Last month I wrote about blind spots. I’d like to take another shot at the subject, but from a different angle.
Before I attained the exalted status of full-time photographer-and-general-layabout, I was an electrical engineer. I worked in different areas: speech recognition, data acquisition and process control, telephone systems, data networking, control networking, and color management. Moving around helped keep me fresh. Once I stayed with one field too long; I worked with telephone systems for more than fifteen years.
At the end of that time, the good news was that I knew an awful lot about phone systems. However, that knowledge wasn’t entirely a good thing. I’d sit in meetings and somebody would bring up an idea. I’d think, Oh, yeah; that’s a variation on such-and-such. Here are the three biggest advantages of that approach. Here are the three worst disadvantages. I’d ask a question or two, and the person with the idea would realize that it had a lot of problems, and would usually drop it. Maybe that was a good thing; we certainly saved a lot of time not recreating the work that caused me to form my opinions. But maybe there was some possibility that I hadn’t noticed the first (or second, or third) time around that made the idea a winner. Because I opened my mouth, we’d never know.
Early in my involvement with telephones, I led the development of a telephone switching system. We did the initial phase with eight engineers working for eighteen months. Later, I found that conventional wisdom in the telephone business said the project should have taken about a hundred and fifty man-years. Soon after we completed the development, we sold some foreign manufacturing rights to an English company called Plessey. During the negotiations, one of the Plessey guys asked another how we did it with so little manpower. The answer was, “They didn’t know it was impossible.”
Expertise causes blind spots, and the more expert you are, the harder it is to see your blind spots. There may not be any way around it. A lot of expertise is in knowing what will work, but even more is in knowing all the things that won’t work. Knowledge of failed experiments is integral to proficiency. Most of the failed trials in your personal history really prove that the ideas were dumb. But some of the experiments were probably flawed in some way, and the failures caused you to cross good ideas off your list, probably forever. You don’t know which are which; you have no way of telling which ideas are really useless, and which are diamonds in the rough.
If blind spots caused by expertise are hard to find in a more-or-less objective field like engineering, they have to be nearly impossible to detect when you’re making art, where the criteria for success are pretty darned elusive. There is one bit of good news for artists judging their own work; the only definition that matters is, “Does it feel right?” Since many things that ultimately prove fruitless feel great at first, we should amend our test to, “Does it continue to feel right for a long time?” With that as the criterion, the list of things that may contain good-but- too-quickly-rejected ideas is everything we’ve done that felt wrong, either immediately or after a while. Since a lot of creating art is trying things and moving on, that has to be a long list, and one that, for me, would be depressing to contemplate for very long. The list gets longer faster as time goes by and you get more prolific and skilled.
As before, the answer almost certainly doesn’t lie in contemplation. In engineering, I solved the problem by moving on to a field in which I had little expertise, forcing me to be a beginner again, unburdened with too much expertise and excessive knowledge of conventional wisdom. The photographic equivalent is to start a new project. If it involves new equipment, new subjects, and new techniques, so much the better. With me, successful new projects usually spring from (successful or unsuccessful) old ones; a good way to find a new project outside of your comfort zone might be to do many high-risk experimental ones. When was the last time you started a project expecting it to fail? That might not be such a bad idea.
The key to avoid getting stuck in a box of your own construction is to achieve the point of view of a beginner. That can be scary; there’s comfort in expertise. You can get the mindset of a beginner by trying things in fields in which you are not accomplished.