Doing It Right Maybe Wrong! But Doing It Wrong Can Be Right!

The idea that there is a correct way, a right way to do things can be the most limiting dogma when it comes to creativity. Photography is full of rules and people who feel that the only way, the ‘right’ way is ‘the’ way . I do not. Creativity relies upon experimentation and failure. It relies upon a willingness to make mistakes and to recognise their importance in our progression towards a personal visual language.

I discovered this with my very first portrait commission. Sent by a magazine to photograph a young Russian fashion designer; my nerves led me to having a few glasses of wine prior to our meeting. The resultant photographs were rushed, and not helped by my basic knowledge of how my Hasselblad worked. However, when processed the images had a timeless quality that I had not intended. I liked it and so did the client.

In fact I liked one of the images so much that I entered a print into the National Portrait Gallery annual portrait awards – now sponsored by Taylor Wessing and then sponsored by Schweppes – and it was successful. My ‘mistake’ portrait was shortlisted and exhibited in the prestigious gallery. But that was not the end.

In a review of the awards exhibition featured in Amateur Photographer magazine at the time a writer singled out my photograph for particular attention. He didn’t like it. He didn’t like the grain or the softness of the image. What I saw as timeless, he saw as out of focus. He decried its inclusion in the exhibition and questioned the judges decision to choose it as an example of successful portrait photography. This was in 2000, I wonder if the same criticisms would be made today?

I built a successful body of work on that image, my approach was considered to be interesting and different in a world where perfection was being exalted. As a result clients commissioned me within both editorial and advertising contexts. I also created personal work based on the approach which was exhibited and published.

My move from analogue to digital capture saw the end of this work, but my limited digital knowledge served me well in developing a new naivety to my image making. Where once I had looked to the work of photographers such Steichen and Walker Evans for inspiration now I looked towards Eggleston and Frank.

I probably don’t make enough mistakes these days as I find myself in a position of experience and knowledge. It becomes harder to make mistakes the more you know as Picasso identified, ““Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once he grows up.” He also stated that, “It takes a very long time to become young.”

Anyone can read a manual, watch a tutorial or learn a process, but the creative challenge is not in doing these things and following the rules. It is in questioning and challenging those rules, creating chaos and jumping off the ridge into the unknown. Growing your comfortable space, and leaving it to step into the disruptive space. It may not feel comfortable but it will be worth it. As children we do not know the rules and our creativity is limitless and free, but time and teachers instruct us to conform. The reliance on a piece of technological equipment to be creative further emphasises this perceived need for conformity. I think I will stick with the words and warning of Bob Dylan when he says “I accept chaos, I’m not sure whether it accepts me.”

Dr. Grant Scott is the the founder/curator of United Nations of Photography, a Senior Lecturer and Subject Co-ordinator: Photography at Oxford Brookes University, Oxford, a working photographer, documentary filmmaker, BBC Radio contributor 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 film Do Not Bend: The Photographic Life of Bill Jay was first screened in 2018

© Grant Scott 2022

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