"Could it be that the great photographers make their great images because they spring from their life, whereas the majority of 'amateurs' fail to make great photographs because they are too busy trying to photograph someone else's life, someone else's landscape, someone else's experience? Perhaps instead of going out looking for subject matter, we should simply try to see clearly our life as it is and find the images of significance that surround us." — Brooks Jensen
A couple of weeks ago, Ray Ketcham suggested I take a look at the work of Andrew Wyeth. He said he felt Wyeth's work would be helpful to me, since many of his paintings dealt with rural areas and subjects. Why? Because previous to this, I had been studying Edward Hopper. I had seen Hopper's work in person at the Indianapolis Art Museum and the Chicago Museum of Art and I connected with his use of light and space—and light as space—especially in many night scenes, including, of course, Nighthawks. These paintings especially made me feel comfortable and secure, even though Hopper's work has been described many times as feeling lonely and sad. I am a "night owl" in general, so I could easily imagine myself in a few of those scenes, sitting alone or with one or two other people, just enjoying the silence of the night. I live in a place where many times at night, especially in winter, it is nearly completely silent. I love that and Hopper reminded me that I do. (To me, that is what art does.)
But Hopper's work is mostly urban, or at least not really rural, so his work didn't always resonate with me fully. I've been in Chicago, New York, and other large cities for long enough periods of time where I could match my experience to Hopper's vision, but my home is in the country and it's there I'm most comfortable. I grew up in a small town and many of my friends came from farm families. I spent many of my early days playing with my friends in their families' fields and barns. Later, when I started working summer jobs, I worked on a farm, de-tasseling corn and baling hay. I lived in a small town, but part of me grew up on a farm.
For that reason, at least to begin with, Andrew Wyeth's paintings were a revelation. His work deeply resonated with me and brought back many memories of my life in rural America, especially his paintings of Chadds Ford and the people who lived there. After seeing these paintings, I wanted to know more about Wyeth and his influences, so I bought a biography to find out more. What I discovered was not only the stories behind his paintings, but something even better.
I found the magical connection between an artist's head and his heart.
I know people very much like the people that Wyeth knew and painted. I know places very much like the places Wyeth knew and painted. When I read about his love and appreciation for these people and these places, I knew where my work really needed to come from. Home. Not just where I live, but what home is to me. Not just close to home, but right there… at home.
It's been said many times that artists draw from personal experience for the work they create. (Write what you know!) If you look closely at great works of art, it's pretty much impossible to separate the work from the artist, simply because their work comes from their voice, and their voice comes from their experience, and their experience comes from the fruit of their lives. What Wyeth did for me is to make that connection clear. Your best work comes from your voice, your experiences, your life.
If someone asked me to describe to me the essential message of my book Close to Home, it's this: Look deeper. See more clearly. Find the material you need to make good photographs. I believe strongly that my (and your) familiarity with a place and its people gives us an advantage over others who don't know or, more importantly, don't understand them. As Wyeth describes it:
"You can be in a place for years and years and not see something, and then when it dawns, all sorts of nuggets of richness start popping all over the place. You've gotten below the obvious."
But what I also learned from Wyeth helped me understand another part of making art. For me, it's the location of the well from which we can draw the raw material we need to produce meaningful work, and it's something I remind myself of now every time I make photograph.
Remember who you are.