I’m re-reading a stack of books about the creative process. Anne Lamott, Stephen King, Annie Dillard, Robert McKee, et al. When what I want is to hear about the creative life, I don’t go to photographers – most of them are good with images, lousy with words. Want insight into how this whole creative thing works? Go to the writers.
Anne Lamott, in particular, has helped me as both a writer and a photographer. Probably because she’s more neurotic and self-deprecating than I am, and I take comfort in that. In her book Bird by Bird she talks about the first steps in writing, among them this: Write sh*tty first drafts. Don’t over-think it, just get it down. Put the words on paper, no matter how loud the inner critic is screaming that those words are juvenile, self-indulgent, cliche, obvious, crap. Just get it down.
Interestingly most creative disciplines have a similar process. There’s a time and place at the beginning of creation, to be messy and to create really horrific stuff. Painters sketch. Musicians write lousy first drafts on napkins, their angst and heartbreak leaving puddles of tears on the bar. And we photographers, no less artists – potentially – than the others, seem to feel we need to hit the shutter, create something great, and move on. Bollocks.
Creation is almost always messy. Because we are messy. If your plan is to from Point A (no photograph) to Point B (iconic photograph which will define my career and on which I will retire fabulously wealthy) then you’re in for a shock. If there is such a transition at all, it’s from Point A to Point Z. And in between are the sh*tty first drafts, the sketch images.
When I shoot a scene I often shoot a hundred frames sometimes over a few hours or days, before I begin to get a real handle on what I want in the frame and how I want it there. It is rare – very rare – that I pull it off in one burst of the shutter, yet alone one single frame. Of course that happens once in a while, but the vast amount of my best images, the ones I am most proud of, are ones that are preceded in my Lightroom library but several, if not a great many, frames of total crap. The process of creating the crappy images, reacting to them, and trying something else, is what gets me to the final draft. Few writers sit down and just fire off a novel in a couple days. They write crappy first drafts then they edit and re-write and polish and sweat over their keyboard.
Very early tomorrow morning we’re releasing my VENICE book, the first in The Print & The Process series, and that’s a great example of my own process of first writing a sh*tty first draft photographically. Those images were shot over 5 days in Venice and many of them – no, MOST of them – were shot in one form or another, many frames of them, over the course of those 5 days – sketch images, crappy first draft images – before I got them right. Sometimes the moment wasn’t quite right. Sometimes it was the light. Other times I’m not even sure, it just didn’t work. But for me, I can’t bypass the sketches or crappy first drafts. Those lesser images aren’t in the way of me creating the better work; they are the way of me creating better work. Don’t sabotage your process, wait it out, and in the meantime; give the sketch images their room to be crappy images, let them out, look at them, play with them. Don’t let them discourage you, let them bring you to your better images.
In case there is any confusion or ambiguity, the VENICE book discusses my process in general and in relation to the images in the monograph, but does not show you -as this post does – the crappy first drafts. But that might not be a bad idea in the future, eh?