Robert Frank and the numbers game…

When ever I see this image, I am always moved to ponder on what it takes to let go of what you know and have, and to open to the new and unexpected! From the smallest to the most significant aspects of life, in order to receive, sometimes we have to let go of what we already have... The Rings.  Santa Monica, California, USA. (Martin Herrera)
Photo: The Rings. Woman goes through the rings while doing the hula-hoop. When ever I see this image, I am always moved by the realization that in order to receive, you have to let go. The Rings. Santa Monica, California, USA. By: Martin Herrera Soler.

Let me start by saying that I was so positively impressed when I found out that Robert Frank’s photography and mine have much in common. Well, maybe not much, but we do share some things. Before I elaborate, let me contextualize the bold statement that I just made.

It’s no news I come from a corporate background, and particularly from a number crunching, data driven key performance indicator world where I personally used to thrive. So it’s no surprise that as I got into photography, almost before I had a camera, and for sure before I knew what to really do with it, I had a workflow. And among the many things my overly sophisticated workflow offered, was the ability to measure my ‘keepers rate’.

While in New York a while ago I was privileged to attend an itinerant Robert Frank’s exhibit of ‘The Americans’. I loved his work and bough not only the book, but also the huge compilation done for the exhibit called ‘Looking In – Robert Frank’s The Americans’. I learned a lot about this project, and interestingly enough, that’s how I found out our photography shares some commonalities.

I was made aware that for this project, Robert Frank shot 967 rolls of film and made 27 thousand exposures. From that he selected 1000 images (3%) and finally 83 (0.3%) made it into the book. A few of things stood out for me.

The first is how extremely committed he was to his project. He set himself to travel across the United States and photograph all strata of its society. It took over two years and he took his family along for parts of the journey. When I look at my projects, which at times feel huge and insurmountable, they pale in comparison to the magnitude of this project or that of many other great photographers. Topic for a whole new post.

Second, I became even more aware of the importance of ‘editing tight’ and how much of the work of a good book is all in disposing of most of your work. It requires a kind of ‘buddhist attitude’ towards attachment. I find myself falling in love with some images and having a hard time letting them go, to realize in hindsight, that they really were not that good after all. But it’s only natural, there is, at least for me, an emotional attachment to the people or place, to what I was feeling a the time, that it’s very hard to approach the editing process objectively. If at any point I had a doubt about the importance of having someone help you look and edit your work, specially for a book or portfolio, I no longer do.

Finally, and here is what Robert Frank’s photography and mine share, and that is how many images you have to create in order to come out the other end with a solid high quality body of work. Interestingly enough, my numbers are not that different. In the 7.5 years since I picked up a camera for the first time it , I have shot around 60 thousand images (an average of 7.937 per year if you were curious). Of those, 1978 (3%) are true keepers (4 stars and above in my system). And only 115 (0.2%) are portfolio images (five stars).

As much as this statistics comforts me, it has to be said that there are incredibly subjective elements in play in all these numbers. I wonder what my numbers would look like if Robert edit my work.

So what are your numbers? Do you find yourself in a similar scenario? Or do feel it’s crazy to even keep track? Let me know your thoughts. I am curious to know how this process works for other photographers out there.