Concept Artist?

I’m not a conceptual artist, although I’m influenced by conceptual art.  But I probably am a ‘concept artist.’  These image series are like ‘concept albums.’  (Think “The Wall” by Pink Floyd).  Cindy Sherman and Greg Crewdson are contemporary artists who make ‘concept art.’  I expect there are many others.  Andy Warhol is labeled a ‘Pop Artist,’ but I think he made concept art.  In the history of art there’s been loads of it.  Good cinema is concept art.  The Sistine Chapel is concept art.  What academics say about cave paintings suggests even that it is concept art.  Humans are storytellers.  And we look to find meaning via our stories.  Pictures are the best way to share stories, and to explore life’s ineffable meanings.  Concept art is storytelling. Certainly, this has been my attraction to filmmaking and cinematography.

As embarrassing as it is to admit, my inspiration to become a photographer was a 70s TV show starring Lance Kerwin called James at 15.  James was a photographer with a sweet Nikon and a basement darkroom.  Julian at 14 was enchanted.

At about this time two friends appeared with an amazing deal on a Pentax.  Holding that ‘real’ camera felt incredible to me.  But the amazing deal was too good to be true.  My buddies had robbed the home of close family friends — I coincidentally knew both the victims and the perps.  The Pentax had seemed oddly familiar.  I don’t recall how it all came together, but the dots got connected and I was soon giving my statement to a pair of detectives and turning the camera over as evidence.

 A year or so later I cajoled my father into buying me a Canon AE-1, which would be my only camera for the next thirty years.  My first serious collection of work – ‘Urban Studies’ – was captured with this AE-1.  I taught myself photography by taking a lot of pictures – mostly terrible – and studying the Ansel Adams series: The Camera, The Negative, The Print.  I still believe ‘Moonrise Over Hernandez’ is the greatest photograph ever made.  Photography was natural for me, but it never crossed my mind that I might be a photographer, much less an artist.

I was a white kid in an affluent San Francisco suburb, but I was born an artist/photographer.  I can only say this with assurance in retrospect.  I grew up around C-level executives, financiers, white-shoe law partners and their families, i.e. the privileged.  I got along okay with these people, but I always felt out of tune.  Being an artist in these circles was like being a Martian, so it’s been as weird for me to identify as an ‘artist’ as it would be to identify as a ‘Martian.’  Both seem equally implausible. 

To gain validity, the artist in me would eventually win a war of attrition.  The huge volume of ‘artwork’ (the word gets stuck in my throat) that I’ve steadily generated over the decades at last persuaded me that it is just that: artwork.  It’s as if I’ve been a pearl-making oyster, living isolated from my kind, not knowing why white orbs come out of me.  Imagine a New Yorker cartoon of an oyster at a Hamptons mixer with a fist full of its pearls.  He says to a friend, ‘You know, Phil, the reality that I am, in fact, an oyster has become inescapable.’

Emily Dickenson, the renowned poet, and Vivian Meyer, the now famous photographer, were unknown as artists until well after their deaths.  I guess that most people assume these artists withheld their work deliberately, out of some deep humility or insecurity.  I offer an alternate theory:  they didn’t know they were artists, i.e. oysters.  They were just putting lines of writing on paper (Emily Dickenson) or moving about the world, snapping pictures with their Rolleiflex (Vivian Meyer).  Nothing about their lives or environs supported the idea that they themselves were artists.  Luckily, their work survived and the right people took note of it.

Ultimately, it’s not for the artist to make this claim about herself.  A certain critical mass, oftentimes over decades, must aver that the poetry or the pictures constitute ‘art.’  But, obviously, the jury of collective opinion may not deliberate until the case and the evidence are presented.  So, that’s what I’ve undertaken.  And, as nothing attests to a work’s currency like currency, I’m making prints available for purchase in a variety of editions and dimensions and prices.  To begin with I offer 88 works, distributed among 6 collections.  That is, six concept-based image series that focus on a theme or storyline.  That’s the sort of work I do.

Julian Whatley