Choices Are Your Job as an Artist

Deciding what to keep and what to get rid of is always a difficult task. For example, my mother has sold my childhood home (in fact she is moving out today after 34 years). So I had gone up to Connecticut a few weeks ago with the express purpose of culling through whatever was left there which had my name on it. Boxes and boxes of school papers and homework, notes and objects which were the butt of some inside joke in high school which I've long since forgot. Like most people in the city, I've got a limited amount of extra space to put boxes full of paper that I may never look at again, so I had to go through, one by one and be the judge. It was difficult and emotionally stressful, but in the end I was left with 2 bankers boxes worth of stuff which I had shipped down to my place in Brooklyn. Sure, there are photographers like Jay Maisel who have rooms full of slides. Remember though, that's 60 years worth of personal and professional work. He's also got a 35,000 square foot building and an actual bank vault to keep them all in.

Nowadays, things are much more compact.  I consider myself a fairly prolific photographer having shot hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of people in the past 5 years. I shoot RAW on a 21MP camera, I edit 16 bit files and rarely flatten layers. Even so, I can just about fit every image file I have, all 70,000 of them,  on a 2TB drive. In fact my "God forbid my building falls to the center of the earth through the hole that spontaneously opened up beneath it while I was away" folder of hi-res final jpegs is about 12GB. That's everything that I care about that I've ever shot and it would fit on my iPhone.

At a party a couple weeks ago I saw a girl with some entry-level SLR blasting off full-auto machine gun bursts of pictures while barely through the viewfinder.  Click-Click-Click-Click-Click-Click-Click "Sure, I'll have another beer", Click-Click-Click-Click-Click-Click. Don't get me started on the fact that it was already pretty dark, especially for the f/3.5 or whatever her kit lens was. I felt like an old man with my hackles up. Part of me wanted to give her a stern talking to about all the photographers over the years who considered every frame precious and how she was doing harm to their memory, but don't worry, I held my tongue. Mostly though I was thinking, "Why does she need 6 nearly identical frames of the same picture which she's not taking with any seriousness anyway, and how the hell does she go through all those pictures?"  She probably doesn't, she probably just loads them into iPhoto and uploads the whole lot of them to Facebook.

Digital makes it too easy now. You can literally take a 1000 pictures a day if you really want to. In fact, I know some people who probably do, and a subset of them who keep them all, every single frame. I know people with literally drawers full of terabyte size drives full of pictures. When you ask them about it, they usually say something about how they never throw anything away because they might need them someday. They're image hoarders (A new reality show premiering next season on A&E). Seriously, these people have problems and they honestly believe that out of hundreds of thousands of pictures, one day they're going to need some slightly out-of-focus test shot that they completely ignored the first time through. But allow me to let you in on a little secret: You don't need to keep them all. In fact, I would argue that you shouldn't keep them all.

Let's take the example above from my shoot with Caroline a couple days ago. Three pictures, all fairly similar, but like in contact sheets of old, I CHOSE one and marked it in red for you. That's right, I made a choice. Novel concept isn't it.  And before you point out that I kept 3 of them to show you, I'd like to point out that I deleted at least 15 similar shots that didn't make the cut down to three. Out of the 191 images I took that night, 72 of them made the first cut of one star which means "Might I ever actually use this picture? Yes". The other 119? Show all images with zero stars. Select all. Delete.

I read an article somewhere the other day where scientists had taught a robot with a camera to follow the 'rule of thirds' which has been taught to every budding visual artist for centuries. There will come a time in the very near future where just taking a pleasing image won't be enough. We're already there in many ways, with billions of images getting created every day. Our problem isn't making things, our problem is wading through the myriad of them to find the ones that matter. And that job rests on everyone's shoulders. If all your doing is taking 30 pictures and throwing them all up on Flickr you're missing half the point and only doing the easy part.

Your job as an artist is about making choices. To go more to the point, your ONLY job as an artist is about making choices. For as long as we've been painting on walls, but now even more than ever, art is about editing. You make a decision. You make a statement.  A statement about who you are and what you're trying to say. Your job is to create signal and not just more noise. Always remember that.