The Art of Failure


Cat in Neighbor’s Window

I began to work on my project to combine all my images into one Lightroom catalog.  My Lightroom catalogs are organized by year.  So the first thing I noticed was that in 2009 I had shot 12,000 images (we’ll just do the rough math).  Lightroom has a feature which allows you to flag what I’d call “possibles” and I had flagged 2,000 possible images, meaning that they were worth looking at for posting in the store.  From those 2000 possibles, I posted 14 new images in the store from 2009.  Now, as the years roll by, I am sure to go back to these images and will find a few that I’ve missed, so let’s make it all even and say that I have 20 “keepers.”  20 keepers out of 12,000.   If my math is correct, my keeper ratio is substantially less than 1%.  It’s actually 0.16%

I looked back at the previous year, also a digital year, and the keeper ratio was about the same.

Then I have one catalog where I keep my scanned negatives.  That really doesn’t do any good because in essence, it’s only showing the keepers, and I have closets and cabinets filled with un-scanned negatives.

Now – this isn’t counting assignments, i.e. I shot two weddings, and a few parties.  There the ratio is totally different.  The keepers may be as high as 75%.  Which is all a long-winded way of saying that one of the qualities a photographer needs is the ability to be a good critic of their own work, as well as to accept failure as the road to success when it comes to the art of photography.

A few more facts.  I still shoot digital in a similar way to film.  I never have the camera set to rapid-fire.  Almost every shot is pre-focused, while I’m waiting for the so-called moment.  The reason for the high ratio is that unless it’s for a project, I have ideas when I’m shooting, and even if I pull it off and capture that idea – it’s still not enough because my idea wasn’t interesting.

However, there is a completely different way of looking at it – and that is digging for gold.  There’s a wonderful scene in Treasure of the Sierra Madre where Fred C. Dobbs (Bogart) and his  Curtin along with the old prospector (Howard) finally find gold.  Fred C. Dobbs looks down at the rocks which are glistening, and wants to start digging.  The old prospector has to explain that they are going to have to set up the sluice, and dig tons of dirt to get the tiny amount of gold dust in each ton.

Dobbs complains that the always thought that when you discovered gold, you just had to bend down and pick it up.  He can’t get over how much work is involved.  The time they spent digging for gold, running it through the sluice, and pulling out the gold dust – that isn’t time wasted.  That’s how it works.  It is true, that once in a while you can bend down and just pick up a nugget of gold – but that’s unusual.

In the film business, a common expression (overused) is “that’s gold!”  And I know that I’ve said the same thing to myself while photographing.  Ah, that’s gold.

So here’s to all the photographers out there searching for glittery stuff.  I hope you find it in the New Year — and I hope that you retain an attitude like Curtin (Tim Holt) – and not Fred C. Dobbs.

A few quotes from Treasure of the Sierra Madre

Fred C. Dobbs: I sure had some cockeyed ideas about prospectin’ for gold. It was all in the finding I thought. I thought all you had to do was find it, pick it up, put it in sacks, and carry ’em off to the nearest bank.

Fred C. Dobbs: Do you believe that stuff the old man was saying the other night at the Oso Negro about gold changin’ a man’s soul so’s he ain’t the same sort of man as he was before findin’ it?

Fred C. Dobbs: This is the country where the nuggets of gold are just crying out for you to take them out of the ground and make ’em shine in coins on the fingers and necks of swell dames.


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My name is Dave Beckerman. I am a fine art photographer working in New York City.

2 thoughts on “The Art of Failure”

  1. I like your title. It could make a cool gallery, posting some of the failures. 🙂 thanks for you hopes for the coming year and I also hope the best for you Dave.

    I really do like this image of the cat. The eye contact is amazing and I like where you framed the cat. Happy New Year!

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