Thursday, 17 January 2013

Get in the Queue

Sometimes, some interesting stuff on a blog happens in the comments, but subsequently gets overlooked.  I was revisiting a post from a couple of years ago, and saw that I had made a surprisingly full response to the question, "What makes someone a photographer?"

Now, I'd be the first to admit that I do not have the key to success dangling from my keyring, unless it's that funny little padlock key I seem to have been carrying around most of my adult life.  (Anyone know where the door to success is?  We should talk).  But blogging is about opinions, not expertise, so here is that response again, slightly updated:

It's the same as writing. A lot of people want reassurance that they are "really" writers before they commit, but in the end "a writer is a person who writes". Whether someone is a good or a bad writer is a different matter.

So, "a photographer is a person who photographs" -- that is, someone who uses a camera every day or most days, simply because they have a hunger to see what the world looks like when it has been photographed by them.

By that definition I have been a photographer since about 1985, though I've used a camera since I was about seven. It's only in the past few years, however, that anyone has paid any attention to what I do, although I did put on some solo exhibitions and showed work in open submission shows before that.

If my work is of any interest, that is not because I am an intrinsically interesting person, or a "natural" artist, but primarily because I have taken the trouble to acquaint myself with what has already been made and has been highly-rated in my chosen medium, and -- above all -- have a high level of "reflexive self-criticism". Truly creative people will have those last two traits dialled up to 11.  I'm a 7, I'd guess.

That "reflexive self criticism" is the key. You have to have (or learn to have) that restless urge to improve, coupled with a truly ruthless eye for why your work is not as good as it could be.

Sustaining a high level of commitment over decades is what, eventually, makes the difference. It's like writing those first three novels that never get published.  It's that famous, all-important "10,000 hours".

Not much to argue with there.  Basic common sense.  The only things I'd add now are these:

You have to be your own severest critic, and you have to be prepared to fail.  Face it: you may be the only serious critic you ever have.  It takes courage (and, dare I say, a special kind of love) to tell another person their work isn't as good as they hoped it was.  It really isn't wise or fair to trust anyone's judgement other than your own.  If you're running the risk of failure, let it be on your own terms.

People talk up self-belief as the key to achievement ("follow your dream!"), but self-belief is merely the ticket-price of creativity.  Clearly, if you lack belief in your own ability you're wasting everyone's time.  Consider the thousands of people out there craving approval, all of whom seem to be waiting for permission just to start something (in extreme cases, it seems, even starting their own life).

In the end, the only advice worth having that I've ever heard goes like this:

"Get over yourself, and get on with it!  Don't let yourself off the hook -- you know you can do better than that!  Otherwise, please just shut up about it.  Nobody cares whether or not you make anything.  Really.  We don't care.  David Bowie (David Bowie!) was silent for a decade and we barely noticed.  But if and when you do make something, we'll make up our own minds whether we like it or not.  So it had better be good.  Have you seen how much good stuff there is out there?  So get to work, and when you're ready get in the queue!"

Harsh advice, but solid gold.  That'll be £500, please.  The queue's over there.  Good luck!


eeyorn said...

Another related topic is for you to define for yourself what YOUR definition of success is.......then keep with your vision. While all the time remaining open to changing that vision.

Zouk Delors said...

Must have been someone English who suggested a queue! The philosophy clashes somewhat with your thoughts on success in your post, "Show Biz Kids", non? Can I have my £500 back, please?

The first step to failure may be thinking about failure. "Don't look down, if you want to keep on flying!" (B.B.King).

Zouk Delors said...

And, of course "rispec" to whichever of Will Jennings or Joe Sample actually penned the particular line "Better not [sic] look down" for B.B. King to proclaim.

Mike C. said...


"The philosophy clashes somewhat with your thoughts on success in your post, "Show Biz Kids", non? Can I have my £500 back, please?"

Not really. There's a world of difference between honest aspiration and manipulative egomania. It's saying "just do it" rather than "agonise over it".

As Miles Davis said, "Don't fear mistakes. There are none. There are also no refunds".


Zouk Delors said...

And as we all know, the more you pay for it (whether in blood, sweat, or hard, cold cash), the more you value it.

Kent Wiley said...

Thanks for that final paragraph, Mike. Since it's not attributed, I'm assuming it's an amalgam of the essence of what others might have said.

Marching orders indeed: "Get over yourself. Get to work. Get in the queue."

Anonymous said...

Fail. Fail better.

© Samuel Beckett


Dave Leeke said...

I think you have opened a (very interesting) can of worms here. I'm going to think this through quite seriously and maybe blog about it.

To be perfectly honest, self criticism and your comment about "It takes courage (and, dare I say, a special kind of love) to tell another person their work isn't as good as they hoped it was" was definitely my experience. But there was no "special kind of love". I found that many contemporaries were too concerned about competition (cf The Eagle's "Desparado") and, so, were dismissive of any other vague talent around.

However, I always found slightly older (and dare I say it, more mature?)fellow travellers were usually much more supportive.

Messrs BC and RF were always incredibly supportive - to the point that I was taken aback standing in Ronnie Scott's listening to one of RF's bands playing a song that I had written in the early 1980s.

The comments from the past from less enthusiastic fellow travellers merely added more doubt to one's own abilities and, most likely, destroyed a possible career path.

Mike C. said...


It's an amalgam of the various "takeaways" I've had from various sources, not least an uncompromising photographer-teacher called Thomas Joshua Cooper. I've seen him make people cry in a workshop with the brightness of the light he shone on the way their work was letting them down.


I think you may not be hearing the essential harshness of this message: if that Ronnie Scott's experience didn't immediately kick off an album's worth of songs, was it ever really going to happen? As I say, "nobody cares if you do or you don't".


Dave Leeke said...

Oh no, I never had enough self-belief any way! But the comment was more from the train of thought your original post set in motion. I'll go away and think about it . . .

Dave Leeke said...

. . . but just before I do, Kevin Bacon seems to want to support you. He is quoted today in The Observer as saying:

"Part of being a man is learning to take responsibility for your successes, and for your failures. You can't go blaming others, or being jealous. Seeing somebody else's successes as your failure is a cancerous way to live."

I'm off . . .

Mike C. said...


Well, substitute "adult" for "man" and I'd go along with that.