Photographic maturity

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I am immature enough to know that a giant farting cloud elephant is not that interesting to most people and of zero photographic merit other than it exists and was captured in its transience; but I am mature enough to know that I like a window seat on an airplane because looking out helps pass the time, and occasionally you see things like this that give your inner five year old some joy. I also know that it matters not one whit what I shot this with so long as it looked like the intended farting elephant. (Side note: I have been photographing seriously for nearly 20 years now, nine of them as a full time pro. I’ve shot all the things I’ve wanted to shoot, worked with all the people and companies I’ve wanted to, and probably quite a bit beyond – in short, I have the luxury of knowing what I want to do/be/shoot as photographer.)

The journey for every photographer involves a few things:
– Figuring out what it is you want to photograph [motivations]
– Figuring out how you want to present it, or your [style]
– Seeking affirmation
– Not needing affirmation
We’ve discussed the first two items at length here before. We haven’t discussed the last two – and I think it’s about time we did, having firmly felt that I have been sitting in the final category for some time now. Right about after leaving Hasselblad and shifting my primary focus away from the photography industry to watchmaking, actually. It’s no coincidence that once you stop worrying about something, you feel increasingly liberated as to what you can ‘get away with’; it’s the gift and curse that the amateur fails to appreciate compared to the professional. There is fundamentally no need for the amateur to care what anybody but themselves thinks of their own work – yet most do, more intensely than the pro whose paycheck is dependent on client affirmation. Why?

Whilst this is a simplification of sorts, it’s also why 99% of the content online exists: most people are either looking for confirmation that the decisions we made are right – be they creative or technical – or looking for ideas on where to go or what to do next. In both cases, there is a fundamental element of ‘I don’t know’ or ‘I care what other people think so I’ll look’ – and even if you don’t necessarily follow, it’s impossible to escape the subconscious influence this has on one’s decision making. Very, very few people can say they genuinely don’t care what others think; it requires a supremely confident person and strong state of mind to rise above.

Social media has not helped any of this one single bit. There is a strange reward mechanism by which what we post is given summary judgement by random people we don’t know but somehow attribute far too much weight to; they decide if we are worthy of a ‘like’ and somehow that carries a correlation to self-worth. This of course makes no logical sense when couched in these terms; yet it doesn’t stop people from posting. In the last months I’ve repeatedly asked myself why I myself continue – and I can’t find a good answer beyond habit and the need to cultivate some sort of public personality for professional reasons. But it gives me no pleasure to post images on instagram and facebook and read and reply the judgmental or ignorant comments like “wow, what a sharp camera”. It feels like obligation, not enjoyment – and if so, why?

I’ve said this before many times: the amateur really only needs to care about what they themselves honestly think about their work. There is no need to worry about what others think; you are only producing work for yourself. It is probably better not to be distracted by the thoughts of others for this reason: you can experiment in directions you might have been discouraged from before achieving the results you envisioned. The more difficult the vision, the more likely you are to be turned off if you let somebody see and judge before you yourself are ‘finished’ or ‘happy’ with the rend result. The professional only need worry about the opinion of their client, since they’re the ones paying the bills – the rest is merely noise. Even what you personally think is much less relevant since one would hope that the client hired you for a job in line with your strengths rather than just as a randomly commoditized service provider (but then again, you might work in Malaysia).

So what, then, is photographic maturity? How does the mature photographer act?

Beyond knowing whose opinion matters in what situation – I think there’s also the experience factor. You know what images you’ve shot, what images you’re unlikely to repeat, what images you’re drawn to. To some degree this does mean that you land up making the same kinds of images a few times, but it means you can stop yourself from doing something worse, and instead ask yourself how you can do better – or, not care at all, and just shoot the same damn images because you like them. Both are perfectly acceptable approaches of the mature photographer.

You also know that under some situations photography is not appropriate or you have other priorities; you still feel the angst of not being able to shoot, but your eyes still see compositions and you know that you could make the images you want if you were shooting. If you can’t control yourself, you know that composition is independent of hardware and you can use the ubiquitous smartphone to scratch the itch. You also know that a strong composition transcends technical qualities and still ‘holds’ regardless of what you shot it on. You know that sufficiency is real, and most of the time for most uses – certainly self gratification – said smartphone will get the job done.

You may feel better using more specialized/expensive/serious hardware, but you know that all of this is a tool, which is fine; if you can afford and deploy better tools, then who’s to stop you? It’s your money and your creative process. You know that hardware doesn’t make up for creative or skill shortcomings, and you also know when your ability to execute is limited. You accept that what works for you – vision, workflow, hardware – isn’t the same as what works for the next person, and reviews are only valid in the context of the kinds of images the reviewer produces and their similarity to your own. You don’t need to seek external affirmation for any of your choices, but you’re sufficiently cognizant of your own limitations to know when to ask for help.

If I’m honest, reaching this stage of maturity as a photographer – or anything – requires both time and confidence. And it’s not something most people ever get to; it’s something you have to reach by passing through the stages of uncertainty and seeking external affirmation and existential questioning of “why am I doing this” to realize that you can only be happy if you make your best work, and you can only make your best work if it isn’t a compromise. To be better, we have to get into that zen state where we don’t let our uncertainties get in the way. We have to care, but not care too much. Just like compositional balance, there’s a point where you push things a little bit further because your gut says it’ll work…to hell with what anybody else thinks, we make photographs for us. MT

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Comments

  1. It’s been a while, Ming. While you clearly do not need validation, I just wanted to drop a quick note to say that, to me, your photography has evolved considerably since the time years past of the discussion around “what constitutes ‘soul'”. There is a warmth that was missing in the earlier years. Whatever your process, thank you for sharing your journey. You’re one of the examples I use when encouraging others to objectively question their own work in a way to tease out what is working and what might not—for their intended outcome.

    • Thanks. I don’t feel there’s anything different myself, but curious to hear why you think this is the case (if it is easily explainable at all).

      • Sorry for the late reply, Ming. For some reason, I didn’t get an email notification on your reply.

        I’m not sure if I can be clearly articulate without diving into your archive and doing a compare and contrast. Just viewing your recent work, there seems to be a warmth and organic feel that wasn’t there in your earlier work. One thing I always associated with your earlier work as extreme sharpness (both in the deep depth of field used as well as your post-processing that seemed to maximize information presented.

        When I look at your recent works (since I’ve been away for a time), that razor sharpness is no longer present, and for me, the feel is more warmth and organic. Your choice of compositions have less strict geometry from what I recall. Even your “Fondazione Prada” shots, while having geometric lines, don’t seem to force such a sharpness in geometric composition reinforced by sharpness applied in post.

        Anyways, my 2c from probably shoddy recollection. I’m glad to be back to reading your blog. Your thoughtful writing, as always, provokes the mind. Hope you and yours are doing well.

        • I still think your impression of sharpness isn’t present in the original files – it’s a downsizing algorithm issue in PS. Full size files have the same pixel level acuity as before.

          Warmth/organicness: my guess is it’s probably due to a change in the way I use the tonal palette, but the underlying geometry/ structure is still there (but yes, not front and centre as a subject in and of itself).

          • All fair. Like I said, I’d need to compare and contrast, and I can only react to what’s published post-downsample and posted. It could also be my limited recent sampling of your work, which contrasts with particular photos that stick out in memory from the past—memory distortion, not withstanding.

            As you look back over the years, do you personally feel your photography is consistent, or do you feel there has been evolution as you have/had wrestled with this topic? Might be worth a post.

  2. Great thought process! This photo is exceptional!

  3. Get disheartened when people around you giving opinion on what is a nice photo or how should the end result is. After reading your article, I finally realised that it is a journey for a photographer after all. Whether I will reach the mature stage or not, it might take some times. For now, I will just go out and shoot more.

    • Unless somebody else is signing your meal ticket in return for your work, only you need to be happy with your work. The nature of social media these days unfortunately encourages the opposite…

  4. Larry Kincaid says:

    Bull dozing. It’s one of the joys of photography: you don’t need a camera at all. Call them “eye photos.” Learning and making photographs teaches you to see everything better, especially what the light is up to So, eye photos can be stored as well, can be learned from, and improve your photography later. Some have touched on my advice to my kids playing sports, basketball, soccer, when they go out the door: Have fun, kick ass, . . . learn something new. If you’re not enjoying it, you won’t kick ass. If you do kick ass, it’s more fun. (“Enjoy” and “perform” work in polite company.). Also, you can learn better if you try to do things you cannot do, yet. Perhaps this is the only way you can learn something new. Trying and failing, of course, has to be enjoyable as well. I asked the whole basketball team once, “Who would be willing to miss 6 shots to make 4 baskets”? Only one person said yes. “That’s about what the greatest professional basketball players of all time could do.” Professional photographers as well, maybe less. Strangely, this attitude applies to science and many other endeavors as well. Trying to please other scientists won’t get you very far either. As for the now famous elephant in the cloud, I was in Argentina one time in a sheep barn trying to take a decent photo of the antique tools hanging on the wall in interesting light when another visitor behind me said, “Trying to be artsy fartsy, heh?” I couldn’t believe he said anything at all let alone that one. Never heard it before. I simply said something like, “Aren’t those tools beautiful?”

    • I just think of them as ‘seeing’: once you’ve turned it on, it’s impossible to turn it off. But that doesn’t mean we have to ‘save’ every image – as you point out, there are times when it isn’t possible. But it doesn’t mean we can un-see or forget…

  5. John Pangilinan says:

    Pretty profound post, a few thoughts came to mind:

    1. Would you say that you’ve achieved a “mastery” of the things you care to shoot?
    2. Social media is a different beast, I ask myself a lot these days “why am I using social media or posting?” these days.
    3. Have you tried Twitter? or TikTok? (j/k on that one )

    I’m going through a bit of a phase, where I’m finding not thinking about business/work in regards to the things I care about, actually leads to a greater development of my skills in those areas. Like, having the luxury of the time to do so is beneficial, and I find “working for myself, but for free” actually is very fulfilling, and stimulating. I suppose this could be called a “Craftsman Mentality”, and relating to today’s social media, it’s something that doesn’t seem to be talked about as much?

    • 1. I think it’d be arrogant to think so, since the more you know the more you realise there’s always more to learn/do/try etc – so, no;
      2. I know why I’m doing it: because if you’re going to be a business as a personality, that personality needs to have some depth/ substance. And stopping/restarting doesn’t work.
      3. Yes on Twitter, hell no on TikTok. Didn’t stick at all.

      Craftsmanship today exists only as a marketing term, sadly. There is no pride in 99.99% of what is produced, just adequacy or profit. The 0.01% tend not to work as a sustainable enterprise 😛

      • John Harmon says:

        Oddly, in a sense craftsmanship exists at a higher level than ever. For example, consider the hand beaten panels on the Alphas in your other recent post v the fraction of a millimeter tolerances on bodies of many recent production cars. It certainly isn’t individual craftsmen (or women) ship at work in new vehicles, but in another sense it’s getting closer to perfection. There’s much to be said for continuous improvement, which is one form of pride. But then, this is an old debate that goes back to the beginning of automation.

        • Very true; what’s missing is individualistic craftsmanship, which has either gone the way of industrialised, repeatable perfection or hipster rustic-ness.

  6. JamesGarvin says:

    At least you got the shot. Some 35 years ago I missed a such a shot for not having my camera in the car and ready. On Whidby Island there was one corner of a man’s property where there is a sign reading [sic] “BULL DOZING” with a phone number. As I drove by that morning, sure enough I see the man’s bull dozing in the corner by the sign AND NO CAMERA. Sure, I went back, but the bull had ceased his dozing and wandered off…

  7. I didn’t immediately see a farting elephant, I saw a long-necked dinousaur facing the opposite way 🙂

  8. I am a free amateur photograph too 🙂

    I can shoot what i want with no fiscal pressure.

    Best regards

    Bernhard

  9. I’m fortunate to be in the “amateur” camp, and agree with what you say – the freedom to shoot what I want, using what I want, is the greatest thing about not relying on anyone else’s a) money or b) opinion.

    Re: the flatulent elephant. If you like photographs which are designed to raise a smile / laugh / giggle, look up Chema Madoz if you’re not familiar with him already. I think your inner five year old will appreciate him.

  10. Sean Hardie says:

    I hope I am never mature enough to not laugh at a farting elephant. Meanwhile I have never really been tempted to become a pro, I am an amateur in the true sense, photography is for myself.

  11. Know that we are out there, People that also love photography and appreciate the way you articulate what it means to be creatively capturing essences and moments that seem to present themselves to be seen and captured photographically – either as a mental snapshot or as a tangible image of something fleeting. Thank you for finding reasons to continue these posts. They matter.

    • Thanks Kath, as nice as it is to be appreciated – the work has to be done for oneself first and foremost, especially if there is no formal ‘client’…

  12. René François Désamoré says:

    The only ones who need to worry about what other people think is those who have to make a living out of photography. The rest would be ego.

    • I agree, because somebody else is signing the paychecks. But many people have even more ego…

    • You could take this both ways. I happen to have a very robust ego, and opposite to looking for gratification by showing my pictures to complete strangers on websites, I wouldn’t give my fingernail clippings for somebody else’s opinion, even a friend or family member. I hang my favourites on my walls, and people who come over rarely even notice them. Actually, I honestly think that if I had a Cezanne original on the wall, they wouldn’t notice that either.
      On the other hand, if I had a photo of a cute little child looking mournfully out through a rain-streaked window, these same people would probably fall all over themselves complimenting it. Even though it’s banal and has been done 10,000 times.
      Art is a victim of modern times and cell phones.
      Believe me, life is a lot easier when you really don’t care about anybody else’s opinion.

  13. jean pierre (pete) guaron says:

    I’m afraid this is one thing that I did before you – probably because I’m way older than you are – or maybe just because I’ve always been badly behaved.

    Around 1966 or 1967, in fact.

    I took a photo that wasn’t “conventional”, but I rather liked it anyway. Showed it to “the mob” – they all hurled abuse at it – and my reaction to that was swift, hard and permanent. Ever since, I’ve rarely shown my photos to anyone. And even when I do, it’s generally only because it’s something like a portrait of their pet, and they’re more interested in their pet than in my photography.

    And “opinions” are something I’ve grown to detest. “Opinion-itis” is an unpleasant “social disease”, as far as I’m concerned. Perfectly happy with conversations, or – even – discussions. But no longer, I’m, afraid, “opinions”. I don’t do that junk any more.

    The rationale for all of which is quite simple. And you mention it yourself. I simply like being “happy”.

    Right now this minute I am working on a panorama of Old Town Square, in Praha. The weather was awful when I shot it. It’s completely ridiculous. It covers the square, more than 360 degrees – in other words, a complete circle. My printer won’t take paper rolls, so I can’t print it except in sections. The distortion is inherently a walk on the wild side. But it’s fun. And something new and different.

    And it fills in my time, between fresh instalments of articles by this guy Ming Thein, who lives in KL and writes fascinating articles, like this one on “Photographic maturity”

    ROTFLMHAO

    • “The rationale for all of which is quite simple. And you mention it yourself. I simply like being “happy”.”
      There’s a lot of wisdom in this, but we have to live through the brick storm of ‘opinion’ to realise it.

      “And even when I do, it’s generally only because it’s something like a portrait of their pet, and they’re more interested in their pet than in my photography.”
      And this is subject bias in a nutshell – applied slightly differently, you get people venerating rubbish because it was shot with Camera XYZ rather than the composition. (Occasionally, in violation of my belief in the previous line – or perhaps in defiance of ‘opinion’ – I have to post things like last week’s series at the museum…)

      As for Praha: it’s crying out to be printed on transparency, taped it into a cylinder, and then stick your head inside it with light from the outside: the ultimate immersive viewing experience! 😛

    • John Pangilinan says:

      Jean-Pierre, perhaps the problem is we overvalue having an opinion, and undervalue the education/thoughtfulness to have an informed opinion?

  14. I really needed these thoughts today, just when I want to throw in the towel. Thanks!!!

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