Photography and the Art of Letting Go by Oleg Novikov

Brooks Jensen once mentioned in one of his podcasts that “life is a process of letting go,” and I could not agree more. We let go of some things because we feel that whatever role they were supposed to play has been fulfilled, or because our perception moves on to a higher level. We leave them behind as clothes we can no longer wear or all of sudden find tasteless, or simply because we realize that holding onto them or acquiring more of the same simply is not going to resolve or significantly change anything. There also are things that we have to let go of once we reach a certain point. They, however, are fewer, take a discriminating eye to recognize as such and, unlike the former variety, require a persistent determination to part with.

From a certain perspective, the course of a photographer's artistic evolution is a process of letting go, too. As one gradually becomes a better photographer and one’s artistic perception matures, one lets go of photographic subjects that are not immediately consistent with one’s essence, as well as of the compositions and lighting that are likely to only bring about triviality; this often coincides with moving to bigger and bigger formats - from 35mm to 645 to 6x7 and on to 4x5 - as well as results in an ever-decreasing number of total shots and an ever-increasing number of “keepers.” And one discovers that with time one needs fewer and fewer pieces of gear, suffers from the E.A.S. (equipment acquisition syndrome) less and less frequently and, quite oddly, even starts bordering on becoming cool.

One of the difficult things in the photographic process is recognizing your unsuccessful images, or images that are not quite what you had hoped they would be, as such and letting go of them. The essence of the issue lies in the fact that photography (fine art photography, at least) is a highly personal undertaking and, as far as the photographer is concerned, any image includes a lot more than what meets the eye. What are those intangible things that are not obvious to the viewer? They are the efforts that the photographer puts into creating an image: affection towards the subject, days or weeks of research, planning and traveling, hours of post-processing, you name it.

It is a hard fact of life, however, that substantial efforts often produce inconsequential outcomes, and great results sometimes are achieved without much effort. Aesthetic merits of a photograph often have nothing to do with what efforts have — or have not — gone into creating the image. Granted, our efforts greatly improve the chances of producing outstanding photographs; they, however, do not guarantee it. And in case of unsuccessful images, they ironically become deterrent to objectively evaluating our own work.

To grow as photographers, develop our vision and improve overall quality of the work that we present to the public we have to be the harshest critics of our own photographs. And the starting point is learning to separate the efforts that have gone into creating an image from what the picture objectively is or, more generally, evaluate the latter without interference of the former.

I personally find that the best, if not the only, way to recognize things for what they are is to temporarily distance myself from them and let any emotions involved to at least partially simmer down. The same principle can be used in photography to objectively evaluate aesthetic merits of our work without interference of the efforts that have gone into its creation. More often than not we need to distance ourselves from our new photographs for some time – set them aside, put them away and stop thinking about them as if they did not exist. Then after a while, come back and try looking at them as if they were someone else’s work. By doing so you will find that as time passes by you hold onto the efforts you had exerted less and less and thus can look at your own work more calmly and impartially.

This being said, one has to be careful and not overdo the separate-the-wheat-from-the-chaff part of the photographic process. I always give the benefit of the doubt to the images that I am not certain about in the beginning. From this perspective, returning to your work after a while or at a later time potentially has the benefit of rediscovering the images that initially were considered not quite what you had hoped they would be but in actuality do have a connection with the essence of your character. The creative process is never a straight path and more often than not it is closely entwined with discovering and expressing one’s true self.

Are there any things that photographers have to let go of? I would venture to say older technologies; as for any new technology, there comes a time when it matures to the point where the benefits that it offers are worth the trouble of leaving the comfort zone of the familiar and well practiced. This, however, is not entirely an absolute, as the medium associated with a given technology always has its unique signature that cannot be completely reproduced by the technology that replaces it. Unlike things unrelated to photography that we have to let go of in the course of our lives, sticking to the look of a particular medium is not detrimental and might even be trendy.

I find it curious how certain photographs - and people – are influential in our lives for relatively short periods of time. They fascinate us, teach us new things, open new doors and ways of perception. They, however, burn out fairly quickly and, once devoured, are no longer a part of the intense attention and inevitably become a thing of the past. They are like stepping-stones - but stepping-stones to what? Uncovered yet not-too-deep parts of ourselves? Or parts of ourselves that are not essential in the grand scheme of things? Or are they simply minute fascinations?

Then there are photographs - and people - that stay much longer or, in terms of the limited span of our lives, even infinitely, suggesting a connection that is much more fundamental to our beings. Upon first encounter they usually give a strong impression of importance, even though at a subconscious level, and take a much longer time to fully understand and appreciate. By the time we completely grasp their depth and importance they have already witnessed and accompanied a considerable stretch of our evolution and thus become an indispensable part of our process of change, of the memory of the process, and of the resulting self.

Oleg Novikov is a photographer exploring both natural and human landscapes – and intersections between the two. The body of his work focuses on the places and people of mainland China, where he has lived, studied, worked and traveled extensively for over fifteen years. Novikov currently is collecting images and stories for COSACOSA's 20th anniversary project, Change in the Making.

Artolatry bread image after Salvadore Dalí's Basket of Bread (1926).