The Best Photo You Ever Made

- - Working

Everyone has a “best photo you ever made” and when you’re getting started hopefully it is continually replaced by a new best photo you ever made, but at some point a picture that you made stands for a very long time (or an essay, book, body of work).

Erik Hersman was blogging from TED 2009 and filed this from a talk Elizabeth Glibert author of “Eat, Pray, Love” and it got me thinking about dealing with not being able to capture lightning in a bottle twice:

Elizabeth Gilbert: Genius and how we ruin it

Elizabeth weaves an insightful story of artists, success and pressure. She asks if she’s doomed. What if she never replicates the success of her past book? Is it rational or logical to be afraid of the work that we were put on this earth to do? Why have artists and writers had this history of manic depressive and mental illnesses? Why does artistry always lead to mental anguish?

“I think it might be better if we encouraged our great creative minds to live.”

“It’s exceedingly likely that my greatest success is behind me. That’s the kind of thought that can lead a person to start drinking gin at 9:00 in the morning.”

Read it (here).

I can identify many photographers by a single image or a series of images but when I talk to them about it they tend to talk about all the flaws in the images or how it was a fluke. I wonder if that’s just a defense mechanism. I suppose there are the popular “best photos you ever made” and the critical version but when you’re just trying to make it the popular one counts the most.

UPDATE: The video just went live.

There Are 30 Comments On This Article.

  1. I’m not sure if I have one best. Different viewers have different opinions. I have best images that have received attention in different areas of photography. Some editorial and others commercial. After twenty years of photography their are about 4-5 from my early days that still stand the test of time.

    Unfortunately, I believe a couple of my very best images are the ones I missed. A moment I saw, but missed. I have two of those and they will always haunt me.


  2. Shane Kislack

    I traded the search for “the best ditch I ever dug” for “the best piture I ever took”. I’m much happier now.

  3. the cinemascapist

    Isn’t prolificacy what separates ok, s0-s0, and great artist? Hundreds, perhaps thousands of us have made an image or series that has WOW’d the critics or clients. I think it’s only those that can handle drinking gin every morning that will stand the test of time.

    • cinemascapist

      followup after seeing the video…

      shouldn’t we question who the modern day “divine, cock-eyed genius” assigned to our cases are?

      It’s really up to “them” who stays and who goes.

  4. Rob, why are you uploading PNGs for the side “Photo Blogs” section? The site is slow because of these… even on my high speed extreme connection. JPGs man, jay pegs!

  5. You / Gilbert bring up a good and maybe frightening point. The funny thing is the photographer is often the last to know. I’ve had images that develop a life of their own. One in particular was used in the assigned ads, won the big awards, became a top Getty seller, was copied and duplicated to the point that it was almost everywhere it seemed. Even my mom noticed it duplicated. Kind of an odd complement I guess. But then you realize you’re only going to have so many of those in a career. That – and the pressure to create another – is the scary part.

  6. It can be difficult to use the unconscious creative process to generate a successful career. If we have success, or get significant acclaim, with certain images along the way we’re naturally inclined to think that those “kind” of images must be repeated. This is where the right side and left side of the brain begin the struggle that can knock us right out of the air. Once fear of failure to repeat success kicks in you’d better intubate the creative body, call Dr House. Lingering on the fuzzy glow of “best images ever made” is as productive as talking out loud to a dead uncle. If you’ve made excellent images, ones that were extremely satisfying to you at that time, you’ll probably continue to create with the same satisfaction. Once the mechanics of running your business are in place, then it’s important to work independently of other’s opinion, good or bad, or as is usually the case, indifferent. Taking this risk is scary, but thrilling — that’s what we want, right? However, it’s guaranteed that if you dwell on the past, fear the future and start drinking gin at 9am, your greatest success will absolutely be behind you.

    • @Paul Mason, I don’t know why I ended here after four months but I thought I’d add that I like this comment. Good thought Paul.

  7. newmediaphotographer wrote:
    Unfortunately, I believe a couple of my very best images are the ones I missed. A moment I saw, but missed. I have two of those and they will always haunt me.
    We always miss the the images we didn’t capture.

  8. Rob,
    This post is very serendipitous for me right now. I am currently trying to find my strengths as a photographer, trying to see my identity. wading through the tons and tons of images has been a very self afacing trial.
    The hard part is the attachment that goes along with the images. I like one image for a whole separate reason than JonQPublic. Or I hold high an image that has garnered many gallery sales or positive praises, the down side is it becomes a white whale.
    In a sense we are scientists, the idea is the hypothesis, the process in which capture our idea is the experiment, and the tangible result is the answer. Not all experiments are successful, and not all successful experiments pave the way for future success.

    Granted I am a novice but the lightning in a bottle we seek is always two-fold,
    1) our own revelations on our work and our desired achieved goal
    2) the perceived achievement and success.

    Thanks for this post.

  9. I’ve put in at least 10,000 hours thinking about why cutting age creativity seems to be most likely early in a career (it’s not a given by any means). Here are a few thoughts:

    – fame or financial rewards can adversely affect creativity. Hence the difference between commercial and fine artists.
    – fear of not living up to previous works can confine creativity
    – broader opportunity may slow creative flow; restrictions can be helpful creative frames – something to push against.
    – We all have a style to contribute; a viewpoint. The big reveal in early careers can be very exciting to viewers. Continued expectations can raise the bar to unreasonable levels, mostly in yourself but others as well.
    – Art is personal once you let others in the intense connection the artist has with his/her work can be altered.

    Naturally there is more to it. I think one of the greatest realizations is that there will never be a simple answer.

  10. Tony Novak-Clifford

    @Bruce DeBoer:

    You hit most of the nails squarely on the head, especially with #2 & #3.

  11. Mostly I keep changing images in my portfolio, because I continue to get such great challenges. As long as I am challenged to produce better images, then I will keep generating new favorites. I have one image left from when I was in college (15th image in Lifestyle), mostly because it still gets favorable comments. I find that I get better choices when I listen to how others feel about certain images, than when I try to guide to my own choices. After all, we are in the business of conveying ideas in images to others, and their opinions should factor strongly in our choices.

  12. On a personal level, I don’t have a favorite image although I do have favorite challenges that I’ve overcome. i.e. a particularly tough situation where I was able to get a really good image.

    I don’t know about everyone else, but I only get long term satisfaction from the body of my work. The thrill of a single image fades quickly most times for me.

    Good thought provoking post.

  13. I’m always asked “what is your favorite?”. Can’t say, other than the trite answer of “they all are”, which is true. Each one is attached to a particular issue, mood, adventure, process, learning experience, trial and tribulation, etc. I admit there are some I like better than others and perhaps could loosely be called “favorites” by such a loose definition, but no individual image stands out at this point.

    @Bruce DeBoer you punched it by mentioning “fear”. Fear and self-doubt, second-guessing, hesitation, all lead to less satisfactory results. We are all subject to bouts of fear and self-doubt and overcoming that obstacle is a great challenge and obvious relief when achieved (if it can ever be. I think we need a bit of fear to keep us on our toes).

    If you haven’t read these books, I recommend them:
    Art & Fear, by Ted Orland & David Bayles
    The View from the Studio Door, by Ted Orland
    Notes on a Shared Landscape: Making Sense of the American West, by David Bayles

    There are others, but these books capture the essence of the art and being an artist (whether a fine artist or commercial artist).

  14. “…Why have artists and writers had this history of manic depressive and mental illnesses? Why does artistry always lead to mental anguish?”

    What came first? The chicken or the egg?

    Without insulting the majority of us who believe they fall in the middle of the bell curve for mental and emotional stability, I think some of the best (or most popular or well noted) art, music, poetry and prose through the ages has come from those creative persons who are/were just a little bit unhinged to begin with.
    Maybe a more interesting question is how does mental or emotional anguish lead to great artistry?

    And maybe that’s why artists who talk about the flaws or how it was a fluke find it the “easier”… “saner” way to explain their work. Because their art, not English, French, Mandarin, Latin etc… is the language they’ve found successfully translates their personal thoughts into public communication with the world.


  15. Decisive moments aside, serendipity and dumb luck, maybe too often, play a role in capturing that truly magical shot.

    Unfortunately, the planets don’t always line up the way we want them to with everything we shoot. The light can be perfect, the subject(s) perfect as well, everything seem perfect yet still…

    I’m not saying it’s hit-or-miss once your game is refined. But successful “hits” aren’t always defined by capturing that magical, elusive shot. Often enough, good enough is good enough. While we all hope to exceed “good enough” with everything we shoot, it simply doesn’t work that way. I’m not advocating striving for mediocrity but, in the long run, consistently producing work that is “good enough” or better, leastwise in the clients’ eyes, usually snags more work than a single magical shot. (Unless, of course, the shot happens to be the Marines raising the flag at Iwo Jima or a South Vietnamese officer executing a suspected Viet Cong member on the streets of Saigon.)

  16. alanbartlett

    I had someone tell me once that usually your favorite images are the ones you learned the most from. They might not be other peoples favorite because you are trying something new and haven’t had a chance to refine and polish things, but for you its the best work you’ve ever done. The ones that come after your favorite are usually other peoples favorites. I don’t know about other people but it’s been true for me. That also ties into someones earlier post about getting stagnant later in your career. When you’re established usually you know how to do the things you want to do so your not pushing yourself to learn new things. That basically lets the creative side die. To nurture your creative instinct you have to let it go and try new things. Then once you learn how to do what you set out to do you create your next favorite image and grow as an artist. For a young artist the field is wide open. You don’t know anything and you have so much to learn that just by working you learn something new. Also I think goals play a factor. Once you reach them you don’t have anything else to learn. So you keep recreating the same work because you don’t have the next goal to learn how to get to.

  17. That “all downhill from here” meme will drive you mad every time. The best way to go is just to plow on, keep creating, and let others judge artistic worth. That said, easier said than done.

  18. “Why have artists and writers had this history of manic depressive and mental illnesses? Why does artistry always lead to mental anguish?”

    Read Walker Percy’s Lost in the Cosmos and you’ll have the closest thing to an answer to those questions.

  19. I have definitely had a response or two to some photos that I don’t think that highly of – it always reminds me of how personal photography is at some basic level.

    As for passing your creative peak early in your career, I wonder if this could be prevented by always having new projects and challenging yourself with new directions and challenges.

    Another great post.

  20. TED is one of the most inspirational web site out there. One of my favorite talks was from last year. JJ Abrams talk about his “Mystery Box” and is one that should not be missed. After 18 minutes you feel inspired, motivated, influenced, encouraged and enthused about the future. It has help me realize that creating is an evolving exercise – one that we should never be completely satisfied. Live to Create and Create to Live.

  21. I did view Elizabeth’s talk. She has a point, both from the fear perspective (will I do any better than I just did?) and separating the “genius” from “self”, externalizing rather than internalizing our creativity to take the pressure off a bit. Maybe it makes it easier to handle, as if you’re having a conversation with a best friend or mentor. Something also to be said about artists “on the edge”. I wondered for a long time whether I needed to be an alcoholic manic-depressive drug addicted womanizer to be successful since most artists, writers, painters who are famous seem to have at least some of those traits.

    We’re often pressured to “stay in the box” to receive acceptance from peers, society, the marketplace. When we get too far outside the “norm” our audience dwindles appreciably. Who do we create for? Ourselves or others? What provides the most satisfaction? How do we balance satisfaction/individual success with eating and having a place to live?

    I came across a quote the other day from Thomas Edison (his birthday is tomorrow):

    “Hell, there are no rules here — We’re trying to accomplish something!”

    Perhaps a good guideline to follow.

  22. I used to be a two-bit recording artist. My biggest ‘hit’ came about half way through my career, and was indeed a fluke. It was a remix someone commissioned. Five years later I was still getting requests for music to sound like that particular remix. It was always this odd thing…I was always explaining that my music wasn’t really all about that remix sound, it was just a one-off thing. But it was far more popular than anything else I did, including the ‘real’ stuff I made. It was a lot like being continually mistaken for a famous celebrity. “That’s not me, and I can’t be that!”

    Is that why I switched careers to photography? Probably not. But I hope not to have a ‘hit’ again this time around. I’d prefer to be in the top 100, not #1 with a bullet.