Ansel Wasn’t an Oracle

Rusty Truck

Ansel Adams famously said that the negative is the score and the print the performance. Ansel was one of the great lights of 20th Century photography and his writings are generally very good. In this case, though, I think this famous quote has become a little outdated by technology changes.

I love this quote and have been guided by it for a long time. As I began to understand it more deeply, it was empowering. For a long time my work was basically a documentary or reportage style. It was very literal photography of scenes in the natural world. I even for a time subscribed to the false doctrine that if an image was altered in any way it was no longer pure and virtuous.

Ansel’s quote helped me understand that that had never been true and was not a worthy or even useful goal. At least for me. I truly believe that the negative (raw file now) is only a start. It usually must be perfected by the artist to become art rather than just a record of something.

The darkroom process

Let me talk a little about the darkroom process, as I understand it. This is so I can contrast it to the current workflow. I will confess that, although I built a darkroom in my basement, I only ever used it for a few black and white images. About that time I discovered a new program called “Photoshop”. 🙂

The image captured on film is generally considered “read only”. It is never modified. There are exceptions to every rule, but this is by far the typical case.

The extensive set of transformations and modifications that can be applied to the negative in the course of printing are done in “real time”. That is, it is a dance involving adding or holding back light from certain areas during the time the paper is exposed to light. It can also involve variations of development time or chemicals and even manual operations like bleaching or spotting of the print.

Given this workflow, it is completely appropriate for Ansel to describe it as a score that will be performed by an artist. The outcome will vary somewhat with each performance, depending on the feelings and inspiration of the performer. Each print is a unique creative process.

The digital workflow

Fast forward now to the current generation of digital imaging. Digital imaging is wonderful in too many ways to list. I absolutely believe it is superior to film in almost all important respects. There is no reason for most artists to ever want to go back to film and chemicals. Your mileage may vary, but that is a personal artistic decision.

One of the places where digital processing is most different is in the post processing to complete the image. The raw file (the “negative”) is processed in the computer using software like Photoshop.

The software allows extensive, non-destructive manipulation of the image. The great dynamic range captured by modern sensors now gives us far more information to work with and more freedom to transform the image. It is easy to remove distracting elements, composite images together, and vastly change the tone and color profiles and even exposure.

Ansel had to select a type of film to use prior to taking an image. He also had to use color filters to change the tonality of his black and white images. It was a guessing game based on lots of experience. He called it “pre-visualization”. Now we retain all the color information until processing time and we can convert to black and white via multiple types of software transforms and with extensive control over tonality. Much more subtle artistic decisions can be made. He would have loved it.

Furthermore, these changes are built on the computer and recorded as a complete package. All the modifications can be done slowly and I can backtrack, undo things I don’t like, try alternatives, even easily create multiple versions of an image.

The “performance” aspect of Ansel’s darkroom manipulation now becomes a considered, one-time transformation. All the artistic decisions are immediately seen on my nice color corrected monitor. I can study the effects at leisure and decide to change them. When I am done, I have virtually a finished image.

The print

It almost sounds like printing has been reduced to a minor step. Not so. It is still a complex artistic process. But again, the digital world gives many new options.

Choice of paper is a big deal. It controls a major part of the look of the resulting image. A glossy Baryta has a very different look from a matte watercolor paper. Paper with varying textures and base color can be selected.

This is assuming you are printing yourself. I recommend it. It is a joy and it connects you with the final product. But many other options are available. You can have your image rendered on canvas, metal substrates, acrylic, transparencies, cloth – too many to list. All vary the look and potential use of the final image.

But the thing that is ultimately the most different from film days is that the artistic result has been determined prior to hitting Print or sending the file to the producer. Each time you print the image, the results should be so repeatable as to be indistinguishable. As Alain Briot said, somewhat tongue-in-cheek I think, this is one of the problems with printers: they do not need our help in any way while they do what they do.

So, in a way, a print is like a good illusion. The magic happens before we ever see the print appear. This is a huge contrast to the film days where creating a print required a virtuoso performance in the darkroom.

Was Ansel right?

I believe Ansel was completely right and very insightful when he wrote this famous quote. Like with many things, though, time and technology changes. Since he was describing a particular technological process, it is not surprising that it will change.

The real genius of the quote, and the reason I believe it is still useful, is to point out that the captured image is only the starting place. I am free to apply my vision to complete the image. Without that injection of originality, it is too easy for it to just be a snapshot.

How that is done is not that big of a deal. Art is a physical product and expressed via currently available technology. The technology should not determine an artist’s vision. Make it your own.

The quote was an observation by a great and experienced artist. It did not come down from heaven written on stone. Don’t be limited by changes of process or technology. Understand that it frees you to create!

15 Minutes From Home

100 ft from my studio

It is pretty easy to take good images in exotic locations. A real test of our skill is to see how well we do in familiar territory close to home. What if we arbitrarily said we were going to restrict ourselves to 15 minutes from home? Actually, that kind of sounds like the situation many of us are in right now.

I use ideas from Cole Thompson too often, but he often says things I wish I had said. In a recent newsletter of 3/27/2020 he challenged the idea that you have to go to great locations to take great pictures. Referring to the fact that many of his recent images were made in far flung locations, he said “You see the same coming from other photographers: exotic images coming from exotic lands. The conclusion is obvious: To create great images you must go to great locations! But that’s a lie. The real truth is this: great images are created anywhere you can see them. Even at home, your back yard or hometown. “

He went on to show a portfolio of great images taken within 15 minutes of his home. To me, his picture of wrenches hanging in a tool shed is at least as beautiful and intriguing at the classic figures on Easter Island.

Then why travel?

I will readily confess to being a traveler. I love to travel (hate airports and airlines though). Seeing different cultures and different landscapes energizes me. I tend to see things with a fresh eye. It’s an opportunity to give yourself permission to be a tourist and to view new things differently.

Travel makes you set aside time for the new. It removes you from the clutter and noise of your everyday environment. It may replace it with different clutter and noise, but the difference makes it new. Plus, you don’t worry much about the routine things that occupy you at home. That email you need to write, the business contact you need to follow up on, that blog post you have been meaning to write – they are just a distant murmur in the back of your mind. The lure of the exotic location tends to drown out the mundane things that usually shout so loud for your immediate attention.

The immediacy of the new sights in front of us makes it pretty easy to lose ourselves in the experience.

Burnout

Many of us can get in a rut and suffer from creative burnout. We start to think there is nothing new to photograph. Nothing new to inspire us or make it worth even getting the camera out of the bag. Travel to a new location seems to hold the hope of drawing us out of our slump.

I’ve been there. I still fight it frequently. Now with travel restrictions it seems worse than ever. What can we do?

I advise you not to get overly frustrated and fight head on against it. Reframe the problem. Go out walking with your camera. Tell yourself you do not expect to make any portfolio images today. You just want to look and practice, maybe work on technique. With no pressure to try to “make” a great shot you might be surprised at what you see. Give it time to work.

You will probably find yourself less dismissive of things. You might notice new things you never took the time to actually see because you were too focused on a preconceived notion of what you wanted to find.

Burnout is a real problem, physically, mentally, and creatively. Let yourself heal by taking it easy. Ease up on yourself by reducing the pressure you feel to make “great” shots every time.

And do something. Don’t let yourself wallow in feeling sorry for yourself. Get off your rear end and do something. Anything. Build something. Take walks or bike rides. Keep moving.

Inspiration

Ah, the problem of inspiration. I already admitted I am inspired by travel. Is that the only drug to feed my need?

Being confined at home is a great time to learn new skills. Learning should be a life long pursuit. Here is an exceptional opportunity to catch up.

We all have an opportunity now to pull back. It is a good time to read inspiring books. To view a lot of training online, such as Creative Live, The Nature Photographer’s Network, or B&H Photo. Or just play with Photoshop. Experiment. Try things you would not give yourself permission to do normally. Photoshop by itself is a life long learning experience.

But these activities do not directly apply to creating images in our particular style, do they? How do they really help?

Do you know how a laser works? (Not a laser diode; that is different mechanism) The acronym stands for Light Amplification by Stimulated Emission of Radiation. Without getting technical, a laser has two mirrors parallel to each other with a cavity in between. Electronics around it pump energy into it causing it to start emitting light. The light bounces back and forth between the mirrors, getting pumped to higher and higher energy states, until it finally breaks out as a focused, high energy beam. The point is that the signals that pump the laser to higher energy levels are not the same as the laser light. They feed the energy of the laser.

I believe my creativity is like that. I believe it is actually common to many people. Anything that feeds my knowledge, that makes me see new things, stimulates my creativity like a laser. So for me, some authors do that. Some classes may. Even some movies. In a strange way, even writing this blog pumps my inspiration. Get pumped and then do something with it.

Lack of faith in our creativity

A problem many of us have is little faith in ourselves. Deep down we believe we are fakes. That we really don’t have much creativity. Just because we did something good last week does not give us confidence that we will be able to do something great next week. This is called The Imposter Syndrome.

I believe this is more common than we let on. Some people have said that almost all creatives suffer from this. We do not like to admit it.

I am a fine art photographer and most of my work is outdoors. My personality and workflow is such that I do not plan my outings in any detail. I go with the flow snd take my inspiration from what I find. It can be scary when I’m not “feeling” it. I have to trust that something will capture my imagination and get me started and into the groove. If I relax and let myself be attuned to what is around me, it usually works.

But when it doesn’t, that can be a challenge to my self confidence. A usually reliable cure for me is to spend time in my image collection. I am lucky to have a large collection of images. Of that large collection, a small percentage are the ones I would not be ashamed to show to other people. Browsing through these picks can be inspiring to me. It reassures me that I can make good images over a long time. Remembering the story behind some of the images can be especially heartwarming. Like the times when I was in a hurry or not feeling inspired or creative or not happy with the work I was doing that day and suddenly I come up with a great image that I still love years later.

Close to home

Exercises and mind shifts like this give me the faith that valleys of inspiration, like virus epidemics, do not last. I believe most of my best work is yet to come.

It may seem easier to shoot good images in beautiful exotic locations, but there are very good reasons to focus most of our energy on the near, the familiar, the things we grow to love. Having a relationship with an area will usually lead to more intimate and insightful pictures. And I believe that there is great potential even in the overworked area 15 minutes from my home.

How about you? Are you shut down because you can’t travel? Let me know.

The image at the top of this article was made less than 100 ft from my studio.

An Outsider

Reflections in glassware

I have always felt like an outsider. Not a social pariah, just not fully a part of what I see around me. Research is discovering that this may be common to creatives. It may even be necessary to them.

In an article by Olga Khazan, she quotes ‘Sharon Kim, who teaches at Johns Hopkins University’s business school, told me she’d always noticed that some people credit their creative successes to being loners or rebels… So rejection and creativity were related, Kim determined. But with a caveat. The advantage was seen only among participants who had an “independent self-concept”—meaning they already felt they didn’t belong. There appeared to be something about being a weirdo that could uncork your mind and allow new ideas to flow.’ This is adapted from Olga’s forthcoming book, Weird: The Power of Being an Outsider in an Insider World

Ah, so there may be some advantage to being a weirdo. That is great to hear after all this time.

A social outsider

It is never comfortable being an outsider, even for those of us destined to be one. You always wish you could “fit in”, to be a valued part of the group, whatever that group is for you. To have your opinion solicited, to be valued. Outsiders are the ones who get the funny looks when we give our opinion. Most of us learn to stop sharing our opinions.

Most people say they want to be unique, but there is tremendous social pressure to conform to the norm. Take any teenager “rebelling against society and conformity” and try to get them to wear something other than the standard uniform all their peers wear. People want to be different, just like everyone else.

I was always taught by my parents to be an independent thinker. Well, I learned it well. I was taught by my faith that I am an outsider here, a pilgrim. Yes, I accept and understand this. But it is not always easy. Such independence makes you different.

I take comfort in Mark Twain’s quote “Whenever you find yourself on the side of the majority, it is time to pause and reflect.” I find that joining the majority is often a warning sign of me losing my way, or at least my independence of thought. But sometimes it would be comforting to feel like I belonged.

A creative outsider

Since I started calling myself an artist, I also came to accept even more my position as an outsider. I feel that viewpoint gives me a fresh insight on the world around me. And it helps me to be truly independent in my creativity and protects me from copying other people’s work.

In Guy Tal’s book More Than a Rock, he says “although the artist participates in the world as any conscious being, in making art he is also afforded, temporarily, the privileged perspective of an outsider. To one who cares and feels and acknowledges his own flaws and fallibility, having such a place within him also is a powerful form of self-therapy.”

And the great Steve Jobs said “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.”

So I value and nourish my independence. It helps that I am an introvert. That keeps me from feeling as much pressure to conform to the majority. Not too surprisingly, research shows that a large percentage of creatives are introverts.

Freedom

No one, no matter how independent they are, likes to be criticized or demeaned by others. But there is no shortage of people who see themselves in the role of taste maker and art critic.

I will say that being independent and seeing yourself as an outsider helps a lot. I want people to like the work I present to them. But if they don’t, it is more important that I like it. And when criticism comes it is important to honestly evaluate what is said and who said it. Maybe I can learn something. But I will not, I refuse, to alter my fundamental beliefs and vision to conform to someone else’s opinion. If I believe they have a good point of view I might grow in a new direction.

I also reserve the freedom to pursue any subject matter I wish. If a gallery or buyer says “you do abstracts, what’s with these landscapes?” I will have to let them know I do images that call to me. The subject matter and genre means little to me. I know this is not a smart financial position. Conventional wisdom says I should stick to one genre and become known for that.

That’s the problem with conventional wisdom for me. It is usually not conventional and it is seldom actually wise. When the majority goes a direction that seems wrong to me, I follow my own instincts.

Exclusion

A characteristic of photography that I like is that it relies on exclusion rather than inclusion. It is a busy, complicated world out there. Unlike a painter’s canvas, the camera will record everything you show to it. Our job as a photographers is to intelligently select only the small set of things that should be included in the frame and light and compose these important things in a way that makes for a good image. This means excluding most of what is out there.

I guess I like that because it seems to be complementary to my outsider point of view. It is an exercise in throwing away most of what you see and homing in on that small piece that is significant. Declaring what is significant and what isn’t requires strength of character and independence. I believe it is easier for me to make those decisions if I can keep an outsider’s perspective.

There is a saying known as Sturgeon’s Law that says “90% of everything is crap”. I believe this is quite true in most things. My own corollary to this law is that Sturgeon was an optimist. In my photography I get to look at a scene and decide what to throw away and what to keep. It’s very empowering and makes my independent self-concept feel great. ☺

I would love to hear your thoughts on this. And I get no financial incentives from the books I mention.

Being There

What does it mean to “be there”? How do we be in the moment so well that we are receptive to the inspiration all around us? In today’s world, how can we push out the distractions and noise to find creative space?

This is just a quick fly-by of a deep subject. That’s because: I’m not smart or wise enough to do it justice, I’m not a philosopher – I can’t drop enough cow pies in the text to speak that language, and you don’t want to go there. Going too deep in the concepts will suck the life out of a potentially rewarding idea. But let’s try.

The philosopher Heidegger articulated this idea of being there (German word “dasein”). I”m not going to step into it, but it involved coming to grips with what it means for a person to “be”. The realization that we are self-aware, we are an individual, that we have a limited life span, that we must make our own choices, discover our own truth. The opposite state is to give up this responsibility. To escape into the world and lose our identity into the general “them”. Sounds like the Matrix, right?

Bubbles

I want to push on this idea of losing our identity in the noise of the world. Look at your own life. Think back to just a few years ago. Are more sources of distraction claiming a larger portion of your time now? Not just your job, but social media, entertainment, communication. Look around at any public place, from an airport to a restaurant, and you will see most people with their face buried in a screen. Their attention is given to something artificial. They are being controlled by something outside of themselves.

Are you defined by your number of Friends or followers? What happens if you miss the latest episode of The Bachelor? Do all messages or emails need to be responded to within 1 minute? Do you message someone sitting next to you because it is more comfortable than actually talking to them?

Not one of these things is inherently evil. The problem is the cumulative effects of them dominating your life. One writer likened it to being in a bubble. You tend to become self-focused and unconcerned with the people and the world outside of your bubble.

And those bubbles sometimes look like a comfortable place since most of us live in cities and something like 93% of a typical American’s day is spent indoors or in vehicles. Who wouldn’t want to retreat into a place where we seem to have some control?

Down time

But there is a dangerous by product of all of this noise and activity. The human mind needs a certain amount of down time to rest, to make connections, to figure things out. In addition to sleep (which many of us don’t get enough of) we need to take time to just be in our head. Shut off the noise and stimulus. Stop the flow of new information. Be in the moment for a while.

We need time like that to “catch up”, to think and analyze, to sift through the clutter.

This is not wasted time. Even if you sit and stare at a wall for 15 minutes, that is healthy. Shut off the outside world, including music. As a matter of fact noise canceling headphones can be a good idea.

At first it will be uncomfortable. You will feel like you are missing out on something. That’s OK, it will wait. You will feel restless because you are not used to going even a few minutes without external stimulation. You will get over it and start to eagerly look forward to the brief captured solitude. Best of all, though, you will start to take back control of your thoughts.

Creatives

What was all of that? This is supposed to be about the creative life. How did I veer off into philosophy and self-help kinds of things?

I believe we creatives are especially vulnerable to the effects of too much noise in our heads.

I can only speak for myself, but I can’t create anything useful when there is too much noise and distraction in my head. To do my work I have to unplug and find quiet to hear the small voice within me that will help me find the resources I need. For some parts of my art it can be an isolated indoor environment, e.g. at my computer. But for most of my image making, it will have to be outside.

I know from experience that I have to be quiet in my head, which means no internet or email or videos or even music. This is an internal peace. I can find images with a train roaring by next to me. That is just the outside environment. But I have to clear my head and open my eyes to be receptive. I know from experience that if there is noise in my head I will just not see the same images I would if my head were calm. I will miss many things that I would pick up on without the noise.

If you are a wedding or commercial artist your needs and/or approach will be different. But if you are doing non-commissioned fine art I suspect you may share a lot of similarities with me.

Feed your head

For all of us, please, practice taking some time for your head. Unplug for serious time. Get your mind off the drugs of our fast paced, high tech culture. Give yourself some time to think and regroup. Unplug from the Matrix. Take time to reflect on who you are and what it means to be a person. Feed your head, which sometimes involves giving it a rest. Maybe Jefferson Airplane was right about something all those years ago.

I will follow up more in a future article. I might even get into forest bathing. 🙂

Aging Well

Rusty old Chevrolet

I”m not necessarily talking about me or the state of health care for the elderly in the US. One of the subjects that calls to me is how some things age with character. Aging well is of interest to me personally and as a photographic study.

A couple of weeks ago I used “Not all who wander are lost” as a theme. This is from a J.R.R. Tolkien novel The Fellowship of the Ring. This time I want to focus on another line from that poem: “The old that is strong does not wither”.

Discard after use

The US is a “use and discard” society. This is as true of people as it is of paper plates. (Try getting a job if you’re over 50). That is a shame and a moral dilemma to consider another day. What I want to talk about here is our short sighted view that things have to be shiny and new or they have little value.

It used to be that many things were designed to last a long time. Designers were not sophisticated enough to create things to be cheap and only last for a short time. Most people only had 1 or 2 sets of clothes. They wore them until they wore out, then salvaged what they could to make other things. Cars may not have been very reliable, but mechanically they lasted a long time. A set of plates was made to hand down to generations to come.

No, I have not become consumed with nostalgia for the “good old days”. We are living in the best times as far as goods being reliable and affordable for more people.

I’m a designer. When I come across something that is designed well I’m impressed and I have respect for the designer. Many times these kind of things are aging well, too.

Wabi-Sabi

It’s hard not to go all “Zen Buddha” on this topic. I will touch very briefly on the Japanese philosophy of Wabi-Sabi. Briefly because this is a very deep and rich subject that requires much more time and space to develop. Also brief because after a lot of reading on the subject, I am barely scratching the surface.

The concepts of Wabi-Sabi don’t translate to Western languages very well. At a simple level, it is concerned with the acceptance of transience and imperfection. Rather than throwing away a cracked pot, they might fill the cracks with gold to emphasize the beauty of the imperfection of the object. A simple pottery cup used in a tea ceremony may be chipped and stained from long use, but that makes it beautiful and unique in their view. At many levels this is beautiful and healthy.

But I’m not Japanese or Zen. I appreciate the depth of some of this philosophy, but how can I use it in my everyday work?

Aging well

As I get older (I’m already older than dirt) I appreciate things that have stood up to the passage of time with a certain elegance and, maybe, defiance. Some thing seem to have more character than our typical modern discardable products. And these same overcomers seem to develop more character as they age.

It seems that most of the admirable things I encounter are mechanical or works of Civil Engineering. Our modern technical products seldom age well and haven’t had a chance to age very long. But take a Detroit vehicle, say from the 1940’s to 1960’s. These are still there, defying the weather and elements, still holding their shape, and it’s a shape that has style and personality.

I think, for me, that idea of these objects shaking their fist at time and proclaiming “I’m still standing” is very encouraging. Yes, they may be all rusty. Their glass and seats are cracked. The engine doesn’t run anymore. But the product the designer created is still there. The thing that people created out of steel and rubber and paint and leather is still recognizable. It is still pretty sound. You have to think that some scraping and polishing and paint would restore it to it’s glory. Indeed, some people make a living buying these old survivors and restoring them.

Badge of honor

Even if it will never be restored, never run again, it is still there in evidence. It resists the passage of time. It rusts, but that adds a new certificate of accomplishment to it. The cracked glass can take on a new beauty. It acquires a grace that is only paid for through years of weathering.

These things call to me. I like to stop and acknowledge them by making a portrait of them. I want to remember them and be encouraged by them. These things are not just a rusted heap of scrap metal. They have acquired a character that few objects achieve. They are treasures. The designers who created them are probably long gone, but their work still give testimony to their accomplishments.

I hope to weather well. I hope people will look at me and admire that I am still defying time: He is old and scarred but still there. He may be cracked and rusty, but it has a certain grace to it, too. Time changes everything and always wins in the end. I am encouraged by things that pass gracefully into time.