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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