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, DalĂ­, 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.

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.”

Keywording

Ambiguous abstyract image

Keywording is a pretty mundane subject. But I recommend not ignoring it. It is valuable to you and good discipline. I have tried to ignore keywords at times but I have always changed my mind.

What

The photo filing software you use probably has provisions for adding keywords to your images. It probably also has ways to add a lot of other meta data, like location or client or your copyright information. Use this other information, too. I use Lightroom Classic for my organization and keywording.

Keywords are simply arbitrary tags that add words or phrases to help you locate or identify your image later. This is important, the keywords are completely chosen by you and for your use, unless you work for an organization that enforces standardized keywords. I will assume here that that does not apply to you.

So they are only meant to be useful information for you. They may tag location or subject or color or mood or anything that seems relevant to you. You can add as many keywords to an image as you want. Perhaps there is an upper limit, but I have never found it or read about it. Again, let me emphasize that you decide what they are.

Why

Why go to this trouble? Because one of the problems with digital images is that we tend to collect a lot of them. And since they are “hidden” on your computer and not nice physical prints you can flip through, you need extra help finding things. Someday you will want to find a particular image or images of a certain subject or those pictures of a red cardinal in a winter snowstorm you took a few years ago. Keywords are one of the means of locating or grouping your pictures.

One of the challenges of keywording is to Goldilocks it: not too much, not too little, but just right. How do you know what is just right? That’s the challenge. Partly it has to be sort of backward looking. That is, when you find you can use your keywords to locate the images you want and it did not seem too much trouble to have added them, it may be just right. Sorry, not a really helpful description. The trouble is, your mileage may vary.

Strategy

Most photographers eventually determine a strategy for keywording that works for them. I have seen people who do a lot of wildlife photography who tag images with the common and scientific name of their subjects. That is too much work for me. Since I don’t shoot much wildlife I may only tag the occasional one with “elk”, or “deer”, or “pronghorn”. Or a very generic thing like “bird”.

Works for me. Would not work for some people I know. Choose an approach that is right for your needs.

There are places on the internet where you can find lists of keywords. I have looked at some of them, but they tend to be too detailed for me. Plus, since I did not create them, I have trouble thinking of the words the author chose. So I make up my own keywords as needed. A quick export of my keywords shows that I have nearly 2200 unique keywords in my main catalog. I am completely sure many people have far more.

For the most part, I use keywords to identify subjects, attributes of the image, and “housekeeping” information.

Example

Let me give a simple example. This is a somewhat randomly chosen image that seemed fairly typical of my keywording.

Sunset, wide open spaces

This image has 14 keywords currently. For the subject ones, it is identified as a cabin on the eastern plains of Colorado with interesting clouds. For the attributes that seemed important to me, it is a landscape, it is abandoned, it is made of wood, a sunset image, taken in summer, and showing an expanse of distance.

The potentially most interesting are what I term housekeeping keywords. I use these to track important information that often has nothing directly to do with the image. An example for this one is that it is copyrighted. Yes, all of my images are copyrighted technically at the moment I take them, but this extra level signifies that the image has been filed and accepted for copyright by the United States Copyright Office. In addition it has keywords indicating the copyright registration number and date of grant. Other example housekeeping tags are that it is in my Select5 group, one of my highest ratings, and it is used in this blog.

Why do it this way? Because I developed a system over time that works for me and is based on real needs that needed to be solved. I do not claim it is the only way to do things or that it is the best way. It is just the workflow I use. I encourage you to also adapt your tools and process to meet your needs rather than bending your needs to match the tools, or what someone has told you you should do – including me.

Worth it?

It is solely up to you to decide if it is worth it to you. It is to me. I often do searches to locate a particular image or a certain type of scene. The more identifying information I have, up to a point, the better. I also use smart collections sometimes to group together all images of a certain criteria. For example, I mentioned using a keyword for my selection level. I have smart collections that will show me, for instance, everything at select level 3 that has not yet been evaluated for possible promotion to level 4. This is a key part of my workflow.

I always keep in mind what I termed the Goldilock effect. If my keywords are not adding value for me I will modify or abandon the process.

These are your images and your process. Do what works best for you. But it is good discipline to enforce on yourself. I can say that if you go a long time ignoring something like keywording and decide later you should do it, it is a lot of boring work for a while.

The tradeoff for me is that keywords are valuable for my work and useful for my processes. I will put in the effort to do it. Taking a little time to think about an image from several aspects like subject and attributes and housekeeping has benefits for me. It is one of the steps that ensures I am curating my valuable assets rather than just accumulating a big bag of pictures.

Postscript

A growing trend is software that attempts to analyze your images and automatically generate keywords. One new one I’ve seen is Excire. Another system I have seen described is fotoKeyword Harvester. I’m sure there are more. Lightroom itself agressively tries to get me to let it scan to identify people. It’s little brother, now named just “Lightroom” also automatically tries to keyword images. All this comes with the increasing penetration of so called AI technology.

I don’t use these tools. As a matter of fact, I don’t trust them. All that I’ve seen will suck your images into “the cloud” for analysis. I have no sure way of knowing what will happen to them then. I am very protective of my rights and possession of my images.

Yes, I may be a Luddite, but it is not entirely out of ignorance. I am a Software Architect who had done AI work and even developed practical applications based on some of its research. I have some idea of the downsides of using it.

Besides, as I indicated above, my system is based on a network of keywords I have grown organically over a long time. I am not interested in some software system deciding to re-describe and re-interpret my image data.

So for the foreseeable future, I will continue doing my keywording manually.

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.