Drive, Will, and Wait

Last week, I realized I’ve been seriously taking pictures for about a year now, and in that year, I’ve spent much of my free time outside, walking around, with no other aim than to see. Ninety-nine percent of the time when I’m out, I’m not taking pictures. I’m looking at things, stopping and watching, listening, catching-up (so to speak) with the city in which I live.

Something clicked for me a year ago in Tokyo. I felt more free to look there, in another country, when my environment was not my own, where I felt disassociated, a step off-kilter. Everything was a surprise.

When I got home, I plugged that feeling back into my city, and I’ve been lucky that the feeling’s still there. I wake on a Saturday morning and part of me imagines I’m back in Tokyo (or Yangon, or Addis) and there are so many new things to see and be surprised by. Discoveries to make. Corners to explore. My drive for it has as much to do (or nearly as much to do) with wanting to be outside, getting fresh air while doing something, as it does with making a photograph that I may or may not be pleased with.

Which brings me to will. I have a vague idea that photography is just like anything else that requires some level of technical accomplishment mixed with talent, that untetherable X-factor. You can’t just be a good technician.

So many pursuits demand a similar mix; violinists, surgeons, place kickers. There are savants in each, the hyper-talented who have no need to practice and are good from the get-go. Then there are those of us who need to practice. And to practice, you need to want to get better.

But practice only works when you can critically chart your own progress. I only know one way of finding out if I’m getting somewhere. It has nothing to do with posting photos online or counting page views. I’ll look at the picture, and if it looks like it’s inching closer to the kinds of photographs I want to be taking, then I’m doing okay. Every once in awhile, I’ll take something that surprises me, and charts a new, fresh direction. That’s when the work teaches me. You can only take pictures that attempt to please you.

In the newish Henri Cartier Bresson documentary (which is more of a softball television special than a full-blown film) there are a few moments in which simple (but meaty) wisdom is conveyed. Isabelle Huppert is talking about how acting is similar to photography and how “things happen quickly or not at all, easily or effortlessly — you can’t will it, it just happens.” She’s obviously speaking about Bresson’s particular brand of photography, and goes on to say, “it’s the same (in acting) as in photography, either something happens or it doesn’t.”

Bresson says, “you can’t force things. If you do, you are lost.” Bresson has as many fans as detractors, and personally, I’m wary of anyone who’s canonical in any discipline, but in those two quick sentences, he pretty much summed it all up.

If you take photos, perhaps you know when you’ve gone off the edge. When you’ve pushed too far and fallen off. Or when you’ve gotten flabby. When your eye relaxes and your pictures become too glossy, familiar or easy. This Sunday, after working with a rented lens and ambling around from dawn to dusk, my eyes were tired. It wasn’t that I’d taken tons of photos, it’s that I was tired of looking; it was time for something new. I’d learned what I was going to learn for that particular day.

I guess I’m trying to figure out how these three things combine: the will to do something; the drive to get it done and done well; and the willingness to wait for moments and situations that cannot be predicted to flow around oneself. How can these three things repeatedly come together? Yet, they do. Most blame it on talent, and intuition, but I think there’s a larger unknown at work that’s hard to harness and impossible to describe. It’s that unpredictability that keeps me engaged. But it honestly seems like an impossible task, when picked apart.

I think that’s the allure — as one who photographs and enjoys looking at good photographs taken by others. The best work (like the best concert violinist, or even place kicker) makes the technical achievement disappear, and you’re left amazed by the results; you feel the jolt of emotion from the thing that’s been created, and you’re left with a question — how the heck did the photographer have the foresight to be there, at that moment, ready with a camera to their eye and their finger on the shutter for That?

3 thoughts on “Drive, Will, and Wait”

  1. Yes, good point about blogging and the mistake of measuring your worth through page views. I think you stumbled upon another subject about what is blogging doing for photography. Do we photograph to blog or blog to photograph? Welcome back to Tokyo.

  2. Understanding when I’m getting flabby is definitely my problem. It may be too obvious an observation, but I think the the effortlessness can’t come without the will and the drive. Most of photography — at least that which purports to be some kind of personal statement (art?) is like five-finger exercise. You’re not just learning, but you’re also training your perception and digging out those neural pathways that will let you get from seeing something to getting your finger on the button. Part of that is a feel for what works in a frame and part of that is cerebellum-level reaction. I do think one’s personal best tends to look effortless and even feel that way, but only because you have earned it by all of the pretty-good pictures you worked really hard to get. CB making that statement is a little annoying. It’s a kind of myth-making that sounds great because it’s so appealing — even lazy people can be great! But even CB took plenty of pretty so-so pictures and published them too. Over time, his best add up to something amazing. And that of course is the “wait”. It just plain takes a lot of time to accumulate good images because luck always plays a part. You can calibrate it with the amount of time you work at it, so if you spend more time photographing (or as you point out, not necessarily actually shooting , but just looking and trying to decide if what you see is interesting photographically) you’ll accumulate faster, but time and chance are always in the equation. Contrary to what CB seems to suggest, I have this sinking feeling that it’s those who have the will and drive that produce the lasting work. There are just too many people out there dripping with talent to make that the deciding factor. It may be that when you sort through all the driven, wilfull workers, talent does become the deciding factor, but the drive and will came first. A musician once told me that “hard work and discipline beat talent 7 days a week”; without the drive and the will, talent doesn’t matter. He was probably right..

  3. When I produce work I,sadly, secretly, want it to be admired. However, regardless as to how it was received
    if I don’t understand or feel it (for want of a better phrase ) I swirl around until I inch closer to a way out/forward.
    The more I make the more technically proficient I become but then chance and a certain naive quality teeters on the brink of oblivion so this too has to be given a sideways glance and acknowledged.
    In the end , if there was one, we are only trying to understand ourselves.

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