You know how it is when you check into your hotel room and start flicking thru the channels on the TV? There's usually about 120 options, not counting the in room pornography channels and the movies that cost money. The ones that you can't really expense. And in the end you end up turning off the television and trying to find something to read in the gift shop because no matter what you choose on TV you'll regret the time you wasted and you'll be certain that, while you were watching a Seinfeld re-run or a Steven Segal movie for the 5th time, you will have missed something even better on another channel.
There have been a few good books written in the last few years about the "tyranny of choice". Seems the more choices people have the less happy they are in life. If you get to a shelf with sixty different kinds of peanut butter the need to choose wisely becomes overwhelming. And no matter which jar of organic extra crunchy you pick you end up with the queasy feeling that you've overlooked something that might be a better value or even a better product. In the end shopping becomes a form of torture.
And that's just for those of us who are usually decisive and have a good, built-in "decision tree" mechanism. Pity those who are already wishy-washy.
Okay, Tuck. What the hell does this have to do with photography? Well, everything. As photographers I think there's a tremendous force of market that makes us feel as though we should have a style. Any style----as long as we have a style. But it takes years of shooting and shooting to develop one on your own so the conventional wisdom is to "adopt" a style by emulating someone else's style that catches your eye. And in the course of "appropriating" the style there is almost assuredly the wish or hope that whatever deficiencies are perceivable in your rendition will be chalked up to your "unique" interpretation of your "appropriated" "homage" to this "adopted" "emulation".
But you know the whole idea of copying a style to learn is absolute bullshit and only serves to prolong your omnidirectional apprenticeship. It's like trying to learn how to swim with a giant intertube around your waste. So why do we copy other people's styles in a vain attempt to create our own?
I think it's because there is the perception that there are too many styles to choose from and the tyranny of choice is paralyzing. In ancient history photographers were inspired (could copy from) only the styles they saw in magazines, books and newspapers. The craftier ones (better schools?) could also draft behind pieces of fine art....paintings, sculpture and the like. But the range was finite and soon exhausted. At that point an artist had to make some declarations and plant his flag in the creative firmament. You could only copy Henri Cartier Bresson for so long before the rubes got wise to your plagiarism.
Now you could go your whole life just aping stuff you see on Flickr, and the other share sites. But what does that buy you? Perhaps it's better to labor in ignorance, unsullied by anyone else's influence. But that may be impossible in our highly visual culture.
Why am I thinking about all this? There is a personal angle. And that's my realization that choices can negatively impact your own art. Here's my brief story: I love shooting portraits. I love shooting stuff like the image above and I should have spent the last few years diligently doing this work. But I started writing stuff. And it was fun. And the more I did it the easier it became. Then I was approached by a publisher and have since done four books on photography. Each book consists of between 50,000 and 60,000 words. Each book consisting of between 75 to 100 images. And writing and producing all the images was only part of the deal. You soon discover, no matter how good your publisher is, that you will best be able to do the social marketing and personal marketing required to drive significant sales.
When the bottom dropped out of the commercial photographic market I also started doing various workshops to supplement my income. These are a real blast. Add to that some speech writing for a big client, some advertising writing for another and a few video projects and you've got a formula for disaster. Write a book? Take a picture? Help with someone else's speech or book? Take a picture? Make a video? Take a picture? Teach a workshop? Take a picture? You get the point. Death by a thousand dilutions. How thinly can you spread your energy and attention?
Having multiple skills is a blessing and a curse. Do you focus like a laser on the one thing that brought you into the fold in the first place or does short term expediency drive you to accept diverse kinds of work that prevent you from concentrating on what you love best? 2009 is over. The relentless economic panic is diminishing. Decisions have to be made. Everything or one thing. Mastery or coverage. The tyranny of choice hovers over me like a buzzard. But once Pandora's box was opened......to be continued.