Failure the foundation to greatness.

 

My landlord knows I’m a photographer and every once in a while will ask me a question about the state of photography. He’s an interesting guy and likes to keep abreast of different trends in different fields. Today, Mr. Lim dropped by and we started talking about photography. He said he felt that too many people have cameras that they don’t know what to do with. They have digital SLR’s and they use them as point-and-shoots. He said, they just snap anything and take a lot of pictures that mean nothing, they just waste frames. I chuckled at this as I was just thinking about writing a post about shooting volumes of images and how it can help, if you do it with the right mindset.

There are several ways to look at Mr. Lim’s observation. It is true, many people who own fancy cameras would do better off just buying a point-and-shoot, and leaving the big heavy SLR at home. But there is something more happening here. There are many very serious hobbyists and even some professionals that have the gear but limit their potential. They limit their potential because they do not push themselves. I want to return you to the book, “The Passionate Photographer” by Steve Simon  as the groundwork for this post. Steve has a chapter in his book entitled “Volume, Volume, Volume: 10,000 hours: Practice and Persistence”.  His main point in this chapter is simple:  the more you practice something the better you get at it. It really is as simple as that. But there’s a difference between practicing something and doing the same thing over and over. The difference is how you practice you push yourself. In fact, you almost aim for failure. I think it’s safe to say if you don’t fail then you’re not succeeding. It seems like a contradiction in words when, in fact, lack of failure simply means you’re not pushing yourself past your limits. In one sense, it’s a little bit like working out in a gym. When we go to a gym and we want to increase our strength or our body size we push our bodies. We do exercises that we don’t normally do till our muscles hurt. In fact, our muscles physically start to break down. Microscopic tears in the muscles happen, and when they heal, they create more muscle and you grow. Failure is essential for growth.

After the last post when I wrote about Garry Winogrand I started looking on YouTube for any interviews with him. I actually found the Bill Moyers interview  interview that Simon talks about in his book. Winogrand had some really different and challenging ideas about photography and whether an image can tell a a story or not. I’m not sure I completely agree with him here, but I cannot help but respect him as a photographer. His work is incredible . He wasn’t always a success. In fact, in the interview he says this about failure:

If I am in the viewfinder and I know that picture, why take it? … I’ll do something to change it. Which is often a reason why I may tilt the camera or fool around in various ways. You don’t learn anything from repeating what you know… I keep trying to make it uncertain. The nature of the photographic process, it is about failure – most everything I do doesn’t quite make it. Nothing ventured nothing gained. Hopefully you are risking failing every time you make a frame. Garry Winogrand in an interview produced by Bill Moyers.

Bare with me as I return to my gym analogy. You don’t grow muscles by doing the same exercise every day. You have to vary your routine and you have to add repetitions and weight. You have to do things that are uncomfortable to keep from plateauing. You have to do things that are new and difficult. By the mere fact that you are shooting volumes of images you put yourself in new situations with new challenges that you’re going to have to deal with in new and creative ways.  It prepares you for when you face these obstacles in the future. They won’t be nearly as daunting because you’ve dealt with them before. But shooting volumes of images doesn’t matter if it’s not a conscious decision to learn and grow. Anyone can “spray and pray”–shoot hundreds of images and pray that one will come out. That is not what we’re talking about. We’re talking about a conscious decision to grow and to get better at your craft  by pushing yourself to the point of failure.

In the familiar quote from Henry Cartier-Bresson, “Your first 10,000 images are your worst,” there is an assumption behind his words. His assumption is that your first 10,000 images are all an attempt at growth. Let it never be said that in those 10,000 images you will not have some gems. In fact, you may have some amazing images that you’ll never be able to reproduce. Lucky shots. That’s okay!

In an interview Henry Cartier-Bresson talked about his photo of the man leaping the puddle. You know the image– it is the one that has become something of the poster child for “The Definitive Moment” concept. Did you know that Cartier-Bresson could not even see the scene when he shot it. He stuck his camera through some slats in a wall or fence and had no real idea of what he was shooting. In the interview he talked about that shot and said, “That was lucky.” My initial thought was, lucky? How about years of preparation that paid off? But Cartier-Bresson went on further to say, “It is always luck. It’s luck that matters. You have to be receptive.” Henry Cartier-Bresson shot volumes and volumes over the years. Always pushing himself. Over the years he developed what some people described as an uncanny sense to be at the right place at the right time. He balanced luck with experience and knowledge and learned to be receptive. In the end, he got amazing photos. But he also got frame after frame of blurred images, missed moments and visually unexciting images. But, not a single frame was a wasted shot. Every frame serve to teach him something.

Being a child growing up with learning disabilities, I was always self-conscious and very aware of my failings. Over the years it’s been a conscious effort to not only allow myself to fail but to push myself to the point of failure. I am tempted at times to only show my best work. But I’ve realized that not only do I grow from my mistakes but I can encourage and in fact promote growth in others by sharing my mistakes. It’s scary being vulnerable. For years I’ve lived with the idea that, “On the Internet no one knows you’re a dog.” In other words, I have often used my web presence to present myself only in the best light. Don’t misunderstand, I’m not going to post my failed images on my portfolio. Your portfolio should always be your best work. But I have come to realize that my failures are not just stepping stones to success for me but an example and encouragement to others. I need to model this idea.

Here is what I am not saying: I am not saying push yourself in areas that you’re not interested in or where you have no desire for growth. I’m talking about pushing the boundaries of the understanding of your gear, your technique and your abilities. Just a minute ago the doorbell rang and UPS delivered a new book by Roberto Valenzuela titled “Picture Perfect Practice: A Self-Training Guide to Mastering the Challenges of Taking World-Class Photographs“. I’ve only had a cursory look at this book since it arrived a few minutes ago. But I think it serves to illustrate my point. Valenzuela is obviously a wedding photographer. The book is full of lessons and guides to help you be a better photographer. Every image in every example looks to be from a wedding or engagement session. Valenzuela does not leave his genre for these exercises. He pushes students to excel and, in fact, fail but he stays in his world of photography. I still believe in doing what you do best and focusing on that. I know this it sounds different from what I posted HERE sometime ago. But it really isn’t. I think I am developing it more here. Get better at what you do by pushing yourself in your areas of weakness.

So let me encourage you to go out this week and photograph in a way you’ve never photographed before. Shoot from an angle you have never shot from before. Never shot directly into the sun? Then this week go shoot 100 frames into the sun. Make plenty of mistakes and see what you can learn. You have my permission to fail.

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9 thoughts on “Failure the foundation to greatness.

  1. (d)SLR as P’n’C? Sooo true. Gear is good, vision is better. Conscious approach to the technical aspect of taking a photo, with all the settings is important but what I think is a great start for beginning photographers is – make technically good photos, not “artistic” ones and focus on the frame in the first place. The moment you make the habit of checking the frame edges – start thinking about other settings.
    Or – don’t. Stop thinking about getting a fancy camera because a better pot won’t make your dishes taste  better, will it? Owning a (d)SLR is, IMHO, a pursuit for perfection. And the moment you get yourself one and withdraw that chase – you end up with two cameras. And money not-as-well-spent.

    As a bonus:
    Matt, have you seen the Scalado Remove and Scalado Rewind? It’s amazing: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=flNomXIIWr4

    • Radoslaw, Thanks for chiming in. I am not sure the SLR or any camera is the issue. They are just the tools of our craft. Certainly, they can get in the way. But they do add to our abilities if, and only if, we know how to use them. What good is a host of brushes and pallet knives if the painter only knows how to use one brush. Really it is all about our willingness to stretch our self and risk to the point of failure. Are we learning from our past mistakes? Are asking ourselves why things happened and what can I do to get this or that image and then try it. Who cares if it came out like crap? You’ve learned something new: what doesn’t work. Now keep pressing on till you find what works.

  2. I always thought photography is all about luck, but this doesn’t mean talent doesn’t play its part. I think the ability of the photographer to attract lucky shots is the prevailing characteristic of the best photographers out there.
    We say “luck favors the brave”, and that’s it. If a photographer can be receptive, his chances of getting “lucky” shots goes up. Can we still call this luck? I don’t think.
    You wrote an excellent article, and you said everything there is to say about failure as a means to growth. This isn’t just photography, but it’s true in every aspect of life.
    I started a travel photography blog recently. It is in english which isn’t my mother tongue. This pushes my comfort zone like crazy. Maybe nobody will care about my blog. Maybe my poor english will annoy my readers. Maybe I’m just presumptuous. I don’t know, but I’ll keep pushing myself, because I want to stretch my comfort zone, and I want to grow as a photographer and a person. 

  3. Thanks, Coach. I’m headed out to practice what you’re preaching. Your thoughts are inspiring.

  4. Very well argued case, and I fully agree. I like the gym analogy – stop pushing yourself and your skills / muscles will atrophy; push yourself and they will grow.

  5. Very well written and connection with the Michael Jordan analogy. Gives me encouragement to improve my work more.

    I teach college students and see the variations in work effort. Some that take a few pictures to get by with class assignments, and those that continue to work with the camera and editing even in the summers. Those that shoot more, generally have much stronger portfolios.

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