Sally Mann on imposter syndrome and showing up

Sally Mann, Hold Still, p. 281-283.

“That’s the way it sometimes goes for me: I start on a new series of pictures and right away, in some kind of perverse bait-and-switch, I get a good one. This freak of a good picture inevitably inspires a cocky confidence, making me think this new project will be a stroll in the park. But, then, after sometimes two or three more good ones, the next dozen are duds, and that cavalier stroll becomes an uphill slog. It isn’t long before I have to take a breather, having reached the first significant plateau of doubt and lightweight despair. The voice of that despair suggests seducingly to me that I should give it up, that I’m a phony, that I’ve made all the good pictures I’m ever going to, and I have nothing more worth saying.

“That voice is easy to believe, and, as photographer and essayist (and my early mentor) Ted Orland has noted, it leaves me with only two choices: I can resume the slog and take more pictures, thereby risking further failure and despair, or I can guarantee failure and despair by not making more pictures. It’s essentially a decision between uncertainty and certainty and, curiously, uncertainty is the comforting choice.

“So I soldier on, taking one dodo of a picture after another, enticed by just enough promising ones to keep going. Son I encounter another obstacle: the new work, so precarious, unformed, and tender, is being subverted by my old work, which was itself once precarious, unformed, and tender but with the passage of time has now taken on a dignified air of inevitability. The new work has none of that apparent effortlessness, the after-the-fact infallibility that the old work so confidently glories in. No, the new work is always intractable, breech-presented, mulishly stubborn, and near impossible to man-haul into existence.

“Eventually, the law of averages takes pity on me, as it is known to do for my fellow sufferer, the monkey at his typewriter, an doles out a miracle: a good new picture, at last. It brings me relief and reassurance, but no one else sees it for the milestone it is. Each time, friends and family dismiss my panic and despair, saying breezily, “Oh knock it off, you’ll get another good picture, you always do. Relax!”

“Relax,” I snort sarcastically to myself, shouldering the tripod to take another picture that is certain to be vapid, derivative, unhingingly bad. “Sure, you know all about it.” How can they understand the paralyzing, dry-well fear I live with from one good picture to the impossible next? Who can know the agony of tamped-down hope between the shutter’s release and the image in the developer? Or the reckless joy when I realize that, at last, I have good one; eagerly, my ebbing confidence throws off the winding-sheet and resumes business at the old headquarters, a wondrous resurrection.

“But, of course, it is also a fleeing one. It lasts about as long as the exquisite apex of a wave and, just as the wave takes the sand castle, it sucks my confidence out with it as it recedes. In its wake, it leaves the freshly exposed reminder that, however good that last image was, the next picture must be better. Each good next picture always holds despair within it, for it raises the ante for the ones that follow.

“Every time it’s the same. It’s easy to prove to myself that good pictures are elusive, but I can never quite believe they’re also inevitable. It would be a lot easier for me to believe they were if I also believed that they came as the result of my obvious talent, that I was extraordinary in some way. Artists go out of their way to reinforce the perception that good art is made by singular people, people with an exceptional gift. But I don’t believe that I am exceptional, so what is this that I’m making?

“Ordinary art is what I’m making. I am a regular person doggedly making ordinary art. But as Ted Orland and David Bayles point out in their book Art and Fear, “ordinary art” is the art that most of us, those of us not Proust or Mozart, actually make. If Proust-like genius were the prerequisite for art, then statistically speaking very little of it would exist. Art is seldom the result of true genius; rather, it is the product of hard work and skills learned and tenaciously practiced by regular people. In my case, I practice my skills despite repeated failures and self-doubt so profound it can masquerade outwardly as conceit. It‘s not heroic in any way. To the contrary, it’s plodding, obdurate effort. I make bad picture after bad picture week after week until the relief comes: the good new picture that offers benediction.”

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