Going Backwards

Recently, a good friend and fellow photographer told me it seemed my photography seemed to be getting worse lately. I respect what he says, and certainly as a lifelong photographer he has been around the block a few times. Admittedly, I reacted with a “whaddya mean?” question, which I think is valid. In what ways, specifically, do you see my quality not measuring up to my usual standards. It is important to be specific in order to learn and grow.

Whether or not his assessment is accurate is almost besides the point: do we, as artists, have a way to be objective about our own work? No, I think that’s impossible. Too much of our own emotions are tied to our craft. There’s even some profound psychological research about this. But I did find myself asking a rhetorical question to myself: are there times when growing and learning can feel like going backwards? The answer to this is absolutely YES!

I shared with my friend a relevant story to illustrate that growth as an artist is not a steady, straight line. When I was in 4th grade, I started learning to play the saxophone. I played all through high school, taking private lessons and getting good enough to compete as district. By my senior year, I really thought I was pretty good. As a freshman in college, I had a new instructor. He found that my embouchure was poor. I spent months relearning how to play. Once confronted with proper technique, it felt like I was going backwards for several months. My sound got worse, not better. My mouth hurt due to different muscles forming the proper embouchure for the first time. I really sucked (sorry, really bad pun). 

Yet after months of hard work my playing improved. I had an objectively better sound with better technique. What would have happened had I ignored my professor? I’m sure I would still have played, but the truth is that I would have hit the barrier that bad technique creates. One can compensate to a point for poor technical skills, but there is a point where compensating for ineptitudes won’t cut it. 

I see a direct parallel to photography. There are a lot of technical skills needed in the craft. To be really good as a photographer takes years and year of practice and learning. And as my former boss often quipped, “ya don’t know what ya don’t know!” Going backwards (in a sense) is a good thing if that means one is learning. It might mean relearning technique. It might mean the quality of output is objectively lower than before until the best practices are learned well. It also may be true that experimentation as a photographer means folks who previously liked your work simply do not like your new direction. We all have to own our style and not get too discouraged by naysayers.

Bottom line: while I do not see myself pursuing a full-time career in photography, my goal is to make it look so good that you would never know. But it may not always please everyone all the time–in fact, it never will, so just keep going forwards!

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