The Art of the Improv and the Importance of Looking Back At Your Work

The Art of the Improv and the Importance of Looking Back At Your Work

Some of my most favorite photos are those which I had little or nothing do to with. I love my work, but when I look at a photo that I took, it's often difficult to get past the fact that I know too much about it. I know the edits, I know the tones, I know that it could have been better had I just moved a foot to the left or the right, and I know how many times I ditched the file and started over from scratch. In short, as an artist, sometimes knowing what’s behind the curtain makes it difficult to enjoy the overall work.

But despite that, I believe it’s important for an artist - or anyone, really - to look back upon their own work. Unless we acknowledge and recognize our creative milestones, how else can we mark periods of growth and change? How do we define periods where one style gave way to the next? How do we recognize the moment when the artist we were ceases to exist and the artist we’re to become steps forth and begins to takes charge?

If I’ve learned anything, it’s that nearly every creative is self-conscious about his or her work, nearly everyone is nervous about putting it out there, and nearly everyone’s mouse hovers over the delete button (if only for a second or two) after sharing. I think it’s important we recognize both our growth and insecurity and equally as important to share it out with fellow artists. Admittedly, there are some photographs of mine which I look back upon and cringe. But there are some which I look at specifically because I recognize the moment when something changed. It's looking back at these which brings me back to the moment where I felt my work cross a divide; when I left behind an older style and evolved on to the next. I believe that we all have moments like this. Tangible moments when we’re able to see into the future with just a bit more clarity than we were able to the day before.


I Digress

Last July, I spent about four weeks in South Florida  - a somewhat drastic change in both climate and attitude from my Southern California home. Despite the heat, humidity, and hair that was impossible to keep styled (my hair wax kept melting), I managed to visit my friends, spend quality time with my family, and get in a number of photo shoots. That I was able to do so much in such a short period of time was a lesson in exhaustion - one that I’ll be very happily repeating again this summer.

Over the period of four weeks, I was lucky enough to work with a number of models, extremely talented makeup artists, and incredibly creative wardrobe designers/stylists. We shot everything from lifestyle to fashion to beauty and back again. In putting together each photo shoot, we tried to plan as much as possible, and for the most part, every shoot worked according to it’s plan. Every shoot. Well, almost.

The Unnecessary Backstory

Megan is a very good friend of mine. We first shot together in mid-2012, our paths crossing several times over the next year or so which allowed us to both shoot often and develop a pretty close friendship. That we both wound up in Miami at the same time was a welcome twist of fate and in planning our time there, we made sure to set aside some time to get together as much as possible. Unfortunately, thanks to our busy work schedules, neither one of us had much time for anything more than a few hours one rainy afternoon. Regardless, I planned a massive photo shoot; makeup artist, hair stylist, wardrobe designer, photo assistants…It would be epic.

When the day arrived that we were both going to be free, with a nervous twinge in my gut, I grabbed my camera bag, loaded my gear into my rental, and made the long, rainy, stop-and-go (mostly stop) drive from Ft. Lauderdale to Miami, making the thirty mile drive in just under seventeen hours.


Some Rain

That it rains in South Florida is not a secret; actually, I believe Florida is the Spanish word for torrential downpour. From June through September/October, you can set your watch to afternoon thunderstorms which reduce visibility to inches rather than feet, set the sky alight, soak the ground all while giving off the most perfect soft lighting. When I got to Megan’s hotel it was still raining, so while we waited for the rest of the team, I scouted around the grounds and quickly found a spot where we could shoot - a gazebo on a man-made sandy beach overlooking the shimmering blue Intercoastal. The light was soft and the South Florida air smelled as sweet as ever. As the afternoon wore on, the rain was forecast to end, and sun was forecast to make an appearance. It, combined with the abundance of open shade, was going to be perfect for anything we wanted to accomplish.

What Were We Trying to Accomplish?

Did I mention that the hotel had a fake beach? I did? Great. It was a nice touch. In our initial planning of the shoot, we’d both had such high hopes. Full team. It was going to be epic. We had everything planned, and like any good plan, it fell apart in almost no time. Between the torrential rain and several broken down cars, the epic shoot turned into just just Megan and me sitting around her hotel lobby waiting for the rain to end. So seeing that it was either shoot or go home, we decided to shoot. Megan and I found an open swim shop and pulled the suits ourselves, she did her own makeup. I acted as my own assistant. We were set.


Enter the Tourists

As Megan finished putting on her makeup and pushed her hair in and out of place, I looked around the beach area. As it has just finished raining and the sun was poking through the clouds, the tourists were beginning to fill up the area again. I watched as they pulled their towels from the baskets provided by the hotel and set them down, hoping to get in an hour or two before the sun turned orange and gently set to the west. As Megan put the finishing touches on her wardrobe, I noticed how more and more people were pulling cameras from their beach bags and were shooting everything in sight; the sun, the clouds, the boats, themselves, and each other. It was a pretty welcoming sight, to be honest. I was getting amped. With everyone around us shooting and oblivious to us, the tension in my shoulders loosened and Megan and I began to shoot.

The Improv

Full Disclosure: I often have very little idea what I’m doing, in life, and especially in photography. I know I can take an OK photo (sometimes), but I am constantly (or continually) amazed by the work that my peers produce. I am in awe of their creativity, their vision, and their ability to think on their feet and bring about such incredible work. Sometimes, when looking through their galleries I am often overcome with an incredible fear that, quite frankly, the work I produce is in no way going to be as good as the work I see my peers producing on a day to day basis. Although I’ve ditched my creative jealousy, there are still moments in which I waiver. I’d like to think everyone does. And I’d also like to think it’s not necessarily a bad thing to question ourselves, our direction, and our motivation from time to time.

With the entire team out of action, Megan and I were free to do what we wanted. The light was good, the batteries were charged, and the tourists were all busy taking pictures of themselves. So, we shot. And shot. And shot. In just under two hours, we shot over 1200 photos because not only weren’t we on a schedule, but we were having an incredible amount of fun. Granted, 1200 photos is a ridiculous amount of photos for anyone to take in such a short amount of time but we were accountable to nobody. It was complete and total freedom.

And it worked. In the two hours we shot, we tried quite a number of different styles and despite some success, it wasn’t until we were about an hour and a half in did we hit our stride. Something clicked (ha!). Whether it was the freedom that allowed us to shoot what we wanted or whether it was the comfort we felt with one another, the images we were produced were, to us at least, truly something special. To me there are defining. I look back at them and see the moment when something changed. I’m still not quite sure I can put my finger on exactly what it was, but perhaps that’s the beauty of creative evolution - we know that something changes, but we’re not entirely sure what until we look back at the before and afters.



In the end, all we can do is continue to put our work out there, stay hungry, and find ways to keep ourselves motivated so as to continue to spark our own creative growth. I believe that one such way, so vital to our creative growth and artistic well-being, is the act of looking back at our own body of work and recognizing what worked and what didn't and how far we've come since then. In all honestly, what better way to remind ourselves that, despite how slow it may seem at times,  that this is a journey, we are making progress, and that taking photos is a really, really cool thing.

 John Schell | Instagram | Facebook

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Neon Howe's picture

I remember when starting out taking photos, it was always about spray and pray. Then I started learning new techniques and just shot attempting to apply those techniques, but never really took the time to review and learn. It was at the point when, I got 'tired' of photography that it finally clicked to review and critique my photos, which really helped to guide me further and inspire me to take more photos. So long story short, definitely agree on taking the time to review one's own photos as they will only help make one better.

Good Morning and thank you for sharing your insights of a fellow photographers mind. Sitting here in Nuremberg Germany with my third Cup of fresh brewed coffee, still unsure what this Day will bring and After having a photothon-wedding Project Last saturday - today will be a good day, due to your post. Same here with the Whole nine yards of unsecurity in an artists Way of working, with all the regret of Not having done it at f11 for more dof, or bumping iso and reducing power or just take two Minuten more to Set it up...
I gladly will take your advice in reviewing and seeing those milestones in my own work. For critique I want to One Day find someone, that will only say what he or she dislikes about my Images to keep being critical of my own work. As a Friend told me some Werks ago: "its the Artists downside, Never to be happy with his work." If thats the consequence of Development then I am happy to be unhappy... Sincerely from here...

john pritchett's picture

As a photographer and painter, insecurity about my work is always present. Then I look at the great photographic work of Richard Avedon, Patrick Demarchelier, Peter Lindbergh, Steven Meisel and other great photographic artists. I am re-inspired. Check out Mert Alas and Marcus Piggott's 15 pages in this month's "W" Magazine, "Instaglam." Truly works of art.

THAT was an awesome post and DEAD ON with my own thoughts over the last 48 hours. Kind of odd that this was the first post I read today.

As someone just starting to work with models, MUAHs etc I needed to read this. Thanks a million John!

Iain Mack's picture

brilliant read and good advice. :)

Great article but 1200 photos in 2 hours. That's just overdoing it, what about waiting for the moment.

John Schell's picture

haha, I agree. It's a feat I try not to repeat very often.