Recently, Dan K posed a question on Twitter:
The question brought various answers and comments, and then this response from Dan, which set me thinking:
I know what he was getting at: if the words aren't your own, how can you be expressing yourself by singing someone else's words? His own response is arguably more provocative: the question about greatness seems to be general, rather than specifically about photography, but then the brevity of the Twitter format may be responsible. Then there is the assertion itself: that he will never be great, whether it is in photography, writing, or whatever.
Can someone express themselves with words or music written by someone else? I think they certainly can, if they are up to the job. I'd say the expression is distinct from the act of creating the original text or score, but there is certainly expression in performing someone else's work. Think amateur theatre compared with Blanchett, McKellen or Olivier; the performance is not just presentation, but interpretation as well. Or in music: it is said that Dylan declared Hendrix's All along the watchtower to be the definitive version. And if you have ever seen Sid Vicious performing My way, you'd have to admit that it wasn't anyone else's way but Sid's. Some of the words may have been changed, and may not have been written by Sid, but are we in any doubt that he was expressing his anarchistic, cynical self, behind the theatrics? In all of these cases, the base expression will be that of the writer or composer, but it is necessarily overlaid with the expression of the artist that performs the work.
How many great speeches are heard and either admired or loathed for their content, when they are delivered by someone other than the writer (I'm talking paid speechwriters, not plagiarists)? And yet the message is delivered and perceived as the expression of the orator's own sentiments and emotions—and if the oration is any good, the message will be seen as being totally owned by them, and doubtless is in at least some cases ... but with politicians, who can tell?
Maybe the most genuine expression is in performing someone else's work. It at once affirms an association with the work and any meaning it may have, and allows the performer to overlay their own brand on the material. If the performance stirs something in the listener, then it is likely that not only is the work of some merit, but the performance is adding something extra. Cover versions come to mind: if every cover version sounded exactly like the original, you'd have to ask “what's the point?”, but if the cover is an individual and novel performance (as distinct from merely a novelty*), then it must contain some individual expression on the part of the performer.
* But even a novelty version (Barron Knights, I'm looking at you) is in itself an individual expression.
Still, I grant that your own words, performed by yourself, are nothing if not expressing yourself.
The second issue is the question of greatness in one medium if you find yourself 'naturally' expressing yourself in another. Why should one preclude the other? However, there is a personal resonance here, which is probably what prompted me to dwell on this, in the first place, and to respond in words, in the second. I never used to be much good with words, be they written or spoken, and still find that to express myself most effectively, I need to gather my thoughts and round them up on paper/monitor. I suspect in fact that the introduction, in 1986, of Yours Truly to Mr Word Processor was a turning point in my desire to write anything of substance. I did write a few humorous lines in the early 80s, with a typewriter, but I was frustrated by the business of having to either get it substantially right first time—notwithstanding the corrective magic of the Tippex papers—or rewrite another version. 1st Word on the Atari ST changed all that, and I was free to express myself, and it was legible to others where my handwriting was not. Of course, there was that small matter of creative merit to get right; 29 years later, I think I might be getting close.
The fact that polymaths and multi-talented individuals are something of note does provide an answer to the question within Dan's thesis, but it's not necessarily the only one. It is entirely plausible that Dan may excel in photography or drawing as well as writing (and so, for that matter, might I), but what governs that outcome? If there is any spark of talent at all, is it not possible to develop it to a significant level by study and practice? Maybe the answer lies where the heart does. For some time, I've had the realisation that although photography was an early passion—which later became a profession—I do get particular satisfaction in expressing myself in writing. It is also a pursuit that can be carried out no matter where I am, whatever the time of day, whatever the light (as long as there is some), and without darkroom, chemicals, expensive optics or huge amounts of RAM. It can also be a several thousand-word technical document or a six-word story; each gives satisfaction in the completion.
Dan went on to say “I just feel if images were my primary medium of expression I'd be more prolific...” What if you take but one photograph in your career, or shoot just one film, but the outcome is the photographic equivalent of To kill a mockingbird? I'd venture that greatness is not so wedded to quantity as quality. Still, point taken.
It is also clear to me that merely reading about photography gives pleasure beyond simply the acquisition of knowledge. The vicarious pleasure of photography by proxy? It is similar to looking at good photography, but not quite the same. Should I be worried? I should perhaps be more worried by an inkling a couple of years ago: it occurred to me that I could possibly derive much pleasure in simply walking around with an empty camera; aiming, composing and firing the shutter (a proper mechanical shutter, that is, not the electronic sound file that digital cameras are endowed with), and enjoying that very process, as well as the thought of the photographs that I'd 'taken'. There would be a huge benefit: no expense on film and processing, and no hours afterwards in going through the negatives and either scanning or printing them and trying to get the best out of them; naturally, the photographs would all be great. I'd also have more room on the walls for Steiglitz, Weston, Adams...