Friday, October 13, 2006

Expectation and Discouragement


And it's all such a delicate balance
that this sport of infinity gives;
expectations we have
can lead down the path
where that devil discouragement lives
- the late Tom Dundee, in "Delicate Balance"

Like a lot of photographers, I tend to photograph in 'projects'; because I'm primarily a landscape photographer, the projects are often (but not always) geographically based. For instance, I have an ongoing project which consists entirely of photographs of closed gates. (To answer the obvious first question: no, I don't have a clue why I feel compelled to photograph closed gates. I find them and their relationship to the surrounding landscape endlessly fascinating but have no idea why.)

Now, often, exactly what the project is really about is not entirely clear to me, especially at the beginning. I'll know, in some intuitive way, that this photo belongs with these other photos, and that I want to make more photos that go with that set. But the relationship that makes the photos all belong together is poorly understood, not easily articulated, or both, and in any case seems to evolve over time. Projects can have a life of their own, and sometimes just as you think you've got your thumb on what a project is about, it does an abrupt turn, and you discover you've really been doing something else, instead - something better, but different from what you thought you were doing (or set out to do).

I think that's good, and certainly not unexpected, because I engage in photography primarily as a way of finding things out. Since my understanding evolves as I make more photos, it makes sense that the projects evolve as my understanding changes.

The difficulty is that it's difficult to make progress without feedback from others as the work progresses. Feedback can be a big motivator - if you show someone prints every two weeks, and they keep saying "Wow, this is fantastic stuff, keep it up", it's easier to pick up the camera pack and head out at 6am to photograph.

Sometimes, though, we get feedback just as we're at the point where we feel like the project is humming along nicely even though we can't quite articulate what it's about yet. And I've noticed that often the feedback at that moment seems to involve assumptions about where the work is headed that don't match my (fuzzy) thinking. It seems obvious that when there's a lot of stuff about the project that exists only in my head, and only vaguely at that, that viewers might feel the work should head in a different direction from what I have in mind. But somehow, when I'm laying out the prints, that gets lost, and the feedback just seems crossways to what I'm trying to do.

It often feels like the feedback focuses on things I think are completely unimportant. "Why is this work in color instead of B&W?" someone will ask, just as I feel I'm finally coming to grips with how to handle the compositional problems. When that happens, I get discouraged. I expected that people would be able to look at the photographs and see what I was up to, and until the project gels more, that just won't happen.

So it's a delicate balance between not showing stuff to people until it's firmed up somewhat and thus going along without feedback (and encouragement), or getting some feedback and risking the discouragement that inevitably ensues when people mis-read what I'm trying to get at. After years of being too bashful to show work to anyone no matter how finished it was, and then 8 years of showing work to a small group every two weeks no matter how unfinished it was, I find I'm having to think through exactly when I want to get feedback. It's not a simple thing and I guess it's always something of a balancing act.

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