Blessing in Disguise

In the creative process mistakes are a blessing in disguise. If you don’t get caught up by the fact that you just did a mistake, the mistake itself may be turned around and used as a tool to creatively reach something you otherwise wouldn’t have thought about at all. It may open doors for your vision and bring new ideas to mind – as long as you don’t discard the mistake as just that.

Some time ago I wrote the post Making Accidences Work where I showed an example of a complete failure of a photographic capture (technically speaking) that actually turned out to become quite an interesting picture – in my opinion at least. The post was pingbacked by Seymour Jacklin in a post called Mistakes: The Departure Point for Creativity. What he wrote in the post caught my attention and I wanted to pass his thoughts on to those of you who read this blog.

In his post Seymour writes: «Accept that you will make mistakes as everyone does. If mistakes are so inevitable would it not be better to incorporate them into your creative process and use them as opportunities to be exploited rather than set-backs or even fatal flaws in the project». I think Seymour hits the point right on. Instead of getting irritated by or discard mistakes, we as creative persons, should re-examine what went wrong, and make the best out of it, either by seeing the mistake as an opportunity to learn or actually as something valuable to incorporate in our creative process – a new opening.

Let me give you an example. Almost every year I go back to Cuba as part of a personal photo project. One part of the project it so visit a farm and the family living there, way out in nowhere land. When I met them first time they didn’t have electricity or running water, but their hospitality were by no means restricted by their tough living conditions. They have over the years become my close friends. Anyway, some time ago when I visit the family I was photographing them – as I always do, and one of the shooting sessions was taking during the dark hours inside the house. Unfortunately the photos came out too noisy and too blurred to my likings, thus I just saved them on my computer and thought no more of them. But the other day I was looking for some pictures for a customer and came across the discarded pictures – the failures in my opinion. Suddenly I discover one of the pictures that I actually like despite the obvious technical flaws. I proceeded working on it in Photoshop and made quite a nice black and white photograph, which at least for me is telling something very profound about the family and their lives.

I made what Seymour calls a Zen Out. In his post he comes with suggestions for how to use mistakes as a departure point for creativity. He talks about various approaches: Get Socratic, Get Freudian, Get Existential and Zen Out. As to the latter Seymour Jacklin writes: «Walk away from it for a while and settle your mind on something else. You may have made a “mistake” because you were trying too hard or wanting it too much. If you take a break and look away as if you do not care quite so much, you give your mind a chance to engage the subconscious». How appropriate for my case. For other suggestions have a look at his post.


101 thoughts on “Blessing in Disguise

  1. And this illustrates how subjective the process of shot selection is. I would have chosen the original as a great shot for the things you have played down. The wonderfully textured wall and it’s connection with the man’s shirt, the blurred face (ostensibly the focus of the shot) leading to the hooded face behind and the sense of exterior visible through the door.

    1. You are indeed right that the editing process is very subjective. We all see different things, possibilities and potential in any art. I personally regard editing as just an important part of defining yourself as an artist as the initial vision that made one capture a subject along with the post processing afterwards.

  2. If I remember correctly nylon was discovered by accident. You never know what the combination of timing, luck and unforeseen circumstances can bring!

  3. I love both pictures, but the black and white makes me stop and ponder their life. It’s like time stood still and it does set the mood to be somewhat melancholy. The colored picture, the light makes the mood uplift just a bit and turns my attention to the direction of her eyes and makes me wonder what she was looking at. (What was she looking at, by the way?). The light of both pictures makes a huge difference in my mood and how it affects my questions regarding them. Great post as always my friend! 🙂

  4. Great post, Otto, nice to get an insight into your creative processes. And thank you for mentioning my post, I’m glad you got something from it 🙂

  5. See I’ve been sitting on the fence about deleting some of my junk files and you have shed new light on why maybe that would be a mistake! Wonderful food for thought, I am enamored by your B&W transformation!

    1. Well, I basically never delete any photos. First of all you never know what use any given photograph could have later on – even just as part of a composite picture. And besides it takes too much time to have to edit out all the “failures”. Nowadays storage media is too inexpensive to have to make that decision.

  6. I have many photographic mistakes, but I shall now look at them again, with a different eye.
    Excellent post Otto, thank you for posting this. The images above are lovely, but the black and white one, has something a bit special, I love it.

  7. I call those happy mistakes. And sir, your image and the way it was processed is amazing. Love the emotion of it and the guy in back. It really works. More of this!

  8. Love the B&W, streets ahead of the colour version. Excellent piece of writing on this topic of ‘failure’. I never like to feel beaten by an image that I mess up. I view it as an opportunity to take risks and do something ‘off the wall’ with it. And sometimes that’s a cul-de-sac, but sometimes I end up with an image that is nothing remotely like the original but has fired my creativity along the way.

  9. That B&W is very thought-provoking. Thanks for not tossing it and for sharing this post. It’s so true in photography and in writing, that sometimes you need to step away and come back with fresh eyes and a fresh mind.

  10. I like that black and white photo very much and was surprised to see the color version you started with. Oddly, in the B&W, I thought the woman was sitting outside and the man was indoors looking out. In the color photo I can see it was just the opposite. I love the singular focus on the woman’s face.

  11. Excellent post! The “mistake” worked out very well and your B&W is more poignant. I have taken advantage of a few mistakes and liked them better than the original. Your last paragraph is spot-on in my opinion. When I have “creativity block” I have to do something else then come back to it later. My mind is more refreshed that way. Also, I remember what a wise man recently told me when I was having some difficulty with meditation. He suggested I may be trying too hard, and to “try by not trying.” Your subconscious is more resistant when you try to force things. I have been meaning to do a posting on “try by not trying” since his recommendation really impressed upon me. It could definitely apply to creativity.

  12. What great advice..using mistakes as opportunites to be exploited rather than set-backs….not only for the creative process, but for life in general (which I suppose can be thought of as a creative process!) How often have we all made mistakes and realized that it was a better or easier way to do something. Thanks to you and Seymour for the reminder.

  13. Yes, yes, yes! This is so valid, Otto. I’m so glad you wrote this. It truly is worthwhile putting it aside and let it show itself to you!

    I believe this applies equally to life and living. Yes!

  14. Thank you Otto for sharing this post. You are so right. If I had that shot in my files, I too might have not have ever notice the hidden jewel that you found in the B/W image. Great job!

  15. I think having a Zen Out might be an appropriately creative approach to many so-called mistakes! The black and white is a beautiful photo of your friends. How wonderful to have made these friendships and to have such a strong relationship with Cuba. I look forward to hearing more about your next trip to this fascinating island! Debra

  16. You write so elegantly!

    “Change is the only constant” someone (possibly) important said. It only makes sense to embrace it – even if it’s vehicle is that of a mistake.

    Thanks for the read. 🙂

  17. The B&W photo is great, the monotone aspect drive you to the woman face and suddendly you ask yourself what is she looking at. It works great because you are not distracted by the colors. Yes mistakes can be a starting point for creativity band you are correct, you must train yourself to be able to look at them with an open eye. Thanks for the link to the Seymour hints, I’ll copy them on a piece of paper and stick it somewhere at my working desk. Grazie, ciao

  18. I like your thoughts about putting something away and coming back to look at it much later. I have occasionally come upon one of my old “mistakes” unexpectedly and decided that I really liked it. Odd how time can change your outlook.

  19. Great insights! I wonder though if what you and Seymour Jacklin have espoused also applies I many other creative processes. And even to life as a whole. Is this where we can say that life should imitate art?

    1. I definitely believe this thought pattern can be applied to other creative processes, as well as life itself. Particularly life. Imitation? I think art is life, and vice versa.

  20. An excellent post Otto and one that I can relate to. Sometimes what initially seems like a poor photo, after a while, really does turn out to be quite the opposite. Whether manipulated or not. I thought that the first photo in this post was superb even before reading to the end and then seeing where it came from.

  21. Good post, thank you. Art is not something you learn, it is something that happens once you let go of your idea to create art 🙂
    That’s why I love photography; once in a while you get a BIG surprise. Really enjoyed what you wrote.

  22. Hey Otto great post, enjoyed reading it. 🙂 we human we do make mistakes, as long as we learn and not to repeat those mistakes again. Life is process of constant of positive change. As we know stagnet waters only breed mosquitos.

    Zahir 🙂

  23. hello munchow, i noticed you saw at least some of the images on my blog (even commented on a very noisy one 🙂 – thanks!) … so, it won’t come as a surprise that i go with simon five and would have chosen the original – i don’t mind the noise, the blur … the same way i don’t mind noticing paint and brushstrokes in a wonderful painting – yes, let’s take a look at all the marvelous things painters did and do with their tools – then why should photography be locked in that golden cage of sharpness and so called perfect exposure? – nothing wrong of course with happily living in that cage – i can appreciate and enjoy its often amazing photographs very much – but i resist ‘photography’ being fenced in – pictures that tick, that’s what matters – somehow i think i can hear that in your voice too, right?

    1. I couldn’t agree more with you. Most arts involve craftsmanship, but rules are to be broken, whether through noise, lack of sharpness, failed exposure. It is indeed the inner force of the art, the emotions it emits, the way it ticks, that matters. But still, I don’t like the unprocessed picture here…

  24. I think with “ruined” photos — they tell a story like the “perfect” ones cannot. When I was young, I came across a collection of photos my parents had tossed in the trash. Underexposed, blurry, no real focal point — and I took them out and put them in an envelope I took from my mom’s drawer. In pencil, I scrawled on the envelope, “Bad and ruined photos.” I wanted to be sure anyone who found the envelope would know that it was a collection, not something to be thrown out. I’d given it a name, and I’d given those memories a home.

    That envelope was one of my most prized possessions. My family teased me about it, but what I saw in those photos was what I saw when I looked around. The lighting is never perfect, to the naked eye. Often things do look blurry, such as when I’d come out of the pool. And when I’d lose myself in thought, the vision before my eyes held no focal point.

    The pictures spoke to me. They captured life as it was. Unposed. Unplanned. And I loved them for what they showed me. I would sit for hours and just study the photos. Thank you, Otto, for the memory.

    1. I think you are very right about the fact that «ruined» photos tell a story that is valuable in itself. We – or I at least – all too often think about photography in terms of artistic expressions, but sometimes we just need to be aware of the fact that photographs are just as important as records of our lives and our love ones.

  25. its great you showed the original and I can now understand why you had never bothered to look it up again but the converted photo is in my opinion amazingly good…the photo has emotions and it moves you a bit. Goes to show that if the subject and story telling part is there, technicalities can sometimes take a break !

  26. I like both photos as well. Each portrays a different emotion.
    You are right about storage. It is so easy to keep images now that there is no reason not to. I use to have a storage locker that was specifically for negatives and transparencies. Finding something there to ponder over was always a challenge. I was just considering this the other day while looking at one of my favourite shots from days gone by…one that was created accidentally, by the way. I saw something I wanted to reproduce and wondered if I would ever be able to lay my hands on the original transparency.
    Thanks Otto,

  27. Well put. I often find myself asking this in the editing process. To quote the turtle in Kung Fu Panda, “There are no mistakes”.

  28. Wonderful post, Otto. And that image is amazing!

    I’m so glad I read this today. It follows another article I just read which advised that we ruthlessly cull our photos, getting rid of all but the best. I disagreed with it when I read it because there are times when I’ve gone back and found a way to “fix” or otherwise use what at first appeared to be a mistake. Not that I save everything. But there are some mistakes that seem worth saving for a while. 🙂

    1. Why should we discard pictures at all? Some are for exhibitions, some are for friends and family, while others are only as memory for ourselves – even if you by photographic standards don’t hold up. And who knows how we may see them 20 years from now. Today’s photos are tomorrow’s history – on various levels.

  29. Thanks for this Otto. Many photographers with cameras today aim for technical perfection in all their images, I must admit I do much of the time. But it is far better to try to impart a sense of feeling or emotion in an image, which you have done in these images. I love the monochrome image in this post, very nice.

  30. Black and White conversions are terrific! One has to have a pretty good eye to know which scenes work and which ones will not. This is very good. BW can bring out so much detail than color. Good job.

    Oh, what editing process do you use, just curious. I use Nik Software, Sivler Efex Pro.

    1. I have just just “plain” PhotoShop. The B&W adjustment layer, plus a variety of other layers – and using different blending modes.

  31. Both pictures ares stunning. The first one though because of the black and white effect seems more intense, deep and emotional. I can almost see the ache in the subject’s heart through the creases of his face and the hardship , even hope in his eyes. You gave this family justice and honestly portrayed what it is to live in poverty… our imperfections and mistakes, makes us more interesting and someone others can relate too. Thanks for sharing my friend…

  32. This morning I wrote….Life is full of Imperfections! Funny, that I would come by and your post would be about the beauty of mistakes and imperfections. I think when I had this thought this morning I felt at peace with this simple thought. Wonderful photos! I agree that the emotion if felt especially with the first one as if you are invited in, to hear the conversation and to feel a quiet streghth.

  33. A very good example of why we shouldn’t forget to go have another look at old stuff. The b/w version is so much more powerful – to me anyway.

  34. Otto, I love your work! It is very genuine. My father was an award winning photojournalist for NBC news back in the 50’s-60’s, when they only had 4. He used only existing light when he could and took the most amazing b/w portraits of people from all walks of life from world leaders to murderers. Your black & white “mistake” reminds me of some of his work. It brings out the hardness/toughness of their life as you describe it that the color photo does not, it’s so soft. I could not agree more with the attitude towards mistakes. They are often times a “gift”. I get the “Zen Out” theory and pretty much work that way all the time. I have an idea I start with. I do very few if any preliminary sketches. I like the spontaneity. I just think about what I want. Then at some point the art takes on a life of its own and goes in a direction I could not have thought of alone. Always be open and let the art flow through you as if you are merely a tool, it will always be original that way. I also found your comments on the winning photo selection process dead on. Congratulations on your award, it is well deserved and I am flattered you went on my blog!

  35. I love this post….often because my viewfinder is so small – I can’t really see what I’m taking pictures of. But I’ve learned to trust that my hand can see sometimes better than my eye and accidental magic occurs. Thanks for posting this….

  36. Thank you for your thoughts and Seymour Jacklin’s as well. Interesting how we think mistakes should be discarded but in reality, you demonstrated how you can turn it all around and make something beautiful out of a so-called mistake. Photography is a new thing for me and I’m learning so much from your posts. You mentioned Photoshop here in this post. Do you use anything special? Just wondering . . . thanks Otto!

  37. years ago I made a mistake in pottery class-it is now one of my favourite pieces. Thanks for dropping into my blog-love today’s shot. Jane

  38. It amazes me how much we can learn by talking with other kinds of creative artists. I’m a writer, but when I started talking with painters about their creative process it helped improve my writing by beginning to see the world through their eyes. That holds true with any art form and I try now to connect with all kinds of artists. I’m just beginning to discover the world of photography. This post was eye-opening to me. When I started writing poems I tossed a lot of them aside as no good. But recently I’ve been taking them out and rewriting them with a different perspective (and a little more experience). I had no idea I was doing a zen out! I will definitely read the two other posts you mentioned – your previous post and the one from Seymour Jacklin’s blog. I’m interested in the various approaches. Thank you for sharing your insight!

  39. Very interesting post Otto! I wholeheartedly agree that making mistakes can be an opportunity for creativity. Besides, what seems like a mistake to us might be viewed as a masterpiece to another person. Art is a very subjective thing. I think that our mistakes can be a very positive thing. It’s a matter of how we handle it. Do we grow from it, or simply stagnate? I think sometimes we can be too hard on ourselves. By the way, I love the simplicity of your photo (both b&w and color). Nonetheless, your personal photo project must be a very enriching experience for you especially when you get to visit your friends in Cuba. I think sometimes having less is truly having more. It shows in your photo. 🙂

  40. hello, munchow,

    thanks for dropping by and for the like. ^^ btw, am taking a look around your site, hope you don’t mind…

    btw, the advice above also works for me. whenever i can’t get something right, i leave it around for a while and do some mental troubleshooting. after some time, i usually come up with a different approach or look at the problem. yes, that makes sense… ^^

    the photo above seems to me a keen rendition of how local folks live… glad i came over. cheers! 🙂

  41. This is a great example of using a mistake. The resulting image is very good and has a mood to go with the “mistake.”
    Thank you for visiting my blog and commenting. 🙂

  42. Amazing, I’m working on such a photo right now. Go figure. I think a mediocre image could be a great opportunity at times myself to stretch ourselves creatively to find a way to make it acceptable. A time to stretch our editing abilities or a time to find a way to stretch our editing capabilities with a new plug-in maybe.

    Great black and white. You felt something and searched for a way to express it and found it! 🙂

    Great post.

  43. I’ve never been to Cuba but the few Cubans that I know are some of the friendliest people I’ve ever met. Have a great trip!

  44. Really nice post. The black & white photograph you came up with is excellent. Your every post brings lots of inspiration to this blogosphere and all the people like me, who belongs to this blogging world. Thank you for these tips.

  45. I can’t take a decent photo to save my life but as a writer I agree completely with your ideas about the creative process. Mistakes are valuable in all sorts of ways. We learn from them and sometimes they are the catalyst for a different way of seeing things…if we allow the subconscious to slip the reins of what we ‘think’ is right and good.


  46. Wow – I saw you liked my post on Colombia so I thought I’d check out your blog. I haven’t been able to click off yet! I just released a book about my travels, you might like that too? Sure could use a decent photographer for the next ones!

  47. Wow I have to agree with Joylene that you did a fabulous job and I am glad you did save this photograph! The black and white really pulls you to the woman’ss face. You can’t help but want to know what exactly she is looking at..

  48. Powerful post and ironically, just what I needed to read today. I am a perfectionist and often times, can get so very caught up in my ‘mistakes’, so much so that many folks would be surprised to see the images I reject on a daily basis as ‘not good enough’. The b&w image is incredibly striking and you’d never know it grew out of the grainy color original. Just goes to show you how far mood and composition can take you. I think the b&w processing eliminated some distracting elements and allows us to focus on the figures and the gritty texture of their surroundings. Well done!

  49. Lovely post! I definitely agree and your gorgeous b&w photo really helped to prove the point to! So many times, we look solely for perfection, totally missing out on the beauty in the imperfections that make it so … human! Wonderful job, Mr. Munchow! 🙂

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