As we approach the end of 2012 I've started to reflect on my year's photographic journey . Though I've owned a DSLR since 2007, it's only this year that I feel that I've made real progress as an artist. I thought it might be useful to share some thoughts on the nature of my journey.
It's a Winding Road
The most obvious thing to me is that improvement isn't a straight line. I guess if it were we'd be able to plot a start point, an end point and do what it takes to keep us on a constant trajectory until we reach our destination. And we all know it's about the journey and not the destination. Indeed there is no real destination.
That's the first thing to consider. Unless you have some very specific goal in mind, you're not getting better to achieve something in particular. Rather you're always "just getting better". That might mean any number of things, maybe getting better at realising your own vision and being more honest with yourself rather than generating "better looking pictures". And if we're not really trying to get anywhere then why hurry in getting there? That doesn't mean slack off and stop doing the work, but it means there's a need to slow down, enjoy the journey and take time to reflect as it's often during the quiet times that things fall into place.
Of course it doesn't always feel like we're getting better. Sometimes quite the opposite. Have you ever felt that all of a sudden your images suck? I do. A lot! Sometimes I look back at my images earlier in the year or even in previous years and feel they are much better than what I'm doing at the moment. I feel I'm falling short and my work is getting worse. So I start trying harder, maybe too hard. My images become formulaic and forced, rather than natural and instinctual.
So it's probably best not to measure progress in terms of individual images. In the same way competitions don't necessarily uncover the best photographer, I think we should be looking at our images as a wider body of work, and looking for a higher level of consistency. When I do this, I can certainly see that my image making is much improved even if my absolute favourite shots may be older images. I can look forward, knowing that my favourite image could just be around the corner, waiting to spring from this fertile ground that I've nurtured.
It feels to me that we have certain times when we're out shooting and everything comes together - technique, conditions, frame of mind - and we produce something we feel is markedly better than what came before it (and perhaps after it). These moments seem like eureka moments! It feels like we've cracked it, we're the best photographer in the world and a slew of great work and admiration awaits us! I often do this, until I get home and see them on my computer at least. (interesting thing to watch for: if you've been out in the field, think you've struck gold and then feel a wave of disappointment as you see the results on the computer - walk away. You're still emotionally attached to that moment of victory so it's very unlikely the reality will match your feelings. Come back in a few days or weeks and I can almost guarantee you'll feel more satisfied with the results.)
It may be that we've cracked it - though maybe we can't quite work out what "it" actually is. I feel like those images are the result of the days, weeks, maybe months where I'm still going out, still working and practising producing work I'm not entirely happy with the results of.
I firmly believe that the work that went before was a necessary process to reach that point of satisfaction. Without the previous, our technique wouldn't be honed, our vision would be immature and we may not even be out in the wonderful light as we're lying in bed having taken prior disappointment to heart rather than a natural, necessary part of the journey. In some ways you could think that our successful images are the sum of our disappointments, and that each disappointment is a step closer to something wonderful!
When we have these eureka moments, our expectations change. "I'm better now. This will be the new level of all my work." And perhaps for a period it leads to some sustained work that we're happy with. But it will drop off - in our heads at least.
Have you ever climbed a hill where you say to yourself, "the summit's just at the top of this rise" and then you get there and realise it's actually not. "Ok, the top of the next rise". The peak with endless summits, with boggy energy sapping ground in between. Much like the Peak District in fact!
And so this is what it feels like, our moment of photographic glory fades, replaced by the all-too-soon realisation that there is ever more progress to be made. As I said at the top, that is the destination. An ongoing life's journey up the false summit, over the boggy plateau and up the next one!
There's something here about the need or at least the feeling of "getting worse before you get better". You get good at something, and in pushing to get better your results get worse for a period. That boggy ground may be where we're experimenting, trying a new technique that will help us climb that next rise or perhaps scale that cliff.
At first some of these hills may seem steeper, and the plateaus longer and boggier. But as our work approaches a consistently high standard that we're happier with, then maybe that boggy ground seems a little firmer and those hills a little lower.
As they say in the cycling world, "it never gets easier, you just get faster"!
A Life of Continual Progress
"Remember - you're as good as your last picture. One day you're [a] hero, the next day you're a bum..." ~ Weegee
Self doubt and concern that our best work is behind us is something I think we all face, no matter how good our images objectively are - not that we can be objective anyway! You're not alone. There will be artists that you admire and think have "made it" who are themselves unsatisfied with their images, looking at other artists enviously.
So perhaps it's time to settle in for a life of continual and sometimes slow progress. Maybe by settling in we become that little less hurried, a little less despondent with the natural lows, a little more balanced when we reach those natural highs. And perhaps we'll savour the journey with its little victories and false summits all the more.
I don't have the answers and perhaps this post throws up more questions than answers, but a more philosophical "it will pass" approach helps me. I can be a harsh self critic and always striving to get better, something of a perfectionist at heart. I can beat myself up when I'm taking that one step back just so that I can take the next two forward. Remembering that it's part of the process and knowing that the two steps will come I find brings me calm when it would be so easy to be down.
Let me leave you with this video with words by Ira Glass that I came across last year. I find it really encouraging. It makes the point that disappointment is natural and is even a positive indicator. The key is to not let it get you down, just keep working, keep climbing the hills and trudging the bogs:
Last week I was very privileged to feature in On Landscape magazine, an online magazine for - you guessed it! - landscape photographers. If you'd like to read more about my journey, you can read the interview here. Aside from my surprise inclusion, I highly recommend On Landscape. It has a wealth of really thought provoking articles that provide a lot more depth than similar magazines you come across.