I am always surprised with how much ‘photography’ as a process (including all types of metaphysical and philosophical considerations) resembles the general process of achieving excellence. It does not only bear the same external traits as it has to because it is simply yet another process but it goes beyond it by exhibiting these as parts of its essence. As such photography (and probably many other visual art forms) teaches us quite a bit about excellence beyong excellence in picture.
One of the core components required for excellence is the right mixture of focus, concentration, and creativity. We need a good amount of focus to not jump from one thing to another (this will eventually become style). Then we need the necessary amount of concentration to actually pursue the chosen route against all odds and all the things in our way. Finally, we have to make sure that we do not become one-dimensional and keep the right amount of creativity without straying too far from the core, running the risk of losing our identity.
The pursuit of a photographic identity is very much similar in this respect. It is a mixture of focus, concentration, and creativity (and many more things I will talk about elsewhere). The interesting additional aspect is that precisely these three elements are also to be found in the actual photos.
Focus. Different focal length give different impressions and perspectives, which in turn give a different framing and a different focus on different elements and scales – a different approach. Then again, getting closer brings us right into the scence which is ultimately part of the shots. Focus determines proximity and how clinical or personal our shots are.
Concentration. Once we go with a specific pattern, be it setup, framing, etc., it is good to stick with it to fully understand its limitations and potential. Also it takes time to leverage the specific pattern into something that goes beyond blind trial-and-error.
Creativity. Then there is creativity. An old saying stipulates that creativity is a result of limitations. Focus and concentration put a certain confinement on creativity. It is important to manage this confinement and have it actually fuel creativity within the confined space. I always think of ‘freedom is dancing in chains’: be focused and concentrated but without choking your creativity.
The key lies in balancing these three elements and, in fact, I believe the constant rebalancing towards (our personal) optimum is ultimately not just a means to an end but the essence. Along the way, we realize that we went to far away from what we photographically care for and we refocus. Then again, if we feel that our photography becomes too one-dimensional, repetitive, boring, and when we feel that the only morally correct thing left to do is to simply destroy all our work and deny its existence in first place, then we know it is time to branch out and explore. I have this image of jelly fish in my mind that move forward by contraction and expansion. I think this is the same in photography and looking at the work of the old masters this pattern seems to reoccur. Sure the magnitude of change gets less and less over time – the system simply cools down – until it settles into smoething close to a steady state with little variation. That is when style and identity is manifested. Sure there is still the possibility for abrupt changes – but they become less common.
Another question that one has to ask oneself is: how much creativity can you force upon society at any given point in time before it rejects you. You might say now that there should be no limit, immediately thinking about all these photographic genuises that we grow up with and that we admire. There is a certain fallacy here however, that one must not underestimate or forget: the system is subject to one of the strongest survivor biases out there. You only see those very few that succeeded – the others ceased to exist – and the route of the few successes is paved with the failure of millions. There is an amazing book out there ‘art and fear’ that addresses these issues in an interesting way (and many more – a great read)… so back to my statement. What do I mean? Photography (as a form of art and not technical indulgence) exists in (at least!) two ways. First of all as ‘your art’ and your means of expression. As such it has a special value to you and this value is independent whether you share it or not. Then there is a the second form of existence: in a community of people consuming it. Now you suddenly do care about people’s thoughts, ideas, and judgements. This judgement is rooted in a common basis or understanding – a standard. If you are now so far away from this standard that it is virtually impossible to consume your work, then it will lead to frustration on both sides. How often did you got into arguments with even very close people not understanding your ‘best work’? Better keep the really crazy stuff to yourself at an early stage. I think a good analogy is the following. Suppose the standard is a ‘forest’ with trees with green leaves and brown trunk. Then, probably an amount of creativity that can be processed as a deviation from the standard is red leaves and blue trunks, however daisy flowers only might be pushing it. One of my mentors always used to say: ‘you have to poison them slowly!’
Once you have opened up the standard to adjustment, people will listen to you and listen to your ideas and concepts. You gained enough credibility that you created enough momentum to alter the status quo: you are now part of the defining elements. Then you can slowly progress towards those parts of your work that could not possibly have been understood and processed beforehand by integrating the presentation with an educational component outlining your standard.
Having read what I wrote I cannot help to feel a certain cynicism in my own words, which surprises me. Thinking about it now, it seems that this arises from, me actually articulating one of the very core approaches that I have been following for years that I however never really shared in any meanigful form. Managing the balance between interfacing with society and people in general as well as nurturing ones own self are often contradictory I guess and from this stems this cynicism. Some time back I would probably not have articulated this very principle as I would have been scared to compromise my identity and my business model. After all, bills need to be paid etc… when artists get together they talk about money, and when bankers get together they talk about art…
I am on my way to the Bay Area for the next few days to get some work done. Next time I will talk a bit about controlled risk-taking. With risk, the results determines very much whether you were a genuis or a fool and taking stupid risks can effectively wipe you out easily.
So long – TSJ.