Finished vs complete

by     /    February 07, 2006   

I often think back to an exercise that a philosophy professor gave us back in college. We were given a sheet of newsprint and a piece of charcoal and told to “make a mark on the paper”. After some perplexed looks, we all scribbled some line on the paper. Next he asked us to make another mark, but to make sure that the two marks weren’t making any symbol, such as a letter. This being a philosopy class, some students were stymied (“define symbol”) but it was no problem for me: *scribble*. And again we were asked to make another mark, and to continue until we felt that the paper was either “finished” or “complete”. When we asked what he meant, he just answered “you tell me when you get there.” And so we did: *scribble* *scribble* *scribble*… hey…. After a while, nearly every one of us stopped. When he asked why we did, the answered were either (a) the paper was a mess, and I didn’t know what else to add, or (b) I didn’t want to mess up what was there. The first answer, he told us, meant the piece was “finished” — it was taken as far as it could go before it was stopped by some external force (in many cases, lack of room on the paper). The second answer meant the piece was “complete” — it had achieved some interal harmony, to which nothing could be added or substracted without changing that harmony.

This lesson has stayed with me. As I work on my more abstract photographs, I am constantly struggling between work that is finished or complete. The majority of the photos I take are the former: they are ok, but nothing special. They sit there, and no amount of nudging on my part will give them any life. But then there are the special photos, the ones that jump out and are alive, full of harmony. These are the photos I work for, but they are fragile creatures. It takes a light and steady hand to gently coax these photos into their full completeness. Too much work can weigh them down, dampen that harmony, or even destroy it — changing its completeness to just another finished piece.
Last week I found just such an image. What I saw through the lens excited me, and what I captured was even more so. It was an image that felt nearly complete. Yet it needed something, a couple more marks to make it realize it potential. But then… pffffftttttt. I don’t know what I did, but this fragile beautiful image just went… flat, lifeless, boring. ARGH! Even when I went back to the original, whatever I had originally seen had disappeared. I spooked it. So now the only thing to do is wait. Put the photo away, and work on something else. Hope that by giving it some space, whatever special harmony it had will slip back in, and the photo will change from just being almost finished to once again being almost complete.

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