I’d taken the plunge in June of 2012 and bought the mother of all medium format film cameras, the Contax 645. I knew I loved film and 35mm just wasn’t enough for me anymore, so I took a chance and purchased the Contax- I’d promised Matt if things didn’t pan out and I never used it professionally, I’d just resell it on eBay (that’s another story for another day, though).
So I started shooting with this new film camera. At first, everything was going alright- I was getting more and more comfortable with my settings, my results were becoming more consistent, and I was gradually becoming less afraid of, in general, mucking up my film. But then some sort of switch got flipped- I think I’d spent too much time reading Jose Villa‘s book Fine Art Wedding Photography, or maybe it was too many hours poring over Elizabeth Messina‘s The Luminous Portrait. Whatever it was, I stopped looking through my viewfinder with the question “how should I frame/compose/photograph this?” and started filtering everything through “how would Jose or Elizabeth photograph this?”
To someone who’s not a photographer, I know that may seem like a silly thing to get worked up about. But it was causing serious stress in my film work, esPECIALLY when I was trying to shoot with film & digital in one session- it was like having a split personality, trying to switch back and forth between Abby Grace mode and Jose/Elizabeth mode. It was really, really hard, and to be honest, I was pretty bad at it.
Why? Because I will only ever be ME. No matter how hard I try, I will never be as good of a Jose or an Elizabeth as those two are, and that’s what makes their work beautiful- they are the only ones who can produce that particular kind of art. The way Jose sees the world through his viewfinder is uniquely HIM, and with my 2012 film mindset, the best I could ever hope to do is spend a lot of time copying that artistry without ever actually creating something uniquely ME.
It wasn’t until I quasi-stopped shooting with film, and then had a conversation with my friend Christina (about ceasing film work) that things finally shifted. I told her about my split personality issue when it came to my Contax, and that I’d pretty much stopped shooting because things were too hard, and she told me this:
“STOP COMPARING. Your work is YOUR work and it is beautiful. Frankly, I’m tired of seeing so many Villa/Messina imitations. I thought I wanted my film to be like theirs, then I shot it and found I prefer something else. So I am doing my own thing and hoping people love it. If you believe in your work, others will too. [There were] YEARS of self-doubt that I had to change into self-APPRECIATION.”
So I stopped comparing. I stopped looking at what other people were doing, and I started shooting film the way I, Abby Grace, would naturally shoot. And you know what? It’s only made me better. My film and my work in general has only grown since I stopped trying to be a cheap imitation of someone else, and embraced what MY art looks like as a standalone product rather than in comparison to someone else’s. I’m proud of the work I produce, and though I know there’s still so much growth that will continue to happen over the course of my life, it feels really good to be able to say “This is who I am, this is my art. And if you love it? Amazing! But if you don’t? That’s 100% fine with me, too.”
Here’s to YOU looking through your viewfinder with only your artistic voice in the background- you have something unique to offer, don’t water it down by trying to imitate someone else. I’m proof that doing so will only hold you back, and that breaking that bad habit only leads to GOOD things.