Is It Ever Good Enough?

When it comes to deciding what makes a good photograph, the audience will always make that decision.
When it comes to deciding what makes a good photograph, the audience will always make that decision.

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.

 

The Variable Speed Life

One of the least traversed streets in Georgetown happens to be one of my favorites. [Click photos for larger versions]
One of the least traversed streets in Georgetown happens to be one of my favorites. [Click photos for larger versions]
Not all progress requires a high rate of speed.
Not all progress requires a high rate of speed.
Even during a hard day's work, slowing down at times can help make it through the day.
Even during a hard day’s work, slowing down at times can help make it through the day.
She said that working on a mosaic allowed her to think more clearly.
She said that working on a mosaic allowed her to think more clearly.
Middle of the day by the canal and wondering were the fish were.
Middle of the day by the canal and wondering were the fish were.

Speed. What a noble virtue. Its need is everywhere, from computers to transportation. It saves time, it shortens the undesirable, and it allows us to accomplish a lot more in the limited time we all have in our lives. It is an adrenaline rush too, quite dramatically illustrated in blockbuster movies like Top Gun and the myriad of action movies that inundate our daily consciousness. Smell the flowers? You kidding. Who has time for that?

Well, as it seems, a lot of people do. In the last few days I have been concentrating my photographic time on the number of people that I constantly see moving in what for lack of a better term I’ll refer to as “the slow lane of life.” To a large extent, this slow road exists in somewhat of a parallel universe in society, dictating its own rhythm, its own sense of urgency, and its own rewards. It is not characterized by what it manages to accomplish in a short period of time, but rather by what it manages not to do over a longer period of time. It is subtraction, not addition; forsaking, not gathering. It is finding time instead of lamenting not having any. It is admonishing Seneca’s observation that the lack of time has more to do with how much of it is wasted than with how little of it is available. It is a road as real as the busy one our lives travel on, and it is always there, whether we’re conscious of it or not.

Interestingly, there was a time when I thought that the glorious “slowness” was only possible at life’s extreme ends. That is, when you were very old and financially comfortable (that is, whey you begin to talk about your days being numbered), or during your youth, when someone else took care of the bills and most of life’s worries (when we all believed we had all the time in the world ahead of us). In my mind, the middle was made for the fast lane, for the never-ending “too busy” lamentations, for the social fly-by’s, and for dreaming about that distant, slow lane. The rose garden? Nope. No time to plant it. Need to get going. And so it went for far too many years. And why not? Everywhere I looked people were traveling at the same rate of speed, down the same rocky roads, and in the same general direction. This was normal, and everything else seemed, well, abnormal, or at the very least, too far out in the future. It was all an exciting, zero sum, high-speed journey that if left unattended could have culminated many years later in a place that no one really wants to arrive at: the valley of regrets.

One day, however, I dared to take my foot off the accelerator in order to experience the effects of deceleration on the trajectory I was riding on. I slowed down, took a detour, acted on one long-neglected dream, and surprised a loved one in the middle of the day. Deceleration made it all possible, and clarity, its inevitable result, did its part in dissipating the stubborn forces of obfuscation and neglect. No longer would I drive past that farmer’s produce stand in order to lament later of not having had the time to stop. No, that story was changed to the great time I had while shopping at that very own farmer’s stand during my busy day. I also made it a point to never talk about that abstract walk in the park everyone talks about, but never takes. No, my story changed to how incredible it was to find the time to walk along the the carpet of fallen, yellow leaves that infuse such a bright, golden hue to a cold, autumn morning. Moreover, I made time for my friends so we could spend long hours at the dinner table solving the problems of the world over multiple bottles of wine. And without a doubt, it was a lot more meaningful to say “I love you” to the one I love while staring at her eyes rather than texting the words, Emoji in tow, over an impersonal data network of bits and bytes.

Time. Speed. Contemplation. Obfuscation. Neglect. Love. They all do battle in our busy lives. Some of their challenges will be conquered by speed, others by simply slowing down. And just as it seems impossible to always travel at high speed down the proverbial road, it appears just as unrealistic to spend a lifetime on that slow, off-the-beaten-path lane. The secret in dealing with this dilemma may lie on both sides of the spectrum–on the adoption of a “variable speed” approach to life. Never accelerating without a well-developed plan for deceleration. Never decelerating without accepting that in life, even the good things often require a little acceleration on our part. The concepts are not, and should never be, mutually exclusive. Perhaps, and this may be mankind’s eternal hope, meaning and happiness will be found somewhere along that continuum. And at every one of those critical junctures along the way, changes in speed, and the detours we dare to take, will dramatically increase our chances of finding the cherished moments that will weave the incredible stories of our lives.