What is your best work? It’s a question that you’ll hear a lot over the course of your photographic career. Friends and colleagues will ask this question, gallery owners or prospective clients will ask it. Most of all, you will find yourself asking this question all the time. Maybe even daily, as you go through photographs, create new works of art, and spend time refining portfolios, collections or projects.
So how do you answer that question? This makes me think once again about that old aphorism, “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.” Is it really even possible, with that thought in mind, to answer such a question? Let’s examine this thought and see what insights are to be had.
Illustrating the Concept of Beauty from the Perspective of the Beholder’s Eye
Let’s start by examining this idea of “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.” To do this, it may help to envision one of the world’s most famous art installations, the Campbell’s Soup Cans by Andy Warhol. Everyone who looks at this particular art installation will come away with something slightly different.
For example, one person may look at this installation and think nothing of it. Nothing about the soup cans speaks to this viewer. It isn’t something that he or she would hang on the wall. This person may look at this painting and say, “But they’re just soup cans! Where is the art in that?” For some people, this particular artistic work, as famous and iconic as it is, holds no value simply because for these people, it holds no real special beauty or meaning.
The next person may come along and see the beauty in the installation’s technical proficiency. Looking at Campbell’s Soup Cans, it is plain to see that the cans were painted with beautifully precise realism. For this reason, this particular viewer finds value in the installation. But, this viewer may not find much artistic value in the soup cans. Like the first viewer in our thought experiment, this viewer is thinking, “They are just soup cans. Technically well-done soup cans but soup cans nonetheless.”
Now, let’s introduce a third viewer. Viewer number three might stand in front of Campbell’s Soup Cans and find that it is one of the most enlightening, enlivening pieces of artwork that he or she has ever seen. Not only does this viewer find the installation appealing to look at, the painting beautifully rendered, but this viewer also sees quite a lot of artistic merit to the work, as well. For viewer number there, there is meaning. Perhaps he or she sees the work as a statement on mass-produced products or perhaps the installation speaks to the viewer about how all advertising is, at its heart, essentially the same. Perhaps there is some other meaning here that you or I cannot begin to guess at. Whatever the case may be, this third viewer gets something entirely different from the work than the first two.
The Beholders are All Different
The example above is perhaps a gross oversimplification. A piece of artwork may draw as many different opinions as it does viewers. Still, you can begin to see how ideas, interpretations and the overall perception of beauty differs from one person to the next. Knowing this, we can now go back to the question that started this discussion: What is your best work?
That is a question that, at least from the viewer’s standpoint, is impossible to answer.
In reality, only the photographer who creates the photograph can answer the question of whether or not it is his or her best work. This answer is something personal, something that not all viewers or critics will agree with. When you produce a photograph, when you process it and print it, pour all of the love and hard work into it that you possibly can, with that action, you have made a statement. You have created this thing, this finished project, and in so doing, you have proclaimed that this work is your best work.
Think about it this way: If it wasn’t your best work, then you wouldn’t call it done. You’d go back to the creative development stages, the post-processing stages. You’d keep on working on that image until you reached that point where you felt no further improvements could be made. In photography, each time you produce something new, you are producing your best work — or you should be striving to do so since forward progress is always the ultimate goal.
Each time you create a photograph, you should be asking yourself this question. Is this my best work? And in completing those photographs, you should be answering your own question. If you are pleased enough with the image to say that it is finished, to release it for the rest of the world to enjoy, then you have created your best work. Now, it is time to repeat the process. Create something new, work hard on that project and develop a new best work.
But remember this: Just because you work hard on each and every photograph that you produce, just because you strive to make each new piece the best that you can, better than the last images that you produced, you are not absolved of introspection. In other words, don’t abandon your older works in favor of the newer ones. When you have time, sit down and look at your body of work as a whole. And once more, ask the question: What is my best work?
Maybe your best work will be the things that you have most recently produced. Or, maybe you’ll find that you like the art you created a year ago, three years ago, a decade ago, better than the things you finished last week. Perhaps your photographic style has evolved to a place that you are less comfortable with or perhaps, through honest self-critique, you find that you have gotten sloppy with composition, post-processing or some other aspect of photography. Striving to always produce your best isn’t always enough. Sometimes, you must look at the entirety of your work just to make sure that you are still doing the best that you can.
This question is a tricky one but it is one that we must ask ourselves as often as possible. Not only after every photograph we take but sometimes also when we go back and look at all of the works that we’ve created. Be honest in your self-assessment because that honesty will only serve to help you improve.