Negative Space

What a difference a year makes! A little over 13 months ago, I started focusing on art photography/surrealism/impressionism/conceptual art/call-it-what-you-will, and haven't looked back. I stopped doing portrait sessions for the occasional paying clients, and started doing only what I wanted to do. I have upgraded all my equipment solely in pursuit of better imagery, at great expense to my credit status and increasing the burden of personal debt in the process. I have now worked with 6 models, and shot 10 sessions with them. I have made my portfolio go from one or two pieces that I am pleased with, to 55 or so that I am really proud of and another 50 that I can live with. I won a slot in Canon's Project Imagination. I got some press last year - a magazine mention or some local papers, but still, something. Recently I focused my efforts on upping my audience on Facebook, and it's gone from a dismal 160 likes in November to almost 2000 at the time of writing this. It's not a lot, but it's upward, it's progress in the right direction.
So what is there to be negative about?
Well, there will always be negativity in the world, no matter what you do to shield yourself from it. With a larger audience, you will get along with that a growing number of people who feel entitled to tell you what they don't like about whatever it is you are putting out into the world. I have seen some recent blogs from people in similar artistic pursuits about dealing with negativity and I thought it would be a worthy topic to discuss. Yes, I occasionally get negative comments. For the most part, the positives have been overwhelming and generous, and sometimes so full of kindness I scarcely know what to do with them. But for every 50 comments that are positive and supportive, there will be one fly in the ointment, one odious, malicious comment sent to - what? Unseat you? Shake you to the core? Ruin your day? Take your pick, they can do all that, even if you get 20 positive ones, that one negative opinion will stay with you longer.
I am not a motivational speaker, I am not particularly a positive person personally. I am prone to cynicism and pessimism - who knows why - genetic disposition, life experiences - doesn't matter. The point is, I am not here to give a speech on how to process the negative, how to stay positive. In fact, I find motivational speakers and self-help gurus to be desperate, pathetic and ultra-needy - honestly, who chooses that as a life goal and why?? I don't want to delve into that - it's so hollow and meaningless to me. Nope - this is not a rousing speech to help my fellow man deal with unkindness, this is just my opinion, for whatever it is worth.
Knowing who they are
In my experience, as both a musician who used to post songs and videos on Youtube and now as an artist/photographer on several sites, almost all hateful comments come from…non-artists. I honestly don't know what they have profiles on these sites for - they NEVER have any content of their own. Think about it - someone who either has nothing to say, or chooses to not put anything out there, is criticizing you for your output. Even knowing this, it can still fester in your mind for days. Over time, these comments can wear you down and make you want to hide, but I have learned something about the effects of these comments recently - not exactly an epiphany, but a deeper truth that I have come to accept. There are pieces that I have put out there that, if I am being truthful, were less than I hoped they'd be, that were, in some ways, failures, or maybe just not fully cooked and rushed out into the world from laziness or impatience. Maybe they had not much depth in them, or meaning in them. When a negative comment comes to you regarding this type of piece, the effect is much more severe. Why? Because the asshole giving it to you, and really, no matter what they are saying, they are still assholes - is tapping into an insecurity you yourself have about it in the first place. In a way, the negative comment is validating the fears and insecurities you had about it, and chose to ignore, hoping that others will like it despite your misgivings about it!  And then there are comments that come to pieces you are absolutely sure of, completely proud of, ironclad confident in their intent and execution. I got one recently on just such a piece. Those bullets bounce right off, or should.
If you are being honest with yourself and your art, these little darts of hatred should not affect those pieces you created that are meaningful to you, no matter how sensitive a person you are. I am a raw nerve at times - my interactions with my fellow humans are really taxing to me - I never have been one to shake things off easily. But my relationship with my art - and it has been a lifelong relationship, spanning many mediums of expression, is longer and more intimate than any I've had with another person, is solid, and at this point in my life, I know the difference between my good output and my less than good output. You will not affect me about the good ones, you really can't - I have struggled with them, nurtured them, beat myself up over them, most of the time, and they now represent the best of me. Who are you to take that down? You can't - it's a done deal, my thoughts on this piece. It is unwavering. I recently got such a comment on a piece I am proud of. The comment was "seems like you are running out of ideas." My reply was simply, "This from a mystery man with no content of his own."
Think about it - someone is criticizing me for repetition within my rather young body of work, trying to psychologically unseat me and prey upon a fear, and he has no content of his own up for critique. For that, and for comments like that, I have to give the almighty FUCK YOU. What's funny is, while I was not insecure about the particular piece, in fact, it's one of my better ones, the concept behind it, and I explained all of it in my notes about the piece, was my personal need to move on from motifs and recurring objects in my recent work. This piece was a swan song, a good-bye to some of those objects and motifs, so it was a DELIBERATE repetition, and this asshole probably read it, and wanted to sink a knife into what he perceived to be a fear I have about moving onto new things. This was my fifth piece using certain objects and recurring themes. Five pieces is not a lot. I see photographers/artists on every site milking their one-trick ponyism for all its worth: 300 shots using mirrors, 50 shots of people levitating, 25 shots of horses running in a field. Believe me, I could milk what I do into another 20 if I choose to, but I divulge my need to move on for artistic growth in writing, and lo and behold, some psycho seizes on that and tries to turn it into a cancer.

There you have it my friends - the worst of humanity in a nutshell, this need to take down others.

In case you are reading between the lines, or trying to, or even if you are reading this at all, really, this comment and person did not change how I felt about the piece. He can't. I have an earlier piece that I am still really proud of, that when it was released into the world, got a very tepid reaction, and is one of my more unpopular ones. Doesn't matter - nothing can make me think less of it. I will still hold it as one of my best, and will always have affection for it.
None of this is meant to convey that the negativity coming at the pieces you aren't so sure about is warranted. No sir. You still have to be an exceptional asshole to go out of your way to write something to a stranger and tell them what you think they do poorly. I have never made a comment directly at a fellow artist that is negative. If I don't like it, if I think it's bad, or lazy, I move on, and keep silent. And really, I think most artists do this, because we all know what it costs us mentally to do what we do - how much work and thought goes into it. We have empathy for the journey and the process. I have occasionally gotten negative criticism from people who do have output, and the difference is, the comments are often very specific to what they don't like, and are directed at the piece in question, not a personal attack. This is the definition of constructive criticism.  You may not like it, you may think it untrue, but it is not coming from a place of hatred, it is peer to peer interaction. Again, I would never volunteer my opinion like this, but if asked, I could give a summary on any piece I felt had shortcomings, and it would be hopefully insightful and not mean-spirited.
Recently, another comment came my way of a completely different ilk and point of view. Yes, it was directed at a piece that I was not so fond of, but it was the personal nature of it that amazed me and enraged me. Here is the piece…
Here are my notes about it:
Not much of a story this time, I just liked the light and the pose and adding a couple symbols in seemed to give it space for interpretation, as it seems he is searching blind by feel on the wall and not finding either the key or the keyhole.

The person in question who commented is himself an artist, doing things in similar strata to what I do, and his comment - erased now by the site's administrators, basically called me a voyeur, and implied my model was a victim of my "homosexual gaze." Honestly - this is what he said! There is a level of voyeurism inherent in photography and art itself, so why he chose to single me out with the negative connotation of that word, I don't know. He quickly pointed out that he is open to all sexual orientations, but then, why are you assuming I am homosexual, and why are you even bringing sexuality into it? If I shot a naked woman, would that make me the bisexual voyeur?? Does anyone call a male photographer shooting a woman a heterosexual photographer?? No. This comment is coming from another place entirely. This person obviously has issues with sexuality of some kind, and I don care to know what they are. But this piece, in fact, my whole portfolio, is not sexual, not erotic, and not at all about sexuality or even gender. Do I use men often in my pieces? Yes - I am a man, and I am telling my point of view, or doing pieces that are meaningful from my point of view, and also, as I have said many times, I think there is an expectation out there that all artistic portraiture and beauty should be relegated to female models, and I have no interest in keeping up with those Joneses. In fact, I balk at it. I was really shocked to see this comment coming from a fellow artist, but again, this is coming from a place beyond art - this is a man (presumably) deeply bothered by seeing naked or semi naked men, and chose to paint me a pervert, or at least a voyeur.

I could go on with other examples, but I think I have stated my case. The point is, there is no escaping the negative, corrosive people out there, and you have to find a way to deal with them. For me, the effects of the comments are meaningless to the work I am proud of, and dig at me when I am not so proud of them. I am getting used to it, but it's nothing anyone should have to get used to. It's hate for hate's sake, it's likely a wannabe artist unable to get their art started, and choose to paint everything black with a brush full of poison around them. If you are in the same game, you will see that almost every time, they have nothing of their own to see. You can't retaliate and lay criticism at them - there is no content for you to do that with. They are cowards. They are mosquitoes buzzing in your ears, they are an untied shoelace threatening to trip you up.
And thanks to the internet and the anonymity afforded them, they will never go away.
Michael Bilotta
March 13, 2013