Ever wonder about what it takes to make a great photograph? Well, join the club. There is no question that photographers, at their core, are shameless dreamers. They constantly dream of that photograph, the one that will set them apart from others, the one that will surely bring recognition for hours of tireless devotion to their craft. Countless times a day the topic so expertly depicted by Émile Zola in his 1886 novel “The Masterpiece,” is played in the minds of photographers all over the world. In his work, Zola presented us with an artist who, in his own mind, found it impossible to live up to his own imagined potential. Nothing he did was good enough to be called great, or lead to the immortality he so desperately envisioned. That the artist drove a few people crazy in the process (not to mention himself) was a given, and no matter how good his work was in the eyes of critics and observers, the artist always found it lacking. Something, something impossible to ascertain with any degree of certainty, was missing. Frustration reigned, and professional emptiness was right there by its side.
But Zola, in his genius, also provided us with the other side of the coin. That is, with the life of an artist who very early in his career created his greatest work and who went to live a long, unhappy life trying to unsuccessfully reproduce his early achievement. Critical greatness visited him before he felt he had achieved the pinnacle of his art; his sudden, and early acclaim condemning him to a life of denied recognition past his initial masterpiece. Nothing he did was to be as good, or memorable, as that earlier work, and the voices in his head never ceased to remind him of his lifelong descent from that early, momentary glory. It speaks to Zola’s greatness that he was able to represent so vividly the many, and often conflicting emotions that live inside an artist’s mind.
And so it seems to be the case today with photographers and their work. The Internet is full of tales of photographers stating that they went out on a project and took thousands of photographs, but at best, they only liked a handful of them. The rest? Just not good enough, or memorable enough. Ask any photographer to pick a photo that they would consider to be their masterpiece (apart from Steve McCurry and his Afghan Girl), and you will witness human contortions that would put Cirque du Soleil to shame. No, we’re not a happy lot, or to put it better, we’re not a very satisfied lot. That great photo is out there, and if it takes a lifetime to find it, that’s OK with us. And what about that magnificent photo you took that everyone seems to like so much? Sure, it was good, but not the best. The best is still out there, hidden in plain sight, and there’s no time to waste in our never-ending chase. In the 1964 words of Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart when describing how he could tell something had crossed the threshold into the seedy, we tell ourselves that “I’ll know it when I see it.” And even when our eyes have seen so much over the years, the idea that we will recognize our masterpiece when we see it continues to dominate our photographic minds. Like Zola’s protagonists, we convince ourselves that this is a decision for us to make, when all along, and in keeping with the nature of any art, it is always a decision for the audience to make. Like Justice Stewart, they will know it when they see it, and there’s not much an artist can do aside from trying to create the best work possible everyday of his or her life. I guess Zola figured this out almost 130 years ago.