January 6, 2011

To Thine Own Self Be True

A few blog entries ago I asked the question “What is success to you?”  The answers were quite varied because each of us are quite varied and have different reasons for pursuing our art.  For some, success means making money, for others it’s about the recognition that comes from getting into a gallery or being published, and for others success is all about personal fulfillment.

For much of my photographic life I assumed that I knew what “success” meant; it was defined by the world as limited editions, high prices, big name galleries and being published.  But as I returned to photography and worked hard to achieve these, I noticed that the “standard definition” wasn’t working for me.  Achieving those things didn’t bring the satisfaction I thought they would and I would find myself jealous of others successes and would change course to mimic what they were doing.

A turning point came when Brooks Jensen posed a very simple question to me.  He asked that when I looked back at my accomplishments, would I prefer to have my work in big name galleries, with limited editions with high price tags, or would I prefer to to have my work sell for affordable prices and be in thousands of homes?  He emphasized there was no right or wrong answer, there was only what I wanted.

This caused me to reexamine my motives; why do I pursue photography and what do I want to get from it?  It took some time to get past those standard definitions of success that I had lived with for so long, but I began to understand that there is a difference between how the world defines success and what actually brings me satisfaction.

This makes me think of the advice that Polonius, from Shakespeare’s Hamlet, gave to his son:

This above all: to thine own self be true, And it must follow, as the night the day, Thou canst not then be false to any man. Farewell, my blessing season this in thee!

To thine own self be true, such a very simple concept and yet a lesson that can be so elusive!  How many times have I sought to win accolades from others about my art when there is only one person’s opinion that really matters; mine.  Please don’t get me wrong, I’m not against accolades, or being published, or exhibiting…I’m just against believing that these achievements are a substitute for pleasing ourselves first.

I’ve just recently changed the Resume page on my website.  Instead of listing my “accomplishments” as is traditional, I have replaced them with the following:

My art has appeared in hundreds of exhibitions, numerous publications and has received many awards.  And yet my resume does not list those accomplishments, why?
In the past I’ve considered those accolades as the evidence of my success, but I now think differently.  My success is no longer measured by the length of my resume, but rather by how I feel about the art that I create.  While I do enjoy exhibiting, seeing my work published and meeting people who appreciate my art, this is an extra benefit of creating, but this is not success itself.

I believe that the best success is achieved internally, not externally.

I don’t know if I’ve got it exactly right now, if my priorities are perfectly straight and my vision is crystal clear, because it’s a journey.  But I do feel that I’m heading in the right direction.

What is your definition of success?  To thine own self be true!

18 thoughts on “To Thine Own Self Be True

  1. Cole
    I also came across that question from Brooks Jensen in Lens Work. It has colored my thinking a lot. When I see crazy pricing for prints in galleries I think about it a lot more. My metaphor for this is Bob Dylan. What if I had to pay $10,000 for Blood on the Tracks? I gladly pay $15 for it, but I could not pay an exclusive price. Is a print more expensive to lovingly produce than a CD? Even if the answer is yes, my answer to the question of value falls in the camp of sell lots for less and get the art out there. I would love to know I had sold a thousand prints for $100 than 10 prints for $10,000. great post.

  2. Ahhh Cole, I think you are definitely on a more enriching road by asking these questions of yourself. Sometimes the most enriching road doesn’t look to be the most glamorous. Thank goodness for the road less traveled and the travelers willing to explore beyond the well accepted! I offer that you open up your question even more and ask if your definition of success even involves money and the “distribution” of your art. If you already had money and recognition, what would your photography provide you under those circumstances? Would your passion still inhabit your photography? You may find something very interesting discoveries in such an exploration.

  3. After a certain point, success is an internal feeling of well being, non quantifiable.
    Although, there is a sense of unrest and searching, which has always permeated my life as a professional jazz artist, professional magician (seriously), and currently as a photographer, my overriding feeling is of success. Based on what? Spiritual and financial fulfillment. A good standing among my peers. Good reputation. General feeling of well being and the ability to be anywhere I want at any given time. Freedom, and total creative freedom. Success to me, is also having ideas published in book form and creating instructional DVDs. Our successful workshop company is very important to me. The over arching activity that gives me the greatest feeling of success is being able to teach aspiring photographers in many venues. Being able to share knowledge with others is fulfilling and adds to my feeling of success. It’s also equally important to know what is not success to an individual so that one can move away from an undesirable situation, hopefully to a more cogent path. It is imperative to me to constantly be moving forward to the latest technology. The more I learn and am able to articulate these new ideas as an instructor and can share with workshop clients and others, the greater the feeling of success I have. It’s important to realize that periods of self doubt are imperative in the growth process. Continuing to grow as a photographer is the crux of my spiritual feeling of success. Being able to not worry about money as much as I used to is imperative to my feeling of freedom, therefore my internal feeling of success.

  4. You’ve hit on the exact definition of happiness; maybe not the dictionary definition, but a truer one. Happiness is not measured against someone else, but, as you say, internally. I’d not thought of success that way, but it must be so, since success is usually considered a measure of happiness.

    Being an engineer, setting goals, and measuring against external milestones has always been very very easy. I’m going to have to cogitate on this.

    Thank you for expressing it, the rest is up to me.

  5. Someone once asked me what photography “did” for me … after only a little while I replied “it soothes my soul” … that’s enough methinks! The rest is gravy!

  6. Ah Cole you brightened and enlightened my day!

    By most standards my photographic work has been a total failure. By my own standards I have succeeded. A success unbound to yesterday’s work. Tomorrow I will be even more successful.

    My photography is not what I sell or don’t sell. Rather it’s those special moments, a communion with the subject, the surroundings, the deep emotional connections. Most of my favorite images evoke not what is on paper but rather the memories of the moment. As you clearly stated it’s achieved internally.

    Thanks again Cole!

    PS. I had been struggling with Brooks’s theory on editions and pricing. I have made peace with it.

  7. Most people do all the others. Successful people do before them….However, sometimes the first sign of success is sometimes also the latest sign of modesty.
    I wish you all a good light

  8. The only thing that matters to me is whether there is something about an image that I ‘connect’ with on some level. I cannot describe what that means other than to say that I definitely know it when it happens. Sometimes I saw it consciously when I made the image…sometimes it only comes as I work on an image in the darkroom. There are two images I took 30 years ago with a film camera…all I had was an old print but somehow I felt there was something there and after 3 years of working on them on and off, this past month they finally blossomed and I saw in front of me what I must have been looking for all along without knowing. My darkroom skills finally progressed to the point where I could create the image that I sensed was there. One of the most amazing photographic experiences for me to date…very m uch like watching a traditional print image emerge in the developer tray.

    I do struggle with whether or not to exhibit my work, fearing that responses positive or negative might influence the images I seek to create. Right now I feel completely free.

  9. The Catch-22 for some of us anyway is that we don’t believe it’s not sales of high-priced prints, being in galleries, exhibits etc. that we need to make us happy with our art. We have to have that first before we realize that it is not what’s most important. It’s kind of like money that way.

  10. Good thinking Cole! This is food for thought. Although I have to say that being happy with my own art occurs not very often. As Ansel Adams said once : Twelve significant photographs in any one year is a good crop (Ansel Adams). In my case (not novice in photography but still learning a lot) finding good results is hard working (as you said once -> gold paning)

    Thanks for sahring your thoughts!

  11. The phrase that rings true and I have posted in my office is one that Aryan Chapelle’s Father told him. “Photograph what moves you and you will move others.” Says it all.

  12. Your words, your wisdom comes at such a grand time when I need to decide just what I am doing with my photography. It does come down to self and confidence and fulfillment. That feeling of so being touched when viewing both with camera and heart cannot be replaced by any price. And such a joy when viewing others work should not ever go away either.

  13. A few blogs ago you asked for a definition of personal success. This new blog caused me to review what I said then and see if I still “believed” it. Yup… I do. But I now think the 3 points I made can be summarized in 3 single, meaningful words for me… satisfaction, opportunity and reward.

    I had described success with my art as a pretty simple set of conditions:

    1) Creating increasingly meaningful and compelling photographs that please me… (satisfaction)

    2) Sharing my photographs in important public venues and on-line sites… (opportunity)

    3) Getting feedback from people that suggests that my artwork “speaks to them”… (reward)

    That’s it for me. The 1st point is a very personal sense of “satisfaction.” It happens when I finish post-processing an image and it says what I wanted to express. I know then that I wil want to look at it again and again… and I’m willing to share it publically.

    The 2nd point is about my having an “opportunity” to share what I feel about the image and allow others to find their own meaning.

    And the 3rd point is about the sense of “reward” I get when someone explores the image with a sense of concentration, possibly comes back to it again and, best of all, decides it means something to them too.

    Thanks for getting me to revisit my thoughts.


  14. Thank you for this post, Cole. It is a very important fundamental question. I agree with Hagen that it overlaps with the definition of happiness. Your advice is so valuable because it brings us back to what’s primary, addresses a basic question. Inner freedom and Stoic happiness in disaster may be real for some. But for most of us our social nature is thirsty for feedback and recognition. One can easily become bitter when having to rely upon his own judgement alone. It is a different thing to measure your success in inner satisfaction when you are unknown or when you are already established and have name recognition. Art has much to do with symbolic values. The same image could be evaluated very differently by public if it is believed to come from a famous – or simply professional – artist or from some amateur. However, in the end it will always come back to the issue of being true to your calling.

  15. Yes, it is interesting how other opinions affect our own. I think that my images should be judged on their own merit, and not by the length of my resume or by the opinion of “important” people.

    More to come on this topic!


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