Risk

When I was climbing in the late 1960’s, we were on our own. Bad decisions or getting in beyond our skill level could be fatal. Pushing the boundaries of what we could do made us far better–and faster–than if there was a way to back out when things got tough. There was no fancy high-tech safety equipment and yes, they had helicopters but there was no way to contact them or to call for help.

Today entire companies are built around providing the illusion of risk. This is how we live now when it comes to experiences that used to be dangerous to life and limb. Safety equipment and satellite phones are sophisticated to the point where real risk requires Darwinian stupidity to have any consequences. Parents hover over their children and wrap them in foam because of the worry and what appears to be a civil right to be safe and risk-free in everything they do from the classroom to the playground. It is the new way of trying activities that in the past were full of danger without any real results for messing up.

The illusionary risk industry with its imaginary dangers has bled into other fields and become a detriment to creative thinking and personal responsibility. Today people want to make sure their work is sellable or liked by legions of fans. They avoid risk by sticking to the lowest common denominator and doing work that is currently popular with their fans. All it takes is a smidgeon of “different” tossed in to seem creative or to play up the technical to make work appear as if it is new or innovative.

Real artists take risks, career-ending risks.

They take on the “what if I do this” without the safety net. All the artists I know who are doing innovative work, pushing the conversations they are engaged in forward, are doing so in ways that transcend the craft of the medium they pursue. They take true risks with both their reputation and their use of the craft. Where craftsmen use craft as intended without pushing the boundaries to achieve a result outside the medium, artists use craft to serve the content and not the other way around.

The confusion between art and craft is rampant in the photography world. Today it seems everything is considered art and those who excel at their chosen craft are now called artists. This devalues both these terms and is an insult to those in history who took the risks and made sacrifices to create work that changed how we see. Craft has value as craft, not as art. Artists have an obligation to bend, break, hammer, reshape the craft to provide the meaning in art.

Accepting popular notions of what makes it good art is never a place artists want to find themselves. That thinking is fine for commercial work but has no place in art. Doing what appeals to the largest mass of people leads to stagnation—or worse, decoration or kitsch—and it is a far distance from the conversation art is. It is, at best, a conversation with echoes.

2 comments

First, Ray, great to see you back here writing. We’ve been ‘net friend for a long time now, and I’ve always valued your opinions, in sights and words. In just a a few paragraphs here, you’ve given me a lot to think about.

Thanks Mark, I am still thinking of the Little Fingers series and how much your latest photos remind me of how fast time goes by.

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