The Power of Ambition

The Power of Ambition

Having ambition is not a problem. In fact, ambition is necessary to be able to carve out the time needed to produce your work from the multitude of other demands on your life. The question is how that ambition is directed. If you adhere to your personal path, having shows and sales will not do any harm. In fact, you might actually make enough money to live, even live well. There’s nothing at all wrong with that. The problem comes when the market begins to influence your motives and decisions. If your work needs to evolve and change, it may mean abandoning an approach that brought you recognition.

– Stephen Shore

This is a sort of follow-up to last Friday’s post, which has elicited a large number of comments and has been displayed almost 15,000 times and is still being served an an unprecedented rate (just consider that my whole blog has seen only about 50,000 page views total, so far). All the comments on the post and the reactions in other blogs and social media have generally been positive and thoughtful; something unexpected, considering the trollish nature of most online forums and the fact that mine was a thing quickly penned after a long day of work and travel.

I am now writing this other post to thank all the commenters, both here and elsewhere, and also because this morning I received in my inbox the latest installment of Eyevoyage’s newsletter, of which I am a subscriber. That email pointed me to an article that quotes three letters to young photographers, respectively by Paul Strand, Sergio Larrain, and Stephen Shore. They are all beautiful and inspiring, but what struck me as extraordinarily appropriate to the conversation we’re having on that other post is the quote above.

Lake Lucerne, Switzerland

Lake in the Mist

I think Shore is right on the money. There is nothing wrong with fame and recognition or the monetary benefits that come with them. I don’t believe those who say that they don’t shoot for the faves, the likes, the +1’s or to make a sale. We all desire our peers approbation and kudos–unless we’re all Vivian Maier–and that is absolutely OK.

So, it is fine if you go to Jökulsárlón to shoot the icebergs, get the camera down low and drag the shutter. It is fine if you later come home and kick the saturation and clarity sliders to the max, post the image on Flickr and 500px and go the first page on Explore and Popular in minutes. My photos have been to Explore and Popular (it’s not difficult, if you know how to pull the right strings) but never to the first page. If one ever did, I would be walking on the ceiling and telling anyone and the feeling would be awesome.

But your place on Explore and Popular lasts for one day, after which your photo is replaced by an even more colorful and dramatic image of Jökulsárlón or Seljalandfoss and you ask yourself: What next? How can I surpass myself next time? After a while, I think you should really question, as Stephen Shore says, your motives and how the market influences your decisions.

For my part, I have decided that I don’t want to play that game anymore, but you are free to think it’s just because I could not make the first page of Explore and Popular ;-).

Pemaquid Point, Maine

Pemaquid Point, Maine

There are 8 comments for this article
  1. david mantripp at 7:56 pm

    Getting to that “what next” point is probably a critical point in every photographer’s self-development. And it’s a hard question to answer…

  2. Mark Davis at 8:39 am

    Your original post certainly struck a nerve. Interesting follow up and seems you have come to the same decision I have but I am lucky as photography is a therapy for me and not a pay packet so that transition was a lot easier.

  3. Olivier Du Tré (@odutrephoto) at 10:12 pm

    Ambition is one thing. But you also need to have perseverance, motivation, and more importantly self discipline to have come to inspiration.
    Photography FOR 500px is simple. Go to a over photographed placed that everybody knows. Something Iconic. Make the boring photograph at sunset or sunrise and crank all the sliders. But does that bring you happiness and does that make you content?
    For me personally I don’t care WHAT I photograph. What I DO care about is HOW I tell the visual story.

    Great articles Ugo!

  4. Douglas Hunter at 3:22 am

    I think social media makes it harder than ever before to follow one’s own personal path, if only just because we are showered with millions of other people’s “paths.” We have to really understand what it is we are trying to do and have a sense of how we are going to try to do it, otherwise our ambition will change with every new photo we see.

  5. musickna at 2:24 pm

    Well said again, and the quote is particularly apt. I will never become a ‘professional’ photographer precisely because to embrace that term is to embrace all the expectations and pressures of the market. Fortunately, I can make a living as a scientist, and don’t need to support myself through my photographs. So, I will continue as an amateur – and I do not regard that term as in any way detrimental – and follow my own path. For me, that’s where the fun is.

  6. Gary Nylander at 5:06 am

    Some great responses here and a great quote by Stephen Shore, sounds very reasonable to me, follow the path thats best for yourself.