We’ve all been there. Out making photographs with friends, things are going so well. You’ve lined up your composition, the light is perfect, and just at the right moment…there’s a head in your frame! Who the heck? “Frank! Get out of my shot!”
I’m not going to lie; I’m that guy. I don’t mean to be, and I’m sorry. What can I say? I get distracted. Sorry about that. Sometimes it feels like half my life I’m in someone’s way. And the other half? I’ve had a knack for getting in my own way as a photographer.
After 35 years behind many, many cameras, I’ve finally made peace with the fact that I am the bottleneck in my growth as a craftsman and an artist.
Viewed by my ego, that particular reality could be a great reason to start drinking gin from the cat bowl, but flip it around and it’s good news. If I’m doing something that gets in my way, I can also stop doing that thing and clear a path. Craft and art are challenging enough for most of us. So if I can make it a little easier on myself—and help you to do the same—I’d like to do that.
Here then are three ways in which I tend to get in my own way and, if what I see through the window of social media is any indication, there are many of us out there getting hung up and frustrated by the same things.
Getting Feedback Too Quickly
Because of the far and fast reach of the internet, we have an ability to share our work almost as soon as it is made, and to share it with a larger audience than ever before. Furthermore, that audience has the ability to issue feedback immediately: in fact, it’s encouraged. Like it. Comment on it. Up-vote it. Or otherwise. And the danger is that we know what others think of our work (less a full thought, really, and more a knee-jerk reaction) before we’ve lived with it long enough to really know what we think of that work ourselves.
Other voices easily drown out our own before we can really hear it. And this applies whether you hear positive or negative reactions; both are dangerous to us. Positive feedback too soon will stop us moving forward or going deeper. It’ll stop us at the low-hanging fruit and the first, most obvious iterations, and our work won’t have a chance at getting honed. And negative reactions or feedback can stop us just as quickly when that feedback often only means “this work isn’t for me” and has nothing to do with how authentic or good it might actually be.
Please, please, remember that the most important voices are first your own and then qualified people you have specifically asked for feedback and from whom you can have a more nuanced conversation about your work, your methods, your motives, and not just the easy, no-risk Likes that people give online.
You will not learn to listen to or trust your own voice if you’re first listening to others.
The takeaway? Consider living with your work awhile before sharing it.
Stopping Too Soon
Not unlike the risk of early feedback, there is a risk in stopping at our first efforts and calling them done.
It’s too easy to settle for “good enough” or to let ourselves off the hook when we accept as a final print what should be just a sketch image.
It’s too easy not to go back again and again or to stay and work a scene longer. It’s too easy to think that the images we’re looking at now are as good as they get. If you have an idea—if there’s a subject you’re trying to give your own expression to—then it’s worth holding onto and really working at it. There might be gold there, but you’ll have to dig deeper to find it.
That doesn’t mean you can’t love the best of those early sketches for what they are. It might truly be the best you can do for now. But if you give up and stop exploring that subject, you’ll never see how far you could have taken it as your vision and craft matures and evolves.
This is one reason I push you to do long-term projects, and is the same motivator for me to return to a handful of places rather than always traveling to new destinations. New destinations are exciting, but old ones become familiar and allow for greater depth and repeated efforts over time.
Photography has taught me much about life and this is one of the more powerful lessons: keep at it—don’t pull over at the first rest stop and call it done. There’s great freedom in this approach. After all, if you’re open to working on something for a long time and seeing where it leads, those early efforts can be more playful and carry with them less risk of failure and all the pressure that comes with that.
Learning Too Fast
Just writing this one seems wrong. What could be wrong with learning? And if it’s good, why not speed it up, right? I’m not a patient man, so if you guessed that I learned this one the hard way, you’d be right.
Learning happens slowly. If memory serves me right, this was the topic of my last article. We’re in such a damn rush all the time.
But I want to suggest that all this learning, when not accompanied with the needed time to internalize the lessons, without the time to fail and really make the lessons our own, confuses more than enlightens us. And then we’ve got more stuff rattling around in our heads, more knowledge with which to second guess ourselves as we do our work and make our art.
In every aspect of your creative life, I want to encourage you to slow down, to go deeper.
I’ve talked at length about the value of creative constraints. Bringing less gear into the field when you shoot is one way to do that. But so is learning at a slower pace, because it forces you to really stretch and become creative with the knowledge you have now rather than rushing ahead to some new solution that will force you to buy new gear, wrap your head around new principles until you understand them just enough to deal with the problem you’re trying to solve and then it’s off again to some new thing.
I’m not saying don’t learn or don’t be curious; I’m just saying it’s OK to pace yourself and slow your roll. I’m saying you will be less frustrated and more fulfilled in your creative work if you go deeper and slower and really master the fundamentals before you move on to something new.
This craft has a lot of moving parts and you’ve got to learn to walk before you can run. It takes patience and a willingness to ignore some of the more insistent voices out there telling you that you need to learn it all now, buy it all now, shoot everything, post it quickly, and move on. I want to be a voice that reminds you there’s a better way. A more sustainable, less frustrating, and more human way to do this.
You’ll get there. We’re all getting there. Just as long as we get out of our own way long enough to get by.
For the Love of the Photograph,
A Long PS – Ten years ago, I wrote the book that changed my life. For those of you who have been along for the ride, this probably seems like only yesterday. Ten years! Within The Frame changed things for a lot of people, and I’m pleased to say that after a brief and painful few months when I learned my previous publisher was getting out of photography and had taken it out of print, it has now found a home with a new publisher, and is back in print in a beautiful hardcover that matches The Soul of the Camera.
The Tenth Anniversary Edition of Within The Frame is out now. So if you were thinking about replacing your dog-eared edition that’s falling apart, or maybe giving a copy to your daughter who just picked up your old camera with that spark in her eye, or you never read this one, now’s as good a time as any (no, wait, a better time than any!) to take a look.
And if you did read it, and if you have anything at all to say about it, I’d be honoured if you’d help me out and leave an honest review on Amazon. With the new edition, the book has lost its 5-star rating (it lost all the ratings) and the reviews that were so helpful in guiding the decisions of would-be readers. You can get your own copy from Amazon here for less than $25.