I won the first marathon I ever ran. I lost the second, third, fourth and fifth. In fact, I never even placed in another marathon. The first ultramarathon I ever ran (50 miles) resulted in winning the Montana USATF State Championship. Then, just like the marathon, all subsequent ultras ended less favorably (dropping out, not placing, etc.).
Initial success was met with abject failure, capital ‘F’ Failure. Failure, inherently, is part of any learning process. I get that. You fail, learn something about the process, and try again applying the newfound knowledge. Unfortunately, through my early-20s, I was not open to learning. I was only interested in success and could not handle the prospect of losing. When losing appeared as a likely outcome, I threw in the towel and quit. Consequently, I never improved. I remained largely stagnate both as an athlete and as a human being.
This adverse relationship to failure pervaded all of my interests through my early- 20s, including photography. Straight out of high school I enrolled in a 2-year professional photography program. Undoubtedly, I learned a TON of book knowledge about photography, but when it came to field work time - which was most of the program - I fell apart. I was under the false impression that greatness was innate. You have it or you don’t. That, if you are talented, which at first I thought I might be, whatever you shot would be instant gold. I possessed a quiet ego. I was never braggadocious about it, but there was a quiet inner voice that perpetuated a false narrative that I was destined for fame and fortune. Without working hard? Without failing and learning and failing again? Without cultivating a love for the process? Ha! How misguided I was.
Those two years of photography school zipped by. I graduated without having put any real work into the program. My brain was loaded with great photography knowledge, but my portfolio had improved only marginally. With the imminent prospect of having a go at professional photography the next logical step, I concluded that if I couldn’t be great I didn’t want to do it at all. The reality of the hard work required to make it as a professional photographer sank it. I knew that I would have to put in the time, struggle for years, fail and learn and fail again. That process did not meet my needs for instant gratification. Upon graduating, I sold my photography gear straight away and focused my sights on long distance running (see above).
I can cite three events (two vague and one specific) that resulted in my change of attitude towards hard work. The vague: 1) general maturation through jobs and social experiences, and; 2) through observation, breaking down the mysticism around greatness (that genuinely successful people, especially artists, work their asses off).
The more specific experience was the break down of my body and the diagnosis of rheumatoid arthritis (RA), an autoimmune disease that unapologetically attacks joints. RA quite literally stopped me dead in my tracks. Almost overnight, I went from running ultras to being unable to properly wash and dress myself. I won’t spend anymore time on RA other than what is required to move this blog post along: I got on a treatment program, and after a couple of years, was mostly back to normal. I was forced to adapt - work through it - or quit. With photography and running, quitting had been a low-risk choice. I quit and do something else. With RA, quitting would mean being bed-bound, clinically depressed and waiting for your number to be up. Truthfully, I had periods when I did fall into those quitting traits, but eventually I was forced to work my way through it. There was no other way out.
I’ve changed. Thank GOD I’ve changed. I know now that my mom’s mantra of ‘nothing in this life that is worthwhile comes easily’ is true. The evidence in my late-20s began to stack up. I had worked hard - treatment and therapy - to manage RA. I had stuck with a long-term relationship and the rewards - deep connection - were rich. I stayed in a job for 7 years and experienced the joy of becoming proficient at something.
In my late-20s, five years ago, I decided to buy a camera again. I wanted to add a creative endeavor back into my life. Even at my most competitive I had enjoyed photography. It seemed like the logical choice of mediums. This time, I committed to doing it differently. I was committed to relearning the craft for the sake of the craft and my own enjoyment, not for the perceived value of achieving success by the world’s standards. I decided that I wanted to commit to a cycle of self-reflection and improvement. This includes shooting/processing every spare moment, daily reading about photography, weekly e-learning (YouTube) about photographic techniques, teaching photography and critical self-evaluation of images. This cycle results in both the joy of connecting with photography and the excitement of feeling greater satisfaction from the images that I am producing. What’s more, it focuses on the photographic process as an end unto itself, not a means.
Perhaps the most important decision I made when returning to photography was that I wasn’t going to worry about the future anymore. I just wanted to do my thing and if it resulted in success, great, if not, also great. Photography, for me, needed to be about the process, not the outcome.
Through all of this, I have come to understand myself as a ‘blue collar photographer’. Whatever success has come my way (exhibits, print sales, etc.) has been a result of hard work, not talent. I am humbled every time I sell a print or have folks show up at an exhibition. It is icing on the proverbial cake when people connect with the landscapes I am shooting. Undoubtedly, the praise is affirming and provides additional fuel to continue on this path. But, in the end, only continued hard work is going to result in true satisfaction. It is the idea of knowing that I have done the best that I can in all of these moments and that no shot was left untaken.
A few pertinent photography statistics:
Over the past 5 years, I have shot nearly 100,000 landscape images;
Of those, I considered ~300 worth holding onto;
Of those, I can’t stand to look at ~200 of them;
Of those, I’ve kept ~150 around on my website;
Of those, ~50 images have sold as prints or licenses;
Of that group, I remain proud of 5 images.
And I can’t wait to keep going!