The fantasy of perfection

Birmingham, England, 2021
Birmingham, England, 2021

I’m reading Elizabeth Gilbert’s book Big Magic – Creative Living Beyond Fear. The book is about Gilbert’s own creative journey in which she shares her own unique perspective about creativity. You can see an interview with Gilbert where she discusses this book here.

There are lots of great tips for how to live a creative life in this book, which can be applied to any creative endeavour whether you are a writer, a painter, a sculptor and yes, even a photographer. Nearly every section (which are all short and to the point by the way) will give you something to come away with that, if you apply it, should improve your own creativity. One part of the book which particularly appealed to me was the chapter called Persistence and especially the section about perfectionism.

Gilbert tells the story of a young, talented writer with whom she had a relationship and how his “pristine sense of artistic discernment” meant he didn’t actually write! As Gilbert says, “he felt there was nobility in his choice never to write a book, if it could not be a great book” and that he would rather be “a beautiful failure than a deficient success”.

I really do think that for many people, and I include myself here, fear of not getting something quite right, worrying about what others will think about your half-arsed attempts at your art and lack of pride in work you do create is what holds many of us back. Perfectionism is not a virtue, it is a fear. A fear of putting your work out there in case others criticise it, are offended by it or, even worse, ignore it all together!

We can probably all name an artist or two from our own fields who, by most standards, could be considered to be pretty much perfect. For me, these would be the images created by the likes of Don McCullin, Irving Penn and Cindy Sherman (to name but three). I’m sure however that all these great photographers, at some point in their working lives have suffered from a sense of failure and the existential angst that their work is “not good enough”. If that were the case, it did not stop them from creating however.

For many of us mere mortals, who can only dream of achieving a fraction of what these creative geniuses have, it is even more important to forget about being perfect. Perfectionism is a fantasy that most do not achieve. As Gilbert goes on to say, perfect “is a myth and a trap and a hamster wheel that will run you to death”. Worse still it may not just stop you from completing work, it may stop you from starting all together.

In other words, “done is better than good” and finishing something, with all its glorious imperfections is far, far better than not trying in the first place.

With all of this in mind, I offer my own latest attempts at some street photography. All of it I know is far and away from perfection; heck, is the image at the top of this post even a street photograph? But I don’t care. Here they are, in all of their glorious imperfections!

2 Replies to “The fantasy of perfection”

  1. Alan Falconer says:

    Thanks Peter. Your blogs are always interesting. I recently discovered Elizabeth Gilbert from a TED interview during the first lockdown and have since bought three of her books. I’m also impressed by Twyla Tharp who says she has no failures only adventures. I’ll be buying her book on creativity. Keep up the good work.

    • Peter Cripps says:

      Hello Alan, Thanks for your comments, much appreciated. During lockdown I’ve been doing a lot of reading on creativity and read a lot of great books. I’ll be writing about more of this, and how I see it applying to photography in upcoming posts.

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