Success in Photography

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Much like writing about photographs teaching has vastly expanded my thinking around pictures. A plethora of problems that I simply had not been aware of have opened up to me. Curiously, it seems that the simplest problems often are the hardest to solve.

If there’s an overlap between criticism, teaching photography, and photographing it’s that without an idea of success any of these activities constitutes a hopeless endeavour. When I use the word “success” I am not concerned with or interested in whether a photographer produces a widely popular body of work and/or book and gets fêted at festivals the world over, not even to mention the exposure offered by click-bait needy websites. I don’t have a problem whatsoever with anyone enjoying this type of success — it’s just that when writing or teaching or photographing I’m simply not interested in it. I can’t be, and neither should be the photographer (or student).

What I’m interested in instead is the simple question of what success means for the photographer, given the body of work in question. What is, in other words, a successful picture? Or maybe what is a good picture and what a bad one? In the most basic and obvious sense, that — and that alone — ought to drive the dreaded process of editing: put all the good pictures on the small pile to the right, and the rest can go into that big garbage bin on the left. Editing usually is one of the hardest tasks faced by photographers, and I now believe this is mostly because despite taking (hopefully) lots of pictures, most photographers never think about success, about what it is that will make a picture good.

I often encounter blank stares when asking this particular question — how do you define success in your work? — so I tend to follow up with an equally simple question that also mostly leads to the very same lack of response: what do you want your pictures to do? It’s not that my goal is to have students stumped — on the contrary! But if a good way to solve a problem is to begin at, well, the beginning, then maybe it’s best to start with the simple questions before turning to the complicated ones.

In a very obvious sense, there is no generalized answer anyone can give me when asked about success. Any generalized answer only tends to be a non-answer or an evasion. For example, someone might tell me they want their pictures to obey the rule of thirds. OK, that seems fair enough. But then it’s equally fair to ask why. Is there a reason? In fact, every possible answer will result in the same question: why? And this is a genuine question: I’m interested in the reasons each criterion that is being presented — not to disprove its validity, but rather to get as close to the criteria to be used as possible.

What this means is that any criterion could possibly be a valid one, provided in the given context — aka the body of work in question — it makes sense. Making sense as in having full validity for the photographer, given her or his ideas and motivations. To what extent a photographer’s criteria are related to what might make sense for other people often requires some hard thinking. On the one hand, even in the arts it’s almost impossible to be sui generis (most people lack the talent and drive for it anyway). On the other hand, it usually is a terrible idea to focus group your art.

When teaching, that — and only that — is what I feel needs to drive my efforts to help a student along, namely that her or his own criteria for her or his work are being met: you light the fire, and my only job is to hold your own feet to the fire you lit. It’s your fire, not mine. This is where criticism and teaching diverge — in criticism it’s my fire and only my fire. Being a critic helps me being a teacher: I know full well that there might be other criteria (mine), so my willingness to indulge students only goes so far. The nice part of the job is to see the fire lit, the challenging part is the holding of the feet to it.

One of the main reasons why I re-started taking my own photographs on a very regular basis a couple of years ago was to subject myself to these very same mechanisms. It’s one thing to “grill” someone over their failure to pick the good pictures out of the pile. It’s quite another to do it for oneself. It’s good to know about how hard it is. But it’s also good to try to find ways to make the job easier. When it’s not my own photographs, I find I have a for me uncanny ability to produce good edits pretty quickly. But for years I struggled with the task of trying to explain how exactly I would do it.

I am now convinced that what I do boils down to reading the work, picking up on what it aims to do, establishing the corresponding criteria, and then selecting pictures based on those. Mind you, when not being the photographer my criteria probably are not one hundred percent in line with hers or his. Another editor might employ different criteria.

The only person for whom the most perfectly served criteria coincide with the criteria is the photographer. S/he ought to be able to get as close as possible t0 identifying and applying them. These criteria will be driven by her or his original motivations and ideas as much as by the work’s. However, it is likely that in the end, the work will drive the process, given that just like in all other forms of creative art (as opposed to craft) the work will overrule its creator.

Especially early on, though, as the creator you will attempt to get close to your ideas and motivations and ask: what’s a good picture here? Why is this good? If this is a good picture and that one is, what does this mean? How can I define the success of these pictures here? What should they do? Why do I think they should do what I’m saying they should do?

This process will have to involve a lot of looking and looking and looking at the work, and it will require a good amount of emotional honesty. The reasons that drive your work might be ones you feel uncomfortable with. If they make you feel uncomfortable you will have to be able to stay in that place and keep digging, keep asking: what does this mean? What’s driving me here?

Whether or not the body of work ultimately gets to enjoy the success that manifests itself in sales or exposure is a very different question. It might, or it might not. There are too many awards and prizes for any of them to make sense any longer, yet people still have their eyes fixed on them. Consequently, there will be many rejections, many shortlists not made, many festivals hawking other people’s wares.

Here then is the final point where having a measure of success based on the work itself offers plenty of solace: maybe the work didn’t get shortlisted, didn’t get shown, didn’t go viral for 15 minutes. But if it sits at the end of a long process of introspection and hard work, and if it conforms to its maker’s deepest ideas of success — isn’t that what really matters?