Before really diving into this I’m curious about a series of questions:
When is something done?
How do we get there?
How do we measure it?
Why is it important to find that point?
How does it make us feel when we hit it?
Or miss wildly?
There’s no inherent plan to answer these questions but rather they’re what I’ve been asking myself lately when returning to unfinished work.
We’ve all toiled over something we invested our time in. Whether that’s something as simple as adding a new piece furniture to a house and figuring out just where to position it or something more complex, like an ambitious photo series set over the course of many years. This really can be a great blessing, a burdening curse, or, more likely, just live passionately in your brain, constantly pulling back and forth (Hey brain, can’t you see I’m trying to sleep here?).
Something like seven years ago, I was in Croatia with my brother and father as we roamed the Dalmatian Coast exploring a bit of our family lineage (and taking it easy as we went). While walking the tall city walls of Dubrovnik, we spotted a tiny bar right on the cliffs. We had to find it. After some searching and asking, we emerged through a hole in the otherwise shear wall to a little oasis. While a cold beer was calling my name, my eye caught some local kids flanking our right and left, jumping off the huge rocks into the water below. It’s here I took a photo that instantly made the trip for me. And one that I still toil over to this day.
It was a gorgeous day and as we descending the tiny switchback path to the little beer oasis. I asked one of the kids if he was planning to jump too. Planning really gave way to instant doing as before I could finish my next thought, he was running full sprint to the edge of the rock to the ocean below (which I could not see and to this day, never saw where they landed). The Nikon D7000 (and simple 18–105mm kit lens I may add) that was my partner on the trip deserves a heck of a nod here because the camera had no issues keeping up with a blur of instinct and timing as I was able to get one single shot off.
I knew right away that this photo was pretty much done. Generally speaking, there’s a pretty strong preference on my side to make a photo as practical as possible in camera rather than relying on post-production. This really intensifies the feeling of elation that comes with taking a shot to be proud of at the moment. It also doesn’t hurt that I won’t have to agonize over it later as I second guess choices like composition or camera settings. Sure, the photo was converted to black and white and some of the levels have been fine-tuned over the years. But this photo sits, with only those small edits, as a huge print in my home, something I had never done before with my own photography.
These kinds of moments are amazing. They’re also often few and far between in photography, especially street and reportage photography. Same could be said about a million things we try and create in a lifetime. Often I find myself staring at something I took days or weeks ago asking myself the questions I listed at the top of this article. Which loops around to the other photo from that moment on the Croatian coast of local kids jumping into the water.
I recently asked myself the questions above as I was determined to finish this photograph and move on. I have come back to it a number of times and the first re-edit still sits freshly in my mind. Why did I crop in so far? Why did I choose to cut off so much of the city wall? After a few more edits, something must have pulled me away because I didn’t really finish it and it just sat there collecting more virtual dust. Flash forward years later and again, it’s time for a re-edit.
What is it about this photo that won’t let me finish it? It’s almost a stream of consciousness trip down memory lane. Again, change the crop. In fact, pull it way back out. Maybe black and white is not the right look for this one? There’s a lot going on within a similar contrast range. How about color? How did I not go with this in the first place? The pop of the yellow, the earth tones of the rock. The color all round in the composition is almost film-like and I just ignored it. But is that the right look for this? Maybe a few more edits.
Is it done now?
Yes. At the top of the article, one of the questions asked was “Why is it important to find that point?” After seven years, I’ve realized for this particular image, it’s because of the other one hanging on my wall and that I’ve held up so high as a personal marker for what I want to achieve in photography. It made me put extra importance on “the other photograph” for more emotional than logical reasons and once that took hold, it became important to put it to bed.
That same question also has a more meta answer in that completing something lets you take the lessons from the previous thing with you. That’s not to say one must force an end to everything, but rather make sure the process is yielding some kind of path that leads us to a destination we can see ourselves at.
While maybe not everyone, it sure seems like this happens to a lot of people, especially photographers and designers. I’d love to hear a story of yours.