It’s bad enough that you get trapped by your own blind spots, but it gets worse: it’s all too easy to become the victim of somebody else’s.
A couple of months ago, I suggested that workshops were a good way to see how other people do things, and perhaps discover the existence of mental door that you’d closed long ago. That’s the upside. If you’re not careful, you could easily claim as your own the blind spots of your teacher or of your fellow students.
Why is it so easy to absorb a teacher’s blind spots?
- They are an authority, so there’s a tendency to think they have the answers.
- They are experts, so they have convincing explanations as to why doing things the way they have settled on is right, and doing things in some other way is wrong. Remember what I said last month: the more expert you are, the harder it is to see your blind spots. It’s also easier to pass those blind spots along to others.
- Trying things out takes time and energy, and much of photographic experimentation has little artistic content, so it’s not what most of us like to do. Thus, there’s a great temptation to save time by taking someone else’s word for something. Twenty-five or thirty years ago, the Zone System was a component of many workshops. Although doing your own testing was the cornerstone of the system, I was always amazed by the number of students who tried to bypass all that work and just wanted the instructor to tell them the “right” film speeds, developer dilutions, and development times.
- It takes time and energy to question everything that you hear, and sometimes it feels like being negative.
- In a group setting, there’s often a fear of asking questions that might be perceived as dumb, or of expressing skepticism.
Sometimes in a workshop you can latch onto a blind spot that the teacher doesn’t even have. About twenty years ago, I attended a workshop taught by one of the masters of West-Coast, large-format, black and white landscape photography. On the last day, we took a tour of his darkroom. On a high shelf, I noticed an immense bottle of potassium ferricyanide. I pointed at it and said, “I thought you said you never bleach prints.” He harrumphed a bit, and replied that he sometimes bleached negatives. I didn’t argue, but instead did a little mental calculation to figure out how many negatives you could bleach with that much ferricyanide, and decided to keep on bleaching my prints if that’s what the image needed.
What to do? As with your own blind spots, it’s not easy. You can’t let a fear of absorbing some else’s blind spots paralyze you. You go to workshops to learn things, and learning to do things one way means not doing it several other possible ways. You want to take away knowledge of the truth, but not “knowledge” of things that aren’t true. A little healthy skepticism helps, but I think the most effective tactic is a willingness to do the experimental work yourself.
Sometimes you just have to close your ears. At an opening a few weeks ago, I ran into a photographer who asked if I was working on anything new. I told him about some long exposures of neon lights that I was pretty excited about. In a tone of voice that indicated that he thought it was a dead-end project, he told me he’d once done the same thing. Not wanting to allow myself to get talked out of my enthusiasm, I changed the subject.