Finding Deeper Meaning in Photography

Another question I’m frequently asked is about how to find deeper meaning in photography, specifically in a hobbyist’s body of work, which usually consist mostly of snapshots and a few attempts at "big projects."

First, I think it’s great we’re even asking that question. Most hobbies gloss over such introspection and chalk it all up to “a fun way to pass the time.”

Second, never consider snapshots a waste of time. In fact, they’re the king of all photographs.

Third, the deeper meaning lies in the appreciation of the moment when you’re photographing, not your past body of work. Worries about a body of work are for professionals. Being a professional is about a life spent working for the wants and needs of the market, not of one’s self.

I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with being a professional photographer, but it's an entirely different approach to art and to life. We keep blurring the lines and expecting hobbyists to act and buy like professionals.  That’s destructive to mental health and bank accounts.

Just like the folks at Field Notes keep saying, “I’m not writing it down to remember it later, I’m writing it down to remember it now.” We’re photographing for now, not later.

Whatever inhibits the appreciation of the moment must be abandoned, even if that means downgrading your gear or leaving your camera at home. Only use what helps you enjoy the present, because that’s all we’ve got.

The Biggest Regret of My Career

Last week, I attempted to explain why it’s not always a great idea to put your work out there in any old form towards the goal of “being noticed.” Of course, this was written from my usual pro-hobbyist bias, as the great majority of my readers are hobbyist photographers or writers.

This week, I’ll explain why this advice breaks down a bit (but not entirely) for professionals.

The greatest regret I have in my career is that what has appeared in my blog or in my books is the tip of an enormous iceberg of professional writing the public will never see. I write, edit and/or publish the equivalent of a small book every week to an intranet only visible to the employees of a large corporation.

I take no less pride in the work. It has my name on it and reputation matters. But, since it never sees the public, it does not add to my “body of work” and that’s what really hurts. It’s like it never happened.

If you let your audience in on how you create what you create, you will build a bigger, better audience. Audience matters more than anything to your career. With a large enough audience, you can dictate the terms of your career entirely. With no audience, you hold no leverage. Most of us fall somewhere in the vast middle. Where you fall usually depends on your body of work and how much you've shown.

I still believe a portfolio or gallery link is an awful way, even for a professional, to build that audience. But, putting your work out there is essential to building an audience. Putting your work out there in new creative ways, using narratives, is a better way to go about doing it.

How?

Surprise us. 

Are You a Good Photographer?

The second most frequently asked question I get is something along the lines of “can you give me your honest opinion of my work?” followed by a link to a portfolio.

I usually tell the person that my opinion doesn’t mean anything.

I know the majority of my readers are not professionals, and I know that this question is really about being validated as a “good” photographer. But, it makes me think that the first step in becoming better at photography is really about defining what you believe a “good" photographer is.

For me, it means I produce images, mostly of family and friends, that I’m happy with. I don’t need an outside observer to tell me whether the images are technically perfect or not. They’re not. But, that’s my goal. In fact, imperfection is more in line with my goal.

For those asking the question, I think their goal is primarily to be noticed.

Being noticed makes sense if you’re a professional (or just a hobbyist who values being noticed over all other things), but it doesn’t make much sense if it’s not a means to your goals.

If your goal is simply to be noticed, you can make the most repulsive photos anyone has ever seen. That would get you noticed.

If your goal is to earn the respect of those in the field you respect, don’t be surprised when they view your work through the lens of what their clients have historically wanted.

If your goal is to make money, the only critique that matters is the amount your customers are paying. 

If you figure out your goal and it still includes being noticed or respected, I’m not sure a link to your website is the way to present yourself for critique. The web is too anonymous and ubiquitous. Your viewer will have no idea why you made the images or why you made them the way you did. Plus, they’ll bring their own biases about what worked in their little world and taint the critique further.

If you live anywhere near a city, there will be photo clubs and classes that are much better suited to critiquing your work. If it really matters to you for the outside world to consider you a “good” photographer, for business or personal reasons, it won’t kill you to spare a few hours a week to join these groups and do a deep dive reflecting on your work. Get to know your critics. Understand their point of view and ask questions.

Then, as always, experiment.

The depth of the critique is what matters. You get a far more honest and in-depth critique in person, with some who understands your goals as a photographer.

But first, you must understand your goals as a photographer. That will dictate whether any of this matters at all to you. If it doesn't, congratulations. You just freed up a huge chunk of your life to shoot more.

Get Excited About Photography Again

This is the first in a series of articles where I respond to the most frequently asked questions or comments I received when I asked “How can I help you?” a few weeks ago in the newsletter. Feel free to respond right now with your own comments.

The most frequent comment I hear among my photography readers is that they feel like they’re in a rut. They’re out of ideas or just not excited about their work anymore.

I can’t give you a catch-all cure, but I can tell you what’s worked for me and I believe it can be applied to any creative work.

Take away something.

You’re too comfortable. That’s the whole point behind A Lesser Photographer. The more I took away from my equipment, the more my brain had to take over. And my brain liked it. It got creative.

It’s very easy to become bored if your walking down the same well-paved path for 30 years. Throw a few boulders in the path and change the scenery. Make the journey more interesting.

Try analog. Film isn’t enough constraint? Try an instant camera. That isn’t enough? Try a pinhole camera. The point is, there’s a world of interesting constraints out there that you haven’t tried. Where does your brain take over from the equipment? It's worth testing.

Productize your photography.

I heard from several photographers who weren’t happy about their websites. In particular, they weren’t happy about their galleries and/or portfolios.

First, you should ask yourself if you need a portfolio. Chances are, you don’t.

Second, realize you’re not offering anything new or unique for viewers. You may have some great work displayed, but so do thousands of others. What can you do to set your work apart? Why should I follow you in the future?

A simple path that solves a lot of these problems is to make your work into actual products.

What kind of products can you make uniquely personal?

I recommend books, because a book has a personality all its own. The possibilities of customization for a book are limitless. On demand books are not as expensive to produce as most other photography products, while offering the maker a healthy margin.

Visitors would much rather follow a photographer hyping his next book (on a new topic) than his same portfolio page over and over.

By only displaying images, you’re putting yourself in competition (for attention or money) with tens of millions of other image makers. By making a product, you’re cutting down that competition to tens of thousands. It’s a much greater chance you’ll capture the attention of the viewer.

So, start thinking what would make a great book (or product of any kind). That’s your inspiration for your next project.

Projectize your photography.

Projects have a beginning and an end. Sounds nice, doesn’t it? Photography can seem like one endless endeavor sometimes. We cling to non-stop post processing, when we should be out creating new work.

It's also tempting to participate in drive-by photography: to aimlessly shoot in places we're familiar with. Creating projects means you're seeking a story, not a magical, unexpected shot. You have a goal.

Making projects out of photography (combined with creating products) means we can end work on some images. What a relief. Now, your mind has more space for new project ideas.

Inspiration is scheduled.

Inspiration doesn’t just come to you. There is no muse. It’s something you work at. It needs time and attention. Good ideas spring from lots of ideas.

Have you scheduled enough time to think about your ideas, projects and products? Have you scheduled the time to do the work? Do you have the approval of family to devote yourself fully to your work during that given time?

It’s no wonder there’s an inspiration crisis. It’s a demanding force that controls how we approach our work, yet we never show it the respect it deserves.

Set aside the time. Do the work. Work is inspiration.

What Can I Do For You?

This is the question I posed to my newsletter readers this week. I wasn't trying to be clever or pulling some marketing trick. I really wanted to know how I can improve things for my readers.

The response was a flood of email, which I'm incredibly grateful to have.

Some responses involved money and/or Leicas.

Some asked about going pro (not really my specialty).

Most wanted nothing but to say hi.

Some wanted more photography content, others wanted more miscellaneous content, because they've discovered other blogs and artists this way.

About 75% of those with content or formatting suggestions wanted me to keep doing exactly what I'm doing. 25% wanted me to go back to doing essays and publishing fewer links or quotes. I understand both sides and I'm just do whatever's comfortable for the moment. That's what a personal site/newsletter is all about.

I'll continue to read and respond to these throughout the week. I really recommend you do this with your readers/viewers/customers. No survey. No specifics. Just take the temperature of the room. It helps.

When Quantity Produces Quality

From Further, the wonderful personal newsletter of Brian Clark:

"Psychologist Dean Simonton’s work focuses on creative productivity. His studies reveal that highly creative individuals don’t necessarily produce better ideas over all. They do, however, come up with more ideas."
"Simonton has also found that highly creative people don’t even know which of their ideas are the great ones. You’ve got to produce a lot of ideas and put them out there to discover which ones resonate."

That should be the idea behind every personal blog or newsletter. This is the place to see what resonates with your audience and yourself. This is the place for experimenting.

Everything is OK

"Everything is OK in the end. If it's not OK, then it's not the end." - Anonymous