Some of the notebooks I’ve filled over four years of writing.
Ok, this is a bit little weird. I am for the first time publishing a retroactive post, one coming hot on the heels of a piece where I declare an end to writing this blog. I hope the reasons for doing this will soon become clear if they have not already from the title, and allow me to reassure you that this will indeed be the last. In the wake of my decision to stop writing Disphotic last week quite a few people commented on the blog’s demise by remarking how urgently the photography world needs critical voices. I fully agree, but those voices need to belong to someone, and I feel I have more than said my bit. While I didn’t mention it in my piece last week another reason for abandoning Disphotic was the fear that in time that it too would become part of the detestable canon of voices on photography. Other writers, younger and older, with different ideas and experiences, need to take up the baton which I’ve dropped. Disphotic’s end can be seen, in a way, as a making room for them.
To that end, what I’ve assembled here is a very brief guide on how to be a photography writer. By that I do not mean someone who writes technical reviews about the latest camera, or rehashes the official line on the latest book or exhibition, these are technicians and hacks. What I mean by a writer is someone who through the medium of words sets out to be a thorn in the side of everything and everyone that is wrong with contemporary photography, and in doing so to illuminate and explore it with and for other people. On the off chance that someone reading this might desire to do this, here are a few suggestions for going about it:
Just start – Right now. Seriously, what better things are you going to do today? Put pen to paper, fingers to keys, and say something about something, whether for yourself or for others.
Write, write, write – Some wordsmiths might disagree, but for me writing is unnatural and the only way to do it and do it well was to do it as constantly as I could manage. Carry a notebook or equivalent everywhere with you and write anytime you have time to kill or an idea emerges into your brain. This writing needn’t be about photography, just practise articulating something. Write about the look of a room, the feeling of something experienced, or an unexpected thought. I can only speak for myself when I say that writing is like a deep course of water, where the great majority of the effort and energy remains down deep, unseen and unreachable but still completely necessary for the pleasant shallows we bask in.
Have an opinion – This is easy, and it is also hard. When you go to a show, look at a book, or hear someone talk, you’ll have an instinctive reaction to it. Tune in to that, listen to what your heart says about something. Criticism, for me, is taking that instinctive response to something and spending some time with it, trying to articulate and figure out where it comes from, then deciding whether you also agree with it intellectually. The hardest things to write are where the head and the heart disagree, but those are sometimes also the best. (Also it’s fine to feel the same way as everyone else about something and critics needn’t always be contrary, but those feelings always need to be double or triple questioned.)
Read everything – Some writers claim literary influence kills innate style. For those of us who had no style to start with it also helps us to manufacture something which passes for it. Read everything you can get your hands on, from fact and theory to fiction and poetry. An idea, a reference, an archaic term or a turn of phrase; all are fodder for your future attempts to figure out what a photographer or artist is trying to do (whether they know it themselves or not) and then articulate that to other people.
Critics can’t have friends – Many critics, even the big shots, write about their friends, or people they want to influence or catch the eye of. It’s nice to be wanted, to get invited to stuff and all the rest, but if you are lonely just get a dog, it will be simpler in the long run and probably more thought provoking as well. Blogging is influence and influence is power, take that seriously and use it right. People will ask you to write about them, only do it when you actually like the work, and if there are conflicts of interest declare them to your readers. It’s that simple. Call out writers who don’t do this, they drag the rest of us and what we do down with them. From time to time stop and check you are not becoming one of them.
Give yourself parameters – Take it from me, you can’t take them all on however much you want to. Give yourself a focus and a target for how much to publish and when. Write about a particular branch of photography, or a particular practice, do it in a particular way. Look at what other people are writing about, emulate those you admire or better still pick a niche all of your own.
Tear up the press release – If all you plan to do is rephrase the press releases that get sent to you, please don’t bother blogging. There are enough people already doing this, including people who are actually getting paid for it. On a practical note, set up a fake e-mail account and politely request all galleries and artists that they use this for their mailings rather than your actual account. It will extend the life of your delete key.
Think about for whom you write – At the start that may just be yourself, as it was for me. As an audience grows you should take the time observe it. It will have demands on you, often these will be confusing, contradictory ones. Consider how far you adjust what you to do those, or just continue in your own rut. Both approaches have things to commend and condemn them.
Go looking for trouble – Comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. Do your research and then do it again, brush up on libel law, and speak truth to power.