Rediscovering My Grip

As a young teenager, I identified first and foremost as a photographer.  At the time, the designation meant little more to me than "I have a camera and a knack for using it," but it was supremely important to me, as any self-designation is to a girl of that age.

This is not a unique origin story. Around the time I turned thirteen, I was one of surely thousands of people my age, particularly girls, gaining an interest in photography on the early versions of Instagram. From eighth grade through my junior year of high school, it became a very consuming hobby in the best of ways: hanging out with friends would mean impromptu photo shoots, snow days would mean long-winded conceptual projects that involved moving all the furniture out of a room and back again before my parents got home, and I went to photography meetups before fifteen-year-olds meeting people off the internet was quite considered normal. It was an absolute haven for me. I was never an outcast, but I also never quite felt like I fit in at school, and Photography Instagram provided me with a massive community of like-minded people, endless inspiration, and something I could look forward to after school each day. It gave me the greatest sense of joy and identity you could possibly get at fifteen. At the time, photography wasn’t just part of my everyday, photos were my everyday. My camera and I were joined at the hip. I started a blog and shared photo diaries, and my network of Instagram followers grew to over five thousand—more remarkable at the time than it is now. I worked mainly in self-portraits, but also snapped pictures of my daily life, my friends, and anything I felt driven to. The line between formal and informal, amateur and professional, was blurred.

When I was seventeen, I got to do this thing that I now just describe as "a brush with some big names" or "the workshop." I often refer to it in vague terms because it was a profound experience for me, and I tend to want to keep it wrapped up in its box without trivializing it by dropping names or going on and on (a restraint which is admittedly very unlike me). But to lay it plain, I was part of a project with Alec Soth that he named the Winnebago Workshop, which was a serendipitous experiment in visual storytelling involving eight teenagers, a gutted RV, a cross-country road trip, and a shiny cast of guest artists (among them Tamara Shopsin, Sarah Urist Green and her husband John Green, and a man who has done creative direction for Apple campaigns). We did short projects with guest artists, and worked individually on art that we displayed at a party in Brooklyn at the end of our trip. It was grant-funded so I didn't have to pay a dime. We got lots of free coffee and an after hours tour of the MoMA. Three years later, I am still processing the experience. 

I've kept it vague because when I talk about all my loaded feelings, I mean no disrespect to Alec. He's an incredible photographer. He's approachable, so long as you understand that quietness is his nature, and in person he can be a walking dad joke as much as any midwestern dad you've ever met. He wants to teach and help and understand the world. I enjoyed every moment of the workshop and learned too many things to count going from Milwaukee to Pittsburgh to Syracuse and every musty grocery store and greasy sandwich shop and firefly field in between. I would not trade the experience for anything.

But as an artist, it paralyzed me as much as it all fascinated me.

The fact of the matter is that these are people who are very high up in the Art world, the kind of people whose prints sell for five figures and whose Kickstarter projects get shared by TIME magazine. And when you're seventeen and you want a career as an artist and that's who you're suddenly plunked down next to, well, that's who you decide you want to be like. I hadn't brushed up against the professional Fine Art Photography world before, and to think that I too could someday have my work in the collection of the MoMA was self-inflating and exhilarating. I knew I had a talent, and wanted to put it to use and make important and impressive art.

Voraciously, I began to consume the artwork of Alec and his peers, which is some incredibly beautiful stuff. It had a dark edge and a grown-up air of profundity. I soon learned that they mostly kept mysterious social media presences and refrained from showing their faces or talking about themselves much, and Alec's own tastes would rub off on me in conversation. Of course, all these things were just discussed as a matter of opinion and personal preference, not elitism, but opinion is everything when looking to make a career in art. So I took it all to heart before I ever realized I did.

Throughout the Workshop, I deliberately kept my photography Instagram a secret from Alec and the other teaching artists, even when I had the chance to be credited on New Yorker Photo's Instagram. I was ashamed of my girly work and of my totally un-mysterious social media self. It felt too young and cute and vacuous and tasteless. I had to present a portfolio at my interview for the workshop, so they'd seen my photographs, but that was tailored, and I kept the rest of my artwork, and perhaps even myself, hidden.

In the months that followed, I felt I needed to absorb more of the world I wanted to join––this was growing up as an artist, I thought, and I’m ready to do it. Of course, I couldn't fill an entire Instagram feed with the small contemporary canon, so I looked for other young people who were working towards a similar aesthetic. I unfollowed a lot of the people whose work I used to look up to, and I essentially followed a bunch of men who posted Hasselblad photos of gas stations in the desert at night. And really, just to boil it down, what the hell was I thinking?

It was complicated. In the months leading up to the Workshop, I was increasingly putting my focus on other things, and I was artistically jaded in a different way back then too. The change in direction was a positive challenge for me in some respects. Several months earlier, the mother of my then-boyfriend had made some teasing comments most of my pictures looking similar–which wasn't untrue. I tasked myself with branching out. I took pictures of friends and strangers in the dark at a football game, pictures of myself crying, pictures of people holding hands, and pictures of scenes around me in a way I hadn't before.

But later on, in the shadow of the Workshop, I overcompensated. With all this new knowledge came a set of rules for myself and a tendency to operate out of fear. Keeping my camera on me grew to feel cumbersome. I had trained myself to believe that snapshots were trivial and vapid and the realm of struggling wedding photographers and mommy bloggers and that my work needed to be more important than that. I told myself I'd do a project about my senior year of high school––but with the goal of making it an art book. I did not allow myself photography for the joy of it.

And yet, for my last few years of high school, it felt like a given to me that I would go on to study photography in college. Even waiting on my decision from my dream school, I stalked my competitors and developed a superiority complex because my work was "art" and "interesting" when that of my peers was supposedly too commercial or sophomoric. I still consider it a badge of honor that I was admitted, but also a massive blessing that I stopped short of enrolling. My focus had shifted. The fulfillment I’d once sought wasn’t there anymore, but I didn’t notice it yet. 

Later, film photography became an outlet for the snapshots I'd foregone. With all those Hasselblad Bro photos on my feed came the belief that film was the wiser way. I've never fully internalized the idea, but I've had to fight it hard. Most art-museum type photographers shoot with large format film, and many of their imitators shoot 35mm. Somehow, the wisdom-bearing qualities of film made the photographer more professional, less childish. More meaningful, oh, it's so intentional and contemplative and raw and authentic and true to the craft. I've always challenged myself to shoot digital and transcend that, but when I’d hit points of paralysis, that notion was a blessing to me. It allowed me to take pictures of my daily life again, because the filminess would somehow make them more valid, less Travel Blog and more Stephen Shore. For the last couple of years I've been prioritizing film without much thought because it felt like an acceptable way to shoot the subject matter I was drawn to. But the cost of supplies made it so that I was taking far fewer pictures than I used to. I wasn’t building a career at an age when it felt necessary to justify my hobby with one.

I am still proud of the artwork I made during those few years. It was a quiet period of slow-burning growth for me. I focused on music and developed other talents. I experimented in my photography and I spent a lot of time with friends. But as a visual artist, the whole time I felt like I was losing my grip.

It truly wasn't until the last couple of months that the realization at the heart of this ramble surfaced: I will regret the pictures I don't take far, far more than I could ever regret the ones I do, and that if I let social media, laziness, and ingrained notions of art prevent me from capturing my memories and the beauty of the world, well then, I am a coward.

I recently rediscovered some photos I took during the workshop. Not the images I exhibited at the end, not even the ones that made it to Instagram, but snapshots. Daily life scenes that felt anything but artistic to me at the time. Three years later, they mean just as much to me as any published image ever has. The line between formal and informal is beginning to blur again and I am falling comfortably into the middle.

Nirrimi's work has played a role in my own reflection, discovery, and validation on this front. I don't cite people as inspiration lightly, for fear of pigeon-hole-ing myself, but I've had an undeniable pull to the extremely beautiful normal-ness of her photos, and it has helped me grow into myself. She mentioned once that she makes an effort to keep Instagram from being a space where she doesn’t “end up on the kind of profiles that act as comparison traps,” which prompted me to explore the short list of 72 people she's following. There, I discovered food and nutrition pages, children's book illustrators, normal-looking people, and lots of blogs full of travel photography. You would perhaps think someone with such an illustrious photography career might be following some art gallery names or designers or even other big-name photographers. But instead I found sunset photos, smoothies, soft and creamy digital pictures of the world around us, the ocean, family photos, flowers, simple and colorful drawings, and a few of the women making conceptual portraits whom I'd unfollowed years ago out of shame and elitism.

And I love it. I am to the point where it all makes me want to throw my hands up and jump for joy. I am shaking inside and kicking myself left and right for all the beauty I missed out on when I was so jaded.

I will never go as far in my feminist critique as the graduate student in my literature class who once wrote about Big Ben (yes, the clock tower) as a "masculine urban phallus," but I also feel there is something empoweringly feminine about eschewing the stark, elitist and voyeuristic nature of (male-dominated) celebrated fine art photography in favor of something so much more considerate and emotional and unabashedly personal and dare-I-even-say domestic. Not to say that women are all these things or can't be stark (I am by no means an essentialist)––but it subverts what and whom we consider to be important and noteworthy in photography and how we expect the true "artist" to behave. It is freeing not to hold myself to a historically masculine standard. Screw a cold gallery wall. Give me a family photo album, a drawing on a napkin, pictures of your friends on a spring night.

Because what even is "importance" in art if it's not important to you? what even is "meaning" if it doesn't mean something in your own heart? What is "interesting" if it doesn't interest you? To whom will your artwork mean anything if it doesn't mean anything to you yourself? For years I fumbled with the Big Question of “where photography fits into my life” by forcing all my spare energy into trying to make something of status, and wondering how I could adjust my art to be doing something novel while also impressing the powers that be. But it's a paradox, and a worthless one.

And I think I've finally answered my own question.