration for my Instagram tag, tender_ardour, which of course is also the name of this Blog.
I have to laugh when I think of the first time I held and used a camera myself. I was 8 or 9 years old and I was thrilled when my dad let me try out his old 110 camera. These were introduced by Kodak in 1972 and the technical quality wasn’t great. I didn’t understand why the scenes I composed in my mind weren’t fully realized in the final prints, but I was getting a taste.
When I was 10, my best friend, Andrea and I borrowed her dad’s 35mm camera for the day and took turns photographing in her neighborhood. I was getting hooked, and I longed for a camera of my own.
My older sister, Eve saved up her babysitting money and got one of the first Kodak Disc cameras that came out in the 80s. On a family trip through South Dakota, she let me take a few shots with it. We hiked together in the Badlands and I photographed our shadows cast on the side of one of the towering buttes at dusk, its spire still glimmering orange and purple hues as the sun light softened in the distance. The scene was ideal for a camera of any quality to capture something wonderful.
Our parents had the film processed at a drug store somewhere along the way and we got to see the pictures the next day. My father was a man of few words, which is why some of my most vivid memories from childhood are moments when he spoke directly to me. He told me that if I ever entered a photography contest, I should submit that picture of my sister and I shadow dancing in the Badlands of South Dakota.
When I was 15 and entering 10th grade, I signed up for photography courses through a program called Career Center, which was offered through the Omaha Public School system as part of the high school curriculum. My parents lent me the money to purchase my own 35mm camera for that program. It was a Pentax K1000, and I used it throughout much of my time as a BFA student at the Kansas City Art Institute as well. Then I started experimenting with medium formant cameras. The first one I acquired was a Yashica mat 124 and later, when I started grad school for photography in Buffalo, I purchased a Pentax 67, and eventually a Hasselblad 500c.
I now shoot digitally almost exclusively, and I’ve owned numerous DSLRs. The technology is vastly different than when I was tinkering with my Dad’s old 110 camera as a kid, and it continues to evolve. For me, the feeling of excitement when holding that camera for the first time came more from the creative possibilities brought on by a new tool, than from the tool itself. All these years later, I still get that feeling when I set out to take pictures wherever my camera leads me.