The Craft: Why I Don't Want To Be The Best

When I started Milton Gan Photography in 2009 I believed I would be the best photographer ever; the leader of the pack; the champion of the world. Now I know that's exactly what I don't want.

Don't get me wrong; it's good to have high aspirations. 

When I was at primary school I was the smartest kid ever. I was fast-tracked into the year above me and could draw in perspective before anyone else.

Check. Me. Out.

Admittedly there were only a hundred  kids in the whole school, but that's like gazillions when you're only six so I believed I would always rule supreme.

As I grew older and moved through secondary school, sixth form college and university, the reality of my insignificant role in the universe hit me in a less than subtle way. I wasn't the smartest kid in the world after all, but my competitive streak spurred me on to be the best at whatever I did.

That same streak is still with me, but now that I work in the creative industries there is an obvious question: how do you determine who is the best? And diving deeper raises another question: do I really want to be the best?

Art is subjective and therefore there can be no best, no worst, and no average. But there are barometers such as industry competitions like the Canon AIPP APPAs and the work displayed on the blogs of my peers. In combination these can roughly determine my whereabouts in the industry at any point in time. Of course social media is the 10,000lb Hasselblad in the room, and while it will always be an excellent marketing platform there is a big danger of getting caught in its net(works) of red herrings and becoming involved in a high speed pursuit of fans and followers, believing them to be currencies of excellence. But the holy grail they are not.

And even if "the best" had defining criteria, would I or should I really want to be the best? Why am I even thinking about this?

Well just a few days ago I read another intelligent and thoughtful post from New York photographer Spencer Lum on his Ground Glass blog. In "Why good doesn't matter" he compared the merits of being good vs being better and he favoured being better. I agree, but after mulling it over I decided that I would rather be better than the best.

Being the best implies that you've reached the pinnacle, you have nothing more to achieve, and, dangerously, you don't need to get better. Of course there is always room to improve, but being the best is a title bestowed upon you by others (just as being "cool" is an accolade that should only be received and never self-applied ) so if the adoring masses are happy to worship you just as you are, then there's no reason to break into a sweat unnecessarily is there? So what happens next? You sit back on your laurels, bask in the glory of your accomplishments and become... complacent. And we all know that won't have a happy ending.

I would rather be better. Being better is more realistic, more manageable, and ultimately more rewarding, At a wedding I fire the shutter around two thousand times, but between one click and the next I'm learning a bit more and trying a bit harder. And that means day after day, wedding after wedding, I know, see, and feel that I'm getting better. And that works for me.

I now have two years of weddings under my belt and I'm almost at the end of my first year as a full time business. Those are big achievements for me and I'm really excited to be where I am. But despite the tens of thousands of hours I've dedicated to my craft I'm still relatively new and on the steep north face of the learning curve. Thankfully. Because waiting at the top of the curve is that sinister and treacherous plateau of complacency. And I'm not in a rush to get there.