Martha Graham’s advice to Agnes de Mille

I found the below text at Wikipedia. But below that is a JPG of another version of it that I found more profound. I’ll include that below the fold. It’s a conversation between Martha Graham and Agnes de Mille, two dancers/artists/creators. I only know Martha Graham’s name from the scene in the Bird Cage when Robin Williams’ character is chastising the young dancer for being bored during Nathan Lane’s character’s cross dress routine. I had no idea Agnes de Mille came up with the musical Oklahoma.

Their conversation moved me to tears.

I emboldened parts that moved me the most.

The greatest thing [Graham] ever said to me was in 1943 after the opening of Oklahoma!, when I suddenly had unexpected, flamboyant success for a work I thought was only fairly good, after years of neglect for work I thought was fine. I was bewildered and worried that my entire scale of values was untrustworthy. I talked to Martha. I remember the conversation well. It was in a Schrafft’s restaurant over a soda. I confessed that I had a burning desire to be excellent, but no faith that I could be.

Martha said to me, very quietly: “There is a vitality, a life force, an energy, a quickening that is translated through you into action, and because there is only one of you in all of time, this expression is unique. And if you block it, it will never exist through any other medium and it will be lost. The world will not have it. It is not your business to determine how good it is nor how valuable nor how it compares with other expressions. It is your business to keep it yours clearly and directly, to keep the channel open. You do not even have to believe in yourself or your work. You have to keep yourself open and aware to the urges that motivate you. Keep the channel open … No artist is pleased. [There is] no satisfaction whatever at any time. There is only a queer divine dissatisfaction, a blessed unrest that keeps us marching and makes us more alive than the others.

The struggle that Agnes de Mille expresses seems universal within artistic communities. It often is the target of my insecurities and dissatisfaction with my own work. I can look at an image that I took and know its value as possible good and satisfactory to our clients. But I think it absolutely sucks.

There are hardly any jobs that I release to clients that I’m happy with. Sometimes years down the road, I’ll look at work and think, “Oh, that’s pretty good.”

But there’s rarely a feeling of my own work that reaches a level any higher than mediocrity. Finding worth in my stuff is forever a challenge. When Tina asks me how much I want to charge for intensive edits to photos, I’ll freeze up.

Just last week, we were contacted by a commercial architect who wasn’t happy with the way the sign on a building he designed was appearing in photos. The logo was raised white type on a beige surface back lighted with tungsten light, that’s to say the temperature of the light appears yellow to the human eye.” They wanted the light to match the inside light, which was appearing “white” which is something I did in post. The interior lights are florescent which is “green” to the human eye. So the white light behind a white sign on a beige building? Who knew that that would be illegible?

They also wanted the glow behind the sign to scale back some 60% to 70%. Something I could only do in camera by taking photos of it 60% dimmer.

The problem was the plates of the sign are the plates. Plates are exposures of an image that we use to blend together to make a final image. Typically that means I take a regular exposure followed by a very bright one and a very dark one. That way my shadows and highlights can find the right balance. Our eyes do a pretty good job of capturing balanced imagery, and we don’t tend to know the difference within in the limitations of modern cameras.

I had to recreate the sign from a logo, erase the existing one, and replace it to look realistic. I was, in a real world scenario, providing them with documentation for how their sign really appears in real life.

The torment and the time it took to recreate the sign to “look realistic” was painstaking. The client kept using terminology like, “Just make 50% less glowing” which didn’t mean I could flip a switch and bring down the glow. That required a completely new, built from scratch logo, including three dimensions and a new application of a glow that wasn’t white, but wasn’t yellow.

What I heard was how I’d failed to capture the sign in an impossible way, a way that does not exist in photographic techniques. They exist only in re-touching techniques. And sometimes my brain only wants to express reality and not what, say, happens in one’s imagination.

And by the end of it, I was screaming at my screen that I wanted to give up all things photography. I loved my original work and thought it was solid.

At the end of it, I created a much better version of the logo on the side of the building. Something the designers needed to have done in the first place. But I digress.

Said and done, I thought Martha Graham was talking to me, directly, when she said, “You do not have to believe in yourself or your work.”

Hard stop. Wow. There are so many things that either I do not create because fear prevents me from doing so or I create and am paralyzed to share with the world what I created.

But if no one ever sees it, no one may ever be inspired by it.

We are bombarded right now with information from all directions. And sometimes that knowledge prevents me from contributing something on top of that.

It’s not my job to be celebrity or well received by all people. It’s a bit pretentious to assume that I could be that to other people. I read an article recently that at no time in history are so many people this well known thanks to social media.

Thousands of people might see something I’ve done and see my name attached to it. And that, in some ways, that’s celebrity-esque. I don’t even blink when someone has a byline next to a piece of art. I rarely know the name associated with much that’s out there. But if you go to a museum, you may recognize more names, because there used to be far less to choose from (even though there were likely budding artists who we’ll never know about).

Anyway, I hope this quote inspires you like it did me.

Create! Just do something. Even if it sucks. And share it. Someone somewhere will appreciate it.

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