Cringe

In Pep Talks, The Craft, The Life Creative by David11 Comments

I often look at the work of a younger me and cringe at his decisions. His choice of moments was hurried and impatient. His composition was simplistic. His use of colour and composition was undeveloped. My god, he barely seemed to know what he was doing. No wonder he spent so  much energy trying to convince himself he wasn’t an imposter, that he belonged in this world if not by virtue of talent then at very least by the strength of his desire. On good days that act of looking back isn’t so much to put down the artist I once was, but to celebrate how far I’ve come. That sub-conscious cringe is a sign that I’ve grown in the ways I see and experience the world, and in the ways I express that with the tools of my craft, such as they are. On the bad days that cringe fuels my suspicions that I’ve sucked all along and I probably suck now too, if only I had the eyes to see it.

Lately the good days outweigh the bad. But the cringe remains. It keeps me humble and grounded. It helps me see the younger me with more patience and compassion, and gratitude because we all need to suck for a while. It’s how we learn. And younger me put in the time, and took the risks, and made some truly atrocious photographs. I am reaping the benefits of that now, as older me will one day reap the benefits of the risks and failures I experience now, the same ones that still make me wonder if I know what the hell I’m doing and just want to toss the gear into the river. Future me will be very grateful I don’t do that, but that I persevere instead, that I see where this is leading me.

The cringe is a beautiful but awkward signpost. It means we’ve grown. It means we care. It means our eyes are open. It means we have, at least on more enlightened days, the humility to see the cracks and the flaws in both the art and the artist. It means we have hope. And yes, the work we’re so proud of now will be the work our future selves looks at with more mature eyes; it’ll be work that elicits the occasional cringe. We should be so lucky. The alternative is stagnation, and eyes that grow dull with age, seeing less not more. As uncomfortable as that cringe can be, it’s a celebration of how far we’ve come, and how far we might yet go.

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Comments

  1. Growing up, one of the guys in my neighborhood had a saying,
    “If at first you don’t succeed,
    Keep on sucking ’til you DO succeed!”

  2. The cringe is a good sign. A hopeful sign.
    I usually experience the opposite. I look at photographs I’ve made in the past and I sigh wishing I’d made such a photograph recently. Or I read something that I wrote years ago and I cringe because it sounds so clear and expressive compared to what I am writing now. Maybe this is the middle stage, when my craft is improving but I haven’t yet learned to harness it to my vision? Or maybe it is just stagnation and decay.
    Anyways, I hope to cringe someday.

  3. David, I’m a professional project manager and we have a term called “progressive elaboration”. It’s what happens to the initial project plan as it moves through its various stages, as we learn more and face risks and challenges that weren’t forseen; the plan continues to evolve. I liken this term to what you describe above, the journey of your photography from younger self to today self to future self. What fun would there be if we knew everything and were perfect?

  4. Pam, in my work we have the same concept, except we call it “progressive discovery.” I think I prefer that term because it seems to be open ended. Isn’t life, or at least a well-lived life, a striving to discover what’s next, what further journey lies ahead?

    Personally, I cringe at every photograph I make, generally about three days after I edit and print it. I hope–I know–I could have done better work, but doesn’t stop me from inflicting what I do on anyone who stands still long enough. This does tend to make my friends fleet of foot, so I’m helping to raise the general fitness level of my acquaintances. I’m making “work that matters,” even if the benefits are more health than art related.

    I don’t let my dissatisfaction deter me. It is that hope that I can do better that drives me to try again. And strangely enough, after my first dismissal–say about three months later–I’ll look again and think, “You know, that’s no so bad.” I am getting better with time, although I haven’t been brave enough to look closely at my first photographs. I don’t think cringes are terminal, but I’m not taking any chances.

    Besides, I still have some overweight friends that could benefit from additional exercise.

    1. Tom,

      I love “progressive discovery” and agree that it’s a bit more exciting than “elaboration”. And I’m right there with you on looking back at work whatever it may be and cringing a bit. But there are also past works that have stood up to time quite well, so much so, that I marvel I could ever have created something that good. I don’t think you can be an artist can not be critical of all that you create.

  5. I remember shooting with my Canon A60 and thinking that the camera was holding me back. I had this “epiphany” that getting a DSLR would allow me to be a better photographer.

    Sure, the new camera gave me more control but I had no idea how to use it and in fact my photography actually got worse. And of course I fell into the trap of trying all sorts of shiny gimmicky things. I cringe at those first shots because they weren’t exposed well and they weren’t always in focus. I cringe at this those shots with a red filter. (“Red filter Craig? Really???”)

    I cringe but the lessons from those images won’t be forgotten.

  6. David, I so admire your courage to post a … um… less-than-your-usual-standard of photograph and to honestly talk about cringe. You say you might suck now, but not to my eyes – not as a photographer and certainly not as a human. Thanks, as always, for your teachings.

  7. I’m sorry David, I often enjoy your articles but this one is filled with depression, at least to me.

    You start being critical of a younger self then try to claw that back by attempting to say your future self has learned from that and etc etc.

    Perhaps my outlook on life is one that spends no time reflecting on a younger MD snd how I should have been different. That’s just a waste of time. And being critical of your captures, we’ll that’s as a direct result of where you were then. I’m sure that your future self will indeed be critical of your self NOW. Again, waste of time.

    Enjoy now, enjoy where you’ve come from and look forward to tomorrow.

    1. Author

      I guess the problem with the written word is it often gets read through a lens different from the one through which it was written. To me this is a hopeful, celebratory article. I live very much in the present, but don’t think doing so means not learning from the past, or not being excited about the future. I think anyone that cares about their work as more than just “captures” might often look back at their work, and find in it the temptation to judge their current selves, when that’s the last place they should be looking. But we do. And it can be as harmful as looking back and seeing how good that work might have been and resting on those laurels. Even still, we all respond to our work , and to the work of others, differently. I’m sorry you read anything but hope into this article.

  8. I have just spent a couple of weeks going through every single post of my 9 year old photoblog and I had my share of cringing! 🙂 But what I love about having 9 years worth of my personal photographic history to look at is that I truly feel I have made progress. I’ve always looked at my blog as more of a personal journal created for myself, rather than for someone else.

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