Abandonment

The question betrays a vulnerability I can’t ignore. “I can’t take any more photos … Anyone else get this way?” My first words are those of an advisor: improve your technique, leaf through a photobook or two, complete those unfinished projects of yours. But as my speech turns viscous and sentences fracture this image breaks down; these are no longer abstract thoughts, courses of action for an experience far-removed – I share his vantage point and am no longer talking to him, but me; have just exhorted him to be the ideal me: always plowing on.

But I’m not plowing on and it scares me. Scared – not by the emptiness itself, but what it could portend.

You see, at first I accepted the fallow period he described. Then a month turned into two, the borders on my viewfinder view of the world dissolved, and photos became unimagined – yes, that was the worst of it for the photos weren’t simply unrealized, but unimagined. I asked the obvious question then, asked if there weren’t something more to this, if there was a point for every activity where a break turns into avoidance, then abandonment, and we lose the doing of something through unacknowledged neglect. When does it happen? And why?

You ever asked yourself “Why?” Probably. Asked, maybe answered: “I’ve changed” – then wondered if it wasn’t just a way to explain away your neglect. Well, maybe it wasn’t that you’d changed. Maybe it’s because things aren’t as easy as when you began: advancements aren’t as rapid, efforts no longer yield outsize results, and somewhere along the line you’ve raised your bar for quality and no matter what you do, can’t seem to meet it. Or . . . maybe you’re hooked! – hooked on that the rush of achievement, that sense of discernible growth that’s constant companion to beginners – was it all so intoxicating that now you can’t live without it? That you can no longer stomach the middle-aged activity and instead crave the new and novel? Yes, it’s true – it’s at the beginning when expectations are low that things are the easiest; it’s at the beginning that you’re never overwhelmed with options, where every skill you learn opens up one, maybe two, paths – but now, now you’re faced with a world of choice, and boxed-in by time and effort can’t afford to explore each one in turn – so where do you start? And how do you know what’s right? There was a lot of company it seems, a lot of helpful voices when you were a beginner, but now the field’s thinned considerably. The advice you get is vague, it offers only the possibility of direction – and no sense of how to achieve it. It’s different, so different.

It’s that transition that hurts, that stuns in its shift from structure to…to something so much less defined. And that shift – we all know what it brings. Goals; failure; the need for focused effort, longer learning periods, plateaus . . .Why not take the easy way out – recognize the shift and simply end it there? Say “It’s time for something new,” and walk away?

That would be easier. But that’s the ‘quick results’ attitude – and it’s born in that avalanche of content delivered to us by RSS readers, blogs, forum posts, websites, all inundating us with work charmingly dissociated from the pain of conception. Every finished item promises that you could have done it, that the gap between potential and achievement is vanishingly small; consume the work, and then buy into a world miasmatic with the promise of effortless achievement where everything can be yours – easily. The urgency of application vanishes then; if it takes the barest of imagined effort to bridge the present and accomplished you, there’s no harm in putting things off. And delay has its pleasures after all: daydreaming is so much more facile than your quotidian tasks; failure will never be a gadfly; your ego remains sheltered. And if delay means you never make the transition you can remain as a Brobdingnagian among beginners.

This is not solipsism. We have been conditioned to believe that every challenge should be taken, and taken with zeal and insatiable desire to be the best. We’re supposed to want the challenge, as if the journey were its own reward – but who’s rewarded for the journey? You’re commended for results, not for the project after compromised project it took to make it there, not for the times when everything was shit, not for those interminable tasks of the everyday. That is after all, what no one speaks of: the real distance between dilettante and expert, and the world’s disinterest in how bridge it. This is the hardest time, and the loneliest time; the temptation to abandon your work for something, anything, that promises easy rewards is overpowering, and all that can keep you going is a belief that this – what you’re doing – matters.

And so I return to this man’s plea and think that I’d answer differently. I’d say: a break is good, it gives you distance; but it raises a question – don’t avoid it – and if more effort isn’t in the cards for you then let that be a mindful choice with no recriminations. But if you want to soldier on then prepare yourself for the unavoidable tasks ahead, for the journey whose end paralyzes with its distance; and if that’s the case I’d say: leave for a spell – but return.

Comments

  1. tcoen - January 30, 2008 @ 01:55

    Why not try something new, but still related to photography. This way you can be entertained as you ride the steep part of the learning curve, while also gaining related skills.

    Or perhaps just change up your photography. Try film instead of digital. Or a rangefinder. Or large format. Certainly there is much left to explore.

    If your mind has you hung up on the technical and artistic merits of your work, then maybe you can still delight in the mechanical techniques of photography. Start taking pictures and the results will come.

  2. mermaid0124 - January 30, 2008 @ 22:12

    Maybe you just need to walk the city, the building, the path through the forest . . . Leave the camera aside and walk or drive or bike, but without over thinking it. I remember when I was between cameras – my old one broken and waiting for my new one to come down in price: it was good to look, to take things in and wonder. Be present without thinking about framing or light or what a certain building or landscape represents. Some theorists may say that photography requires represents a certain immediacy; others disagree and I am one of them. I think you become more present without the camera. Enjoy the absence of the camera without worrying about whether you will come back to it. Once you can walk and really see, picking up the camera and shooting, struggling with the technical aspects might not be so frustrating. You might even find that you’re able to relax without tensing up over the technique (or the things you don’t know), allowing your manipulation of the camera to capture your vision in a more reflexive manner. Have you ever seen someone pick up an instrument and play the perfect song to match the mood of the scene with ease and a sense that they’ve absorbed enough technique to just play? What if you could do that with your camera? It takes time for you to fully absorb technique so that you can come back to it and do it better without over thinking it.
    “Let be be the finale of seem.”

    I know that photography is more than just photography. It’s the question of being a dilettante. How are things going with your Master’s? Are you equally as frustrated? The two are connected . . . at least you could have been describing my frustration with doing a Master’s.

    I think you’re wrong though: superficially we may be applauded for the results, but to get there, you have to take the journey, you have to bridge the gap between dilettante and expert. When your results are applauded, your choice to persist is applauded. Without the persistence, you wouldn’t have become an expert and wouldn’t have achieved results. There are people who earn PhDs not because their work was interesting or ground breaking, but because they persisted. They finished what they set out to do, even though it took 6 years instead of 4, even though they couldn’t write for a year, but the in the end, they finished, they specialised, and defended the thesis. Those, however, are the ones who play it safe. When you take the big risks, when you set to be a beautiful loser instead of the moderate success, the path is never straight. The ones who have it all laid out, are the ones who become lost first, realising that they didn’t really know what they wanted in the first place. The circuitous path is the straightest and along the way, you find what you need.

    Rest and allow yourself to wander. You may find yourself dabbling in new things and asking yourself if you’re becoming even more of a dilettante, but we all need time and in hindsight, somehow all of those things will connect. Return when it feels right, when you find yourself tending towards photography, feeling that urge to press the shutter, when it feels natural.

  3. Allen George - January 31, 2008 @ 21:28

    Thank you both for your comments; mixed reactions – that’s what I felt after my first read through – and I had to return and reread them to understand what those reactions were.

    I’d like to think a bit before responding, but I was . . . well, I thought it interesting (and not in a detached way) that your takes on this were so different – almost diametrically opposite. There was this moment of odd parallelism.

  4. Allen George - February 9, 2008 @ 17:37

    And just to clarify my reasons for writing this: while it may have started with my questioning the roots of my photographic pause, it was really meant to ask the larger question of why, we – whether now, or at another point in our lives – may abandon an activity that was previously so important to us.

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