LOOK3 Guest Series: Flailing Love Affair with Photography

I’ve always felt my relationship with photography had an element of tension, even hostility. I would be lying if I said I still love photography. It is not an entity I fully respect or am faithful to, in fact the two of us are constantly on the brink of abusing one another. When I was new to photography, working in a darkroom, I was in love. Photography, for the first time in my life, gave me an honest and authentic place where I could make art that awakened a sense of mystery and discovery. It was, at first, thoughtless, unfettered, even spiritual. But that feeling has been lost for some time. I could point to manifold culprits: evolving technologies, an academic encounter with photojournalism, the diurnal qualities of making a career from it. Whatever the reasons, the process has lost much of its original mystique and romanticism. Much like a significant other, creativity has always demanded a level of importance that rivaled a love affair.

One explanation for this lost love of photography is that it may be buried beneath all the photos I’ve been making, many not for me. Often I feel as though I take too many pictures, making the process feel less special. I find it fitting, in many situations, to relate photographing to kissing. In the sense that they are inversely proportional; the less there are, the more special they seem. There is a sense of connection and focus, of being in tune with something greater, that is lost when we take too many pictures. And an irony, which I am slowly understanding, is how long it actually takes to become a great photographer. It is, for most of us, a lifetime endeavor many photos in the making. Which is not to say that we need to think more when we photograph. I find that a lack of critical thought is necessary in unraveling the most honest chambers of our vision. Having a heightened consciousness or emotional awareness is, in my experience, what makes the experience and the result something out of the ordinary.

But the longer photography is in my life, the more unsure I am about its purpose. I accept that a majority of what I do is without meaning. In this way it is almost ephemeral. A habit with a product that, as time goes by, from the taker’s view becomes more and more disposable. How many times do we take the same picture? And how is meaning retained unless you’re in a constant state of new experience? Creative plateaus are part of growth. As restraining as they may feel, they are often necessary. They are challenges, reality checks and puzzles forcing us to shift, rearrange and grow.

There is the possibility that feeling a loss of importance in your work, or an utter lack of meaning, is positive — an entrance into a creative plateau that, when understood and accepted, will lead to something more. I have been bothered by my flailing love affair with photography, holding tight to the idea that I shouldn’t have such feelings. I’m beginning to see through this and am realizing it is all part of the game. Much of the creative process in my life has been that of a slow unraveling. It has been uncovering what has been passed down to me, what has always been in me. It is not about what is up and above, but about what is everywhere and within. I see the world around me as expanding and contracting in a series of circles and waves and photography, as beautiful as it is, is just one of many tiny artificial hearts.

-Peter Earl McCollough

Peter Earl McCollough was born in Billings, Montana, in 1982 and grew up in Davis, California. Shortly after turning 18, he enlisted in the United States Marine Corps where he served from 2000-2004. After being honorably discharged he began studying photography in Sacramento. In 2008, after transferring to Ohio University, he received a Bachelor of Science in Visual Communication with an emphasis in Photojournalism.

He is currently a freelance photographer and aspiring cinematographer based in San Francisco. In his off time he likes to paint, especially watercolors, and work on his street photography. More photos can be seen on his website: www.petermccollough.com.

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  • For someone who no longer loves photography, Peter’s images still seethe with passion. Check out his web site and you’ll see what I mean.

  • I’ve mused on this topic often and my personal take is the pain of enduring all the failure for the few successes. We toss thousands of frames to get that one perfect one. Only once in forty years did I experience the satisfaction of a short project a “Cartier Bresson” experience where nearly every frame was different and close to perfection.

  • Hi Peter,

    First off I want to tell you that this is a wonderfully written piece that has really made me think and that your images are also quite stellar to boot.

    Now, I can’t totally relate to you as I’m positive that I haven’t been shooting as long as you have, but the reason why I continue to shoot is for a couple of reasons.

    I’m visually impaired, so due to my disability, I have a burning urge to create better photos. And still, I’ve accepted the fact that 1 out of every thousand that I shoot will be amazing. And working my way towards getting that one amazing image by reteaching myself certain things and remembering what I’ve learned from past mistakes makes it all worth it.

    I’m not a machine gun shooter, I try to be as efficient as I can. But this undying urge and my passion for creating a connection to people through my photos is what keeps me shooting.

    -Chris Gampat
    Lead Writer, BHInsights

  • I too have been at a cross road with photography having been a lifelong student and worked with countless professionals as an assistant I have found the mysticism and intrigue less intrusive as it once needed to be in order to keep my interest and creativity going. Being told by family that it will never pay off and I should focus on doing something else but still always hoping that my moment will come when I can say I am making a living at this. 20+ years and still I have yet to acheive this goal. I know I still have the motivation and drive to succeed in my dream which remains just out of reach and yet so close to ever think of quitting. I will continue in my quest to find success as a photographer and until I reach the goal of such an elusive confirmation such as professional status I will not waiver. For I now realize whatever happens around me photography has been the constant force with which I share my creative energy to others. And it’s not about the end result, but much more about the process and journey in which I express my dedication to my craft.

  • A very compelling reflection.

    I don’t believe I have ever felt comfortable with my work, after thirty-three years as photojournalist and editor I find more satisfaction in making the determinationof value in the work of others…maybe it’s our northern California roots.

    Many photographers find comfort in painting where there is a deeper degree of solitude and control.

    Documentary photography has the ability to change lives which gives some solace, but that does not mean you feel any less like a dog on a leash.

  • I sympathise with Peter’s view. I just went through a weak patch in my own photography and wondered what was going on. It’s just a matter of letting go for a moment and reconnect with other vibes (music, reading). Give yourself the opportunity to really forget acquired ways of doing things. As Peter says, if you handle it well it can be part of a larger creative process. Admittedly for professionals it’s not that easy to disconnect and take some time off from the viewfinder.

  • A mature and wise observation by someone so young and new to photography. To come to this conclusion after so brief a time in photography is almost sad, despite it’s relevance.

  • I to have had these thoughts about photography. Why am I taking so many? Will they ever be seen by anyone beyond my blog and Flickr account etc? Am I wasting my time? But then I realise that it is the way in which I express myself and the photos I take please me. I notice the small details and I photograph them. If other people see them [my photos] and get some enjoyment from them then I have achieved something. A habit with a product is a great summary of my photography. Most habits are bad, photography definitely isn’t one of them.

  • Peter, you are not alone. The changing technologies have enhanced and killed the photographic experience all at the same time. Struggling to find my place in the photographic storm these days is a frustrating thing. I haven’t given up yet, what else wouldI do. This has been my life for over 30 years and it’s trying to spit me out the other side. But I don’t want to go, so I’m still looking for the way. As apparently are you. Good luck.

  • This is a problem we of many have faced. Cold souls in regards to our stature in photographic life. The author is young, virile and will bounce back and forth between inspired and derided for a long time to come. Until your knees hurt from the weather nothing is permanent in the la la land. This crown of grey sludge above, weighing us down.

  • Peter is a ridiculous talent. A true artist. Photography is not enough to allow him to breathe fully. I know in time his true work will surface and it will be a force to be reckoned with. I wait in anticipation and awe.

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