What Excites You?

Pictures of pictures

I believe artists are passionate people. We do our best work when we are excited about it. Have you considered what excites you? Do you seek the excitement?

Do you get excited when you are shooting?

I try to have that level of excitement. Of course, we are just human and it will not be there in full strength all the time. Like everything in life it ebbs and flows with our mood or circumstances.

I find that I have different grades of excitement about the things I shoot. It can range from “I really should shoot this; it is kind of interesting; I might can make a decent image out of it” to “Wow! I’m so excited right now I can hardly be still enough to expose a frame properly”.

I don’t consider anywhere along that continuum to be “wrong”. But the high excitement side is definitely more fun and easier to get, well, excited about.

Not all scenes are great

What makes the difference in the excitement level? One is probably the inherent quality of the scene or subject. When I say inherent quality this is a subjective measure, as is almost everything in art. It can only be evaluated by you for you. I think it is a function of the scene itself and how it interacts with our values and our mood. Sometimes we just don’t feel it, even though the artist right next to you thinks it is spectacular.

It may not be what you wanted or hoped for, but it is what it is. Work with it.

Another difference is our perception of the scene. The reality is that most of us are not surrounded by world-class, once-in-a-lifetime opportunities everyday. Most of what we see is rather average. An average scene offers the opportunity to exercise our creativity by making it interesting. We have to work hard to make something of it. This is valuable exercise. It is not a bad thing.

As a matter of fact I will assert that the rare, unique, wonderful scene may not be that much of a creative opportunity. If the scene is amazing in itself, we may only have to record it. Yes, it lets us use the technical and compositional skills we have spent a long time developing to capture it well, but we actually don’t have to do much. Just don’t screw it up. It can be exciting to know we captured a rare and great moment, but it may leave us a little unsatisfied because we did not contribute much to it.

Dealing with the average

Mostly we encounter more mundane, average, day-to-day scenes. How can we build or keep our excitement going when surrounded by ordinary?

I have stated before that I like to go out empty and let myself be drawn to subjects. Still, just in wandering around randomly I mostly encounter pretty average things. If I think there is something there, the exercise is to be able to make it above average. Can I see it differently? Is there a better angle or lens choice that would bring it out to advantage? Does it need to be simplified? Or juxtaposed with another element to make a different statement? Does it need different light or even a different season?

My friend Cole Thompson says “I believe the real test of creating isn’t cherry-picking great images from great locations, but rather to see the extraordinary in the ordinary. To be able to find something remarkable in my everyday surroundings.” Very wise.

When I am able to take an ordinary subject that I am drawn to and make it into something special it builds excitement in me. It gets my energy flowing. I become more conscious of other things around me and more empowered to go after them. It is a reinforcing cycle. It helps me see other things as well.

Ideas to being back excitement

Working with the ordinary is one process that is very important to get me excited. Each of us is different. We have different values and expectations and points of view. So there is no simple list of “hacks” that will work for everyone. But let me give some suggestions to try:

  • Set yourself projects to work on. The thought process of concentrating on a fixed subject causes us to focus and think different. It can be energizing.
  • Travel. A change of scenery can help to change our perspective.
  • Shoot with someone. The interactions and discussions can be stimulating and refreshing.
  • Take on a new style or technique. It doesn’t have to be a permanent change, just something to shake up the norm.
  • Make it look strange or absurd. It helps you see it fresh. This is the Russian Formalism technique called “ostranenie”. It is interesting. More on this another time.
  • Go to a museum. Not just a photography museum. Studying works by masters can never hurt.
  • Look at other work. Read blogs and other artist’s web sites. Get books of art. Get more familiar with the way other artists see the world. Do not copy them, but feel free to steal. 🙂
  • Find what gives you joy. A sense of joy is an important driver for excitement. Know what works for you.
  • Get out and do it. Really. Just making yourself do it can lift you from a funk and get you going.

Shoot for yourself

One of the most powerful motivators is reserved for a select few.

Do you consider yourself a “fine artist”? One of the definitions of that is that we create work for ourselves. If you are in the enviable position of creating art to please yourself, take maximum advantage of it. Follow your instincts. Don’t worry about what you see other artists doing.

When you get excited about a subject or a location or a technique follow your feelings. Work it to see what develops. It may be something entirely new that you become extremely excited about and that changes you. Or it may end up not being interesting to you and abandoned. Either way, you followed your artistic instinct. This builds excitement.

You don’t get a hit every time your swing, but it is important to keep swinging.

Is it work?

What is the difference between work and art? Maybe nothing. Please don’t read this blog as saying we should sit around waiting for the muse to visit us. Or to think you shouldn’t go out today because you just don’t feel any excitement.

Most of the things I describe or suggest are active. Based on taking positive steps toward creating something. We have to work at it. Action leads to feeling.

So whatever inspires you and creates excitement for you, don’t just think about it. Get out of the chair or up from the couch and go do something about it.

Finally, here are some quotes to reinforce that concept:

Motivation exists, but it has to find you working. – Pablo Picasso

Hard work will outperform talent any day of the week. – Joel Grimes

Inspiration is for amateurs. Us professionals just go to work in the morning. – Chuck Close

Catch on fire with enthusiasm and people will come for miles to watch you burn. – John Wesley

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.

Frozen in Time

Weathered car

Many of us go around trying to freeze moments in time. For a lot it takes the form of happy, smiling images to post to social media to prove (to us?) what a great time we are having on vacation, graduation, the wedding, etc. Or we may freeze great landscapes or seascapes or sunsets so we can show their beauty.

But what is your experience when you share these moments with other people? You pull them up on your phone to show your buddy. Flip, view a few seconds, flip, flip (faster now), flip…. People only look at images on screen for a couple of seconds.

As someone who shoots thousands of images and makes prints I can say from experience that an image is not really complete and meaningful until a great print is made.

Digital images are impermanent

Digital images are impermanent in several ways. They are just bits on your hard disk or in the “cloud”. Unlike in the days when we had albums or even shoe boxes of prints, our pictures now can disappear in an instant. Hard disks fail. I know very well. I have thrown away dozens of them.

My main storage devices now are all RAID drives. This means they have multiple drives in each and the information is partitioned so that if one drive fails, everything can continue with no data loss. But that is just mitigating the problem.

Technologies change and become obsolete. How many of you have some pictures on a floppy disk or CD or some other media that you can’t read anymore? It happens. Fairly frequently.

And your cloud provider can go away or stop serving you if you don’t pay. Or if you don’t keep up with the never ending system updates for your computer and they stop supporting your version.

Another problem with digital images is that most people do not have a good cataloging system for them. Are your images stored in chronological order in Apple Photos? How do you locate that great photo of Grandma you took once? Do you even remember the year? It sounds harsh, but if you can’t find it, you basically don’t have it.

Digital images are fluid

Another property of digital images is that they are fluid. That is, they can be changed at any time. That can be useful sometimes. Break up with that loser? Edit him out.

On a more serious note, it also means that the look of the image can be changed at a whim, depending on your mood or your developing Photoshop skills. Your digital image will be content to exist on your disk in an easily editable state. By its nature, it is perpetually a work in progress. It does not require you to ask or answer hard questions. It is not forcing you to confront your feelings or interpretation. But a print commits the image to a hard media.

When you make a print, you are compelled to think it through in more depth. You are not going to take the time and effort and expense of printing unless you know how you view the image. You work on it more that if you are going to put together a slide show. It has more permanence and It represents our convictions about the image at a point in time. This forces us to think about it more.

When the ink is laid down you have created a piece of art, not just some bits. It means something different to you and your viewers.

A good print is compelling

Have you been in front of a well crafted original print by Ansel Adams or Dorothea Lange or John Paul Caponigro or any great photographer you like? It has depth and significance that is impossible to create on a screen. We assume from our experience that images on screen are fleeting. But these great prints are different.

People look at images on a screen for a few seconds. They study great prints for minutes. The print can grab you; stop you in your tracks; confront you with something you can’t ignore. It is a piece of art, not just flickering bits. It is real.

Prints are the gold standard

I talked before about how transient bits can be and how devices fail and technologies go obsolete. Good prints, though, have substance. They are physical. They are a real object with weight and texture and size. A well done print can last 100-200 years without degrading. It is something that can stand the test of time.

Ansel Adams stopped printing over 40 years ago, but one of his prints is as impressive today as it was then. And it will probably be as impressive 100 years from now.

A print is a frozen idea

As I mentioned, you are not compelled to “finish” your digital images. It is far easier to shoot than to finish them. You can leave them sitting there on your computer with only a fuzzy notion of how we really feel about them.

When you commit to creating a print it forces you to confront your feelings or interpretation. You go through some serious self-examination. Once the ink is on the paper it is not going to change. It represents our idea about the image at a point in time. We have to go through the work to decide how we really feel about the image in order to print it. And we spend a lot more time bringing it to a high level of perfection.

This is a good thing. We are creating a real, permanent object. It represents us. We feel pressure to make it our art. It is our expression for the world to see. We are creating something that will probably outlive us. We want our viewers to see what we saw and feel what we felt.

It is quite possible to return to an image years later and make a new print that is very different. That is quite common and healthy. It means we have grown and developed new viewpoints. If we rework the image and create a new print, it is a new work of art. It could hang proudly beside the original as portraits of the artist at 2 different points in his life.

It is the only physical result of photography

When I press the shutter of my digital camera, not much really happens. Some photons are exposed to the sensor and some electrical change is read and converted to bits and transferred to the memory card.

Even when I import the digital files into my computer, they are still just bits – minute, almost unmeasurable units of electrical or magnetic energy. I can hit the Delete key and they are gone without a trace. My main photo disk has over 6 TBytes of data on it (6,000,000,000,000 chunks of 8 bits). But it does not weigh a gram more than it did empty.

I can argue that I have not actually made anything of value until I make a print. The print is something real. It is physical. People can see it and feel it and look at it as art or garbage. But regardless of how they feel about it, they can’t see or feel anything until it is a print. The print can be framed and hung on the wall and passed down to generations or sold. The bits cannot.

It completes the cycle

And printing is good for you as an artist. It completes the process. It brings art to life. You have to work at it, wrestle with it, make mistakes and do it over. You have to make hard decisions that shape the final result. The print is a commitment of your vision, frozen in time.

And when you get done, you may be disappointed. You envisioned more. You hoped, when it was just bits, that it would be more. The reality of the print can be cruel. You have to reexamine everything from your conceptual idea to your technique. It is what it is. Learn from it. We want people to see and feel what compelled us to take the picture. Sometimes it works. Sometimes it doesn’t.

But you won’t know what it really is until you have made the best possible print. That is your art. If you revisit the image later you may see it differently and print a different interpretation. Printing is a key expression of our art.

I reference Ansel Adams a lot in this article. In closing, he famously said:’

The negative is comparable to the composer’s score and the print to its performance. Each performance differs in subtle ways.”

Themes

Old, weathered boat

I have come to realize I am attracted to certain themes in my art. Before I fall off into art-speak, what I mean by a theme is just the simple dictionary definition: “a subject or topic of discourse or of artistic representation”. In other words, what subjects do we chose for our art. Themes tend to be bigger than a subject. A theme may tie several seemingly separate subjects together.

Think about artists you admire. Do you also picture the typical subjects they do? Ansel Adams – grand black and white landscapes of the west. Georgia O’Keeffe – modernistic flowers. Monet – impressionistic rivers and ponds in northern France. John Paul Caponigro – abstract and ethereal seascapes and landscapes. They tend to go together in our minds because we know they very often do these subjects.

Chicken or egg?

Do artists pursue themes because that is what they like or do they pick something to get known for? Kind of a trick question. It doesn’t have to be just one or the other. Sometimes themes choose artists. Sometimes artists choose themes.

What is available to us often has a huge impact on our themes. Ansel Adams lived in California. Yosemite and the Sierra Nevadas were his back yard. John Paul Caponigro lives in Maine. Seascapes are common to him. Monet lived along the Seine River. He painted what was around him. This is quite common. We tend to grow to love what we see most. I live in Colorado, right on the dividing line between the mountains and the arid plains. Both are beautiful to me. I see them every day. The more I see them the more I resonate with them.

Some artists deliberately choose themes or subjects to become known for. They want a “signature”. Joel Grimes is well knows for his commercial work and stark, gritty treatment. Some people become famous portrait artists or wedding photographers. In general these are things they have consciously decided to build their career around.

I won’t claim there is a right or wrong. If you pick a certain subject matter to build your career and reputation on, I hope you really love it. Otherwise you could be like these old rock bands still touring around whose audience only wants to hear their hits from 40 years ago. It would get very frustrating to me.

I am a searcher and explorer. Themes are less conscious for me. Looking back through my portfolio I can detect a few. The ones I have detected make it less surprising now for me when I find myself drawn to them. I recognize it and have come to expect it. That doesn’t mean I am not open to new things, just that I can see larger patterns in my work.

Very personal

Themes or typical subjects tend to be personally meaningful in some way to the artist. It is hard to keep on doing art you don’t care for. That is probably one reason we have themes. The subjects we are drawn to are somehow meaningful to us so we keep coming back to them.

I don’t want to go too deep on the need for meaning. Our themes do not have to align with deeply meaningful social or environmental causes for them to be meaningful. If they are meaningful for us, that is sufficient.

I used Georgia O’Keeffe as an example earlier. Her mentor and, later, husband Alfred Stieglitz promoted the idea that her flower pictures had deep sexual significance. It helped build her reputation in the modern art world of the time. She later vigorously denied this was true. She maintained it was only the form and color that was important to her.

Maybe meaning is a very nebulous and personal thing. What is meaningful to me may not be to you. And vice versa. Or you may see meaning I didn’t when I made the image. I have never thought that pictures have significant meaning in themselves. The themes I discover in my work have meaning to me, but I do not try to force it on you. Maybe on the rare times I try to express my feelings in words the viewer may occasionally get a glimpse of the meaning there is to me. But I do not expect you to get one of my images and hang it on your wall unless you like it as an image and maybe, there is something there that is meaningful to you.

Consistent over long times

Themes tend to be a persistent feature of an artist. We are drawn to certain subjects. Maybe we understand there is a theme there that we are pursuing. But regardless, we keep coming back to certain things.

Our themes can fade with time and be replaced with new themes. We all grow and change our values and interests. This tends to be a slow process, but it happens for most of us. I hate to try to quantize it, but I would guess that when we find we are interested in a theme it will stick with us for a few years. Sometimes, for our whole life.

Unifying themes

Sometimes we find that several seemingly disparate subjects that interest us are really part of a unifying theme. This is a wonderful realization, because it unites large parts of our work and brings a new meaning, or realization to us to understand why we are drawn to it.

Let me give a personal example. I am drawn to old things that are worn and aged, but only certain ones. Some old things excite me and many are of no interest. Old rusted cars, abandoned buildings, old machinery, these have always been interesting subjects to me. As I’ve gotten older I have discovered the Japanese term wabi-sabi. I realized I was embracing the philosophy before I ever heard it expressed. It has become a unifying theme for many of the subjects of interest to me.

It is apparently impossible to succinctly and even correctly translate wabi-sabi to English. There are too many subtleties in the Japanese meanings. Some day I will attempt to write a better blog on it.

Here is one very compact description of wabi-sabi: “‘Wabi’ expresses the part of simplicity, impermanence, flaws, and imperfection. On the contrary, ‘Sabi’ displays and expresses the effect that time has on a substance or any object. Together ‘wabi-sabi’ embraces the idea of aesthetic appreciation of aging, flaws, and the beauty of the effects of time and imperfections. The two separate parts when put together, complete each other.”

I discovered that I am drawn to flaws and imperfections and the beauty of aging and the effects of time, especially of things that are bravely standing against time. This theme unites my collection of old rusty cars, broken down buildings, and broken flawed objects. I was happy to be able to wrap a higher vision around my old rusty things.

It makes us different

Our affinity for themes is one reason we can go out with a group of other photographers and still come back with our own unique images. We each have a different viewpoint. We are drawn to different aspects of a scene. Even if we shoot the “same” scene, we probably each have our unique viewpoint. This causes us to frame it differently, isolate a different part, emphasize different things.

Or, for some of us, even turn away from the classic landmark and shoot a different direction entirely.

Our themes help unify our images. They give a meaning and long term point of view to our portfolio. In another sense, our themes are an indication of our values and world view. What we are drawn to shoot are often things that are meaningful to us because of the themes we embrace. We still shoot other things, but something keeps drawing us in certain directions…

This image

The image with this blog was taken in Blaine Washington. It is on the seacoast right at the border with Canada. It is a lovely small town. I was across the harbor. There were good views all around of the harbor and the sea, but I was fixated on this great old boat. Rusty fittings, deteriorating paint, obviously it had seen better days. But it was still standing against the elements. That is encouraging. For me, a perfect wabi-sabi moment.

A Private Journey

Obscure found image. Track to nowhere

Being an artist is a private journey, but one the viewers are invited to participate in. I don’t collaborate or take votes to guide my journey. It is just me. It is intensely private.

Private

I have to make my own way in the world. As such, I am stuck in my own head. Creativity has to somehow spring up from within. Being an artist is lonely. LIke a writer, there are those terrifying times when you are facing a blank page (or empty frame) and you have to create something. No one else can do it for me.

Not everyone agrees with this approach. Some people, especially if they are young and just learning, want to run in a crowd. They have to immediately post every image to social media to get feedback. To me this is a form of insecurity. My values and style is deeply ingrained and I do not seek immediate validation from the internet. But that is just me.

What works for me is to explore, to be receptive to what I encounter. I seldom have a detailed plan for what I want to shoot. Rather, I turn myself loose and let myself be drawn to scenes that interest me. It doesn’t always work, but that is what inspires me. The word that keeps coming up is”me”. Not in an egotistical way, but in the sense that I am the only one who can take this journey. If it wasn’t me it would be someone else’s art.

I also find, and this is just me, that when I put pressure on myself to “have” to come up with something creative the results may be good but they are seldom great. But when I let go and just react and experience then creativity can flow. Understanding this about myself has let me keep my art constantly being a joy.

A journey

Virtually all my subjects are collected outdoors. It is extremely rare for me to set up a controlled indoor shoot. So a shoot for me involves movement. I have to leave my studio and get out in the field where my subjects are.

This is a joy for me. I am an explorer. It is hard to pass a road I haven’t seen the end of. As an example, just a couple of days ago I was exploring up along the border of Wyoming. I went down an obscure dirt road I knew was a dead end, but I had never been down it. It was great! I loved the sights, the remote wildness, the windswept barrenness, the newness. It was fresh. Something I had not seen before. It energized me. Even if none of the images make it into my portfolio, it was well worth it for me personally.

But a journey doesn’t have to be far. I do a lot of shooting while walking around within a mile or 2 of my studio. Journeying is an attitude. A sense of exploring and investigating. It is sometimes difficult to feel a sense of discovery in an area I have been over and over so many times. But that is part of the game. It is a mental discipline. If I can find new and fresh sights in a familiar area then it is even easier to get inspired in an interesting new place.

Viewers

It is true that my art makes me happy. If I never showed it to anyone I would still have the joy of creation and discovery that would compel me to make it.

But artists are also somewhat egotistical. We feel we have something worthwhile to share with other people. I hope those who see my work enjoy it and can share in the sense of wonder and amazement I felt while making it. I’ll be honest, I also hope you decide to buy some of my prints for your walls. The money is nice, but even more is the knowledge that this had an impact on you and that it will now continue to influence you. We all would like to leave a legacy.

I know your time is valuable and increasingly scarce. I seek to make art that is captivating enough for you to give me some of your time to view it and think about it. I hope my art will awaken some new thoughts and feelings that will make your day better, to refresh and renew you. I like to feel that some of my pieces on your wall will have a long term benefit as you see them every day.

Internal and external

My art is a private creation of my own mind and energy. I do not collaborate with others or shoot assignments. What energizes me is exploring and finding wonder in the everyday sights around us. I may work a project or a theme at times, but mostly I let myself be drawn to whatever is exciting me at the moment. I am very much in the moment when I am creating, even when working at the computer.

Even though my art and my process is intensely private and personal, I also have the viewer in mind. I am constantly reaching for something creative and fresh to share with my you. If you give me some of your time and attention I want to give back. I hope I can succeed with you. It is my private journey but I want to share it with you.

Go to my web site at photos.schlotzcreate.com to view a little of my work and let me know if any of it resonates with you. Please join me in my private journey. I welcome your feedback.