Lone Man No. 7
What if you had two choices as a photographer:
To imitate the style of others, have it sell well and achieve notoriety
Produce original work that you love, but it results in few sales and does not receive critical praise
Which would you choose…and why?
I think that how we answer this question reveals something about why we create. For a very long time I created to please others, to gain recognition and notoriety.
Because I was trying to please everyone, my work was all over the place. It seemed that every month I was pursuing some new technique, process or fad that I had seen in a photography magazine. And if an image received praise, then I was off in that direction until another compliment took me in another direction.
I was like the wheat in the field, blown to and fro by every wind. In a very real sense my work was not my own, it was imitative, and creatively…well it wasn’t.
Here’s another question that was once posed to me:
If you could choose between having your work sell for thousands of dollars
Having your work in thousands of homes
Which would you choose?
There is no right or wrong answer to these questions, but knowing what you want is essential to defining success for yourself.
For many years I never questioned what success meant to me, I just assumed that it was selling my work for high prices, exhibiting, being represented in big name galleries and publishing books.
It wasn’t until I started achieving some of that success that I realized that it wasn’t very fulfilling. It was a transitory pleasure that felt great in the moment but afterwards left me feeling empty. It was like an addiction; I needed more and more of the spotlight to maintain that feeling and yet it was becoming less and less satisfying.
Eventually I realized this formula wasn’t working for me and I finally stopped to ask myself “what do I want?” and “what will bring me lasting satisfaction” and “what do I consider success?”
Answering those questions has changed everything that I do, it was a life changer that affected much more than my photography.
I wish I would have asked myself these questions earlier in life, but I’m just grateful that I did eventually ask them.
P.S. I’m really enjoying the different thoughts and viewpoints expressed in the comments. They bring to mind four points I’d like to emphasize:
1. My conclusions may not be your conclusions. We all think differently, learn differently and have different approaches to life.
2. We are all at different places on the path and so what may be right for me for where I’m at, may not be right for you for where you’re at.
3. We all have different goals. If you’re earning a living from your art, then to some degree you must please the buyer. I do not earn my living from my art and so I have the luxury to please only myself. But I really do hope that those of you earning a living from your art do pursue personal work that is reserved only for pleasing self!
4. There is nothing wrong with exhibiting, selling, publishing or gallery representation. I do all of those things, but the difference for me now is that this is not my goal but rather a byproduct of following my goal, which is to seek and follow my Vision.
I often tell people not to follow other people’s advice. However, if you follow this advice then you wouldn’t follow my advice…which would mean that you actually should follow my advice. What a conundrum!
Everyone loves to give advice; we all know how others should live their lives even better than we know how to live our own, and it’s no different with our art. Everyone wants to tell us how we should process our images and how we should best achieve success. The advice givers are good people, who are well intentioned and who have had some wonderful life experiences, so why shouldn’t you follow their advice?
Because their vision is different from your vision and their definition of success may be different than yours. Can you imagine what might happen if I was inclined to give you lots of advice and you were inclined to follow it? One day you might wake up to the realization that your images bore a striking resemblance to mine and that you had met every one of the goals that I had set for myself! It’s not that my advice is bad, it simply may not be right for you.
Over the years I’ve come to learn that the only opinion that really matters is your own. Let me illustrate with two examples of some well-intentioned advice that I’ve received:
Never Center the Image!
A few years back my friend and mentor saw my latest image entitled The Angel Gabriel and almost yelled “Never center the image!” I was frequently presenting her with centered images (see above) and she constantly told me that I was breaking one of the rules of photography. I respected her position and experience but the advice just didn’t feel right to me. However since she was the teacher and I the student, I reluctantly re-cropped the image as she had advised… and I just hated it! It literally made me ill to look at it and at that moment I realized that this was my image and my vision and no one could tell me how it should look. It wasn’t that her experience wasn’t good, but it came from her vision and it wasn’t right for me.
It is critically important that you find your own vision and once you do, you’ll find less and less of a need to ask others for advice about your work.
Large Prints, Small Editions:
I have a friend who is attempting to earn his living from his photography. He has chosen to offer large prints and very small editions (as low as 12). He believes this will maximize his profits and thinks my open editions and lower prices is a bad idea. He has frequently tried to convince me that I am making a mistake and that I should follow his example.
The problem with his advice is that he and I have different definitions of success and therefore different goals. I am not trying to earn a living from my art, I wouldn’t be happy in the Gallery environment and I couldn’t stand the thought of printing only 12 images and then never any more! This formula would not work for me, even though it may work for him.
It is so important that you define success for yourself. What do you want from your art? What will bring lasting satisfaction? In five years, what would you like to accomplish with your art? Only once you know the answer to these questions, can you set your own course with confidence.
So listen to others and consider their ideas, but do not follow someone’s advice simply because they have more experience than you, create beautiful images or are successful. When it comes to your vision and what you want from your art, nobody is better qualified than you to make those decisions.
There is tremendous confidence and strength that comes from finding your own vision and knowing what you want from your art. Life becomes so much easier, so much simplier and so much quieter.