Why entering a second childhood is good for your photography...
In “As You Like It”, William Shakespeare proposed seven ages of man; from infant through schoolboy, lover, soldier, justice and “pantaloon” to second childhood, "sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything".
I’d like to propose a somewhat more modest three ages of a photographer. I’m afraid that my version won’t be presented in iambic pentameter! But, you’ll no doubt be relieved to know that my version of the final state doesn’t involve the loss of either appendages or faculties. Here goes…
Novice We can probably all remember the eager state we felt when we first became interested in photography; we pored over every article on technique and read every description of new gear. We wanted to accumulate every morsel of knowledge we came across and work out how to apply it in the best possible way. But this isn’t like cramming for an exam, this is play and playing is (contrary to what some people may tell you!) one of the most important and rewarding things that you can do with your life.
A Zen maxim has it that we should, ‘Develop an infallible technique, then put ourselves at the mercy of inspiration.’ This early period of informal, avid study lays the foundations of craft for later creative exploration. But it’s not all positive; there will inevitably be growing pains as setbacks often accompany our advances in technique and creativity. We may also realise, as we learn more, how much there is left to learn. And this can be more than a little daunting.
Journeyman This is the age of experience. You’ve served your apprenticeship; you’ve reached a certain level of technical and compositional competence (it’s been a while since you really screwed up an exposure or had serious trouble working out how you wanted to approach a subject). Some might even feel a little smug at this stage; you can do this and what’s more you’ve got the awards/recognition of your peers to prove it.
Many photographers don’t age beyond this point, you might say that they stay put in cosy middle age. It’s easy to see why. All the angst that you suffered learning your craft is in the past. You’ve developed a set of strategies for making images that broadly give good results. No, you won’t always make a masterpiece. But the images are generally pretty good. All those years of study have paid off and you feel comfortable with your work. You feel that this is it; you’ve become a photographer at last.
But this is the most dangerous age for a creative photographer. Standing still isn’t an option if you want to grow creatively and not growing should never be an option. Ironically, to grow I think that one needs to return to childhood.
Second childhood Play is one of the greatest joys of childhood, but it needn’t stop there, and it needn’t be child’s play.
When Plato said, “Life must be lived as play.” he didn’t mean that we should treat our allotted time as a bit of a lark. He meant that we should approach every activity with joy, enthusiasm and the willingness to learn and experiment with which we inevitably set about the activity of play. According to musician, author and educator Stephen Nachmanovitch, play is the root and foundation of creativity in the arts and sciences: "…all creative acts are forms of play, the starting place of creativity"
Great photographers never stop playing with the medium and many have written about the advantages of adopting childlike wonder at our world.
The American photographer Minor White felt that it was important “…to see as an adult sees who has gone full circle and once again sees as a child - with freshness and an even deeper sense of wonder.”
Bill Brandt wrote that, “It is part of the photographer’s job to see more intensely than most people do. He must have and keep in him something of the receptiveness of the child who looks at the world for the first time or of the traveller who enters a strange country.” Brandt ably demonstrated this attitude in both his nudes and his landscape work.
Blessed with this attitude the French photographer Jaques Henri Lartigue (who started taking photographs when he was just seven) continued making surprising and quirky images, like the one above, well into his ninth decade. My own three ages…
My novice period was quite prolonged, stretching from my first camera (a Kodak Instamatic at eleven years of age) right through to five years after I graduated. This included using my dad’s fold out 6x6 camera at sixteen, making my first B/W print at eighteen, three years at college and another three years as a photographer’s assistant. All that time was spent learning enough to simply be able to realise my artistic aims. Once I began getting commissioned work, there was always the fear that the next job might not go as well as I wanted it to. I still have dreams where I’ve turned up for a job without my film, or too late, or without a camera! Such anxiety meant that it didn’t immediately dawn on me that I had entered my journeyman phase. But one day I realised that it had been a few years since I’d messed up an editorial commission. There was, naturally some relief in this. Gradually I grew in confidence and worried less. Although, the fact that I still have those dreams means that a fear of failure is still deep rooted in me, like people who have nightmares about turning up for an interview naked. Thank goodness that’s never happened to me… yet!
After almost a decade as a “professional” I realised that the demands of earning a living as a photographer had mostly beaten the cra… creativity out of me. I was bored with taking pictures for commissions and eager to begin making images for me. Of course, the economic reality of trying to provide for a young family and pay a mortgage made this seem like an impossible choice. I was fortunate to be offered the chance to work as a photographic tutor in what was then the very new field of photographic tours and workshops. This alternate income gave me the opportunity to begin to play with my camera again. It’s not the fear of being unable to put bread on the table that stops the majority of photographers from being more creative. Rather, it’s peer pressure that holds them back. Camera clubs and social media tend to have a normative effect that subtly discourages experimentation. Whichever way you look at it, expectations are the biggest reason photographers don’t enter their second childhood. We either want to meet other people’s presuppositions or we’re happy with our own idea of what constitutes a good photo.
Whilst there’s nothing wrong with simple contentment, there is, I think, something sad about trying to match other people’s ideas of what constitutes a good photo. Of course, it’s scary to leave the comfortable “doing alright”, “accomplished” zone because we know that when we enter uncharted territory misteps are bound to happen. But leaving my journeyman phase and marching gladly into my second childhood was the best thing that had happened to me as a photographer since I left college.
I would never have made images like the one at the beginning of this article - or this one from Lindisfarne - if I had stayed in my comfort zone. As I have written elsewhere, I have made many more unsuccessful images in this phase than as a journeyman. But I don’t worry about that. Fearless experimentation is the way forward.
Armed with the skills we acquired as “novices” and the experience we acquired as “journeymen”, our second childhood as photographers will be the age in which we make the most interesting images.
So, go on, regress a little; become a child again!