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,