We are all familiar with the oft quoted phrase “practice makes perfect”. We all know that if we want to play the piano or guitar well, we have to practice, just as we need to if we wish to achieve success in any sport, physical endeavour or creative practice. We need to develop muscle memory, the process of reorganizing and rewiring our nerves to make the brain/body connection stronger, faster and more accurate. When we practice a new movement over and over again, we are literally ‘grooving’ a new neural pathway within our central nervous system.
When a movement is repeated over time, a long-term muscle memory is created for that task, eventually allowing it to be performed with little to no conscious effort. That moment is one we commonly describe as ‘not thinking’. The process becomes automatic and we are free to forget the practicalities of the process and move onto the creative aspect of that process.
Nothing I am saying here is new, I know that, and I am not suggesting that it is. So, if this is something we all know, why is it not something as photographers we all engage in? Why as photographers are we not making pictures everyday?
Now, I know of photographers who are. The daily walk has become a photographic ritual for these photographers as they document their immediate environment. This work is then uploaded onto social media regularly documenting their photographic and physical journeys. In essence I see this practice as training. Training the eye, and the mind in seeing. If successful images or a project develop from that process of practice then that is a perhaps unintentional positive but it is not an essential outcome.
And it is in that sense of outcome that I think the answer firmly sits to finding a solution to why other photographers do not embrace such a process. I started this article but referring to the statement that “practice makes perfect” and that is I think a problem for the photographer. That need for perfection. I have never done anything perfectly and I am okay with that, in fact I am pleased that is the case. I do not want to achieve perfection and I don’t think I would recognise it if I did! I want to be discontent with what I have done to ensure that I can learn and improve. I am rarely if ever proud of what I have done, I am merely content.
The search for perfection and the fear of not achieving that state of outcome can be the most disabling of mindsets when it comes to creative work.
The fear of not being good enough can prevent the process of creating the one thing you are attempting to achieve. But it can also prevent the building of muscle memory required to progress the work you want to develop. It’s a no win situation based upon anxiety, and an unrealistic expectation.
A runner doesn’t expect to break a world record everyday they practice and a musician doesn’t expect to perform in front of 100,000 people every time they pick their guitar up. They recognise that it is those quiet times that no one sees or hears that are the foundation blocks for eventual success. These are the times when they are building that muscle memory. Photographers should feel the same.
Every time the shutter button is pressed will not and should not result in the perfect image, but the more times you do press that button, the more chance you will have that your ability to create successful images will grow. The seeing when taking the image and subsequently reflecting on the success of the image are part of our training schedule and the more time we spend doing both the more understanding we will gain of our capabilities. Where we need to improve and how we need to improve.
The muscle memory gained will give us the space we need to reflect and analyse, to see and record. You don’t need to be an athlete but you do need to put in the work and the hours.
Grant Scott is the founder/curator of United Nations of Photography, a Senior Lecturer and Subject Co-ordinator: Photography at Oxford Brookes University, Oxford, a working photographer, and the author of Professional Photography: The New Global Landscape Explained (Routledge 2014), The Essential Student Guide to Professional Photography (Routledge 2015), New Ways of Seeing: The Democratic Language of Photography (Routledge 2019).
His book What Does Photography Mean to You? including 89 photographers who have contributed to the A Photographic Life podcast is on sale now £9.99 https://bluecoatpress.co.uk/product/what-does-photography-mean-to-you/
© Grant Scott 2021