My Photograph Sucks!

I started this post almost 3 months ago and just wasn’t finding a clarity in the issue that I wanted to express here. While related to the former “Success Rate: an Irrelevant Measurement” , I think there is a different, but important principle here than the main focus in that post. A few recent experiences/exposures to similar views as my intent here helped me to clear my block in presenting this topic.

You see, I get bored easily, especially when I feel that there isn’t much more to learn. In fact, I don’t know why I have even stuck with photography for almost 40 years now except that I have the wonderful habit of always finding a way to make a bad photograph. I don’t purposely do this; it just seems to happen—and not all that infrequently really. The thing is that I love it and I really do think it’s what has kept me interested in photography.

When we first get going with photography, we just want to make something approaching a “good” photograph. This is generally defined as something others (most others) will look at and appreciate—our families often appreciate anything we do–bless them!

As we move forward, most of us will get to the point where we can make “good” photographs pretty regularly—whatever “good” means to us. This is the point where we can actually go back and refer to some of the points in that former post on “Success Rate”. If we only create images we know others will like and/or we know will be successful, we’ll probably create bushels of such images, although there will always be that occasional stinker along the way. We can end up printing and/or posting hundreds—maybe thousands—of images as everything we do is, in fact, “good”.

For many, this is exactly what their photographic endeavor is all about, making good photographs of their various experiences and to share with others. But, and this is the larger point of this post, there are many who get to the point where “good” no longer is all that important. What is most important are those images that move beyond good and which express our ideas or intent most succinctly. Even Ansel Adams, who was a full time photographer for most of his life, suggested that “Twelve significant photographs in any one year is a good crop.”

I recently came across a short video on YouTube which used the words of Ira Glass excerpted from another 4-part YouTube video he did on Storytelling, which is what he does so well. I recommend looking up the entire series but in this excerpt, he talks about the process we go through as we develop in our creative endeavors:

As he suggests, how the work we create as we begin our journey will often fall short of what we “know” we are capable of creating. We know we have good taste and yet we just haven’t yet learned how to capture, or express, that within our chosen creative endeavor. Later on in the full series, he also relates how even working with a team of creatives, after ferreting out the best ideas, that when they go to put those ideas into a tangible product, things often just fall short even with those best ideas. On the other hand, maybe magic happens when working on something that seems lesser or less likely to succeed. If we are working for others or under a deadline, we might have to pick and choose what might be the most likely to succeed. But when it comes to personal work, we can choose any idea and pursue it. We often learn much more from our failures than we do from our successes—in a larger context, we often learn more from just the journey than from achieving the goal.

And hidden in this is the reason I don’t mind that “my photograph sucks!” You see, I don’t go out trying to make a bad photograph—and I do know that I am fully capable of making a “good” photograph—but what I do is to photograph what interests me and/or seems significant in some way. Often, this means trying to solve visual problems and express ideas that I have not confronted before. Sometimes, it might be something I have attempted many times before and still haven’t created one that works. Even when I do solve a problem effectively, I might not still think it worthy of showing anyone, there are still things to figure out or maybe it is just alright. In fact, even when I create an image I love, it really is still just a stepping-stone to some photograph I will create in the future—a sketch if you will.

In fact, maybe the most important point here is that we should be looking at our work, even our best, as sketches for future work and solutions. This hit home for me recently about how our photographs, every one of them, can seem so “final” as we view them on the large screen of our computers and yet aren’t they really just the precursor of our next photograph—a sketch in that sense?

I had recently watched a movie about a sculptor and it all seemed so pointless as he spent years seemingly creating the same/similar sketch and maquette over and over. At the end of the movie, he finally creates his “seminal” piece based on those years of sketching. But it was a video on Gustav Klimt that finally put the pieces in place. The excerpt below (it’s worth watching the entire thing IMO) talks about how he would “sketch” various positions/expressions/gestures of his models until he found the one that would finally express the emotion/idea he envisioned for his painting or one of the characters in it . The pertinent part in this clip is about 35 seconds long—there is nudity, drawing and painting, in this clip if that is an issue:

This past weekend I was in Houston and viewed several wonderful exhibits at the local art museums. As a result of one of the shows, I looked up the artist and found a lecture on YouTube that she gave to a group of graduate students. In this video, which is wonderful overall (Not safe for work, by the way), there is a part linked here where she reminds the students that for every wonderful work that an artist presents there are at least 200 that didn’t work—You are only seeing their BEST.  Again, this is worth watching in its entirety–which I will address in a later post–but the pertinent part of this clip starts below and goes for about 50 seconds.

It is important to understand that great work doesn’t come out of anyone with every click of the shutter or swipe of the brush. It is a process of trying, experimenting, searching and discovering—not a goal but a journey or maybe even more like an adventure.

So, I embrace my failures and suggest you do the same. Try things when you don’t know whether they will work but you were attracted to or wonder about or try to express something you might not even yet understand yourself. I don’t throw even my “failures” away as it isn’t uncommon for me to go back and find better solutions to visual problems in that overlooked work than I did in those that caught my attention at the time—sometimes many years later. We often work ahead of our ability to currently see, our subconscious is often way ahead of us.


Quotes to Ponder: #0005

“I begin by not photographing”

~Jeff Wall

In our discussions about The Idea: Part 1 and Part 2 we have focused on how idea plays into our immediate response to things we see.  Here, Jeff Wall presents a different way of approaching the creation of a photograph, one that is not too different from how a commercial photograph is made.

In Part 3 of The Idea, which will be posted later this week, we will be exploring various ways idea plays within the photographic process and reconciling the “more animalistic” approach Henry Wessel described to this seemingly contradictory style that Jeff Wall employs.

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(“Quotes to Ponder” will be a regular feature here. My philosophy about quotes isn’t that they prove any point as they are often taken out of context or they may have been said in response to something we have no way of knowing about. But they generally do embody some sort of opinion or thought that can often be worthwhile pondering. I expect that in many cases, they will be the teaser to a longer discussion of their idea in a later post!)

Inspiration #0001: London Grammar

One of the things I love to do is to figure out how some photograph was done. I know that even just the breaking down of a simple, well done image and why it worked is often more instructive than spending hours in the field shooting. I found this activity so beneficial when I was just starting out as it was a way for me to practice my photography in the evenings after work or anytime I couldn’t be out shooting or working in my darkroom. I still do this, but the things I look to break down are a bit broader these days.

It isn’t uncommon for me to see some technique, lighting or approach in a photograph that interests me and then spend whatever time is necessary to figure out how it was done. When I had my studio that might mean spending a day or two reconstructing how I thought something was done until I could replicate the effect. I don’t ever remember having a desire to actually adopt what I was trying to recreate, just that I wanted to understand how it was created. The importance was that I was doing something different, taking a new path that I may have never traveled without that stimulus. I would often learn quite a bit along the way—new and unexpected things, not just what I was trying to recreate. And often it was just the planting of an idea or way of doing something that could be drawn on in the future.

About a year and a half ago, I saw the finished music video I posted below and was just blown away by what they had done—and I really liked the music as well. Sure, it was not a single still photo but it was wonderful and started my mind racing in all sorts of directions. Even before I saw the video, above, that breaks down the process, I could understand the feat that had been accomplished and the creative effort and thought this would take. Nothing was simple here and it was obvious it was done “organically” not with massive electronics and computers like I have seen during broadcasts of major sporting events.

Even though the individual photographs made by the process look somewhat primitive, which I think is part of the magic of the overall effect of the video, this idea just set off a process within me that I only realized while I was writing this post. That this video was the genesis of a project I have been exploring recently. We just don’t know where our inspiration will come from but unless we are open to looking beyond what we are doing, and primarily interested in, we will limit our potential.


Image from my “Point of View” project

The idea that struck me was how photography often just looks at a single moment from one perspective. We don’t naturally look at any single moment or event from more than one perspective. Here, they presented us with that ability.

My own project, which I started about a year ago, is addressing the issue of perspective. I don’t like posting images from things I am still working on resolving, but it might be instructive and relevant to how ideas can come from unexpected and maybe seemingly unrelated sources.  Of course, I then realized how this was also the concern of Cubism as well.

Where my process will go, I don’t know. It might just lead to something I have never thought of before or it might become something in and of itself. In fact, this post totally changed into something different from what I intended.

I hope you enjoy these videos–and the music–and that they might start some inspiration for you as well.