On Virtuosity

This started out as an email from a friend who was looking for feedback on his photography, but I decided to take a bit of time and fill it out a bit:

Pardon the delay in replying.

First, I guess a few general thoughts:
First of all, keep in mind this:Every photo that you take is a self portrait. Not your face, of course, but a part of a lifelong portrait of the sort of person you were when you walked this earth. These are the documents that you leave behind as a statement: “This was my life–this is who I was.”
Pretty heavy stuff, but if you think of any dead photographer that you admire, think of how well you think you understand who they were. It’s like that for us, too. Probably moreso, as we have the ability to disseminate any photo we take farther, wider and faster than they ever did. Hell, make explore on Flickr and you probably have an audience bigger than your local newspaper.
Think about that and ask yourself if you’re doing it the way you think is best.

Photograph your life with sincerity and interst, while avoiding banality. Everyday things can be fascinating, but perhaps every little thing isn’t. Are the things you photograph things that you’d write a paragraph about in a book?

Just as anything can be written about, anything can be photographed. This is where things get tricky.

I’ll assume for a moment that you know how to operate your camera—after all, just about anyone can take a properly-exposed picture at this point. The engineers at the camera companies have made it possible for a child to pick up a camera and push the button and get something that’s perfectly-lit, free of blur and technically, well, perfect. That hasn’t been an issue in years.(Of course, you can choose to use your camera in a way that it relies upon you for all of the exposure settings, but that doesn’t enter into this discussion—for now, I’ll assume that you have the ability to make an acceptable photo.)

Photography is a non-verbal form of communication. At its best, it has all of the eloquence of the spoken word, all of the subtlety of a well-played musical instrument. I’m not speaking metaphorically, I mean that photography is a form of language.

What do you want to actually say with your pictures? Think about that. Do you have a message that you want to convey? Do you have some thought that you would put into actual words that you have instead chosen to express through photography?

A competent photographer, however well-schooled in the visual vocabulary of photography, however skilled with his technique, yet lacking a real message is merely acting as a technician. There’s nothing wrong with technicians, of course—the world needs lots of them, even as photographers, to take photos of people and things, but in that capacity they may be artists, but rarely ever will that person be a Virtuoso.

What happens when you transcend the medium, your subject, even yourself, is that you achieve virtuosity. The word virtuoso has been applied mainly to musicians, but it applies to photography as well. The word shares a Latin root with virtue, of course and therein lies the key to understanding what it truly is. When the product of your artistic endeavor becomes more than the notes played, more than the shadows captured on film, more than the words typed dutifully onto paper and manages to grab the audience’s heart and mind, you’ve achieved virtuosity—something akin to a religious experience.

Virtue, after all, is one thing that brings us closer to God. It’s at this point that real communication occurs. This is what it’s all about.

That’s what all artists strive for. It’s why we take photos for the love of it. Photography at its heart is a cold, scientific, technical process. Take a three-dimensional space and use a lens to render it into two dimensions. That’s it, after all—that’s all we do.

When you think of it in those terms, it doesn’t sound very interesting, but then neither does tapping out notes on a piano keyboard or scratching a pencil across a pad of paper. To achieve virtuosity in any of those fields, you need technical ability, of course and some would say, natural born talent.

Once you are a virtuoso, though, the expression of that can be as simple as a single line on paper, a few lines of a haiku or a few notes from your instrument. Rarely does it require overpowering your audience with the technical aspects of your craft.

Sometimes, one achieves virtuosity while striving for the technical. Karl Blossfeldt’s masterwork, Urformen der Kunst (Art Forms in Nature) was one example that comes to mind. In the 1890’s Blossfeldt set out to document the forms that plants take, in a fairly clinical, precise fashion with his camera, in hopes that it would be a useful reference work for students. What happened was that this book, with its gorgeous, abstracted botanical specimens, touched the hearts of the artists of that time.

His simple, clean, technically-perfect photos transcended his original intention to become a seminal influence upon art for years to come.


Here, a common relative of the buttercup, the Aconitum or Monkshood, becomes almost human in its form, but not merely visually, it shows movement, emotion and expression. The lines and curves of this simple plant have become beauty, music, dance and passion.

These works struck such a chord with the members of the burgeoning Jugendstil and Art Nouveau movements that his forms sprung from the pages of this book and crawled through art and architecture throughout Europe and America, rendered in iron and stone and the stained glass of Louis Comfort Tiffany, Charles Rennie Mackintosh, Alfons Mucha, René Lalique, Antoni Gaudí and countless others. Blosfeldt’s work, of course, was not the sole basis of these movements, but each piece became an important part of the cabulary of the meent. The actual plant forms, of course, had been in the gardens and forests since time immemorial, yet it took Blossfeldt to elevate them this way.
Edward Weston did this as well, but perhaps with more awareness of how they’d be received as he shot his bell peppers that evoked nude human forms:

As well as nudes that could be mistaken for bell peppers. ;-)
People have been rephotographing these subjects ever since. You can buy books of poses and lighting techniques, scour eBay for the same cameras these artists used, research film, whatever, but you’re not likely to make a photo that touches the genius of the original. You won’t do it because it’s neither your voice, nor your words.

To make a photo that matters, you need to find your voice and find your message. When you actually feel the spirit and find the words, you’ll know that your work is on track and that someone, somewhere, will care deeply about it. If you are persistent and determined, it’s something that you can achieve, though perhaps not on a regular basis, or with any feeling that it was your hand that created this beautiful thing.

After all, that’s why we have personified virtuosity with the concept of the Muse. The Muse, is a spirit that inhabits the artist’s heart with confounding irregularity. She loves to both delight and torment. She promises eternal devotion to your genius, for you to wake and find her gone without so much as a note of explanation. I’ve written about  muse before:

Muses are fickle creatures though—they’ll abandon you at the drop of a hat, or come rushing back when you least expect. It’s a roller coaster that, while it often lifts you to dizzying, spectacular heights, ultimately leaves you standing weak and nauseous on the sidewalk.
Of course, the idea of a “muse” is mythological, but it’s a mythology that has persisted for thousands of years and like most persistent mythologies, it’s workable in practice, even though it’s got no basis in science as we understand it.
If you want to take fascinating pictures, be a fascinating person. Do interesting things and you will make interesting photos. Take honest photos and people will connect with them. Fortes fortuna adiuvat, after all.

Well, I’ve been sitting here in the café for quite some time now, so I should wrap this up for now. I’ll come back and rework it, I suppose, as I’ve touched on a lot of ideas that I’d like to explore some more. Please leave your thoughts below, or just say hello if you’ve read it. I don’t have the readership I once did, so at times I feel lie I’m reading to an empty room.Do sign your name as well, as it’s not always apparent from just logging in, especially from Yahoo/Flickr.

5 thoughts on “On Virtuosity”

  1. Jim,

    I am really enjoying your return to blogging, especially the recent posts on the muse and virtuosity. I have been struggling with my photography lately and your posts have encouraged me to continue to try and find my voice. I feel that I owe you quite a lot even if you don’t realize it. If you’re ever in Fukuoka the first round’s on me.

    Brian Lynn

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