Musings on Photography


Posted in Uncategorized by Paul Butzi on November 22, 2006

I hear a lot about talent. So-and-So is hugely talented, they say, and that explains why their art is so damn good. I think the whole talent thing is a myth. At least, I think that talent is vastly over-rated.

Let’s suppose that we say that someone has ‘talent’ or ‘natural ability’ when they start out the learning process ahead of most folks. That’s nice, isn’t it? They get a head start. A head start implies that they have an advantage when it comes to winning the race. Empirically, we can see this – some folks DO seem to have a head start – they made their first photos at four years old, they were using a view camera at 7 years old, and they got their first solo show at the age of 10.

If you start out with natural aptitude, well, that’s nice. But the myth is that talent is a substitute for hard work, and that just isn’t so. My observation, based on knowing quite a few ‘talented’ folks, is that what talent bought them was a head start in an effort where the big issue is staying engaged when the going gets tough. Talent got them past the first 100 yards in an effort on the scale of a marathon. The rest of the distance, it was just hard work. The adage is that the harder you work, the luckier you get, and that’s completely true.

But more importantly, photography and art aren’t a race, are they? I mean, I suppose if you want to be recognized as the world’s best photographer, then talent might be important. But most of us aren’t vying for that particular prize. If we’re aiming for a prize at all, it’s much more likely to be the ‘most improved player’ award.

In the end, it comes down to this: do the best work you can. Talent or no talent, that’s all any of us can do. If you feel like you’ve got talent – hey, good on you, mate. If you feel like you’ve got no talent at all, and it’s all hard work – welcome to the club – just rest assured that there are NO people who live in that elysian realm where the work just flows out of you like water from a fountain. Even the super-successful ‘talented’ folks have to struggle – doing your best is hard work, no matter where you are in the chain of progress, and no matter where you started.

4 Responses

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  1. chantal stone said, on November 22, 2006 at 6:57 am

    Great article Paul, and you’re absolutely right, IMO. This reminds me of an excellent article written by Craig Tanner called The Myth Of Talent. Same idea….it’s all about the hard work and dedication.

  2. Anonymous said, on November 22, 2006 at 10:32 am

    I was about to make exactly the same recommendation about the The Myth of Talent.

  3. Anonymous said, on November 27, 2006 at 7:44 pm

    I disagree – you do not get to be Mozart or Rubens or Stravinsky or Feynman, or fill in the blank other great artists just by working hard. They did work hard – it is necessary but not sufficient. The theme of your last several posts has been to do the best you can do and be happy with what you can do. That is exactly right, because it is all you can do.

    Denying that talent matters is not necessary for this thesis, and I think it defeats your point – if talent does not matter, it must mean that someone is just not working hard enough when then cannot do great art.

  4. Rosie Perera said, on November 28, 2006 at 3:32 am

    I was about to mention Craig Tanner as well, when I saw that someone else had already mentioned him. I heard him speak on this subject at a Rocky Mountain School of Photography Workshop in Bellevue, WA, in 2001. I’d never considered his perspective before, and though it seemed counterintuitive (for the same reasons Edward points out in the previous comment), he convinced me that talent doesn’t account for nearly as much success for the artist as we commonly think it does. Part of the reason prodigies like Mozart et al. are so good is their sheer love of what they do keeps them at it 10, 12, 14 hours a day. Anybody is going to get good if they practice that much. Maybe not as good as Mozart, but there’s no such thing as just not being able to do it. Most people who think they can’t have given up before they worked at it long enough to get good. Craig’s story rung so true. Many people having had his experience of disappointment would have given up, thinking they just weren’t cut out to be a great photographer. But look at his work now!

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