“I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.
Thomas A. Edison
How can failure lead to success?
When it comes to failures, I moved from amateur to professional in a heartbeat once I bought my first camera. Beating myself up emotionally also escalated. The good news is, I am recovering from berating myself over my artistic failures. A big part of that has been through trial and error at the hands of my teacher, the camera.
For anyone learning a new skill, there are lots of stumbles. For me, I went into photography with the over-inflated sense that I would be good at it, right from the beginning. Hey, the iPhone pictures I took were pretty good. But then, with a “real” camera in hand, I became frustrated.
I recall being in Iceland, a place of visual magic, and wanting to set my camera on an iceberg so it would get carried out to sea. Almost in tears, I told the workshop leader and another participant, “I can’t take anything meaningful with this thing. I might as well pack up the camera and finish the trip with my iPhone.”
Enthusiasm: zip, zero, nada.
That’s not the path to success.
If you like quotes, you’ll love these for inspiration. Click here.
How expectations undermine our ability to succeed.
My fixation with “perfect” right out of the box set up an impossible expectation: immediate success. After some coaching and resetting my own thought processes, I learned–over time–that letting go and leaning into failure helped me to succeed faster.
The key is to look for the lesson each failure is teaching you. And stop looking for approval. There is one voice to listen to, that is yours. And sometimes, even that voice of truth becomes a hostage.
You’ve got to make sure you are actually listening to your true self, not the ego-self that is trying desperately to keep you safe. The problem with safe is you are treading water. And you’ll never get across the pool.
Fast forward, for the most part, I embrace my mistakes. I do not set out on a day of shooting with the thought that I am guaranteed anything. What I’ve learned about myself is that I love experimenting. And experimenting means fail, fail, fail, fail, fail. Then bam. “That’s something I like.” Fail, fail, fail, fail, fail, fail. “Hmmm. That is interesting.” Fail, fail, fail. “Oh, I like this one.”
What do these images have in common?
I was thinking about what these three images had in common other than they were jury-selected for Western Gallery’s New Western Talent show.
Yes, they all are of western-U.S. places. Iconic locations, for certain. But I wanted to boil down the essence of why I gravitated to these three photos as a group. They cover a lot of ground artistically: impressionism, realism, and expressionism art.
Each of these has a story of failure.
The first is an impressionistic abstract landscape of the Grand Canyon. “Dry Spell Breaks” is a zoomed-in and intentional motion blur of a winter storm crossing over the plateaus. The colors remind me of Maynard Dixon’s paintings, and the geometry of the canyon walls echoes from Ed Mell’s works.
To take intentionally blurred pictures and have them represent something meaningful is a trial. The only way I can succeed at taking an image like this is to be patient, get into a groove of movement, examine for what I like and don’t in the images I’m taking, and then make adjustments. I have to be present in the moment. And have faith that, over time and with practice, I will learn.
I make micro-adjustments. I take hundreds of images. All those outtakes for one photo. Most people would quit because the ratio of bad to good is horrible. A lot of people don’t even like this type of photography, which is that evil shadow-doubt that rises like a mist in the recesses of my mind.
But I proceed because I like a touch of mystery and illusion. The effect of intentional camera motion is soft and ethereal. And this is my art. Isn’t that all that really matters?
Why being open-minded is important.
The second selection I submitted is “Gothic.” This photo is more of a traditional landscape. But it too has a story inspired by failure, both as a place and as my subject.
We were fortunate to travel to Crested Butte, Colorado, for fall colors. I’d never been there before, which is embarrassing having lived in Colorado. Crested Butte is far enough away from Denver to make it an undesirably long day trip. Most people like to drive up to the mountains and return to their homes by evening. I was that person way back when.
We took a chance and headed in the direction of the town of Gothic in the Elk Mountains, not knowing what we might find. Gothic is a ghost town from the silver mining days. The collapse of the silver boom meant the disappearance of 1,000 workers from the town and 200 buildings abandoned. Today, The Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory researches climate change and ecology from this remote locale. It is still a remote and natural place.
We were within a day or so of the full moon, and I was working the horizon area to the east as the waxing moon came up. I wanted to capture the moon and pines in a silhouette. It wasn’t working out. Some images are better in my brain than they are in execution.
Disappointed, I turned around. The other people shooting with me were concentrating on the sunset. I walked into the meadow to get a better view, the grasses now crunchy from some recent frosts. What was unfolding was a touch of light on the mountain peaks. I had thought that once the sun left the aspen leaves in shadow, they would be lackluster. Oh, contraire. They now looked saturated in golds.
When I look at this image now, I pretend I paint. My palette would have mounds of subtle, earthy tones for the brush, several yellows for the aspen grove, and steely grays for the mountainside. I’d need several brushes for textures and a knife for the slope. I can smell the oily paints.
I also think of the moon shot when I look at this image. What I had in my head didn’t work out. And my mantra, “turn around to see what is happening behind you,” worked to turn a failed image into a successful, unplanned surprise image.
How patience and persistence lead to success.
The third story of failure is my artistic digital impression of the famously overshot Mesa Arch in Canyonlands. If you want a sunrise shot of the arch, you must get up very early. Photos of Mesa Arch are typically shot with a burst of the rising sun, and if you are lucky, there might be clouds to pick up the sunrise colors of pinks, salmons, and corals. But it is Utah, an arid climate, and timing your visit to coincide with perfect weather is tough.
We believed we were beyond lucky to have a storm moving during the night and a winter storm to boot. Who gets that? Snow! As a group, we voted, but for me reluctantly, to get out the door at 3:30 a.m. The drive is about an hour, but with snow, we knew it would be slower. We had learned the hard way that if you don’t arrive early enough, finding a good spot to capture the mesa with that momentary sunburst is tough. First come, first served.
In the dark, with snow falling harder as we climbed higher in altitude, we were all quiet. There was no way to see how much snow had fallen. Once in the parking lot and seeing some headlights behind us, we tromped through the snow to secure our spot and get our tripods set up. Even with headlamps, we couldn’t tell if we were on the trail or not.
We stood there, with snow falling, in bitter cold until the sun rose. But the winter storm clouds created a curtain, and the sun was too shy to come out. The burst of the sun never appeared. The shots looked very washed out, so much white with the sky enveloped in clouds and ground covered in snow. Very dull for getting up so early, for having your toes and hands go numb after endless stomping in place to keep circulation going.
Once home, I didn’t want the effort to feel wasted. So I got creative. I decided to try a few things and add some digital effects. Sure, it’s not “real.” But it started as real, and it is art. Many failures resulted from trying these new techniques. I persisted until the look hit me.
The stone took on a look of Pietersite, known as the “Tempest Stone.” These stones have a mixture of colors and shades ranging from brown, gold, blue, grey, and black. Symbolically, this stone carries a storm raging within it, like a charge that creates change. For those that use crystals and stones, the Tempest Stone brings positive changes. I loved the storm passing theme. How fitting that even though I thought the original image looked like a dull failure, there was a positive change that made it look vibrant.
If you enjoy the style of “Tempest Stone,” check out more digital art at Alternative Landscapes.
The purpose of failure.
We want to know that our life has meaning. The only way it will is to challenge ourselves to fill life up with things that bring meaning to us. Yes, you will fail. That means you learn. Learning leads you to the things you want your life to be about. If we stop ourselves out of a fear of failure, we become stuck. And bored. And depressed. And anxious. So be persistent at allowing failure. Lose yourself in something, and understand that THAT moment, that is your meaning.
“Nothing in this world can take the place of persistence. Talent will not: nothing is more common than unsuccessful men with talent. Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost a proverb. Education will not: the world is full of educated derelicts. Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent.” — Calvin Coolidge
Take a look at the Western Gallery art exhibit where these images are being shown. Click here.
Do you know someone who is just starting at a new skill? Or maybe very early in a career and struggling? Please feel free to share this if you think it would be helpful. Even though we are all on different paths, it is helpful to hear that we share commonalities along the way.
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I’m curious. What has your most recent failure taught you? Please pop a comment below, I promise, I read them all.
Ann Newman is a photographer, writer, and creator of Annstracts who tells the stories behind her pictures. As a former, professionally-trained salesperson, Ann understands that people want to solve problems or accelerate growth for a better future. Her insights, symbolism, and meanings from her pictures give her stories a positive spin. You might find Ann near her home in Phoenix, bent down looking at the tiniest details of a bug, patting any nearby dog, or asking “why” an awful lot.