A common mantra in photography is: "There's no such thing as mastery." Why? Because the skills and tools are forever evolving, and the concept that a photograph has achieved perfection is supposedly always a bit beyond our reach. That leaves every photograph open for ongoing critique and implies it can't just be a wonderful capture of a moment in time as interpreted by the photographer's unique editing eye and vision. I beg to differ.
I come from other disciplines where the concept of mastery is a gratifying life challenge. Throughout my adult life I've chosen mastery projects where I set a goal, however lofty, and work until I achieve it. Sometimes, it's harder than I ever imagined it would be, and that makes the finale that much more gratifying.
My most recent example is having handmade my daughter's wedding dress. I'm proud, as a seamstress, that I designed it by making my own pattern and the dress was perfect for her. Honestly, the hardest thing about this experience was finding enough time. It took four months of squeezing every minute I could to work on design, fitting, and sewing. The reason I stress that is that I've always said what makes a good seamstress or knitter is the willingness to redo or fix mistakes. Take the time to make it right. Now, I have had a mother's joy of zipping my gorgeous daughter into her dress then sneaking a peek to watch her bridal glow as she showed her dream dress to her groom. I believe it could not have been done without the willingness to invest the time, effort, and commitment to do whatever it takes (working late or early with bleary eyes) to achieve the goal. There's so much more than skill and artistry at play in saying "I made my daughter's wedding dress." This was mastery at the most personal level, and making her dress was the most high-stakes, high-profile project of my life.
As a flutist, I've sought mastery in music. I have a few treasured bucket list experiences where I played a concerto or a show that challenged me to push every skill I have to higher levels. I'm a slow learner, so when a piece is presented to me, sometimes I can't even read it, let alone coordinate it into music from the page to my brain, lips, fingers, and flute. But I practice, study, listen, and live with that piece until I know it inside and out, so eventually, or by the performance date, almost magically, it becomes a natural extension of myself. It becomes "my piece." As a teen, I knew I had achieved that level of mastery when I caught my dad whistling my piece while shaving, or sitting in the back of a performance space with his head tilted up while stroking his beard. I know, that's external validation, but I admit it's also important to the creative process. (Confession: I do not practice on a regular basis. I practice when I have a public performance to prepare for.)
Not everyone can play the flute or sew a wedding dress, but today, most everyone can make a photo. As I strive to define myself as a photographer, part of the task is separating the creative mastery I aim to achieve from snapshots or mass-produced, trendy uniformity. My goal is to capture special moments, glances, personalities. Just like I've held very closely to my sewing joy by declaring, "I only sew for love,"
Although I don't only photograph for love, I have found that I get that mastery kind of joy out of it when making a memorable connection with my subject. There are photos in my portfolio I could not have made if I had not invested time on them and made an emotional commitment to establish trust. The best is when my model and I both revel in sharing the creative energy.
I am striving to expand my photography experiences while holding onto that joy of being creative, not a technician. I'm always looking for my next mastery project, so I'm accustomed to endeavors that take a lot of time. I like massive projects! When I approach a photography session, I also take my time. This sometimes surprises my subjects. What? You took 300 shots? Why is it taking you so long to select and edit my photos? Last year, when two professional photographers called my work "fine art" photography, I was dumbstruck. But I think that helped me define myself as a photographer - I'm looking for experiences and people who want to participate in achieving mastery with me while in front of my lens.
I'll explore this concept more soon as I reveal a personal mastery project I've been working on that has further defined my work as a photographer.
Blog: Stories from Behind the Lens
As much as I revel in the final image and love returning to look at them again and again, the process of making a photo is also a treasured experience.