And by that title I do not necessarily mean work others might find difficult. Provocateurs in art (photography or otherwise) are legion and, for good or ill, use certain tropes as a way to jumpstart a reputation for seriousness and depth simply because other people find the tropes difficult. Or as Christian Wiman writes in “My Bright Abyss”, of how “death … is a common fixation, because it seems to offer a source of intensity and power to which the artist otherwise would have no access.” (p. 150)
Rather I mean work we ourselves find difficult but still compelling, work that we want to do and which simultaneously feels intimidating, intense, powerful. The intimidation – the difficulty of access – might be technical, or emotional, or social, or (fill in the blank). I felt it when I first encountered the possibility of photographic work with the human figure. (Mike, just use the word, just USE the word — glargh, okay, N-U-D-E-S — But you spelled it, Mike, you didn’t say it — oh well, tough.) I needed nearly eight years to find the courage to try this kind of photography, and those years included some time in art courses, with a bit of life drawing here and painting with a life model there. The intensity kept whirring away in the background of life, never quite at a boil and never totally submerged. The difficulty seemed to be telling a story that became less and less believable.
In the end the route I found into what felt difficult was a combination of (a) learning more and more to trust my ability to see and make visually, and (b) studying with an instructor who created a learning environment with generous models and serious students and an agenda sensitively held. For (a) I have to thank Kim, Francis and Paul over these past few years. For (b) a shout-out is deserved for Marc Koegel at the Vancouver Photo Workshops. I’m unsure what other routes exist into whatever it is we find difficult as we try to create in the visual arts – and there must be many such routes – so I’ll propose that they each must have some combination of (a) and (b), of fellowship and new beginnings.
And even after all that, work with the photographic nude still feels difficult for me, yet the difference today is that it also no longer feels inaccessible.