Don't go it (entirely) alone
Many of us like to go solo for much of our creative journeys (myself included), but if we're not at least sometimes involving other people in a meaningful way, we're limiting ourselves. Aside from our collaborators, involved people fall mostly into three primary roles: audience members, creative community members, and what I'm going to call growth catalysts. These are all important roles, but for today, let’s focus on that last one.
Getting and using feedback and constructive criticism is essential to the process of growing effectively as a photographer. It's essential to the ongoing development and refinement of technical and creative skills alike. There is only so much development that can happen when operating in a vacuum, no matter how many iterations one works through. In order to really grow and evolve, we need other people to view our work and give us feedback. It’s also very helpful to speak about our ideas, our work, and our process with others. Simply put, engaging in this kind of dialogue is hugely generative (provided we’re dealing with the right people, more on that later).
I’ve seen the difference that this can make from both sides of the conversation, as student and teacher alike, and many of the photographers I know corroborate this.
Until I went off to study at Ohio University, I was mostly self taught in photography. Though I did pretty well and was proud of this, I didn’t realize until later what I was missing by going it alone. I learned primarily from books, first devouring everything at the local public library and then everything I could get my hands on at the bookstore. There were a handful of photography forums I frequented, too, back before photo.net was photo.net and it was still running on Philip Greenspun’s personal site, but I had very little in the form of actual direct instruction. I took a couple workshops with landscape photographer Ian Adams, and they were great, but that was mostly it until university.
I taught myself how to develop film and print, how to use a view camera, and how to use the Zone System. My technique wasn't airtight by any means, but I was doing quite well with technical matters in general. The artistic/creative side was slower to come along, though, because I was mostly working in a vacuum. I had my friends and family to give me positive commentary and to encourage me, but very little constructive criticism of the sort that could help me improve more effectively. I had nobody to call me on my bullshit, either, for the first four years I was working on this stuff.
However, in university I had some fantastic professors, particularly in the School of Visual Communication, and one of the best things I got from studying under them was true constructive criticism. If my transparency wasn’t sharp, my print too dark, my composition weak, or if I had been off my game and lazily recycled a theme from a previous assignment, they called me on it.
This, more than anything else, is what helped me to rapidly progress during my time at OU. When I started the program, I was proud of the fact that I was basically self taught, but by the time I graduated, I could plainly see the value in working other people into my process.
We all need encouragement and validation, but most of us would do well to get more critical feedback. This is true at every stage of the photographic journey. It was true for me at the very beginning and it's just as true for me now after 22+ years of making images. Sometimes the truth hurts, but still we need the truth. And if the criticism is truly constructive, we feel better because we learn to see the opportunity for growth and improvement contained in every problem. It is through the repetition of this process that growth happens. Sure, part of the process is identifying and building upon the good things, the things that are working well, and it’s easy to focus on that most of all because it’s nice. It feels good to focus on those good things. The problem is that this needs to be balanced with criticism. We also need to identify and address the things that aren’t working or that could be done better, the things that we often end up ignoring because it seems easier and more pleasant to look the other way than to acknowledge them and do something about them.
Humans are naturally inclined to take the ostrich approach with these things. Problems? What problems? But focusing on only the positives while ignoring the negatives in your art practice is like upgrading the steering wheel and seats in your car when the engine is only running on one cylinder and two of your tires are flat. If you really want to improve performance, you’ve got to tend to what’s really holding you back. That could be any number of things, but no matter what, it’s going to be easier to identify and tend to them if there’s someone we trust to give us a balanced outside view and hold us to a higher standard.
In my experience as a photographer, student, and educator, we do best when we have the right person or people on hand to give us feedback and help us maintain a useful perspective on things. And they do need to be the right people. As constructive as it can be to involve the right people, it can be equally destructive to involve the wrong people. The world is unfortunately full of individuals who will vigorously belittle you and attack your work simply because they feel like it. These are toxic people who thrive on being shitty. Avoid them at all costs. These are not the same people who are willing to give you the hard truth or some tough love when needed. Those people are important and valuable. No, I’m talking about people who are straight up abusive. Avoid them, cut them out of your life, do not engage.
Toxic people are the walking, talking reasons why the internet in particular is a potentially hazardous place for fostering creative growth. It can be a great place, but you’ve got to be careful. There are a million web sites, discussion forums, facebook groups, etc oriented toward some aspect of photography or another. Choose yours wisely and be prepared to move on if it turns counterproductive. Beware trolls, as well as the trap of empty flattery and unearned praise. Look for communities that are supportive, honest in their praise, constructive in their criticism, and where the discussions are based more on legitimate consideration than simply reaction.
If you have the opportunity, I recommend more direct means of coaching and critique. Wherever you live in the world, chances are there are some local classes or clubs you can get involved in. Apply to these the same expectations of civility and constructiveness that you would any online forum, though in my experience they are less likely to be toxic, as humans simply have a harder time being shitty to others when they’re face to face (anonymity makes monsters of us).
Another option is to work with a personal teacher or coach, either in person or remotely over the internet using email, Skype, etc. In many cases, this is the best, most constructive option, because it can be completely customized to your needs and objectives. You can get coaching on a particular project, to address a particular problem or difficulty, in the form of a course similar to an independent study at university, or in a general, ongoing way for a period of months or even years.
This is something I can provide, and I will be launching some coaching options in the near future, but my point here today is not sales, it’s to address the topic of involving others for the sake of catalyzing growth in general.
Whatever stage you’re in with your photography, I encourage you to involve others in your journey to both accelerate and deepen your growth. We always have room to improve, and it’s better not to go it alone. Not entirely, anyway.