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.