Twenty years ago, I was considering a serious tilt at becoming a professional musician (or at least something more than a hobbyist). One plus about music over my eventual creative path, was that nobody (apart from close friends and family) would try to hit you up for a free performance. My teacher drummed into me this rule, once I started performing – the musician always got paid. But I digress.
Once I was sufficiently advanced, I was able to tackle piano pieces on my own. One of these was Beethoven’s ‘Tempest’ sonata, listed by the music board as licentiate standard, the highest level of performance examinable. I learnt all the notes, taking care to follow all the dynamic and rhythmic markings. I thought it sounded pretty impressive and performed it at a few concerts. The audiences responded very well and I thought, I must indeed be good!
The next step was to play it in a contest. My turn was near the end and having heard all the other competitors, I was quite confident of a placing after hitting all the right notes, making some nice tones and playing expressively. The first, second and third prizes were announced. At the end of the list of honourable mentions, I was still waiting for my name to be called out. WTF? Somewhat perplexed I went over to collect my sheet music provided to the judges and the attached assessment/feedback form. It was pretty scathing; apparently I totally sucked.
Soon after, I recommenced music studies with another teacher and also did some research on the Tempest sonata. While I had been able to play the music as written, my phrasing and accents were falling in all the wrong places. Performed correctly, the piece took on a new complexity and dimension.
This was a mistake that I would not be repeat in photography. Once I had progressed past the beginner’s stage, I sought out opinions from the photographers whom I admired most. While public opinion might be warm and fuzzy to bask in, I really wanted to know what people like Art Wolfe, Jack Dykinga, Joe Cornish, Marc Adamus, Marsel van Oosten, Guy Tal, Andris Apse and Charlie Waite thought of my work. How did I do this? By putting out my work in front of them, whether it be critique forums, competitions or workshops.
It takes a bit of courage and the risk of a dented ego to do this. But from where I sit, there are many photographers playing their own versions of my Tempest Sonata who would benefit from a dose of honest feedback.
While a starry sky photo of the Quivertrees of Namibia is nowadays a bit ‘old hat’, back in 2009 when I shot this image, it was one of the first. It ended up being a finalist in that years Veolia/BBC Wildlife Photographer of the Year competition which included Jack Dykinga in the judging panel.