Why Great Photographers Have Short Memories

Why Great Photographers Have Short Memories

Sometimes the lessons learned as a child are the most useful as an adult. Even if they were lessons to forget.

When I was younger, much younger, I used to play football. Moderately talented, I played through high school and college. I was a quarterback. The one that either throws the ball or hands it off. The focal point of the offense. The one that gets either too much of the glory, or too much of the blame, but rarely anything approaching a reasonable assessment of their performance.

As a quarterback, I had 90 percent of the skills needed to accel. I was a good athlete. I understood the game. I could throw a decent ball. I was tough to get down in the pocket. But I had one fatal flaw that, try as I might, would always be the one opponent I could not beat.

They say that the best athletes have short memories. No, this is not a snarky reference to an athlete's intelligence. Instead, they are referring to the seemingly supernatural ability of certain sports stars to block out everything going on around them, focus on the task at hand, and constantly deliver the goods regardless of the circumstances. In fact, the worse things seem to be going, the more a superstar tends to rise to the occasion. When those all around them are slinking back to the bench with heads hanging low, they stand tall. It’s not so much a matter of them looking at an impossible situation and seeing the possible as it is that, for them, the word impossible never existed in the first place.

What held me back as a quarterback wasn’t an inability to make a spectacular play. My problem was that any hitch in the game plan, even the smallest imperfection, was enough to ruin an entire game for me. I could have completed 17 out of 18 passes for 300 yards and 3 touchdowns, and the only thing I would take away from that game would be that one missed pass. When it came to success, my memory was fleeting. When it came to failure, I had the eternal memory of an elephant.

Even worse, if that missed pass occurred early in the game, there’s a good chance that 17-18 would look more like 4-18 by the time the whistle blew as I would find myself fixating throughout the game on my early failure to the detriment of everything to come. I would essentially be squandering all future opportunities because one pass one didn’t go my way. And because of my inability to overcome this mental block, my physical tools and hard work were never able to maximize their full potential.

In some ways, even as I’ve advanced significantly in years, I have still not completely outrun the problem. As with most of us, our greatest strength can be our Achilles heel. With me, my refusal to accept anything from myself that I consider less than my best is what has driven me in my career. To a large degree, this refusal to settle for “good enough” has helped me to book clients I never dreamed I could reach. On the flip side, an inability to accept anything less than perfection, in a world where even successful shoots rarely go exactly to plan, can be a major detriment to your career. Can you imagine if you let a few bad early shots in a session ruin an entire photoshoot? Odds are your career wouldn't last very long.

Fortunately with the increasing number of gray whiskers seeming to appear uninvited at the tip of my beard, I have accrued not only a better understanding of photography, but also a better understanding of myself. So, while the urge to fixate on minute failure rather than cherish the opportunities for success may still rear its ugly head, I am aware enough now to immediately recognize that urge, put it in perspective, and move past it.

Even the best photographers, far better than I, have setbacks. Even my mentors, who have reached the peak of the game, will regale me with stories of how they’ve had big celebrity assignments completely killed by publicists, never to see the light of day. They will tell me about assignments where they’ve had to shoot big names for big publications, and have found it completely impossible to connect with their subjects. Not to be outmatched, I have more than my own fair share of stories of shoots that I had high hopes for that simply didn’t come off in the end. Stories about the cruel things people say. Stories about those shoots that just don’t seem to work, no matter how hard you try.

The difference between quarterback Chris and photographer Chris is that I now can recognize that mistakes don’t equate to failure. A misstep is only fatal if you let it be. The only way you can really fail as a creative person is if you give up on your dream in the face of adversity. To think that you, or anyone else for that matter, will reach the mountain top without a few stumbles along the way is fool’s gold.

We all will throw a few incomplete passes. We all will hear the boos of the crowd from time to time. We will all face up to opposition and find ourselves driven to the ground. But the superstars among us, those who succeed and reach their dreams, are the ones that will get back up, dust themselves off, and step back up to the line of scrimmage. They are not focused on the hardships behind them, but instead they focus on the opportunities that lie ahead.

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5 Comments

It's okay. By the time you're my age, your memory will be long gone. No successes. No failures. Just today. Now if I could just remember where I am... ;-)

Robert Nurse's picture

My gosh, I've had some real clusters. But, what keeps me going are the shoots that soared: connection with subjects, me hitting every mark and difficulty culling as there are too many good shots to cut.

michael buehrle's picture

same thing happened to al bundy.

Walter Seward's picture

thanks for the article! I relate a lot of things to sports to understand better perfect crossover. Ive been struggling with this as well. This came right on time!!

William Cornett's picture

I do not believe your problem is with your memory. Please read the book, "The Boy Who Could Not Stop Washing His Hands." Don't be put off by the title. There's a lot more to it than most people think, including constant doting on failures and standout events, checking-and-counting, etc. Obsessive worrying is also a common aspect.