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.

Quite a few years ago Seymour Jacklin wrote a blog post called Mistakes: The Departure Point for Creativity. What he wrote caught my attention and I want to pass his thoughts on to you, my readers.

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. As you may know, 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 occurring 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 liked 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 on how to approach mistakes have a look at his post.

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66 thoughts on “Blessing in Disguise

  1. Your picture came out excellent and it is a dramatic different from the original one. That is indeed new a fresh look. I would say a one time trash is another time trophy.

  2. Since I have made sooooo many mistakes in my photography (and writing and even real estate!) I always try to salvage what I can from the experiencei even if it’s just in the form of a lesson to myself. I love what you did with this one!

  3. Great photo with lots of mood and atmosphere. And I love the Zen philosophy as well, it could apply to life’s lessons. Sometimes when we want something too much it’s good to take a step back …

  4. You’re right; going back with fresh eyes let you create an image that is quite beautiful,and moving. Thanks for the Jacklin reference; I’ll track down the book. An artist friend who does a lot of teaching gave me some similar advice. She suggested looking for something in a “failure” that I do like — a tiny portion of an image, the colour in a badly framed shot — whatever. She said focus on that: think about why you like it and move onwards holding that little piece as a starting point for more work, or even just praise yourself for getting something so right. For me, always very critical of myself, it has kept me working and trying and improving rather than giving up.

  5. An excellent mistake Otto! The black and white picture has so much to say. I too have re-worked photographs that were a mistake and I’ve had some successes out of them. Just recently on the beach in North Norfolk I was taking a long exposure and forgot to close the eye piece. The result was light got into the camera and gave that telltale magenta strip across the centre of the picture. Everything else about the picture was exactly how I wanted it. I put it aside and got on with other things. When I arrived home and went back to the picture the glaringly obvious hit me. Doing as you have done here Otto I converted the picture to black and white, no magenta cast. A usable photograph out of a lapse of concentration but it took distance to come up with the solution. 🙂

    1. The fact is I never delete any photos I take. Not so much because I think the bad ones can be “saved” later on, not in the majority of cases at least, but it takes too much time to start figuring out which ones to delete or not. 🙂

  6. Can’t tell you how many times I’ve walked away in despair from a painting for days, weeks, or even months–then happened upon it and thought, Gee, just a little change here and there and it will be wonderful! Time and distance, part of the artist’s toolkit!

  7. What a treasure your mistake turned out to be! It’s a stunning image, Otto. Thank you for another thought-provoking post, and for sharing Seymour Jacklin’s post (which I’ll go read when I finish here). Some of my mistakes have later turned out to be something I could work with so I save most of them now. Even if I can’t use them, I can (as you pointed out) learn from them. 🙂

  8. Detta inlägg känner jag starkt för Otto, tycker att jag ofta kommer vidare genom att utvärdera och använda mig av resultat som inte blev som jag tänkt mig både vid fotandet och i efterarbetet.
    Gillar verkligen ditt arbete med bilden.
    Har inte kunnat vara så aktiv de senaste månaderna men nu jag ser fram emot att kunna läsa både framåt och bakåt i din blogg.
    Allt gott
    M

  9. Absolutely true, Otto. It’s one of the reasons why it is always a mistake to delete all the failures too quickly after a shoot. I have recently been going through my archive from 2009. And I’ve found several images in which there are glaring errors, but with another seven years of experience I now find I can still produce a good image – and very often it is through exploiting the creative potential of B&W.

  10. I always keep my failures until I have been able to re-look at them at least twice.
    Many still get tossed, but quite a few look very different after the passage of time, and become useful to me.

    Great post, Otto, and this image is GORGEOUS!!

  11. The stepping back that you speak of is so important. It’s easy for all of us to see only the flaws in a piece of work we’re not happy with, and the more we look, the larger they loom. Letting something rest allows us to see with fresh eyes when we come back. Perhaps there’s something to be done to transform the mistake, and perhaps not, but in either case, we’ve allowed ourselves to relax: surely a prerequisite for an easy flow of creative juices!

    1. It’s the same thing with writing, isn’t it. Stepping back an let a text rest for a time, makes it look quite different when you bring it up again. Thank you for your thoughtful comment, Linda.

  12. Excellent article Otto. I like it, sometimes we should even look for “mistakes” in order to avoid that already seen 1000 times feeling…of course a lot depends on the final use of the photo…
    robert
    PS: I’m actually reading a book by Clement Cheroux “the photographic mistake” with many samples form the history of photography…unfortunately I didn’t find an english translation to suggest

    1. Sounds like a very interesting book. I will look a little deeper for an English translation, but a quick search seems to make you right, unfortunately. Otherwise, I agree with you, doing deliberate mistakes can be very liberating. 🙂

  13. Great post, Otto! Have been through this more than once. I don’t delete my failed pictures with a good content because after a year or so I might see them differently and give them a remake 🙂

  14. It does indeed work very well Otto, as photos often do when they are seen in Monochrome..

    I have been looking at some of the older photos on my Photomania blog and think how much I could improve on them now.. but there lies madness; especially when I have so many new photos ( months and months worth! ) that haven’t even been worked on once!

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