“Look for the spirit line that runs through everything.” ~ Robert Henri, The Art Spirit
A month ago, I shared some quotes from the book, The Art Spirit by Robert Henri (1865 – 1929), a collection of writings, letters, and critiques about the nature and purpose of art. The subject was the importance of knowing yourself.
Here in Part 2, we’ll explore his writings in terms of what makes a good photograph. While Henri was a painter and teacher, his writings are applicable to photography. He believed that the purpose of art wasn’t necessarily the art itself, but to be in the state that makes art inevitable.
To some degree every human being is an artist, dependent on the quality of his growth. Art need not be intended. It comes inevitably as the tree from the root, the branch from the trunk, the blossom from the twig. Because it is engaged in the full play of its own existence, because it is full in its own growth, its fruit is inevitable.
All art springs from a particular state of mind, where the inner spirit is revealed. To my mind, this means that we should not go out looking for “good photographs,” rather we should adopt that frame of mind where photographs that are alive will emerge.
1. Show what’s interesting to you and the photograph will show that interest.
Don’t try to paint good landscapes. Try to paint canvases that will show how interesting landscape looks to you – your pleasure in the thing. (14)
2. Don’t underestimate the value of play.
The artist is teaching the world the idea of life. The artist teaches that the object of a man’s life should be to play as a little child plays. Only it is the play of maturity – the play of one’s mental faculties. Therefore, we have art and invention. (115)
3. Keep it simple.
The soul of man may reveal its mysteries through direct expression, simple speech, simple gesture, simple painting, just as the soul of the brook is expressed in full simplicity and economy. One of the curses of art is “Art.” This filling up of things with “decoration,” with by-play, to make the “beautiful.” When art has attained its place, surfaces will be infinitely less broken. There will then be millions less of things, less words, less gesture, less of everything. But each word and each gesture and everything will count in a fuller value. (203)
4. Be open to new subjects, new techniques, and new perspectives.
Real students go out of beaten paths, whether beaten by themselves or by others, and have adventure with the unknown. There are few students in the schools. They are rare anywhere. And yet it is only the student who dares to take a chance, who has a real good time in life. (211)
5. Approach nature with wonder and respect.
Art is the noting of existence of order throughout the world. Order stirs imagination and inspires one to reproduce this beautiful relationship existing in the universe, as best one can. The moment order in nature if understood and freely shown, the result is nobility. This orderliness must exist or the world could not hold together, and it is a vision of orderliness that enables the artist to capture and present through his imagination the wonder that stimulates life. (142)
6. Always ask yourself “Why this subject?”
When a student comes before his model his first question should be: “What is my highest pleasure in this?” and then, “Why?” With all the great masters, this highest pleasure has grown until with their great imaginations they have come to something like a just appreciation of the most important element of their subject, having eliminated its lesser qualities. (81)
7. Focus on your state of being, not the outcome.
The object of painting a picture is not to make a picture – however unreasonable this may sound. The picture, if a picture results, is a by-product and may be useful, valuable, interesting as a sign of what has past. The object, which is back of every true work of art, is the attainment of a state of being, a state of high functioning, a more than ordinary moment of existence. (157)
This is a sampling of what Robert Henri has to say on the subject of creating art. Our best photographs will emerge naturally from our approach and mindset.
What makes a good photograph for you?
The Art Spirit (Part 1): Know Yourself
Find the Magic by David duChemin
The Expressive Photograph by Guy Tal