A Lesson in Liking

My initial reaction to the pressures of grad school was to cling on to photographers whose work I thought was beautiful. I felt overwhelmed by the multitude of directions I could take my work, and thought (rightly so) that looking at other artists’ work would spur me on. I decided on Rinko Kawauchi, and started to gather photographs of hers that I found most appealing. I said to myself (not so rightly) “I will emulate this and it will be beautiful and that will be that!” When my teacher asked me a few days later who I was looking at lately and I gleefully said “Kawauchi!” her response to me was “You need to stop looking at her work.”

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Needless to say I was taken aback by her reaction. I genuinely felt that I had picked a strong, beautiful set of photographs to inspire myself with. My teacher said that although Kawauchi’s work is very lovely, it’s just that: lovely. The work was so highly stylized and precious but ultimately kind of vacant, and she worried it would encourage me to work in a way that wouldn’t allow my work to grow and develop the way she thought it needed to. 

I initially agreed with her wholeheartedly, almost like “how could I have liked these photos in the first place?” And so I ignored Kawauchi’s work for months, moving on to other photographers’ practices and strategies to emulate and learn from. But that’s just the point, I was looking at Kawauchi’s work for the wrong reasons. I turned to her because I thought her pictures had a cohesive aesthetic, something soft and cool and velvety. But what I needed to be looking at as a fresh young graduate student was how and why work was being made, not how lovely the final product may be. 

Liking an artist’s work is a fine thing; in fact, it’s a great thing. There’s so much to be learned from looking at work, and looking at as much and as wide a spread as you can. The trouble comes, for a student especially, when all you do is look. It’s just as important to  investigate the practice of an artist, the development of a project, the context of a photograph. Those decision making processes, that’s where the bulk of the learning is to be had. And I honestly don’t think my teacher meant to push me away from Kawauchi forever. I think that she saw me ignoring the hours, months and years of work behind a good photograph and focusing solely on the final product, and felt it was up to her to redirect my attention. Perhaps now I can return to Kawauchi with a more investigative mindset, and learn to love her work for more than one reason. 

–Kathy Akey

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