There comes a time in when nearly every photographer decides some once-loved old work is crap. Edward Weston scraped the emulsion of some of his old glass negatives and turned them into window panes. He’d moved on, and considered the early work an embarrassment. I’m sure many pictorialists who saw the f/64 light felt the same way about their fuzzy pictures.
I remember the first time it happened to me. I was almost a year into a new series, and it was all coming together for me. I was getting even more excited than at the beginning. I was clearer about what I was trying to do. I could tell when things were working while I was making the exposures; I didn’t have to wait until I got to the darkroom. As I was reviewing the work that I had done at the beginning of the series, I realized that something was wrong. The pictures that got me started on the productive road I was so happy about, pictures that I had loved a few months ago, seemed dull to me now. They were vague, cluttered, lacking in a crisp insight that the later work had. I was depressed. The images that I had thought were great I now realized were, well, crap. The ones I was making now were so much better. But what would keep me from feeling the same way about them in a year or two? I’d lost my confidence. I didn’t know what to do but just keep on with the series, and go with what felt right at the time. I kept at it, but I’d lost the faith that I was on the right track.
It all worked out. When I came to the end of the series after five years, the only pictures I’d soured on were ones that I had made during the first few months. Then I started a new series. After a few months, the same thing happened. This time it didn’t bother me so much, and I didn’t falter. By the third series, and the third tossing out of work I had once thought was great, I recognized the pattern. That changed my attitude entirely. The reevaluation of the early work was a sign that the series was maturing, that I was moving beyond the facile early pictures to ones that went beneath the surface. Rather than a cause for despair, discarding once-loved pictures was a reason to rejoice.