There, I said it. You’re only as good as your worst image.
But you already knew that, I promise. If you’ve ever followed an artist’s work – be it a photographer, a musician, a filmmaker, whatever – then I’m sure you’ve created a mental ranking of their greatest hits and greatest flops, at least as you would call them. I know you’ve done that, because I do it too. We all do it. It’s human nature. And it’s only logical to do so. Nobody’s output – be it an artist, an athlete, a professional – can be perfectly consistent all of the time. We all have our high points and low points in everything we do, and that includes our work, be it artistic or otherwise. We wouldn’t be human if it were any different.
So given this situation, how is an artist’s body of work perceived by others? Some people might look at the best examples and form their opinion based on that. Some people might, but not very many, I suspect. My guess is that opinions are more swayed by the worst examples. Maybe I’m being pessimistic, or maybe I’m just too cynical, but I don’t think that’s the case. I’m no expert in psychology, but I’m pretty sure that negative reinforcement is a powerful motivator on how people form their opinions. If your audience comes across a poor example of your work, it tends to stick with them.
This could all be seen as being very demotivating. After all, why would anyone put any of their work into the world if there’s a risk it could be badly received and reflect poorly on them?
I don’t think it has to be understood this way, though. The reason I’m bringing up this point in this blog post is to stress the importance of self-editing.
I believe those that create or perform – again, be they artists, athletes, professionals, or whatever – tend to see the best aspects of their output, and be blind to the flaws. I know I do. When I create an image, I know how I want it to look and what I want it to communicate. I have a vision for it, that I try to translate into the final product by way of craft. Craft involves building the image up a piece at a time – through arranging the composition, placing tonalities, controlling contrast, etc. When individual elements of the piece start working, I start seeing my vision realized, bits and pieces at a time, and it’s exciting.
And yet, there’s a tension. Things don’t always come together in the end. Sometimes, even if individual parts of the image look like they’re working, the image as a whole is not. When this happens, it’s easy to see only what’s working in the piece – what you like about it – and ignore the flaws (but the composition is so cool! the range of tones is just awesome!). Resist this tendency! This is when you have to self-edit, to be your own worst critic.
For me, this usually takes the form of a small, nagging voice telling me that something about the image just isn’t working. It’s a quiet voice, in danger of being drowned out by the much louder voices telling me everything I like about the image, and it’s pretty easy to ignore. Ignore it at your peril, though. This is the voice that keeps you from putting work into the world that you really know shouldn’t be there. When you self-edit, you cull weak images from your body of work, and those that make it through will have reached a minimum standard of quality. As a result, some pieces in your portfolio may become standouts, and others not, but all will have merit, and your body of work as a whole will have consistency and value.
One final point. Art cannot be quantified, and tastes are subjective. What I’ve said here should not be misunderstood as advocating that there is an objective yardstick by which art is to be measured. When you put work into the world, people will like it, or people won’t, and usually that has nothing to do with you or the work itself. All I’m saying is that when you put work into the world, make sure that it reflects the best of what it can be by your own personal standard. Self-edit yourself ruthlessly, then stand behind your work and be proud of it.