It’s not supposed to be easy.
I wish I could end this blog post right there, but I can’t. This is something that’s been on my mind for awhile. I need to put it out there for you all to digest and consider and act on (or not). Before I do, though, I want to be very clear that this isn’t directed toward anyone or motivated by any single person. I absolutely love teaching, mentoring, and critiquing; this post is meant to be part tough love and part reality-based encouragement.
If there’s one thing I hear in almost every critique and every workshop I conduct, it’s frustration. Now, frustration can be a fantastic motivator. It can force you to keep trying new approaches until you break through your block. It can force you to go back and learn something that maybe you glossed over the first time. It can push you up from a plateau when your work gets stale. That’s not the kind of frustration I’m talking about. The kind of frustration I’m addressing here is this:
“I’ve been serious about photography for two whole years. I should be producing art by now!”
Or “I should be in business by now.” Or “I shouldn’t still be having problems with focus / composition / tones / processing / what-have-you by now.” And my favorite, “It shouldn’t be this hard.”
Well, people, yes it should be. It should take a lot of blood, sweat, and tears to become good at this. This is not a simple process. There are no shortcuts — and I’m here to tell you that when you think you’ve found a shortcut, all you’re accomplishing is depriving yourself of the opportunity to create a strong foundation on which to build. I know there are lots of ways to appear to have progressed quickly, more now than ever in the history of photography. There are actions, presets, cameras with every function imaginable; push enough buttons, and “art” appears. Even easier if you spray-and-pray, shoot hundreds or thousands of frames, and pull out the one successful image, and then subject it to pixel torture. Voila, masterpiece.
And I’m not just picking on the digital folks, although there are far more tricks and save-your-ass techniques in the digital world. If I had a dollar for every film shooter I’ve met who considered B&W film the perfect way to avoid having to get their exposure correct, I’d be a rich woman. It is one thing, whether you’re film or digital, to know all the options available for your use and understanding how to use them — and relying on them to create work that hides the fact that you do not fully understand technique.
The same goes for developing your style. If you are constantly looking for the next workshop to teach you how to make your work look like so-and-so’s, you’re missing the point. The goal should NEVER be how to imitate or emulate someone else. The goal should be learning what your own voice is, exploring how to speak with that voice, and learning the tools with which you can speak. In other words, asking another photographer how to duplicate their look (“step by step, please, and don’t leave out a single thing”) is not magically going to make your work unique and special. You’re not going to imitate yourself into being an artist. Obviously I’m not telling you not to take workshops or learn from others; I’m a huge believer in learning from others, and I adore teaching workshops and facilitating “aha!” moments. I’m telling you not to be spoon fed. Figure out what your questions are. Try to answer them on your own before you look for the easy answer. When you can’t figure out the question it’s probably time for a critique from an artist you trust to steer you correctly and honestly. Blindly taking every workshop, course, or webinar out there without knowing how it applies to you is as much a waste of money as buying the same lens as so-and-so because you like their pictures. Throwing money at the problem will not fix anything. There are no magic bullets.
It takes time. There is simply no substitute for time and dedication. Expect to be frustrated, and don’t whine about it. All of those well-established, well-rounded artistic photographers you admire so much? They’ve all gone through the same process. They’ve banged their head into a wall, they’ve felt like a fraud, they’ve stumbled around in the dark, they’ve literally suffered for their art, and they’ve gradually shaped themselves into the artist they are today. (But don’t be fooled: many of those people you admire are relying on the same plug-ins, presets, and actions that you are. They’re just not saying so. Eventually they will either become stale, or they will have to go back to the beginning and learn properly. But be aware that many of those people are the ones offering workshops right now. Do your homework!)
Listen, I’ve been through it. It’s a lot like giving birth, only sometimes more painful. It’s hard, it requires incredible dedication and resilience, and it can be humbling at times. THAT is why not everyone is an artist. It’s not enough to have some natural ability. You have to work hard for it and you have to give it time. You can get past any roadblock in your way if you don’t give up and if you refuse to spend time feeling sorry for yourself when you get stuck.
This is me attempting to see my monitor without my contacts. Sure, my vision is much better with my contacts — but I’m still lucky if I’m at 20/60 with them in on any given day. I shoot all manual focus medium format cameras. There’s no point whining about it — I had to figure out how to make it work. No amount of complaining or hand-wringing is going to make anything better. If I can do it, so can you.
It’s not supposed to be easy. But it is possible, and it’s so much sweeter when you work and struggle for it. As is the case in nearly every aspect of life.