A guilty pleasure?
I'm referring to showing my images in person to someone else – the prospect of which always makes me feel very nervous indeed. Yet, something still makes me go through the trauma of showing my photographs. Perhaps something about the process gives me pleasure? Am I just revelling in showing off, feeding my ego? I don't think so; it's a bittersweet experience for me, a mixture of anxiety and a hint of gratification. Of course it's the gratification that makes me feel guilty...
On the face of it, surely I should have nothing to worry about when sharing my images. I've been making photographs for close on 30 years, my images have been published in over 20 books and a number of magazines and I've achieved some recognition from my peers for the quality of my photography.
But worry I do. When presenting my images to an audience, large or small, I feel diffident; I worry that my images are unworthy, I worry that the audience won't like them – more than that they won't love them as wholeheartedly as I do.
Don't get me wrong, I don't love all my images and I'm not labouring under the misapprehension that those I do love are perfect. I know that they're not. I'm fully aware that even my favourite images have faults in composition or execution. In fact I'm painfully aware of this, its as plain and as haunting to me as a disfiguring ulcer on the face of a dear friend. I'm certainly more aware of the faults in the image than my audience are. Yet, despite their faults, I still love these chosen images. My images are the offspring of my creative spirit and I love them in the same way that I love my children: unconditionally.
I know deep in my heart that I've made a few images that will stand comparison with the best of my peers. I just don't want to shout about it (though I suppose my two readers might legitimately accuse me of at least whispering loudly through "Oceans..."). Why don't I want to be demonstrative? Is it because I'm English? The butterflies in my stomach let me know that I'm not exhibiting false modesty when I shrink from the limelight. If I were supremely confident but trying not to let my audience see that arrogance I wouldn't feel this bad. Paradoxically I feel confident and unsure at the same time; confident that my images are good but also unsure that they are good enough.
The reason for my fluctuating confidence might lie in part in the findings of a study by Dr. David Dunning at Cornell University. He looked at confidence in relation to ability levels. Dunning compared a group of students scores in a series of tests against their expectations. He found that those with the lowest scores consistently overestimated their abilities. More than that, Dunning's team also found that those with the highest scores consistently underestimated their abilities. The researchers put this down to "the fact that, in the absence of information about how others are doing, highly competent subjects assumed that others were performing as well as they were". I'm sure that this is partly true, but I also know from my own experience that the more I learn about photography the more I realise what there is still to learn. The more I know the smaller my precious hoard of knowledge looks and the more insignificant I feel.
Given my discomfort at showing my images in person, should I, perhaps, confine this activity to only showing them to people who's opinion I value? No, I don't think so. However unpleasant it is for me I need to show my work to as wide an audience as I am able and to listen to what they have to say. I've said before that self-criticism is an essential part of the creative process but I feel that peer review is also – and not just garnering the uncritical opinions of those you trust. That way lies a complete lack of perspective and the withering of creativity. I think that we've all seen this effect from afar in the work of certain pop musicians. There comes a critical point in some successful pop careers where the performer has amassed a considerable amount of money and acquired an entourage. If they are unwise they will have surrounded themselves with yes men;
"Do I look good in this outfit?"
"Isn't my latest single great?"
"Wouldn't it be great if I drove my Rolls into the swimming pool?"
"I am the new messiah!"
"Yes you are!"
You get the picture...
It's been unspoken, perhaps even unconscious until now, but it occurs to me that the reason I show my images is not to feed my ego but to get a perspective on my work. It makes me anxious but I want to find out if I'm one of those incompetents in Dunning's study who is overestimating their ability or if there is some merit in what I'm doing. It would be foolhardy to grant all opinions equal weight but also equally foolhardy to dismiss out of hand those that are critical. There therefore needs to be some system of checks and balances. My approach has been to compare three sets of opinions; my own self-critical view, the opinions of a wider audience and finally the views of those members of my peer group whose work I admire. I tend to filter out opinions that are universally positive in favour of ones where I feel the respondent has made an effort at providing a critique.
The anxiety, then, comes from putting myself up for judgement, opening myself up for criticism. Gratification comes from any degree of validation of my work, especially if that approval comes from those members of my peer group who's work I admire.
So, is it a guilty pleasure? No, I don't think so. It's important to seek and find external positive feedback to counter the inevitable negative effect that arises even from constructive self-criticism. As photographers we need perspective and a context for our work beyond that provided by our own egos. But we also need encouragement if we aren't to become irretrievably disheartened. Showing my images is scary but I just have to grit my teeth and do it!
Workshop at Linhof & Studio
Paula and I will be running another LF workshop in Leigh on Sea in spring 2008. Details will be posted on the Linhof website in due course or if you just can't wait contact Paula on +44(0)1702 716116 for further details and to reserve a place.