As I write this I am sitting in my favorite leather chair in my favorite living room in my favorite house in my favorite state of slight inebriation. While all that is certainly more fascinating to me then it is to you I am also at this very moment watching the TV program American Idol. (Gasp!)
Now what is a fine cultured sophisticated person like myself doing watching this swill? Because in my heart of hearts I am a pig who relishes wallowing in society’s slop. There I said it. Live with it.
What I find most astonishing about this program is the fact that most of the participants have no idea what they actually sound like when they sing. It is almost universal that some horrendous singer who is way off key and very off rhythm and who is always very sincere and genuine is also completely unaware of their talent level.
When I sang (in another life I actually once shared a microphone on stage with Pete Seeger but I will save that scary story for another time) I knew on my very best nights my voice was usually more on key than off key but it was a tenuous balance. I could hear my weak voice and my tonal struggles and I knew to play my instruments louder when the balance tipped. I mean you can only squeeze a cat for so long before you have to crank up the radio.
But these kids on American Idol apparently have no idea how bad they sound. What, has someone disconnected their ears? And you know these wannabes have recorded themselves so they have had the chance to actually listen to themselves when they are not wailing. Yet still, when asked how they did after just waking the dead, they all respond “I did great! I can’t believe I didn’t get picked!” This is then followed by the expected tears and histrionics and finally the much appreciated shot of them walking out the door.
What does this possibly have to do with photography? Well the same thing happens in my workshops during critiques. Time after time I am shown a picture and it is described to me in no uncertain terms that it is close to criminal that this picture has not graced the cover of every magazine in the world. Alternatively, I will show a picture of mine and a participant will say, ”I have a picture almost exactly like that.” When I eventually see my picture’s ‘twin’ it is never even close to my picture (not being close is my polite way of saying the ‘twin’ is dreadful).
I have even gone so far as to put the two images together to allow a direct comparison and still the glaring differences are not recognized. I am not talking about small differences. I am talking about early morning light versus noon light or a full frame portrait versus a speck portrait. Yet still, when presented with the differences, most still respond “I did great. I can’t believe I didn’t get published.” This is then followed by the expected tears and histrionics and finally the much appreciated view of them walking out the door.
What is going on? Here are the possibilities: a) maybe my picture is actually as bad as their picture but I don’t see it. b) maybe their picture is as good as mine but I refuse to see it or c) their picture really is as bad as I thought but they have so much emotion and ego tied up with the image it completely clouds their judgment.
I am going to have to discount a & b above as intriguing as they might be because I get independent confirmation from my co-teachers that the ‘twins’ really are as bad as I think. So that leaves excessive emotion and ego involvement as the answer. What an amazing organ the brain is to be able to shade reality so effectively.
So what? you ask. Glad you did. One way to look at this phenomenon is that unless you are able to critically evaluate your work you will never be able to improve as a photographer. If you think your work is already good and you don’t hear helpful suggestions there is very little chance of you ever getting any better. You are living a photography life of delusion that when tested it can only lead to disappointment.
Don’t think that I am above this. I remember being with Art Wolfe on South Georgia Island photographing hordes of king penguins. After we got back to the boat I regaled him with this one scene I had found and thoroughly shot and how magnificent it was and how it would surely lead to vast riches. I remember that he very kindly replied that he had once shot a similar scene and had never been able to do much with it. He was right; I haven’t been able to do much with it despite my best efforts. I was so thrilled to being on South Georgia Island in the company on thousands of king penguins that my emotions had clouded my self-evaluative abilities.
I think this phenomenon applies to anything you shoot for the first time that you much anticipate. You get so involved in the moment that it is impossible to truly evaluate how good the situation is. And the effect lingers with the image because every time you see that picture the same flood of emotions overwhelms you and again clouds your judgment. Then it is only a matter of time before we get the tears, histrionics and walking out the door.
On the other hand, who cares if someone is blissfully ignorant? I have wallowed in blissful ignorance almost my entire life and happily so. Delusion is not just a river in England. Delusion can be a good thing, just ask any crazed Republican. If the photographer is happy, even thrilled, who am I to tell them they shouldn’t be? I always say the purpose of photography is to enjoy yourself. Photography is supposed to be fun. If fun comes on the gossamer wings of delusion so be it.
I will say though that one of the important traits of successful pro photographers is their ability to self-critique their work. It is sometimes very difficult to separate emotion and ego from the process but to be successful it is absolutely necessary. It is a learned, purposeful technique that gets easier with time but it is never automatic. Remember, the brain is a pretty amazing organ.
Maybe I should get a panel of judges and broadcast my critiques on TV in prime time. Wouldn’t that be something! I will let you figure out who should be Simon. I am going to be the annoying host, Ryan Seacrest. Gotta go now, I need a whole new wardrobe and buckets more mousse in my hair. Middleton out.