Over the last 2 years I have tried hard to improve my photography. I have failed in at least two resolutions.
One was to stop buying gear. Certainly I buy a lot less in retirement than I did previously. In part that is a conscious decision to use what kit I have more productively, in part it is simple economics. Nevertheless I have added a couple of camera bodies and at least 3 lenses. I confess also that I am on the brink of another splurge.
The second resolution was always going to be the bigger challenge. As I explore images on the internet it is easy to see those photographers with a recognizable style. They have a niche, a sphere of excellence. They make themselves identifiable with a particular genre. I felt I ought to specialize more and try to develop a distinctive style. Out with the dabbler and in with the specialist. Build a following based on excellence in depth rather than breadth. I simply could not bring myself to do this.
I have a genuine affection for photography. Not bird photography, not street photography, not macro or landscape, not portrait or architecture. I just enjoy each time the aspiration, the striving for a better image than the last one I took. My online journey has been through Pbase, Flickr, Facebook and now Google +.
Flickr and Google + are the ones I frequent most. It is easy to see that the world is overflowing with excellent images. Certainly there is plenty of run of the mill imagery but talented photographers abound. Their creativity, vision, technical mastery and presentation skills stand out. Some are professional, making their living from photography in one or more guises; some are aspiring professionals. They have a full time occupation but want to replace this with photography, the ultimate dream of earning a sustainable living from what was ‘just’ a hobby, a passion and perhaps an obsession; the rest are content to remain in the majority who never venture down the commercial path, either through a lack of need, spirit or perhaps because they fear failure…. A family to nurture, feed, educate, who wishes to stake stability for the prize of earning a living from photography. Lucky are those of us who do not need to risk failure but can pursue our passion without the constant Angst of financial exhaustion and a weary descent back into the corporate rat race or other world out of which the struggle to escape was so bitterly won.
Does the imperative of earning financial reward drive a person to be a better photographer? Can you reach the top without suffering for your art? Are there natural photographers in the way that some seem gifted academically or at sport? Can the charlatan survive and thrive in professional photography? Does it hold true that Medium Format Maketh the Man? Do you have to have sniffed darkroom chemicals to be a true photographer? Does digital degrade the art? Perhaps photography is the new opiate of the masses, the smart phone with camera bringing instant gratification photography to hoi polloi in a tumult of quasi-religious fervour.
Spending time looking at the work of others never bores me. Nor does it seem to me to be squandering valuable time as the pendulum of the longcase clock of ages tick-tocks quickly and persistently in my ear. I believe I have a heightened sense of what works and what does not. I have a better understanding of colour and composition. Bad photography is as instructive as good. What really inspires though is great photography. Immerse yourself in the best of the best and there seems to be a process of osmosis whereby a tiny fragment, perhaps just the odd atom of excellence is absorbed into the photographic bloodstream. On my shelves are books by McCurry, Lanting, Wolfe, Cartier-Bresson, McCullin, Adams and Rowell.
After you have invested some time with the elite you will soon recognize that so much of what is seen online is technically strong but lacks originality. Much is what I dare to call over-engineered, too busy and complex. I am as guilty as the next person of adding my two or three words of supportive comment to an image on Flickr or G+. The words are well meant. When I see something out of the ordinary however I try to explain why it moves me differently. I marvel at the effusive praise that drenches a perfectly decent but unexceptional photo. It is intoxicating I am sure for the recipient but I doubt whether it makes them a better photographer.
The acid test for me is when someone asks me to show something of mine that I would regard as excellent. Occasionally I recall a photo of which I was proud at the time. When I go back several months later I usually find a sense of profound disappointment. Is that really how it was? Why did I think it was so good? Why did I make that choice? Surely it would have been better if…….? That is part of the growth process. Constantly resetting the bar, ever higher. I suspect I will never have a photo, which truly satisfies me. I have always been a perfectionist. My concept of perfection changes over time. The more I shoot the more selective I become. Fewer frames, fewer keepers. I hope that like an ageing sportsman my experience will substitute for speed of reaction and a faltering ability to go the real extra mile for the photo. Explore the detail whilst seeing the whole. Selectivity. It is mentally tough to reject old foibles, so engrained they have become.
Photography has become my teacher and companion. It asks me tough questions. It probes and challenges. It hones my eyes. It tests my integrity. It instills me with a sense of purpose. It is the bread of heaven that feeds me ‘til I want no more.