Self-taught

Fear of being “bad” at something creative probably accounts for a lot of missed enjoyment, and goodness knows all of us deserve a little artistic distraction in our days. There’s a lovely story recounted by the late, great Kurt Vonnegut who as a teenager spent a month working on an archaeological dig. Chatting to one of the archaeologists during a lunch break, the conversation turned to hobbies and interests. The future author of numerous classics explained that he took theatre classes and was learning to play the violin and piano. He sometimes took art classes as well, he said, adding “but I’m not any good at any of them.” The archaeologist took all of this in and then said something that stayed with Vonnegut for the rest of his life:


“I don’t think being good at things is the point of the doing them. I think you’ve got all these wonderful experiences with different skills, and that all teaches you things and makes you an interesting person, no matter how well you do them.”


I get teased, in a friendly sort of way, about having a lot of hobbies, and when I have time to reflect on this I often think about the Vonnegut anecdote and how important it is to indulge your interests, even and perhaps especially when the point of doing them is simply because you find it interesting. Vonnegut says of this experience that,

“I went from being a failure, someone who hadn’t been talented enough at anything to excel, to someone who did things because they enjoyed them. I had been raised in such an achievement-orientated environment, so inundated with the myth of Talent, that I thought it was only worth doing things if you could ‘win’ at them.”

I don’t think mine was a particularly “achievement orientated” household growing up, but the sentiment that Vonnegut is conveying here is an important one I think, and something that I try to convey when people ask me about the cameras and the woodworking and the painting and the writing and the collections of things that keep in thrall. “It’s all so damn interesting”, I want to tell them, “and there’s so little time!”

When probed by a curious colleague about my credentials as a photographer I quoted Vonnegut and explained that I was an amateur “dabbler”, as I am with most things, but one compelled by a powerful curiosity. Sure, I’ve taken some day courses and clocked up numerous hours spent watching instructional tutorials on YouTube. I’ve read books and blogs on the subject, jotting things down in my Moleskine notebooks, but mostly I’ve just pick up a camera and start playing. That’s how I tend to approach these things, that and asking a lot of questions of people who seem to know what they’re doing. This is especially important at the beginning, when too much formalised information can be discouraging. I guess you could say that I’m self-taught in this regard, but even that word feels overloaded with significance and even a little pompous, although I may be wrong. Plus I’ve received a lot of great advice from people I’ve met in various forums, which is a very special form of communal knowledge, unincumbered by institutional swagger and offered very much in the spirit of friendship.

A few years ago my woodworking lathe suddenly packed up, followed shortly thereafter by my photographic enlarger. Repairs looked expensive, but after posting some questions online I quickly had solutions courtesy of fellow enthusiasts dotted around the globe. One photographer based in California even Facetimed me so that he could walk me through the procedure for repairing my enlarger. Then only last year another forum buddy called to help me solve some wet plate camera problems I was having. I find these little moments of random generosity, offered by strangers with a shared interest, both comforting and inspiring, as if this is the very essence of education that sometimes gets forgotten. It’s also good to experience this better, more collegial side of social media and be reminded that for every troll there are many more nice folks willing to lend a hand.

In a roundabout way the point I’m drivelling at is that it’s fun to play at things and to dismiss those nagging thoughts of self-doubt so ably fertilised by the capitalistic imperative to degrade everything into a side hustle or potential career opportunity. I also think that the more you mess about with creative interests the more it starts to seep into your general outlook, rather like adding additional senses to your palette.


My home darkroom/woodshop/garage.


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