To Be

High alpine valley

No, I’m not addressing the existential “or not to be” question. I was triggered by reading questions from photographers about planning photo trips. There were lots of concerns about locations and what lenses to take and time of day or even time of year, but it seems to me they are missing a fundamental point. You are an artist. You are going out to be, to create, to be inspired. Collecting a stack of the same standard pictures everyone else takes is not the goal.

Being the same

I have written on this before. I hope you believe your task as an artist is to create new work, your own work, not imitate what has already been done. Yes, Yosemite is full of iconic locations. If I was there I’m sure I would shoot at some of them. The difference is these shots would be just for me, to remember being there. I would not be shooting for my portfolio unless I encountered exceptional and unique circumstances at one of these overshot scenes.

I see a lot of photographers actively planning trips to these locations to intentionally try to duplicate these iconic shots. It makes no sense to me. If that is what you like, have fun. Each of us is motivated by different things. But if you were starting out as a writer would you write a knock-off of Moby Dick just so you could have a copy of it you could say you made? I hope not. Write your own book.

Maybe you don’t really know who you are as an artist yet. I understand. I’m still trying to figure it out for myself. I decided long ago, though, that imitating other people will not help me create my own work.

Letting go

If you are not going to imitate other work then you are put in a potentially scary place: you have to create on your own. But what if I can’t? What if I’m not really creative? Maybe I don’t have anything to say? These are all normal and valid concerns.

You will never know until you try. And guess what, when you try you will probably fail. How’s that for encouragement?

I want it to be encouraging, though. When you start doing anything new you are not good at it at first until you try and fail and practice – a lot. As a matter of fact, if it is too easy you are either not challenging yourself enough or you have picked something that will not keep your interest for long. If it is too easy it becomes boring.

Let go and start doing your own art. Follow your own vision, not someone else’s. Don’t visit all the iconic locations to recreate someone else’s art. Focus on your own ideas.

Sometimes you will be left high and dry creatively. That’s OK and normal. Push on. Don’t fear that. Use that time to start understanding what interests you. Believe that you have a creative voice. Keep digging and you will find it.

Put yourself in a different place

One strategy I like to use is to intentionally ignore the popular, iconic locations. I like to seek out little known things that most people have never seen. I love the challenge of finding something in nothing.

I’m lucky in that from my house I can be in the Colorado mountains in 30 minutes or far out on the eastern plains in less than an hour. I go to these places a lot and enjoy them immensely.

But I also wrote recently about driving through the heartland and finding interesting things to photograph. That takes a special discipline and mindset. It is fun for me after long practice. I have come to firmly believe there are interesting scenes almost anywhere.

This brings up a special point. There are interesting scenes all around. You don’t have to go to mountains or national parks or famous locations to do your art. You don’t have to take off for 2 weeks to travel to exotic locations. Beauty and interest is everywhere. Most of it is ignored by everyone around you. Learning to see what is there is a skill that can be learned.

React, create

Learn to be open to what is there around you. Accept it and embrace it as creative possibility. What can you do with it? Just “be”.

You have seen people who thinks selfies or family shots mean lining everyone up in front of a location and giving big fake smiles for the camera. I’m not criticizing them because that makes them happy. I want to encourage you not to try to manage your shots like that. Accept what is there and work with it. Use your creativity to isolate it, to make it interesting for other people, to point out this interesting thing they probably didn’t see.

A photographer friend wrote this in a private newsletter:

“To just be. That is what it is all about. When I find a high place with views all around, every sense just soaks it up into my pores. It is subtle; the opposite of the raucous and titillating world in which we normally live. … These sounds mean vast open spaces and pure freedom. I can peer into this space, keeping my gaze wide. At first I see the far-off trees and rocks and snowfields. Each thing has meaning. …

But after a while my gaze becomes soft, and I focus on the air between myself and the distant ridges. Everything becomes a soft palette of shape and color, devoid of meaning or expectation. The world just is. My experience of sound, sight, and senses just are. If I look for myself I fail. I literally can’t see “me” without a mirror – not my face or head, the features we most often associate with identity. It’s times like these that I can look for myself and just see the beautiful world. It is in this place where I can be exactly what I was designed to be. Just me. And for a brief moment, I am a bird sweeping into the storm.”

When we can learn to experience places or events in this manner we can just be and flow with them and into them. Even if it happened on a walk in our neighborhood. The experience becomes part of us and we reflect it back out in our work. What we produce is something from deep within. It is honest. It may even surprise us.

Being Different Is Hard

Find your own path

Yes, being different can be hard, especially for some of us. Some of us seek affirmation from other people. Some of us are sensitive and bruise easily when we are criticized. But when we put ourselves forward as an artist we accept the cost of being different.

Better to be the same?

If you are not different, you are – the same. Is that what you want? Do you want to be the same as everyone else? To me that sounds like a horrible thing.

But think about it. For you it might seem a good choice. If you are same your work is safe, inoffensive, comfortable. There will be less criticism if you follow the established norms and are recognizably like some popular artists. If your goal is to maximize “Likes” a quick route is to copy a popular style.

When you are starting out this might not be wrong. As a student you spend a lot of time studying from a teacher or learning about famous artist’s styles. Your work will be more imitative than original. I won’t tell you that is a bad thing. Sometimes we have to try out a lot of styles before we decide what is right for us.

My personal opinion is that if I stay there I have ceased growing as an artist.

You’re unique

Most of us are raised to believe we are special and unique. That we have a special point of view and creativity. As a general rule I believe this. Everyone is as unique as our fingerprints.

Most people, though, are afraid to step out of the pack, to express our uniqueness if it is different from our peers. Take almost any teenager. They are defiantly expressing their individuality and rebellion – by looking and acting exactly like their peers. Only a very small percentage of them have the courage to dress or act different.

I’m not picking on teenagers. Take any working professional or really, most adults. They follow the office dress code. They adapt to the culture of their group to blend in. If they deviate they will quickly be shamed back into conformity.

Some psychologists say as children we learn to be human by mirroring behavior we observe around us. But as we mature we are supposed to become independent. To think for ourselves and trust our judgment. But psychological studies for decades have shown that most people conform to their peer group, even when they know the group is wrong. Still, it is safer and more comfortable to most people to suppress their beliefs and go along with their group.

Different or dead

But readers of this blog are mostly people who consider themselves to be artists. We are using our inherent creativity to produce work in a hugely overcrowded marketplace. If we are the same as most other people we have no reason for viewers or clients to consider our work.

Now to some people this becomes a mandate to be as different as possible just for the sake of being different. I disagree with this. We’re not, or at least I’m not, going for shock value. I believe we should be trying to create the best art we know how to make – our own personal art. If we do that it will be our own unique style.

I’ve said before that your viewers will only look at your image for a few seconds. Our screen-oriented generation has trained us that images are ephemeral, transient, low value flickers going across the screen. We quickly pass on to the next one without much consideration. Except in 2 general cases: it is a great print or it is a unique, attention grabbing image. But I’m not discussing prints here.

When people see one of your images it needs to grab them, stop them from scrolling to the next. It needs to offer them something fresh that intrigues them. It will create value in their minds by being different. Maybe it it too obvious, but you won’t be different if you spend your energy trying to be like everyone else.

It takes courage

Being different can be lonely and depressing. We get criticism, or worse, we are ignored. We are often shunned by the critics and the gatekeepers. These gatekeepers are usually not looking for real creativity. They are looking at a minor variations to whatever established school of thought they follow.

Being an artist takes courage and an independent streak. And the ability to shake off the criticism and rejection and keep going. It doesn’t stop hurting when we are rejected. But as we grow, we develop more confidence in our ability and worth.

When we are criticized we need to ask our self if there is validity to the objection. If so, we can process it try to learn something. Either way, we go on. If we are rejected try to look at the context. Maybe our work doesn’t fit the venue or the taste of the curator. That doesn’t mean we are bad or our work is worthless. Keep going.

Being a creative is a path that requires true courage. Courage is firmness of the mind or will. We can’t let the yapping dogs sidetrack us.

It’s the crazy ones who are remembered

Monet, Picasso, Dalí, Dorothea Lange, Stieglitz, the list goes on and on. The ones who were different but who pushed away the criticism and kept going. We remember them. We do not remember the critics or many of the established figures who these artists were told they should be like.

If we are criticized that doesn’t mean we have greatness in us. We may be fooling ourselves. That question is up to us to decide. Us personally, not the critics. If we decide they are wrong and we are right it seems we owe it to ourselves to keep going. To push through. Otherwise whatever we have within us will never be seen.

I’ll end with a quote from Steve Jobs. This was the voice-over for a famous Apple commercial.

Here’s to the crazy ones, the misfits, the rebels, the troublemakers, the round pegs in the square holes… the ones who see things differently — they’re not fond of rules… You can quote them, disagree with them, glorify or vilify them, but the only thing you can’t do is ignore them because they change things… they push the human race forward, and while some may see them as the crazy ones, we see genius, because the ones who are crazy enough to think that they can change the world, are the ones who do.

A Balance

Airplane landing over water, moon

Being an artist is a balancing act. There are many dimensions that must balance against each other. Get too far off in the weeds in any dimension and you risk losing the path you are seeking. This time I will discuss the balance between egotism and self doubt.

Egotism

Egotism is the sense of being self-important. It is arrogance. It is being focused on yourself and thinking, for instance, that your opinion is more important than others.

Who would want to be such a person? Well, an artist does.

He doesn’t seek to be arrogant, but it is a necessary component of the creative struggle. An artist has to feel he has something to say. That he has a point of view that is unique and worthwhile. And you feel compelled to share your vision with other people.

You have to believe you have the right, even duty, to grab people and say “look at this!” Because you are bringing something fresh and new into the world that people should see. If you are not bringing something new, then why are you wasting your time? But you are, so you should shout about it.

Your art is the best art you know how to make. You believe it is worthwhile. Therefore you should be a little pushy and arrogant. Egotistical, within bounds..

Self doubt

On the other hand, most artists are plagued with self doubt. There is always the voice whispering (shouting?) in our ear. Telling us we are not good enough. We aren’t doing anything new or creative. No one would want to see our work. What the critics say is right – we’re not really an artist.

Because of that self doubt we shrink back. We don’t shoot those extreme or controversial images. We don’t push our work to galleries or contests. Aren’t we quick to believe the worst about ourselves and equally quick to believe that everyone else knows more than us?

That little voice thinks it is doing us a favor by trying to keep us from making a fool of ourselves. To keep us from being hurt. But the reality is we can’t be an artist unless we are willing to be a fool. We will be hurt and rejected and told by the “experts” that we are not good enough.

It is up to our egotism to balance that and help us push on despite criticism and disappointment.

The intersection

Where egotism and self doubt balance is where I believe most artists live. You need both.

Egotism gives us the confidence to believe in ourselves. Self doubt makes us evaluate ourselves more objectively and see if we need to improve. We need both.

If they are not in a healthy tension we can go off track. Unchecked egotism can be self destructive. We can delude ourselves into believing everything we conceive is wonderful and a benefit to the world. Unchecked self doubt will cripple us and shut us down from ever risking anything.

On the other hand, a healthy amount of egotism keeps us moving forward, creating new work, experimenting, believing that we are doing something useful. Balancing that with a certain amount of self doubt will temper us. It will make us question and evaluate things but not be enough to paralyze us.

Like many things in life, being mature and creative means being able to manage the tension of competing and contradictory ideas. We have to use our core values and faith and life experience to understand the inherent contradictions and still deal with them. Without going crazy.

It’s about balance.

Improve Your Portfolio

An image most people would keep in their portfolio

If you are an artist, you probably have a portfolio. This is simply a collection of your best work. One important thing I have discovered is that when you pull a portfolio together, you are not done. It is not done. Your portfolio selections can probably be improved. The portfolio improvement process is a critical skill to work on.

Have you had a relative or friend who wanted to show you “a few” pictures of their vacation? You know, they took 1200 pictures and they want to show you every one of them. Eventually your eyes bleed and you want to strangle them.

Some portfolios are like this. We like almost every one of our images so other people need to see them. Don’t be that one.

Less is more

Here was a hard lesson for me to learn: every image you take out of your portfolio makes the collection stronger. On the surface it doesn’t make sense and it hurts a lot to do, but it is true.

It has been said your portfolio is only as strong as your weakest image. Therefore, every weak image you take out makes the remaining ones stronger overall. If you actually take out the weakest one. Therein lies the hard part.

How do you take out that image you love or represents a great memory for you or was a once-in-a-lifetime location? You do it brutally and without mercy. Sorry. That’s the way it is.

The viewers of your portfolio don’t care. They weren’t there with you to share the experience. Any image you show needs to be near perfect technically, compositionally, conceptually. This is representing who you are.

Portfolio improvement process

I recently watched a video by Ramit Sethi. He is a well known writer on finance and business. Something he talks about a lot is copy writing. Copy, technically, is any written communication you get from a business. It can be ads or email or brochures or anything else. Ramit is persuasive in showing that great copy is far more effective than weak copy.

In this valuable video he made 3 points about improving copy, but I was impressed that the idea applies to other things, too. Paraphrasing him, the points were

  1. Know if something is good or bad
  2. Know why it is good or bad
  3. Know how to improve it

I believe this same process can apply to building a stronger portfolio. It is a model for a vary mature and knowledgeable way to approach improving something.

Recognize good

Do we really recognize the good? Without letting our emotions get in the way? Do we have a base of knowledge to compare our work to?

We can educate ourselves to improve our recognition of good vs. bad. One easy thing is to look at a lot of good examples. Spend time in museums and galleries. This work has been vetted by curators. That doesn’t mean much in reality, but at least you know someone consciously chose the work there.

Books of images are useful, too. Most contain carefully chosen collections of the artist’s best work. Again, we don’t really know who did the choosing or by what criteria, but if the work is being presented as art it is often quite good.

Finally, cultivate a collection of artists you admire. Browse their web galleries regularly. They also often have very good blogs. But of the many thousands of photo web sites, probably only a small fraction is worth bookmarking.

Exercises like this will help build a base of knowledge. It gets us familiar with the look of good work. I can’t recommend that you will get better by looking at bad art.

Articulate good

Recognizing good is an excellent start. It probably puts you ahead of most people. But we also need to be able to describe the reason for our evaluation. It is not enough for us, like Justice Stewart to just say “I know it when I see it”.

There is an old saying that if you want to understand a new subject, explain it to someone else. It helps you understanding it yourself. This works kind of like that. When you can clearly explain to yourself or someone else why an image is good or bad (in your opinion), you have a clear understanding of your judgement.

Getting to this point is harder. You can build a mental model of what you think certain art critics would say. You might have taken some lessons in art appreciation. If you are very lucky you may even have a good mentor who can coach you and help develop your conscious evaluation.

Your standards

Better is to train yourself. Study composition. Know the “rules” of photography. Study technique and use of light. In other words become enough of an expert to have a solid and well reasoned opinion about your craft. And don’t forget that, as you grow, your style becomes more and more different from your peers.

When you evaluate an image it is from multiple viewpoints. You have to consider what the artist intended. Determining if you have ever seen anything else kind of like it gives a point of comparison. Applying conventional composition norms to it helps to set an evaluation framework. It is tricky, but fair, to consider what you would have done in the same situation.

But at the base of it all, pretend you are explaining to someone why it is good or bad. Really go through the dialog. Be honest. Don’t skip over the hard parts.

Improve

Then there is the improve part. I hope we all are consciously trying to improve our work all the time. If you think you have arrived at the peak and can’t go any higher, you are fooling yourself. As an artist you have to have a lot of confidence but at the same time be humble enough to realize you are a work in progress.

Ask yourself what could be different, what variations on this could you think of? What part or this image is weak? Can you move your location? Should you wait for better light? Maybe a smaller part of the scene is a better image. Some of these questions may lead to a different way to approach the subject.

Your portfolio

These 3 questions from Ramit could lead most of us to becoming better artists. But let me relate it back to improving our portfolio.

As I am going through my portfolio I need to be brutally honest. For each image in your portfolio ask: is this a great image? If not, it shouldn’t be here. Can I explain why it is good? Clearly? Finally, can I envision a way to improve it and replace it with a stronger image?

The survivors should be strong images. There is no hard rule of how many images you should have. A number I hear a lot is 20. That seems insane. I have to boil my thousands of great images down to 20? Crazy. Impossible. Have you tried? It is quite a revealing exercise.

There are some attitudes I have to take when I am doing it. First, I must really believe that taking out a marginal image makes the set stronger. Second, I can’t keep an image in just because I love it. It has to be able to stand on its own. Third, I make myself believe that taking out a favorite image is not like throwing it away. It could be used somewhere else, like if a gallery requests a certain subject that it fits.

Lastly, I have to understand that the viewers will only see what I show them. They will never see the ones that almost worked. They will not see the ones that were bumped by stronger images. What they do see determines their evaluation of me as an artist. Better to lose some of my favorites if they are not to the level of craftsmanship and creativity I want to portray. I have done it and lived through it.

A living thing

Your portfolio is a living thing. It should change as you do better and better work. Go back periodically and test some of your new images against your portfolio. Hopefully you will sometimes reluctantly take out some of the old favorites in favor of the new works.

This is sad, but it should also be exciting. If you are growing as an artist you new work should be even better than the best of the past. It is a way to see your progress. And your portfolio gets stronger. You are growing.

To see a snapshot of my current portfolio broken down by several genres, check it out at:

photos.schlotzcreate.com

Living With ADD

Lone, dissenting, different sheep

I have semi-jokingly said I am probably ADD. Attention Deficit Disorder. I grew up before it was popular (or profitable) to label it. I may be, and if so, I am proud of it. It actually has benefits. (Yes, I know – potentially debilitating… It’s generally called ADHD now. I have at least one family member diagnosed with it and I probably have some form of it. But I’m looking at the positives.) By the way, I resent being labeled as having a “disorder” just because I’m different.

My “problem”

I suspect I am ADD because I get bored easily. I am impatient. It is hard for me to suffer fools. My mind wanders a lot and I am easily distracted at times. I don’t like to follow instructions. When watching training videos I greatly prefer recorded ones, so I can listen to them at a higher speed and skip through rambling or useless parts. And I try to avoid boring tasks.

This makes a seriously mind-numbing task like preparing taxes agony. It is well worth it to me to pay someone to go through the tedium. Yet my annoyance is selective, depending on my interests. I used to be a software developer. I could sit and focus single-mindedly on designing or writing code for hours, not even realizing the time. Likewise, now I can get lost spending hours at the computer processing images. What would be tedium for some is not necessarily so for me if I am interested in it.

On the positive side, this “malady” gives me a huge curiosity about a wide variety of things. I love to pursue new subjects and learn new things. It makes me very attentive to things happening around me. So I am predisposed to notice things most people pass by. That is a secret to my style.

Modern ADD

Those are some of my “problems” that make me what I am, but there is a trend going on in the modern world that concerns me a lot. Much of the world seems to be captive to a new type of attention deficit disorder – our communication devices.

I may be easily distracted by things around me, but much of the world now seems in a box, oblivious to the world except what they can see through their phone or computer screen. This scares me.

It is the norm now to see everyone walking, but glued to their phone. To see many people who can’t even drive without dangerously checking email or texting. To see that most people sit at a computer or TV most of the time instead of getting out into the world.

Stuck to the screen. That becomes many people’s world.

FOMO

The new anxiety seems to be fear of missing out. Fear that if we are offline for a few minutes we will miss something important. That we might be irrelevant if we do not immediately comment on the latest trend or viral video.

It is common for people now to check their email or messages or Facebook dozens of times a day. I have read that the average (young) person looks at their phone over 250 times a day. Fear. An impossible treadmill.

What is the actual benefit of that to you?

Virtual living

The virtual world has become a surrogate life for many people. But it is a poor substitute. Real life is happening in the real world. The things we do do not require a Like or an upvote to be significant. The world does not need a smiling selfie of you to make an event important.

I read that most people spend most of their time everyday consuming media. These are packaged experiences being fed to us to entertain us. Sounds like the Matrix or other dystopian science fiction. Wouldn’t it be healthier to be out exploring on our own? Wouldn’t it be healthier to create our own adventures?

Living in the collective means we lose the ability to think and feel and plan for ourselves.

Missing out on life

I readily admit to being neither a fan or a user of Facebook or most other social media. While I see some benefits of connection with long lost friends or relatives, the downside is the addictive power it has in many people’s lives and the amount of information they accumulate about us.

First, make a life worth living. Then spend a little time telling other people about it. If we don’t have the discipline to unplug and be independent we should treat this as any other type of dangerous addiction, like alcoholism. ‘Hello, my name is [____] and I am a Facebook addict.”

Embracing my ADD

I readily admit I am probably ADD. I accept it and live with it. Even more, I embrace it for the positive aspects it brings me.

I have a bottomless curiosity. I will take “side trips” anytime to explore things I do not know. Because I have always done this and learned new things, I have a large base of knowledge. That makes it easier to build on and connect the dots as Steve Jobs said.

I hate passing by a road if I don’t know where it goes. I really like to find out what is around the corner or over that next hill. When you look for them, interesting things are everywhere. Learning to see takes practice. Perhaps my ADD, if I have it, makes that easier for me. No matter the reason, I love that and am thankful for it.

I fear that younger people coming up will not have that curiosity and drive. I fear they may lose the ability to even look around and see the world for what it is or to live as an independent being. That will be a great loss for all of us. The benefits from the always connected, media driven world are not worth losing touch with the real world around us.

I encourage each of us to have the courage to think for ourselves. Learn to be alone in our own head occasionally. Inside is our spirituality. Inside is where creativity comes from. Step out of the hamster cage and see the Matrix.

Don’t waste your opportunities

For all his faults, Steve Jobs was wise in some ways. I will close with a famous quote from him:

Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life. Don’t be trapped by dogma – which is living with the results of other people’s thinking. Don’t let the noise of other’s opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become. Everything else is secondary. Steve Jobs