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Friday, 30 October 2015


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Mike, way to double down on your earlier post and persist! Not sure I agree or disagree with you here. I think each person and each personality needs to weigh this on their own. There are countless success stories of people who defied all the naysayers. Of course there are also countless examples of people who just spun their wheels chasing a dream that wasn't meant to be. I must say that, as a pragmatist, there is something to envy in the dreamchasers and their ceaseless passion.

That is some amazingly calm and measured explification, Mike!

I could write a very long essay on this topic, because in some ways it haunts me. But, to keep it brief, people must recognize at some point in life, preferably early, what they *can* do. I know two brothers who were determined to be rock stars. They had everything but the talent. They're now in their 40s, working as waiters, which is not the profession in the U.S. that it is in some countries. I think one of the most valuable things that a parent can do is help his/her offspring to that realization -- not discourage them, but to at least see the world as it is.

What is success? To be able to buy a new car? have grand kids? Have a house?... Or do what you love everyday, while you're still able to feed yourself with that work.

[Guess I wasn't clear. 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 feeding himself with his work. He's not making it. --Mike]

And, extremely successful (wealthy) people never had a plan B. Just what percent of these wealthy musicians do you think have any talent what so ever ? ;-)

When I was about 25, I was talking to a kid of maybe 16, and somehow I mentioned that I painted fine art (in the clinical sense, whether or not it was fine is a different discussion). He asked "so what are you doing about it?" I said that at the moment, not all that much.
He said, agitatedly: "Man! You gotta *move*! You gotta *do* something, you gotta do something desparate!..."

Well, I don't feel desperate enough for that anymore. There was a lifetime I was and did, to the max. It did result in work which is still celebrated, which is great. But it also resulted in misuse and crashing conditions of emotions, poverty, booze and Absinthe, sharp objects, illness and insanity, and an early death.
And I just don't have the loving insanity to go through such a thing again.

Yes! Such great advice!

I experimented a lot when I was a beginner, and I had a friend who liked my work so much she (voluntarily!) had an entire wall of it in her apartment. As I began to figure out -- and focus on -- what I like to shoot, I was heartbroken that she no longer liked it. But I wouldn't have had very much fun continuing to produce that old style of work.

I've been lucky enough to get a fair amount of advice over the years, and it's really opened my eyes innumerable times, but sometimes someone will try and push me in a way that I just don't have an aptitude for or interest in. My natural reaction is to want to try and shore up the holes in my game, and sometimes it's expanded my horizons. But it's tricky to balance that as you say with limited time and limited patience for making my hobby a chore.

For a given project, I'm usually struggling to get enough usable shots in the way of working that I'm most interested in, that trying to also work differently AND bring that up to par with the rest is extremely difficult. It's also tricky to remember to keep an eye out to make sure I'm improving (in fits and starts) and not just getting complacent.

The key to all this, of course, is to not being doing it for money :).

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. ....Just don't waste too much time at things you'll never be that good at. Time's a-wastin'.

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 & 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. The only way I could be wastin' time is not to be immersed in some form of photography; planning, capturing, editing, printing, studying others' work. I have no grand plan or grand objective. I left that behind when I decided not to devote the rest of my life to stockpiling more money.

Certainly there's nothing wrong with discovering ones strengths and leveraging them, particularly young people just starting in the craft. But the opportunities to achieve fame or fortune in photography are dwindling rapidly in both the art and the craft sides. If one's objective is to earn a living from photography, being a generalist, or at least skillfully diversified, has proven to be the most continuously productive strategy for vocational photographers. Which leads to the advice, once again, to continuously explore many paths throughout your career.

The Bechers, Newton, and Weston each became best known for the types of work you posted above. But they all did many other types of work in their careers. Bernd Becher actually began as a painter. Hilla did various studio photography assignments such as product ad shots. Weston shot portraits and other studio stuff before he could concentrate on nude women on sand dunes. In retrospect through the filters of multiple curators and collectors they each seem highly specialized to us today. But that came later or, as often as not, in tandem with many other types of work that they may have disliked and for which they had no talent.

It's a fine line, which everyone must define on their own. And I don't think we do children right by not presenting both sides.

I remember on an early episode of American Idol when some young female contestant was absolutely distraught insisting that no one, No One had ever told her that she wasn't a born singer! Someone should have.

Man, is this ever some timely advice! I have started to gain some traction (limited, but welcome to an aspiring photog). What I am finding now is that, when I look at my "portfolio", I don't feel any sense of pride in my work. I like a lot of it, but don't see any true cohesion in the work as a body.

Next job on the list - a serious sit and think about what my "style/look" will be.

Thanks, Mike - though provoking, as always.

Two thoughts come to my mind:

* It's certainly worth pointing to Arno Rafael Minkkinen's 'Helsinki Bus Station Theory' here. Well written and convincing.

* Perseverance for itself is a double-edged sword, and you never know when recognition of your work will happen, just think of Cezanne. If he wouldn't have sticked to his calling and instead have taken a bread job as a, say, accountant, the world would never have seen his masterpieces. The question if he had been less unhappy in the latter case of course can't be answered.

If at first, you don't succeed...

Try, try, try and try again. Give up.

I don't wish to muddy the waters Mike, but I am 60 now and most people in my purview (including me) are "sans" talent, in any direction or discipline...

So, we just muddle through, and we become "generally poor" but reasonably happy, generalists.

A bit like your friend's youngest son.

Personally, I just like to be able to look forward to tomorrow and stand in awe at those select few that are talented.

Either that, or one could run for "prime minister/president"...

Politicians are defined by their skill at failing.

Thanks for a particularly rich and thoughtful piece, Mike. The filling of the sandwich -- the four photos with the mini-quiz -- gave it a third, or fourth, dimension which took it beyond the already high standard I'm used to from you and some of the other photo bloggers I read.

Speaking as a bit of a Buddhist, you raised an issue that sometimes surfaces for me. On one hand, the pathology and sadness of the failed rock star is clear: it is a life spent suffering needlessly from an unbridged gap between aspiration and achievement. Or that is what I read from it. On the other, what exactly would be the substance of an achieved aspiration? No aspiration is ever finally achieved -- that photo could have been better printed, that book should have been better edited, that painting was never properly finished. From that perspective all our works are maybe best regarded as works in progress, and we're all both successes and failures.

Whew. Now I can put this down and get on with the rest of my day. Thanks again.

Sound advice Mike. Once one has found that "something" I imagine it would be quite liberating. At least that's how I would see it. I tend to think this is allied to something else you often speak of - being your own best editor. Reflective thinking and editing seem like essential skills to me.

Wow, you're on fire Mike!

Great piece - I'll be thinking and acting on this, not just in my photography moving forward.

Thank you.


That "waste of time" thing.... As I get older, I consider that it is really not something for others to judge, until it becomes a problem for others. Being the type of person who can be satisfied with a lifelong quest to be a rock star, and remain satisfied with it...even if you never succeed, could be a great blessing. It is only if you become resentful of your failure- and others people's success- that it really becomes a "waste of time." I know a lot of folks who are very successful- if success is to be determined by financial gain- but are perfectly miserable. If the 40 year old failed rock star is happy, and the successful business person is less so, who has been wasting the most time.

I appreciate your comments on being a generalist. I agree. While I am still the kind of amateur that usually goes out with no idea of what I am pursuing, I have now come up with this weird concept for taking portraits that I have been having a lot of fun with. While I will likely never receive any money or recognition for the effort, I do know what I am trying to do. It's engaging....A good investment of time.

For some reason, this made me think about the movie "About Schmidt." It's a Jack Nicholson mover where he plays a retired insurance executive. If you haven't seen it, you should.

It's actually a sad thing you know. That you can't be good at everything, because it takes so much bloody time to learn. So you gotta decide. Keep it lean. It's rewarding sure, but still, kinda sad.

Good morning Mike,

I would add that two years of constant study seems about right. The technical aspects of most hobbies can be mastered in that amount of time. It's no surprise that most MA programs are about that long. The good news version of your essay is this: you can figure out if something is for you in about two years. If it's not, you can move on and try something else. Chances are you will have picked up some useful skill, anyway.

If something is for you, well, that's it's own reward.

P.s. "Time needed to learn" is very misleading, because so many high skill hobbies are started when people are kids.

"Cough" and you should write more about photography ~ like this ~ please. This is ~ your ~ sweet spot.

I like tough Mike!

Plenty of people who "make a decent living, settle down and have a family, live in a nice place and buy a car new" are miserable. Maybe the forty-year-old mediocre rock musician is having fun and enjoying life? I know which side of that equation I'd rather be on. "Success" isn't well-paying jobs, new cars and a house with kids in it. Success is enjoying one's life.

Completely agree. One thing is to be able to cut your losses. The other is to listen when the Universe is trying to tell you something. Such as, that you're good at something.

A third thing I learned recently, from a business book no least: the concept of the unfair advantage. It was originally meant in the context of business plans. But I see it as a general concept. Everyone has one, or a handful, "unfair" advantages. Things where no one can touch them, because they have unique talent / upbringing / insight / history with something. Businesses need an unfair advantage to persist in the long run or someone else will do the same thing cheaper eventually.

Individuals should absolutely listen and use their unique unfair advantage if they discover it. It's not truly unfair in the big picture anyway. Call it your own little ecological niche.

That's a key observation you make – and very well illustrated! But one that most of us never reach. In my case, it wasn't until I retired and had the chance to put some real effort into photography (mine and studying that of the 'masters' ) that I realized that I wasn't actually much interested in some specific areas: like landscape, sport, wildlife, and others. And, although I liked many photographers work, I had little inclination to emulate most of them. Zeroing in on what really works for me is still a work in process, but at last I feel as if I am making some progress. The main contributors have been; letting go of gear lust, and really studying past work to find what amazes me. –That, and getting out and doing it!

A corollary article on finding your passion:

Persistence or existence?
You write about a specific case but there may be others that just want to live their lives as musicians, to exist as a musician or an artist, irrespective of whether they are a success or not.
(eg Vivian Maier from your photo quiz.)

Is 50 rejections enough?
Seems the of this year's Man Booker literary prize, Marlon James, had his first novel rejected 70 times. Should he have given up after 50?
(His third novel won the prize.)

You should have a good idea of what you want to shoot before buying a camera. Turns out I was wrong, so I put the camera away, and stopped shooting for many years. No way was I going to persist with something I found unrewarding.

Saying you are a generalist, is just another way of saying "I'm a jack of all trades, but master of none." Why would anybody be interested in photos shot by a master of nothing?

I came across the work of Bernd and Hilla Becher about 20 years ago. A unique vision.

Completely agree with this. So many photographers are generalists, and their portfolio says, "I shoot everything." And "nothing all that well."

A David Doubliet portfolio only has one thing in it. The more you focus on one thing, the more you can become known as an expert in that subject.

And the more you separate from the pack of "do-it-allers."

It happens in film. Tarantino makes over-the-top ultra-violent films. No one wants a romantic comedy from him. Steven King writes horror. There's not much call for a children's book from him (though I think he's tried it.)

In music, if you're the grunge guy, we want more of that. Joe Jackson jumped to so many different genres, from new wave rock to swing, to jazzy instrumental albums and back to rock, that his record company dropped him, saying "we don't know where to put you in the record store." He didn't want to be pigeon-holed, but the industry needs to know what you are so they can turn to you and get it from you again and again. (He's got a new album out that's super!)

Most often, I'd say, photographers copy what looks like other people's work, and don't shoot what shows their own passion, that reveals a little about them. When they do, we see the difference (like in the four photographer examples above), and it's best to get known for something you love to do--because if it works, that's all you'll ever get to make.

Just ask George Romero how his next zombie film is coming along.

Good, sound advice, Mike. Too bad nobody gave it to Vincent Van Gogh. (Oh yeah—they did. Too bad he didn't listen: he'd have had a happier life working for an art dealer.)

No, not everybody is Vincent Van Gogh. But some people are…

[I think you're not getting my message. Van Gogh is a perfect example of somebody who DID do exactly what I'm suggesting and advising. In fact he's a paradigm. --Mike]

I did get the four correct. But, why - when I check out properties on the computer not one of them shows a copyright notice or who the Photograper is?
Shouldn't this information follow an image no matter where it goes or where it came from? Stripping this information makes it difficult to find out whose image one may be looking at. As a Photo site I think the informtion should be there just as I think no one in computerland should be able to get rid of the information. It should stay with the image no matter where it goes online.

They all seem to belong to their respective photographers.
I wonder what people would think of the Weston today? National Geographic wouldn't reproduce it would they?

I had 2 different companies both very successful in 2 totally unrelated fields. I became a professional photographer and won awards at a high level. I became a film maker at the same time and won awards around the world. I still have the skills from those endeavours, am I generalist (are my photos generalist)?
I was put forward for an ultra high award and failed by a single point, the major photographer who sponsored me helped me resubmit, I failed by a wider margin. I resubmitted again helped by a third major photographer and failed by an even wider margin. I had no problem with that failure but the feedback I got was that my photography was too wide and people did not know how to classify me. The advice was to submit a portfolio of similar subject images or in a similar style and preferably all in a similar crop/mounting type. At that stage I lost interest. (If 3 major photographers at the top of their profession couldn't predict what was required I reckoned the process was too ephemeral to be of value. My opinion which others will disagree with or may simply think my images were below par.)
Noodling as you put it Mike is a very valid way to go and I think you can master different styles/skills without excluding others. Your speed of learning will be hampered by your true potential. Too many give up too quick. HCB said if he got 2 or 3 images he was pleased with he felt he had achieved. He was talking about a years work.

On the subject of rock musicians, I have an acquaintance who has been a successful composer of musical scores for Hollywood films and TV shows. Some years ago, we were at a party together, listening to a pretty good local rock band. I asked my acquaintance what was the difference in talent between that band and big-time, rolling in dough bands. His answer: Not much. Once you have a certain level of talent and proficiency, success is largely a matter of being at the right place at the right time--that and a highly developed capacity for catching the zeitgeist and promoting yourself. This is true not only in the world of pop music but also in the world of photography. Have you seen what passes for cutting edge art on some hip photo websites?

Mike, the unsuccessful musician whom you described may be lacking in talent, good luck or both, but if he is truly unhappy being stuck in the mud, he needs to call a tow truck and then get on a different road.

The impression I get is that your friend's son who did not give up did not reach anywhere with his music and your friend John who kept a strict time schedule succeeded in life because he did not persist with his passion. May be you did not mean it that way.
It is equally possible that the one who did not give up got a better satisfaction out of his life by simply sticking to a pursuit that satisfies his inner needs. We cannot always equate monetary success with happiness. That is what makes artists different from business people. Quitting when it pays no more makes sense in business, but not in creative endeavour. Many artist were unhappy in their lives from the point of view of others, but why did they continue to do what they did?
An artist who quits has no commitment to his art. Be it music or photography.

Does success in the arts require making a full-time income from your work?

Obviously, the would-be rock star of your post is a mess. But I know plenty of people who work a day job and still perform and create on a professional level and who are, by any definition but wealth, successful.

The question of finding focus is different. I agree that without doing that, an artist is unlikely to be successful in any measure.

There are jobs that require a super wide range of talents, like elementary school teaching, or my wife's profession, family doctor. Some people are much, much better at being generalists than others, some can only function as specialists, find it far less stressful. Perhaps the art world doesn't need generalists, even good ones? I don't know. But I know the world does, in general.

One of my greatest struggles has been trying to reconcile what I am at 60 and what I could have been or could be. I've read some good stuff about that lately and was slow to understand this quote I read from the excellent "Brainpickings" blog. It's from a book by Adam Phillips, "Missing Out: In Praise of the Unlived Life": "We are always haunted by the myth of our potential, of what we might have it in ourselves to be or do… We share our lives with the people we have failed to be.


Our lives become an elegy to needs unmet and desires sacrificed, to possibilities refused, to roads not taken. The myth of our potential can make of our lives a perpetual falling-short, a continual and continuing loss, a sustained and sometimes sustaining rage."

I had a couple of very strong aspirations. At this point I feel I did the right thing by keeping my day job.

The issues here are twofold:
Some people like to experiment, others don't.
Talent isn't the big issue, its the ability to evaluate one's own performance/product. This is usually the hardest thing for most people. I know it is for me, and I hope one or more chapters in you developing book will address evaluation of one's own and others work. But at some point the experiment must come to an end, either by saying 'no more' or 'I'm going with this'. That too can be difficult.
Personally, I made the decision not to turn pro because while I enjoyed assisting the pro who offered me a partnership occasionally, I wanted to shoot what I wanted to shoot, when I wanted, and as a pro, your client is the boss. You are meeting their needs not your own interests. (In my 'real' profession, I sometimes had to deal with 3 or 4 different bosses, who all disagreed. The work was fun, the bosses weren't!) I have never regretted that decision, 46 years later I still enjoy photography, and still experiment occasionally in different types/styles of work. It worked for me, but I don't necessarily recommend it for others.

Mike wrote, " ... find the thing that has energy for you and that you're good at ... "

How does one know that their work is "good"? The only objective way I can see is that people will pay money for it. Good money. Which requires sales and marketing -- an area where many artists are not good.

this article seems applicable


Mike, I didn't have time to reply earlier (before the 12 comments I now see). I wanted to tell you YES! I agree completely with what you've written and, when I first read it, thought it terribly well written. Clear as a bell. Having read the 12 comments I feel that what I understand you to have written is not what others have understood.

People like to pull out the old "well how do you define success, it's not just about money" line as if success is some sort of great mystery and that most people in the developed world tie it to wealth if not wealth and fame.

Whether we wish to admit it most of us tend to define success within societal norms. These norms are not all about fame or money (which is the view that I think confuses things). They are also about personal happiness and a sense of achievement. Some it is down to very personal, introspective things and some of it (let's admit it) is down to comparison.

We are happy when we feel successful, when we have achieved a goal. The truth is that many of us chase things we cannot (in any way) find true success in. This, I believe, applies to the would-be rock star in your post. By any measure he is not successful. And I gather he is likely unhappy. They go hand-in-hand.

Happiness is success. Success is happiness. The rest is noise.

This is particularly difficult in creative fields/endeavours because individuals feel that whatever art, or near-art, they are interested in practicing has higher value than another calling or talent they possess. There is great reluctance to admit success unlikely. Your friend John A. is an example to follow in this case.

I suppose what I'm getting at is that life demands choices. I won't get into it but this is one of the lovely parts of the film Wonderboys (I never read the book btw). You must make choices. Life asks for choices constantly. Your friend's son made a choice. The problem is that he hasn't made one since. It's amazing what can happen when you let go of something and take hold of something else.

I'm in the middle of it. I've muddled and not made choices for the past 10 years. Luckily not much harm was done and I have few regrets. But I'm starting to fully understand where I fit in. And although it's not where I wanted to be when I set out, I know I'm good at it and the success and achievement I can attain with this path makes me happy.

Persistence with no plan is a fool's errand. I played in a band for a while and ran into people like your friend's son all the time. They were always earnest in their work, and some even had a shred of talent, but you could always tell they were headed down a road of disappointment. I work with a guy like this now. It's a tough dream to let die, because it sure looks like fun!

I fear the myth of dogged persistence may only get worse for awhile. It's permeated such mundane tasks as one's job these days. If you feel you are the most important and special person on Earth, how can anyone ever give it to you straight? The self-esteem movement causes more delusion than anything. I work with a few of these types, too.

It's tough the day you realize you may not be cut out for something you dream of doing. But it's an important day for almost all of us, because it marks a real milestone in true growth.

Oh, people... remember and plan for retirement.

In college, everyone praised my photography but no one offered me money, so I spent 37 years doing strange work to pay the bills.

I bought a D800 (#559) on release night as a retirement present, and I've had a great time relearning everything. [My first DSLR]

And I don't have to sell a print to live... I just need more time to shoot.

In others' words: "It gets better".

Life is more like surfing than systems analysis.

I'm with Ken Tanaka on this one. Your advice seems to lean toward someone that wants to make their photography a profession. But I'm one that pursues photography as a way to enjoy the world around me, with no need for fame, $, or recognition in the pursuit. I do however pursue 'improvement' in that I try to make 'better' pictures. I participate in critique groups, I show my images on websites that elicit comment, I take classes... all just with the intent to enjoy participating with my fellow photographers in looking at the world. :-)

Mike, of course it's good to hone your skills, to explore until you find your natural proclivities and work toward perfecting them.
That's pretty much the story of anyone who ever gets really good at anything. But part of being (and staying) really good requires growth.
Growth requires awareness of more than your main focus.
How far afield should we wander as we stretch to grow? I don't know, but neither do I think we should worry about it too much.
If we do to much wandering we may cease to grow in our historic specialty (which may or may not be productive for us). If we stray not at all, we may stagnate.
Most folks learn this pragmatically.
If you are delusional enough to never change your goal despite a lifetime of failure (and living in your parents basement) I would submit that you have more pressing problems than the selection of the direction of your 'Art'. (and probably not the best example to illustrate your point)
There is also a distinction between vocational and avocational pursuits . As a professional you do have a responsibility to paying customers to actually have the skill to deliver professional work in the field (s) in which you seek it.
For personal work, done for the satisfaction of the author we need to ask what is the goal which can be anywhere from Family pictures to personally satisfying pictures, to pictures with serious artistic intent.
This whole discussion started because you published a picture that you happened to see while traveling home from NYC.
You liked it enough to publish it, but concluded that since in your opinion you are competent but not really good at that genre it served as an example of why most folks are best served by putting their effort toward their strengths.
Many folks (including me) disagreed.
In my opinion, many disagreed not so much because they thought it was 'bad' advice, ( In a general context on how to approach getting better at something, it is probably good advice) but rather as avocational photographers, putting ourselves in the same situation, seeing an interesting picture (of a type we don't usually make), asked themselves, would it be better to pass it up because it's not our style? It just might be a good picture. Even if it is not, what is the cost? And further how will snapping an interesting composition 'hurt' my ability to get better at my main competence?

Even if we are devoted to getting better at some craft in a very serious way, no one does it 24/7 (except the delusional guy living in the basement). Taking that (off specialty) photograph says nothing (positive or negative) about our devotion to pur primary specialty.
We never know what will catch our eye or where it will lead. If we take time to worry about it's genre and if it fits into our specialty before we press the button, we'll likely miss it anyway.
I think THAT is what many of us were reacting to.
And NOT the generally good advice which I'll paraphrase as 'Getting really good at anything is hard, and since time is limited, once you have identified what that goal is, you are better of devoting more time to that than to other things.
In any case, thought provoking as usual.

The youngest son of your friends has an obsession, but no talent. But even if he had both it would not be enough.
With art there are questions like what? why? how?
What is the big idea, the concept or the assignment? Why do you make it, what is it for, what is the context? How was it realized? Creative processes are not only about drive and skills, but also about research, trying out possibilities and making choices. Just like bookkeeping, plumbing or cooking it’s mainly about solving problems. It is always a joy the notice how let’s say Henri Matisse, John Steinbeck or Rudolf Nureyev solved problems. It is obvious that the Bechers, Edward Weston and even Helmut Newton solved theirs too. (Unfortunately I still can’t discover what kind of problem Vivian Maier solved).

I am sorry to hear of Hilla Becher's passing. I am an admirer of their work - I've done some similar industrial landscape along with my conventional landscape photography. As a result your quiz was less difficult for me than some. Thank you for letting me know.

Thinking is the name of the game, this essay from Mike Johnston. The water tower photos were easy as
had seen them elsewhere. Maybe it's time to hang it all, up. Trying to think of my own life, and realized I followed my dream however saw it and similar later dreams disappear gradually; yet did not realize it was so until all the dreams were well and truly gone. Now closer to age 70 than 69; my dreams or perhaps photographic actions will consist of sorting my 35,000 colour and gray toned images of railways, and similar, placing them in various pre-determined places and wishing them well and then goodbye.

The new to me Nikon D750 camera is
lovely, too bad it is unable to be used for colour slides.

On a Postit above my desk:

"Hope puts the sting in futility"

The blessing and the curse of the amateur photographer is the large degrees of freedom in practicing one's hobby. That seems to often manifest itself in either trying many different things without really getting deeply into them, or lacking discipline when pursuing the genres they are interested in.

And this can be OK if photography is truly for one's own pleasure. But we like to compare ourselves with each other, we like to get some sort of approval. If one is (or hopes to be) a professional, then comparing is unavoidable. So choices need to be made, specifically choices where things are left out. In photography, I've left out many things during the years and I can say that it made me happier, I can now better focus on my own style with a more limited set of subjects.

I think people who only dabble in photography as a hobby will inevitably see this issue differently than people with greater ambition in the area. If you only have to make pictures that make you happy and you can determine the parameters of what makes you happy, then there is always room to experiment.

But it's also surely the case that if you want to make a run at being more than just a dabbler you have to at some point buckle down and do what you are good at. This is a general truth.

Personally I fell almost by accident into what I seem to be good at. Computers came along just in time for me to be able to always be gainfully employed programming them. And as long as they remain the idiotically stupid machines that they are, I guess I'll be OK. Sometimes I have a hard time claiming that I'm actually *good* at it, but maybe I'm better than a lot of other people. 😃

I sometimes wonder what I would have done if this had not happened. Hopefully I would have been smart enough to accidentally fall into something else.

I make a decent living, I've settled down and have a family, I live in a nice place and have a company car. I graduated from college and yet perhaps never accomplished much in the minds of some.

I have good friends and care about people. I have a passion for life.

Still, I consider myself average overall. Maybe a B- type of person.

I enjoy photography and may or may not study photography seriously, but easily could do so... perhaps take a random course locally, or even on line, or befriend someone to guide me a little. I love to learn and be better at things in general.

Let's say others have critiqued my photographs and say I am an average photographer, perhaps a little better. A couple of my photographs are great. But for the most part, I will never be a real photographer.

Do you want me to through my x100s away because I just do not get it and am just not good enough?

I could write an essay on this post, but I won't. At least not now and not here.

First, as a counterpoint to your four excellent photographers, each of whose work I was able to recognize right away, consider Huntington Witherill, a well respected and very talented (and frequently exhibited) "West Coast" photographer in the tradition of Adams/Weston/et all monochrome landscapes... who is also well known for exotic and colorful and sometimes-surrealistic digital images that started with photographs of flowers. (In the music world, consider Wynton Marsalis, who has well-known recordings of jazz and Haydn!)

Second, I love your pairing of those two examples of folks who want to be artists. It so happens that my primary career is as a faculty member teaching in the arts, and I interact with those two types regularly. It is clear which is better, at least mostly, and to me. What is less clear is where the boundary is between them — and that hazy, gray area is where the absolute rules (guy #1 needs to grow up, guy #2 probably made the right decisions) become complicated.

Take care,


Oh, so true!

"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 (..) 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."

I admire a lot of photographers, but I now stick almost exclusively to what I loosely call 'Urban Landscape'. Why? Because it excites me and I am starting to understand how it works.

It's not street photography. I can't do that either. I often include characters for scale and narrative, but they are more part of the scene than the subject of the image.

And when did I work this out? Sadly, only a few years ago. Still, better late than never...

There is a small market for generalist 'handymen'. I suppose it would benefit a janitor if he can fix just about anything. But a carpenter is a carpenter, maybe even a cabinet maker or some other specialist within that field, electrician is just that as is a plumber. Doctors can specialise, or be GPs but even then they are not dentists or veterinarians.
In photography, I am a generalist. But it is my hobby, not a profession. That way I have more freedom to do it more often, (and I suppose gives me an excuse to buy more and different equipment). I can be a street photographer in the city and a landscape phographer in the countryside. When I see a bird in my garden, I become a bird photographer, another highly specialised field where fast long lenses are needed.

Three words: Dunning–Kruger effect


The Dunning–Kruger effect is a cognitive bias wherein relatively unskilled individuals suffer from illusory superiority, mistakenly assessing their ability to be much higher than is accurate. Dunning and Kruger attributed the bias to the metacognitive inability of the unskilled to recognize their own ineptitude and evaluate their own ability accurately.

That bias combined with persistence is not a good combination.

If you like photography quizes (with a sense of humor) try this recent one:


Back when I was in college, I attended Berklee College of Music for the summer semester... And I learned that ... I should become a Cinematographer.

After 5 years of struggle, it's worked out pretty well :)

You've touched on the zeitgeist of the times. Which seems to be a combination of the quest for fame (no matter how meagre the talent) and a kind of viral self delusion. The latter seems to have infected the world across the board - from politics down. Why would the photography world be any different? I shakes me head.

The advice is useful if one has a goal in mind - whether that's to make a living, get recognized or published, or merely become good at some aspect of photography. I guess I can only respond from my perspective, but I am not sure that advice is really applicable to amateurs like me who photograph for the thrill of the photographic chase, where the act of trying to create a decent photograph of something that appeals at the moment is the whole point.

For me, Mr. Tanaka's first three sentences in his second paragraph pretty much sum up my attitude towards my own photography better than I could phrase it. I couldn't care less about getting "good" at any of it. I just want to keep enjoying it. Sure I have a bunch of one-off photos in my collection that don't add up to a portfolio, but so what?

Then again, that's also my approach to life in general: I work just hard enough to stay employed, pay the bills, keep a roof over my head (and have a working camera). I know that I'll never be "great" at anything, and don't really care - enjoying each day as it is happening matters more to me than any accomplishment at the end of a day or at the end of a life. A different approach for sure, but works for me.

My previous comment hasn't made it through (yet) but I'd like to add something to the argument of "many successful people had to persevere a long time". This may be true but we are only looking at the few successful ones - not at the many more that failed, and that may have been just as perseverant! There is a huge case of survivorship bias here. This whole discussion of course is an outgrowth of the more general question, talent or hard work? It's more popularly known as the 10,000 hours story and there's many angles to it. To sum up my opinion on this, hard work is necessary, but not sufficient.

On a related note: while sheer hard work, perseverence, and luck (!) undoubtedly count, ability also factors in.

I'm not a psychologist, but I did happen to read a few chapters in a book on intelligence last night. (Are We Getting Smarter? Rising IQ in the Twenty-First Century, by James Flynn--for whom the "Flynn Effect" regarding IQ gains over time was named.) In the context of this discussion, one quote from Flynn (regarding the idea that there are "multiple intelligences") stands out: "Being at the 90th percentile for the kind of "intelligences" that get professional credentials opens up a thousand doors; being at the 90th precentile for softball does not."

I agree with you Mike on the first part. Stubbornness must be accompanied with some intelligent self conciousness, otherwise you will end up wasting precious efforts and time that could be put to better use in something else.
But on the other part, I don't think subject matter is the only parameter to define or tipify youself as a photographer. It has more to do with a way of looking at your world that gets imprinted somehow on the work itself. If you care a lot for your craft and art, have got some good talent, and work on it everyday, or a lot at least, it is inevitable that it will show in your pictures independent of subject matter. Photographers like Irvinng Penn are a good example of this. And this also applies to everything you do in life. The Rolling Stones also sang ballads, and they sound like the Stones all the way.

Surely the anecdote isn't an argument against being a generalist, but rather against making the wrong choice of a specialism ?
Or more pointedly, about the perils of specialism.

And what if what one is really good at is being a generalist ?

. . . most photographers of any ambition or seriousness will both a) improve their work markedly and b) improve their own personal satisfaction with their work . . . 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 . . .

No argument here, if "jones for" equals passion, and "concentrating on" means working at. This is exactly what I was advocating in my comment on your previous piece.

But what I was also saying is that if some some reason you *did* want to become really good at street photography - if you wanted to add that to the quiver of your photography practice - you could do it. Of course, you'd have to make some adjustments in terms of how you allocate your time. It's pretty hard to hold down a job while pursuing a passion.

Which brings me to your friend's son, who apparently isn't holding down a job. He is probably confused. Any correlation between musicianship and rock star status is purely coincidental. The latter is an attitude and a theatrical role, a commercial construct meant for making money and enjoying a certain lifestyle. Musical capabilities are incidental to this. There are lots of great musicians, massively talented, who will never be rock stars, and lots of rock stars - arguably most of them - who will never be musicians.

It seems to me that the only useful criterion for whether you should give up or not is whether you enjoy what you do (with a caveat about doing no harm to others). If being a failed rock star makes you happy then fine: do that. If making bad photographs makes you happy then do that.

Well, it sounds like the failed rock star in fact isn't happy of course (this wasn't clear from the post!) so he he should, indeed, give up. But I disagree with what seems to be the subtext of the article: that you need to achieve something concrete. It's perhaps not very american to say this, but you don't: all you need to achieve is being happy and not making other people less happy. There's this guy Mike who writes a blog who seems like a really good example of that: he's never going to get rich, but he seems to be doing something he enjoys which brings pleasure to many, and that's just fine.

At first I thought I agreed with what you wrote, Mike, but then I read it again and I'm not so sure.

It seems to me that you are implying that your friend's son was wrong in persevering because "he's never made a decent living, settled down, had a family, lived in a nice place...", as opposed to your friend John who's "since done well in business".

So? You're not telling which of these two people are happier, or have a bigger sense of accomplishment in their lives. Not everyone wants to buy a new car, settle down or start a family. For all we know, many of the people who followed a similar path to your friend John's (maybe John himself) are feeling trapped in a soul-destroying job and lifestyle, and regretting they did not give their dreams more than a 2 year chance (which, frankly, doesn't sound anywhere near enough for most people to make a sound decision, no matter how hard you work in those two years).

Being successful in business tends to go together with being succesful in life, but it's not a prerequisite. What's more, while success in business can be rather easily assessed (after all, money can be counted), assessing success in life is much harder and subjective, as you know.

If your friend's son is still persisting after 30 years of trying, maybe he's made the right decision after all, despite not owning a nice house or having three kids. The question is, is he happy?

Mike, do you have in mind Llewyn Davis of the Coen brothers' film? Or something several steps lower down? Davis, the character played by Oscar Isaac, has the talent but not the personal qualities needed to catch fire. Dave van Ronk, whose biography inspired the character, seems to have been a more integrated personality, who failed to catch the tide but lead a satisfying life and left a trail of friends and admirers behind.


Ah, I see what you meant in the earlier post. This was much more convincing. There's ambition, there's interest, and there are pipe dreams. There's making a living and there's fun. There's amusing yourself and there's impressing others. Life is complicated.

Markus: Thanks for linking that Helsinki Bus Station post, what a great read.

I find it hard as heck to narrow down my focus, be it in photography, music or just about anything else. I figure, hey, you only get one life so you gotta try to fit everything into it. Of course, the net is that you end up mediocre or passable at a LOT of things and never particularly skilled at anything. The past year or so has been spent trying to figure out what to pursue, and what to let go of. Surprisingly, once you DO let go of some part of your life you really don't end up missing it much: when I decided that realistically I'd likely never shoot 35mm film again and sold off my gear I ended up barely noticing it had left the shelves. Next up I think the saxophone might end up on ebay; I actually have a shot at being a pretty decent guitar player and ought to spend my effort on that instead (not being a pro, I can only spend so much time on music every day). And so on, and so forth.

But making that decision to give something up, FOREVER, can be pretty intimidating.

Persistence alone is no guarantee of success. Not persisting is a guarantee you will fail. Tricky.

Ctein makes a good point about happiness, and concludes that "follow your bliss" is the best advice. I would further dissect this topic by suggesting that before you "follow your bliss" you need to figure out what your bliss really is.

In our information- and distraction-dominated world, it's very easy to go sideways and to think you know what your bliss is because you're following received wisdoms or simply not thinking things through. The classic case is the aspiring writer who never succeeds because they don't try very hard, or very well, and they end up unhappy, and it turns out they didn't so much *want to write* as they wanted to *be a writer* (two different things).

So yes, follow your bliss if your bliss is doing the thing itself, regardless of whether or not you are good at it or receive external support and success. But be sure it's the thing itself that is your bliss, and not the need for success and recognition for the thing.

Mike said: “Just don't waste too much time at things you'll never be that good at. Time's a-wastin’.”

Ken Tanaka said: “Personally every day of the journey is my objective.”

ShadZee said: “Just what percent of these wealthy musicians do you think have any talent what so ever? ;-)”

What can I do to make better photographs?
What can I do to make photography more enjoyable for myself?
What can I do to get more people to appreciate my photographs?

Three different questions, three very different sets of skills involved. However, three other questions come before the three above:

What am I? (includes an understanding of capabilities, strengths, weaknesses)
Where am I? (understanding the world one lives in)
Where do I want to go?

People change. The world we live in changes. It is important to revisit the underlying questions once in a while. That will take time away from perfecting your current craft. The new answers may take you away from your current craft entirely.

Living a good life is not the same as giving everything you can to your art or craft.

Back to music: In my younger days I enjoyed watching David Bromberg. He was (and is) very talented as a musician, and also very good at communicating to the audience. He had a good career going, but stepped away from it to open a violin repair shop. After a decade or so of that he started playing and recording regularly again. I do not judge him harshly for that. It may be something he needed to do to in his life. I have a tiny bit of experience inside the music industry, and I know it can grind people down, even those who are successful at it.

“How Will You Measure Your Life?” by Clayton Christensen is a detailed guide, kind of a technical manual, for reflecting, reviewing, and asking those big questions.

Mike, perhaps the difference between vocation and avocation is relevant. My vocation was nursing, and, later, clinical systems. It gave me a life worth living, a career I look back on with pride, and, last but not least, paid the bills. Not everyone is fortunate enough to find a vocation.

My avocation has given me rich gifts of creating beauty, seeing more fully, and having fascinating people as friends (although they do like to get up so damn early). Photography has enriched my life since I was popping flashcubes on my Instamatic to shoot my friends. But I never wanted to pay the bills with it.

I think the young man in your music example has the misfortune of trying to make a vocation out of something that could have been a joyous avocation if he found some other way to pay the bills.

As for concentration in photography. I agree. I love Kirk Tuck's portrait work but, having tried it, I would rather be dipped in peanut butter and fed to squirrels than have to do portrait photography on a regular basis. The truly beautiful and glorious thing about any landscape is that it doesn't talk back or complain about how you captured its highlights or whether you got its best side.

Love the column,

Grant Tomlinson

So, the question is - was the rock star wannabe pursuing a dream, or just a fool who lacked self-awareness? People who abide by common sense will think the latter, of course, but the truth is that he's a bit too old for a rock star. Even if he's a late bloomer, he's not likely to become the new Iggy Pop.
But there's something that must be factored, and that's what I'd call obstination. He'll never give up. That would be admitting his own defeat, something akin to recognizing to himself he's a failure and he wasted most of his life. He's trapped in his dream.
The wannabe rock star is an interesting metaphor, but will only be of any use for those with a half-serious interest in photography. Many people take great pleasure of being casual photographers and don't think so hard about evolving and improving their skills. They will just go on enjoying taking pictures of whatever they find interesting. Is that a bad thing? Only if they're trying too hard to become good photographers and their efforts are therefore misguided. For those who want to be good photographers, however, specializing is mandatory. In that sense I concur with you.
Finally: Hilla and Bernd Becher are not that well-known, even here in Europe. It is a pleasant surprise you're familiar with their work. (And not so pleasant to learn Hilla passed away, of course.) Germany has given us many great photographers, from Erich Salomon to Herbert List through Juergen Klauke, plus two who are among my firm favourites: Karl Hugo Schmölz, whose pictures showed me how to do architecture photography the right way, and Chargesheimer, whose name should be level with Robert Doisneau and Ernst Haas. The latter's pictures are simply fascinating.

P. S. Hilla's photograph is the last from above, of course. I'll take my prize now :)

Two years to "make it"? That might be reasonable for photography, but in other endeavours two years is just a flea bite. When I'm not photographing I make fine furniture, I know craftsmen who have completed a seven year apprenticeship and are then a subsequent ten years into full time making before they begin to hit their stride.

I know, we could all really use at least two lives!

Wanting to be a "rock star" as such just seems a deeply weird ambition. There are plenty of professional musicians who've managed a life in the music industry of some kind, who've stuck by what they believe in artistically. They aren't rich, but they are what they are and they're ok with that. Same with many other walks of life. I'm for sticking with dreams if you can, but being willing to forego riches and fame. Being an employee sucks too, and independence is valuable.

Persistence unless combined with critical judgement (ideally self-generated) merely means the same mistakes are practiced over and over.

Similarly, the restrictions provided by boundaries (both self-imposed and technical) are conducive to the making of the worthwhile, in contrast to the chimera of endless choice.

If there is one thing that I cannot stand in another person, it is talent.

wow this thread is awesome. should be required college reading, serious. Mike, you agent provocateur...

I wonder which one of the examples you gave will look back at the end of their life and be glad of the choice they made? Maybe the one who did not give up will think to himself, "man, what a ride, never made the big time but I lived my passion to the end".
I am in that exact situation (alternative country band). At 56 years old. I will never be famous, will never have a hit on the charts, and neither will the vast majority of us out there. But we never gave up.
I will die poor. And very happy with no regrets. And that is my definition of success.

“If at first you don't succeed, try, try again. Then quit. No use being a damn fool about it.”
― W.C. Fields

Your friend, John A. was around in a time when you could actually do something like that and then go to Stanford Business School. I have a friend who dropped out of graduate school, joined a hippie commune for two years in the 1970s and joined Stanford Business School.

That kind of broad-minded, generous attitude towards people and their potential in life is fast disappearing from the American mentality and ethos, in my humble opinion.

It is a brave graduate these days who takes time out after college before entering the world of salaried, structured work for a corporate employer.

If the "Rock Star" is doing what he thinks he needs to be doing, then I guess he is where he thinks he needs to be. If not, maybe there is something undesirable keeping him stuck in 2nd gear and it might be time for a reality check.

Well of course in the final scene most of us will be mostly making the pictures that give us emotional fulfillment, whether of not they represent our strong suit, eh Mike?

One powerful factor not yet mentioned is health. You may be crawling around shooting skateboarders at 20 but shooting flowers at 70. Not that you wouldn't still take a shot at a skateboarder passing behind that flower.

For me, I don't tend to categorize my photography by genre. I tend to pursue subjects and ideas as projects. I believe that this is a much healthier and more interesting approach to avocational photography. It frees one from arbitrary psychological boundaries and forces you to just do it, whatever "it" may be for the project.

[As an aside, where did I ever say I was talking about genre? I think I specifically said I was NOT just talking about genre.... --Mike]

I know more than a few really, really good photographers in the mid-west (with actually great portfolios and an on-line presence), who are in their late 50's or older, and have been cut completely out of the market. One is now a janitor, looking for his next photo assignment; another is now working on wood projects in his parents basement. They were both shooting at least at a survivable financial level until they got into their 50's. They never made enough to put some away for a rainy day, and never had a spouse to pick up all the stuff like a pension or health care.

There are many markets that you have to do whatever comes in the door to survive, even if much of it is not the thing you're the best at. After 40 years of working with art directors, I can tell you that most everything you shoot for money, is highly directed and most often, in markets other than NYC and LA, does not end up being something that would enhance your portfolio. We used to laugh about this all the time when I met with other photographers. You'd be lucky to do one or two things a year that you'd want to show, almost all other portfolio pieces were shot specifically to be in your book (you do this BTW, to get the work you excel at, and that you want to do, but if you're not in the few major cities, you won't).

I remember a story on NPR about the arts, and they were interviewing a jazz player who was going back to college to be a lawyer, and the guy said: "...after a while, you just have to think you're not good enough, or you're just not getting the breaks you need, but you have to just move on." The unfortunate thing, is many times IT IS about luck, no matter how good you are. It takes training and skill to be able to capitalize on luck when it comes around, but many times, it still has to come.

The unfortunate thing about job in the "black-arts" (i.e. commercial photography, illustration, copy-writing, etc.), is that they are generally NOT lifetime jobs. If you're lucky, and successful, you might have the work-span of an athlete. You can set up a shop to sell widgets, and if they meet the specs, and you can deliver at the right time, and meet the right cost, you're in the running. Add "taste" to the process, or any other non-standardized and individually defined qualification; and everything is a crap shoot. I've seen plenty of bad photography, and by even loose standards, and things people would agree were technically incorrect, they "sold" to the art director that didn't know anything either, because they "liked" working with the person.

The only people that can focus completely on doing exactly what they want in the industry, are those who have income from another source, are married to spouses that are covering other costs, or are living in markets that have more highly educated and qualified buyers of the product (i.e. photography), than 90% of the rest of the country. Or, you can be a hobbyist because you do not rely on the majority of your income to support you and your family.

I think it's a perspective that would not be shared across all cultures that says John has succeeded where the friend's son has failed. You might say that both have failed but one has accepted failure and settled for something else whereas the other has persevered. I have a feeling the friend's son would have been in a poorer place still had he taken John's path.

When I read about your friend's embittered son I was reminded of something Mike Rowe wrote about not following one's passion. Here's a link: http://yellowhammernews.com/faithandculture/alabamian-gets-schooled-mike-rowe-dirty-jobs/

His point: you might be passionate about something but also might not be very good at it. His advice is to find something you're good at and do that. I don't think that precludes engaging in that thing about which you're passionate, but do it for the love of the thing, not the love of success.

As a kid I wanted to be famous. I was going to be an actor and everyone would know my name. And that was the extent of my plan. My dad wanted me to go to art school, which I did, participating in as many plays and taking as many theater classes as I could. And on the verge of changing my major to theater I discovered photography and fell for it in a big way. So big that it's been my life for 40 years, more than 30 spent teaching at a shrinking for-profit (yeah, I know) art school in Philly. I'm not famous. A few people know my name but just a few, most of them former students. I've consistently made art photos--I have boxes full of them and hard drives full of files--but I'm not expecting a major retrospective at MOMA, or anywhere else. I'm looking to retirement and a chance to just make photos. And that's OK.

Focus. I came to realize that most famous people become famous because they do one thing consistently and do it consistently well. But, as a previous commentator mentioned, at a certain level fame depends as much on luck as perseverance. It's a fluke that Vivian Meier is now a famous photographer. She could have simply disappeared. I persevered, but didn't push. Just happily taught photography. I was a teacher as much as a photographer.

Now I'm taking acting lessons. I tell myself I'll audition for roles and make it into a post retirement career but fame? Doubtful.

[Hi Jay, I don't follow your point here. Are you saying you followed your passion, or you didn't? And, are you thinking that I disagree with Mike Rowe, or agree with him? I think what I was saying is fairly close to what he's saying. But maybe you didn't read it that way? --Mike]

There was a job perfect for the generalist, newspaper photographer, and it paid well for a time as well as being fun. Oh my it was fun. Too bad there aren't many of those jobs around anymore.

Mike, I think your original thought would have been good advice for me when I was younger and, if I had taken it, I might still be a photographer.

Say there, Leonardo Da Vinci, stick with the aircraft experiments. You'll never make it as a painter...

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