A short while ago I was lucky enough to spend four days in beautiful Port Townsend, Washington in the company of some very special people. The occasion was the second gathering of the Artist’s Round Table (ART) hosted by Ray Ketcham and Sabrina Henry. They are half of the talented team behind Rear Curtain, and they are extraordinary. They assembled a small group of photographers who were generous and brave enough to bring more than just their talent to the table. They brought questions, and curiosity, and a willingness to dig deep to discover why we all want to make photographs and what we want them to say.
If you are a regular reader of this blog, you know that I am attracted to photography as a story-telling medium. That’s why I love Rear Curtain so much. Not only does it provide examples of beautifully presented photo stories and essays, it is dedicated to teaching the art and craft of visual storytelling. Through links from the Rear Curtain website I can be mesmerized by master storyteller Ken Burns. And when that standard feels too high to ever be met by a mere mortal like me, I can return to the encouraging words of Ira Glass: “The most important possible thing you can do is do a lot of work . . . It’s gonna take a while . . . and you just have to fight your way through it.”
I thought of those words more than once as the discussion left me feeling as foggy as the image at the top of this post. We talked at length about vision and voice, we looked through books of images by legends in photography, and we viewed each other’s work. By the end of Friday I was pretty certain I didn’t belong in the room and I had nothing significant to say, photographically speaking. I’m so glad ART was a multi-day experience. I don’t think even Ira Glass could have persuaded me on Friday.
My epiphany came on Saturday, when Ray invited local writer Kathryn Hunt to speak to us. She read a beautiful passage from the memoir she is writing and that’s when the ideas we had been talking about began to make sense for me. Memoir is a literary form I love. I belong to a memoir reading group and at one meeting we discussed the difference between autobiography and memoir. Autobiography tends to be factual and chronological and spans an entire life. “I did this, and then I did this”, and so on. Memoirs are often less encompassing, but more concerned with feeling and meaning. Both are legitimate forms, but I find memoir much more interesting.
As the penny dropped in my mind I couldn’t help blurting out, “I’ve been making autobiography when what I really want to make is memoir!” When Ray nearly fell out of his chair, I knew I was on to something. Art must be a conversation, Ray told us. Conversations aren’t started by saying, “I saw this. And then I saw this.” But if I can convey how it felt to me to be there, what it meant to me, then you might be moved to think of a similar experience, or a time when you felt that way. What we share can be as simple as joy, but now we can talk about it.
Of course it is much, much (much) harder to create images that convey meaning, that tell a story, that invite conversation. But those are the images that people return to, to look at again and for longer. Those are the images that matter.
And for all our variety in subject matter, vision and voice, all of us at ART strive to create work that matters. Thank you, Ray and Sabrina, and Stuart, Matt, Ken, Jacob, Cami, Ellie, Brian and Daniel. I don’t often find myself stealing lines from Jack Nicholson movies, but you all make me want to be a better photographer.
I’ll close with a quote from a favorite book from a favorite author, On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft by Stephen King. When he says “writing” you say “photography” and you’ll see it works.
You can approach the act of writing with nervousness, excitement, hopefulness, or even despair — the sense that you can never completely put on the page what’s in your mind and heart. You can come to the act with your fists clenched and your eyes narrowed, ready to kick ass and take down names. You can come to it because you want a girl to marry you or because you want to change the world. Come to it any way but lightly. Let me say it again: You must not come lightly to the blank page.
I’m not asking you to come reverently or unquestioningly; I’m not asking you to be politically correct or cast aside your sense of humor (please God you have one). This isn’t a popularity contest, it’s not the moral Olympics, and it’s not church. But it’s writing, damn it, not washing the car or putting on eyeliner. If you can take it seriously, we can do business. If you can’t or won’t, it’s time for you to close the book and do something else.
Wash the car, maybe.