10. The curse of the eclectic


Many years ago I had a friend, a girl, and for a time we were very close. Our backgrounds could hardly have been more dissimilar and yet somehow, these experiences had moulded us in a way that, what we had each become, had much in common. As a result, we could talk together for hours and never run out of things to say. And on a deeper level, there was empathy, a kind of mutual understanding that channelled the way we felt about the things we talked about in the same direction. We enjoyed our time together, felt reassured by it, self-justified by it, enriched by it. But there was just one problem.

We both loved music; and the pleasure we each derived from listening to music seemed to be compounded when we listened together; but she would only listen to classical music; and not just that; even her taste in classical music was narrow and specific. Tchaikovsky and Brahms were too superficial for her liking. Beethoven was too melodramatic. Stravinsky, she wouldn’t even discuss! And while she would admit to a nostalgic affection for Bach, having learned to play some of his piano works, she felt that, ultimately, he was repetitive. But on hearing something by Mozart, or Pergolesi or Scarlatti she would melt into rapture.

And that was okay, when I was in the mood for Mozart or Pergolesi or Scarlatti; but there were times when I craved a little Coltrane, or Marvin Gaye, or Jimi Hendrix or The Beatles; and you could imagine how well that went down!

I had always thought that having a broad spectrum of tastes would be a good thing; but the problem with it is that your chances of finding someone, let alone a group of people, with similar or even compatible tastes diminish as the spectrum grows broader.

And you might think that the solution to the dilemma would lie in diversification of your social circles. Instead of looking for one group of friends who share all your tastes, you attach yourself to multiple groups: the Brahms appreciation society and the Beatles fan club, for example. But that doesn’t really work out too well either, because you find that your loyalties become torn between the groups and their sometimes competing demands. Besides, unless you are prepared to commit fully and exclusively to a group’s area of interest, the die-hards in the group never totally accept you as one of them. You always seem to be on the fringe, a hanger-on, someone who couldn’t really be a true devotee of Mozart because he allows himself to be corrupted by jazz.

I’ve encountered this phenomenon in photography too. I sometimes look with envy at those photographers who have developed a style that makes them instantly recognisable in the midst of the throng. Their choice of subjects is often narrow; the techniques they employ have a consistency about them, like a signature; and their explorations of these subjects and techniques are as deep as the style-averse photographers’ explorations are broad. In fact, it’s as though they have found a language whose sounds and inflections resonate within them and they are content to speak exclusively in their language for the rest of their lives; yet they always seem to find something new to say, some new aspect of their chosen theme to explore; and there is a comforting feeling about knowing that when you turn to their work, you will find images that are both familiar and fresh. They don’t disappoint. They don’t “sell out”. They are reliable. They are always there for you.

But I find that I cannot make do with a constant, narrow path. I get bored photographing the same thing again and again. Perhaps this is a manifestation of my artistic shallowness; my unwillingness, or inability, to plumb the absolute depths of a subject and discover its very essence. But the truth of the matter is that I haven’t yet found a theme that is so captivating, so enthralling, so all-consuming that I feel compelled to forsake all others and consecrate myself to its exploration. So, I fear that I am condemned to forever flit from one subject to another like some demented butterfly, with a pathological aversion to categorisation, making no impact, leaving no trace, going everywhere but belonging nowhere; my capriciousness making me seem untrustworthy and insincere; at best, a divertissement in the annals of photography where I had erstwhile dreamed of leaving my mark. This is the curse of the eclectic.

The Dolphins of the Casa Milà


17 thoughts on “10. The curse of the eclectic

  1. I read your essay with interest and no small amount of empathy. I too have begun to immerse myself in areas of photography only to ‘dry up’ and move on. Cartier-Bresson style ‘street’, then birds, now…. who knows. Two things happen though when I step away from the norm and try something new; firstly I feel pleased with myself for doing so and secondly I am more open to the subject I left behind when I inevitably return to it. I have a couple of contacts that are vary narrow in their choice of subject but rather than envying their focus and ‘signiture’ style, I long to see how their considerable talent could be applied elsewhere and find that even their most impressive work becomes is at best, exactly what I expected of them.

    I’m undecided as to whether I agree with your assertion that this makes us less artistic but you have definitely given me something to think about when my mind wanders from the daily grind.


    • Andy, thank you for your comment and I hope I haven’t misled you. When I asserted that my desultory behaviour was perhaps evidence of my inability to plumb the depths of a subject I was talking about myself, and myself only. I truly did not mean to imply that this analysis should be ascribed to anyone else. 🙂

  2. Excellent essay, I know exactly how you feel about the “styles” that some photogs develop. But, like you, I cannot subscribe to a singular way of doing things. Boredom, the fear of being pidgeonholed, and monotony make me explore the different avenues of photography.

    Thank you for your essay – it’s refreshing to read your point of view!

  3. Keith,

    I agree with you whole-heartedly in your desire to pursue various subject matters in your photographic journey. And I am torn, like you, to see that pursiung varying subject matters is both a curse and a joy.

    The following is what I have written in my profile:
    “Though I often shoot street photography, I may photograph whatever inspires me on any particular day. I suppose I have not found a niche that I want to constantly photograph. So just when you may see some type of style forming, I try something different. Maybe in another 10 years I’ll have it figured out ;–))”

    I did not just change my profile after reading your article above, but if you quickly scan my photostream you will see that I am “all over the place” with regards to subject matter.

    It may be that I do not have the intensity to delve deep and long into any one type of subject matter, but I would rather think of myself as an explorer, who gets caught up in the moment.

    The down side, however, is that I become the “jack of all trades, and the master of none”. But, I suppose that is my choice.


    • Rick, thank you for your comment. A number of things triggered this essay and one of them was what I had read in your profile and how it resonated with me. What I wrote was totally and exclusively about my own feelings on the subject, but your profile suggested to me that I might not be alone in thinking about these things and that, therefore, it might be worth opening up the discussion. Thank you, as always, for participating.

  4. Ah, the perennial problem. A really well written and thought out piece, Keith. As you know, I’m a flitter myself and would love to have the discipline to dedicate my work to one theme. But I’m not sure that’s me – my eye is drawn too easily.

    And isn’t that just as valid as the one-theme photographer? Surely the broad subject matter you capture is as much an expression of your uniqueness as dedicating yourself to one thing only? You mention music – in that respect, I am very proud of my eclectic tastes and, if I’m honest, secretly consider myself as slightly superior to those who dismiss genres outright. I guess you might feel the same too. So why do we strive to limit ourselves in how we frame our perspective of the world?

    I think I might have gone a bit deep and meaningful there, but I hope you catch my drift. In the meantime, I’ll keep following the excellent work.

    ps. Have you ever toyed with the idea of having photography ‘alter egos’? One site/photostream for, say, candid street photography and another for more colourful abstracts?

    • Jo, thanks for your comment. Based on the comments I have received so far, I have started to write an addendum to the piece which I hope to post before I leave for Barcelona early next week. The replies really have been fascinating but so far they have all come from the more “eclectic” photographers. Perhaps those who have found their niche are so content that they don’t feel the urge to write aboout it; don’t even understand what all the fuss is about.
      PS. Yes I have thought about that. I did create a separate account for my Hong Kong photos (XpS_HK) because, while I liked them, the response I was getting on Flickr suggested that others were far less enthusiastic. I really only created the separate account so that I could create galleries and link them to my website as slide shows without clogging up my main account with “inferior” work. I’ve also opened up an account on Redbubble (XpatScot) for the stuff that I feel good about but I’ve not had time to put a lot up there yet. So much to do; so little time 🙂

  5. You are condemmed….like Sísifo, but you find a new path to the top everytime , quite lucky!! Caminante no hay camino ..Very interesting

  6. I read your thoughts with interest and appreciation. It’s something I’ve discussed with my pal Joe, a photographer who, while shooting many different topics and subjects, in colour and mono, still has, in my opinion, a recognizable style. And that applies to many other photographers, as you note. As to your work, I perhaps see more of a style (perhaps “theme” is a better word) than you yourself see.

    For me, as a photographer I feel like you discuss here: theme-less, a sort of magpie of photography. I often think that’s the case simply because I’m not good enough (and I’m not looking for compliments here) and I haven’t fully developed an eye or a style.

    But, when I grow up, perhaps I’ll find my voice, my eye. Until then be prepared for a mishmash of a collection of whatever attracts my attention that day! (“Oooo, lookie. Something shiny!”)

    • Mark, thank you for your comment. Following the response I’ve received on this, and having had some more time to think about it, I’m revising my position and I hope to publish a post script soon.

  7. Viva eclecticism! For those of us who enjoy a wide range of art, music, or anything, I say why not sample as much of this diverse world as possible and learn from the experience. I am specialized in my day job and enjoy a certain respect for my expertise, but in my free time, I would find it restrictive to commit my limited time and energy to narrow interests. Perhaps if I was a jack-of-all-trades in my day job, I might take a different approach in my outside pursuits. I’m not sure. There is often a certain pressure and perceived expectation to meet when you do narrow your focus and specialize. Perhaps I really choose just to avoid taking on that burden when I am really trying to just relax and enjoy whatever new area of interest, or style, I choose to follow.

    Anyway, Keith, hope you have a good trip and thanks as always for the thought provoking photos and commentary.

  8. Years ago, actually now decades ago, I attended a management workshop sponsored by our hospital system’s administration. The motivational speaker gently chided those that attempted to be “well rounded,” as that made them featureless, devoid of the peaks and valleys that make interesting terrain. It was an interesting point of view. I thought it rather simplistic, but entertaining as he was attempting to motivate managers to get their departments to perform better, higher, et cetera. I felt that there was a validity to attempting to be well rounded in experiencing as much as possible of the world around us. How else could we choose a particular path?

    So where am I going with this? I’m not really sure. After reading your essay Keith, I went back to my flickr photostream and looked at my sets. I had to laugh as the one set that has the preponderance of images is the one I labeled “miscellaneous.”

    Does this then mean that I’m ‘eclectic’ in my subject matter? Again, I’m not really sure. I think that there is an underlying theme in that I love light in all its manifestations. And I see that in your images.

  9. Hi Keith,

    I always enjoy reading your musings on photography. I am never able to fully express my feelings and contradictions about photography, because as it is, I’m too busy trying to figure out my own and others’ photography work in my head. So many thoughts and voices, it’s exhausting.

    I do agree with many of your commentators but mostly with you, about how envious I find myself of people with a certain style. I believe I have my own now but how to make it consistently good is another matter.

    But I firmly believe that you need to experiment before settling on a style that works. Perhaps what separates a real professional from the rest of the experimenting horde is the finesse in deciphering one’s preferences.

    After that, one then experiments with different subjects, composition but with similar processing. This means one has to be very diligent about shooting, and eventually, a style will emerge.

    I thought Danny over at Danny St had a good review of how others may try to “copy” his style http://www.dannyst.com/most-asked-questions/ and how one defines their own. I think at the end of the day, one has to experiment with an innate curiosity but above all, with integrity.

  10. Hi Sue Anne, yes it is exhausting at times. In fact, sometimes I think I should adopt Nike’s old epithet (since they’re not using it now anyway) and “Just do it”. Recently, I got so frustrated with myself that I wrote a little piece (on my blog) entitled “Sometimes I think I think too much”.

    I agree totally with Danny. I too challenge myself occasionally to imitate the photographers whose work impresses me (and therefore, inspires me), just to see if I can figure out how they achieve what they produce. But in doing that, I am only trying to improve my technical skill; not trying to catch a free ride on their success.

    The second part of what he said is for me, however, the more difficult part by far – finding the way to express oneself. To do that, I think you have to first know yourself, what you stand for, what you believe in and where you are in relation to what is happening around you. It sounds simple – and maybe for other people it is simple – but I seem to be in so many places, all at once, that even in one day I can take a batch of shots that don’t resemble each other in any way.

    The point you made about processing is something I also have difficulty with in the context of what I have just said because I’ve always believed that the processing should be compatible with the subject; and since I seem to find all sorts of subjects attractive (photographically), I end up with a portfolio that looks inconsistent on multiple levels.

    But you’ve hit the nail right on the head with your final sentence; because without innate curiosity AND integrity, we will never find who we really are and our work will inevitably be derivative rather than a true reflection of who we are.

    Thanks so much for your comment

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