The importance of reflection and editing your work

Recently my friends at Fujifilm Canada asked me to put together a collection of images for a small gallery showing.  It was an honour to be asked of course, but it also served as an opportunity to review my work… something that all artists should do from time to time.

Reviewing your work with a critical eye is an important part of growing as an artist.  It is how we see where we are succeeding, learn where we are not, see if we are repeating ourselves in our work and determine if there are gaps that need filled or new skills that need to be learned.  This process is made even more powerful when a third party, somebody who we respect, can look at our work with complete objectivity and provide us with honest feedback and recommendations.

One of the dilemmas for me when assembling a body of work for a gallery showing is the diversity of my photography (as seen above).  While street photography and travel photography make up a large part of my work, I also spend time photographing portraits, weddings and landscapes & cityscapes.  It is relatively easy to put together a gallery when you are asked to show a specific aspect of your work; but, when the request isn’t focused, there is often an urge to show all of your favourite images.  This can result in a gallery that lacks cohesion (something that is very important when showing a series of images together in print).

The following contact sheet shows some of my best images that have been made over the years.  Individually, I love all of them.  There is a lot of visual dissonance, however, when viewing them together as a body of work.

A better approach might be to consider the following questions when putting a series together for a showing:

  1. What is the purpose of this gallery?
  2. Is there anything specific that is trying to be said, or is there a story to be told, with these photos?  Or, are the photographs being featured purely as art?
  3. Do I want the viewer to feel anything specific when they look at the photographs, or should it be left to interpretation?

After some thought, review and discussion with the curator of the gallery, we decided to focus only on my street photography and not my travel, wedding or portrait photography.  While this decision meant that I would not be showing some of my favourite images, it also meant that I could quickly shift my attention to a much smaller number of photos.  These photos would be featured as artwork, rather than a series of related storytelling images, therefore I could focus on selecting my favourite street images with an eye for ones that would compliment each other when displayed side by side on the wall.

The next step was to create a “fat edit” that included my final candidates for this small street photography gallery.  This edit can be viewed in the contact sheet below:

While viewing these images as thumbnails like this, the next decision that I had to make became clear to me:  Do I go all black and white for cohesion, or show a mix of black and white with colour images?  Looking at the fat edit of 20 images, there were 14 black and white and 6 colour.  My immediate concern about the final 10 images was:  what if I end up with a gallery that is lop sided toward black and white?  Ultimately, after seeing how the curator intended to print, frame and hang these images, I was comfortable including a mix of black and white with colour images.

After some thought and discussions with trusted friends (again, reach out to those who will give you honest feedback), the final selections were:

During this process, which was as much about reflecting on my work as it was preparing for the gallery showing, the following thoughts occurred to me:

  1. I love the direction my work is heading in with regard to the use of light and shadow.  I will continue to focus on this aspect of my photography.
  2. Every one of my final selections was taken candidly.  I have hundreds, if not thousands, of street portraits where I interacted with my subjects but not one of them made it into the final selections.  I need to think more about if this just confirms my love of candid photography, or if I should place more focus on my portraiture in the future and develop that aspect of my work further.
  3. I tend to shoot very close when working on the street, filling the frame with my subject.  I do love, however, the images I’ve taken where the environment dwarfs the subject.  I have made a mental note to create and include more of these compositions in my work moving forward.

During this process I also deleted almost 400 photos from my library.  I think it is important to only keep and show your best work, but I also recognize that our definition of “best” changes over time.  I usually go through a cycle where I love a photo when I first take and process it, only to not like it anywhere near as much when I look back at it 3 or 6 or 12 months later.  I think this sometimes happens because I loved the experience of taking the photo more than the photo itself, or because I have simply grown as an artist and my expectations have changed.  Either way, I find whenever I spend time reviewing my work like this I always end up deleting photos from my library in addition to having new thoughts for what I want to shoot in the future.

This reflection is a valuable process, one that I encourage every artist to go through from time to time.  It gives you the opportunity to celebrate successes, to see your growth over time and to gain objective data with which you can goal set for the future.  When I view my own work I see so many areas for improvement, but I am also proud to see it laid out like this:

That last point is important:  Don’t be the proverbial “angst ridden artist”.  I see way too many people taking this process too seriously, like that is the only way to be a “real” artist.   That is false, of course.  Art should bring us joy, both the final product we create and the process of making it.  We should reflect honestly, we should identify areas for improvement, but we should also be damn sure to celebrate our successes too.

I’d like to go back to the gallery showing to express my final thought…

Seeing these photos in print, side by side on the wall, was amazing.  So many people have uttered the phrase “a photograph isn’t real until it is printed” and I fully agree with this sentiment.  A photograph is so much more than digital ones and zeroes and you develop a whole new appreciation for your work when you hold it in your hands or see it up on a wall.

Many thanks to Fujifilm Canada for this opportunity.  Now, as my friend Valerie Jardin likes to say, it is time to grab my camera and hit the streets!

Cheers,

Ian

19 thoughts on “The importance of reflection and editing your work

  1. Peter Morris says:

    Splendid body of work Ian. Very well chosen final photos, you should be proud of yourself!

    Just one question for you. I presume that the photos where you have included the light and shadows, where you then have individuals within the frame – that you have spotted those locations in advance, and then pounced with the shutter, when you have that person within the frame?

    Incidentally, those are my absolute favourite shots of yours.

    All the best, keep up the good work. Cheers, Peter

    • Ian says:

      Good afternoon Peter,

      Thank you for your comment. The vast majority of the images you describe are captured exactly like that: I saw the light and the composition first, then waited for the appropriate subject.

      Occasionally I will see an amazing subject though, and then hope I can find light and a background quickly before they get to me. Sometimes it works, sometimes not so much. 🙂

      Cheers,

      Ian

  2. JohnAmes says:

    A fine post! I, like you, have a wide variety of photographs and dealing with them in a coherent way is a real challenge for me.

    • Ian says:

      Many thanks for taking the time to comment. I do have a photo coming with the printed frames, but it wasn’t available at the time I wrote this post.

      Cheers,

      Ian

  3. Isaac Hilman says:

    Sounds like the perfect opportunity to review ones work! Congratulations, and your photos look gorgeous. Selective editing my work has been something I’ve repeatedly meant to do, but can never find the motivation or inspiration to do it. I guess I just have to dive in one of these days.

    One note about your final ten images though – which doesn’t seem intentional; my browser shows the same image for 7 and 10 – the guitarist in Las Vegas. Is one of these supposed to be a different image?

  4. Marilyn Dickson says:

    Thanks for sharing your selection process -love street the more I see
    (a survivor of your recent Van workshop -currently a fire evacuee)

  5. Bob Raisler says:

    A recurrent theme in your street work is the brightly-lighted face is a rather dark place, like the 3rd photo in your final cut, the man descending the escalator. I love those. It seems you must spot these opportunities of light and scene and then wait for the right subject to populate the scene. Since the appearance must be timed just right (the moment is fleeting), do you ever switch your camera to continuous shooting or do you just bet on the timing of a single shot?

    • Ian says:

      Good afternoon Bob,

      I walk around in single shot mode. If i have a good field of view I will shoot in that fashion and rely on good timing (as I can see my subject coming). If the moment is fleeting, however, or if my subjects are likely to suddenly appear in the frame I don’t mind using burst mode at all.

      Today’s cameras give us so many tools, the trick is to just use them as needed.

      Cheers,

      Ian

  6. processrepeat says:

    “I think this sometimes happens because I loved the experience of taking the photo more than the photo itself”

    So often, this.

    I also often go back to images from a few months ago or sometimes a few years ago to re-edit or re-rank the images especially as I’ve got more nuanced with my edits or preferences. It makes me nervous to delete things that aren’t obviously bad or misshot because so often I see something I didn’t see the first time around, or my tastes change, or the emotions/experience of the image clouded the quality of the image.

    It’s always kind of enjoyable to go back and spot a gem that you didn’t realize you had. (Although maybe a little less enjoyable to look back at a highly ranked image and wonder what the hell you were thinking!)

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