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Those Who Inspire Me (and Why) — A Media Book by Brooks Jensen

Each Thursday Brooks records another commentary and we post it here at LensWork Online. The audio versions are found here. There is also a text version for each commentary for those who prefer to read rather than listen.

From the Author's Preface:

"I started writing this book about 7 years ago. After considerable thought, instead of publishing this content as traditional book, Those Who Inspire Me (and Why) will be published here, as a series of downloadable audios and text. Consider it a small token of my immense gratitude to all those who have pioneered this way of life that I love, and a passing-on of the invaluable contributions they've made to our creative lives." Brooks Jensen, Anacortes, Washington, 2019

A Contemporary Explorer

Don Kirby — Knowing Before Photographing

Don Kirby — like all the photographers in this book — is a masterful photographer, and an especially talented gelatin silver printer. There is enough in his craft for him to make many peoples' "most inspirational" photographers, but that's not why he makes my list. The lesson that I learned from Kirby can be seen in his project and book titled Wheatcountry.

This project consists of landscape photographs Kirby has made in the Eastern Washington landscape known as the Palouse. I've been there many times, tried to photograph there many times, and generally found my results uninspired. It was only after Kirby's book was published that I understood the root cause of my frustrations — I had not grown up in the area and did not know it as intimately as I would have needed to in order to be successful. This is the kind of landscape that can be miles and miles of wheat fields underneath featureless blue skies. That is generally not a combination that leads to very many lucky photographs. Wandering in such a landscape, as I have done, demonstrated for me one of the primary weaknesses of what I now call PBWA — photography by wandering around. Oh sure, it's always possible to get lucky, but the root of that kind of approach is the assumption that photography is about photography. It's not. In fact I'd go even further and propose that photography is not even about photographs. Photography is, or should be, about life and when the photographer doesn't have anything to say it's difficult to make artwork that is compelling.

Said more specifically, I didn't really know the Palouse; the subtlety of its seasons were not a part of my experience; the people who live there and the lives of challenge they lead were not stories I could tell; and without that background my photographs were empty. I am not suggesting that one can only photograph in one's own neighborhood or from one's own experience, but that is an advantage that is undeniable. A great deal of Ansel Adams' success came because he lived in Yosemite and knew it on such an intimate level. Don Kirby's success in the Palouse is because of his intimate knowledge of the region and his ability, through exquisite craftsmanship, to express that experience in his photographs. The beginning of artmaking is not the mastery of craft, but the experience, wisdom, and insight of the artist. I have no doubt that I might have been able to be more successful in the Palouse had I known more about it, but lacking that knowledge I had little experience to translate into artwork and that disadvantage cannot be compensated for with any level of skill.

I do believe that a talented and sensitive photographer can make an interesting photograph anywhere they find themselves. Making an interesting photograph, however, is a considerably different thing than telling a story of a place whose purpose is to reveal for the outsider its intimate nature. It's often said that seeing must come before photographing. True, but related to seeing, and perhaps even before that, comes knowing. It's not always possible, but as I say, it is advantageous.

Kirby had made the photographs I wish I had made. In looking at his body of work, I felt confident that I could compose images as he had done; I could print a reasonably well-crafted image as he had done; I could even feel the inspiration and love of the landscape as he had done; I could not, to my frustration, imbue my photographs with that sense of experience, memory, even childhood memory, as he had done because I simply did not possess them.

Kirby's book had a profound influence on my photography. With the realization of the importance of the experiential as a primary forming component in the making of artwork, I turned my attention to those subjects that could express experiences or emotions with which I was intimately familiar. To put it colloquially, my photography became more mine. As a consequence, my photography became far less imitative.

Photography by imitation is a reasonably universal and seductive dead-end. I know very few photographers who began their passion with photography without the influence of someone whose work lit their fire. We start with the hero, and plunge in. The long phase of developing our craft is often simply a prolonged learning curve so that we can more successfully imitate our hero. Unfortunately, far too often the magnetism of such a hero becomes a pull too strong to resist. How many photographers can you think of whose career has been essentially becoming a clone of someone more famous or more successful? Letting go of our hero is the first step to finding our own voice and doing so is often a matter of looking inward to our own experiences, our own emotions, our own life, as the inspiration for our work.

By this, I am not suggesting that self-directed photography implies egoistic expression. I've often quoted Anaïs Nin, "Do not speak unless spoken through." The great challenge is to find the intersection between life and our experience of life and it is in that sense that we allow ourselves to be spoken through. Kirby's work gives voice to the Palouse. In what often touches the fringes of mysticism, artists speak of the work creating itself. Kirby's photography gives the Palouse a voice, but it is Kirby's voice — Kirby's photographs — that make that landscape so wonderful to behold.