Charles Bridge, Prague

The Myth of Talent

“I know quite certainly that I myself have no special talent. Curiosity, obsession, and dogged endurance, combined with self-criticism, have brought me to my ideas”

– Albert Einsten

The idea that some people have an innate talent and that you can’t be an artist if you don’t have talent is so ingrained in people’s minds that almost every time I mention my skepticism to somebody, they inevitably look at me like I had said the weirdest thing. “We have talent shows on TV, right? How can you not see that some people are just born with a superior talent and others aren’t?”

I owe it to my mentor Robin Griggs Wood the revelation that talent is largely a myth. You should really watch the video below to hear it from her own voice. If you don’t want to watch the whole video, just meditate on this:

“There isn’t a single thing that I do that cannot be learned, practiced and achieved to great success by anyone.”

Motivation, perseverance, study, and simply hard work count so much more than talent and this is especially true in modern photography. I’d be willing to admit that Mozart composing his first minuet at age five was an indication of some innate ability, besides his father’s teachings, but nowadays photography requires not much more than learning a bit about exposure and the rules of composition.

The former is handled automatically very well by most cameras and this fact removes much of the technical difficulties. Compared to something like classical music, photography is child’s play. Processing at the computer is comparatively much more difficult, but that can be learned too.

Once you have acquired the basics, it’s a matter of having good teachers, looking at the work of others, shooting a lot, examining your work with a critical eye and getting it examined by experts. Not a single element of this is beyond the reach of anyone. Those who excel are not those who were gifted with talent, but those who were constantly focused on improving their art. That doesn’t mean it is easy. In fact, it takes a lot of work and perseverance to excel.

Eric Kim says precisely the same thing:

“I don’t think there is anything such as “talent” in photography. Nobody jumps out of the womb and suddenly has a “skill” to shoot photographs. And definitely nobody has some sort of “skill” to shoot street photography (in terms of having some sort of special “street photography” gene).

We need to cultivate our skills through learning, practice, and persistence.”

What are your thoughts? Do you believe there is something as talent or not?


Comments 20

  1. Well, Ugo, since the article is in English I’ll reply in the same language…….I have to agree at least in part with you, anything, with enough hard work and study can be learned, But I do believe that some people that are “gifted” with a natural “talent” that makes things a lot easier for them. that does not mean that i could not achieve the same things it just means that I would have to work a lot harder to get there

    1. I agree Gianmarco and think talent is one of the many ingredients. If we are quoting people then this one is applicable

      “Nothing in this world can take the place of persistence. Talent will not: nothing is more common than unsuccessful men with talent. Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost a proverb. Education will not: the world is full of educated derelicts. Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent.
      Calvin Coolidge”

      On saying that if you have natural ability, it means that you have a bit more time and energy to work on all the other ingredients.

  2. “I owe it to my mentor Robin Griggs Wood the revelation that talent is largely a myth.”

    I am curious to learn about your path with Robin Griggs Woods. Have you talked about this anywhere?

    1. Post
  3. Hi Ugo,
    Malcom Gladwell talks about this in his Outliers book, which could be summarized in Henri Cartier Bresson’s famous quote, “You first 10000 photographs are your worst”. Briefly, the so-called success stories (in many professions) are really a product of very hard work, over many many years – he claims you need at least 10000 hours dedicated to whatever your are doing before you become any good. And he gives several examples from many different areas of human endeavor, including art.
    It agrees with the gist of your post, and Robin’s video.
    Regarding photography, I’d say the most important aspect that cannot be automated by cameras is composition. Sure, it is important to understand and master exposure, focus, etc…, but, as you point out, modern cameras can go a long way to automate most of this, but for the exceptional (and less common) situations. But composition has to be learned, and practice makes perfect, as they say.
    I would agree that through hard work, it is possible to reach a very good level in photography – I would call this becoming a competent photographer.
    But I would not completely discard “talent”, which I think manifests itself in at least two observable ways. First, during the “first 10000” hours, I’ve seen (and experienced first hand) people progress much faster than others to reach a comparable level of competence, for the same level of dedication (as already pointed out in previous comments).
    For many, this level is enough for their goals, while others keep trying to advance. This is where the second way kicks in. Of those that keep on, some become truly exceptional, beyond what others have achieved. And it is not *only* because of dedication alone – and there are many examples around. I would claim that this different is talent.
    I think your point still applies, simply because one cannot not know *in advance*, whether you have that “extra” that will make you truly exceptional, or not. (And some may not really care about becoming truly exceptional…).
    The bottom line is that in all cases, drive and dedication is what counts, whether you have talent or not!

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  5. it would be great maybe, if I had amazing photographs….for me – – I have concluded after many years of struggling with this question of talent – – for me the PROCESS is the thing. not the outcome so much. It is in the here and now of being fully present and alive, passionate, Sure I care about the outcome, would love it if people would go WOW…but that is totally secondary to BEING THERE…I think Vivian Maier felt this way…Great discussion points by the way…thank you! The War of Art by Stephen Pressfield is a great book in this line of thinking. Where does beauty and creativity come from anyway?

  6. I have to disagree. We have the word talent because humans have always recognised some people excel at certain endeavours compared to others. Talent in photography for example, is a case of visual intelligence which not everyone has to the same degree. What all these experts miss, IMO, is that a large percentage of all photographers have visual talent, and it is the degree of talent which differentiates them. They are attracted to a visual discipline precisely because they have a predisposition (or visual intelligence or talent) for it. How they develop that talent is dependent upon other factors such as hard work.
    I may have a talent for the visual arts and have been told as much by many people since I was a child, but what I have done with it (or not) is up to me. Similarly, I don’t have a talent for music which no matter how much I practiced would amount to anything because I’m just not interested in developing something which I know won’t go anywhere. There are people who persevere at something like photography or music and never get anywhere because they are trying to build on something which isn’t big or strong enough to make a good foundation for it. That’s their prerogative and if they enjoy the pursuit then why not? But this denial of talent is to my mind either a false humility or a way to drum up business with new workshop participants. Anything that can be “learned” is quite possibly not talent. Composition, technical skills etc can all be learned but that just levels the playing field. To my mind (and eye) and anyone else looking at the visual art world from a non-participatory viewpoint, talent is real.

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      I don’t believe photographers or other visual artists have a wildly different visual intelligence, whatever that is, from most people. Salgado, just to name a photographer that I recently heard speaking, is great not because he has innate visual intelligence that we don’t have, but because he loves his subjects in a way that most other people don’t and because he dedicated his whole life to the celebration of that love. This is all very apparent if you hear him talk. I also don’t believe that some people struggle without achieving much because they have no talent. It’s more a case of not having the right motivation or the right teachers.

      In any instance, I don’t think either of us has unassailable data to buttress their own opinions, so we’ll have to agree to disagree 🙂

      1. I agree Ugo. Salgado doesn’t have something we don’t have visually, only motivationally. That was my point. As a photographer you do have talent for photography. It’s what we do or don’t do with it. So we do agree.

  7. Sorry, I disagree with you. Yes, certain people with years of experience and training will improve their photography, but others are born with that innate sense of time and place…the vision to see things others don’t.

    If it was all just ‘hard work and practice’ we wouldn’t see so much crap on sites like flickr.

  8. I disagree. Landscape photography is trying to simplify, or find order, from a frequently chaotic setting. That involves seeing patterns among all the chaos, and I don’t think all people are equal in their ability to see patterns.

  9. I firm disagree here. Talent = Vision. This is not a teachable subject.

    Yes, an individual can diligently study & practice technique for years, and repeat the so-called “rules” back to you in his sleep (bless his little heart), but if he’s unable to look beyond the familiar or apparent… to “see”, then it’s unlikely that he’ll ever produce much beyond “more of the same” or “nothing special”.

    I thought I should also point out that the following two terms have entirely different definitions. 😉

    Talent: a special natural ability or aptitude

    Skill: the ability, coming from one’s knowledge, practice, aptitude, etc., to do something well

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  11. Ugo … thanks for sharing this out in the world again. Fascinating comments here, and why I’m fighting to remove the fixed idea of “talent”. People get stuck because of preconceptions; i.e., it is observably apparent only because they have been taught the meaning of the word “talent”. Take that observation to its full measure, without the preconception, and new answers can be derived. Yes, folks, I agree that there is an apparency of talent, but the truth is that some people merely have fewer blocks to their creativity. And, barring physical limitations, blocks can be removed.

    As an example, Ugo pointed out Mozart. He was a child prodigy because of fewer blocks to his actions. He was immersed in music from day one (music was _relevant_ to his life situation), encouraged by his entire family and trained constantly. The opposites to those––which become common blocks for people––are lack of immersion, lack of encouragement (or outright discouragement, as was my own case) and lack of training (also my own case in my early years). There are a few more blocks than those, and any mentor worth their salt can help someone identify their creative blocks. One can also remove them on their own.

    And yes, there is the factor of personal motivation––that must exist before the blocks can be removed, or the person will not persist enough to remove them. However, it is so common that personal motivation is quashed by blocks (family or teacher discouragement is a typical example; believing that “talent” is a real thing is another), one can find a rise in motivation as blocks are removed. I simply want to eliminate from this world that sadness which comes from the frequent lament “I wish I had talent”. If you want your art, work for it, and don’t stop until you get it.

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      I couldn’t have said it better, Robin. Just let me add this quote that I found here:

      “We agree that expert performance is qualitatively different from normal performance and even that expert performers have characteristics and abilities that are qualitatively different from or at least outside the range of those of normal adults. However, we deny that these differences are immutable, that is, due to innate talent. Only a few exceptions, most notably height, are genetically prescribed. Instead, we argue that the differences between expert performers and normal adults reflect a life-long period of deliberate effort to improve performance in a specific domain.”

      Science is on our side 😉

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