Aristotle, Excellence and the Photographer

Aristotle, Excellence and the Photographer

“We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act but a habit.” -Aristotle

This morning I met with some friends of mine for coffee. My buddy Hans tossed out this quote he’d recently read in a runner’s magazine of all places. He thought it might spur some challenging conversation. We were discussing this more from a theological bent and how this effect our life, work and art.  So, in the tradition of Socratic dialogue I offer you the same.

The first part of this is really the premise and the second part the application. The premise is “We are what we repeatedly do.” A lazy man derives his title because he’s lazy. A hard-working man, the same. A painter or a photographer because that is what they do. Maybe this is the case for you, do spend more time taking photos than just about anything else or is it just a weekend hobby for you? What makes this difficult for me to hear is I spend more time writing a blog, tweeting, working with Lightroom and keywording photos than taking photos. But then, just maybe, that’s what a photographer is these days or maybe, that’s what a working photographer is (I hesitate using the word “professional”.)  How much time are you actually spending on your craft?  Most photographers I know are almost addicted to taking pictures. They can’t help but, it’s in their blood, “it’s what they do”, thus it is what they are.  I worked with a guy that used to say, “if you want to know someone’s real values, you watch how they spend their time (not listen to their opinions or posturing). Ouch!

It’s the second part of the statement but I find the most intriguing. “Excellence, then, is not an act but a habit.”  I think what Aristotle is saying here, is that excellence is not an accident or a fluke. It is not a one time thing. Oh, sure, you can have an excellent photograph. But that does not make you an excellent photographer. The excellent photograph might very well be a fluke and you, on the other hand be a lousy photographer. Give a monkey a camera and eventually he’ll come up with an award-winning photograph. Quite frankly, there’s probably a lot of monkeys with cameras out there dubbing themselves excellent photographers. No, I think Aristotle is absolutely right here. Excellence is gained by habitually working at your art. Aristotle goes on to say;

“Excellence, then, is a state concerned with choice, lying in a mean, relative to us, this being determined by reason and in the way in which the man of practical wisdom would determine it.” -Aristotle

Now there is a lot of words! But I think he is saying, you are excellent at something when you have the means to be able to choose to do it well and to do that thing well over and over again. He doesn’t just leaving it there, the last part says “in which the man of practical wisdom would determine it.” In other words you’ve made right choices by what you know and the results are excellence. This ability to choose excellence time and time again, gives you the moniker of excellent at your craft.

So, how do you achieve excellence so that you can choose it? Aristotle answers that as well, when he says, “Excellence is an art won by training and habituation.” (interesting that he calls excellence an art.) This one is pretty straightforward. You train at being great and you make it a habit. This kind of goes back to the whole Zen aspect of things we’ve talked about before. You do something over and over again until it becomes a part of you and you can do it without thinking about it. I’ve had several e-mails lately asking about composition and how do I frame an image etc. The fact is, most of the time I don’t think about it, it just comes naturally when I put the camera to my eye. But it wasn’t always that way. I had to work at it. I used the rule of thirds to train me. I use the concept of visual weight to beat my creative eye into submission. I consciously thought about it while framing images, over and over again until now it just happens. Wax on, wax off. Take off the jacket. Drop the jacket. Hang the jacket. Are you working at becoming an excellent photographer? Don’t think it will just come easy?

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About The Author

Matt Brandon

Matt is a Malaysia based humanitarian and travel photographer. Well known as a photographer and international workshop instructor, Matt’s images have been used by business and organizations around the globe. Matt also on the design board for Think Tank Photo, a camera bag manufacturer. In 2013 Matt founded the On Field Media Project to train the staff of non-profits to use appropriate technology to produce timely as well as quality images.

28 Comments

  1. Brian Hirschy

    Excellent Post – I sympathize with you on the part about how photographers spend more time today doing OTHER things besides taking pictures. Honestly – I spend more time on the phone and setting up meetings and answering emails that anything else. Honestly though, I work really hard at those things as well, and I think it's important to work hard at as well. Look at the great photographers today, they work hard at both their craft AND their business – I personally think there is no way around that.

    I think it's really important to remember that these days we as photographers are so much more – we have more irons in the fire than EVER before I would suspect and it's important to work equally hard at all of them.

    Honestly, and this is just my opinion, I'd take an average photographer who was a hard worker and had a business mindset over an excellent photographer who could care less about all the nuances that come with the territory of being a photographer today – though I'd rather keep the counsel of the excellent photographer, I think the average photographer with a strong work ethic can become an excellent photographer w/ that same strong work ethic.

    It reminds me of something my father told me when I was about 12 years old “Hard work beat being smart any day.”

    Food for thought – thanks for the post Sir Matthew.

    Reply
  2. cfimages

    Reminds me of Einstein's “genius is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration”.

    It takes hard work. Lots of it. The overnight success that's ten years in the making type thing. The beauty of it is, if you're doing what you truly desire, the hard work doesn't feel like work – it's fun.

    Reply
  3. Matt Brandon

    Brian and Craig – I not sure that hard work is the point here. I think a person can work hard and not achieve excellence. The point that Aristotle is making is that we have to make excellent practices habitual. I know some habitually bad photographers that are making a lot of money with mediocrity. I don't want to be one of those. So, it's more than just hard work, though there is that, it's working at excellence in making excellence a habit.

    Reply
  4. Brian Hirschy

    I see your point, I find it hard to differentiate between the hard work and excellency because the two are so intermixed in my life.

    “Excellence is gained by habitually working at your art”
    “Excellence is an art won by training and habituation.”

    I'd argue that the only way to make “excellent practices habitual” is by working at them – good habits don't form on their own generally, we have to work at them. In other words, excellent practices don't become habitual without working at them – I have to fight with them, wrestle them, and then master them. It's almost a two-fold system where we fight to incorporate excellent habits in a pursuit of excellence

    It's difficult when you do approach an art like this because there are some… should we say… “glass ceilings” For example, I have a friend who has been doing what he LOVES for 20 years and is still really bad at it, like… reaaaaally bad at it. To your point, he works really hard at it but is still bad.

    I also think that more people are concerned with being 'labelled' a photographer than pursuing excellence – you put effort into those things you are care about.

    It's such an interesting mix because we have rolled so many things into one – excellency, making money at what we love, putting food on the table, pursuing an art, working hard, etc…

    Reply
  5. Sephi Bergerson

    Matt, I absolutely agree with you, and Aristotle of course 🙂 I also love the term 'working photographer' better than the the over-used 'Pro'. Excellence is indeed only achieved by hard work. Even today, as much as I am a photographer because this is what I love doing, I still spend at least 75% (!) of my time doing other things than taking pictures. Editing, keywording, marketing, networking, blogging, reading, so that I can have the luxury of being able to support myself by what I love to do. It is not so glamorous but this is what being a working photographer is. Hard work.

    For years I used to say that all the good images I produce are simply flukes as I take a lot of pictures and some do come out well. You may say I was a monkey with aspirations, but still a monkey. One day, and I can't really tell when, I stopped thinking these are flukes and started expecting good results of myself. Nothing less. At that point thinking is not a part of the creative process. it all comes from within. Like you said, “I don’t think about it, it just comes naturally when I put the camera to my eye”. This stage can only be achieved after years of hard work. No shortcuts.

    Reply
  6. Jerod Foster

    This discussion also concerns expectations, and I think that is one issue covered by the second quote, “Excellence then, is a state concerned with choice, lying in mean, relative to us…” Great points are made in this post about how habitual excellence is difficult to achieve without habitual striving for a state of activity that produces higher quality work than lower quality. At the same time (alongside hard work), expectations of oneself and continual understanding of where one's at in their craft helps build upon this struggle to achieve a level of individual and “professional” satisfaction. The level of expectations you have about your work will partly determine where it goes in the future. The most successful photographers (in both visual storytelling ability and business sense) seem to be those driven to some extent by what they expect of themselves. No comparisons, but an expectation that I think other people understand as well!

    This is a great post Matt, and I look forward to similar ones in the future! To Brian and Craig, great points as well! In the end, it's a combination of those characteristics highlighted in this entire discussion!

    Thanks for the conversation!

    Reply
  7. Matt Brandon

    Brian – This is exactly my point. You stated it very well. You must habitually work at excellent habits to gain excellence. Your friend is a also the person I'm talking about that can work hard at something without ever achieving excellence. So it's not just hard work. It's hard work and excellent standards that are repeated until it becomes a part of you and you become excellent at it.

    Reply
  8. Sephi Bergerson

    “Arjuna, your right is to work only, but never to the fruit thereof. Let not the fruit of action be your object (aim), nor let your attachment lead to inaction.” Lord Krishna in Bhagavat Gita

    There is a certain amount of divine grace that need to be a part of achieving excellence. We can do the hard work part and strive to obtain it, but whether we do or not is beyond us.

    Reply
  9. Matt Brandon

    Sephi – I love your second paragraph it's a testimony to what I wrote. And you certainly are not short of excellent images!

    Reply
  10. Brian Hirschy

    So true – expectation also has to be considered when actually discussing this – from photographer to photographer there are different levels of skill, expectation, and satisfaction.

    Keep this up and you might change my opinion about Texas! 😀

    Reply
  11. Matt Brandon

    Jerod – You nailed it. If we can't objectively see where we are and how far away from excellence we are, we will simply be practicing mediocrity. In fact, you might say we will become “excellent” at mediocrity.

    Reply
  12. Brian Hirschy

    Are you trying to tell me that I will never beat Lebron James in a game of one-on-one? I'm crushed! 😀

    Reply
  13. Jerod Foster

    Agreed! From teaching I've come to learn that expectations differ drastically among those expressing some desire to be a part of this industry (any industry for that matter). From this perspective, I've come to realize my own expectations for my work along with theirs (the students).

    By the way, Texas has basketball too, and my old coach used to say the same thing about “perfect practice.”

    Reply
  14. Ray Ketcham

    I agree with Jerods assessment of the statements and would add that excellence as habit is the ability to see past mediocrity or 'good enough'. This requires constant work to keep from settling in to patterns that soon become stagnant and good enough. Excellent last week isn't the same as what it should be this week. Moving forward is always hard work and if the constant reaching for something more becomes habitual it forestalls complacency. Expectations should grow with ability and vision.
    Great post Matt.

    Reply
  15. Mark Olwick

    As cycling great Bernard Hinault said to Lance Armstrong: “No gifts”.

    No lasting success comes without hard work. Temporary fame maybe, but nothing truly sustainable. You need to train your “visual muscles” the same way any pro athelete does, and then have the drive to continually push yourself.

    Great post Matt.

    Mark

    Reply
  16. marcoryan

    Greta Post Matt – lots too digest, ponder on and review or each is at our different stages of our photographic journeys.

    I often think as excellence as a layered pyramid. The base is often built on some un-nurtured talent or vision (at least initially), but it is just that. A base. It comes with hard work, graft and putting the hours in – training the visual Muscles as mark suggested. – and transforming that raw potential into something solid, something on which the foundations of excellence can be built

    The subsequent layers as they narrow and reach forward to that pinnacle of excellence are the same shape, but they build on what went before. They add complexity, skills, form and purpose to that journey to the top.

    Some of these pyramids are giants – Lance Armstorng, Nelson Mandela, Steve McuCrry etc
    SOme of these pyramids are undiscovered, some are still growing. It doesn't really matter how big or how well known, but the basic shape, the basic formula for building the Pyramid of excellence” remains the same.

    How about a series of posts based on inspirational posts? Mathatma Ghandi's ” be the change you want to see in the world “might be a good second contender!

    Reply
  17. olli

    As a completely amateur photographer I'm interested in how those of you who are working photographers relate the pursuit of excellence to the requirement to satisfy the needs of your clients.

    I suppose one element of excellence for a working photographer is a professional approach to clients. Another presumably is technical excellence in the production of images.

    But what if the the client's expectations and demands are for images that the photographer might perceive as aesthetically or artistically less than excellent?

    Is it just a case of gritting your teeth and getting on with it while maintaining excellence in those areas under your control? Or are you generally able to reach agreement with clients on the aesthetic aspect that satisfies you both? Or do you have to concentrate working habitually on excellence in your own personal projects rather than on paid projects?

    Just curious.

    Reply
  18. Ed

    Based on the discussion here maybe the original Aristotle quote could be refined as follows “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act but derives from habitual excellence.”

    I love the picture by the way!

    Reply
  19. Matt Brandon

    olli – I think this is a good question. But, I think you're going to be disappointed with my answer. The reality that I have seen and experienced is that I've never had a client demand for mediocrity. The fact is that clients actually are paying for, or to put it in another way, renting our our excellence. So, I think they're relying on our excellence, this what they are accustomed to. That is in fact, this is why they were drawn to us to begin with. With that said, I have made the mistake of giving a client a mediocre image, and they liked it. Later I regretted that I had done this. Because now, my excellence was tarnished. But I learned from that mistake. And that will never happen again.

    Reply
  20. Colortrails

    I share the concerns about “what we do” as photographers, is becoming more and more about marketing and less and less about shooting. Ultimately I think it boils down to whether or not you're in business as a photographer.

    If you are, it's almost impossible to avoid the digital networking stuff because it's where everyone looks now. On the one hand it's great we have all these new abilities to connect with interested parties, but on the other it makes the balancing act tougher. I didn't want to get sucked into the Twitter / Facebook vortex (luckily I've avoided Facebook as my personal opinion is it doesn't add value beyond what a blog and twitter can offer in combo – and it's a big time drain), but it's unavoidable in some ways. You have to connect with people…

    For my part I'm still learning the best way to blog / tweet / strike that balance. For the last few months everything has been focused on new videos and a book so the blog (along with shooting time) has suffered but one thing I do know is if you don't prioritize each week you're in trouble. 🙂

    Reply
  21. olli

    But isn't there something in between excellence and mediocrity? The acceptable? The adequate? The pleasant but bland?

    Reply
  22. cfimages

    I see the “doing what you truly desire” part I mentioned as the same as the search for excellence. If hard work were enough, I'd have gone to law school and become a corporate lawyer or something equally lucrative. As I have no interest in that, the desire would never be there, and I'd never be more than a mediocre lawyer.

    Reply
  23. cfimages

    I second the idea about a post based on the Gandhi quote. I read his “Experiments With Truth” autobiography in my early 20s, and it still resonates with me today.

    Reply
  24. Mhamm

    What a deep profound and most excellent post!

    Reply
  25. Matt Brandon

    True, no “Socratic dialogue”. But it sure made for some good plain old fashion discussion!

    Reply
  26. mariomattei

    It's July 31st, 10 days after this post and it just showed up in my RSS… loved the post and I can relate to the addiction of taking photos, the necessity of habits that lead to excellence, and Marco's pyramid analogy… For too long I worked on the base, practicing “mediocrity” as Jerod and Matt pointed out. Those days are gone! As Ami V says in her emails “onward and upward!”

    In the tradition of Socratic dialogue we have dispelled the error of practicing for excellence while merely practicing mediocrity. “If we can't objectively see where we are and how far away from excellence we are, we will simply be practicing mediocrity. In fact, you might say we will become “excellent” at mediocrity.”

    Reply

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