Going Farther

There is nothing more satisfying than making a photograph that you are really excited about. When I make a shot that really inspires me, I usually make a hardcopy print, and keep going back to it over and over again to relive the excitement. Sometimes I even put the hardcopy on my bed side table so I can look at it again in the morning when I wake up. This excitement fades however, usually much quicker than I would like, and is followed by a kind of creative depression.

A couple of days ago I made some images for my food blog that I was very pleased with. I felt that I had made a big step forward in the food work that I have been shooting lately. I was proud of the care and attention to detail I’d taken, the new direction I was taking my photography. That feeling of pride lasted until I woke up the next morning and decided the images were terrible, uninspired and worthless. This, of course, is nonsense. I should still be proud of the photographs, because they are a big step forward in both my technical skill and in my processes. They are images I should be proud of. Yet the aftermath of creative success is usually followed by a low point where I think everything that I do sucks. Then I stare out the window and wonder how could I be so stupid to consider a career in photography at all. I’ve been shooting professionally for many years now, and this happens on a regular basis.

I had a conversation about this with a friend who is a fine artist, and he admitted that this often happens to him too: he loves his work as soon as it is done, and then later (in a day, in a week, in five minutes) when that high of creating something wonderful starts to wear off, he immediately start picking apart the work and finding the flaws. Essentially, he loves his work up until the point that it is finished, and then he starts to hate it, and to want to do better.

The only true way to combat this post-creative depression is to figure out how to go farther. Ira Glass from This American Life did a piece a while back on creativity and one quote in particular has been making the rounds on the interwebs for quite some time. He said:

All of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste. But there is this gap. For the first couple of years you make stuff, it’s just NOT THAT GOOD. It’s trying to be good, it has potential, but it’s not. But your TASTE, the thing that got you into the game is still killer. And your taste is why your work disappoints you. A lot of people never get past this phase; they quit. Most people I know who do interesting, creative work went through years of this. We know our work doesn’t have this special thing that we want it to have. We all go through this. And if you are just starting out or you are still in this phase, you gotta know that it’s normal and the most important thing you can do is DO A LOT OF WORK. Put yourself on a deadline so that every week you finish one piece. It’s only by going through a volume of work that you will close that gap, and your work will be as good as your ambitions. And I took longer to figure out how to do this than anyone I’ve ever met. It’s gonna take a while. It’s NORMAL to take awhile. You just gotta fight your way through.” – Ira Glass

It really is an insightful sentiment. I like to think that I will never truly be out of the phase that Ira is talking about, because I never want to stop improving. I feel like every single photograph that I make, or at least every single shoot that I get needs to be better than the last one. I need to go father and to keep building. This is why the photograph I made yesterday isn’t going to be as satisfying as the photograph I’m going to make tomorrow. Each shot that I make teaches me something, even if that “something” is nearly imperceptible – it will show up in my photographs. Does this mean I will never make bad photographs? Certainly not. There is no way around making bad photographs, because the process of making those bad photographs is the process you go through to make the good ones.

The photographs I made earlier in the week? They are pretty good. I have every right to be proud of them, and in time I will. The reality is though, that they are not as good as the photographs I’m going to make tomorrow, and they are certainly not as good as the photographs that I’m going to make next year, or the year after that. Learning how to do more, be better and to go farther is what this profession is all about.

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  1. Love this photo, Jon. My friend Judy, a nearly retired very successful photographer, always says, “I haven’t got the shot I want yet.” Superb post, mon ami!

  2. This post echoes my daily struggle with the artistic process! Thank you for putting it into words! Instead of being disappointed with my work I have to see it as a step in the path of improvement. If my work still looked like it did 15 years ago, then I would have a right to be concerned. Even Leonardo Da Vinci filled thousands of pages with sketches. He didn’t create the Mona Lisa the first time he sat at an easel. Thank you Jon, for your encouraging words.

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