18. The Photography Contest
In ceramics we make complex three-dimensional forms with luscious and intricate subtleties of texture, color, and tone. These objects have weight and balance and often interact with food and drink in delightful and clever ways. Unfortunately, these are not the successes that will drive your career. The shows you get into, the schools you get into, and the jobs you get into are all the result of photographs.
It’s a photography contest. People even alter the direction of their own work so that it can be more easily understood as a two-dimensional image. They’ll tweak the lighting and focus so that the photograph looks better than the actual piece. They’ll spend hundreds, even thousands, of dollars paying professional product photographers to create the images we see on the magazine covers. I have nothing good to say about it and no solution to offer for it. We are three-dimensional artists and we suffer.
One day, in graduate school, our professors were brave enough to show us the slides they had each used to get into their respective graduate schools. This was work of the early seventies being shown to students in the late eighties, and we all had a good laugh. They had been lucky. The people judging their work, judging them in effect, had looked past the flawed settings and techniques of the photographs, past even the flaws in the work being photographed to see the value inherent in the direction of their attempts.
Today I fear the photographs of our work are being judged only as photographs without regard for them as windows into a more important reality. Further, digital cameras and image manipulation software will test the ethics of our profession more and more. Who among us will have the nerve to question why the slide looks better than the piece? Or to say that a photograph has been ‘color compensated’ inappropriately?
At the International Woodfire Conference [Iowa City, Iowa, 1999] a small breakout group on the subject of ‘folk potters’ argued light-heartedly about just how to identify a folk potter in these days of global influence and marketing. The next afternoon, while someone struggled with an uncooperative slide projector, I leaned over to Kim Ellington, a Carolina potter who had been part of the discussion and said, “I think I’ve got a definition of a folk potter.” He looked interested. “A folk potter doesn’t have to know anything about slides or slide projectors.”
For the rest of us, photography is how we communicate our images, and complaining about it will not help. Spend time, spend effort, spend money, but do what it takes to keep the flaws in your photographs from distracting people from the virtues in your work. It’s all we can do to protect ourselves from the tyranny of those two-dimensional arrays of colored dots.
If it helps, think of the pot and photograph of the pot as each seeking to achieve the same result, the approval of another human being.
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