In Part One and Part Two of this Master the Craft series of articles we covered the importance of knowing your camera and subsequently moving past the camera and the critical skill of understanding the difference between a good photograph and a great one. If you have not as yet read Part One “Master the Craft Getting Past the Camera” and Part Two – “Master the Craft What Makes a Great Photograph” I encourage you to go back and give them a read. These two articles are two of the cornerstones to great photography.
In the final Part Three of the Master the Craft series we are going to discuss the vitally important skill of divesting yourself of your emotional attachment in your own work. Of all the elements to Mastering the Craft this concept is perhaps the most difficult for the vast majority to master (and accept). Having truly impartial insight into your own work is a fundamental skill that is hyper critical to the production of great photography. Some (very few) photographers possess this skill as an innate talent. The majority do not and will have to try and learn it (almost all will fail).
Perhaps the best way to understand this process is by example. Lets say I spend a bunch of money, book myself a plane ticket and travel all the way to some distant country in search of dramatic landscapes; perhaps Nepal or Tibet (although it doesn’t really matter). I then spend two weeks travelling the area, exploring and making photographs. On the whole I get weather that co-operates and my trip is a resounding success. I then return home, I download the hundreds or thousands of photographs I made and start to pour over and edit them. This is where most people run into real trouble with their photography. The skill set required to productively and successfully edit ones own photography is completely different to the technical (and artistic) skills used to make captures in the field. The importance of the difference between the skill sets and the need to practice and master both both really cannot be over stated. The real problem stems from the fact that as the photographer who spent a chunk of money and time travelling to a far flung destination we become far too heavily emotionally invested in our own work. We can (and the vast majority do) fail to recognise that the photographs we made are on the whole pretty banal. Sure, they might be great record shots and fantastic memories of our trip, but they are often light years away from great photography. Being able to recognise this fact and see past ones own emotional investment and attachment to our own photographs (because ‘we’ made them) is an extraordinarily rare talent – which is why those photographers who possess it and implement it so well shine so brightly above the masses. These gifted photographers recognise that their own ego has absolutely nothing to do with the photograph they just made. Incidentally, this is also the reason magazines, newspapers and other media employ a photographic editor and perhaps National Geographic are the most obvious example. Yes, they send out a great photographer to complete an assignment, but its not the photographer who edits the work and makes the final selections for the magazine. That job is handled by a photographic editor who has zero emotional investment in the work that was produced. Of course we cant all employ a highly skilled and experienced photographic editor, so how does one go about divesting themselves of their emotional attachment to their own photography?
The first step to divesting yourself of any emotional attachment is to recognise and accept that most of the photographs we make are far from transcendent. They are on the whole average and not worthy of post production (let alone social media praise). They should be seen as stepping stones or building blocks we used in the refinement of those photographs that really did work and that are truly great. The seconds and thirds that might be close, should not ever see the light of day. Accepting and recognising that the vast majority of the photographs we make are seconds and thirds is a bitter pill to swallow, but a necessary one on the path to being truly impartial about our own work.
How you go about divesting yourself of the emotional attachment to your own work is very personal and is going to be different for everybody. In my own case, I like to let a good passage of time pass between when I made the captures and when I actually sit down to edit and produce the work. This passage of time lets me disassociate myself from my direct experience in the field. My memory has had a chance to fade and I can be more objective in my selections. I find if I start to edit my work too soon after a shoot I make selections that tend to be less objective and as a result my portfolio suffers.
Once a suitable passage of time has passed I like to look at my work with a truly hyper critical eye. I try and look at it as if I was not the photographer, but the editor. I ask myself, What am I trying to say with this photograph? What is the story or message? Is there emotion in the work or is it bland and devoid of feeling? Is it a decisive moment? What about the colour pallet, depth and framing? Composition? Is the eye pleased with where it comes to rest in the image or does it wander lost or out of the frame? Will this photograph tug on the heart strings and generate an emotional response in the viewer? All of these questions need to be asked and answered honestly and impartially. Most fail to ask these questions and fall into the trap of asking the technical questions such as, Is it sharp? Would it have been sharper at f8 instead of f14? Did I get the depth of field correct? What about exposure? These are questions you should not need to ask if you have mastered Master the Craft Getting Past the Camera. Perhaps Ansel Adams said it best ‘There is nothing worse than a sharp picture of a fuzzy idea‘.
Divesting yourself of the emotional attachment in your work is really tough and of the three steps to Mastering the Craft, divesting yourself of the emotional attachment you have to your own photography is by far the most difficult and is likely the one most people will fail to achieve. You have to have a very critical eye for your own work and need to be your own harshest critic. You also have to realise and accept that just because you spent a bunch of money and time and travelled to some remote destination that it doesn’t mean you made a great photograph. A good friend once said to me ‘You know, just because you lived on an iceberg for 30 days doesn’t mean you made a great photograph’. He was 100% correct. All I did in that 30 days was give myself the opportunity to create something beautiful. There is no guarantee I actually did so. By far the vast majority of photographers fail to fully divest themselves of their emotional investment in their own work. Its a tough skill to master but if you succeed your photography will improve exponentially.