I’m sitting on a Saturday night at my favorite pub to write. I am listening to a cover band playing Van Morrison, J.J. Cale, the Rolling Stones, R.E.M., and Led Zeppelin. And the guitar player is killer good–he’s playing the songs note for note. Perfect. Just like the record.
To which I think, “But why? We have the record.” They’re playing 3-minute songs that they make last 3 minutes. “Go further, take the song for a bit, and make it your own,” I think. I’m sure other patrons enjoy the exactness of their covers, but I’ve always been one to wish for a bit more, a little straying from the record.
I come here often on Monday nights to write, too. There is an open mic on Mondays that’s filled with various players, a few excellent guitarists who also play every song note for note exact.
That’s proficiency, but not authorship.
I play guitar as well. Well, not as well. Not nearly as well as they do. I do play solos and have played Led Zeppelin in a cover band, but everything I did on the guitar I had to work for. Despite the fact I started as a teenager, I still have to work for every note I learn. These guys seem to be effortless like they’re not working at all.
Which is how I feel I am with a camera. I can do anything with a camera. With a guitar, I have to work at it constantly, and after a lot of effort, I can get it. With a camera, it’s as effortless as the flying guitar fingers are on these players.
The fact that I see so many who can play these songs–every song note for note–makes me think that a good guitar player is really quite easy to find. They’re everywhere. Which in some way diminishes their special-ness. They’re good players. The good ones are replicators. The ones who can study and learn note-for-note solos, they’re surprisingly commonplace. (Often right here.)
Great is elusive. Another bar, a way higher level.
Same is true for photographers. Proficiency is commonplace. You can’t swing a cat without hitting a person who can take a properly exposed and focused photograph. (The cameras and computers have made it so.)
But that’s the thing right there. What do they have to say for themselves with their art?
Both the proficient guitarist and photographer may be common, but the artist, the author, the visionary–they’re as rare as hen’s teeth (what an odd saying). Because proficiency is only the start. It’s the top of the bottom. What you do with it once you’re proficient, that’s where you can excel. That’s where you become the author of your work.
To greatness. If you dare to use your voice. To put your vision out there. To tell the world this is not a replication, but your own work.
Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen, authors of their work.
Mary Ellen Mark and Vivian Maier, authors of their work.
We see street photographs that all look the same, looking just like work from photographers from the last half of the 20th century. We see photographs of old things–vintage porn–by emulators of Stephen Shore and William Eggleston. Lots of love for old gas stations, cars, neon signs, diners and abandoned buildings. They’re creating proficient copies. They’re replicating work they’ve seen before. No originality. Which is ok, you have to start somewhere.
The music visionary uses their voice, in the case of Bob Dylan even if it’s not perfect, to tell new stories.
The photographic visionary sees what’s today that will be valued in 40 years and photographs that in a strong way.
I make a point of building my galleries with the work that I like. I’ve had people say they didn’t like my photographs, to which I’ve responded, “Everything’s not going to be liked by everyone, but that’s okay, I like it. Hopefully, you’ll find other work you enjoy more.”
I’m not one to fish for LIKES on Facebook or Instagram. I post occasionally and spend more time ignoring ads to get followers than I do engaging on these social platforms. I’d rather be out making the work.
Proficiency is the last part of being a beginner and the first part of becoming good. Authorship is the far-reaching goal of becoming great.
Make your vision, that’s where greatness lies. We need your voice, your view, whatever it is. We need artists who are authors. Who are able to show us the world as only they can.
We already have Eggleston and Shore. Springsteen and Dylan. Mark and Maier. What we don’t have is you.
There are no famous cover bands. No well-known tribute photographers. Only visionaries that dare to put their own work out into the world, calling it good, saying, “This is me, this is what I like, how I see.” There’s risk in that. It’s easier to play it safe behind someone who came before.
But there’s no one who can do what you can do.
No one. Only you.
And only me.