I watched the film Birdman at the weekend. For me one of the striking themes of the film was the issue of being known for one specific piece of work. Michael Keaton's character, Riggan Thomson, is haunted by his previous success as the superhero character Birdman in a few Hollywood movies. Part of him longs for the same recognition, to feel that he is still significant as an artist, to know that his current work is as good as his previous work.
To have one defining success. Is it a blessing or a curse? It reminded me of the recent passing of Leonard Nimoy. Despite the original Star Trek TV series concluding in 1969, he will always be known for his role as Mr.Spock. He continued to play the character in subsequent films but his 1975 autobiography "I Am Not Spock" implied his concerns over being solely associated with the role that brought him such success. The work that made his name had become something of a frustration. (He later seemed to embrace the character again and even named his second autobiography in 1995 "I Am Spock").
One great film role, or character, or painting, or book. A piece of work that catches the public attention and makes your name in your field. It might be your best work, it might not, but it defines your career at least in public opinion. We tend to crave success and recognition, we hope that a photo or video or blog entry might go viral.
One problem, and certainly an issue for Riggan Thomson, is how we define our self-worth based on the response from others to a piece of work. Isn't it so easy to assume that one of our photos isn't as good as another because it didn't get as many likes or views on Instagram or Flickr?
In terms of one defining piece of work, the closest example I could think of in the photographic world is Steve McCurry. A wonderful multi-award winning photographer, he will probably always be associated with his National Geographic cover image "Afghan Girl". It's a beautiful and striking portrait and most of us would love to have been the one to make the image. But I wonder how Steve really feels about it now. How frustrated does he get with always being asked about it.
Many of us dream of making a great piece of art that is shared across the globe and makes our name as a successful artist. Perhaps we shouldn't. Creating a growing body of excellent work that gradually gains recognition is hard, but more within our control to make happen.