Never give up?
See if this sounds familiar: a friend's youngest son wants to be a musician. Actually what he wants to be is a rock star. He devoted himself to music at age 16 and determined above all to "be persistent," as all the advice homilies advise.
If you listened to this young man play and sing, it would be obvious to you within five minutes (actually not even that long) that: a) he is much better at singing and playing guitar than most people are, and b) he will never, ever be a professional musician, much less a rock star. He's just not good enough. It's...obvious.
The trouble is, he's now in his mid 40s. And all he's ever done is try to be a rock star. He's never made a decent living, never settled down or had a family, never lived in a nice place or bought a car new, never accomplished much in the way of anything. Except, of course, "persisting" in his increasingly unreasonable, quixotic dream.
Thirty years and he's still determined.
Is that a good thing?
Compare and contrast this to my friend John A., who loved to write songs in the style of the late Dan Fogelberg and play and sing them. Out of college, John gave himself two years to succeed in music. He moved to L.A. and worked long and exceptionally hard hours—knocked on all the doors and played at all the coffeehouses and took all sorts of rejection—striving every day—but failed to gain any traction within the allotted two years. He then stopped that, and went to Stanford Business School, and has since done well in business.
John's aim was not to "persist," but to follow his dream and give music a shot. At that he succeeded. I haven't seen him for years but I'm sure he still plays and sings for fun and for friends.
Unwarranted persistence is also called "spinning your wheels." Picture a car stuck in mud or ice, its drive wheels spinning uselessly, the car going nowhere (except perhaps getting even more stuck).
Be, and stretch, thyself
Regular readers know that I'm the first person to encourage photographers to try new things, be themselves, stretch themselves, challenge themselves, explore their interests, express what's in their hearts.
But—here comes a big "but"—it's been my observation over many years that most photographers think a) that they're more talented as generalists than they actually are, and b) that being a generalist is a good thing.
Hilla Becher, of the famous partnership of Bernd and Hilla Becher, died recently. Take a little quiz here: from among these four works, and pick the one Hilla Becher had a hand in:
(Here's a link to an obituary of Hilla—I wanted you to try your hand at my quiz first.)
And if you're feeling reasonably up on your history of photography, see if you can match the pictures to the names if I tell you the other three photographers are Vivian Maier, Edward Weston, and Helmut Newton.
How'd you do?
You did pretty well, right? I don't know where people get the idea that being a generalist is a desirable thing. Of course you can do anything you want with your photography, and if you like experimenting in different genres and creating a motley of pictures that don't really hang together then by all means do so. (I do, I have to admit.)
I've simply observed that most photographers of any ambition or seriousness will both a) improve their work markedly and b) improve their own personal satisfaction with their work (and their gratification with working! I.e., the process, the actual activity) if and when they get hard-headed about identifying what they've really got a jones for and concentrating on what they're really good at, and letting the rest more or less go.
As for what that this, I would never be so superficial and dull-minded to suggest it should be a conformity to something as simple as a genre. It might be anything; but it should be something.
That's all. Once you know what you're really about, it allows you to stop spinning your wheels so much doing things you're not very good at.
Yes, you need to experiment at first to find out what your thing is; of course you should stretch yourself to stay limber; of course you should go ahead and shoot what interests you where you find yourself, if that's what you want to do; of course you can learn by setting yourself challenges and working outside your comfort zone. Naturally. I wouldn't tell anyone not to do those things.
But we also should act like maybe we're going to die one day in the future, and that maybe time isn't literally unlimited. It's better not to noodle around for too long. Give a variety of things a shot, yes—but be realistic, too. Get down to it. Take a fearless inventory of your past work, appraise your strengths objectively, and find the thing that has energy for you and that you're good at and then don't be afraid to give it some commitment. It's okay. You don't have to do everything.
Just don't waste too much time at things you'll never be that good at. Time's a-wastin'.
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(To see all the comments, click on the "Comments" link below.)
Featured Comments from:
Ctein: "You left out the single most important piece of information in both your examples. Are they happy?
"More specifically, do they think they're happier for having chosen B rather than A (or A rather than B). If the answer is yes, then they made the right choice. If it's not, then they didn't. Honestly, all the rest is irrelevant. They are under no philosophical nor moral obligation to 'make something of themselves.' If you had indicated that they had obligations to others that the met/defaulted-on, then my answer might be different. Absent that, 'follow your bliss' is still, one of them damn best pieces of advice anyone ever thought up."
Mike replies: Good point; I guess I did leave that out. As I said to ShadZee in the comments, the friend's youngest son is an unhappy and dysfunctional man who is intensely frustrated with his "bad luck," can't wait to "break through," and is not (as ShadZee thought he might be) "feeding himself with his work." He's not making it and is bitter and resentful.
That was according to the father, though, not the aspiring musician himself.
As far as John A., the second example, we've been out of touch for years, unfortunately, and I do know he's had a few personal setbacks along the way, but I believe he's doing very well personally and professionally. Along the way he's certainly been involved in music, just not as a performer.
Kenneth Tanaka (partial comment): "Get down to what? What time's a-wastin'? You seem to have some goal of achievement underlying your thesis, Mike. A monographic show at MoMA? A book cited in the next Parr and Badger? I don't think most hobbyists harbor such aspirations. I don't think most photographers have to choose 'something' to be happy. Personally every day of the journey is my objective."
[For the full text of "partial comments," please see the Comments Section. —Ed.]
Mike replies: I have no doubt that you're doing what you do consciously and mindfully, and of course I have no problem with that. What I'm saying, however, is something different.
My observation has been that most photographers tend to zealously guard their contention that they "can do it all" and that they "don't want to be limited," and they tend to reserve for themselves the right to dabble in everything and pretend that they're just as good at any one thing as any other. But it's been my observation (not yours, I understand that, but mine) that people who are serious about photography become happier and more fulfilled when they honestly assess their strengths and commit and devote themselves to learning, improving, and working within that area of passion or interest, whatever it might be.
I think there's an idea "out there" in photography's culture that experienced photographers need to be more like lower-level jobber pros and be able to take anything on; but that that—again, in my opinion—is not particularly helpful to people.
I'm talking on a deeper level than "some goal of achievement" or accomplishment. I'm talking about fulfilling a need and being fulfilled by a the practice of an activity.
I can't prove this because I haven't done the sociological experiment rigorously, but just based on my experience, I bet if you talked to a hundred people who used to be "into" photography but aren't any more, you'll find a lot of dabblers, surface-skimmers, and people who never "lit upon" what really clicked for them (pun, I guess, intended); and if you talk to a hundred people who have a rich and vital involvement with photography and have gotten a lot of gratification out of it, you'll find a lot of people who have identified where the energy is in it for them. You'd be in that latter group, even though it's not primarily or exclusively as a shooter than your self-identification lies.
Michael Wayne Plant: "I try to tell my students this all the time, it makes you a better photographer to be focused and it liberates you from what to photograph. Having a specific style or subject matter means that you do not have to worry about how to do it. But concentrate on just owning it with was much passion and time as you can devote to it. I struggled with this myself for years and now have focus and it is truly liberating as I still have just as much to photograph but my energies are not wasted on subjects that I do not know about. Photographing something that you know about and care passionately about is a great starting point."
Richard: "Re 'I don't know where people get the idea that being a generalist is a desirable thing....' Because I enjoy the heck out of it! I just love to photograph. Lots of thing. I know I'm good, very good. Yet I have no crazy ambitions that I'll be a professional who can live off his photography let alone any kind of "rock star" of photography. I also could not really care less if someone does not like my photography or criticizes it. i'm not doing it for them I'm doing it for me, and my enjoyment and nothing else. If you like it? Great, you have wonderful taste. I'm thrilled. if not? Who cares? I don't. I'm a very very happy photographer."
Chris Y.: "Seen written on a whiteboard in the abandoned office of a brilliant young manager who'd been forced by ossified VPs to leave the company in disgust: 'winners never quit, and quitters never win. But if you never win and you never quit, you are an idiot.' That was around 2000. Saw him name-checked around 2010 in a Paul Krugman article about startups in developing countries. He'd found his thing...."
Angela Weil: "In response to this article I'd like to add a quote from the American TV series 'True Detectives,' first season: 'Life's barely long enough to get good at one thing.' 'If that long...' 'Well, be careful what you get good at....'"