By Carl Weese
Some of the comments to my recent post about editing made me realize that I was writing from an underlying assumption about the nature of editing that is not necessarily obvious to the reader. The comments recommending various ways to edit out mistakes remind me of something important in my photographic life from about twenty-five years ago.
I had the opportunity to show David Vestal in-progress work on a personal project. At that point I had been intensely involved with photography for two-thirds of my life; I had been a working professional for a dozen years. David spent time with the pictures, and then, instead of talking about them directly, asked about my editing. "Do you look for mistakes, and get rid of them? Or do you look for good stuff to hold on to?"
I was dumbfounded, like after the Zen master's slap upside the head. There was no middle ground, no gray area, no way around it: I had never in my life thought of the editing process as anything but taking a berserker's broad-axe to the shoot, eliminating anything that showed the slightest weakness, the least flaw or error. David recommended I start over from scratch with this material, and look for all the good things instead of editing by fault-finding. Once the pictures with good stuff in them were found, I could start to decide whether each one had, on balance, enough good stuff to outweigh any bad stuff I would previously have rejected it for. This was a radical change of thought. Instantly, I knew he was right.
What I've come to understand in the years since, is that editing by fault-finding traps you into what you already know, so is an impediment to discovery and advancement. From the beginning I'd been suspicious of "rules," but editing by negation sneaked a bunch of stupid rules right past me and into my practice. To edit by fault-finding is to encase yourself in foregone conclusions—you might as well be insisting on The Rule of Thirds, or Single Center of Interest—but to edit as an exploration of the take for what actually worked, for what you found that you didn't already know, is a voyage of discovery. It's a crucial difference.