"The camera is an instrument that teaches people how to see without a camera." - Dorothea Lange

Sunday, December 07, 2014


Magoffin County, Kentucky, 2014

I’ve spent the past three days at PhotoNola, the Crescent City’s annual festival of photography. Organized and run strictly by volunteers, I thought it was an extremely successful event.

I got to spread my work before from some impressive portfolio reviewers, including curators, directors and editors from highly respected places like New Yorker magazine, the Getty Museum, Tom Gitterman Gallery, Pier 24, Aperture, The Harry Ransom Center and Crystal Bridges Museum. 

I got to see some inspiring work being done by my peers, my fellow reviewees.

The highlight of the event was hearing Emmet Gowin address us all in his keynote presentation – one that moved many to tears.

And speaking of tears, let me tell you how emotional an experience like this can be.

Making photographs is my job. Marketing the photographs is also my job (I wish it wasn’t), so that is why I attend events like this every couple of years. It is up to me to get the work “out there.” It is helpful, as well, to get feedback from professionals whose opinions I respect.

The opinions can and do, of course, run the gamut. Looking at art is a highly personal matter.

I was really happy to get positive feedback on both bodies of work I schlepped to PhotoNola: the pictures I’ve made in Uganda and the newer work I’ve been doing in eastern Kentucky. It was the first time I’d shown the Kentucky portfolio, so I was especially eager to get reactions to it.

Responses like “pure”, “terrific”, “poetic”, "resonant”, “textural” and “edgy” are important to hear when your project is in its infancy, when you are flooded with self-doubt and fear.

So I was feeling pretty high until I sat across the table from someone who, after looking at the third picture, called the work “caricature-ish.” He tapped into my aforementioned self-doubt and went on to say that it was obvious the subjects were “stone-faced” and “walled-off” in front of a Kansas City Jewish woman with an expensive camera - an outsider on every possible level. While extremely complimentary of the Uganda work and of me as a photographer in general, he questioned the Appalcahian pictures even to the extent of asking me "is this really how you want to spend your time photographing now," implying that, as an older woman, there's not a lot of time left! Whoa.

Two reviews prior to this one, I had tears in my eyes. That was because the reviewer called my work “exquisite” and wondered why it had not gotten more recognition outside of the Midwest. This man (someone I respect very much) was deeply moved by and impressed with the work and wants to help me find a way to move forward on a more national level.

So the tears that rimmed my eyes just an hour later came not necessarily because of what this next reviewer was saying, but because of the cracks that exist in my sense of self-worth as a photographer and the questions I have about what I’m doing and why. This young man was absolutely entitled to his opinion, and I respect him for feeling confident enough to express himself. What brought the tears were the age-old ghosts of insecurity and self-doubt, demons all artists have to deal with at some point or another.

The weeks leading up to this event were filled with shooting, printing, editing, assembling “leave-behind” packets, making travel arrangements, etc. Now comes the sorting out of the feelings with which I’m left. I'm looking forward to following up on the good reviews I had, which was essentially all of them except one. 


Anonymous said...

I think that guy's comments were kind of obnoxious.

- Susan

Anonymous said...

I do admire your courage and commitment in going out there! You are a role model for many! I read this and know exactly how you feel, for sure.
- SS

C. Pulitzer said...

Well they were memorable enough to me to take the time to go to your site and look at each one of the Uganda color photographs again and to see what you had to say on your blog.

paul matzner said...

oh the ugly "self-doubt" creeps in again...that is part of being human and having the courage to do what you want...let it go...hold on to those positive reviews and soar from there.