More Important Than Good?

In Life Is Short, Pep Talks, Rants and Sermons, The Craft, The Life Creative by David22 Comments

Some of your photographs aren’t very “good”; they’re way more important than that.  

You’ve felt it—I know you have. You’ve experienced the rush of making a photograph that turns out exactly as you planned. Perhaps better. It’s sharp in all the right places, the colours work together, and it has a certain je ne sais quoi that garners more likes than usual on Instagram or from those who follow your work.

It is a good photograph, even one of your best photographs. It might not, however, be your most important.

My most important photographs are not all that good. At least not now. They were, or I thought they were, once upon a time. Back when I made them and experienced the kind of wonder and pride that comes when you make something you didn’t know you had it in you to make. Or you knew, but the voices (you know the ones) made you doubt it. Looking back at them now, that pride has thinned out a little. It should; I’m making stronger work now. But I’m not sure it’s always as important. You can probably only know that in hindsight.

I do know that some of my most important photographs are the ones that represent a risk taken: the first successful effort (after so many tries!) at some new technique upon which I have since built the work that I am now most proud of. They might not have been that good, but they sure mattered.

Those photographs won’t win a blue ribbon, which is a shame because learning to take risks is so much harder than learning to place your subject precisely on a grid of thirds within your frame. Ribbon or not, those photographs should be celebrated.

I know that my most important photographs are the ones that freeze in time—even very poorly—the memories that have become significant turning points in my life story. They are not remotely “good” according to the standards of excellence I try my best to meet, and it’s probable that no one will ever see or appreciate them.

But those are the photographs I will look at one day when my story is in its last chapter, and I will value them infinitely over the ones that drew accolades. They’ll remind me of the magic of those slivers of time I took to be truly present and alive, to love and let myself be loved. In those moments, with those photographs, I’ll be thinking not about how good my camera or my craft was, but about how good my life was.

I know that my most important photographs are the ones that are now evidence of hard-won growth. Growth in my tastes, my values, and the way I approached not only my art but the world in which I make it. They aren’t so much good themselves as they are evidence of something good. They remind me that I have not always stood still, that there has been a trajectory to my life, if not always toward better art, then certainly toward a better life (though the two are so often connected).

It is also true that the photographs for which any of us might win blue ribbons (or work so hard to do so) might, in the end, be seen as very good indeed but ultimately, unimportant. Only we know which those are, the ones that tick all the right boxes for others but secretly feel like contrived imitations to ourselves. Those are the ones that feed the ego, and a case could be made for them being neither good for us nor important to us.

In the same way that we sometimes conflate a good photograph with an important photograph (and here we should probably agree that some photographs are both) it’s possible to forget that our most valuable photographs need never sell a single print.

There are many ways to value a photograph; of them, I suspect money is the least trustworthy, though there are photographs from my past that I would pay plenty to be able to see just once more. I either lost them or got rid of them at some point, likely while moving from one house to another; I probably threw them out, thinking they weren’t very good. It never occurred to me to ask myself if they were important.

Making what is merely a good photograph is not hard once you’ve learned the basics. I suppose it’s a matter of definition, about which we can squabble later. Making a photograph that is important (to you) is much harder. It takes risk. Self-awareness. A willingness to grow beyond your comfort zone. It takes a willingness to fail because failure is your most faithful teacher. Most importantly, perhaps, it takes a willingness to truly live, to ask the hard questions, and to have not only a good eye, as they say, but a good heart—one that is open to life.

Your most important photographs are as unlikely as you are to be perfect. But they will matter, as you do. Only once they matter to you should you even wonder if they might matter to anyone else.

For the Love of the Photograph,


  1. David,

    I read this article on another website before I read the copy in my email. I was in the second paragraph when I stopped to scroll up to the byline, thinking “Who wrote this? It sounds an awful lot like David DuChemin.”

    Thanks again for continuing to inspire me and others to think deeper about what happens before we push that button.

    I hope you’re doing well.

    Wishing you all the best,

  2. Hi David.

    I was searching for some “good” photography blogs and came upon yours. What a beautiful post this was. I have a couple of your books which I last read years ago. I had forgotten how beautiful and thought-provoking your writing was (and is)! So glad to have found you again.

    Dave P.

  3. This is excellent David, thanks so much for sharing your thoughts so eloquently. I’ve been mulling some of my “important” photos and what makes them so for some time now. Your words here resonate very strongly with me and help me gain a better understanding of my own thoughts and feelings.

    Thanks again, and thanks a million.


  4. One of your best essays, David. The eighth paragraph is spot-on! I began my seventh decade of life this year, six decades carrying a camera with me, and many of the images gracing my home studio walls are one that would not win an award, but remind me of milestones in my photography pilgrimage and places on this planet that I have had the good providence to walk in. Thus, I am already “thinking not about how good my camera or my craft was, but about how good my life was.” Thanks for the words!

    1. thanks Robert , as I too have passed to the same age, and reflect on the images lost , and to the images yet to be created, so it must be time to get out and risk to fail, but not fall, and break another bone as I sit here waiting to get well , and to get out there !!

  5. Hi David, Thanks for this message!

    So very timely for me right now, as I am finally seeing my first major book project roll out to the launch pad like a Saturn V, hopefully soon to take flight. Like the trolley that would transport the huge rocket to its liftoff site, this project has seemed to move sooooo slowly for way toooo long, but now, it is finally being buckled into its final scaffolding before ignition.

    My editor/publisher and I are 1-2 weeks away from having the book printer run a final proof copy so we can check how the CMYK conversions turned out (I did them myself!!!), and make a detailed review of all details before going to press.

    I’ve been following you for several years now, and you have always inspired me to take those risks you spoke about in this new blog post. This book contains a number of such “important” images, some using motion blur, others using edgy or unique composition or framing, some concentrating on tactile details (especially on hands, which has turned out to be a subtle thread in the photographic narrative of the book), and many made in ridiculously low light in chapels all across the “lower 48” and Alaska. The book is an exploration of Orthodox Christian monasticism in North America, so you can imagine how I have enjoyed your globe-trotting religious subjects!

    Your video series, ‘After the Camera’, was a huge help to me, and unlocked Adobe Lightroom for me in a big way. The principles you taught in that series have guided me through much of the past several years of this project. Three years of travel and principal photography, image selection, post production, and initial editing over the following year, then the Covid lockdowns stopped us in our tracks for two years, then we resumed a little over two years ago with renewed vision and confidence, the book design and further winnowing of the best images down to the select 200 or so. The book creation itself has been quite a journey of its own.

    Thanks again for the instruction, inspiration, mentoring, and setting a great example of being a ‘Creative’, with humility, mirth, craft & vision (pun intended).

    I’ll keep you posted when the book comes out. You can get an idea of the project on my website. It’s long overdue for a refresh, so after we send the book file to the printer I hope to do just that:

    With warm friendship,
    Ralph Sidway

  6. Dear David,

    At 86 I am in my last chapter and your comments were just what I needed (as usual)! I am a member of a local club and compete with other members and more critically with myself. Often discouraged at lack of sales, lack an understanding audience and my own technical prowess. As you say, some photos never are shown for many reasons, but often for not meeting other’s standards.
    I am proudest of those unexpected precious captures that celebrate Life. You so often confirm my private thoughts.

    1. Thank you, thank you, thank you! Deeply profound and perfect timing as usual! As with our craft so it is with our lives, that every small act of kindness, every thought of generosity, every demonstration of love no matter how simple or small, makes a greater difference in this world than most of us realize at the time. Our culture is so permeated with thoughts of grandiose accomplishment being all that matters that it’s easy to forget how much one smile or one touch of the hand can change a life especially our own.

  7. David,
    Fabulous insight!

    I have been working on my vision, very much with the guidance from your books and your courses – and with the inspiration of your battle with your “bionic” transition. Simultaneously, I have been transitioning from my surgical practice to retirement. There have been more than a few times over the past two years that my progress in my photographic journey has provided me with my most rewarding moments. I have had more than a few “OMG! I made this” moments, but also the other moments you describe; most often when photographing family and friends.

    It gives me confidence that my post-retirement times will be just as rewarding as my years in my profession. And, importantly, with your guidance and inspiration.

    Thank you – again.


  8. Great article David! I’ve made your last paragraph my screensaver. This is important, so I will see it a lot and remind myself. Thank you. p.s. Good to see your rehab is going well. Brave you!

  9. So insightful! Thank you for your wisdom on The Contact Sheet. I showed my work in the 60’s at the lobby of the Joseph Papp Theater in NYC and those are photographs I cherish to this day. I didn’t show any work,, feeling too shy to promote my work, altho I did a short stint in the late 70’s for McCalls magazine but never made a career of photography, having owned my own catering business in NYC for 23 years and then working at Columbia University for 10 years. At the age of 77, two years ago, a gallery owner saw a photograph of mine and asked if I would like to show at her gallery. This led to other galleries interested in my work. I am a member of the Provincetown Art Association and Museum and have had photographs chosen for the Juried shows and sold several as well. Your words over the past have been a great inspiration and guidance for me! Thank you!!!

  10. This thought really made me think. “ In those moments, with those photographs, I’ll be thinking not about how good my camera or my craft was, but about how good my life was.
    I do get caught up in the technical aspects of my photographs, whic is so less important than the memory tied to it.
    Thanks for reminding me of that.

  11. You are entirely correct – as usual! After 50 years of photography and an extra 22 years of life, it’s now the photos of family and past experiences with them that are important! Snapshots in time….

  12. Hi David,
    Just saw your “reel,” on instagram. So wonderful to see. Congratulations to you for your bravery and your progress. You have all my admiration & respect, for whatever it’s worth.

  13. Photographs of my family (the ones that NEVER get posted on social media) are my favorites. I’m taking my best photos ever of my grandkids.

  14. Always thought provoking. Love to read your blogs. Thanks David for your investment into our lives.

  15. Thank you for a very insightful piece. Your Sunday essays are always a treat.

  16. Thanks David… my most important photograph was my very first one… taken with a Kodak Hawkeye Brownie in 1964, B/W of course, and it was of my siblings posing on the banks of the St. John River in New Brunswick. It is blurry… I did manage to find a wrinkled copy stored amongst my Dad’s albums and so I a PS repair and now I do have a digital copy. Most important because about 60 years ago it got me started on the journey… fortunately still no end in sight on that path 🙂

  17. The last couple of paragraphs offer wisdom for all of life. The word “photograph” could be substituted with many other endeavors we attempt, e.g., relationships, work, etc . Thank you for the reminder of the value of “heart”. I’ve copied this to place on my art table.

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