I continue to ruminate on the idea of artist’s communities and in particular what does it take to build and sustain an effective group. I was surprised to find relatviely little written on this topic until I asked, and answered for myself, the following questions:
What do you get out of it?
What do you contribute to the group?
What is the optimal size of such a group?
How would you answer these questions?
For me this kind of group would provide both support and accountability. It would provide me with access to experience that I currently don’t have, to feedback about current directions that I’m heading in and provide me with the impetus to keep going.
In addition to being generally supportive of others in the group I would imagine that in such a group everyone has overlapping skills but expertise in specific areas. Each member could as requested teach and share their unique expertise with the rest of the group to help all move forward.
I always feel as though if you are at dinner with a group of more than 6 you really only interact with your nearest neighbors anyway, ~ 5 others, so this is the right number for a dinner party for me and it feels about the right size to me for one of these artists groups. Small enough to be able to really know the other people in the group.
After unpacking this for myself I realized that what I was describing was what is now commonly referred to as a ‘mastermind group’, something that most people trace back to Napoleon Hill’s book ‘Think and Grow Rich’. I read this book 15 years ago and had a quick skim through it again when I was writing this. The language is archaic, making it hard work to get through.
Hill was of course focused on how you can accumulate money and the mastermind group was a tool that would let you develop and vet your plans with a team of people that complemented your skills. Not quite what I had in mind. I was thinking more along the lines of ‘to help you develop mastery and achieve your goals‘.
In more than a couple of portfolio reviews the folks that I was sat down with have asked me about my community. Who are the people around you that are able to share in the trials and tribulations of creating work? The people that can support you when you venture beyond what is safe and encourage you to go further.
What does your community look like?
Hopefully it will be diverse. You will have the never ending cheerleaders who will support and encourage you regardless of what you’re doing. You’ll have the people who will pick you up when you’re down. The ones that know just what to say to penetrate the negative self-talk that many of us can slip into all too easily when we’re way outside of what we think we know is good. Finally you’ll have the people who will give you straight forward and direct feedback. Having a good balance of these groups in your life really helps.
As an aside are you like me and hear the whisper of the critic more clearly than the shout of the supporters? I’m not sure why that is but it does seem to be a pattern repeated time and time again.
Having regular interactions with your community so that you all benefit is what makes communities work. Mostly you need to show up and participate.
I’m also finding that if you are to grow from those interactions you need to ask good questions. Perhaps this is an obvious to you, but it hasn’t always been to me. As I’ve grown more sophisticated as a photographer I wish that the questions that I’ve asked have also grown in sophistication but they haven’t. All too often I look for approval – is this good? do you like it? Does that sound familiar?
Better questions lead to better answers which in turn allow you to move forward. The simple question ‘Do you like it’? almost demands a simple yes or no answer. A more involved question such as ‘what do you think of when you see this image’ or ‘what could make this stronger’ requires more of the viewer and may well result in more informative feedback. The associations that people may surprise you and suggest ways in which you can extend the work.
I’d be delighted to hear your thoughts on community – how to build community, how to sustain it for the long term and anything else you want to add to the conversation – add them in the comments section.
To follow up on my previous post I thought that I’d share some of the things that I’d done to improve my photography and hopefully they may be useful to you. At the time I did all of this stuff I felt that I was a late starter and wanted to accelerate my learning as much as I could. This meant using the expertise and experience of photographers that I liked to quickly get a solid foundation. Please do chime in with your thoughts and comments too.
1. Find your true calling. Work out what appeals to you, what repels you. Start a scrap book real or virtual of images that appeal to you. Make a list of common attributes – color or black and white, landscape, portraiture, wildlife, fashion, wedding, dig a bit deeper what else do these have in common, what differentiates them.
2. Find a mentor. Have you found yourself gravitating to one or two photographers? Study what they’ve done and how they got the shots you particularly admire. Of course if they’re alive today they probably teaching workshops – take a workshop with them and get some advice from your photographic hero. Not only will you get some insight into how they achieve their signature works but you’ll also get some feedback on your own work.
3. Get the right gear. Figuring out what gear your heros are using to get the shots you admire and get the same stuff. Somethings you’ll want to buy now, others you should rent. But without getting the gear to get the shot you won’t get the shot. A good example for landscape photographers is a rock solid tripod – get a good one and it will last you for years.
4. Do what your heros do to get the shot. When I was at Alison Shaw’s Workshop on Martha’s Vineyard in 2009 I was bemoaning my lack of progress to Alison’s assistant Donna Foster. Donna quickly pointed out that there was a progression to my work but that my biggest problem was that I wasn’t shooting in the best light and that if I wanted to improve I should find some time to get out early or late and shoot when the light is good.
5. Get feedback on your work. There are a number of ways to get comments on your work I prefer one on one portfolio reviews with someone who is going to be brutally frank. Feedback from workshop instructors is also very useful, as can be comments from friends whose opinion you trust and value.
I hope that you found this useful. I’d be delighted to hear what you’ve done to improve.