We will all end in failure, but that’s not the most important thing. What really matters is how we fail and what we gain in the process.
- Costica Bradatan, In Praise of Failure
An artist’s life is a never-ending, unresolvable, inconclusive search for the perfect expression of an internal sensation as it relates to the wider world. In this endeavour, most are lucky if, a handful of times in their entire lives, they stumble upon something merely approaching “decent”. Consequently, rather than being preoccupied with creating, the artist spends vast resources interrogating themselves from within, and observing the world at large, carrying the faint but persistent hope of working out who they are, what they think, and what is worth expressing. The goal is to produce an artwork that contains at least a slither of that intended expression, and to hope beyond hope for a slither of that slither to contain some understandable meaning. In this regard, art is built from a catalogue of failures, falling one onto another, eventually making a stack tall enough for something to be plucked from the elusive top shelf of meaningful expression.
In photography — particularly the improvised forms of street and field photography — the arduousness of this process is clear. Not only do you need to take a ton of photos in order to find something worthwhile, but you need to spend many exhausting, sole-wearing, soul-wearing hours walking around on high alert, searching. Alex Webb goes as far as to put a number on it, maintaining that “99.9% of street photography is about failure”. Even he, one of the most renowned practitioners in the history of the field, aims for just 1/1000 photographs to be a success, of which only a small percentage will become widely celebrated. If, at best, just 0.1% of an artist’s effort is successful, how is the overwhelming “failure” to be understood?
In life generally, we tend to misplace “failure”. We look at the outcomes of our activity and judge it against arbitrary, extraneous benchmarks. In photography, failure is typically positioned in one of three places: the appearance of the final image; the technique used to take the picture; or “missing the shot” in the first place. In truth, none of these are where the real failure lies. Arguably none are even failures. Instead, the only failure in photography is a failure to see; to purposefully engage. Why? Because regardless of whether you end up with something materially valuable, the contrails of purposeful engagement will linger with you, no matter what.
Personally, by choosing to become a field photographer with manual, mechanical, half-century old, analogue cameras, I have deliriously maximised my relationship with failure. I am a flop aficionado; a bungle believer; a disappointment devotee; a washout worshiper. Compared to digital photography, which is increasingly moving towards a zero percent failure rate, manual film photography has the potential for failure at every turn: leaving the lens cap on; unknowingly using expired film; irreparable over- or under- exposure; inaccurate focus; mechanical failure; failing to wind the film forward; moving too slowly to catch the moment; running out of film before the moment arrives; light leaks from accidentally opening the back of the camera (FFS!!); light leaks from deterioration of the camera’s sealant; film exposed to x-rays in airport security; film lost in the post on its way to the developer; film incorrectly or poorly developed; or maniacally smashing the camera against a wall out of pure frustration at all of the above.
Anyone shooting manually on film must accept, from the outset, that no matter how well-intentioned, experienced, capable or careful, at some point, one of these failures is inevitable. Failure is deeply embedded into the process and only so much within your control.
Beyond the practical failings of taking pictures, in metaphysical terms it is arguable that, rather than only 99.9% of photographs failing, the failure rate is 100%. Whether on film or digital, no photograph will ever fully replicate the internal stimulation that prompted you to take the photo. First, given the limitations of biology, converting a thought into an act can never be done with complete accuracy. It can be close (the exploits of Simone Biles and Nadia Comaneci are testament to that), but there will always be a minute or massive degree of approximation between what you intended to do and what you did. Second, if you do manage to catch a scene as close as physically possible to what you had envisaged, in every photograph there remains an insurmountable structural failure: the inability to convey the entirety of a three-dimensional, five-sensual human experience into a comprehensive, two-dimensional, visual testimony.
If indeed the physical act of photographing and the photograph itself are cursed to fail by their very nature, then where in the photographic process can success be found?
Ultimately, each photographer must find success within themselves, in the internal exploit of seeing, and seeing well — the deliberate operation of visual, intellectual conception; grey matter moulding grey clay of sight and emotion into an exhilarating, vibrant sculpture of idea and object. If your body fails to compel the camera into action, or the camera fails to record your bodily response, or if everything goes as well as possible, but the resulting image is lost or destroyed; provided you succeed in the act of instantaneous conception, you will be forever changed, minutely or massively. If you screw it up, lose it, miss it, destroy it: you still saw it; conceived it; “took” it. Even without a camera to hand, the exercise of seeing well offers boundless thrills, but the camera acts as an amplifier, pumping up the volume on the jazzy rhythm of human existence. Fundamentally, it’s about being a photographer rather than taking photographs.
Ironically, this mentality is the furtive ground on which taking meaningful photographs is sown. What you have seen becomes part of who you are, and will forever exist as one of the many grains that fills the beach of a future photograph; a future artwork; a future profound, non-photographic interaction with the world.
Under this process, there is no such thing as missing a shot — there are only shots gained. I shall furnish you with an example.
As a field photographer, I roam around looking for stirring, naturally occurring scenes to take pictures of. In March 2017, for four days, I was doing this in Bucharest, Romania.
Having nearly finished a roll of film, I took my afternoon break. Inside a coffee shop, a server in boy-fit jeans, a navy roll neck and oversized, wire-rimmed glasses gleefully introduced herself to me: “Cristina”. With hair bundled anarchically into a blonde, cotton candy nest, she took my order and asked me about my camera. Surprised by her enquiry, I fumbled my way through an explanation, vainly attempting to seem simultaneously aloof and interesting.
Immediately, I was taken by her manner and appearance. With one frame remaining before changing the roll, I resolved to ask for her photograph. But between her busyness and my sheepishness, I failed to catch her eye. Despite sipping my flat white as slowly as I could, the opportunity never arose, and with the encroaching dusk hastening my need to get back to work, I relented, clumsily asking one of Cristina’s colleagues to play subject. I took the picture and wound the roll onward, expecting to hear a click. To my surprise, despite showing “37” on the counter (typically the maximum number of frames on a 35mm roll of film), there was no resistance under the winder. I still had one frame left.
Suddenly, positioned by the till under a theatrical spotlight, there stood Cristina. I approached her. Besides paying for my coffee, I paid her a gentle compliment and quietly asked for her picture. She bashfully agreed. I shot and wound to 38. This time, click! In a moment of rom-com reproduction, she asked for my details in order to see my work. Like a struggling salesman at a vacuum cleaner conference, I fingered through my wallet and formally delivered her my card. We exchanged smiles, and I left; flustered but buoyant.
The next evening, I returned to the coffee shop for an evening cocktail event. Cristina was there. We spoke, expansively. After the event, we went to a bar and continued speaking. Then to another, and another; diving deep into the night before floating towards the shallows of early morning and departing each other’s company, possibly forever.
But within three months I had moved to Bucharest. Within four, we were living together. Three and a half years later, here we still are.
Not knowing how this would all turn out, photographically-speaking, you might say two things are important — first that taking Cristina’s photograph furthered the nascent channel of communication between us; and second, that I will always have that precious photograph from the first time we met.
On the latter point, you would be wrong. As it turns out, the last frame on my roll of film was a phantom. There was no film left, no picture to develop. I took her picture but have no picture.
However, I do have her.
Art Imitating Life
As this (entirely true, yet implausibly romantic) example demonstrates, taking the photo was more important than having the photo. Whereas it would generally be perceived that I failed in taking Cristina’s photo, in truth it was an enormous success. It opened me up and my life was irrevocably changed.
Yes, to have the 3:2 image from that moment would be amusing — one can imagine it being wheeled out over the decades at any major celebration of our partnership; the first, rectangular page of an amorous, amorphous fairy-tale. We would intermittently return to it, pouring over Cristina’s expression, projecting thoughts into her then-head; arbitrarily amending those thoughts to suit our wavering memories of the moment. But self-evidently, the physical image has become entirely irrelevant.
Success was achieved the moment I meaningfully, deliberately, and honestly engaged with the world through my camera— here, in the delightful, atomic shape of Cristina. After doing so, the ability to subsequently show anyone what that moment looked like became largely frivolous. Admittedly, the extraneous consequences of this engagement were extreme — it’s highly unlikely for the love of your life to emerge every time you take a photo (if nothing else, I’m 99.9% certain Cristina would now prefer I ensure this is not the case). In fact, most of the time, I am photographing people who never know I have taken their photo, who I don’t directly speak to. But even if I never saw Cristina after that moment, or had taken her photo without her knowing, I would still have aspired to have been meaningfully transformed by the act of releasing the shutter.
Finding success in seeing rather than taking equates to a certain philosophical view of life in general, where success lies in being rather than doing. As mortal creatures (at least until Elon Musk devises an alternative), human life is characterised by failure — eventually our bodies flounder, and we cease to exist. Yet arguably, it is the inevitability of this failure which drives us to love, explore, create and accomplish. Being a photographer can help put this philosophy into practice. If you get a few good pictures along the way, all the better.
See more of Neal’s photographic work at nealgruerphotography.com.