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Van Riper    Frank Van Riper on Photography

Greatness = Being Good Consistently

By Frank Van Riper
Special to Camera Works

It is not difficult to be great occasionally; the real challenge is to be good consistently.

I would like to claim authorship, but in fact this thought was voiced by a photographer who arguably has been great consistently, or at least very, very good very, very often.

Several years ago while viewing a museum show of his work, Richard Avedon was quickly surrounded by admirers and made this comment. A friend who happened to be at the show overheard it and relayed it to Judy and me over dinner. Given the setting where Avedon spoke (a museum show), the surroundings (a crowd of mostly young fans) and the fact that Avedon is in his 70s (b.1923) – one might view his aphorism as merely an avuncular bromide tossed off with Oscar Wilde-like brio by one of photography's Senior Fellows.

But in fact Avedon's comment goes to the heart of what it means to be an artist: of the camera, the pen, the piano, the scalpel, the kitchen – anything in the long catalog of human endeavor.

At what point can a weekend painter call himself or herself an artist?

When does the casual photographer earn the same description?

Does having an unfinished novel in the proverbial bottom drawer qualify?

How about being able every so often to make a really wonderful pear tart? Or to ace a favorite classical etude on the piano when cajoled by friends or family?

All these can set us apart from the crowd occasionally. But to be an artist – and, oh, what a loaded term that is, what a minefield of pretension and ego – requires much more than mere talent. It requires hard, long, often unrewarding and always unrelenting work.

In the Bronx of my boyhood, in a middle class, predominantly Jewish neighborhood near Yankee Stadium, one of my classmates in grammar school was Murray Perahia, who grew up to become one of the greatest classical pianists in the world. I, however, remember Murray as a 10-year-old prodigy who played at assemblies.

Murray and I also went to the same after-school music classes, near Fordham Road and the Jerome Avenue subway. Accompanied by our mothers Murray and I would walk from the subway to Music Centre Conservatory, where Murray studied the piano (obviously) and I the accordion (don't ask).

Once on our way to class I asked Murray something that had been on my mind for months.

"Murray," I said, "You make it look so easy. What's the secret?"

"You really do have to practice," he replied, almost apologetically.

"Crap!" I observed (only I didn't say crap).

Later, in high school, I hung out with an artistic-minded crowd that included fledgling painters, writers and dancers as well as photographers. My friend Marty, who helped form the group (which, by the way, is what we called ourselves – The Group – clever, non?), taught me a lot, especially about technique. But Marty also was capable, as we all were back then, of being very full of himself.

"I am an artist," he once told me, "because I think great thoughts."

The passage of decades has taught me that one measure of an artist is the difference between potential (great thoughts) and performance (great things). It is the old perspiration/inspiration equation: genius amounting to 90% of the former, only 10% of the latter.

A case can be made, I think, that it is more difficult for a photographer to be viewed as an artist, much less a great artist, than it is for a painter, sculptor or writer.

One criterion held against us – that painters, for example, produce unique, one-of-a-kind images while photographers produce things that can be replicated ad infinitum – is weak, at best. A painting can be reproduced as a printed edition, printmakers routinely work in multiples and sculptors often have their works cast and copied.

No, the distinction goes deeper. The biggest impediment to a photographer being thought of as an artist is his or her camera – the machine that, truth to tell, does a lot of our work for us.

Consider these things: a paintbrush, a typewriter (or laptop), and a hammer and chisel. If I have no skill as a painter, writer or sculptor, even the best of these tools will not let me produce anything of value. Yet, especially with a modern automated camera, virtually anyone can point and shoot a recognizable image that, in the era before photography, would have been considered miraculous and infinitely more exact and detailed than anything produced by a mere painter.

This is why, you may recall, my colleague and friend Max MacKenzie, the superb architecture and landscape photographer, once was told by an unthinking admirer: "You must have a really great camera." Of course, Max said later, no one ever goes up to a great writer and says, "You must have a really great typewriter."

So in a sense that bar is set higher for us – as well it should be.

There is no getting around the fact that cameras are machines, incredibly intricate machines – even comparatively simple view cameras that have changed little since the days of Mathew Brady. But using these machines not just well but consistently well is what makes the difference between an amateur and a professional-level photographer, between a journeyman professional and an artist.

The English lexicographer (and no mean phrasemaker) Samuel Johnson may have observed that a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of a tiny mind, but to an artist consistency is all-important. Getting the moves down so that technique becomes almost an unthinking adjunct to talent is what allows an artist to let his or her creativity flourish. Put another way, photographer Jay Maisel often says that if one wants to be a photographer one must photograph every day – merely another way to lay down the technical synapses that train the most important of our tools: the eyes.

It is work. But if we love it, it is enjoyable, even joyous, work.

Strive for consistency. Then, if you are lucky, greatness will take care of itself.

Frank Van Riper is a Washington-based commercial and documentary photographer and author. His latest book is Down East Maine/A World Apart (Down East Books). He can be reached at fvanriper@aol.com.

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