Failure as Friend

I’ve made a lot of mistakes in my photographic life.

I destroyed my first ever roll of film by rolling it on itself on the reel. When the lights came on and I pulled the roll from the water I was left with pink emulsion all over my fingers. There was the master print I was so sure was masterful I had to verify it’s brilliance by turning on the light with the print still in the developer. For those of you unfamiliar with the wet darkroom process just know that doing this will dramatically impact the quality of your print and not in a good way. And my mistakes in photography are not limited to the darkroom, oh no. There was the time I was assisting and dropped another photographer’s brand new Mamiya 7 on the ground. There was the time I was assisting and stepped on a huge rock ledge near South Mountain in Phoenix only to have the entire ledge break off. I slid downhill at warp speed until my slide was abruptly stopped by a four foot tall cactus with three inch black spines which all found a nice home buried deep in my shin. There was the subsequent trip to the emergency room.

There was the time I was standing too close to a crime scene and was warned by the officer in charge DO NOT under ANY circumstance cross under the police tape. Someone pulled on the tape and it snapped back, hit me in the middle of the face then flopped behind my head making it APPEAR as if I had crossed the police tape. It appeared to the officer in charge that I had purposely done exactly what he warned me NEVER to do. Imagine a large man three inches from my face with spit flying dressing me down in front of bystanders, other photographers and grieving family members. There was the time I was sent to photograph Al Gore, arrived late, and ended up in the dark, alone, behind two secret service men who had no idea I was there. In short, wrong place, wrong time. I coughed and was promptly placed in a choke hold of sorts(the gear around my neck saved me) then flung to the ground in front of an amused crowd of onlookers. There was the fight I got into while on assignment at a Rage Against the Machine concert.

I’ve opened the back of the camera without rewinding the film. I’ve shot half an assignment with no film in the camera. I’ve forgotten to change my ISO, shooting film AND digital files in daylight at 6400 ISO. Recently digging through negatives from 1988 it also appears I went out shooting while wearing a tank top, 1980’s style shorts and white high tops and allowed someone to photograph me doing so. I was called “unhireable” by another photographer. I must have applied for thirty internships and was denied all but one. I lost a fellowship to the Middle East. I was hired then fired from a photography job not even knowing I had been hired in the first place. I’ve been passed over, overlooked, denied, stopped, rejected and humiliated on a regular basis for over twenty years.

In short, I’ve done some truly idiotic things and seen my share of failures, and this doesn’t even take into account the thousands of terrible images I’ve made.

But this is the way things are. This is the way things need to be. This is reality. I believe if you are living the life of a photographer you will fail far, far more than you will succeed. But again, I think this is normal, or in other words the way it should be. For some reason I think today we have a real aversion to failure, as if it can’t be accepted or be a natural part of the creative experience. I think we have this strange desire for perfection in photography, which I don’t think is a reality, nor do I find “perfect” photographic things very interesting. Why is this? Why do we feel like reality isn’t enough and that perfection is the game we want to play? Why is failure so frowned upon?

Recently, I was scanning old family photos for a presentation and I came across this top image which completely and utterly blew me away. First, it’s gorgeous, and what makes it more incredible is that I THINK my father, the world’s WORST photographer made this image of my mother and brother in rural Indiana where I was born. I immediately emailed my family and asked, “Who took this?” “Did mom have a boyfriend with photographic skill?” The light, the moment, the expressions are real. I love the color, the falloff, etc.

And then I printed it………

And I forgot to take the printer off of “monochrome,” so the first print was black and white. Then I used the wrong profile and lost all my shadow detail. Then I finally got the color right and used a paper I can’t stand. Ultimately I never made a good print but something strange happened. The entire time I was printing I was holding the small snapshot in my hand, studying it’s every crack, crease and imperfection. I grew to love the little print and realized I didn’t need to make a large print. My failure brought me closer to what I should have seen and perhaps known all along. Then I tore up the print and realized I liked all the pieces. So I tore up another print, which I’ve also included here.

In the process of tearing up the second print I noticed a second copy which was utterly screwed up. The contrast was wrong, the negative was dirty, half of the image is tack sharp and the other half is completely soft because the enlarger I was using was an epic piece of shit. Again, something strange happened. I was suddenly daydreaming about the print. Everything came back to me as clear as if I was standing in the darkroom. I could see and read the negative. I could remember what I did to make the print. I could remember my sketch of the image for my print book “cheat sheet” I created. I relived the entire experience of making the image to processing the film and ultimately making my putrid print. I felt like this was like reading an important chapter in the history book of my photographic life. It would be easy to say, “I’ll learn from this and won’t make that mistake again,” but that would be a lie. I’ll do it again, and probably again because I’m a photographer and I’m human.

I think the Marines have a saying that goes something like “Love the suck.” I think this is a good expression and one that applies to life in general. Failure to a Marine means something entirely different but the IDEA is the same.

Don’t fear photographic failure, embrace it. Heck, enjoy it. My personal belief is that if you aren’t failing on a regular basis you are far to set in your comfort zone and are holding yourself back. Sometimes it’s fun to walk into the unknown and the results can be truly life-changing.

56 Responses to “Failure as Friend”

  1. Randy says:

    I think i’ll use that line..”love the suck”.
    There are times when what i’m doing, photography wise, cycling where it totally sucks. I mean, i’m in total laughter…the suck is almost a living object right there in front of me. Rare, but it does happennlike that. Mostly i just wanna put my hand on the inside of a desk drawer and SLAM it shut. I use the term with another buddy of mine, i mean we connect to these suck moments, the term “brain dead dogs”. Laughter follows. Call it a club, call it a brotherhood, so i do agree to embrace it. Someone is giving us a sign to realise and see whats happening.

  2. Aileen says:

    This is the perfect post for me today. Thank you. Great to meet you at the DC Portfolio Reviews. A proper Thank You is forthcoming.

  3. Larry says:

    Timely post, especially with the recent arrival of 30 rolls of film that, at first glance, totally suck. I’ll keep this post in mind as I review the contact sheets later this week. Thanks for the inspiration.

  4. Reiner says:

    Maybe that’s the main thing you need to know about life: failure’s included! Is it therefor I love film as my main medium to capture light? Because it more resembling live than the überperfect d•g•t•l shots? Last month I shot some hp5,then some fp4 and forgot to switch from 400 to 125. Just added 2 stops dev time and got some very nice results. The uncertainty about having some good results made it almost unbearable to look at the negs after flushing the dev tank with tap water. A real adventure due to a simple mistake…

    • Smogranch says:

      Reiner,
      Oh man, I’ve done that too. Or you push one roll then forget which roll it is and have to “sacrifice” it. I love it. Makes me kick myself but I know I’ll always do these things.

  5. LionelB says:

    I cursed as a motor-bike went past just as I squeezed the shutter to make a portrait. Then the print shows the rider glancing back, smiling. It raises the ordinary to the seriously special. And with nanosecond timing.
    Why are the best images always the accidental ones … ?

  6. Jeff Frost says:

    Failure!? I prefer to label it a little differently. You were *experimenting* with the durability of Mamiya’s product. You discovered how the secret service reacts to ninjas, and tested limits of Police Force patience.

    You are a great and successful experimenter!

    • Smogranch says:

      Jeff,
      That is really funny. I like it. I just wish you had been there to let the photographer know I was “experimenting” with is Mamiya. He wasn’t amused.

  7. Wonderful writing and a great topic! Yes, photography is supposed to be FUN, not a stressful, perfectionistic, experience. And I love your understanding of the personal connection, which for me is much more about what it’s about. Often the final print is the add-on – it’s what happens during the shooting, with whom, in your mind, heart, darkroom, computer room, entire world where you create that is the true gift.

    I once was so excited about a print that I turned on the light in my very professional/very masterful/very organized photographer/lover’s darkroom while leaving the paper safe door open – exposing the last of his German paper which was expensive, beautiful…and no longer available. I felt HORRIBLE – couldn’t let go of it – until he finally told me stories like you have, telling me of the many “mistakes, failures, embarassing situations” he had found himself over a 30 year career. It was one of the most loving, freeing, things that he could have done.

    To be an artist, you have to have some of that wildness and freedom to go for it that often ends in less than comfortable circumstances. But those qualities also lead us to amazing life experiences, and wonderful creations.

    Thanks so much for sharing -

  8. bob soltys says:

    some great stories … perfect post for a Monday

    thanks for putting a positive spin on your learning experiences

  9. Hey Daniel,

    embracing failures… reminds me of something Sally Mann said in the wonderful documentary “What remains”; it was something like “I fear I might master this process one day (talking about the wet plate collodion process) and all the lovely imperfection and failures will be gone”…

    You really found the right words for it. But nevertheless, not all imperfections and mistake have something beautiful inside of them. Some images just suck. And that can be utterly frustrating… Oh well. ;)

    • Smogranch says:

      Phillpp,

      Most of the images I make really suck. That’s photography. Don’t let it get you down!

    • And there is something really fascinating about experience in photography too. The longer I (and for that matter probably all photographers) keep learning and investigating in photography, the more images I make seem to suck. Haha.

      No, it won’t get me down. It just makes me more selective. Thanks for the great read, man!

    • Smogranch says:

      Phillipp,

      I think this can be good. When I look at portfolios I’m not looking for what I know the person can do. I’m looking for those images that are on the fringe of the portfolio. I’m looking for images the photographer can’t explain but felt compelled to include. Those images are the roadmap of the future.

  10. When I worked in IT, I called this “learning by failing” :) And actively encouraged my crew to experiment, not ever be afraid to fail (well once, then hopefully learning from it. We were after all running the government. Well part of it).

    “Love the suck” is awesome too. I’m a perfectionist though so I have to fight the urge to make things perfect meaning boring .

    PS. The Milnor Diaries – who’ll play you, fighting the whole moss pit at a Rage concert?

  11. mike a says:

    The last paragraph was golden, don’t fear photographic failure. I’ve failed so many times it ain’t even funny. (Ain’t… southern word) . I’m at the point in my life where I realize I’m a photo doofus or a hack or an idiot and I’m ok with it. I know I’ll never get rich or be famous, the pressure is off, I just wanna make pictures I like now. Never stop learning, keep pushing the envelope, crash and burn, swing for the fence…….why not…..damn what are you scared of.

  12. Just yesterday I accidentally took the entire lid off my developing tank and briefly exposed my film to light. This is the third time I have screwed up in the same way and probably wont be the last. It is just reassuring to know that I am not the only one making stupid blunders. It is upsetting but only till you develop your next roll of film:)

  13. I hope I am not tramping through conversational territory already
    covered but your memories put knowing smiles of acknowledgement
    on people’s faces. Some of them made me laugh aloud because
    I have been foolish enough to wear 80’s clothes in front of cameras
    (for the record, 70’s acetate are far worse than anything the 80’s
    devised), and made similar comic blunders just like yours but could
    never articulate them so well.

    You left out an important QUALITY you have; tenacity. Failure
    without tenacity is the end of the story. You have kept the stories
    rolling along by getting back up every time…

    On the perfection issue, I think that few people are willing to
    admit their failures because there is such a mystique attached
    to appearing to be an instant, natural talent who, poof,
    storms onto the scene to bestow their benevolent talent down
    upon a world of commoners: the second coming of Capa/Stieglitz,
    etc. Such an attitude rarely accompanies the level of tenacity
    and sincerity required for longevity in the photo world.

    Everyone possesses unique vision and hard work, over
    the years, like that evident in your blog posts gives you
    wisdom to share with others, and some good laughs too.

    • LionelB says:

      Stieglitz went bust, ruined by his perfectionism. When published, the now much coveted Camera Work mouldered on shelves. Capa took an airbrush to his own life. Truth politician-style. Photographer icons though both of them, not despite their flaws but in large measure because of them.

    • Smogranch says:

      Lionel,
      I never knew him or met him but Gene Smith was not known as a nice guy. I heard he died with few friends and $13 in the bank. But, he was perhaps the best doc shooter in history. Torn, driven, possessed, compulsive and thorny but the work survives.

    • Smogranch says:

      James,

      The outfit I was wearing was so evil I can’t imagine that NOBODY said anything, but my sinking suspicion is that the person who took the image of me was ALSO wearing something equally horrid. Imagine ripped gym tank top in rainbow colors, short gym shorts and Avia high-tops. And enormous camera bag with every piece of equipment I owned. Oh, and the camera strap was a guitar strap, also rainbow colored.

      Tenacity is a good term. I agree. Driven is another. I think you have to be because there are many reasons to say no or stop or not move forward.

  14. Thanks for posting this. It’s strangely encouraging to know how we have all failed at one time in one way or another (and still continue to do so). It brings about a humanity to this art. I have been really hard on myself lately on my photographic imperfections and “wasted film” but you have encouraged me to go and fail, learn, keep going and live the journey :)

    Oh, and make a blurb book about it all ;)

    • Smogranch says:

      Jonathan,

      Funny how things we think are wasted can come back and bite us creatively. Keep that film and go back to it a year from now. You just never know……

  15. Kristin says:

    all I can say is this is a beautiful read and I’m going to share it. Here’s to making more mistakes, failing more and attempting things that are dangerous (not necessarily physically but more creatively but possibly physically).

    • Smogranch says:

      Kristin,
      Thank you. Last night I gave a lecture in Santa Fe and someone came up and said, “I read your post today and really enjoyed it.” Makes it all worthwhile.

  16. Kristin says:

    oh and Thank You!!

  17. Sarah says:

    I love this. Pretty please share the tank top, 80s shorts, and high tops photo. You will be my hero.

  18. Giovanni says:

    Hey my friend,
    Nice reading your post…and I’m thinking that failure and success are parts of the same thing…simply they are part of our life! Love G

  19. Reiner says:

    Can you imagine the poor man who (almost) destroyed Capa’s negs which he shot on DDay landing with the troops on the french coasts?

    • Smogranch says:

      Reiner,
      Yes, that would have sucked, but I heard it was a faulty heater in a film dryer. Melted the emulsion. Either way, a bummer of DDay proportions.

  20. Sean says:

    For the first few months after buying an M6 I would regularly attempt to take the film out without rewinding it.

    But for some reason I thought it was kinda smart. I’ve stopped doing it now of course but sometimes I wish I hadn’t.

    • Smogranch says:

      Sean,
      Everyone has their own style. Sometimes I put developer on the print by hand, then turn the lights on and then fix. Low percentage but entertaining.

  21. joe dupont says:

    As I progressed through the years in digital photography, I focused more and more on technical perfection in my photographs. It wasn’t until I bought my M3 and went back to black and white film photography that I started to re-discover the “feeling” of the photograph. Photos that hit me on a gut level are driven by content and purpose, not technique.

    Going back to film has, though, increased that sometimes paralytic fear of failure. Thanks for your wonderful article and helping me put things in perspective.

    • Smogranch says:

      Joe,
      I see A LOT of digital work that is so perfected it looks totally fake. When I see light moving in ten directions at once, perfect cloudy skies and details in all parts of an image it leaves me feeling like I’m looking at a bad painting as opposed to a photograph. I think you are right about the feeling. Life isn’t perfect, so why should images be. A retoucher once told me, “We are in the period of the computer when we don’t know when to stop, and we will look back on the work we are creating today and cringe.”

    • Tom says:

      A lot of digital work looks fake because it is fake and it’s been heavily worked over and without regard for knowing what ‘real’ means in terms of light and composition and details. Too much time at the computer leads to this problem. There’s an easy solution here for people, make sure you spend 80% of the time shooting and 20% of the time at the computer (or something close). How many photogs have that reversed? Lots I’d bet. Computers have made us believe we don’t have to compose in the viewfinder or wait for the correct light. That’s just sad.

    • Smogranch says:

      Tom,
      I think people have a hard time saying “enough.” These new tools are interesting. I’ve seen plenty of friends move further down that road. It’s their choice. I am lucky. I don’t like sitting in front of a computer all day, or night, so the choice is easy.

  22. Erin Wilson says:

    Found myself letting out a very long sigh of relief as I read this post.
    So encouraging.
    Thank you.

  23. Moritz says:

    Thank you for this post – it makes me feel a little better: recently destroyed my first roll of self- developed b&w after 14 years by badly rolling it into the spool and sticking it on itself. At least like this I will always believe they would have been grand photos and can dodge the ugly truth :)

  24. joe dupont says:

    Congratulations Daniel for this post being chosen as one of the best photography blog posts of the year!

  25. shana says:

    daniel

    you mean i’m not the only one that shot a whole roll without film loaded in my camera?! ; ) sometimes it’s challenging to maintain that beginners mind that allows us to create without expectations.

    it’s so comforting to read your words (and all the comments) as it’s so easy to think that others have it all together. thank you.

    cheers from shana

    • Smogranch says:

      Shana,

      I’ve never met anyone who has it entirely together. I’ve met some who have come close but they aren’t photographers. Don’t sweat the small stuff.

Leave a Reply