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.

Heartland – Spring, Redux

Kansas cliffs, heartland surprise.

Three weeks ago I wrote an article about reasons I don’t like spring. I thought I should update it and discuss my progression of getting comfortable with spring artistically. It happened via a driving trip through some of the heartland of America.

Heartland

You know, the flyover country. The middle section of the US that most of you have not been through, or at least, haven’t paid attention to. Most people try to avoid this area. There are long distances to drive and seemingly little to see. Unless you learn to appreciate what is there.

I just got back from driving over 2000 miles without getting on a freeway at all. That was by choice. I love back roads and little towns. I believe driving on a freeway is a type of narcotic. Your senses blur and you get tunnel vision just looking at the road ahead. You become desensitized to the view or the geography or great scenes. And if you have expended effort to pass some slow trucks or campers you certainly can’t entertain the notion of stopping to take a picture. They would get ahead of you again.

So I was making my way through eastern Colorado and Nebraska and Kansas and Ohlahoma. Like I said, most people would pay to fly to avoid these areas. Not me. I would pay more to drive it. A lot of it, not all of it, is very good country.

This is true rural America. Not in a fake dude ranch type of tourist trap, but a land of farmers and ranchers. Hardworking people who earn an honest living and feed most of the rest of us in the process. Generally they are good people.

Great year for it

A few weeks ago I wrote a post talking about it being hard for me to get into spring. Coincidentally, this has been one of the prettiest springs in years. Where I live and most of the area I drove through had near record moisture this spring. Everything is exceptionally green. The grass and hay and crops are tall and healthy. The trees are very green and full.

It became hard for me to not be seduced by the look of this year.

Going for this long trip forced me to be immersed in it. I was there, I wanted to make good pictures, so I began to loosen up and find interesting subjects and compositions. I gave myself permission to stop whenever I wanted to look at things. Pretty soon I found myself liking more and more. Subjects became more frequent.

Some of these things required miles of driving down dirt roads, even 2-track lanes. But there were usually rewards of things I have never seen of even imagined were there. Would you guess the image at the top of this blog is from Kansas? Even if you’ve been through Kansas 100 times, I bet you haven’t seen this.

So now I feel I am fully “into” spring. I see it’s beauty and don’t currently waste my time and creativity longing for fall and winter. I am completely in the moment

Wide open spaces

This trip also steeped me in one of my favorite themes, wide open spaces. I saw a lot of them. There is something both compelling and a little frightening to me about a view with only the road and the horizon in the distance. It draws me to it while repelling me a little.

There are occasional weathered abandoned houses and barns that add to the bleak beauty. I love composing these into scenes that portray the vast distances or bounty of crops.

In a lot of these areas I just park my car in the middle of the road while I’m taking pictures. And I’m talking about setting up my tripod, composing perhaps several shots, maybe shooting HDR brackets or several long exposures to capture motion of the grass. Only 2 or 3 pickup trucks seem to come by a day, so I almost never inconvenience the locals.

Jump into summer

To be honest, this trip almost jumped me over spring into summer too quickly. I talked about the extraordinary moisture that made the vegetation very lush. But in the course of the trip we were hit with an abnormal heat wave that made things seems more like summer.

In some parts of the trip the temperature was 108F. Add a 30-40 mph dry wind and conditions were not fun. That is good for showing the dynamics of the grass or wheat rippling furiously, but not pleasant to be out in.

Amazing country

I have made this journey before. I have family at the destination, so it was not just a random selection. Each time I go I try to take a different route, always avoiding freeways.

Like almost every time I make it, I come back with a renewed love for this heartland area and the people there. It is a good place. Good country. It makes me feel better about America.

At one point I stood at the exact geographic center of the contiguous 48 states. The point where a map of the 48 states would balance exactly. I couldn’t help thinking that I hope America can stay balanced. Revisiting the heartland would help.

Spring

As I write this spring is fully come to Colorado where I live. This is a favorite time for most people. The hard winter is mostly over. The world is waking up. Spring is joy and refreshing and newness.

Too bad I’m not appreciating it as much as most people do.

New life

New life is breaking out all over. On a walk today I saw the first fuzzy goslings being coaxed into the lake by their anxious parents. Flowers are budding. Trees are leafing out. Grass is green (and I hear lawn mowers). Baby bunnies are running all around.

It is a time of beauty and peace, especially after a long winter. What is not to like?

What kind of curmudgeon wouldn’t be thrilled with it?

Uninspired

Me.

I went on a 4+ mile walk today and didn’t even take my camera. I never go out without my camera. But I knew I would not find shots to excite me. And I was right.

It is hard sometimes when you are so different from most other people.

Unfortunately for me, spring seems boring and predictable. At least when it first comes. Everywhere I look I see what most people would consider pretty pictures. Flowers, grass, new leaves on trees – these things hold little interest for me. Even though I will shoot a beautiful landscape when I find it, my interests are not in “pretty pictures”.

What calls to me

I am drawn to scenes with graphic interest, with stark lines or motion or drama. It is harder for me to find this in the spring. I could be out all day in a blizzard or a really cold winter day, but give me flowers and fluffy clouds and i am at a loss. I’ll take a bare tree against a snowy field. When the leaves come out the graphic structure of the tree is hidden. The tree becomes a green blob (to me).

Give me a frozen lake instead of, well, just a plain lake. A frozen lake may have interesting abstract patterns in it. A regular lake, to me, is just wet. It is very hard for me to do anything useful with it unless there are some good storms around to give nice reflections.

A freshly plowed field brings promise of things to come. But right now it is about as interesting to me as a painted wall. When the corn or wheat gets high things get more visual.

Finding lemonade

I don’t mean to whine. It is not really all lemons. There is lemonade. Spring also brings good things. I really enjoy being out without a coat. And not having to scrape ice off my car windows is great.

Spring also brings back more color. I love color, so when I get back in the mood I start seeking that. The image with this post is an example. Reflections on the river in Cincinnati are always lovely.

And hiking is opening back up without needing snowshoes. It will be refreshing to be back on trails in the mountains. Free to wander with less restrictions.

Spring kicks off the best travel time, too. It is tricky trying to do a trip in Winter. I have had interesting experiences doing that. Interesting = near death experiences.

And thunderstorms. I love them. I like the power and the awesome size and structure of them. I’m drawn to them like a moth to a flame. Winter storms can be great, but not like a good roaring thunderstorm. I am lucky to live at the edge of the Great Plains. I can pop out on them and follow some thunderstorms often. Maybe even without getting my car pounded by hail.

I don’t mean to imply it is all bad.

Learning to appreciate it

It is just harder for me to get into it when the season changes to spring. I love shooting in winter. Interesting subjects seem to present themselves to me more frequently. Spring is something I have to relearn every year. But I do. Once I get into it it is great.

Each season has its own drama and characteristic subjects. For me, spring just happens to be the hardest transition. Fall to winter seems a gradual transition here where I live. I ease into the hard season over time. Spring seems to just pop up.

But I go out shooting all the time. I force myself to find subjects. Eventually I warm up to spring and learn to appreciate it.

I’m still trying this year. It will come.

Light

Bad light photo

Maybe it seems silly to talk about light and photography. It seems obvious. But light is one of the things many photographers obsess about, worry about, plan around. Good light, bad light, golden hour, etc.

As photographers we need to need to be very aware of light. We cannot make photographs without light. The light we have at any given time strongly influences the pictures we make. Let’s talk about awareness of it rather than trying to tell you what light you should or shouldn’t use.

“Good” light

Good light. Ah, the holy grail. Many people search for it all the time. I know photographers who will not take their cameras out unless the light is “right”. Sometimes, I confess, I do it myself. You know, its a blizzard out, I won’t bother. The light isn’t right.

This very elitist view is unfortunate, but people come to the attitude honestly, because that is what many instructors teach. They say you have to research a location, find the exact right time of year and angle of light for a particular landscape subject. Then hope the weather cooperates on the one hour window have you allowed yourself to shoot your subject.

And “golden hour”, the prime time for all outdoor photographers. Many people are taught that it is worthless to even try to shoot after the sun has been up an hour and until an hour before it sets. Learn to think different. You are needlessly limiting your opportunities.

If your thing is shooting portraits perhaps you prefer an overcast, soft light day. This makes gentle, even, predictable light for excellent results. No doubt, but how many of those ideal times do you have? And how many good opportunities do you miss because the light is not exactly the way you want?

“Bad” light

Photo instructors teach, or at least imply, that there is bad light that should be avoided. The harsh light of midday is a prime example. It is made to seem that no self respecting photographer goes out to try to shoot when the sun is high overhead. The shadows are harsh and the light is flat and boring. At least, that is what they say.

Or maybe it is a uniformly overcast day with a bright but featureless sky. Terrible we are taught. There is little tonal separation and the sky is flat and boring. You can’t shoot good landscapes then.

Or after sunset when there is no direct light and the exposure times are getting long. That is another time people pack up their equipment to leave.

Or even if you are shooting in midday (shame on you) but you forgot to being your 11 stop neutral density filter to being the light levels down enough to do a 10 second exposure of that waterfall to streak the water like you intend. That must mean the light is bad. Or…

Adaptable

OK. If you have held on this long you will probably get that I’m suggesting that light is not good or bad, it just is. Use the light you have. Embrace it and figure out the best way to use it. In most of the examples I cited above the photographer had a fixed expectation of what they wanted to see and shoot. If the light did not match their expectations, it must be “bad”.

Most of us do not have the resources of, say, National Geographic funding our shoots. If we take a trip to a location we have been wanting to photograph, we can’t just hunker down and wait it out for a week or 2 if the weather is not what we wanted. We have to be flexible and adaptable.

If we get to our location and it is closed for some reason, we cannot change that. But we can find something else maybe even more interesting. Same with the light. Figure out what works right now. What you end up with may be better than what you planned.

Try practicing this flexibility. It is a great creativity exercise. An attitude and practice is what Jay Maisel calls “going out empty“. That is, leave your expectations at home. Just wander around and learn to see things that are interesting. Things the light works for. Things that excite you. In doing this you develop the skill to be able to work with what you have before you. To let the conditions, including the light, guide what you do. But no matter the conditions, to be able to make interesting pictures.

Street photographers are probably better at this than most of us. They have to be adaptable. Light not working here? Move. Can’t find the subject you had in mind? Get interested in what is there. They are used to letting their creativity guide them to good shots.

Awareness

I’m afraid too many instructors train their students to be internally focused. To have a preconceived idea of what they are going to shoot and to reject anything else. There are certain times when a fixed idea of what you want is required, but for most of us, it does not have to be the normal pattern.

I encourage you to instead be aware of the light, of the surroundings, of the activity or the scenes around us and flow with it. Use your creativity to make something interesting out of what you find rather than coming home disappointed because you did not find exactly what you intended.

Take the photo at the top of this article for example. Midday, flat light, hazy, featureless sky, not what I would usually look for. But I think this works. 🙂

Maybe it is too far of a stretch, but it seems to be an attitude of gratitude. Be thankful for what you have and learn to find surprises that delight everyday. Who knows where it will take you?

Reality

Eerie headstones

As an artist, is reality our goal? Should we focus on depicting reality perfectly? Is art just a representation of reality, or is it something more?

Reality leaves a lot to the imagination. – John Lennon

Can a great image be “real”?

To be honest, no. A 2 dimensional image expressed using pigments or pixels is not the same as a real scene. But you say, “yes, but the image ‘looks just like’ the original”. Actually, in most cases it looks either the way the artist remembered it or how they wanted it to look or how they wanted you to think of it looking.

All photographs must be processed a lot to be presentable. Even Ansel Adam’s famous prints are based on many hours of darkroom work for each one. And for Ansel or any of us, the prints produced of an image change over time. So either reality changes with time or art is not reality. That is, as the artist’s vision and taste changes, the processing of an image changes to reflect it. This represents the artist’s interpretation, not reality.

Is reality the goal?

I don’t know of any genre of art where reality is the actual goal. Let’s say you are shooting images of birds for a birding book. Is reality the goal? I would say no, you want images that allow the reader to see the important characteristics of the bird. If that means distracting elements must be removed or colors enhanced or “corrected”, then these will be done for the sake of clear communication.

The beautiful landscape print you bought to hang on your wall because it reminds you of a favorite place is not “reality”. Colors are enhanced, contrast is boosted to make it more dramatic, even mountains may be “stretched” some to make them more pronounced. None of this makes it a fake. It resonates with you as the way you remember it.

This article will use a lot of quotes. I want to make the point that this idea is not just my ravings.

“My goal as an artist is not to try and replicate reality , but to cross into the world of fantasy. This is a much easier sell because reality is what we see every day. The world of fantasy is a way of escape.” Joel Grimes

“Fine art photography should be an escape from reality.”  Joel Grimes

“A photograph is not reality, it is at best, a representation or illusion of reality.” Joel Grimes

One reason Joel Grimes has credibility with me on this topic is because he is color blind. Yes, a color blind photographer. And he is famous and well respected. Rather than considering it a handicap he uses his color blindness to further his artistic vision. He is obviously not trying to duplicate reality when he does not even see the same reality most of us do.

I’m not suggesting we all try to copy Joel Grimes’ work. I will not. It is very good, but it is not me. My hope is that you will see that reality can be a false goal.

Did it really look like that?

I get asked this a lot and I often struggle to answer. The obvious answer is “no, of course not”. But I have to try to read the questioner to try to determine what they mean by the question. Is the questioner just naive because they do not understand the process of art? Do they really believe that the picture should look like the reality? Are they wistfully hoping there is a place that really looks like that? Or are they trying to “trap” me into admitting that I “faked” the image?

Usually I reply with a fairly generic answer like “that’s the way I saw it.” When the question is asked like this it is probably not the time to get into a long discussion of art vs. reality.

But you probably understand that reality is not my goal and that all images are heavily processed. Never accept a picture as truth.

Reality

What, then, is the purpose of an image? In a way this is another way of asking what is real. I will go out on a limb and say that the artist helps bring reality to an image by their interpretation. The great Australian photographer Tony Hewitt says to “Look at the everyday ‘real’ in an entirely different way.” And he does this very successfully. His images are “of” real scenes, but they don’t look like what you would have seen standing there with him. They are more.

A photograph is more than its subject. The real challenge is to make something out of nothing. Geoffrey James

It is my responsibility as an artist to try to make you feel what I felt about the subject. If you see an image that is just a factual portrayal of a scene it will not hold your interest for long. But if I can give you an emotional connection it will have lasting power.

Resonance

Let me introduce the concept of resonance. In physics it is sound emitted from an object based on its vibration. That’s precise, but cold.

Think of a bell. Strike it and it rings with a certain sound and it continues ringing for seconds. That is the bell’s response to the energy you gave it with the strike.

In an artistic sense, I see resonance as the thought or feeling or memory invoked by a piece of art. Something about the work “resonates” with you – it, in effect, makes you vibrate or tingle. This resonance can happen when I am able to convey to you the emotion I felt when I discovered this scene and captured it.

A resonance like this goes beyond the surface image. You feel a connection or it produces an emotion in you that makes you keep coming back to look at it. This is what I seek to do.

This resonance is different than just “reality”. It is more important than the reality. What you feel is what you will remember. This is the significance of the image.

Reality

So, perhaps the “reality” of an image is the way it made you feel. This was your subjective reaction to what the artist gave you. It is your interpretation, your internal processing that lets you buy in to it and embrace it. It becomes reality through your personal response.

Do not confuse what is visible with what is real: despite a degree of overlap, they are not the same thing. What’s real about an expressive image is never its objectivity, but how it is subjectively perceived.  – Guy Tal

It may be a misconception to talk about art as “real” or not. Art cannot, of itself, be reality. The reality is what you create for yourself based on your emotional reaction to the work that the artist put his effort into.

So, the “Real World”, what is it? Where is it? I believe that for art, the “real world” is our personal reaction to the piece. Was the artist successful in making you feel what he felt? Did you feel something completely different but meaningful to you? If you didn’t feel anything, you won’t remember it or have any attachment to it. We create our own artistic reality through our personal reaction.

I believe it is my duty as an artist to help you feel my emotional connection to an image. If I can do that the image will become reality to you in a whole new way. If I cannot do that, I have failed and the image will be unimportant to you.

So in a sense, reality is my goal. But it is not the reality of a faithful rendering of what was in front of the camera. It is the reality of trying to have you share my emotional reaction to the scene, and having you reawaken this feeling whenever you see the picture.