The battle of depression in art, and how to use it to become a better photographer! An introspective.
Over the years I have learned that the key point in improving in my own work has not been from outside sources, but from within. Self reflection, self criticism, and the will to improve have been the greatest factors in improving. The ability to critique your own work constructively not only hones mental toughness, but keeps one honest with themselves. I have always been my own worst critic, and I think that is a unifying trait across all creative types, but…thats not to say that outside sources of criticism don’t have their place in improvement, or mental toughness because they certainly due but in my own experience, its very rarely constructive, or helpful.
Self criticism definitely can, in some people, myself included have the effect of making us feel unworthy, or even cause depressive episodes, that is where mental toughness comes in! I have never had much self confidence, therefor my work has always been my outlet for exuding that confidence, whether it was technically good, or bad work. In almost all aspects of my life my drive and determination to be great in any one thing has stemmed from these insecurities, whether it was sports at a young age in school, or my hobbies turned obsessions in my young adult life, to my career as an engineer, and now professional photographer and educator. I have always given myself completely to the idea of becoming great, to inspire others, and to show others like me, that we can do anything we set our minds to with enough passion and drive.
The other half of the self criticism coin, is the mental toughness that comes with it, or should come with it at least. I never took criticism well, and reacted harshly out of that insecurity because I wasn’t improving in the eyes of others as much as I saw myself improving, or rather others didn’t see direct linear improvement, because of my method of improving. I Think its important to be honest with yourself, something that has taken me quite some time to learn, and had I been more confident, or didn’t lack the confidence I would’ve maybe taken that criticism from others, better.
Its ok to be insecure about your work, in fact I think its quite natural irregardless of how well one displays confidence. Social media and technology has manifested into this instant gratification monster that will consume you if you let it, but I am not sure anyone can say they dont feel just a little sad, when they’re heroes, friends, family, or peers dont show at least a little interest in your work or improvement. For the longest time this demon consumed me, and it created issues for me and my self growth, ended friendships even. I am writing this not to condemn, or make depression and insecurity seem like something that can be easily wished away, because it simply cannot be. Nothing makes me more sad than the lack of empathy and understanding most people in todays society seem to have. When someone can say ” you can’t let this or that bother you”, it does, whether we want to let it, or not! I am writing this because I am hoping that there are people out there, that share these traits can find some solace in knowing that it can be overcome, and that you aren’t alone.
I can say that these things will pass, once you can become completely honest with yourself about it. Then and only then can it become a tool in becoming the greatest version of yourself you can become!
How to use it to improve your work!
There seems to be a divide in the Fine Art Photography “world” in how we release, or display our work, what is deemed shameless, spamming, or tasteful. I could go into a rather large rant about how this topic applies to many other facets of photography, but that will be another post.
One belief is that work should be released in galleries, large bodies of work that fit a theme, or from a specific region or place, or trip, and the other, releasing your work as individual images. I dont have much of an opinion about what method one chooses, the importance to me, is that the work shows progression. I like to look back on my imagery and see the clear improvement as time has passed. To know that I am still improving. This goes back to the self criticism, and reflection I mentioned above. Eventually the improvement will be so vast that it cannot be denied by ourselves, or others.
This gratification will be tremendous, and can be a massive confidence booster, which if handled properly can really accelerate your work, via inspiration and the knowledge that you are improving! If handled poorly, this gratification can harbor arrogance, which should have no place in art whatsoever. Arrogance appears in many, many forms and if your mindful and observant you will see arrogance everywhere, particularly social media. Un-replied to comments, when all the others have been replied to, un-reciprocated support, disregard for others, derogatory, or condescending comments, etc.. We should all be encouraging others, inspiring others, and caring about others. For that reason I highly suggest limiting what you put stock into, or just limiting the amount of time one spends engaging on social media. Social media shows us the worst in this world if you let it. That being said, in todays world, social media is invaluable to business, and as mentioned extensively above, can be a fantastic tool in forming mental toughness, criticism, gratification and inspiration, all of which can be key lesson points in the game of life, but with anything, balance is also key.
All of these factors, and interactions over the last several years have given me so much clarity, and has helped me grow in profound ways. I am a better person because of this journey, because of the people I have met, whether it was good or bad, because of the work I have done, because of the support I have received, and the friends that have come into my life, almost divinely as if to teach me specific things. How to be confident, how to be humble, how to be kind, how to be thoughtful.
All of it has made me a better Artist, and through self reflection, and honesty with myself, I am continuing to grow and improve everyday.
The most impactful of these realizations has been that what has stunted my growth in my art has been laziness. Not knowledge, although you reach a certain point where you’ve amassed such a large collection of knowledge and techniques, it becomes more about how and when we use them, the first of those tasks being the hardest. Amassing knowledge and experience is incredibly time consuming and should, never, ever end. Once I realized laziness was hindering my growth I began reflecting and observing past behavior, and habits while out in the field. I wouldn’t pay enough attention to details, light, composition, the technical stuff was easy, settings, etc..but understanding light and composition is much, much more difficult to do.
I realized I would spend my time in the field capturing as many angles, or compositions as I could find, instead of looking, and observing, and understanding. I began becoming more and more selective, using my view finder, really becoming in sync with what focal lengths would work most efficiently. I began studying weather reports much more thoroughly so that my field time was spent more constructively. Finding a suitable composition meant I was all in, that I would “hunker down” and work the composition as much as I could to create the best image possible. If the light didn’t come, then I would find myself without any images, but to me, this was ok, it meant I wasn’t, and am not settling for anything less than MY best. Sometimes I would go entire trips without making a portfolio worthy image. This started to drive me nuts, “am I being ‘too’ selective”. The short answer I gave myself was no. The long answer I gave myself was “yes, but what can we learn from this?” The lesson, is that I need to open my eyes to other possibilities, to be more open minded, and creative, but to still be very selective. Remember, the goal is growth, so for me capturing an image that isn’t as good as MY best, or an image that doesn’t inspire me as much as the others isn’t showing growth, or improvement, because the lack of inspiration for a photo shouldn’t be forced.
Laziness in post processing was crippling me. I have always been a sponge for knowledge and throughout this journey have been almost 100% self taught, and spend everyday trying to learn something new. The laziness presented in under utilization of all of the knowledge I have amassed over the years, not putting enough of me in my images, not spending enough time refining my techniques, not spending the time to do precise, fine tuning and local adjustments. Although progression has been steady over the years, it hasn’t been without periods of depression, and creative ‘block’ also hindering my growth. The hardest thing in the world seems to be pulling oneself out of ruts, and out of depression and for some it’s simply impossible. I began to assess my short comings, “why are my images not feeling clean, refined, and polished?” (which has been the goal for my work since day one). Have you ever looked at an image that just blows your mind, its refinement seems to be on a level you might never obtain, but strive for?? Yea, me too, every single day, the images almost have a “wise” feeling to them, as if the artist has tapped into the knowledge and brain of every master painter of the renaissance?
I have learned that this refinement, our lack thereof stems from laziness. Not just in ‘doing’ things, the field work, or processing but lazy thinking as well. Thinking about your knowledge, thinking about all of the factors that come into play. This is why I advocate forming a plan, conceptualizing, pre-visualizing, dreaming, and wishing. I sleep, eat, and dream thinking about post processing techniques, and capture techniques. I wake up and run to the computer to practice what pops into my head. Although spontaneity has, and does sometimes result in magical moments and imagery, I think having some sort of plan, either in planning a trip, or planning a specific shot, finding a composition while scouting, getting the gears grinding on the tech part of it is imperative to improvement. “Do I have to bracket?”, “If so, how many shots, how many EV stops apart?”, “will a wide angle work?”, “Yes, but the mountains, or background elements are diminished due to lens distortion”, “How do I overcome this? Panorama!”, “If I shoot a panorama, will I have to focus stack because I am using a longer lens, that compresses the scene, resulting in a shallower depth of field?”, “If I have to focus stack, and exposure blend, how and when should I do each step?” these are just a few examples of the decision, and thoughts I am making while composing an image.
There are infinite things to learn, and many, many things to consider to continue improving, but nothing will help you more than reflecting, and being honest with yourself.
I hope you guys enjoyed this little introspective on how I have and do deal with my insecurities and depression, and how I use them to continue learning and growing in my photography, and as a person!