Monday, November 10, 2008

growth spurts

waiting for bats

One doesn't see with one's eyes, one sees with the whole fruit of one's previous experience.

- Aron Klug

Anita describes a familiar lament over on her blog. She expresses dissatisfaction with the images she is currently taking, compared to those in her head. I've had long periods of feeling the way Anita does - my aspirations were well above my abilities. It has been a strange progression over the last 7 years.

Initially I loved so many of the pictures I took, fatally overlooking my lack of technical abilities that I had no understanding of. I was blind to the faults. I'd print them, share them, enter contests and juried shows and be bemused by rejection. After a while, I started producing passably good pictures - still technically flawed, but compositionally competent, satisfying and generally okay. I'd learned enough to see what was wrong with my earliest attempts. I could start seeing glaring flaws like over-sharpening halos and uncontrolled dynamic range. I have several prints around the house from this phase that I still like. They might now be in the laundry, but they are at least still on a visible wall.

Then I went through another growth spurt. I was back again to seeing the glaring flaws in all the pictures I was taking. I couldn't print anything out because by the time it came to printing or framing it, I already was dissappointed in the picture. I learned quite a bit about composition and technical printing in this phase. By the end of it, again quite a few, better, images adorn my walls. That was about 3 years ago.

The more you learn, the less you know

I guess I'm back in another satisfaction vacumm again. There are no photographs on the walls from the last 2 years. My standards might have shifted again, but also the subject matter I'm shooting has moved away from grand landscapes and other forms of easy wall decoration. The images are now lots of people I don't know or maybe more challenging but ultimately satisfying images that don't look so good on the wall. There are a few I've taken that I could think about printing, but even as I type and think about them, I can come up with all the reasons that I'd be dissatisfied with them. There's a book I suppose, but nothing else printed in the last couple of years.

The thing of it is, though, that these periods of dissastisfaction are really where the growth is occuring. If and when you think you are doing good work, then you no doubt are, but you aren't striving for something bigger. The dissappointment and continuing urge to get better shows you know what's wrong and what can be improved. When that moves to the background, and satisfaction sets in, then you've stopped being able to identify the areas for growth, at least for a while. Those plataeus are to be enjoyed, but the struggle up the mountain is where the improvement is really happening, even if you can't see it and want to just give up along the way.

I first encountered this concept of plateaus on the way to learning in the book Mastery: The Keys to Success and Long-Term Fulfillment A worthwhile read. I've also started using the Amazon affiliate program for links to books - feel free to buy through these links and I get a small amount back - or if it offends you, just type the name into your favourite book store and avoid my small attempts at commercialism.

True knowledge comes in knowing that you know nothing

- Socrates

ETA: Great comment from Paulo Bono on this post - well worth a read. It reminds me of the idea that a writer is someone who writes, and a photographer who is someone who takes photographs. If you aren't actually writing or taking the photographs, then you aren't really being a writer or a photographer or whatever sort of -er you aspire to be. Do the work and the rest will take care of itself.


Paulo Bono said...

I think this is a response to both this post ('growth spurts") and the last one ("productive creativity").

I'm not a photographer, at least in the sense that you are. I do take pictures, but only as a means to an end, not as an end unto itself. I use my camera to illuminate my thoughts, and vice-versa. I have no ambition for it beyond that. But I am a writer, and so I do understand the theme of your recent posts. Dulling of the creative impulse, uncertainty of direction, the alarming erraticism of growth spurts (and the secret fear that any one of those spurts could turn out to be your last).

I'll tell you something interesting about writing fiction. When you are lost, when your every path seems to mock you, the way forward – the only way forward as far as I can discover – is to just write like mad, write anything at all, and let your characters tell you what happens next. They will. Unfailingly. But the thing is, it only works if you let them alone.

I reckon the same thing must be true of every creative process, including photography. Some of the best writing I've ever done was actually not very good ... at least not very good at first blush. But that's fixable. The technical aspects are always fixable, if there was something heart-stopping there to begin with. And those precious heart-stopping moments never, and I mean absolutely never, came from thinking about them, or reading about them, or making lists about them. Every one of those all-too-rare moments happened when I wasn't looking. When I was just paddling with the current. But I was paddling. Not reading what other paddlers said about paddling. Or about rocks or rapids, or about Zen and the Art of Kayaking.

There's only one aspect of your previous "productive creativity" post that I would disagree with, and that's your exhortation to "try to learn from it [your work so far]". My counsel would be to try NOT to learn from it. And then you will.

Mark said... really know how to depress someone ;-)

When I began looking at purchasing a dSLR it was mostly because I was tired of missing shots of the cats. My digital point-n-shoot simply didn't fire fast enough to capture them doing whatever it was they were doing.

But once I started looking over all that my new camera could do I felt compelled to be a photographer. I was no longer simply enjoying snapping pics of the cats; of the birds, squirrels and chipmunks on the back deck; of the whatever I wanted, but was suddenly feeling I had to produce something. Something of merit or worth.

I confess it has tainted some of the enjoyment I hoped to find with my new camera. And I think that is because I suddenly made it into something more than I wanted it to originally be. And this feeling has been compounded by joining Flickr, looking over other folks great (and sometimes not so great) pictures. Reading folks blogs about photography, etc.

So the question is: why do you really feel disappointed in your more recent work? Is it because you aren't living up to what you perceive is your fullest photographic potential or because you have shifted your original desires into something different? Something you didn't originally intend, but that has swept you up into a movement from which you cannot escape?

Are you tying up your enjoyment of photography with stellar output, while forgetting about the pleasure that simply comes from spending time with your camera and enjoying the process of setting up, framing and shooting an image?

I swear that I have days where when I'm done shooting a bunch of pictures I simply want to delete them all. I don't want to look them over and determine which are okay and which need to be deleted right away. It was the process of working with the camera, spending time with or within the subject (photographing birds on the back deck versus being out in the woods) and working the camera that brought me joy and the idea of spending time working with the photos didn't create the same level of pleasure, so why do it?

Are you more worried about having perfect pictures than a perfect time?

(sorry to be all over the place - have a bit of a headache and this is a tough issue)

Anita Jesse said...

For me, the pursuit of mastery in itself is deeply pleasurable. The failure to achieve that mastery has its momentary frustrations; yet, the adventures encountered during the journey and the joys that are an inevitable by-product of that search are more than worth the time and energy spent.

I guess it is up to us as individuals to determine the nature of our makeup. If the pursuit of mastery creates only aggravation and disappointment, we need to choose another path.

I discovered long ago that I crave the pursuit. Of course, that doesn't mean that there aren't days when I don't consider chucking the idea. But, inevitably, I am irresistably drawn back to work for that joy of discovery.