Getting over the hump

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There comes a point in the growth of every photographer where they reach a ‘hump’ which appears to be insurmountable in any obvious way: you just don’t think you can get any better, no matter what you do. This may be at a very low level, or a very high one; depending on your natural visual aptitude. But it happens to everybody – it’s happened to me several times in the past. Today I’d like to talk about things you can do to move past it and up your game. After all, everybody wants to make better images, right?

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The four stages of creative evolution of a photographer

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As close as I got to Everest. Nikon D700, 85/1.4 G

On careful reflection, there are a number of stages which every photographer (hopefully) goes through as their creative vision develops. In fact, it’s more like a pyramid or mountain that requires climbing: the higher you go, the more difficult it gets, and the more commitment is required. The lower slopes are gentle, easy and well-charted; the higher slopes are rocky, icy, treacherous and the preserve of the supremely brave or foolhardy. At the same time, far more people visit base camp than the summit; and few do it without supplemental oxygen.

Perhaps that metaphor has gone a bit too far. Like every pursuit, photography is one of severely diminishing returns: it isn’t difficult or expensive to become reasonably good, but if you’re trying to push the boundaries, be prepared for frequent dead ends, wrong turns, and never-ending criticism: the simple reality is that if you are always experimenting, not all experiments turn out better than the previous one, let alone tried and true methods.

I was at a dinner with a number of fellow commercial photographers recently where this point was discussed in some detail: we work in an environment of shrinking budgets and drying up jobs, yet there will always be some clients who perhaps are more like patrons than business as usual: they don’t mind you trying to push the boundaries. The comparison to the art world was drawn: a piece that may not make any sense to a casual, external observer makes no sense precisely because of the casualness of the observation: the viewer does not have the benefit of having experienced and seen the evolution of the artist from the starting point into their current form of expression. I think the same thing is true with photography, though to a lesser extent; we were discussing another recent batch of image submission which had to be graded/ sorted/ reviewed etc. and how to judge whether something had extremely deep and complex metaphors, or whether it was simply a bad image – the conclusion was that the caption was the giveaway. (It stands to reason that a casual-looking image with a deep meaning and careful execution would have an equally-carefully crafted caption that supports the message of the photograph. None of these particular images did.)

Pre stage
The vast majority of the population falls into this group. These are the people who own cameras and perhaps use them at social occasions, or for recording/ documentary purposes, or when they are expected to – like when on vacation – but do not actively seek to go out and take photographs. They may be creative in other areas, but just not photography. Composition is not something that they actively think about and technical skill is limited to turning the dial to the green mode. For the purposes of this discussion, I will classify them but not discuss their traits in any greater detail; I’m almost certain that none of my readers fall into this category anyway.

First stage
To progress to the first stage, you need to have the intention; you have to make a conscious choice in wanting to make a image. You may or may not know what is good, what works and what doesn’t, or the technical aspects of photography; the bottom line is that a person in this category has the desire to photograph. I suppose this is what separates newbie photographers from the rest of the population who might merely own a camera. Intention is what gives people the motivation to actually get out and do something – in this case, learning, experimenting, and trying out things. It is impossible to learn photography solely by reading or looking at other people’s images, though this can be very useful – you really don’t get a feel for things without experience, and this experimentation is something which is a common factor to all forms of creativity.

The other characterizing traits of a person in the first stage of creativity is that the way they shoot and the work they produce is reactive; they may make a conscious choice to embark on an outing whose sole purpose is to take photographs, however, it is very much a case ‘of shoot what you see’, and only photographing a subject if it’s obvious and front and centre. There is no element of anticipation, preconception, or previsualization involved; this means that the images are frequently lacking in a story – ‘the idea’ – because the photograph frequently contains only the subject and no related elements (the context) – or worse still, a bunch of distracting and misleading elements.

Second stage
The next phase of development involves some awareness of ‘the idea’. It is usually also accompanied by a heightened consciousness of one’s surroundings; this is caused by the development of one’s sense of observation and anticipation. The photographer in the second stage will visit a particular place and feel that it is photographically ‘rich’, with a lot of opportunities or stories; or perhaps that there are certain elements that must be included in a shot in order to the essence of the location.

However, the idea may not be fully formed, or the photographer may lack the technical ability to execute what they are envisioning in their minds. Images produced by the photographers in the second stage tend to feel a little bit chaotic; this is because not all of the elements in the scene are under control, or were included or excluded as a conscious choice on the part of the photographer. It is very possible for a second stage photographer to occasionally produce a brilliant piece image; the problem is that although the outcome may match the intended story perfectly, it was more due to luck than planning and would not be consistently repeatable. Most dedicated amateurs will reach this stage.

Third stage
The first part of this stage – let’s call it 3A – is when a photographer firstly has a vision in their mind of what the end product should look like, can consistently execute this, and have the image communicate its meaning or intention to a viewer on its own merits, without the help of a caption, or intervention from the photographer. These photographers tend to have nearly every element of the image under conscious control; and have a level of technical skill that enables them to consistently repeat the execution if required. There is practically nothing left to chance, and no detail is too small. A good commercial photographer would fall into this category, and it’s probably beneficial for them not to push too much farther, especially in Asia and other conservative markets – there are far more clients that prefer the ‘safe’ route rather than the experimental one.

At the same time, there’s something missing from the images – they’re too safe, too perfect; stage 3B is where the creative realizes this and is trying to produce something different, but can’t quite make it work; it isn’t a bad image, but the full idea or story isn’t getting through. On the way to the pinnacle, one has to expect to fail at least some, if not most of the time. And by fail, I mean produce images that are not quite satisfactory for some reason or another – usually because they fall short of fully and clearly communicating the photographer’s idea at the time of capture. If this isn’t happening, then chances are you’re playing it overly safe and stagnating.

Fourth stage
Defining what makes a photographer qualify for this level is tough, simply because it’s impossible to pin a concrete set of limits on creativity. Perhaps it’s best to say they have to be gifted in some way and give examples; we start with Louis Daguerre, include Oskar Barnack, H-CB, Capa, Kubrick, Salgado, Majoli and perhaps also Avedon and Leibowitz; I think some of the Japanese photographers like Araki would also qualify, though I don’t claim to fully understand their work – but it is clearly a very developed, evolved style. I’m sure there are plenty more out there whose work I haven’t yet had the chance to see, or whose work is either kept private (Vivian Maier, for example – though I don’t think she’s a stage four) or not well publicised. There are but a small handful of people who ever reach this point; they have the common trait of pushing the boundaries in one or more aspects of the image making process simply because they can imagine and envision things which the majority of the population are unable to. I suppose in some ways, this aberration of the mind or difference in thinking is a bit like having a disability, but in a way that’s more beneficial than debilitating.

Although these people have the benefit of being able to see in a way that the rest of us cannot; a lot of them are also handicapped by it because this way of seeing is so ingrained into their thought processes and consciousness that it is very difficult, if not impossible, to break away from. This is in a way analogous to a form of savantism in which the subject has a narrow, obsessive focus on one particular topic that leads them to consider every possibility and outcome; including the ones that are normally discarded through a more balanced rational thought process. This focus results and creativity or games in one very specific niche; a slightly less intense variant of this is the development of personal style. Discovery and adoption of a personal style, in a way, is the development of and obsession with a particular look or mood to an image.

One little thing I notice about photographers who are at the fourth stage is that none of them will ever admit it: their work is never excellent, it is merely good enough (and rarely, if that). They are proud of what they do, but they know that things can still be taken further with another push; ideas fleshed out and illustrated more fully. Their work is always technically very well executed, and frequently polarising; their creativity is so far ahead of the interpretative capacities of most people that there are two camps of viewers: the concept or message is so fundamental that either you understand it, or you don’t. They have a deep passion in what they do, bordering on the obsessive; and are frequently difficult people to interact with in social settings, simply because their thought processes are so different to the majority of people that there is no common ground or reference basis on which for them to interact, leading to frequent miscommunication and awkward gaps in conversation. This in turn contributes to such artists being misunderstood or developing a reputation for genius – it’s not that they don’t want to explain the rationale behind their thought processes, it’s because they simply cannot – what seems perfectly ordinary to them and not requiring a second thought is something that requires a huge number of mental leaps for somebody else.

The conclusion of this article has deviated somewhat into an examination of the mind of how an extremely talented and gifted person would think; this was not intentional however in the interest of full disclosure it is a topic that is very personal to me because of things I have faced in my own life. I graduated young, and have always been – by a large margin – the youngest person at my level in any organization I’ve worked at; in my last corporate job, my peers were in their 50s (I was 25). I had no problems doing the job – the huge delta in thought processes and social experience is what made me feel highly uncomfortable with my day to day situation.

One of the reasons I’m so passionate about photography is because it is one of the last few truly meritocratic fields; it doesn’t matter how old you are or who you’re related to (there are of course exceptions); in an anonymous viewing, a crap image will always be a crap image; there is far less discrimination based on age than in other fields. Perhaps it’s because a perception thing: you can instantly judge the merits of a photograph visually, but it’s impossible to know if somebody is a good investment manager or consultant or operations director simply by looking at them. (And even several years down the line, it’s still difficult to tell; it’s impossible to separate out the person from the other environmental factors affecting their work.)

This is of course not to claim that I fall into stage four or even 3B; I think it takes recognition by a large body of people for a person to be recognized as gifted. But I do know that I plan and think about my images to the point of being neurotically obsessive; there is always something that can be better, there is always something else to try, another article to write or another thought to elucidate and share. And in a weird way, I think I rather enjoy it. MT


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Images and content copyright Ming Thein | 2012 onwards. All rights reserved

POTD: The unacknowledged cost of development

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The unacknowledged cost of development. Leica M8, 35/2 ASPH

One from the archives. Whilst this photo was taken in early 2009, the sentiment is as relevant today as ever – perhaps more so. An old village near the center of town – that’s the Petronas Twin Towers in the background – was demolished to make way for a new commercial complex. I also see the image as a metaphor for development: first take the easy bits, then when that’s not enough, move on to encroaching on nature; finally, end up with a soulless concrete jungle. Who knows what happened to the people who used to live here? If they’re lucky, they’ll be compensated a fraction of the value of their land, and forced to move on elsewhere, splitting up the community and probably creating a gambling or drinking problem because they don’t know what else to do with the money. Most of the traditional way of life is already waning as a consequence of the modern societal drive for ‘more, better’ – the vast majority of people I work with and encounter today are happy to sacrifice plenty in the quest for riches.

Curiously though, the younger generation seems to be rediscovering the importance of passion in work, ethical values and sustainability – or perhaps it’s just the same rebellious antiestablishment thing done by youths everywhere. I think it’s a good thing. People aren’t machines (though many big companies secretly wish they were so, even if they publicly proclaim otherwise) MT