An artist statement should address or include the following:
- A poetic interpretation of your work, supporting the conceptual and visual connections in your work.
- Self awareness of how other artists or sources have inspired or influenced you to make your work.
- A brief discussion about why you are making the work
Avoid writing a statement that simply describes how the work has been made or offers a written explanation of the visual strategies employed in making the work. If you are not sure whether you are being too literal in your statement, consider the following guide;
- If a viewer can see it in the image, don’t describe it in your statement
A poetic interpretation of your work
This is an important part of any statement as it supports the ideas and concepts in the work. Sometimes you may feel the need to explain why certain aspects of your work is important to you, or why you choose a particular theme, or you may want to articulate something about the background of your ideas.
For me, the American West is the place where things fall apart. When I was a boy, I got to know it via films, Westerns and adventure stories by German writer Karl May. Whenever I imagined the West, I saw incredible country that had only just been conquered, in a fairly recent past, the 19th century. When I went there, I thought that because I had been present when the West was won, so it speak, civilization must be established there. But it wasn’t at all: civilization simply passed through…
Wenders, W. (1987) Written in the West. Schirmer Art Books, pg. 11.
A poetic interpretation can also consider how you want to support the way people experience your work.
Self awareness and inspiration
An artist statement submitted for assessment should also articulate and provide evidence of your influences and sources, and how they have helped shape or inform the ideas in your work. Simply adding a quote, or including a long list of books in a bibliography is not enough. If you quote another source, you must form a discussion around the content of the quote.
Perhaps the easiest way to address an artist statement is to start with why. Why are you making this work, why are you choosing, above all other things, to photograph the thing you are photographing? Answering this question in the statement will begin to help you formulate ideas for the statement.
Some examples and links
Around 1998 I was commissioned to do a work involving the Thames. I came over to London and spent a lot of time around the river. The river is mesmerising and I felt deeply drawn to it. At the same time, I had just ended a long love relationship and was extremely sad. So the two things came together in what I now see was a kind of vicarious suicide. This is Still Water (The River Thames, for Example) (1999). It is a series of pictures of the water that are footnoted with whatever I was thinking of at the time, what the river provoked in me and what was in the river itself.
I had this fabulous assistant, Helena Blaker, who helped me to research the river, get some basic facts, and it turned out that the darkness of the river, which I thought was simply mud, etc, was in fact the darkness of London. We were able to interview the river police, taxi drivers, whoever worked on or knew the river, and through them we found out incredible things. The Thames attracts a very high number of suicides, many from other countries, and a significant number of so-called deaths by misadventure and death by extremely violent means – lots of dismemberment and so on. More research from Dickens to Conrad revealed that this darkness had historic dimensions as well.
I think of my images of the Thames as a mirror. All the associative images that coalesce around this work, whether it is the similarity of the water with the desert or with aspic, the endless range of imagery, is a product of photographing something that is a master chameleon. Or the ultimate mime. The ultimate mime is the thing that keeps its distinction from everything else. When you think about that fact – of imitation or reflection and the possibility of losing your identity in that connection – you realise how water never loses its identity, it is always discretely itself. And I am deeply drawn to that possibility of existing in two spaces at the same time, without any contradiction; a lot of paradox but no contradiction, a lot of things being the opposite of what they are, but somehow they can carry on with being both sides of the story. The river chameleonised me, as it had done London. So this peculiar reciprocity drew me in deeper and deeper. And the footnotes (taken from another water) weave all of this together.
Heidi Museum of Modern Art, March to July 2013
Wall text (Curator’s Statement)
Over a career spanning almost forty years Fiona Hall has been variously described as an alchemist, an adventurer an eco-writer, and a creative genius. She is best known for her transfiguration of commonplace materials into extraordinary organic forms that have both contemporary and historical resonance. Her interdisciplinary practice attends to the complicated relationship between nature and culture, celebrating the marvels of the natural world while engaging head-on with issues as wide-ranging as gender politics and colonial history.
In recent years worldwide environmental destruction has become Hall’s predominant concern. This exhibition draws attention to the Earth and its life-forms as battlefields and wastelands decimated by the violent forces of human greed and folly. Two major bodies of work on this theme are brought together, augmented by an array of conceptually linked installations and individual pieces highlighting environmental debates. In Fall Prey, Hall’s focus is on critically endangered species from across the globe and the degradation of the ecosystems they inhabit. The accompanying Kermadec works shift the agenda to the unique marine environment of the Kermadec Trench on the Pacific Rim of Fire; a ten kilometer-deep cradle of life teeming with biodiversity and under threat from the mining and fishing industries.
Big Game Hunting represents the artist’s love of, and lamentation for, the natural realm. In it she navigates the volatile terrain of environmental politics, exposing our role in abetting the disappearance of species and depletion of biosystems. While her message is universal and her art communicates to everyone, like an archaeological site it must be excavated layer by layer to fully yield its secrets. Visual stimulation, intellectual engagement, wit, and wonder are to be found in equal measure, underpinned by a powerful warning to humanity: as Hall observes her work is a ‘carrion call, sounding the siren in a dying wilderness’.
THE BARBARIANS AT THE GATE
This installation links the lives of bees, universally accepted as ‘social’ insects, with the colonial concept of nation-state building. With colonization and other movements of people over the centuries, bees have spread with plants and other animals into foreign habitats, forever changing world ecologies. Their ordered colonies have been likened to societies with rigorous town planning or to prisons, while their habits have inspired Western imperialists to the extent that they are now being trained by the American military to detect bombs. The term drone is used to describe unmanned surveillance and missile aircraft. Today bees are themselves threatened by colony collapse, at the hands of twenty-first century ‘barbarians’.
The Barbarians at the gate draws particular attention to the history of conflict in the Middle East. Nineteen beehives are painted in military camouflage patterns associated with the nineteen countries that have sent armed forces to this region, which to Hall are ‘very strange bedfellows’, that speak ‘volumes about historical allegiances and divides’. Each hive supports an architectural icon representing a regime of power within that country, alerting us to the many forces at play in both the history of colonization and the globalization of identities.
Sample Statements from Photography Speaks: 150 Photographers on their art
Johnson, B. (2004) Photography Speaks: 150 Photographers on their art. Norfolk, Va. Aperture Foundation / The Chrysler Museum.
I want that chocked up feeling in your throat which maybe comes from despair or teary-eyed sentimentality: conveying intangible emotions.
A photograph should transcend itself, the image, its medium, in order to have its own presence.
These are pictures of emotions personified, entirely of themselves with their own presence – not of me. The issue of identity of the model is no more interesting than the possible symbolism of any other detail.
When I prepare each character I have to consider what I’m working against; that people are going to look under the make-up and wigs for that common denominator; the recognisable. I’m trying to make other people recognise something of themselves rather than me.
I have this enormous fear of being misunderstood, of people thinking the photos are about me, that I’m really vain and narcissistic. Then sometimes I wonder how it is I’m fooling so many people, I’m doing one of the most stupid things in the world which I can’t even explain, dressing up like a child and posing in front of the camera trying to make beautiful pictures. And people seem to fall for it. (My instincts tell me it must not be very challenging then.)
Believing in one’s own art becomes harder and harder when the public response grows fonder.
Though it is generally accepted that abstract art refers to those works inspired by the imagination of the artist rather than by objective reality, in photography, in which images are produced by the lens, this distinction is difficult to sustain. In the broadest sense of the term, an optical image is an abstraction from the natural world – a selected and isolated fragment of what stands before the camera. When the selected image is self-explanatory and does not imply more than what lies within the area it is usually referred to as abstract, that is, independent of its surroundings – a pattern of rock, for example, or lichens, or grasses. On the other hand, in the wider scenic view common in most landscape photography, the selected image implies a world outside the limits encompassed by the lens.
Photography of nature tends to be either centripetal or centrifugal. In the former, all elements of the picture converge toward a central point of interest to which the eye is repeatedly drawn. The centrifugal photograph is a more lively composition, like a starburst, in which the eye is led to the corners and edges of the picture: the observer is thereby forced to consider what the photographer excluded in his selection.
I do not photograph for ulterior purposes, I photograph for the thing itself – for the photograph – without consideration of how it may be used. Some critics suggest that I make photographs primarily to promote conservation, but this allegation is far from the truth. Although my photographs may be used in this way, it is incidental to my original motive for making them which is first of all for personal aesthetic satisfaction…
Ultimately, to be successful as a work of art, a photograph must be both pleasing and convincing. It must not leave the viewer in doubt about the validity of its subject, whether representational or imaginary. Every part must contribute to the unity of the image from corner to corner – no discordant note should be permitted.
I’ve been a photographer since I was a teenager. My mother was a baby photographer, going door to door. I always had my Rolleiflex and strobe with me because I was working for my parents. I never thought about photography in other terms, as art or anything. But then I went to a commercial photography school which happened to be in an art school. So I was exposed to kids who were doing art and to a lot of the documentary photography from the old Life magazine of the fifties when they were doing those great photo essays. Eugene Smith had quit Life because they wouldn’t give him enough time to do the assignments. He was always writing these diatribes about the truth, and how he wanted to tell the truth, the truth, the truth. It was a real rebel position. It was kind of like a teenager’s position: why can’t things be like they should? Why can’t I do what I want? I latched on to that philosophy. One day I snapped, hey you know, I know a story that no ones ever told, never seen, and I’ve lived it. It’s my own story and my friend’s story. I would go back to Oklahoma and start photographing my friends. That’s when it snapped – I wanted to be a story teller; tell a story. Which I hate even to admit to now, because I hate photojournalism so badly.
In the beginning, I was just trying to make photographs. Someone would come in and I’d see a light and shadow and recognise things that were dramatic. First of all, I was trained as a portrait photographer. And you’ve got to make people look good or you don’t get your $10.95. Second, they’re my friends and they’re seeing the photographs as we go along. If you’re coming back and showing pictures where they don’t look good, they’re not going to want you to take their pictures any more. Many photographers and photojournalists are great at grabbing the picture, being quick and focused and framing the composition but they don’t care what the people look like. I did. I could do all that plus get the person to look like I would like them to look, or they would like to look.
The shot of Billy on the bed with a gun, I always looked at that as alike a baby picture. If you looked at some of the baby pictures my mother or I took, it could have been that pose. I didn’t get it at first, but I knew it was great. It was a natural picture. With the white sheet on the background it could be a studio picture. I was able to get that quality when it was actually happening, that quality of looking up. People often ask if I set these pictures up and then say, ‘No you couldn’t have, but how did you get them to look like that?’
It (Tulsa) came out right after I finished it in 1971. The first section is 1963, the middle section is 1968, and then the last section is 1971. About half of the book is 1971. I went to Tulsa and did all those pictures in a matter of months. I knew every aspect of the life and knew what was missing from the book. I went back and was almost … waiting for those photographs to happen. I didn’t know how they would happen but I knew I would be ready. It was a real hot period.
There is nothing as mysterious as a fact clearly described. What I write here is a description of what I have come to understand about photography, from photographing and from looking at photographs.
A work of art is that thing whose form and content are organic to the tools and materials that made it. Still photography is a chemical, mechanical process. Literal description, or the illusion of literal description, is what the tools and materials of still photography do better than any other graphic medium. A still photograph is the illusion of a literal description of how a camera saw a piece of time and space. Understanding this, one can postulate the following theorem: Anything and all things are photographable.
A photograph can only look like how the camera saw what was photographed. Or, how the camera saw the piece of time and space is responsible for how the photograph looks. Therefore, a photograph can look any way. Or there’s no way a photograph has to look (beyond being an illusion of a literal description). Or, there are no external or abstract or preconceived rules of design that can apply to still photographs.
I like to think of photographing as a two-way act of respect. Respect for the medium, by letting it do what it does best, describe. And respect for the subject, by describing it as it is. A photograph must be responsible for both.
I photograph to see what things look like photographed.
I really don’t care what my father looked like, and I’m sure you don’t very much either. What is important however, is what did or did not transpire between us. That lack of communication, love, conflict is my legacy, my history. This is what matters to me, and this is what I want to share with you. I write with this photograph not to tell you what you can see, rather to express what is invisible. I write to express these feelings. We are our feelings. Photography deals exquisitely with appearances, but nothing is what it appears to be.
I photograph my children growing up in the same town I did. Many of the pictures are intimate, some are fictions and some are fantastic but most are of ordinary things every mother has seen; a wet bed, bloody nose, candy cigarettes. They dress up, they pout and posture, they paint their bodies, they dive like otters into the dark river.
They have been involved in the creative process since infancy. At times, it is difficult to say exactly who makes the pictures. Some are gifts to me from my children: gifts that come in a moment so fleeting as to resemble the touch of an angel’s wing. I pray for that angel to come to us when I set the camera up knowing that there is not one good picture in five hot acres. We put ourselves into a state of grace we hope is deserving of reward and it is a state of grace with the Angel of Chance.
When the good pictures come, we hope they tell truths, but truths ‘told slant,’ just as Emily Dickinson commanded. We are spinning a story of what it is to grow up. It is a complicated story and sometimes we try to take on the grand themes: anger, love, death, sensuality and beauty. But we tell it all without fear and without shame.
Memory is the primary instrument, the inexhaustible nutrient source; these photographs open doors into the past but they also allow a look into the future. In Beckett’s Endgame, Hamm tells a story about visiting a madman in his cell. Hamm dragged him to the window and exhorted; ‘Look! There! All that rising corn! And there! Look! The sails of the herring fleet! All that loveliness!” But the madman turned away. All he’d seen was ashes.
There’s the paradox; we see the beauty and we see the dark side of things; the cornfields, the full sails, but the ashes as well. The Japanese have a word for this dual perception; mono no aware. It means something like ‘beauty tinged with sadness.’ How is it that we must hold what we love tight to us, against our very bones, knowing we must also, when the time comes, let it go?
For me, those pointed lessons of impermanence are softened by the unchanging scape of my life, the durable realities. This conflict produces an odd kind of vitality, just as the madman’s despair reveals a beguiling discovery. I find contained within the vertiginous deceit of time its vexing opportunities and sweet human persistence.
In this confluence of past and future, reality and symbol, and Emmett, Jessie and Virginia. Their strength and confidence, there to be seen in their eyes, is compelling; nothing is so seductive as a gift casually possessed. They are substantial; their green present is irreducibly complex. The withering perspective of the past, the predicable treacheries of the future; for this moment, those familiar complications of time all play harmlessly around them as dancing shadows beneath the great oak.
In my portraits, I try to capture something universal, but something personal at the same time. I look for specific things that set my sitters apart – little details, like a certain gesture or gaze, which makes them different than other people.
I go to my subjects where they are in their own reality, rather than photographing them in the studio. I like to photograph them in their natural circumstances.
As a photographer you enlarge or emphasize a certain moment, making it another reality. In the photograph you can scrutinize all kinds of details, you can see things you normally would not pay so much attention to.
My whole idea of working has a lot to do with how humans live. How we live, how I live, how humans live together – human collectivity. That is my core value: what it is to be human. That is everything I believe in. I do not believe in current ideas of post humanity… For me the most important phenomena are those that bring forth changes in society or in history. These changes used to be noticeable in the physical world immediately. Today this is not so clear anymore. Today’s changes through new computers, sundry inventions in gene technology and new technological systems are not as visible as they once were in the street.
If I look at my work from the beginning it is more the idea of trying to establish a kind of material that one can work with for the future, rather than making nostalgic images to record something that later will become lost… What fascinates me is the sort of insight and information that I receive from the nature of the space, and this has to be the case before I am able to do anything about this space… These spaces are those of a specific place. The everyday streets are in a funny way more truly monumental as witnesses to the everyday life of people. Also, it makes things much easier to read than if I used images of famous sites… [I]n general, my work is less about expanding the possibilities of photography than about re-investing it with a truer perception of things by returning to a simple method, one that photography has had from the beginning of its existence… For I do believe that in photographs like those of the nineteenth-century English photography Thomas Annan or Eugene Atget, you can read the motivation of the person who made the image in them; the psychological, emotional or intellectual scaffolding that the person saw in the environment. And there is the matter of how we can retrieve that or read it from the surface of the image. My belief in the psychology of that situation is very strong…. I believe that if I asked five students to take a photograph of the same street or building in the city, one would be able to see which of them was really interested in the street or building and which was not… Why this happens interest me very much. You forget that by now this is clearly accepted in painting, but in photography this level of sophisticated reading remains under guise. For what matters is how much of yourself you put into your work. If you have a real relationship with a particular building, landscape or person, as in a portrait, it will show in the picture.[When] I am taking a photograph, I am conscious that I am constructing images rather than taking snapshots. Since I do not take rapid photographs it is in this respect like painting which takes a long time where you are very aware of what you are doing in the process. Exposure is only the final act of making the image as a photograph.