Tuesday, March 11, 2008

a little more on my relative size

Lee Friedlander, New York City, 1974


It's been days since I've posted, but believe me, I 'm still small.

Yesterday morning my email inbox poured forth with 177 messages, 173 of which were old messages that I'd already received months ago. On top of that, when I tried replying to one of those four emails that mattered, I found I was able to receive, but unable to send emails. Four hours and two calls to tech support later, I got it back up and running, but somewhere in the process I've lost my entire email history. Yesterday morning, I had 17,000 emails in my account, now it's about 300.

Ultimately, my frustration is born out of scale, and it's accompanying lack of control. Like love, death, or the weather, the internet seems a little too large for my full comprehension. At least without putting in more work than it's worth. That's the issue, isn't it? Control. Whether it's with a camera, a microscope, or an equation, we look for patterns and boundaries as a way to map possibilities, as a way to have a little bit of control.

In previous posts I've written of how I'd applied for a job in advertising, but was unsure about whether or not I'd even want it. Well last week there was a two day meet-and-greet that involved bringing us applicants together to meet one another and then culminating in a casual party that was very much like a portfolio review, but with music and beer.

It was fun. I met some nice people and spent thirty six hours outside my house, in a world of money and cool. Though we didn't actually talk about advertising much, I've been thinking about it a lot since. I also see it within the context of scale. Ultimately, it's not just me, we're all small. Advertising makes people feel bigger by making them part of something larger than themselves. It sells the illusion of control. Like photography itself, it's kind of a complicit lie:

11 comments:

Stupid Photographer said...

"Advertising makes people feel bigger"

I have no idea about your people, but advertising makes my people throw up.

shawn said...

don't back down- give me more. really, i want to have that conversation. it's too easy to simply dismiss.

Robert said...

I'm not sure what you would see yourself doing working for an advertising agency? Do you see yourself as an art director, writer, producer? Or do you see yourself in a non creative role? My experience with a lot of my friends who were Fine Art majors lacked the skill set for a creative position at an ad agency.

mark said...

SF moma has a really incredible (400+ pieces) Friedlander exhibit going on till late May if you happen to be in the area. :)

f:lux said...

I sort of know what you mean but at the same time, isn't it in part a question of perspective? I mean, if you had gone to the advertising agency as the photographer you are, rather than the guy applying for a full-time other kind of job... and if the advertising agency were considering giving you a well paid photo commission, to produce the kind of imagery you do best for a campaign they had up coming (for a company, product or service that you had no objection to)... just the kind of money commission that meant you didn't have to worry about getting a full-time job... how would you feel about advertising then?

shawn said...

let's see, your question is a valid one robert, but based in a nitty-gritty reality that i try not to live in (at least too much). actually, i've got the same questions, but the agency in question is intentionally looking beyond the normal roles and considering people from a wide range of backgrounds. in a sense, my ignorance of the industry is actually a strength.

thanks for the heads up mark. 400+ friedlander pictures? that's incredible.

f:lux, your question is at the heart of the matter. maybe that should be my next post. thanks all...

matthew said...

You are raising essential questions. What you've observed about scale -- the huge gaps that intercede between a person and the bigger world, and between what we do and the contexts and systems we work in -- maps the territory where we work, where we have to work, for better and for worse. I don't think there is a good/evil split here at all, just a life lived amidst huge differences in scale. The work I like best, including yours, makes that condition clear, acknowledges it, and does not condemn it.

I'm less engaged by your account of control, or the lack of it. It is easy to think that people you don't know, powerful people, are aimed knowingly -- and effectively -- toward control. Or, as you put it, advertising "sells the illusion of control." But that's a simplification no one who works in advertising could afford to make. All they can do is make their best guess at enchanting their audience, taking their audience to a state of mind or a desire or a feeling that is ultimately out of their control.

It's true, advertisers command huge resources that most artists lack, and they are inclined to enlist behavioral science in the design of their work. But that's not what is most interesting, or troubling, about a place like w+k. In fact, the leadership at w+k seems very aware of the limits of behavioral science, and very enchanted by the power of the individual artist. That's why you got a free vacation.

w+k interests me because they seem to have bypassed the common sense divide between art and advertising. They want you because you are a talented artist. They know you will have ideas that are powerful, which they can then sell to their clients.

Ultimately, there's not much difference between the work of making art and the work of making advertising. Your role will be the same: be smart, curious, observant, interested in people, and make great photos. There is, however, a huge difference in the measurement of its success. You will fail at w+k if you don't come up with photos that can sell products, or please the clients.

So, how is success as an artist any different? Certainly, market success is little different for artists than it is for advertisers...you just just need to please a different set of clients. But artists enjoy a hugely expanded time-scale for success (apart from the problems of the market and of making rent). An artist is given permission to make work that might mean something much later, or much more slowly. It's failure to please now, it's failure to sell, does not compromise its value as art.

I think it's interesting that one of the greatest resources the artist enjoys -- this spaciousness of time and intent -- is engineered by insisting on a radical difference in scale: I, the small, mortal artist will make work for a time beyond my own, for people I don't know, to make meanings that are not immediately measurable or remunerative.

And that's why I don't buy this stuff about control. I make work to have a rich engagement with other people in a realm that neither of us controls. I put words down on paper so that readers I don't know, in places I have never imagined, can read that text and make of it what they will -- alone, in private, without me, on their own. I'm glad no one can tell me it sucks just because it doesn't sell a product or succeed instantly or create an intended effect.

Maybe you could go work at w+k and retain your indifference to the customary metrics of success, stay focused on your own pleasures and instincts as an artist? I think they would pay you handsomely for it.

shawn said...

oh matthew, the conversation, the question, it's all spiraling out of control.

as you know, i'm a bit of a hallmark philosopher, i like to drink whiskey and talk big, but don't really have the intellectual resources or stamina to keep it up for long or stray too far from the original path. i'm afraid the conversation is getting too big and abstract for me. i find that i keep bringing this back to the simple question of whether or not i could work in advertising and still respect myself? is there really a significant difference between working for an agency that produces advertisements for starbucks and making photos on assignment for the same agency that makes advertisements for starbucks (which i've done, was paid handsomely for doing, and would do again in a second)?

the difference i do see is that of control... mine.

shawn said...

the more i think about it too, i do see advertising as offering a form of control. that is, it offers a choice, an action.

matthew said...

@9...I mean Shawn, that's a super interesting point about ads offering us a choice or an action. It's true that ads simplify in that way, trying to position the viewer as someone who can go from the ad to a single, clear action -- buying the product -- and thus complete whatever was begun by the ad.

But a lot of ads I see these days, including the one you posted, leave me in a far more ambiguous, unclear place, not knowing what to do next. Mostly I just want to see the ad, again and again, like I want to do with a great pop song. I wonder if that is "bad advertising?" Or maybe it's just good art.

And @8...I mean, Shawn, you think well and insightfully about these things; your blog shows it. Your discomfort isn't from a lack of intellectual resources. Maybe it's a discomfort about ambivalence and the lack of clear choices in life. But, you know, just rise above, old man.

robert said...

I always remembered something Lee Friedlander said with regards to doing advertising work. I'm paraphrasing but it goes like this, "I'm thankful to be able meet interesting people and practice my craft."

Work is work. If your able to do what you love, photography, design, communications or whatever it's a chance to meet interesting people and practice what your good at--and make Money.

I can assure you, you're questioning of the morality and ethics of advertising will not be an issue you'll be grappling with. Someone much higher up in the food chain will handle that for you. You will be able to focus on your craft.