Sunday, April 6, 2014


There are many things in life one can study, practice, and with diligent effort get a little bit good at, or even very good at. Two of them, just to pull some handy examples, are baking bread and taking photographs.

The progression runs, roughly, as follows. You learn a little, and you get some positive results. Your bread rises, your photographs are in focus. You think you're pretty good, and your friends agree. Everyone is a little surprised and astonished that your bread rises, and that your photographs are in focus. Still, everyone also recognizes, on some level, that there are degrees of goodness. You are not suddenly the best in the world, you're just "good" on some very broad spectrum of "good".

As you learn more, as you experiment more and find things out, develop skills, and so on, your idea of what's good will probably narrow. As you begin to actually understand what separates your first efforts from the greatness that you always recognized, you will perhaps, probably, begin to view your early efforts as "bad" rather than "good". You might also grade your current efforts as "bad" but you work to get past that.

At about this point there seems to be a very very natural event that can occur, almost regardless of discipline: You may find a social group with a set of ideas, methods, procedures, doctrines. You discover that by hewing to these, your results get to be pretty good. Leagues better than your early efforts. Furthermore, by espousing these ideas, methods, procedures and doctrines both in what you say, and in how you work at your chosen craft, you gain acceptance into this social group. Some people who you consider to be expert begin to compliment and accept you. This is powerful, this is tribal.

Now there is an excellent chance that what you know at this moment will harden into dogma. You may give lip service to the notion that you're always learning and growing but inside, somewhere, you secretly think that in fact you have found The Answer. You know the true method for ultimate excellence, and now it's just a question of more perfectly executing the approved methods and procedures. Your growth stops. Your results are pretty good, more or less, but as you perfect your adherence to the dogma you have selected, something is lost. The creative spark is gone.

Bakers stuck here just wind up producing a couple kinds of decent bread, and being happy with that. Photographers who get stuck here produce emotionally dead garbage. Any soul they once had, any fresh ideas they once had, will be inexorably squeezed out in the relentless refinement of the approved methods and procedures. These photographers eventually reduce their "mistake" rate to vanishingly small, and wind up crapping out an endless stream of more or less identical lifeless examples of a very very specific form, while their social group cheers them on with cries of "wow, another great one! you are so great! can you teach me your workflow?" (arrg, "workflow" I must write an essay on that particular horror as well)

There is another way.

It happens that I am an excellent bread baker. I hew to no dogma. Well, at any rate I am not aware of any particular dogma to which I hew. Instead, I have a pretty firm and yet ever changing idea of what constitutes excellence. My approach evolves constantly. I understand, clearly, distinctly, and differently week-to-week, the ways flour, water, salt, and leavening work together. At any moment I have methods and approaches, and I have firm ideas about what sorts of things will affect the resulting loaves in what ways; and these ideas changes and evolve constantly. Sometimes I develop genuinely new ideas, and other times I simply think about old ideas in new ways, I develop a new mental image of what's going on to describe the same things.

What's important here is that my thinking is (usually) right, or at least not very wrong. It changes and evolves constantly, but rarely diverges far out of the zone of being pretty much correct. I'm usually in the zone of right, because I do know a lot of stuff, and I have spent a lot of time reading, talking, hanging out with dogmatists who do indeed own a piece of the puzzle. Still, there's infinitely many ways to think about these things, not just one.

This means that my bread constantly changes. Sometimes it is frankly not very good. Usually it's somewhere between good and astonishingly excellent. It's rarely boring. And, let me repeat this: sometimes it is astonishingly excellent. This is an important point.

You can, I think, approach photography the same way. Learn from the dogmatists, take their ideas of excellence and add them to your own. You have always known that there are good pictures, and better pictures, and superb pictures. Your job is to develop an ever-evolving, constantly changing, theory of what makes the astonishing ones astonishing. Keep your mind open, and your thoughts flexible.

Try to hold on to that early naive idea that everything is good, only some things are better.

Sometimes, you'll make pretty bad pictures, or pretty bad bread. If you're not a commercial photographer or baker, that's OK. If you are, of course, you have to find some formulas that work and stick to grinding them out -- at least in the day job. Even so, at night, when nobody's looking, remember that everything is good. Devise a new theory of what makes it good, and shoot a bunch of that for a while.

If your stuff isn't crap some of the time, then, eventually, it's crap all of the time.

1 comment:

  1. I am constantly astonished that many people take so very little interest in the history of their respective art. It is in my view difficult to do something new unless one knows what has been done. There is, of course, the risk that during this learning process one is so gobsmacked by a work of perfection that it prevents further experimentation.