I struggled to find an appropriate image to go with this article. I think this works, though: firstly, it was shot with an iPhone, on an occasion I could not foresee doing any photography. But having an open mind and an active eye meant that I saw it; experience/ practice meant that I could make do with the bare minimum, and enjoying cigars meant that I was in the right place at the right time to begin with. All will be explained towards the end of the article…
Don’t worry. Despite the slightly off-topic title, it’s very much a post about photography. This isn’t a moment of existential angst, but rather a clarification of purpose. It isn’t quite the same as article on Why We Photograph from some time ago; it’s far more personal than that. On reflection, I think it’s very important to understand the motivations behind certain things so that a) we might do them better and b) we avoid doing things we don’t enjoy. Especially when there’s a choice.
I probably first need to clarify exactly what I mean by ‘this’. For most people, that refers to the daily corporate grind. I have been fortunate enough to be able to leave my corporate job, which frankly, I disliked for many reasons* and turn my passion into both a profession and a means to a living. I’ll also be the first person to tell you that it isn’t all roses, and anybody who says otherwise is either majorly deluded or has never actually left the comfort of salaried employment. I am a photographer first, and will always be. But I also strive to make images that are fine art, sell prints, teach, direct video – corporate documentary type things and television commercials mainly, of course in addition to the photographic teaching videos – and I’m a general purpose creative/ design consultant – usually for my existing photography clients, to ensure that all materials are visually and stylistically consistent. That’s quite a lot of stuff. And of course we haven’t counted the existence of this website yet, which I think is safe to say extends far beyond the scope of a normal personal or professional blog.
*The main one being the lack of creativity coupled with extreme indecision and fear of making a decision because of repercussions from above – grow a spine! Being the same as everybody else will not get you a different result to anybody else.
Quite honestly, I could probably make a living out of focusing on any one of these, and most people do. Some changes would be required, of course – photographing weddings, running workshops every week of the year, or selling out ad space on the site and being a brand shill. The problem is, I think I suffer from three things: being far too intense/ serious about anything I’m interested in, a very short attention span and terminal impatience. Altogether, this means I have to be doing multiple things at once because it’s impossible to be on the go with one thing all the time. The other people you work with get antsy, you run into roadblocks and get frustrated, and you can’t really do anything else. It’s a blessing and a curse: you have the ability to push much further than the average joe, which gives you an enormous competitive edge in business, but it also makes you a bit intolerable**. Having multiple projects in different areas allows me to distribute that focus down to a more manageable level.
**Nadiah and KH say this is actually more like very intolerable.
Ironically, doing more things lets me do each of them without compromise – and that’s what I like. I don’t believe in doing anything by half measures: if you’re going to do bother doing something at all, you might as well do it properly – i.e. to the very best of your ability. It’s why I’ll never be fully happy with any of my images, or the ultimate image quality achievable in print (sorry Wesley!). We as human beings have not really discovered limits to our mental abilities: why should we artificially constrain them? Beyond that, the more different things you do, I believe the more well-rounded your primary task becomes. In this case, if I want to be a good photographer, I must understand not only the psychology of the viewer, but the business of the client, the client’s customers, the way I work, the way other people in the industry work, how graphic layout and design affect the needs of the image, what the actual product does/ how it works in order to portray its best/ most interesting/ unique aspects, things that can be brought over from motion, how capture affects output…the list is endless.
This site, for instance, has forced me to up my game. Firstly, because there’s the pressure of expectation of creating for an audience. Though ultimately it’s my call as to whether I continue publishing, and what I publish, it doesn’t mean that I don’t feel the pressure to uphold and better my own past work; I do. That’s one of the reasons why you’ll see almost no reposts, even if the material is good – I find that some aspect of it doesn’t meet my current standards, or my understanding of the topic has changed/ deepened and I need to rewrite it – so I might as well start from scratch. Secondly, posting images in a curated form – photoessays, for example – is very different from the visual diarrhoea that’s Flickr – you have to think about the sequencing, the titles, the explanation and context that goes with the set. This forces you to be even more discerning than normal in your curation. It’s actually a tricky balance to achieve, because on one hand, the audience (and their preferences) is very wide; on the other hand, I do have 100% creative and editorial freedom, so the audience be damned – and I suspect that a lot of you would stop reading if you found that I was creating images to please you. Finally, thinking about the whys – why we make images, why we react the way we do to certain things etc. – forces you to understand human psychology, and better understand the way we see. That of course means you’ve got an even higher level of control in your image making, which should at least result in an audience response that’s closer to you (and/or your client’s) intentions.
This segues nicely into teaching, be it through workshops, masterclasses or video – I always thought it was easy. It isn’t. In fact, teaching is one of the most difficult things to do right because you have to understand your subject matter at a level that’s several orders higher than the audience; be able to break that down into a structured, logical manner; and communicate it to a very diverse variety of people. And on top of that, you’re dealing with a subject that has no real logical progression and is extremely subjective. It’s even more difficult when you’re doing it as a one-way process: in the videos, the audience has no opportunity to ask questions or seek feedback. It’s a tough balance between being too repetitive/ restrictive, but being specific enough for the audience to be able to understand your point. Prior to me teaching, there were a lot of things I mostly understood intuitively, but wouldn’t have been able to explain why; I have been forced to examine every single square inch of my images and the way I shoot to structure a logical explanation together. And that has unquestionably made me a much better photographer, because I comprehensively understand the psychology and science behind the making of an image. Am I done? Hardly. The Masterclasses force me to up that game to an even higher level, because the needs of the students are no longer formulaic, and they may well come in at a level equal to or higher than me in very specific areas – but seek development in others. Challenging? Definitely.
That challenge I plow back into my personal fine art work; one of the things I want to do is consciously spend more time on personal development. There are no workplace-sponsored courses for this kind of thing; it’s really just time, practice and introspection. The time bit is the challenge. I believe that with the Ultraprints the general direction is set, but I’m going to need a lot more of the first three to firmly nail down an overall creative direction and concept for my work. I don’t feel the objective is quite as defined as it is with say, my product or documentary photography. That’s probably got something to do with the fact that I’m still very much wrestling with the question of ‘what is art?’.
There is no question that the ultimate synthesis of all of this is intellectual satisfaction and reward. If I wanted to be rich, I’d have stayed in private equity. But that is an extremely frustrating industry for people who like tangible outcomes, because it works on the basis that you do a lot of deals, expect to make a loss on most of them, and get the payoff on the one rare one that hits the jackpot – which is the complete opposite to the way I work now. I do a lot of small projects – shoots, print runs, workshop video productions – that together constitute a living income. The satisfaction for me comes in seeing the ideas translate from thoughts into a tangible, physical product; this website is a good example. Three years ago, I wanted to write something that I personally would read – it seem that a lot of other people would like to read it, too. Beyond that, the very process of producing a photograph means that you can have a complete outcome in very little time; these individual photographs build up to something much larger – a job, a personal project, an exhibition – where the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. I would be lying if I said that there wasn’t a degree of financial motivation in it: we want to be the best at what we do, put in effort beyond the ordinary, deliver results at a very high level and expected to be recognised as such. Part of getting that recognition is educating your audience about just how much work goes into producing the result. Beyond that, ultimately, there is a sense of responsibility as the creator. One person presses the button, (even if several might decide the angle and murder it in PS later). There is a very strong sense of ‘I made this’ which I never got in corporate.
I want to leave you with a final thought, and the purpose of this rather meandering essay: there’s no such thing as being a specialist. It’s a myth. A specialist is really a person who can solve a very esoteric problem because they have a diverse range of knowledge outside a topic, but the ability to see how that knowledge is applicable to that topic in a very specific situation. In other words, a specialist can think outside the box, but at the same time knows the inside of the box well enough to understand when it’s time to leave it, and how to do so. To be a good photographer, you need to be able to see; to be able to see, you need to be a conscious observer of differences; to see differences, you need to be educated and aware enough to know what’s special. And that means consciously thinking about things other than photography. Ironic, no? MT
A few places left for Making Outstanding Images Chicago (September 2014), Masterclass San Francisco (September 2014). Masterclass Venice (November 2014) now open for booking – click here to book or for more info
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