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The Productivity Paradox

Significant work is not easy to accomplish and often requires making sacrifices. It’s not for everyone, and there are no shortcuts. And that’s the way it should be

I don’t like coming back from the field with too many images. The reason may not be obvious. It’s not that I worry about the time required to process them; in fact, I quite enjoy this part of the creative process. Rather, I find that high volume is often a good indicator of creative laziness. It tells me that I have not been deliberate enough in selecting my compositions.

Ansel Adams famously said that twelve significant images in any single year is a good crop. The actual number is not important other than that it is smaller than many would expect. Rather, the operative word is significant. Significance implies importance, and it would be naïve of anyone to believe that important work can be produced in abundance on a consistent basis. Therein lies the paradox: the more seriously you take your work and the more particular you are about its qualities – technical, aesthetic, emotional, artistic, original, or other – the stricter your definition of success becomes, and the fewer images ultimately will meet it.

It may be a product of our consumer culture that many have a hard time accepting the fact that significance is inversely correlated with quantity. This is why many rationalize setting the bar for success so low as to merely be aesthetically pleasing. Beautiful images are easy because there are many beautiful subjects that lend themselves readily to the making of aesthetic images. To venture beyond aesthetics implies more work, deliberation and personal investment, which themselves may be a deterrent to some, but more importantly it also results in fewer images being made. To most photographers, the idea of returning from a trip with few (or even no) images is almost impossible to bear.

One of the most important milestones in the development of photographic artists is the moment at which they make their peace with the idea that making more meaningful work implies making less of it. This is not an easy accomplishment when so much of the social dynamics around photography pushes for more; more frequent posts, more locations, more new techniques and tools, etc., drowning significance in an ocean of insignificant aesthetics.

The paradox is exacerbated by the fact that many business models in photography rely on volume. Whether it’s stock photography, photojournalism, or commercial photography, sometimes having the one image best suited to a client’s taste requires covering as many angles, subjects and compositions as possible. This is also why so many commercial photographers decry having so little time to pursue work that is personally meaningful to them. It is why hobbyists should give up the silly goal of mimicking ‘pros’ if they wish to produce significant art, rather than volumes of insignificant exposures. It’s also why those who seek to make a living as professional photographic artists spend much of their time seeking significance rather than standing in line at predictable photo “hot spots” and often need to augment their incomes in other ways, such as writing or teaching.

The paradox implies that significant work is not easy to accomplish and often requires making sacrifices. It’s not for everyone, and there are no shortcuts. And that’s the way it should be.

Read this article, and many more, in High Definition, inside Issue 35 of Landscape Photography Magazine.

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About Author

I am a full-time photographer, writer, and naturalist living and working in the Colorado Plateau – a scenic and diverse desert region of the western United States spanning an area larger than most countries and states.

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