Geoff has been a squash player for years, and in his heyday won loads of shields and trophies and was very, very good at it, but a bad knee combined with age and a steady increase in weight has meant that he’s now limited to the less physically stressful game of racketball. This is not a thriving area for racketball, but he has managed to find two or three people to play with. They’re of varying standards and he gets a better game from some of them than he does others.
He came back one evening, having won his game easily that night, and said ‘you know, he delivers some very good shots sometimes, and his good shots are as good as my good shots, but my bad shots are a whole lot better than his are, and that’s why I win.’ It got me thinking that this definitely applies to photography and probably many other things besides. Looking back at the images I took when I started out with photography, I can see that the best of them still look pretty good. However, the bad ones – and there are a lot of bad ones – are very bad indeed and the mediocre ones aren’t far behind.
As time has gone by, my bad shots have got a whole lot better and I think this might be one way of indicating progress. Photography is a strange pursuit in that, even when you don’t really know what you’re doing, it’s still quite possible to get a wonderful shot – that’s something that’s a lot less likely to happen in other art forms. The measure of a good photographer, however, might lie in the proportion of excellent shots they regularly manage to achieve, combined with the calibre of their worst shots.
One approach that photographers use much more than other visual artists is to work in series linked by a concept or theme. There are some obvious examples of painters who’ve done this too – eg, Monet, with his series of canvases showing haystacks, Rouen Cathedral, and waterlilies (not all at once, of course) or Hogarth with his prints of the Rake’s Progress. On the whole, though, I believe work that’s consistently presented as sets of linked images is largely peculiar to photographers.
There are a lot of reasons for this, not least the tradition of photo journalism where one picture might tell a story, but several will tell it better. Another reason – and one which sets them apart from a lot of amateur photographers – is that being able to produce a set of images that are consistently good, hold together in terms of tones and colours and so on, and are presented in a coherent way, is the mark of someone who didn’t just get lucky.
It’s surprisingly difficult to do. My first set of images for my first OCA assignment were mostly random shots that just about fitted the brief. On putting together later and better-considered assignments, it was immensely tricky to get all the images looking as if they belong together and frequently led to the heartbreaking situation of having to leave out my best shot because it just didn’t fit. I think this is one reason why producing a coherent group of images on a theme is one of the best ways of improving your photography.
It’s natural to track progress photographically by looking at how much better our best shots have become. Perhaps, though, the time to get excited is when our worst shots show signs of getting lots better.