Musings on Photography

On Not Stopping

Posted in process by Paul Butzi on October 5, 2006

One of my problems is that my photographic projects don’t obey Newton’s First Law (Objects in motion tend to stay in motion, and objects at rest tend to stay at rest unless an outside force acts upon them). Specifically, a project in motion will come to a complete stop unless I dedicate considerable attention and energy to keeping it moving. For me, all projects are in constant peril – if once my motivation lets up, the project comes to a shrieking halt instantly. It’s the cartoon physics of artistic endeavor – the moment you stop pushing just as hard as you can, the irresistible force is transformed into the immovable object.

As a result, over the years I’ve accumulated a few little tidbits I drag out whenever I sense a project is at risk of grinding to a halt, which happens about every 3 femtoseconds.

The first tidbit is a question – “Have I done 100% of what I know how to do?” This simple question keeps me moving even when the path of the project isn’t clear, or when I know what the goal is but don’t know how I’m going to reach it. That uncertainty is often the kiss of death for an effort, and often I have to force myself to advance even in the face of what seems like an insurmountable problem. The trick to this is that often by doing that last 1% of what you actually know how to do, you learn what you need to know to solve the problem. Lesson: don’t stop working until you’ve done 100% of what you know how to do.

The second tidbit has to do with failures. Failures are motivation killers for me. Each failure just convinces me that I’m never going to get it right. It’s appallingly hard to remember that failure is a natural part of the creative process; that getting things wrong is often how we figure out what getting things right looks. The story goes that Samuel Beckett had a slip of paper tacked to the wall above his work desk. Written on the paper was “Fail. Fail again. Fail better.” I think that’s on the right tack – the goal is to fail better each time. Progress isn’t a matter of getting it right each time. It’s a matter of getting it wrong, but getting it less wrong each time.

The last tidbit comes direct from Jack London, who wrote “You can’t wait for inspiration. You have to go after it with a club.” I think that’s just about right, especially the bit about the club. Some people have excess motivation, and it drips out of their ears more or less non-stop. That’s not me; I’m uninspired most of the time. Someone once wisecracked that no one wants to write; everyone wants to have written. That’s me – all wanting to have done, but not too keen on getting started on the doing.

And that’s the key – getting started. You can cerebrate about what you’re going to do, and how glorious it will be. You can theorize about it. You can engage in dialogs, and read books, and prepare your materials only so long. Eventually, you need to start. If you never start, you can’t ever finish.

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  1. Allen George said, on October 5, 2006 at 5:56 pm

    Those are very good points; you’ve articulated some truths that I’ve always ‘known’, but never quite put into words.

    Anyways, I just wanted to say that there’s someone out there who faces the same issues you do 🙂


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