Being hypercritical and becoming artisitically paralized

Discussion in 'Photographic Aesthetics and Composition' started by Michael R 1974, Jun 8, 2011.

  1. Michael R 1974

    Michael R 1974 Subscriber

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    (Paralyzed should have a "y" but I could not edit the title. Oops)

    I would like to know if anyone else has gone through a "phase" like what I'm experiencing.

    I have always been obsessive about my pictures. The luxury (or roadblock depending on how you look at it) I have in doing urban/architectural space studies in my own city is the ability to go back to the same scene repeatedly, trying to perfect every last detail. Unfortunately for people with my personality type, what can end up happening is you try for months to make a picture, waiting for just the right conditions etc. Sometimes you go back over and over again but there is always something wrong (too much foliage so wait until fall, lightbulb burnt out which disturbs symmetry, etc etc etc.). Eventually this can lead to very low productivity because it becomes so difficult to move on to anything new while you feel like you haven't properly finished with older ideas that are still meaningful.

    It didn't start out quite this way, but I raise this in the context of other threads I've been reading on here recently about specific photographers and whether they are "great" or not. Let me explain. I have become increasingly hypercritical of anything I look it, regardless of the name behind it. Every last flaw or detail out of place bothers me. What I now find is I can no longer easily answer the question "who are your favourite photographers?". From a technical perspective I know who my favourites are, but from a pure image standpoint I find all I can really do is pick a relatively small number of masterpieces (in my opinion) from each of a large array of photographers. Regardless of the photographer in question, much of the work ends up being classified by me almost as filler. I mean when I look at retrospective compilations of work by any one artist, whether it is a large exhibition, or a book, I imagine myself as the photographer, and how I would probably end up editing out so many pictures because of even very small flaws, I'd never have a large enough body of work for a book or exhibit. Whether it is Ansel Adams, Edward or Brett Weston, Cartier Bresson, and on and on, if I'm honest with myself the majority of pictures are nothing to write home about.

    What this has done in my own work, is cause me to make very few photographs. The work is very slow. It often takes months to get the right conditions and fine tune the composition, to the point sometimes waiting too long results in me having to abandon the picture entirely because too many things have changed. After all even things that appear casually static, do change. This method of working comes from being so critical of the work of the greats. I mean how many truly great photographs has any one photographer made, out of the thousands they have each done? And how many of their pictures would never have even been made had I been in their shoes, because a branch was in the wrong place, or the something was slightly distracting etc, causing me to give up on the scene. So in other words I'm doing extreme editing before opening the shutter, which can be a pretty painful process.

    Now, being critical and exacting is not necessarily a bad thing. But I sometimes wonder if I'm going too far, if the minute "flaws" which cause me to abandon an image are things anyone else would even notice. Am I giving up on exciting photographs because of tiny problems which can never be totally avoided? Do I except the less than perfect nature of any subject, or walk away disgusted because I can't move a street lamp or a tree?

    Has anyone else had this problem?

    Michael R.
     
  2. Mainecoonmaniac

    Mainecoonmaniac Subscriber

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    Could you have problems accepting the world as it is? If that's the case, you'll have a difficult time photographing the world as it is. If you want absolute perfection, maybe be a studio photographer where you have absolute control. Possibly shoot fashion or still life. Artist have always struggled with the notion of beauty and perfection. Some reject the world and create art that is totally different from the work a day reality. Photographers like Robert Frank and Lee Friedlander accept and shoot everything. How I work through this problem of finding beauty is going back to the basics of composition of shape, line,negative space and the rule of thirds. The challenge for me is finding beauty in the mundane.
     
  3. MaximusM3

    MaximusM3 Member

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    Michael,

    I think it is quite common. Unfortunately, life doesn't wait for anyone to take a picture and we all have to learn to accept imperfections. If we don't, we're left with nothing and unable to move on and progress. I, for one, can't stand much clutter and love symmetry, geometric patterns, cleanliness in my images. Having said that, I have learned not to obsess over things I can't control or being bothered by the feel that an image could have been better, only if...

    I know, it can be hard for some personalities, but the alternative is a total impairment of creative process.

    Best,

    Max
     
  4. jnanian

    jnanian Advertiser

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    hi michael

    while i am kind of the opposite of you, i know exactly where you are coming from.
    what really helped me is not embracing perfection but embracing imperfection because
    in life, nothing is perfect ... everything is flawed in one way or another.

    sorry to read of your troubles ..

    john
     
  5. Barry S

    Barry S Subscriber

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    I'm sorry--that sounds like an awful problem. Maybe the issue is you have so few limitations--no deadlines, no pressure, no constraints--that there's nothing to check your intellectual fixations. Photography is as much visceral as intellectual--it's a process and an art. Why don't you plan an exhibition somewhere--it doesn't matter where as long as you have a firm date. Plan a trip away from home for a photographic project as the subject of the exhibition. So you might have a week to come back with 16 images--and you have to deal with editing, printing, matting, and framing before the show. Creativity means coming up with a lot of ideas---practicing, practicing--to produce a small number of exceptional works. Almost no artists (with a few notable exceptions) work with your current model.
     
  6. Christopher Walrath

    Christopher Walrath Member

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    You're right, Mike. There is nothing wrong with being painstakingly exacting in one's work. I think everyone should excercise an attention to detail every time the shutter gets tripped. I attain for the same in my own personal work. I am sure the majority here, by and large, agree. Hands down.

    It's always easy to armchair quarterback someone else's peoblems. I don't see it as a matter of needing to accept less than perfection. I see it as more the level of perfection, if you will. I photograph to exacting standards based on my experience and personality. I am not OCD by any stretch but I have talked myself out of a few photographs after time was invested in shot set up. But not often. And it may also be due to the subject matter. I shoot primarily landscape and more often than not, I try to infuse an idea or an emotion into what I photograph.

    Architecture, though, can be much more straight if allowed to be. I suppose the same goes for landscape as well. What I mean to say is that things like this depend upon our own standards for our subject and its interpretation. I'm not saying I have low standards. But it does seem that yours are very high and being exacting from the level of perfection, where being critcal can move past the place where it edifies your experience by teaching you to the place where you box yourself in and are self-constricted by your need to attain 'just that look'.

    As I hinted at, earlier, we all want just that look in our work. But if you begin from place of being overly self critical you can decimate yourself.

    Try this. As much as it will go against every fiber of your being. Go to your favorite place. Dedicate yourself to no more than a FEW minutes consideration for each photograph and then MAKE a PHOTOGRAPH, whether you want to or not. Then process the film. And then print it. Put your work into it. And you might just find that your level of desired perfection might be found a little unnecessary.

    And that was armchairing at its finest.
     
  7. MattKing

    MattKing Subscriber

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    Michael:

    All of your APUG posted work is black and white. Do you shoot colour as well? If not, I'd suggest trying some.

    It may be if you can try something that is really different for you, with the goal of having fun, and trying something new, you will be able to get more joy when (or if!) you go back to your usual work.
     
  8. Michael R 1974

    Michael R 1974 Subscriber

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    Thanks everyone for the feedback.

    One thing I need to clarify is what I mean by perfection. It may or may not have been clear but just in case - it is not perfection in the subject I seek. For me the vernacular, seemingly mundane spaces around us are what I'm drawn to. There is nothing perfect about any of them. It just annoys me when there is something that gets in the way of presenting the space. Perhaps it is because of the nature of the subject matter. It is difficult to get people to notice the space around them because they see it all the time without paying much attention. So I try to remove as many distractions as possible. But I think what has happened is I've recently gone overboard on that.

    Barry, you might be right about the freedom I have to take forever, as I don't do this for a living or have any real deadlines. One thing I've actually considered doing this summer is trying to enter a few photos in magazine competitions (even though I have no interest in "competitions"). At least it gives me a deadline to shoot for.

    Christopher thanks for your thoughts on this. It all makes sense to me philosophically. My challenge now is to put it into practice!

    Matt, I was thinking of something along those lines, for example walking around without a tripod for once and making pictures on the street without all the scouting and pre-planning.

    So I've kind of decided my summer project will be to correct this before it goes too far, trying to get back into more of a rhythm, allowing myself to focus on what initially drew me to the subject instead of obsessing over little things that probably have no material detrimental impact.
     
    Last edited by a moderator: Jun 8, 2011
  9. Thomas Bertilsson

    Thomas Bertilsson Subscriber

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    Michael,

    I have had your problem and lived through a couple of years being obsessed with grain, clutter in the pictures, no people in my photographs of urban landscapes, etc.
    The cure was to start using a Holga. And then a pinhole camera. Talk about imperfection. Every picture I took didn't even stand a chance to hold up to the quality standards I had set out for myself. But it was so much fun! I could just let go of all those worries. Now I have let go of the Holga, mostly because of completely ruined rolls of film. But the pinhole stays. And what I learned using those cameras was to relax my attitude about hypercritical quality concerns and just worry about a good composition. And I've managed to transfer that attitude into my practice with other cameras, like my 5x7, Hasselblad, and Pentax 35mm work.

    Others have said it, there is nothing in life that is perfect. Might as well just embrace those imperfections, or you'll be crowding yourself too much, perhaps even making photography an unhappy endeavor. I also think that what we see as imperfections might be beauty to others. Not that I care that much what other think of my pictures, if they like them or not, but showing them to others sometimes help me see them in a different way, which is really rewarding.

    I hope you'll be able to sort it out. I can tell you I have enjoyed the pictures that you have posted here on APUG. You are a very valuable asset to the forum, and I want you to have a good time doing what you love.

    - Thomas
     
  10. Michael R 1974

    Michael R 1974 Subscriber

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    Thanks Thomas. You are exactly right if we are not enjoying the art, there is no point. That's why I feel like I need to address my recent lack of picturemaking before photography becomes more frustrating than enjoyable, especially as a hobbyist. That's my project for the summer, and hopefully I'll have some new pictures to post for comments :smile:
     
  11. Jeff L

    Jeff L Subscriber

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  12. eddie

    eddie Subscriber

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    Michael-If the Adams', Westons, and Bressons, of the world don't bat 1000, neither will any of us...
    I do what Thomas does- Diana/Holga... whatever frees me up.
    The important thing is to not let the paralysis set in. Keep shooting. What got me out of my last bout with "photo paralysis" was the realization that I could learn as much (if not more) from my stinkers, than from my winners.
     
  13. Neanderman

    Neanderman Member

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    I live it every day...

    Ed
     
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  15. Michael R 1974

    Michael R 1974 Subscriber

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    Interesting... I thought I was the only one!
     
  16. Mainecoonmaniac

    Mainecoonmaniac Subscriber

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    I work at a university art department that teaches photography and digital imaging. In the computer lab, I've seen students working in Photoshop working and reworking images until they are "perfect". The students fear failure, flaws and ugliness to the point of not taking chances. Art requires risk which means accepting imperfection what ever imperfect means. Some obsess so much that they work on only a few images all quarter long. Being in a media saturated world with Victoria's Secret's model appearing flawless in the catalog tweaks our perceptions. How about TV with all those beautiful people and those beautiful houses. For you to accept yourself and a world of imperfections, turn off the TV. Seek the perfect flaw. We all can't be George Clooney nor Heidi Klum.
     
  17. holmburgers

    holmburgers Member

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    I think this sums it up... you're not enjoying photography!

    One can't make good art if one does not enjoy good art. Or to say it another way... you can't be creative if all you think is destructive.

    The subject is all that matters, not the technical details. I believe the purpose of photography is to put you in a different place in time. If we're put somewhere uninteresting, we have to critique what we're left with.

    I think you're not seeing the forest through the trees. If you want perfection, pick up a paint brush. :wink:
     
  18. kwall

    kwall Member

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    I'd say that perfect is the enemy of good.
     
  19. Michael R 1974

    Michael R 1974 Subscriber

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    Holmburgers, interesting you say that. I also paint, and have always had similar issues there, although it's not exactly the same.

    I am still enjoying photography. The excitement of seeing something you want to make a photo of, picturing the final print etc is still there. It has just become harder for me to move on from a particular idea. Part of the problem is alot of my subject matter is near to where I live. So I make the picture, but each time I drive by that location I can't help thinking things like "hmm, maybe with today's lighting the conditions are better than when I originally made the picture", or "hey now that it's November there are no distracting weeds sticking up through the sidewalk, I should redo the photo now". This is dangerous thinking because it makes you want to fix things all the time.

    As for being very critical of the work of great photographers, this I am more comfortable with. I think it is ok. I now prefer to think of myself as a fan of particular images and prints rather than having to say I like x photographer or y photographer, although obviously there are certain photographers who have produced more work that resonates with me.
     
  20. holmburgers

    holmburgers Member

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    Actually, having looked at your gallery now, your comments make a lot more sense.

    Your pictures look like tuxedos, folded napkins, or Bauhus architecture and Lissitzky drawings (none of which are criticisms). The geometric nature and structure of them does indeed not look condusive to deviations.

    However, I think that elements of chance & assymetry would actually be incredibly interesting in the context of your pictures... to contrast the "chaos" of nature against man's perfect manipulations in steel, stone & timber.
     
  21. jp498

    jp498 Member

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    I am sometimes the opposite, and sometimes almost-perfectionist, returning again for better light or situations. That's OK to keep coming back for more and better. I pick nearby subjects though.

    I like the holga suggestion. Some alt process or soft focus lenses might get you less paralyzed and more creative too. Frederick Evans did some nice pictorialism architecture and that would get you away from the detail oriented process. The alt process part would make the medium an integral part of your work, making you a craftsman as well as someone able to capture images on film.
     
  22. 2F/2F

    2F/2F Member

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    Obsession can be very good, but only if it is useful by improving your work. But if you are self-indulgently obsessed and not getting any better because of it, or are obsessed with technique rather than with how it affects your content, I say give it up and relax a bit. Then again, it could be that the obsessive aspects of how you approach the craft are exactly why you like it so much; it is like your version of crack or heroin, only self induced with bodily chemicals, rather than with external ones. Better photographic obsession as a form of self regulation than being a crackhead or a junkie.
     
  23. Toffle

    Toffle Member

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    I have only skimmed some of the responses, so I don't really know what the going trend is or if this has been covered. My apologies if this has already been covered.

    My approach is that if I find something that I can't eliminate or disguise in my photos, I try to make it a feature of the photo. A line of perfectly symmetrical streetlights may be less interesting than one with a missing light. The missing light or broken fence rail, or obscured detail can add drama to an otherwise "perfect" shot. Even when I think I've nailed a shot, I tend to turn around to see if there is something else that is worth shooting. Oddly enough, this can turn out to be the better of the shots at a given location... For example, having taken the obligatory touristy shot of Notre Dame in Montreal, I also got a couple of very effective shots of the crowds of tourists looking over my head and up at the cathedral, and of the streetscape lighting outside the church.

    Cheers,
     
  24. Michael R 1974

    Michael R 1974 Subscriber

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    I don't want to make too much of the symmetry thing. I was using it as an example. Basically it's little things that (to me) might draw attention away from the space. I'm probably not explaining this very well.

    Here's a good example, and one I've had to deal with many times: I'll want to make a picture of a space I find interesting, a space people probably see every day but never stop to notice. Maybe it's an interesting alcove for example. But some jerk has tagged his idiot name in spraypaint on one of the walls in the scene. For some urban photographers, perhaps ones concerned more with communicating a social statement, this would actually strenghten the image for them. For me it is different because I am interested in the space itself, and the graffiti is a distracting element that draws attention. This is especially evident when you show someone else the picture. The graffiti in the picture inevitably becomes the point of focus (people always look for some sign of life to grab onto in a picture), and then they might take it further by reading some kind of commentary into the picture.

    Anyhow it's something I'm working on, trying to be slightly more open minded.
     
  25. Diapositivo

    Diapositivo Member

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    I perfectly know how you feel. I take mostly photographs of Roman architectural features. I am constantly striving against:
    writings;
    pedestrians;
    pedestrians with red or yellow garments;
    cars;
    delivery trucks;
    street lamps;
    wires of all kind;
    buses etc.

    After you placed your tripod, having found a good composition without too much interference by wires and poles, there comes the bus. You wait for the bus, there comes a colourful sponsored taxi. The taxi goes, another comes and stands there while the client pays. The taxi goes, a group of tourists pass by. You wait for the tourists to pass, but other two tourists place themselves in the picture to take a picture. I think mon semblable, mon frère and wait again. When the tourists go, the delivery van arrives. When it goes, a bus on your back make the road vibrate, it has to pass. Sometimes one really have only a second to take a picture. After that, I find that I clean out all the writings on the wall, and even most of the litter on the ground. Sometimes I even clone out cigarette butts if they reflect light.

    I find people too disturbing. My reasoning is that many persons can be OK, but one or two persons are a compositional nuisance. I now tend to relax more about that. One or two persons can add a touch of "life" to a scene that might appear too "museal" so to speak. Provided they don't have flashy jumpers, they can work in favour of the overall impression.

    I take mental note of a certain light condition for a certain photo, but when I am there again, the sky is grey. When I am there again, the sky is blue, but the trees have foliage. It's the sad life of road photographers: no control over the scene.
     
  26. Michael R 1974

    Michael R 1974 Subscriber

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    Diapositivo, this sums it up perfectly! Exactly what I'm talking about. I have faced every single issue you wrote about here. Interestingly the one thing I find easiest to deal with are people. Since I am usually looking for low ambient light I am often working either overnight or extremely early in the morning, when there are much less people around. But yes all the other things you're talking about are annoyances I have to deal with, from wind, to vibrations, stray light potentially causing distracting flare. One time I was in a park and had a great composition all sorted out except for one damn trash can (bolted to the ground) that I could not avoid!

    I'll be honest - I even kept a small broom in my car for a while, for cases where I return to a scene to set up and someone had left garbage on the sidewalk that would have become the focal point of the picture.

    There's an interesting example by George Tice, one of my favourite photographers and printers. It's one of his more well known urban landscape pictures of the Strand Theater in Keyport NJ, taken in the 70s. (I'm lucky enough to own a print). The picture is exactly how I would have done it, except there is one small piece of what looks like paper in the gutter next to the sidewalk. I've often wondered if in retrospect that ever bothered him. I know if it had been me I would have removed that paper before taking the picture. And yet, this is one of my all time favourite photographs, meaning in the end that small nuissance doesn't bother me as a viewer! Perhaps I should learn something from this!!