The Most Predictable Path to Quality by Vincent Tam

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(A.g.’s Note: Today’s guest post on the blog is by Vincent Tam. He’s an inquisitive and persistent photographer. He’s sharing with us his insights and research on how to produce quality work and how he tested this research with the backstory of getting the photo above. All photos and text are by Vincent Tam.)

Vincent: I had a massive misconception about great photographers. I thought every shot they take must be great. This is not true. Magnum photographer Alex Webb reportedly shot ten rolls of Kodachrome film for his famous Istanbul barbershop photo. He says “street photography is 99 percent about failure.” To improve our odds of making great photos, does it make sense to simply shoot more? As it turns out, in his 2016 book about how non-conformists move the world, Adam Grant tells us the most predictable path to quality is, in fact, quantity.

TURKEY. Istanbul. 2001. View from a barbershop near Taksim Square.
TURKEY. Istanbul. 2001. View from a barbershop near Taksim Square.

Quantity is the most predictable path to quality

In Originals, Adam Grant writes “creative geniuses weren’t qualitatively better than their peers,” rather “they simply produced a greater volume of work.” This may sound surprising since it runs counter to the belief that geniuses produce genius-level results every time they go to work. Adam Grant backs up his assertion with examples from well-known innovators in art, music, literature, science, and technology:

Picasso was extremely prolific in his output. However, only a fraction of his work garnered acclaim.

  • 1,800 paintings
  • 1,200 sculptures
  • 2,800 ceramics
  • 12,000 drawings
  • Also various prints, rugs, and tapestries

The London Philharmonic Orchestra’s list of the greatest pieces of classical music includes only a few pieces from each of the best composers, even though they produced much more.

  • 6 pieces by Mozart, who produced 600
  • 5 pieces by Beethoven, who produced 650
  • 3 pieces by Bach, who produced 1,000

Maya Angelou is famous for her poem “Still I Rise” but also wrote 165 others. Her memoir “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings” is well-regarded, while much less attention is given to her six other autobiographies.

Although Albert Einstein wrote papers on general and special relativity that transformed physics, many of his 248 publications had minimal impact.

Thomas Edison produced 1,083 patents; only a handful were considered truly great achievements.

Another writer debunking myths associated with genius and creativity is Kevin Ashton, the man responsible for coining the term “Internet of Things”. In his 2015 book How to Fly a Horse, he recounts the beginnings of the revolutionary Dyson cyclonic vacuum cleaner. He says James Dyson went through 5,126 prototypes before achieving a successful design.

In Originals, we have the most gifted individuals in their respective fields, widely recognized to have produced some of the most impactful work in human history. What does the research tell us? It tells us they each produced an immense quantity of work, most of which wasn’t all that great. These geniuses weren’t significant better than their peers; they just had a larger volume of output. Adam Grant calls the trade-off between quality and quantity a myth and points to quantity as the most predictable path to quality. He also gets support from Ira Glass, producer of the This American Life podcast: “The most important possible thing you could do is do a lot of work. Do a huge volume of work.”

Applying this to photography

So how can this apply to photography? First of all, just go shoot. This doesn’t mean randomly fire away, but rather make the opportunities to go shooting and shoot with intention. Second, work the scene by making images from a variety of perspectives and at varying points in time. Third, don’t be afraid to experiment and make mistakes. Scott Adams, creator of Dilbert, says “creativity is allowing yourself to make mistakes, and art is knowing which ones to keep.”

The story behind the photo

Here’s the story behind the photo at the top of this post. I meet this interesting pair while out shooting with my friend Alex near the murals at Clarion Alley in the Mission District of San Francisco. They’re checking out a hunger strike outside the police station to protest officer shootings. I probably would have taken only one or two photos in the past. This time, I take quite a few more photographs throughout our chat — mostly to experiment but also with a hunch that there was more story to unfold.

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Partway into our conversation, he reveals he broke his arm skateboarding and even offers to show me how it’s healing. I capture an image with his bandages unwrapped along with a fleeting look of pain in his face as he throws back his hair while recounting the ordeal. Adding to the image, an elderly woman in an electric wheelchair speeds by indifferently behind him.

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The image communicates a sense of frailty in being human. We see it in the injury, in his expression, and in the elderly woman reliant on the electric wheelchair. We also witness a part of the human condition in the contrast between the young guy and the elderly woman — one is well on his way to recovery and the other has relatively dimmer physical prospects. The elderly woman even seems to speed by unconcerned, like she knows he has plenty of life left ahead. However, despite this frailty, there is still forward momentum and resilience in the refusal to succumb to limitations. The elderly lady refuses to let her physical condition constrain her freedom of mobility, and this guy is not far from a full recovery and getting back on his skateboard. (I think he mentioned this wasn’t his first big injury.) I likely would not have made this image without the extra drive to just go shoot, capturing the scene from a variety of perspectives, and an embrace of mistakes and failing forward.

Now go forth

So I hope the examples from Originals encourage you to boost your quantity while freeing you from the expectation that every shot needs to be great. The more work we put out, and the more we embrace experimentation and feedback, the quicker we progress. If you feel like you’re at a plateau, try something new or give yourself creative constraints. You’ll be surprised with the results that arise from limitations. Personally, I have much further to go on the path toward developing my vision for photography, but the research highlighted by Adam Grant certainly points a clear path toward quality.

Lastly, if you’re looking to just start, I leave you with a quote from Kevin Ashton: “Almost nothing we create will be good the first time. It will seldom be bad. It will probably be a dull shade of average. The main virtue of a first sketch is that it breaks the blank page. It is a spark of life in the swamp, beautiful if only because it is a beginning.”

(For the keen eye, yes, that’s an Olympus XA1 compact rangefinder film camera in his hand.)

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For More on Vincent

Instagram:  www.instagram.com/iamvincenttam

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Artist-Philosopher