The Myth of the Extraordinary

December 16, 2011

Photography Tips: The Myth of the Extraordinary

It may surprise some to learn that one of my favorite books doesn’t have magic, dragons or talking fruit bats named Roberto. It’s a short read called Art & Fear: Observations on the Perils (and Rewards) of Artmaking. I read it in college for a course, but it’s one of the few “textbooks” I held onto, long after the semester ended. While I can’t say I agree with everything the authors have to say, it’s been highlighted up-and-down and picked up whenever I needed a swift kick in the butt.

Well, if we’re going to be completely honest here, these days it seems like I need a huge kick in the butt. One of the introductory chapters mentions the myth of the extraordinary, and how clinging to the idea that “art can be made only by people who are extra-ordinary” will ultimately destroy you and your artmaking. I couldn’t agree more, and yet — here I am.

I’ll be the first to admit that I’m all too guilty of attributing some brand of ~magic~ to those whom I look up to (no short jokes, please!). There’s a certain lingo that gets used often and it seems to me its only purpose is to build others up while we rip ourselves to pieces. I believe the words I’m looking for are natural talent. What a completely destructive term that is. And oh, the trouble we get into with our own self-esteem should we venture to use it.

Perhaps it’s because we don’t often get to see the behind-the-scenes of our fellow artmakers, all the while living the behind-the-scenes of our own artmaking. I will never know what it feels like to look at my photography for the first time because my perspective is hampered by the hours spent waiting for the right lighting, removing dust from scanned film, drafting the blog posts that accompany it and so forth.

Meanwhile, I’ll check out my RSS feed and be completely blown away by the work that my peers are making. Every day I’m presented with a final product that just magically appeared on my browser in all its perfect glory. Don’t get me wrong, I love that — but it can be harmful to look at others’ work and assume that they somehow had it easier, that they aren’t struggling as hard as you are, or that their work comes to them as effortlessly as the air they breathe. I tell myself this all the time, and yet — here I am.

When I receive praise, it’s easy to brush off because I know every intricate detail of my photos — what makes them good, but more importantly, what makes them bad. Indeed, we are our own worst critics. Sometimes I wonder if you erased my memory and showed me my own photography under someone else’s name — what would I think about it? Honestly, I’d be afraid to find out.

As someone who is hell bent on finding value in the commonplace, I surprise myself with how much magic I believe is inherently present in others’ lives, and somehow missing from mine. It can be a tad embarrassing to admit, but this is why I wanted to talk about it — because no one ever talks about it. We just silently assume we aren’t made of the same stuff and go along on our way, feeling very, very alone. As the authors of Art & Fear noted, thinking like that is a one-way ticket to excusing yourself from the art world completely. I don’t really need to write about why that’s bad, do I? :)

With that weight off my shoulders, I’m extending an invitation to help dispel the myth of the extraordinary artist — the idea that some folks are just born with it and that creativity oozes from their very fingertips. This is an invitation to keep it real with each other and ourselves. In short — I never thought I’d say this, but — this is an invitation to stop believing in magic. (Yes, we still get to believe in dragons and Diagon Alley and talking fruit bats named Roberto!)

Not only is this myth destructive to our own self-esteem, but it’s also offensive to anyone who does work hard to hone their craft. To assume otherwise is to overlook all of their hard work, and take for granted all the researching, experimenting, and endless cups of coffee that an artist puts into his/her own art. Don’t think so? Just wait until someone brushes off your hard work, waving their hand and saying, “Oh but it all comes so easily to you — You’re just naturally talented!” Homegirl, you did not just go there…

So, what do we do about it?

I’ve found that the number one way to dispel myths about others is to get to know them (what a concept!) and make friends with other artists. I know, I know — being social is so against our artist instincts. But by making friends with other creative types and really opening up to each other, you’ll start to realize that we all go through the same struggles in between creating our best work. So if you’re in a slump and wondering if you’re ever going to pick your camera, paint brush, or guitar (ah hem) back up — realize right now that the only difference between you and artists you arbitrarily place above you is that they never gave up. They had slumps and moments of self-doubt aplenty, but in the end, they just rolled with the punches.

Do you know how many days I’ve gone somewhere with my camera in tow, and apathetically thought, “Oh, there’s a picture! But… Eh…” Where the effort to pull my camera out and adjust the settings seemed overwhelming, or that somehow I knew what the photo would look like, so what’s the point in taking it? Too many to count. It happens. And it’s only when you finally understand that you aren’t alone that you’ll be able to pick yourself back up and jump start your passion.

Sometimes, that can be hard. Like, really really hard. I know for me, when I’m in that Sarlacc Pit of Apathy, I want to be alone. I want my misery to be special, because if it isn’t… If this is something everyone goes through? Well, then… I’m just being a scared, lazy little wuss. Okay, name-calling isn’t very nice. But like I said, sometimes I just need a big swift kick in the butt.

I’ll leave you with a quote from the final page of Art & Fear:

In the end it all comes down to this: you have a choice … between giving your work your best shot and risking that it will not make you happy, or not giving it your best shot — and thereby guaranteeing that it will not make you happy. It becomes a choice between certainty and uncertainty. And curiously, uncertainty is the comforting choice.

Happy Friday, everyone! Let’s make some art this weekend!


I love this! It’s so hard for me not to compare myself to people in other markets, or in my market, or with different circumstances with me and feel like I’ve got the short end of the stick (I’m short too, haha). I’ve tried to just turn down the volume on a lot of the photographers that make me feel that way, but I still want to be inspired by some of them. I also realize that I’m so far compared to where I was when I first started, if I had seen someone with the accomplishments that I’ve made thus far I would have thought there could be nothing better. I downplay my success because other people have had more, because there are far younger photographers with killer portfolios who are being published everywhere, because there are photographers that seem to be more authentic than I am. But I’ve realized that being a photographer isn’t all there is to my life, that everything else I choose to be a part of helps to fulfill me, and if I do the best job I can to my clients, and the best job I can at not taking the work that sucks my soul and instead the ones that make me happy, there’s nothing better.

What an amazing post! I have nothing to say about it besides: I SO FEEL YOU!! I failed my exam at art school (twice ugh!) and it gave me such a bad feeling about myself that I never ever picked up a pencil again. Okay, well maybe after 1,5 year. I actually studied illustration but after leaving school, I just started to hate it.

Anyway, that was random ha, but it’s the same for me. Flickr is some sort of addicting and dangerous. I hate it when I have an idea for a picture but it doesn’t work out.. and then I go onto Flickr and see all these amazing pictures and I just can’t help but think ‘woah, why didn’t I make that? Why can’t I do that? Why am I even taking pictures when people can take pictures THAT amazing? Why would they ever like mine?’. I always feel a bit like a failure, sigh, but we’ll just have to get over it and pick up our camera’s again! But sometimes that’s just hard!

I’m so glad I still see my friends from art school and talk about this stuff. In the end, we’re all feeling the same thing, I think :)

Yes, exactly! That’s why it’s so important to make friends in our same creative fields, it becomes clear in a very short period of time that we are all going through the same exact insecurities and feelings. Way easier to cope that way, I think. :)

My goodness, thank you for writing this. You’re right, so many hide these feelings, but they are real, very relevant, and there should be dialogue among artists about the “myth.” As I read this entry, I must have thought in my mind “YES, THAT’S ME!” at least 20 times. So again, THANK YOU. Seriously.

Kim, what a thought-provoking post! I keep returning to it hoping to gather some intelligent thoughts so I could contribute to the conversation haha. I definitely struggle with the same thing – particularly when it comes to looking at others’ portraits/weddings work. I have gotten myself into such a rut thinking shooting people just doesn’t come naturally to me and it somehow does for everyone else, and like why oh why doesn’t my stuff look like that. I constantly need to kick myself in the butt because whining and moaning just ain’t productive.

I have shed so many tears over this very topic.

Growing up, I was that girl who everyone said had “natural talent.” It became a curse. I was constantly stressed and horrified of doing something subpar. If I wasn’t perfect, if I didn’t excel, then that meant I was a talentless loser who deserved nothing.

It was a whole other beast when I started art school. In high school, I was the art kid. But in college, EVERYONE was the art kid and it seemed like each of them was vastly superior than me. I sometimes am amazed that I got through those 4 years.

I’ve actually been thinking about this topic a lot this past month. I wonder if I’m talented enough, strong enough, skilled enough, determined enough to make it in this world as an artist when there are so many amazingly talented individuals out there waving their talent in my face and stomping on my self esteem. Of course, this isn’t their objective AT ALL. We are a community and we need to share with each other.

I also relate to what you said about being social. I am instinctively a loner and a homebody. I easily get sucked into a project at home, by myself. I’m trying so hard to change that though and be a part of the art community outside of the internet. It was just so easy to be social in collage! Now it takes effort!

I look forward to more posts like this. Just know that I think you are awesome and talented and you are definitely one of the individuals whose work pops up on my screen and I say,”wow, do I really want to publish my subpar post today?” Haha

Jade, thank you so much for input! I’m really glad this post was helpful for you. I know exactly what you mean about going to school and suddenly looking around at a building (or in your case, a whole campus!) full of “the art kids.” I come from a small town, too, so once I entered college I started to have this fear that there was never anything special about me, instead that everyone around me was so not-good at art that it made me look good in comparison. What an awful way to think!!

It’s definitely easy to think that everyone is stomping on your self-esteem when you don’t know them. Getting to know my classmates — and now, my photography peers — was the best thing I ever did for my own art. I know how hard it is to be social once the degree is in your hands and you’re on your own. Since I quit my job there have been stretches of 2-3 days where I haven’t left the house! Yikes.

There will definitely be more posts like this so long as my motivational juices don’t get tapped out! If you ever have an idea for a post, I’m all ears. Also, don’t ever hold back with your own blog! The only way to get better is to just DO IT. While I don’t think I’m ~amazing~ right now (does anyone EVER? Like… Is there a point in any artist’s life where you’re like, “All right. This is it. I made it. Time to quit!”), I DEFINITELY look back at my older work and cringe a little (Case in point: my 365 project). But only a little, ’cause without that older work I could’ve never gotten to where I am now, or wherever it is that I’m heading. Chin up, woman! You are doing awesomely!

Also, I really need to commission that illustration project we briefly talked about. *WINK*

Talking fruit bats, oh my the memories!
“somehow I knew what the photo would look like, so what’s the point in taking it?” YUP. Fellow dog walkers have been asking me lately why I’ve stopped bringing my camera around and I never know how to explain it (accurately).

Best blog post of 2011.

Aw. I can so relate! Recently, whenever I go to any of Harlowe’s shows I never bring my camera. More than one person has expressed shock in seeing me out in public without my camera. I always say, “I just want a day off from taking pictures.” We have to remember to enjoy life, too, so that when we pick up our camera, we remember why we’re taking pictures in the first place.

yes! Meghan pointed me here, and I’m so glad she did. I’m so tired of comparing and worrying. I tell myself that I just need to jump into the work. Move in some way.

ps — where is the sign-up sheet for the support group? although I’d probably use it as another way to procrastinate!

Hi Amy! I’m really happy this post was helpful for you — As someone who has done more than their fair share of comparing and worrying, this mega-post was a loooong time comin’!

Also, about the support group! Some of us on Flickr have a group called Photo Pow Wow. It’s very casual and laid back, with only a handful of us posting regularly but we’d love for it to grow with more like-minded individuals. The more the merrier and all that!

Wow. Simply awesome and a great reminder as I’ve been spending some time with Envy lately and that’s just not a nice place to be. Love this. Thanks.

Beautiful post! Though I am just starting out in my photography experience, I think this can be applied to all areas of art and creativity. I have always wanted to be a published fiction writer but I find myself intimidated by others whose works are phenomenal and take the world by storm with their brilliance. Even the greatest writers have bombed and struggled to get to that place of seemingly effortless greatness.

I really needed this, thanks so much for posting! I will definitely check out that book.

What a great post to read in the morning. I found myself smiling at the computer screen a few times because I knew EXACTLY what you are talking about!

You see all these great photographs on a photographer’s website (or in a book) and you think to yourself that they had to problems taking them, that it was just so easy. But you never really look behind the picture. And it was me, just a few weeks ago when I recieved my first university project which was to do with street photography. I have looked up all these great street photographers like Robert Frank who over many years have captured people on the streets in their best and worst moments, showing their faces and bodies and there I was a few days after, walking down the street with my camera around my neck shaking in embarrasment because I was scared to take a picture of a stranger walking past me. And I was constantly thinking to myself ‘how can it be so easy for all these street photographers to just come up to people and snap at their faces?’. And then it hit me, that it wasnt easy for them at all. They must have struggled as much as me when they first strarted. Because let’s face it. It is NOT easy to do that. It takes a lot of courage and practice. They have been doing it for a long time and have never gave up after the first few times they werent getting the results they wanted.

This really is what makes a person a good artist. Patients and never giving up, which you have mentioned in your post. But it is of course up to us whether we decide to work hard for our art or just wait for something easy and effortless to come up.

The quote you have posted at the end is amazing and I hope lots of people take it to their hearts.

I’m very pleased I got to read this post. It reasured me that I am not the only one who thinks this way. Thank you for that!

Hope you have a great day!

Wow. This is seriously exactly what I needed to hear/read right now. I need to bookmark this and read it over a few more times to fully process, but – great words, Kim. Really. You’ve been not only one of my biggest photography inspirations, but attitude inspirations (if that makes sense? haha). Always so honest and relateable, I think that’s exactly what we photogs need.
^^ I agree with Meghan’s group idea. I’m in! :)

Katie, thank you! Your phrasing makes perfect sense to me, too. I feel like I have a lot of people I look to for creative inspiration as much as attitude inspiration. It’s always nice to know that there are others who think like you do. :)

Also, about the group thing — I’m part of a Flickr group called Photo Pow Wow. There’s only a few of us that post regularly right now, but it’s been really fun having a place to ask questions, share ideas and just let loose on an open forum without fear of judgment. We’d love for you to join our humble little community!

Thank you for this totally honest and refreshing post, Kim. I resonate with SO much of what you wrote here and what you feel. I wish we could start our own little photography group to support one another. I’d be SO in. xoxo

Hey Meghan! You are in luck. :) I’ve been in a group called Photo Pow Wow with a few other Flickr buddies, and it’s been really great. It’s just a place for us to connect and share ideas with each other or ask questions in a snark-free zone… Oh, and whine. That’s always good, too! There’s really only a few of us who post regularly, but we’d love for the group to grow:

and its funny because YOU are one of the people in my own eyes who has that magic that i don’t have in my life. so to hear YOU say that is wild for me!

get out of my head! what a great read!! i’ve shared it on google plus and emailed it off to a friend as well…you’ve said what i’ve been itching to say so now I don’t have to do the hard work of articulating it so perfectly!

Your site is looking so dope. Everything in your post is being ignored while I envy it for a few more minutes.

I like what you said about being extraordinary. I heard some thing the other day where someone was saying, if you’re work isn’t interesting, then you’re probably not interesting, or something to that effect. I feel like the older I get, the more uninteresting I get. But in the end, I think it’s less about interestingness and more about finding the people who care about your art. I feel like I’m searching for both things still. I don’t know who I’m trying to connect with but I also don’t have this strong sense of who I am. I’m going to work on that this year.

Excellent post, Kim! I haven’t read the book but it is going on my “buy soon” list for sure. That feeling of apathy and not good enough has been hitting me hard lately as I try to build my own photography business. I couldn’t agree more that it helps to speak with, and get to know, other artists as we all go through these struggles from time to time. I’m such a shy person (0ff-line) that its hard for me to take that step. Maybe this book, and my own determination, will give me that kick in the butt I’ve been needing. :-)

Thanks for you inspiration!

Kim! Thanks for posting this today, it is truly inspiring to read and gives great insight. Between MORE sunshine and your insightful, witty, blog posts, I think this Friday is shaping up nicely! btw your photographs are beautiful and the hard work that you put into them is totally seen in the final piece… which is why they are so pretty!

great post! my favorite art book also…it is all too easy to look at another artists successes and forget about them going through the process of getting to it…i found that searching out books that document their process is very helpful…i looked up picasso and found that not only did he do some great work, more importantly, he did a ton of terrible work that was hidden from public until after his death. working alone can be detrimental to the artist, and yet, at the same time it is essential. so we must get out and search out other artists and learn their process…and i love the last part of your post….i remember years ago a student in painting who spent his time lamenting over not being able to come up with something new…bottom line, he spent so much time worrying he never did any work!

BEAUTIFUL KIM! You picked my favorite book as well. Speaking from the cave that is my darkroom I know what you are talking about. For some reason the first semester of Grad school really kicked me hard, I found myself not going to the darkroom sometimes for a period of 3 weeks. This hurt me a lot, I would think about going, find a reason not to, and then came the “Sarlacc Pit” (loved that reference by the way). I found that if I wasn’t going I wasn’t being inspired so once I did go it was just so hard.

Right now your swift kick in the butt is what I needed to hear too. Sometimes we act like it is all to easy to not create but in the end it hurts us.

As a complete side note I went to the SPE Regional Conference and I got to meet Ted Orland, one of the co-writers. I was so excited! Funny enough Ted Orland is also the same guy who writes those “Photographic Truths” posters.

Anyways though, here’s to the kick in the butt!

<3 Brittney