The Power of Doubt

I made these images last week while in Salt Lake City on business. There was little intent here, just a few spare moments to walk the streets. A few days after I showed these images to someone I walked with and he said “I like these, and they make me wonder why I didn’t shoot that moment or space?” I told him that was the beauty of photography, that there is no right and wrong, and each of us sees the world in a strange and unique way. This is something I’ve written about many times here on Smogranch, about how each photographer has a view on things and the real task is to find that view, polish it and to be able to call upon it when needed, sometimes at a moments notice. It has never been easy and the same applies today, even when we have so much new at our fingertips, a new that promises to make everything effortless. It never does. In fact, it has no effect on this pursuit at all. None.

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But that is not what I want to talk about. I don’t particularly like these images. In fact, they don’t even feel like they are mine. But they brought up something very important in my mind; doubt. There is a detachment with these images, and rightly so. I wasn’t particularly interested in the subject matter and I was walking and talking with someone else, a practice that is enjoyable but one that also forces me to balance looking with the act of interacting with another human being. I can’t really do both. I’m simply not good enough at the moment, or perhaps I never was.
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What these images made me realize was I have not been excited about images for a long, long while. My own images I should say. I’ve not made a single image, for a considerable amount of time, that I feel truly connected with. And now the doubt has begun to emerge. Am I still capable of making great work? Was I ever? Have I ever? Now I have certain bodies of work I feel are stronger than others, and some of these bodies did acquire accolades over the years, so I feel it’s not home team bias to think they might be good work. But they were done years ago, and frankly I don’t know if I’m still capable of making work like this. Doubt.
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All of my good work was people based, and this specific style of image requires time, access, trust and connection. Time. There is simply no way around it. I look back on the good work and see the YEARS flip by on the calendar. I see the film piled up, the long flights, the complete, selfish deep dive into ONLY the project. Nothing else mattered or even breached the edges of my radar. In fact, other than my wife, I HAD nothing else. Nothing. Only photography, which is something I look back on now and cringe. I should have never let it go this far, but I did, and the one upside is the work. But now I live a different life where photography lives on the same street but in a different house. She is a friendly neighbor but I hardly see her, and when I do it’s only a quick “hello” and “goodbye.”

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But a part of me wonders if it’s still possible, and if I could resurrect something good if given the chance. Yesterday, as a test, I made a decision to take the first step in the required direction, which for me is all about mental space. Meditation as disconnect. I was in treatment for my Lyme Disease, and I have the option of watching a television connected to cable, not something I usually have access to seeing as my house is void of TV. Normally, I use this treatment time to zone out and forget, but yesterday I turned the television off, crossed my legs and just let my mind wander. Suddenly I was inside a book. A white book with only a faint trace of content, pulled back and faded to the edge of nothing. It took a moment to understand where I was and what I was looking at, but then I realized it was the future book I had thought about but had yet to formulate. Physically I was in a small cubicle of treatment but my mind was somewhere else, completely and utterly at peace and working with precise and uncluttered focus, eyes open, hands moving and handling the book that was yet to be. The title came to me, the cover design and the copy required for the introduction. All of it. Word by word, image by image.
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And then suddenly I was back. Soaked in sweat. Like coming up from the depths of isolation and back into this world. I wasn’t sure how much time had passed, but I knew it was a considerable amount. It was like I had ceased to exist, in a physical sense, while “away” and doing “work.” I began to retrace my route and the things I had discovered. I had no pen or paper, so I tried to file the list away for a future retrieval. I was pleased because I knew I still had what I required, at least mentally, to do work I want to do. I still had the REM sleep of focus required to really connect.
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In London a few weeks back I had a conversation with an Instagram photographer and admitted that IG was the first social network I decided to delete. I explained why I needed to do this. This person listened patiently then asked if there wasn’t another way for me to work around this. I said I didn’t think so. I’m sure others can do it, but I’m entirely sure I cannot. In fact, what these fractional things did to me was ensure I was never truly connected to what was around me because they were a constant distraction, or filter, of my true thoughts at any given time. If I’m staring at a phone, or television for that matter, how can I NOT be distracted.
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My doubt still remains. I’m not sure I can see the way I need to, but I now know I can still find the focus required. These images are a reminder to me that there are real photographs and there are phantoms, crisscrossing our eyes, distracting our brain, or deflecting reality just a bit longer. Filler. They keep the fluids moving and the parts greased just enough that the machine does not falter or grind to a halt. At some point in the near future I will need to face this doubt, make a stand or learn to ignore, and this is when the real fun will begin.

12 Responses to “The Power of Doubt”

  1. Don’t feel bad about these images. They are images that you took in your life. I like to think that in a well lived life you have days of excitement and days of boredom days of certainty and days of doubt. It’s all good cause it’s in a life. Another thing you can count on is that things change. Photography is always a good companion even if she makes you frustrated as hell. Trust me at the end of hopefully 80 or 90 years you will be glad you have these “shitty” images. You’re on a good path my friend.

  2. lionelB says:

    If someone has total faith in their own images it is reasonable to assume that they are churning out derivative trash. Self-doubt is necessary for creativity. I don’t think we can ever get beyond a sense of whether our own stuff “works” – or doesn’t. Only others can see it without the burden of our emotional baggage.

    Dorothea Lange said that a camera is a thing which enables us to see without a camera. Maybe that is part of it. Does being better at ‘seeing’ mean that we necessarily make better pictures ? Or does it mean that we no longer need to ?

    • Smogranch says:

      Lionel,
      I wish I knew. All I know for sure is that things change. Some because we want them to and others because we are powerless to the influence the outcome. I find myself somewhere in the middle.

  3. lionelB says:

    The really interesting things happen at the point where that dreamtime state and reality intersect. As you have become more aware, it is natural that you should find some of your past impressions trite and superficial. They probably were. You can see more deeply and you want more. Single images at their very best are iconic, virtuoso. Increasingly though I find that I want context, a body of work, a life. Incidentally, don’t beat yourself about the head for failure to ‘multi-task’. It is urban myth. We are wired only to alternate – and that makes us clumsy with all of it. My best images come when I am absorbed and oblivious. How to be that way when making portraits is something I haven’t really figured out at all. So I avoid it.

    • Smogranch says:

      Lionel,
      I know the multi-task myth all too well. My wife is famous for telling me she can do it. She can’t. Sometimes I play along, but it is an impossible task for the human machine. But all these shiny tools make us believers. I love the power of a single image. A really good one, but they are SO rare. In fact I haven’t seen one in a while. I’ve always worked in theme. Since the day I picked up a camera. It’s different because ten great single don’t make a great story, so it’s a different way of thinking and working. With portraits? Easy. Photograph children. They are honest, so you can be.

  4. My process, it will surely not be a surprise to you, is different. It’s more iterative, more stop and go, more circling back to the same things. The inspirations are smaller, much less holistic. I stop by here to read about you, because I dig that fire in the belly, and I find it inspiring, but it ain’t my particular thing really.

    But so what, the point is that my process and my life evolved simultaneously, and the one fits the other pretty well. I’m a bit older than you, and I have a couple of young kids, and there’s a full time job that has nothing to do with photography. So the photography fits into that.

    I won’t even comment on your pictures, because my opinion is irrelevant. What is relevant is that you may find that your process changes as you age, and the character of your work may also change. Older people do different things than younger people do.

    If I have any shred of useful advice here, it’s probably this: Be open to that evolution.

    • Smogranch says:

      Andrew,
      I don’t think I have a choice! I am a far better photographer than I was when I began, or even for the first ten years of my career. But then there is that 10-20 year period where I’m not entirely sure. LIke you said, nothing I can do about it, and it’s “easy life” games even debating. I’ll have my chance to find some answers in the next few months……

  5. Daniel,

    This one is one of my all time favourites of yours:

    http://thephotobrigade.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/12/dan-milnor.jpg

    It makes me want to sell all my digital gear, buy a Leica M6 again and a bag of Tri-X and roam the world looking for moments to capture.

    I am not particular old nor particular young, but if it is one thing I have learned in my 33 years of existence it is that anything worth doing requires a lot of hard work, focus and effort. Commercialism keeps providing us with lots of gadgets to help us with our busy lifes – but in reality I don’t really think we have such busy lifes. I mean obviously we do, but if we weren’t so busy with buying stuff we don’t really need we wouldn’t have to work so much to afford them anyhow.

    The best thing I have ever done was to quit my job, travel the world and just focus on life and photography – and its when I have done my best work. Being back “home” now, commercialism and consumerism creeps in again and I feel busy again for no particular good reason.

    I have no doubt you have lots of good work in you, just less time to focus. Maybe find the time and the images that you feel connected with will return?

    Btw I had lyme disease myself – it is a real bitch! I roamed the world and did crazzy things (including climbing 20.000+ mountains). When I returned to Denmark which is probably the safest country in the world – I was bitten by a stupid tick and suffered from Lyme Disease for 3-4 months (I caught it early though so we nuked it with anti biotics for 20ish days). How ironic thinking of the crazy adventures around the world that it is such a tiny little creature that can take you out – I wish you all the best for your healing process!

    • Smogranch says:

      Hey Michael,
      I know a few folks in Europe with Lyme. The agencies here have done a great job convincing Americans that Lyme is only an East Coast issue, so when you mention to anyone here in CA that you have it, most of the time the news is met with bewilderment. It’s a rough thing this disease. I caught it after about 3-4 months and am taking meds and also started hyperbaric treatment last Monday.

      You are correct in your assessment of FOCUS. It’s rare I get a clean shot at something, which is partly why I killed social media, to aid or assist myself in this direction. It has helped dramatically. Now I eye my smartphone and think it’s next up on the chopping block. Just walked into a restaurant here in the OC, there were eight people already sitting. Two together, three together then three individual. All eight were on there phones, nobody talking. The three closest I could see…..all scrolling through Instagram like brainless robots.

      You are also right on the money with the consumerism angle. It is what is driving our culture.

  6. Chantal says:

    When a photographer of your caliber expressed doubt, it helps me to realize that the doubt I feel every moment of every day is perfectly normal. Thanks for sharing!

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