Story and photography by Darwin Wiggett
They say children pass through several developmental phases on their way to becoming an adult. Now, I’m no psychologist, but looking back on my 30-year career taking pictures, I can see some pretty persuasive similarities between childhood development and my creative journey as a photographer.
I started off as a non-photographer. Sure, there was a camera in my life, but it was only used to document birthdays, Christmas gift openings, family get-togethers and vacations. I was a photographer waiting to happen.
In this stage I discovered the wonder of life! Seen through the lens, everything was startlingly new. I was so keen on photography that I photographed anything, anywhere, anytime. I thought my results were so awesome that I felt compelled to share my photos with anyone… anywhere and anytime. I tortured friends and family with bulging photo albums and even worse — the dreaded slideshow. Because I didn’t know any better I photographed things with complete abandon in unorthodox ways. I had a great time, like a kid without rules!
As I got more and more feedback on my pictures from the outside world, (this is when I first heard the word, “No!”), I started to narrow what I photographed to those subjects that generated the best reactions. Soon, the subjects I photographed conformed to expected standards of “things worth photographing” (e.g. sunsets, baby animals and beautiful women). For better or worse, I began to judge subjects as photo-worthy or photo-unworthy.
This stage involved a fascination with toys. Some kids just have better toys — and you have to give them back when you take them away (a lot more “No!” during this phase). I also made the connection that good images came from good toys — er, camera gear — and I could see that some of my images just plain sucked! As I told my wife, obviously a better camera and lenses was the answer. And so the hunt for the best camera gear began. When my latest purchase did not result in better photos, I bought something else; generally something bigger in format. When 35mm film cameras did not give me great photos, I moved to medium format film cameras. When the latter did not improve my photography, I went bigger to large format film cameras. In the end, no matter what camera gear I used, I still produced crappy images! But… I sure had a lot of fun playing with all those cool toys, even if my wallet suffered heavily.
Technician (early childhood)
With a dwindling bank account, I was forced to conclude that better gear did not give me better photos, but an improvement on technique might. Now that I could read, I spent all my time pouring over detailed how-to recipes in photo magazines. This was a time of great experimentation and discovery. It was heady and fun to challenge myself to understand and replicate a photographic technique. Little did I realize that learning technique would serve me well in my later stages of development.
Seeker (pre-adolescent, first crush)
Once I had mastered an understanding of gear and technique my next perceived shortcoming to making great images was access to better subject matter. After all, I lived in boring agricultural flatland. How limiting! It was time to visit the world’s best photo destinations! And I did. I planned photo trips to great places like Nepal, Namibia and Nova Scotia. This adventure travel stage was exciting because new destinations spurred new photographic possibilities. This phase of photography infatuation was like finding a new love; everything was so fresh and exciting.
Copycat (pre-adolescent, second crush)
Even having access to great gear, solid technique and top-notch locations did not necessarily result in fine images on my part. Much of what I did was well-composed and technically perfect, but there was still something missing — a signature look. The easy answer was to emulate the personal style of photographers I admired. With my knowledge of technique, I could make pretty good stylistic versions of other’s work, but this “photo-copying” phase was the least satisfying stage in my development — they never noticed my adoration. I began to feel hollow and fake.
Having good gear, an understanding of technique, visiting the world’s best destinations and being able to copy other photographers’ work was still not enough for me. I was frustrated and had the equivalent of writer’s block. I felt I had seen it all in photography and nothing was fresh; it had all been done. Photography became boring and predictable. What was the point? At this stage I spent a lot of time in my room listening to anti-establishment music bands and picking at the fresh outbreak of pimples all this stress had produced. I even flirted with abandoning photography to take up a new hobby that gave me fresh challenges. But in the end, with the help of my ever-understanding wife, Samantha, I pushed through this difficult stage by finally looking inward towards my real motivations in photography. I began to understand that expression comes from within and not through external forces.
Emerging Artist (or enlightened newborn)
Through self-discovery I finally realized that I had an individual voice with concepts, stories and ideas that longed to be expressed. These longings of self-expression bubbled up like boiling water in a pot and suddenly the world seemed full of photographic opportunity again! This was a break-through stage. Gear, technique and subject all became in service to expression. I felt like a Newbie all over again. I started to photograph anything, anywhere, anytime… but this time I held back on making my audience suffer through long, tedious slideshows. I began curating my work to only those pieces that best expressed my creative vision.
Frankly, I hope this is the stage I will enter next, where the photographer achieves fully-formed expression and an artist emerges. And over time, as the artist evolves, so too does his or her work. We grow up.
In the end I learned that I’ve always denied that I was an artist. Instead, I thought of myself as a “photographer,” which in my mind was equivalent to a craftsman. It only took me 30 years to shed that label and start to accept my new label of “artist.” I wonder how many of you out there are denying your inner artist by hanging on to your photographer persona? Think about it. I would love to hear your thoughts on the topic. Happy creating!
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