Tuesday, May 01, 2007

Picking Our Best Work

Someone mentioned that we are not the best judges of our own work. This raises a number of questions.

1) is that right?

2) if it is, then what does this imply?

3) and what do we do about it?

I have heard this expressed before, though of course, something being stated multiple times doesn't necessarily make it so.

Lets assume you and I are reasonably talented photographers, with something to offer the world. Some of our images have been admired. We normally present only our best work to the public, burying our mistakes.

Here's some real life examples and some fictional for your consideration.

We send some images to a gallery or magazine and they decide they like our work, please send more images of the same ilk. Thrilled, we do so, but of course, we had already sent our best images. The implication naturally is that anything else we send them is 'second rate', or to be more polite, not quite as strong as the first batch. Still, it's a chance for a show or publication, we are not likely to refuse. We gather together another batch of images. A couple that hadn't seemed good enough to work on, on second thought turn out to be very nice and we are pleased to be sending them. Others, even with work, are frankly just not as good as the first batch, but they wanted more and that's what they are going to get. Of course, we don't send them any real dogs - we do have our principles.

Lo and behold, our curator or editor rejects some of the original batch and publishes or shows some of the 'also rans' sent out in the second batch. We respect the skill and opinion and eye of this person who rejected our better images and accepted our weaker ones. We have to come to terms with this. Perhaps the opening statement about us not knowing our best work is right.

First, let me make some bold statements.

A dog is a dog is a dog - if we think it's a bad image, chances are every body else in the know agrees. That's not to say that these images might not get positive feedback - no matter how bad they are, they may be better than the images our friend can take and so he's enthusiastic about them. Perhaps the person looking at them doesn't have an educated eye and simply doesn't notice the compositional or technical flaws which are so glaring to us. Still, a skilled viewer is likely to see the same fatal flaws we do. Flaws don't fade with time, they amplify.

When it comes to sorting our good from our best work, we are not necessarily good judges. There's a reason that in the movies, there are directors and there are editors and for the most part they aren't the same person.

Here's another story. For a recent show, I sent a number of images, some strong enough I'd stake my reputation on, others good enough to sell but definitely not amongst my best. Of course it's one of those images they chose for the catalogue, web site and advertizing. My first reaction was to be upset that my 'name' was going to be made or not on the basis of this image. I thought of asking them to change it, but I'm not the one to tell a curator they are wrong when they have offered me a show, so I kept quiet. It's now six months later and I remember when they sent me copies of the advertizing material (my name spelled wrong, but whatever), and I saw this image for the first time in a different light - more as an abstract in forms rather than a picture of a frozen waterfall - maybe I had under valued the image - either accidentally or intentionally I'd put more into the image than I recognized when I made the print. In hind sight, I can see why they picked the image. I'd still not pick it to represent me, but I can now see why someone else might, and it's a bit disturbing - it clearly means I can be wrong about image choices, so yes, I'd have to say that it's true, we aren't always the best judge of our work and yes, we do need help from editors and curators, even ignoring the fact that these shows and publications represent their best efforts and their reputations stand on what they show.

I have read several times of photographers needing and seeking outside help to select images for a book.

Here's a fictional story. A photographer strongly dislikes an image. He junks it as a failure, but a friend notices it in the garbage and rescues it, exclaiming over it's worth. Our photographer is persuaded by said friend to include it after all in his catalogue. This image turns out to be tremendously popular and our photographer is asked to reprint it many times and it becomes the image by which he is known. But he still hates the image and cringes every time he sees it.

I think it means that we need to divide our images into:

bad - I don't want anyone to see this
ok - I'd be willing to include it in my sales catalogue and actually sell it, but I'd not want it in any shows or publications
good - I think it's a decent image. I'd prefer it wasn't the image by which I'm known but I'm ok with showing it to the powers that be.
Great - these are the images by which I stake my reputation and by which I want to be known, sink or swim.

So, when picking our best work, it's fair game to pick from the great and the good, but not to use any of the others, no matter how enthusiastically someone else might recommend an image.

We run the risk of missing an image that others will get excited over, but we can always change our minds - there are a number of images which I have decided a long time later are good after all or more commonly, I can now make good prints of when I couldn't before (I see how to work them).

In the end I think it's better to hold back an image that you are less than happy with.

In terms of sorting out the good from the great - looks like we might need some help here. Two problems immediately arise.

We may love an image for reasons which aren't apparent to others and so they never pick our favourites (and I have written about this before). The second is what we have been talking about - we like the image less than others, but enough that we are willing to share it. Perhaps it's an image that we will appreciate in full later on. Perhaps there's something about the image which prevents us seeing the image to it's full advantage. We might be obsessed with a minor flaw in the image and can't get past it while others pay no attention to it at all and even when explained, can't understand why we fuss so much. Just as we can ascribe wonders to an image which aren't actually there (they are remembered), we can also remember things which spoil the image and yet which don't actually exist in the image and come from other memories and associations.

Bottom line: if you hate an image, don't show it to anyone. Maybe you'll change your mind in time, but ultimately they are our images and they make a statement about us and if one or two images don't get shown which could have been, well that's just too bad.


ARConn said...

I think i know what u mean about people not knowing the process (and it;s all process/Tao), i was just paid $10 to not show the store adjusted prints that i was using as an index. sure fine. worse comes to worse, i just crop her out.

no harm and i still have my picture.

Anonymous said...

I think the main thing to consider though, when trying to define our 'best' work, is the issue of taste... even putting aside our own opinions which could be related to the experience of actually creating the picture rather than the final result - there could be 10 curators/editors and faced with 15-20 of your images, would give 10 different 'best' choices. A couple of the pictures might be more popular, though, and in terms of commercial success I suppose popular is what you would be aiming for. I think that comes down to whose opinion/taste you value most.

I also wonder about the difference between how a photographer will look at another photographer's image in comparison to the way an art dealer/gallery owner/curator would, do you think that maybe the photographer would be more concerned with the process, and the curator with the final print?