It amazes me how some people who call themselves photographers consider their work to be amazing, when their photographs, in fact, aren’t so hot. And at the other extreme, some purely humble folks make astounding photographs without a sense of how good they are. There is little correlation between talent and ego; they are independent qualities.
Yet, an astounding ego can propel meager work to greater heights, while too humble a self impression can prevent work from achieving its potential. Quandary.
Do you have a sense of where you fall in this spectrum? Probably not. Giant egos self-inflate, modest folks don’t have a pump. And like vampires, neither archetype can see him or her self in a mirror.
You probably fall somewhere in between the walking ego and the modest shadow. After all, there can only be so many giant egos on the planet, otherwise it would implode. So if the extremes of self impression are not driving your opinion of your work, how do you know if you’re any good?
If you’re getting work that you enjoy, have a job making pictures that you don’t hate, at least place in some reputable contests, your latest project landed a gallery show or publisher, then that’s one set of measures, and by golly, pat yourself on the back.
But what if the work you’re getting isn’t what you’d really like to be doing and most of the assignments at your job are demeaning and you never even place in contests you enter, your projects don’t get shows or published? And what if you don’t seem to be able to change any of the negative stuff?
Maybe you aren’t that good at making pictures. Maybe you should be doing something else for a living.
But, wait. If Bill Clinton can define what sex is, maybe you can define what good is, to you. I’m not saying that you should lower the bar to make yourself feel better about your work, though that’s a well worn path. Pointing out the ineptitude of those who reject you is another path: “Those judges sucked; my boss has no clue; that publisher doesn’t know diddle.” If you hear yourself blaming things outside of yourself for your lack of success/unhappiness, chances are it’s your lacking - you may well suck.
Even within the most horrid of situations, it’s possible to produce rewarding (good) work, if you’re disciplined about it.
So what is good? To you?
Having a fabulous job and winning contests and all that stuff is great. No question. A different set of measures of good is whether the work you do makes a difference, whether you can say one day to the next that you learned something new, whether the photographs that you make give you a better sense of who you are and of who the people around you are, whether you stop time and leave a trail of visual bread crumbs of your life. In other words, don’t expect people outside of you to validate your work as the only measure of its value.
If you can make a living from making pictures, that’s a gift from high - even if the circumstance or pictures suck. If you can’t find reward in that setting, then create a setting where you can.
But don’t fool yourself either.
Conflict will come if you try to compare your work to the greats, the best out there, when it really doesn’t play in that ballpark.