I don't usually take to the bully pulpit to either disagree with or amplify something Ctein has written—his column, his topic, his bailiwick—but it seems to me that the insight in his most recent column could be extended to two more common mistakes. Just my opinion, of course.
So, first, there's Ctein's (or Bob Nadler's) "nobody cares how hard you worked." Or didn't work. What he's saying by that is that sometimes you can make really outstanding photographs by working very, very hard at it—and sometimes, you can work really hard and have it come out a total bust anyway.
That's not to say you should never work hard. All it means is that it's not the extent of your effort that will determine the success of the result—it's still the success of the photograph itself that matters.
This always makes me think of an ace salesman I once knew whose nickname was "Gun" (because he always hit what he aimed at). I asked him once how much effort he would put into making a sale, and he said "however much it takes." He then told me tales of a $50,000 sale that fell into his lap and required no effort from him at all, and spending eight hours over three days to make a $275 sale. His theory was that the effort evened out—the important thing to him was to decide what the customer was going to buy and then score that sale, whatever it took.
How much effort should you give it? As much as it takes. If you go back to my three pictures in the "Open Mike: Worry" post last Sunday, one of them required a great deal of work to get. Can you tell which?
If it's a big mistake to think that lots of effort must necessarily be rewarded (in the Comments, Soeren Engelbrecht provided a good example of a picture attempt where elaborate effort did not pay off), it's also a mistake to think that something you didn't work on can't be worth anything. One of my all-time favorite pictures was one I don't remember taking—a literally thoughtless snapshot.
Edward Weston worked really hard on Pepper No. 30...
...And most of J.-H. Lartigue's most famous pictures were
snapshots he took as a teenager.
In the end I think I agree most with Ed, who, in the Comments, said, "What Bob Nadler should have said is that no one cares about how much effort you put into a shot if the picture in the end sucks big time. No work, no blood, sweat and tears...can compensate for lack of picture quality. But if the shot is great and you can see the work involved you can appreciate both the trouble and the end result."
So that's one.
The second big mistake is the belief that some sort of special camera, or process, or material is automatically going to result in better pictures. It just doesn't work that way. I've certainly written about this before, but the best way to ratiocinate your way to the correct conclusion is to reflect that there have been spectacularly successful pictures taken with the very worst cameras ever made—toy cameras with plastic lenses, for instance—and there have certainly been plentiful numbers of resoundingly unsuccessful pictures made with the very best equipment money can buy.
When I edited Photo Techniques, I used to refer to this as the "magic solution" syndrome, because of the unfortunate prevalence of people who believed their pictures were special because of what developer they used. (Today, amateurs tend to prize exaggerated color, sharpness, and high resolution, which is why a great deal of pictures are ruined by being too colorful, too sharp, and/or too detailed—certainly more than the opposite.)
What matters is how appropriately the tools and materials are used, and how appropriate they are to the picture. A bad picture isn't made better because you took it with the lens you saved up for for eight months, or because you just learned a new sharpening technique you're enamored of, or because you used the same paper developer Edward Weston did*.
TR Smith's picture in Tuesday's post strikes me as a particularly successful picture, but he also told me his work earned an honorable mention in the SoHo Photo Krappy Kamera Competition. In other words, I'm guessing it wasn't the value of the camera he used that made that picture good.
Moving along—the third most common mistake, I believe, is when people think the best picture they got in a promising situation has to be a good one. I've seen this time and again with photographers of different ages, different levels of experience, and several eras now. They were convinced they they had encountered something visually promising. They knew were on the trail. They had an idea of what they wanted. They felt the possibilities. They could even visualize it. They knew they had an opportunity. There was a picture there.
But they didn't get it. For whatever reason, they missed the shot.
It's a bitter pill to swallow, and some people just can't face it. But you have to learn to accept it. Just because you filled up a whole card and had high hopes doesn't necessarily mean there has to be a great shot in there somewhere. Maybe there isn't. Maybe you just missed it. Happens to the best of them.
• • •
The unifying theme in all three of these things is that you have to learn to look at the end result and let go of everything you know about what did or didn't go into it. Which is which is for each photographer to decide for themselves, but a photograph either works or it doesn't—never salvage. You can't make pot gold out of pork rinds. Don't bother trying to salvage an almost-had-something-there situation, or an I-took-so-many-shots-there-must-be-a-good-one-in-here-somewhere scenario, or a but-I-worked-so-hard-for-it-it-must-be-good result. It never works. Sometimes the photography gods smile, and sometimes they don't. That's what makes it so interesting.
*That was one of my favorite quotes from my days at the magazine. I had rejected a portfolio and the photographer, in a high state of dismay, blurted out, "But you don't understand—those prints were developed in Amidol!" Still makes me chuckle.
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Original contents copyright 2011 by Michael C. Johnston and/or the bylined author. All Rights Reserved.
Featured Comment by David: "Mike—I'm not sure whether it’s a 4th mistake or fits into one of your 3, but I suggest a mistake we amateurs make (let me re-phrase—'what I do too frequently') is the emotional connection to an image. Because we have a strong emotional connection with the subject especially at the time of making the photograph, we create a strong attachment that can overshadow the external 'value' of the image. Not sure if I'm making myself clear, because obviously many (all?) effective images do result from the photographer's strong emotional response to the subject—the trick for me is keeping the emotion and the image separate when trying to judge the photograph’s effectiveness."
Mike replies: David, I'm not sure how much we're really at odds, but I have to disagree with you there. I think the best hope any of us has is to make pictures we really have an emotional attachment (one might say "response") to. In fact, I think the idea that we're somehow beholden to conform to exogenous tastes and make our pictures appeal to a large anonymous public is a very good way to get off track. Some of the best artists—photographers included—follow their own muse, and then hope the world catches on to them. Art and music history are littered with people who were not well understood at first but were later considered geniuses. Also, art history is definitely littered with examples of people who were celebrated as geniuses in their own time precisely because they were astute at judging mass taste and current trends—but whom history has forgotten, or nearly so. I suspect the best chance we have is to be as true to ourselves as possible. "Emotional connection" as you put it is not so much a mistake as it is a clue.
Featured Comment by Chris: "On the pitfalls of emotional attachments to our own images, I think I agree with David's Featured Comment—that is, provided the emotion is connected not to the resulting picture (in which case, I think Mike is on the right track) but rather to our memory of the event, or what we felt when making the picture, or anything else that doesn't show up in the final image. I think this is something Winogrand is often credited with talking about—his method was evidently to wait long enough between taking the photo and developing/reviewing it that he could evaluate the picture (including his emotional reaction to it) without getting sidetracked by emotions that don't reside in the photo. Ultimately, I still choose the photos I have the deepest emotional attachment to for my portfolio over the crowd-pleasers, but only after I am reasonably sure that the emotion really relates to the picture, and isn't just in my head."
Featured [partial] Comment by TR Smith: "Mike, you mention my photo included in Tuesday's 'Street Photos' Comments and I thought I'd confirm your hunch—it was taken with a Holga. I love shooting and developing film, but digital has so many conveniences it can be hard to resist. I just took delivery of a new Fuji X100.... [The rest of Tim's comment consists of his impressions of the X100, which you can read in the Comments section. —Ed.]