These past few days I have let myself get a little excited about an upcoming exhibit of my photography in a small coffeehouse here in town. In my mind I have built it up to be a grand event, perhaps even an introduction to the creative universe around me. Other people have noticed this about me, some are even growing nearly as eager to see the exhibit as I am to place my work in the public eye.
This build-up is not all in my mind, not hardly. As a result of my initial efforts, hundreds of people have been contacted about this, in-person, through mass mailings, and even by at least one publicist. This does not mean that many people will absolutely get excited enough about the show to come and see my work, but no doubt some of them will. It is inevitable that at least a handful of them will get curious, like humans often do, and make an effort to come glance at some of the pictures I have taken all over the world.
It all started in my mind many years ago, long before this month-long exhibit of my art photography became reality. For years, no, decades, I told myself that my work would be special. My best pictures are different from most ordinary snapshots taken at this moment or the next. I have shown my pictures to people I meet, again and again all over the world. I carefully noted what they said and thought about out loud while they looked at my work.
At first some people just flipped through my photos like they would anybody else's vacation snapshots. Members of my family have sometimes grown a little tired of all the pictures I take, I learned that long ago.
So I refined my approach. I selected a few images that I thought were more special than the rest. I showed those few images to other people, strangers, and casual acquaintances. I put them in very public places on the Internet, or left them on tables at all the places where I do my other work. I attached them to e-mails that I sent to friends and consulting clients. I still also showed them to my family, but not as frequently.
After years and years of doing this I began to further refine the way in which I shared my photography. I put together collections of similar images. I mixed scenes and people and places, along with brilliant colors or even somber rainy day views. I enlarged some pictures that were rich in information, details, or colors. The results were educational, for me.
You need to understand that I do not just look at my photography, or share it with others, in order to become a better artist. No, I carefully study the work of artists that many, many people have celebrated in the past. I go to museums in all the different cities I have been fortunate to visit. I stand there and carefully examine the works of Van Gogh, Cezanne, Rembrandt, Renoir, Monet, Manet, and hundreds of other artists. I want people to appreciate art in general. I want to use my work to teach other people what makes fine art so special.
So many creative people call all their work "art" and more than a few people accept that label without question. However, not all oil placed on canvas really is art. Every piece of stone or wood hacked into a recognizable shape is not necessarily an artistic sculpture. Few photographs can really be said to be "fine art photographs." Creative efforts only become art when they inspire people or when they draw diverse crowds through word of mouth or when people find having these works around changes their lives in some way. Even then they may not be "art" but they are certainly headed in that general direction.
I do not claim to know all the ways to determine if something is really artistic but I know that just because a wealthy or educated person says something is art does not make it so. Real art appears to come from the deep reactions it causes in the human spirit.
As I carefully consider my upcoming exhibit I find the roots of my expression in the coffee table books of Norman Rockwell or George Caleb Bingham paintings that my parents always left sitting out. I think about the times I paused at the artwork while reading the set of Compton's encyclopedias my mother won on the game show Jeopardy!.
As I grew older I went to libraries to read but also to look at paintings and sculptures for hours. This practice I kept to myself since not all art is deemed appropriate for young boys to ponder. My mother and my Uncle Richard took me along to museums starting at an early age. I clearly remember many different trips with them.
The first thing I did when I went to India was visit various state museums and look at the classical art on display there. I later did the same in Holland, Scotland, Germany, Ireland, Korea, and especially London and New York. In my hometown of Philadelphia there is a wonderful art museum and also a collection of Rodin sculptures.
In college I took a few art classes, not those that teach you to paint or draw but the classes that teach European art or the art of India, China, and Japan. Learning to appreciate Utamaro, Hokusai, Chou Ch'en, and so many other Asian masters was an important part of my education. I could not afford to be an art major in college, everyone knows that few artists will ever earn a living from their passion. My college degree is in communication, specifically speech communication in business settings.
Along the way I have not neglected to learn from the great photographers of the past. The works of Margaret Bourke-White, William Henry Jackson, Atget, Stieglitz, Steichen, Adams, Burrows, Leibowitz and many others are common knowledge to me. I have gone to Paris, New York, and great National Parks out West to understand and even photograph in the footsteps of these people. Photography is my medium and these people have taught me to study light, shadows, smiles, and frowns to find a balance worth communicating to other people.
Near our current family home there is the Chrysler Museum of Norfolk, Virginia. It contains a fascinating collection of paintings and photography. Close to where I live now is the Corcoran, the National Gallery of Art, and all the other Smithsonian collections like the Sackler and Freer galleries among many others. I know the collections of art, sculpture, and photography in those institutions well.
After hours of glancing at the images in all these places I have spent a considerable fraction of my meager earnings on books filled with the same work. I really enjoy those postcards and prints you can buy with all the famous works of French Impressionist, Indian classical, Dutch Masters, and American artists. My Oxford Companion to the Photograph and other photo books are well-read volumes, even falling apart in some cases. Those postcards, prints, and books are the most common things I pull off my shelves during long winter nights when I cannot sleep or on lazy summer Sunday afternoons, like today.
Along the paths of my life I have even found art in the movies of Federico Fellini, Satyajit Ray, Fritz Lang, Orson Welles, Stanley Kubrick, and Woody Allen, among others. It would be wrong not to include them among the powerful influences on my artistic development, especially Fellini.
So today and next week and in this last few days that I prepare for my small exhibit in the little coffeehouse on the main road running through the city where I live, I am taking the time to wonder what led me to this point in my life. It is not a coincidence, it certainly was not other people pushing me and prodding me to exhibit my work. It absolutely was not a desire to make money that led me to study art all these years.
It was a deep desire to share the joy that I learned to derive from all those other artists. All those other people that passed years of their lives daubing paint on canvas, composing images, and generally trying to determine what might make other people a little happier for a few moments of their lives. Or perhaps longer.
When I showed someone a very special image I created and they sighed for the first time. When I heard a very authentic "Wow, that is beautiful, where did you take this?" I knew I was on to something. I knew I wanted to make people happy with my work. I knew I wanted to do more with my photography than simply fill an album with memories or compose a family portrait or capture a corporation's business processes.
You see, there is nothing more fulfilling in life than making the people around you a little happier, a little more comfortable, or bringing joy to an otherwise ordinary day. To do that consistently with your own art is a treasure that one can only find at the end of a rainbow that usually takes years of study to create. That is the goal of this artist. Perhaps I am getting closer to making that goal the work I do for the rest of my life. No matter what happens as a result of my first exhibit, I will still devote more hours to understanding and appreciating the works of other artists, old and new The masters guided me to this point in my life and I expect they knew they would be doing exactly that when they created their best works that endure all these centuries later.
Thomas H. Williams, Photographer