View Full Version : Being hypercritical and becoming artisitically paralized

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Michael R 1974
06-08-2011, 11:50 AM
(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.

06-08-2011, 12:08 PM
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.

06-08-2011, 12:11 PM

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.



06-08-2011, 12:36 PM
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 ..


Barry S
06-08-2011, 12:38 PM
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.

Christopher Walrath
06-08-2011, 01:11 PM
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.

06-08-2011, 01:14 PM

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.

Michael R 1974
06-08-2011, 01:23 PM
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.

Thomas Bertilsson
06-08-2011, 01:28 PM

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

Michael R 1974
06-08-2011, 01:35 PM
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 :)

Jeff L
06-08-2011, 01:37 PM
Welcome to my life....

06-08-2011, 01:55 PM
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.

06-08-2011, 01:58 PM
I live it every day...


Michael R 1974
06-08-2011, 02:47 PM
Interesting... I thought I was the only one!

06-08-2011, 02:56 PM
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.

06-08-2011, 03:34 PM
...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?"

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. ;)

06-08-2011, 04:05 PM
I'd say that perfect is the enemy of good.

Michael R 1974
06-08-2011, 04:13 PM
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.

06-08-2011, 04:47 PM
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.

06-08-2011, 04:57 PM
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.