Do you ever feel like you have to go take pictures of something?
This morning we had a late winter snowstorm that came down in big, sticky flakes and stuck to everything. Stop signs were white, not red; trees, cars, shopping carts at the grocery store, even power and telephone wires were coated with white frosting. And, as usual, I felt an anxious, nagging obligation to pick a camera and get out and photograph it.
Hey, I'm a photographer—and a winter wonderland snowfall is a photo opportunity. I'm obligated.
I always feel this way.
Whenever a picturesque snowfall hits, I feel that same anxious feeling: like I'd better go out and take pictures of it while I have a chance. Like it was my job. Or my duty.
Thinking back, I have actually taken three successful photographs in my life of snowy scenes. One (6x6) published, one (4x5) never printed, and one (digital) that made me quite a lot of money. But by far the majority of the snow pictures I've ever made just don't move me or mean anything to me. I always get the feeling when I look at one of them later that it's something somebody else could have done better. There are lots of wonderful photographers of winter out there, who can shoot rings around me.
The myth of persistence
I had a neighbor once who had big ambitions around an "Amway"-type of sales scheme. You know, where you buy your household products in bulk from a friend or acquaintance and save money. (I don't recall the name of the company or product line. It wasn't Amway, but something similar. I just don't recall.)
Well, my neighbor quickly started to become a pest about it, and I found myself avoiding him. At around that time, I got a very eloquent sales pitch by email from a business acquaintance selling the very same product line. I was annoyed, so I wrote him back a somewhat curt note of some length saying that I had considered it before and concluded that I am just not the type of person to go in for that kind of thing.
I'm not, either. I'll run out of hand soap and wash my hands with dishwashing detergent for five days before finally remembering I need hand soap when I'm at the store.
The earliest of three decent snow scenes I've taken. This was made when Ronald Reagan was President, with a then-brand-new Mamiya 6 I was testing for a review in Darkroom Photography magazine. Sorry if I've showed this before—as I say, I only have the three.
I never heard from the email guy again, but my neighbor continued pestering me. The email guy's sales spiel had seemed so much slicker; I wondered why he'd given up so easily. So, just out of curiosity, I called him and questioned him about it.
He told me that he had taken my reply at face value. He felt he'd given me a good strong pitch, and that he'd gotten a specific and detailed reply from me. So he'd appraised me (correctly) as someone who was not a prospect and struck me off his list. "I don't want to waste your time but, more importantly, I don't want to waste mine," he told me. "If I think someone isn't a good prospect, I'll write them off."
I asked him how much he earned selling the Amway-type stuff, anyway.
Want to guess?
A hundred thousand dollars a year. He had recently quit his $70k-a-year advertising job to concentrate on it!
I just assumed my hapless neighbor was new to that kind of thing—he was sort of a genial bumbler type, always coming up with cockamamie schemes—so I figured I'd do him a favor. I went over to his house, sat him down, and explained to him that he was wasting his time trying to sell me his household products. I told him I just wasn't the type, that I'd never be a customer of his, that I honestly, seriously wasn't interested.
Along the way, of course, I questioned him a bit about his business. Turned out, to my amazement, that he wasn't a newbie—he'd been at it for ten years. His best-ever year? Nine grand. That was his peak. During the present year (that was '99, thereabouts) he figured he'd earn about five.
And you know what he said to me on the way out the door? "I'm gonna keep working on you, Mike. Persistence pays. You'll see—you'll be my customer one day. I'll get you." Said with a laugh.
Eventually, we ended up not being friends any more. I felt bad, but he just wouldn't stop pestering me.
I guess you get the point. The guy who refused to give up was not a success. The guy who gave up when it was smart to do so was the successful one.
Ever since then, I've been suspicious of the idea of persistence. It's a great, grand old American myth, of course: we're always telling ourselves that persistence and perseverence are crucial to success. But many people—including a few I could name—persist at failure. They keep trying, all right. But they keep trying to do things they already should have learned they're no good at.
The Universe has done all it could to let them know. But they're not listening.
I had a friend—a photography educator and author—who died a few years back. His youngest son, who was about my age, had been trying to make it as a musician, struggling, living in poverty, bouncing from menial job to menial job. Waiting and hoping for his big break.
He'd been doing that for more than twenty years. That was a dozen years ago. For all I know, he's still at it, well into middle age.
Sometimes, what's urgently needed is a little less persistence.
I'm not saying you should never persevere—that would be just as stupid as saying you always should. But you have to be smart. Be self-aware. When something just isn't panning out, give up and move on.
Been there, done that
My feeling that I must photograph pretty snowfalls is entirely self-imposed. I'd just never really thought about it before. But this morning, I decided I should do one of two things: either I should commit to the kind of preparation and dedication required to make a really great winter-wonderland picture—scout locations, pick a format, test my technique, be 100% ready for when it happens next—or I should just give myself permission to leave the pretty snowfall pictures to others.
You'll notice there's no new picture with this post. Three is enough. It's not my thing.
So the next time one of these snowstorms comes along, I'm going to be prepared, and I'm going to be ready: prepared to just look around and enjoy it without photographing it, and ready to tell that anxious, nagging voice to shut up.
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Original contents copyright 2011 by Michael C. Johnston and/or the bylined author. All Rights Reserved.
Featured Comment by David Paterson: "We feel guilty about not being out there, shooting the wonders which nature serves up—winter, spring, autumn—and embarrassed because we know how very difficult it will be to say anything new about them. Snow-scenes are so obviously attractive the guilt and embarrassment are a little worse, is all."
Featured [partial] Comment by Tom Kwas: "I don't think, because I call myself a photographer, that every beautiful or meaningful situation I'm involved in needs to be spoiled by trying to take a picture of it. I realized years ago, that struggling to take a picture of a beautiful sunset I'm looking at can never be better than sitting there and watching it, and maybe talking with whoever I'm with. In a way, that seems far more healthy for my inner self. So, I've leaned to never feel bad about being in awe of a situation's beauty, and not wanting to spoil it by trying to record what can only be a weak representation of it." (See the Comments section for Tom's and Gerard's full comments. —Ed.)
Featured [partial] Comment by Gerard Kingma: "...You will suck at being a winter photographer if you don't like doing it. I take pictures of many things...but I will never do weddings, because I hate wedding photography...."
Mike replies: True. And this brings to mind the "What Could Be Better" codicil. I remember reading an article by a wedding photographer who said of wedding photography, "What could be better?" He liked the parties, couples, the romance in the air, everything about his job. He felt privileged to be able to do wedding photography for a living. I've done two weddings in my life, and the second was my mother's second marriage—and I had help with that one, from my girlfriend of the time, who was also a photographer.
Extrapolating outward, I think you could almost say that you've found the right job if you ever find yourself saying any variant of "what could be better." I say that about this job. I sometimes have to remind myself that I actually work very hard at this—it doesn't always even seem like work. Right this moment, for instance, there's not a thing I'd rather be doing.
"I get to do [X] all day. And I even get paid for it. What could be better?" I've definitely heard many photographers say something similar to that over the years.
Featured Comment by James Bullard: "I agree that you shouldn't beat your head against the wall but would add that you should be prepared to take what falls into your lap. I long ago decided I wasn't a wildlife photographer but occasionally a situation presents itself as a gift and when it does I take it. Most recently I shot this photo from the comfort of my kitchen. Never look a gift horse, deer or snow storm in the mouth. Just take the gift and say 'thank you.'"
Mike replies: Nice one. I agree; I'm even very proud of my two successful cat pictures (one 35mm, one digital), despite often making a running joke about hating cat pictures. I am definitely, decidedly not a cat photographer (or, truth be told, a cat lover, although I once did love a delightful, athletic female named Tweedles). But I'm glad not to be doctrinaire about it, and glad not to have turned up my nose at those two opportunities.
Featured Comment by Will: "Persistence in movies is how the guy gets the girl. Persistence in life is how the guy gets a restraining order."