Distanced makes the heart grow fonder.
A comment I often hear amongst photographers is how they are terrible at editing their own work. This isn’t just among young photographers, even the most seasoned professional find it difficult to edit their own work. I can’t tell you how many times I have e-mailed an image to a friend to get their feedback, because I was uncertain of the impact of the image. It’s no secret why this is difficult. It simply comes down to we are emotionally tied to the images we make. We are there experiencing everything around us, the sounds, the smells, the pushing and shoving, the laughter, the tears the incredible tension or unbelievable happiness of the moment. All these things serve to impact our vision in the way we feel about an image. The problem is the rest of the world doesn’t see, feel or experience any of these things. All they get is what’s in the final frame and that’s it.
When we look through a series of images we view them with history and this makes it very difficult to be unbiased and ruthless in our edits. So, how do we combat this problem? Recently, I’ve been reading through “The Passionate Photographer” by Steve Simon, and he lists editing as one of the ten steps towards becoming great. He gives an example of Garry Winogrand. Winogrand died at the early age of 56 with over 2,500 36-exposure rolls of film unprocessed, 6,500 rolls of film that were developed but not contact-printed and another 3,000 apparently untouched and unedited contact sheets. Why did he have so much of his work undeveloped and unprocessed? Winogrand was a prolific shooter and almost never looked at his images within the same year. Thus when he passed away he left all this work on finished. Winogrand is quoted saying,
“If I was in a good mood when I was shooting one day, then developed the film right away,” he told us, I might choose a picture because I remember how good I felt when I took it, not necessarily because it was a great shot.
You make better choices if you approach your contact sheets cold, separating the editing from the picture taking as much as possible”[1. Resnick, M. (1988, July). Coffee and workprints: A workshop with Garry Winogrand. Modern Photography] A workshop with Garry Winogrand. Modern Photography
In this case, out of sight out of mind, works in your favor. Not many of us have the ability or the self-discipline to sit on an image, let alone 6,000 images for over a year before we look at them. But here’s something you can do. I wish I could say that this was a workflow that I consciously have developed over time. In fact, it is a product of laziness that has actually come to serve me well.
When I shoot an assignment I review my images daily. I make daily edits and I send them onto the client or later send them a web-based contact sheet. I will go through and pick my favorites and images that stand out immediately. I will delete those that are grossly out of focus or seem to be inappropriate for whatever reason. At this point after the assignment I’m basically done with those images. I store them on multiple hard drives and pick out one or two images for a blog post, then forget about them. Later, perhaps six months to a year I might go back and look through the images again. This time with a fresh approach. With less emotion and connection to the actual images. It’s similar to what Winogrand suggests only with an element of immediate satisfaction built into it. When you go back through after a year look at your images critically, be ruthless. Do any grab your attention? Do any have emotion? Do they communicate anything? Now is the time you can make some drastic cuts. While making these cuts you’ll find images that you didn’t see before. Some will stand out like a brand-new photo, having just been shot. You’ll wonder, where did this image come from? You may not even remember having taken it. Yet now it seems to be a striking image. It’s because you’ve distanced yourself from your own work. Now, you become your own best editor.