When we're thinking about our photography, it's like we have a kitten sitting on our shoulders, saying to us:
That's a great picture.
The kitten can become a gremlin, however, and can say:
Your photography sucks.
The constant use of the judgment parts of our brains can deactivate the creative parts.
We can become too self-critical.
We can hit the Hierarchy-of-Dissatisfaction wall.
Our creative wings weaken, and we spiral down into courtroom dramas about the achievement of perfection, how we rate compared to other photographers, and the like.
We need to stop thinking so much about our photography, at times.
This can be hard.
Try the following until some of the self-criticism diminishes.
Susan Shaw said:
Think of film as being like junk food—it's like a bowl of popcorn—shoot—shoot.
You can turn off judgment by setting goals that are not about excellence.
Rather, have quantity goals, such as doing a certain number of photographs, during a certain time span.
David Bayles and Ted Orland, in their book, Art & Fear: Observations on the Perils (and Rewards) of Artmaking, describe how a pottery teacher divided a class into two groups: quantity-oriented potters and quality-oriented potters.1
To get an A:
• The quality-makers were asked to make a single, perfect, pot.
• The quantity-makers were asked to create as much work as possible.
You know where this is heading.
The quantity group produced the highest quality pottery.
While the quality group was thinking, parsing out what perfection was, the quality group was doing.
Here's a quantity goal to emulate.
When street photographer Garry Winogrand died, he left behind 2,500 rolls of exposed but undeveloped film, and 6,500 developed rolls without contact sheets.2
Use the romance, the distraction, of novelty.
Try something new.
Doing quantity, or using novelty, both encourage chance and luck.
Merce Cunningham, the choreographer, creates dances with the flip of a coin at each decision point.
John Cage, the composer, used chance as well.
James Agee wrote:
Many people, even some good photographers, talk of the "luck" of photography, as if that were a disparagement.
And it is true that luck is constantly at work.
It is one of the cardinal creative forces in the universe, one which a photographer has unique equipment for collaborating with.3
Even Edward Weston, a proponent of pre-visualizing the final print before he pressed the shutter release, acknowledged the contribution of chance to his work.
I say that chance enters into all branches of art: a chance word or phrase starts a trend of thought in a writer, a chance sound may bring new melody to a musician, a chance combination of lines, new composition to a painter.
I take advantage of chance—which in reality not chance—by being ready , attuned to one's surroundings—and grasp my opportunity in a way which no other medium can equal in spontaneity, while the impulse is fresh, the excitement strong.4
Another detour from judgment is to use a simpler camera.
Your camera can become identified with the attainment of excellence.
Use a toy camera, get pinhole camera kit, see if your grandmother's camera works, or ?
BTW, photographers often find that they take fewer and fewer family pictures, and the like.
Why, if the light isn't good, why take the photograph?
Do take the photograph.
You want to get the photograph of your nephew sticking a French fry up his nose, even if the light is boring.
Sometimes, photographers get a point-and-shoot camera, along with their "big" camera.
The point-and-shoot camera doesn't have the aura of excellence of their more expensive cameras.
. . . at the same time.
When one project becomes aggravating/stilted/frustrating, you can shift to another, fresh, project.
Delay the evaluation of your efforts.
Your judgment may be more helpful and accurate.
Photography editor Mason Resnick took a workshop with the Garry Winogrand:
He [Garry Winogrand] never developed film right after shooting it.
He deliberately waited a year or two, so he would have virtually no memory of the act of taking an individual photograph.
This, he claimed made it easier for him to approach his contact sheets more critically.
"If I was in a good mood when I was shooting one day, then developed the film right away," he told us, I might choose a picture because I remember how good I felt when I took it, not necessarily because it was a great shot.
You make better choices if you approach your contact sheets cold, separating the editing from the picture taking as much as possible.5
While delaying looking at your work for a year or two is not for everyone, some delay can be beneficial.
1 (2001) Image Continuum Press.
2 Grundberg, A. (1990). Crisis of the real: Writings on photography, 1974-1989. New York: Aperture.
3 Agee, J. (Essay). (1965). A way of seeing: Photographs of Harlem, by Helen Levitt, New York: Viking.
4 Newhall, N. (Ed.). (2 vol., 1961–66). The daybooks of Edward Weston. Rochester, NY: George Eastman House. Reprinted in Goldberg, V. (1981). Photography in print: Essays from 1816 to present. New York: Simon and Schuster.