The first principle is that you must not fool yourself — and you
are the easiest person to fool. Richard Feynman
Each month I put a new quotation on my web- site’s home page. This one by physicist Richard Feynman is the first one that I have used there that is not by a photographer. My friend Steve emailed it to me for my collection (thanks, Steve) and it triggered a memory.
A photographer acquaintance had the extreme good fortune to take a weekend workshop with the great Ruth Bernhard. It turned out to be her last workshop - a few years be- fore her death at 101 in 2006. In addition to being a gifted photographer herself her reputation held her to be an equally gifted teacher and mentor.
Part of the workshop was, of course, a review of portfolios brought by the attendees. Ms. Bernhard looked very thoughtfully and carefully at my acquaintance's portfolio of landscapes. Even though her own photo- graphs were rarely if ever landscapes she made insightful comments on several of the prints as she looked through them again and again. But she kept coming back to one print without commenting on it. She ques- tioned my acquaintance about his intentions for it and his printing of it.
She finally said to him "You really want this print to work, don't you?" (yes) "And you know in your heart that it does not, don't you?" (long pause -- yes). As Feynman said "... you are the easiest person to fool."
How do we as photographers, painters, sketchers, ... keep from fooling ourselves -
or at least keep ourselves from doing so frequently? It seems to me that we face two issues: "How do I want this piece to look?" and "What do I do to make it look like that?"
The second of these is technique. If I go to a workshop with a master of my medium I'll be better at it immediately after doing so. (Well, I may have to practice a while first.)
The first question also has a very simple but much longer-term answer. Look at art. Look at lots of art. Look at all kinds of art. When you see a painting, a drawing, a pho- tograph, a print, a collage, a weaving, a stat- ue ... that excites you try to discover why it does so. Do this a lot and perhaps you can generalize from the specific to the benefit of your own work. It worked for me.
But that's not all. If you look at art with the goal of finding out "what works" – look with that goal at your own work as well. Yes, the opinion of someone you respect is helpful and if you listen with an open heart and mind it will help you to look at your next piece more realistically.
But it's still you that has to make the decision. Photographer Jerry Uelsmann once did a lecture in which he showed every one of
the prints he had made in the previous year -- 50 odd of them. Of those only six did he consider successful enough to go into his portfolio. He, obviously, is very good at not fooling himself.
I now have about 60 candidate negatives for my current project that I intend to be com- prised of about 20 prints. Only two days ago I printed one that I really want to work but know in my heart that it doesn't. I'm quite a ways from 20 "keepers".
[Adapted from a “What’s New” post on my website, www.ronfstop.com]