I recently read an article, The Evolution of a Photographer, in which the author, Mark Mendoza, identifies seven phases every photographer goes through at one time or another. I studied the markers of each phase, trying to place myself. I think I land somewhere between his Phase 6, The Awakening, and Phase 7, Back to Basics.
In Phase 6, you’ve come to a point in your photography that you realize only now are you good. All those countless hours of shooting, editing, and constant learning of techniques are now really starting to show in your work. You’ve decided on a particular niche and have become good at it.
I took his admonishment for Phase 6 seriously.
I believe this phase to also be the most dangerous. Some will get comfortable with the idea that they’re good now, so the learning slows down. But be warned, the learning never stops. This craft like any other craft requires constant attention and dedication. You’re never finished in photography. There is always room for development.
I straddle the fence. I’m rounding my way to Phase 6, Back to Basics. For some this might mean a return to film or a simpler camera. For me, after so many carefully planned and executed photographs, it’s a return to the snapshot. Those simple everyday pictures that capture a certain quality of light, the cascade of azaleas along the white picket fence, the color everywhere.
But it just happens, every so often, that something very ordinary seems beautiful to me and I’d like it to be eternal. I’d like this bistro, and that dusty light bulb, and that dog dreaming on the marble, and even this night—to be eternal. And their essential quality is precisely that they aren’t.—Raymond Queneau, Witch Grass
When I am stuck for a way back to basics, I often turn to an old and trusted resource, The Photographer’s Playbook from Aperture. This is one of those books that lives on my shelf. I take it down from time to time and flip through the pages for inspiration. It’s like an exercise manual for photographers. The assignments don’t feel like homework; they feel like encouragement to keep going.
I love the assignment “Follow Your Heart” from Margaret Jakschik.
Let your work evolve like a visual song. When you hear a song, try to transport the feeling of it into your work. Others might not see it, but there is a transformation happening in your work, which will hopefully be identified by a larger audience on a similar emotional frequency.
Once you allow chance and emotions to enter your work, this can become the most beautiful assignment for yourself.
It’s a beautiful thing to know we can stop and live in one phase for a good long while or even set up camp and live happily in that space. There is no moral imperative to move on or learn more or even to make better pictures. But for those of us who are deeply engaged in this way of seeing the world and this form of creative work, it’s really comforting to know that we are never done learning and growing.
Even as we come full circle, we begin anew. Maybe there are a lot more than 7 phases in our evolution.