I recently discovered a terrific video series called Classic Albums that is now available on Netflix. Each 1-hour episode tells the story of one of the great albums from rock 'n roll music. I've been going through the entire series enjoying both the walk down memory lane and the inside stories about how some of my favorite music came to be. In the midst of these documentaries that frequently focus on the creative process, I'm discovering ideas are perfectly applicable to photography. For example here are two fabulous quotes that prompt several thoughts:
I never wanted to be famous, I just wanted to be good.
Neil Peart, drummer, Rush
If you are any good at all, you know you can be better.
Lindsay Buckingham, guitarist, Fleetwood Mac
A couple of weeks ago we were considering the difference between snapshot photography and art photography — a train of thought that quickly descends (ascends?) into a discussion in attempt to find the definition of art. Although that discussion may be ultimately fruitless, there is something to be gained by considering what it is to be an artist.
One of the characteristics that is most important is the relentless pursuit of excellence (Peart). But this is only possible if we can also be relentlessly honest with ourselves (Buckingham). It's this second one that often trips us up. The problem is the age-old tautological one — How do we know what we don't know? I think this is one of the points that riles up us old-timers when looking at the work of the youngest generation of photographers. We see their work and cringe; they see their work and beam with pride. Are they naïve and foolish, or are we so stuck in our ways that we can't appreciate their aesthetic? I think this often comes down to Buckingham's observation: humility serves an artist well — a personality trait sometime missing from self-congratulating artists.
We've all had a conversation with a photographer who sees no room in their work for improvement and simply refuses to acknowledge any contrary opinion. There is an arrogance in this that is off putting. I gave up years ago trying to discuss art with these people — they are not open to comments. They start defending their work the moment any contrary opinion is expressed — the excuses fly fast and furious. That's a sure clue to their mindset. Even if my comments are hogwash, what harm would it do to listen? They can always dismiss my suggestions and ignore my point of view!
Here's a handy tip I learned ages ago in my pre-LensWork days when I had a management consulting company. There are two strategies that I used. First, before offering any comments or suggestions, I'd start the conversation by asking if they wanted them! Simple and direct. Would you like me to offer some comments about this? Sometimes the answer will be an equally direct no — which I always appreciate so I don't waste either of our time. If the answer is yes, then I have permission to proceed with the tacit agreement that they're interested in what I have to say. Sometimes I further clarify this with a follow-up question if I feel any resistance in them: Should I tell you what I like about this or are you also interested in things I'd do differently? Their answer will tell you whether or not to pull your punches, so to speak.
Second, I always include a caveat: advice is just an opinion. I'm happy to offer my opinions, but that's all they are. I want people to feel at ease if they decide to reject my advice. I want them to know that I won't in any way be bothered or have my feelings hurt if they disagree. My opinions are, I hope, helpful in opening the door to a new perspective, but it is always the artist who must make the decision whether or not to walk through. Having options and new perspectives is a good thing, even if they only point out the dead ends. As the old maxim goes, failure is just a way of learning what doesn't work. If you don't like the suggestions that are offered, at least you can cross them off as choices you've considered and rejected.
Brooks' books on photography and the creative process are available in print from Lulu.com, and as eBooks for Kindle or EPUB readers. As one of the membership benefits, these eBooks are available in their entirety to members of LensWork Online via download.