The Beauty of Failure and Why it Should be Embraced

In my last blog posting, Photography Class 103 – Finding Your Style, I mentioned how failure was an important part of my early process as a photographer and how I still rely on a degree of failure in my current creative process.

But before I completely move on to the next topic, I’d like to revisit it again in greater detail.

I’m often asked how I came to be were I am today by emerging artists of many genres. I was out to dinner on Friday night with one of them when she asked that very question of me again. I began the answer to her question with a short story.

A few years ago I was asked to photograph the 2008 Olympic Team as they had arrived in Chicago on their post Beijing Olympic success. With me was one of my photo assistants at the time and as the team arrived on several double decked buses we began to photograph them as they got off the buses and headed into the hotel where we were to continue photographing them for publicity for Chicago’s 2016 Olympic city bid.

When we returned to my studio later that evening to edit the hundreds of photographs, at one point I heard her sigh disappointedly and say, “I hate this. We were at the same place, shooting them same thing and your photographs turned out so much better than mine!”

I turned to her, “Well I hope so!”, I laughed. “I’ve been doing this for 15 years and you’ve been doing it for like a minute! I’d have to quit the business if your pictures were as good as mine.”

I could see by her reaction that she didn’t seem the humor in it.

“Okay,” I offered. “I’ll tell you what. I need to have digital contact sheets scanned of all of my fim rolls so I can see them big on a computer screen. Tomorrow, after we deliver the Olympic photographs, why don’t you start with sheet #1 from the first roll of film I ever shot and begin scanning my earliest photographs from the early 90s.”

And she did. After scanning the negative sheets from about 50 rolls of film, I checked in on her.

“Well,” I asked. “What do you think?”

She hesitated for a moment before she slowly said, “Um… you kinda sucked.”

I laughed. Exactly.

My point to her was that I did a lot of experimenting and failing – a lot of failing when I started out to be a serious photographer. It was only after years of taking photographs of anything and everything I could, that I began to make images I thought were consistently good. And even then my failure rate was fairly high.

But it was the failures that led to what I called the happy accidents. And then to really pushing myself to try new things. I was very upfront with my subjects at the time that we were probably going to fail a great deal, but the failures would never see the light of day. I was game and so were they and we made some spectacularly bad photographs. But we also made some amazing ones during that time.

It’s a philosophy I retain to this day. If I’m going to make a photograph that looks like nothing I’ve ever done before or tell as story I haven’t told before, there are going to be peaks and valleys. More often than not we get something good, but at times, it’s just not working.

I remember working with one of my favorite models, Melissa, a few years ago. I had this idea I wanted to try with giant mirrors facing each other and her in the middle with her reflection multiplying to infinity. It was an interesting idea but as we began looking through the shoot during a break, I realized it wasn’t working. It was missing something.

As we were standing there staring out my studio windows trying to figure out if we should continue on with the mirror idea or scrap it and try something else, she said, “Wow, the clouds outside look really brooding.”

I agreed. She threw on a robe and we took the elevator up to the roof. And that’s where we made this image.

But it wouldn’t have happened if we had been so preoccupied with succeeding with the first idea. Try. Fail. And try something else.

Creativity needs room to happen. That means time and that means a bit of failure as well. It becomes more challenging when you’re on the clock with a room full of people all looking to you to create something incredible. But even during those times, I try to build in a little experimenting time, whether they know it or not, and keep the mood of the set light and casual. If something isn’t working, I quickly improvise and try something else. No sense beating an idea to death if it isn’t working and bringing the mood of the room down.

And when we’re done, you can see the evolution of the final image forming by looking at the flow of the shoot. Sometimes we nail it right away and sometimes it takes a little longer and we get something great at the end. What matters is that we get it.  My long term clients know I won’t stop until I’m happy and they’re happy and they usually give me the space I need to find what we’re looking for.

Sometimes there is no time. I had four minutes with Michael Phelps during the Olympic shoot. Not even four minutes in a row. One minute and then a break while a video crew shot some footage. Two more minutes while they made some adjustments. And then another minute at the end. Not much room for creativity or experimenting.

The only thing I could do was let him relax a bit between the video takes and casually talk to him while I made a few images. I liked them because they were more reflective. Here was a guy who was the center of the sports universe at the moment with his eight gold medals and he had people pulling him in eight directions at once. The best thing I thought I could do was to turn down the frenzy for a few seconds and let him catch his breath. Those were the images I felt were the most real. No posing, no looking at the camera.

My dream photograph of him would have been to take him up to one of the hotel suites for 15 minutes and have him get in a dry tub, fully clothed, sitting perpendicular with his legs hanging over the tub wall and his long arms stretching from one end of the tub to the other. Sort of a too big to be contained in a normal body of water thing. What I got was a white sweep in a hotel conference room. Sometimes you just have to roll with what you have when you have four minutes.

So back to the negative sheet scanning. It wasn’t until my 233rd roll of film that I was genuinely happy with a shoot. It wasn’t until after my 400th roll that I started to have confidence that I was making constantly good photographs with a much lower degree of failure. That was almost four years after the first roll. That means I was shooting a roll of film every three or four days to get to that point.

I once had to help a friend of mine write a commencement address she was giving to her daughter’s high school graduating class. In my draft to her, my theme was that this was the time of their lives to make mistakes. A lot of mistakes, like it was their job. Try things that interested them no matter what anyone said they could and couldn’t do and fail miserably at them. Because the only way to truly find out who you are is to find out who you’re not.

I’m not sure how much of my unorthodox commencement draft she ended up using (she said she did use some), but the concept of making mistakes and failure continues to be my job. If I’m not failing once in a while, I’m not taking enough risks. I’m not reaching far enough.

I finished the answer to my dinner companion’s question by looking around the restaurant, imagining it a gallery of my most personal photography work. “You know, if everyone in the room loves my work, I’m doing something wrong. It’s not evoking enough emotion good or bad. I played it too safe. Not enough failure.”

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