I was chatting with another photographer recently and the subject of photographer ego came up. He said he’d upset a colleague (documentary, if my memory is correct) by asserting that *all* photographers have an ego, no matter how humble they consider themselves to be. I’m inclined to agree with him and think that ego is fundamental to what propels us to improve what we do. However, is it that cut and dry? It got me thinking.
We are all familiar with the concept of producing work for one’s own consumption, but what drives us to continually improve? Isn’t this largely driven by external influences, such as seeing other people’s work and therefore seeing our own in a relative light? Other people’s amazing work (whether captures or prints) often catalyses a desire for improvement. We tend to do this even if we consider ourselves to be the only customer we care about. What explanation is there other than ego? If we truly are the only customer, what is it about a superb image of our own making that satisfies us so deeply? It can’t be the power of expression, because we took the shot and arguably don’t need to communicate with ourselves. We know the intent. We know the vision and can therefore skip right past any deficiencies in the image itself. But we don’t skip along. It tends to bother us.
The brief discussion about ego came back to me while trying to clear my new office from the junk that is constantly emerging from our home moving boxes. I found some old print boxes. I knew that some of the prints contained therein were terrible. And they were – so much so that I couldn’t pluck up the courage to show them here on TPF! In fact, they were considerably more awful than the last time I laid eyes upon them. After the initial horror that I was that bad at shooting/printing ‘back then’, I realised I must have once thought they were worth retaining. That I was able to throw them out without a second thought this time around suggests I’ve improved… enough to feel that those prints no longer have a place in my archives.
Do you find yourself in the same pattern? Do you hold onto images that seem a little weak but OK at the time (or at least somehow relevant) and then eventually get to the point when you feel OK about throwing them out, or do you keep everything? If the advancing front edge of our abilities tends to advance the minimum standard we find acceptable and the ‘learning bin’ gobbles up more prints, will our current work survive? I suppose that is one of the pleasures and horrors of creating anything: there is no certainty and there is no end.
Another factor may simply be the erosion of memory. Over time, we tend to forget (or cease caring about) the sheer effort we put into a given image. I know that I have a tendency to dwell on hard fought images and feel reluctant to let them go even when they simply aren’t very good. Time works wonders here, allowing us to see images on their own merits, rather than in terms of our aspirations.
Perhaps ego is a vital part of creativity, by fuelling a form of competitiveness that in turn drives self-improvement? If it is, then the notion that there is virtue in expunging ego from what we do is counterproductive. It would simply mean that we’d all miss out on great photography and art. Creativity would wither away as a result of mass indifference on the part of it’s creators. If we consider that art is perhaps all about the individuality of the individual trying to break free of our own singularity and achieve a kind of mass-consciousness, then ego is the most fundamental component. It has to be about us, if the other person is to truly experience ‘other’. OK, so moving on before my head hurts….
The other surprise that may come from looking through old forgotten prints is the realisation that some are not as bad as you had expected. These are the images that hinted at abilities worth developing. These are the prints that perhaps stopped you throwing in the towel and giving up photography after visiting your first exhibition of hand prints by one of the masters. I know I came very close to doing just that. It was heartbreaking to see just how stunning those rich, three dimensional silver gelatin prints were and to have flashes of my own ghastly photographs appearing alongside them in my mind’s eye. It seems that competitive ego has come into play again. It doesn’t matter how good our work is; the truth is it would not exist if ego did not in some way fuel our self-improvement. Perhaps the same could be said about the life works of masters, such as Koudelka, Cartier-Bresson, Edward Weston. They will have been equally riddled with self-doubt, frustration, disappointments and the joy of incremental progress.
After looking through hundreds of terrible prints and consigning about 50 to the learning bin, I found a couple of ‘forgotten about’ images worth sharing. These are images that won’t be thrown out, because they were a pleasant surprise, or at least gave me food for thought.
I wonder what I will find if I look through negative sheets I haven’t ‘edited’ in a decade? Will there be images that were better than my eye could really appreciate at the time? I don’t know, but now that I have unboxed my light box, loupes and all my negatives, perhaps I should find out. I do know that I will wonder why on earth I wasted so much film, although it’s my opinion that we don’t really waste any frames at all. Photographer egos are essential, but best of all they’re paired with enough humility to grow. I love what I do and I am really happy with some of my work to date. That said, I still want to be very much better. I just hope some of the work I’m proud of today won’t end up in the learning bin ten years hence!