Quick note: If you are one of the people who tried to contact me through my website recently, I apologize and did not receive your message. My e-mail was disconnected. I was disappointed to find this out, but it is fixed now. I hope to hear from you soon.
When I decided I wanted to become a photographer, I had no idea what I was doing. I took a lot of terrible photos and knew they weren’t good enough. I started a photography blog and was embarrassed by people’s reactions. I had so much desire to grow, but I felt worlds away from feeling like I had what it takes.
In all honesty, I quit photography before I began truly pursuing it. I let people’s opinions eat away at me and let the fear of failure control me.
But then, one day, someone told me something that gave me courage to stand back up and be brave enough to follow my passion. They told me that only I am going to live 100% of my own life. I am the one that wakes up to my own day and lives through both the consequences and the celebrations of my own decisions. We have control over our own mindsets, our own dreams, our own work ethic, our own drives to pursue the things that we love the most. Each of us is the only one walking 100% of life’s path, so each of us should be the one crafting that path.
We all want to be great. We all want to find fulfillment and make meaningful work. In order to truly reach your potential, you cannot give up. You cannot throw in the towel when it gets hard. The people who dig deep into their potential stick to the path. When it’s hard, when it’s hopeless, when everyone around you is doing the same thing, when you feel worthless, when you aren’t heard, you choose again and again to stay the course.
The Helsinki Bus Station Theory:
I read an amazing article recently by the wonderful writer James Clear (you should read his blog) in which he talked about photographer Arno Rafael Minkkinen’s commencement speech at the New England School of Photography.
He had one message: Stay on the Bus
Minkkinen started his speech talking about a bus station in Helsinki saying:
Some two-dozen platforms are laid out in a square at the heart of the city. At the head of each platform is a sign posting the numbers of the buses that leave from that particular platform. The bus numbers might read as follows: 21, 71, 58, 33, and 19.
Each bus takes the same route out of the city for a least a kilometer stopping at bus stop intervals along the way where the same numbers are again repeated: 21, 71, 58, 33, and 19.
Now let’s say, again metaphorically speaking, that each bus stop represents one year in the life of a photographer, meaning the third bus stop would represent three years of photographic activity.
Ok, so you have been working for three years making platinum studies of nudes. Call it bus #21.
You take those three years of work on the nude to the Museum of Fine Arts Boston and the curator asks if you are familiar with the nudes of Irving Penn. His bus, 71, was on the same line. Or you take them to a gallery in Paris and are reminded to check out Bill Brandt, bus 58, and so on.
Shocked, you realize that what you have been doing for three years others have already done.
So you hop off the bus, grab a cab (because life is short) and head straight back to the bus station looking for another platform.
This time you are going to make 8x10 view camera color snapshots of people lying on the beach from a cherry picker crane.
You spend three years at it and three grand and produce a series of works that illicit the same comment: haven’t you seen the work of Richard Misrach? Or, if they are steamy black and white 8x10 camera view of palm trees swaying off a beachfront, haven’t you seen the work of Sally Mann?
So once again, you get off the bus, grab the cab, race back and find a new platform. This goes on all your creative life, always showing new work, always being compared to others.
What to do?
It’s simple. Stay on the bus...
Why, because if you do, in time you will begin to see a difference.
He goes on explaining...
The buses that move out of Helsinki stay on the same line but only for a while, maybe a kilometer or two. Then they begin to separate, each number heading off to its own unique destination. Bus 33 suddenly goes north, bus 19 southwest.
For a time maybe 21 and 71 dovetail one another but soon they split off as well, Irving Penn is headed elsewhere.
It’s the separation that makes all the difference, and once you start to see that difference in your work from the work you so admire (that’s why you chose that platform after all), it’s time to look for your breakthrough.
Suddenly your work starts to get noticed. Now you are working more on your own, making more of the difference between your work and what influenced it.
Your vision takes off.
And as the years mount up and your work takes begins to pile up, it won’t be long before the critics become very intrigued, not just by what separates your work from a Sally Mann or a Ralph Gibson, but by what you did when you first got started!
You regain the whole bus route in fact. The vintage prints made in twenty years ago are suddenly re-evaluated, and for what it is worth, start selling at a premium.
At the end of the line—where the bus comes to rest and the driver can get out for a smoke or better yet a cup of coffee—that’s when the work is done. It could be the end of your career as an artist or the end of your life for that matter, but your total output is now all there before you, the early (so-called) imitations, the breakthroughs, the peaks and valleys, the closing masterpieces, all with the stamp of your unique vision.
Why, because you stayed on the bus.
There are the masses who make the decision to hop off the bus and head back to the beginning for a new path. It’s an easy thing to do. But the only way you have a chance at reaching your greatest potential is by staying the course and building on top of what you have created. Lean into the challenge of refining your craft by revising and reworking. James Clear talks about the importance of re-working. You cannot just simply re-create the same style of photos mindlessly. You must revisit your work, and re-work it until it becomes better. Build upon your craft vertically, not just laterally. You can produce a larger quantity of work without increasing your quality where you will plateau. But rework and build on what you learned from your last revision. Pursue better work not just more work.
Minkkenin goes on to say later in his speech:
Georges Braque has said that out of limited means, new forms emerge. I say, we find out what we will do by knowing what we will not do.
And so, if your heart is set on 8x10 platinum landscapes in misty southern terrains, work your way through those who inspire you, ride their bus route and damn those who would say you are merely repeating what has been done before. Wait for the months and years to pass and soon your differences will begin to appear with clarity and intelligence, when your originality will become visible, even the works from those very first years of trepidation when everything you did seemed so done before.
We can do a whole lot of things in art; as individuals we can become ten different artists, but if we do that, there is great danger that we will communicate very little in the end. I say ride the bus of your dreams and stay the course.
“Ride the bus of your dreams and stay the course.”
Don’t give up. It’s worth it.
I love how Minkkenin finishes his speech and what he says about art:
So, be the caretaker of your vision. Make it famous. And above all, remember, that art is risk made visible.
“Art is risk made visisble.”
You are already a risk taker by being an artist in the first place. Take the even bigger risk and stay on the bus until you find the greatness that you are searching for.
You can read more of Minkkenin's commencement speech here.
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