The title of this post is part of a quote from Imogen Cunningham recorded during the last interview of her life in 1976 for the book “Interviews with Master Photographers” by James Danziger and Barnaby Conrad III. She died two months later. The interviewer had asked what was her favorite photograph from her seventy-five year career – “the one I’m going to take tomorrow”.
It’s always good to like the work that you create. It’s also good to not like it too much. You might get caught in a rut, start copying yourself, produce the same material over and over – be afraid to mess with the formula so to speak.
I hear that this was one of the things that critics said about Ansel Adams later in his career. He even said it himself in “Conversations with Ansel Adams: Oral History” from around 1978.
So, after all, you come to a point where you start potboiling, and that’s the curse of many artists… literally every time I look in the ground glass I see something, and I say, ‘Gee that looks nice.’ But, as I’ve said, I’ve done it better; I’ve done it before. It’s a copy… the chances are pretty much, having done it, I could do many things like it, but would they be better?Ansel Adams
Yikes, must be tough to have done it all and you can’t top what you’ve done before. None of that for Cunningham. Even at ninety-three she was still looking for something new, striving for the next unique image, looking ahead.
Brett Weston son of famous photographer Edward Weston said something similar in his interview. When asked “What years do you consider your best work.”, he said: “My present work. You move ahead. You don’t rest on your laurels.”
Weston also said, “I throw away a lot of my work…You just tear it up and throw it out.”
I personally have felt the urge to tear up some of my work. Mostly prints. I’ve had plenty of prints that I decided weren’t worth the paper they were printed on and I tore them up and reused the matting. Not sure why one day I think the photo is great and a few months later I think it’s crap. I guess it has to do with learning changing and moving ahead – view points change.
On the other hand I have a really tough time getting rid of “negatives” whether they are actual film negatives or slides or digital files. I have notebooks full of slides sitting in boxes. I have hard drives full of digital negatives and even the raw files they came from. I just can’t bring myself to toss them. I don’t know why.
On any given photo expedition I take hundreds of photos. During the editing process I make two or three passes over several days to pick out the ones that are worth printing. Yet I never throw out the ones that I put in the reject pile. Hmmmm. Not sure what that says about me.
We think of Ansel Adams as one of the best photographers ever and his photos are always amazing both in concept and in craftsmanship. Yet one day I was in a used bookstore and found a book of Adams’ images that were run of the mill at best. I was stunned to realize that not every image Adams created or even all that got sent to publication were totally top notch. I should have bought that book. I can’t remember the title and I’ve never been able to find it again.
Princeton University has an archive of Minor White material. The archive not only includes some of White’s famous and significant images but lots of images that were never published and were possibly in his “reject” pile. Images like this one.
What the heck? It’s a photo of a building with some cars out front. Cool vintage cars, but still what was he thinking? This is from the Zen master of photography and he took a photo of some buildings! There are lots of these in the archive. Maybe there was some concept he had in mind. Maybe he just liked that white car. Maybe he liked the fact that one tree was manicured while the others weren’t. I don’t know.
It just goes to show that no matter if you’re just an average Joe photographer like me or if you’re a big time famous master of the art, photography and art in general is experimental. Sometimes things don’t come out the way you expect. You have something in mind, you have a vision and you go with it. It doesn’t always pan out.
Even the best photographers have a reject pile and even the best photographers need to constantly move ahead and make sure that their best work is the work they do tomorrow.