Photography is an infinite realm, with as at least as many different kinds of photographs as there are photographers. I want to paint in broad strokes a certain kind that is underrepresented on most photography sites, Dear Susan included, which I will call “satisficing.”
The term “satisficing” was introduced as early as 1947 by the brilliant Herbert Simon, a polymath who received the Nobel Prize in Economics (in 1978) but whose work ranged across many fields, including economics, political science, cognitive science, and especially management (“administrative behavior” was the title of his very influential book based on his doctoral dissertation). “Satisficing” can be made into a very precise and technical term, but I’m going to do my own satisficing on the concept: I think of it as something “good enough under the circumstances.”
The circumstances of photography are multitudinous, and include such obvious matters as gear (including post processing and printing), subject matter (including undestinations!), psychology, and a whole lot more. But I am going to over-simplify the lot to just these three: gear, subject-matter and psychology (the psychology of the photographer in question). They vary enormously: Gear goes from pinhole camera to simple point-and-shoots through smartphones to view cameras (or perhaps to Pascal’s Hassy?), in various permutations that permit makers to squeeze the highest profits they can. Subject matter ranges from landscapes to portraits to astronomy to microscopy, and from near (your own home, neighborhood or community) to far (destinations and undestinations), always under the constraints of personal budgets, mobility, and tastes. Psychology deserves its own book, and perhaps is underestimated; it includes interests, time-management, goals, desires, tolerances, attitudes and much else. It is the vital element of satisficing, for the self is the final arbiter of “good enough.”
What does “good enough” mean under these circumstances, and why might it matter? Well, of course it depends. It depends on what the circumstances are, the gear you want and can afford, and especially on who you are. What is possible is a function of where and when you find yourself on the one side, and what you want and what you will tolerate on the other.
I will illustrate from the experience of the one satisficer I know best—me—with a simple opportunistic project. A few years ago, I found myself occasionally wandering the parking lot of a decaying shopping mall with a small Sony RX100, snapping hand-held shots mostly downward. I called the project “(S)mall things.”
Now my gear isn’t the best possible, though the RX100 might have been the best of its kind (1” sensor, zoom lens, pocketable) when it came out. I’m sure other gear could have produced better resolution and rendering. But consider my circumstances: I really couldn’t afford anything better that I could pocket and carry around with me as I wandered the asphalt–nothing with a red dot on it e.g.
Also, I really didn’t, and don’t, aspire to produce works of art, or even anything that would sell. But I did want to enjoy my looking about, believing (however naively) that beauty can be found everywhere, if you look closely enough. And so I took photos of antiques (or junk), weeds, fireplugs, drainwater pools, asphalt cracks, insects, electrical boxes, and so on, delighting in the form and color. Could I have done better? Quite possibly, though I’m not nearly skilled as many, and I didn’t actually have that much time (these were done during a short period after exercise while my wife was still in the gym). Still, I came to see that the photos were “good enough” for my purposes, my gear, and the available subject matter. I still enjoy looking at them, and I hope some of them might interest some of you.
Satisficing obviously is a function of circumstance. Others will find themselves in other circumstances, perhaps with better funding for better gear, a greater tolerance for lugging heavy loads, a more resolute determination to find the best photo in any given environment, greater flexibility in choosing times of best light, greater patience in setting up and using a tripod, greater skill in composing that optimum photo, and so on. Their “good enough” may be quite different than mine. There is no absolute standard of satisficing.
I don’t want to disparage the perfectionists among you—actually I hugely admire those who will spare no effort to produce great photos or even just to get better—better pictures, better photographers. Moreover, I think a streak of perfectionism is an essential trait of any artist. So I readily confess I’m no artist, and my “good enough” doesn’t include the goal of producing works of art. But I also don’t think that my circumstances are unusual or that my “good enough” is totally shabby.
Perhaps you can think of satisficing as occupying some middle ground between perfectionism on the one side (optimizing, making the best possible photograph) and laissez-faire (“whatever”) on the other. It’s making something that’s good enough for you under the circumstances. The “good enough for you” is rewarding for you, but not necessarily for others; indeed it may be potentially off-putting to them (maybe they think “I could do better”). I think the only recourse is to offer up for public viewing your images that satisfice you and see what others think. But I also think that what the others think—what’s satisficing for them—shouldn’t be the fundamental goal of your photographic life. What matters is to enjoy the photography you are able to do in your circumstances!
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