Kill Your Darlings

Field of giant hamburgers

Artists, especially photographers, need to kill our darlings. I have received this advice before, but it is seldom a happy or welcome activity.

Why in the world would any artist want to kill their darlings? These are our babies! We are in love with them! We need them! It makes no sense.

Photographers generate lots of images

OK, let’s get this out to discuss. One of the distinctions of using a camera is that images are (usually) quickly created. We tend to shoot many variations of a scene looking to capture it best. We take “brackets” of exposure, focus, lighting, etc. to work through subtle differences that may make an image stronger.

This is one of the key differentiators of photography to other 2 dimensional art forms. A painting is constructed slowly from the ground up on a blank canvas. The artist selects and only adds the elements he feels make the image stronger. A photographer starts with an existing scene and decides what to include or exclude, often in a instant. The resulting image is often a small slice of time. The process is totally different.

But besides being different, it is usually fast, fluid, immediate. We have the ability to change our perspective and try out variations. Each one may be a great image in its own right.

On a productive day in a great location, I may make hundreds of images. A painter may only make one, and that’s if they are working very fast.

This very fact of photography causes a problem for us.

We love our images

Ah, the beauties we see on our monitor. Most of them are lovely and lovable. Sure, I discard the ones that are unintentionally out of focus or that have unintended shake or movement. I may exclude the ones where the lighting was bad. And there are the ones where I have to admit the concept just didn’t work or my execution was poor. I can say goodbye to them without much grief.

But the “good” ones, well, they are all good. A well composed image captured with a great camera with a super sharp lens using good technique may be technically excellent. Any one of them is my work. I am proud of them.

I can’t just delete most of them and tell myself they are not as good as I would like. It is the work I made. I created these. They are mine.

Editing is hard

Editing is where is starts getting real. Editing is one of the steps that separate the great from the good. It is very hard for many of us to do as brutally as is called for.

For me, it helps to have a cooling off period. With time I can usually take a cooler perspective on a shoot. Sometimes a day or 2 is sufficient. Sometimes it takes years. Yes, there are groups of my images where I couldn’t be really honest with myself for up to 10 years.

I do my sorting and grading in Lightroom. I have used it since its initial beta release. My exact process of how I file and mark them is probably not of interest. I will just say that I go through many levels of exclusion before arriving at a set of “portfolio” images.

My initial pass culls out the imperfect images (if perfection was what I was going for), duplicates, and things that just didn’t work. These are thrown away unless I believe there is some redeeming value to them. And that is exactly the problem I am talking about here – I think that most of my images have redeeming virtues.

A second or third pass may look over a shoot and select the few defining images out of the set. These are marked for further processing. This process is repeated several times with increasingly strict criteria, usually with long pauses to gain perspective. In general, the best image of a shoot is not going to progress up the chain just because it was the best of its group. It has to provide some reason for being considered a top contender.

Editing is necessary

The editing process has been very good for me to internalize, even if it is painful. I realize now that without brutal editing I don’t have anything worth saying. That is, if I show you thousands of images because they are all “good” and I don’t have the discipline to choose between them, you will quickly tire and go away.

When I can be honest with myself and exclude great images that do not capture my artistic intent, then the ones I keep to show are stronger. You don’t want to look at everything I saw and was interested in. You only want to see very strong images.

Going through the pain and being honest with myself is not fun. But it is necessary to end up with art.

Fewer is stronger

It has been said that your portfolio is only as good as the weakest image in it. This has taken me a long time to internalize. Fewer is stronger.

Editing is a challenging and imperfect process. I know I make mistakes. I know I sometimes let my love for an image or a location or an event cloud my judgment. I am trying to learn.

Take an arbitrary category on my web site, like Landscapes. I haven’t checked exactly, but let’s say I have well over 1000 landscape images I consider “portfolio quality”. That doesn’t work and it is unrealistic.

By forcing myself to pare them down to, say, 50 images, I am able to present a strong set of art for you. It hurts. I have to exclude hundreds of images I consider wonderful. Indeed, some of my all time favorites have to go. But if I do it well the set that is left is strong and I will not be ashamed to show them to anyone.

The ones that didn’t make the cut? I keep them, of course. I love them. Sometimes at a later date I see something new in an image that I did not perceive before. Maybe it gets bumped up. Still, it is my responsibility to edit brutally and only show you the survivors.

If you go browse my web site I hope you agree.

Let me know what you think. Do you suffer from an abundance of riches?

Telling a Story

Holy water jug

Conventional wisdom nowadays is that a good image should tell a story. Really? What does that mean? Can a single, static image actually tell a story? I’m not completely convinced. Let’s explore this.

Story

It is well understood that people learn and remember better from a story than by memorizing lists of facts or rules. That is one reason the Bible is mainly a collection of stories.

In civilizations where writing was late to develop, or where the literacy rate was very low, their records of their history were passed down by oral tradition – storytelling. The keepers of the stories were usually very respected members of the tribe.

Even in “more developed” Europe, storytellers were important through the dark ages until sometime into the Renaissance. Most of the population was completely illiterate. Even what we call “fairy tales” were very important stories and traditions.

Books

Books are an obvious story telling vehicle. They have lots of time and space to develop characters, set up complex plots, give the protagonist room to make lots of mistakes and bad decisions and go through many trials before getting it together and finally resolving the conflict.

Books have been written for thousands of years. The art of creating stories for print has been studied and practiced for all that time and it is well developed now. They have become excellent at grabbing and holding our interest.

You can go to school (or read a book!) to learn the process of character and plot development or to improve your vocabulary. You can’t go to school to learn to be a good author. That is still art. And rightly so.

Film

Films – I continue to use the archaic term – are a completely different story telling medium than books. That is why, even starting with a great book, a screenwriter must be employed to create the film version. The story telling process is very different.

Films are visual and the story must be told by the live actors “living out” the plot. Obviously there are exceptions, but this is the typical approach. A film is also a time-based medium. The story must unfold within about 1.5 – 2 hours of clock time.

But filmmakers have become very adept at engaging us with drama, magic, pathos, wonder, sadness, significance, aspiration. There is a great range of possibility and new creations are coming out every day to amaze us..

Static 2D image

Time, motion, character development, plot development, conflict resolution – these things are much harder to do in a single, static image. These older media get to engage their audience for an hour or more to days (depending on your reading rate). With an image I have 2 conflicting goals: capture my audience’s interest to make them spend some time on my image, and have enough lasting interest to make them want a copy on their wall to see every day. Perhaps I have to think of “story” differently in a 2D image.

In a 2D image, nothing is actually moving. No action over time is possible. Little or no character development can happen. It is very hard to show a before-during-after sequence.

The type of “story” that seems possible to bring to you in a picture is a “moment in time”. I can show you something in a particular state at this instant. I have to leave it to you to imagine the setting or previous events or how the future may unfold. If I do a good job as a story teller, that may be possible.

One of the advantages of that is that it brings you into the process. You have to participate in the interpretation. You get to, in effect, write the story for yourself. What happened to get the scene to this state? What would happen if you could push “play” and continue it? Can you imagine yourself there? Would you want to?

Contrived

Let me side track for a bit to tell you a pet peeve of mine.

Many of the influencers in the photography media preach the mantra that you have to tell a story with your pictures. Whether it is travel photography or environmental activism or landscape or portraits, what we hear is that we have to tell a story.

Hardly any of these pundits help us by explaining how to do it. Usually they will just show one of their images and congratulate themselves for illustrating a great story. Weak, unhelpful, and intimidating. I can think of one writer/photographer right now who mostly makes images of the American desert. He writes passionately about the meaning and story he tries to bring to his images. But then when he illustrates it with a specific image, I often look at it and kind of say “huh?”. There wasn’t a story there for me or deep meaning. It was just a scene. It may be nice to look at, but it is not a story to me.

Can we tell a story with a 2D image?

Can it be done? Yes. But it is seldom what I think of as a story. As I said, maybe I need to change me definition of what a story is in this case.

Photojournalism or street photography is attuned to story telling. It is generally understood that presenting a “decisive moment” is more important that creating a technically perfect image. I agree, for those genre.

In all cases, I believe any photographer should know why they made an image. What was it that called them? What were they trying to present to their audience? We can often call this the “story” of the image.

The problem is that this story is often only known to the artist. It may not be apparent to the viewer at all. At best, the viewer may be able to create their own story around a good image. This works.

And is it OK that the “story” may just be that I considered this scene beautiful or uplifting or interesting? YES! Much of the established modern art world rejects beauty as a valid subject. They are wrong and I feel sorry for them. What a bleak world to live in.

Tell your story your way

So I recommend that you to go out and make images that call to you. They may not have deep meaning to a wide audience or be praised as “meaningful”. That’s OK. Always be able to express for yourself why you took an image. Practice that. After all, you are the only one who absolutely has to love your images.

Meaning and story may come for you more with time and experience. Or may not. It depends on how you see the world and what kind of “story” you want to tell. If beauty or whimsy or abstraction call you, go with what you feel. If it passes the test for you and you love it, what more can you ask?

If the story is a secret to just you, that is fine as long as the image also stands on its own as interesting. Then your audience can also participate by creating a story of their own.

Every time I make an image, in a sense I am telling a story to my viewer. It is good for me to be more aware of the way they perceive the story.

There is no I in TEAM

On mountain top looking toward setting sun

This famous coaching advice is so well known that it is almost a cliche. There is no I in TEAM. It has been used for a long time to convince athletes of the necessity of teamwork. And this is right. A sports team must work together. Winning is a team effort, not an individual thing.

I am turning this saying upside down for this article. The point here is that my art is not a team effort. There is no team in I.

Not a group effort

My creativity and the products of my creativity, my art works, come solely from my head. I do not have collaborators or mentors or advisors. It is a lonely and scary place in here, but it is where I work. There is not room for anyone else in here. Plus, I’m not very sociable when it gets that personal. If someone tries to get in my head I resist strongly.

I enjoy listening to artists I respect talking about how they create and what their process is. I browse images from other photographers and painters. But those things are just inputs. Some of the forces that “pump the laser“, as I have written before.

But after a time, the books are closed, the videos are shut off, and I come home from the galleries. It is time to work. A writer or a painter is faced with the terror of a blank page waiting to be filled. A photographer must confront the terror of “nothing of interest“. A world of clutter and stuff that does not call to us.

How to respond to that is not the subject of this post. See the one I reference above. The point here is that it is up to me to do whatever is going to be done. No one else is responsible. No one else can do my work.

Helpful suggestions aren’t, usually

Ah, the helpful friends or family members who come forward with suggestions for what I should shoot. “I saw a great scene yesterday you should check out.” Or “I would do a project about …”.

They are sincerely trying to help. I appreciate the thought and the care behind what they mean. But even my wife does not really know what might motivate me at any time. No, I take the suggestions thankfully. Sometimes I politely shoot what they suggest. They almost never makes my short list of good images, though.

Ultimately, it is up to me to get off dead center and do something. I have to find or generate motivation about something. Creativity means I created it.

No collaborative environment for me

The corporate world and the education establishment believe with religious fervor that collaboration is absolutely the only way to do things. In one of my previous lives as a software architect and a user experience designer I was deep in such an atmosphere.

Surfacing ideas was a group process, design was collaborative, even deciding on requirements was required to involve a group discussion. Everything involved a consensus process. I felt then and I still firmly believe that such a process leads to a median quality in everything. It might improve the efforts of a poor designer but it greatly limits the capability of a great one.

Now, as an artist, I am not limited by a group. Of course it means I do not have the support of the group to carry me when ideas do not come. But walking the high wire alone is part of what you buy in to when becoming an artist.

I cannot share responsibility (or blame) with anybody for my failures.

Solitude

I realized a long time ago that I am an introvert. This is fairly common to creatives. If there is too much “noise” or chatter or helpful suggestions I cannot think creatively.

I need to be alone in my head. I need to protect that small, dark creative space while ideas are flickering into life. Many may die there, but some will grow and develop. Like a young tender plant those ideas need to be protected while they develop.

My ideas do not spring into being fully formed. Sometimes I get a glimmer of something that needs to be worked on. Sometimes something draws me to a subject and it is only later that I begin to realize what was calling me.

I long ago discovered that if I am having to argue for or justify new ideas as they are forming, many great things will be lost. It is hard for me to argue for something I don’t yet understand well. I will save the arguments for within my own head. Even then I lose a lot of them.

There is enough noise inside my head already without having to deal with the clash of outside opinions.

Individuality

My value as an artist comes from the uniqueness of what I bring. This develops from my individuality.

If a group process produces average results, the only way to produce excellent things is to let individuals flourish. My art is my own. All I have to present to the world, such as it is, I can at least know is a product of my own mind. It is me.

I am not skilled at telling you about me, but when you look at my art you see what I think and value and perceive.

Teams are not for me.

Teamwork can be good. I have been part of great teams in my previous career and as a musician once upon a time. Being part of a well functioning team is a joy. But I believe that the artist is excluded from the team. He is the one sitting on the edge that no one chooses for his team. You know, the one with the far off look, wandering off, not paying much attention to the game.

So if there is no I in team, and if “I” is all I have to sell or to differentiate myself from the rest of the world, then there is no place for team in my process. There is no team in I.

And that works OK for me.

Did It Really Look Like That?

Creative modification of a simple capture

“Did it really look like that?” is not an uncommon question. But it is tricky to answer. Sometimes I try to probe to find out what question they are actually asking. But really it comes down to their point of view.

Why

There are many possible reasons for the question. Most are probably innocent. Some, maybe not.

Looking at it generously, many people simply are expressing that they have never seen anything quite like that and wonder if it is really real. It may look too good to be true. Has it been there all this time and they’ve just missed it? Maybe they have been to this place or one like it and they did not bring back any pictures that looked like that. They are impressed, but maybe skeptical.

I will take this as a compliment.

On the other hand, some ask suspiciously. Underlying the question is the implication that it is a fake. If it looks too good to be true then it is probably not true. Therefore I must have manipulated or over-processed the image to the point that it no longer represents reality.

This is an interesting concept to me. Sometimes I like to engage them in a dialog, but most of the time I just ignore them rather than trying to educate them or get into a heated exchange.

Look like to who?

One of the simplest responses to the question is to ask “look like to who?” If the questioner was there at the same time they may have seen something different from me. Another photographer also probably would have gotten something different out of it. If a painter was there, they may well have interpreted it very differently.

That is one of the things that makes art. Each artist brings their own unique interpretation of a scene or event.

Underlying the “did it look like that?” question is the assumption that I am supposed to represent exactly what the scene was. That is your assumption, not mine. Get over it. I spent decades believing a photography should faithfully record a scene. I have grown well past that.

I have never promised you I am trying to bring you images that are absolutely, exactly what a scene looked like. As a matter of fact, I promise that is not my goal. Unless it is what I decide to do. 🙂

The negative is the score

This is a great and classic observation from Ansel Adams. I refer to it often. As I have observed in another post, I consider that technology has brought us to a re-interpretation of the statement.

The digital capture is raw material. It is no longer processed like a dance in a real time performance. It is edited and processes at leisure on the computer. We have the tools and the technology to go far beyond what could be considered in the film days. Alain Briot uses the French term esquisse. I believe it refers to an artist’s rough, preliminary sketch of a piece. This sketch would only hint at the composition and details of the final work. He relates the raw material of the image capture to this artist sketch.

What a wonderful time to be an artist! Our imaginations are less constrained. We have more freedom to let our creativity reinterpret the raw material. Why constrain yourself? Don’t stop with the basic capture. Continue on to make it conform to the vision you had that compelled you to take the picture in the first place.

What does it matter what it looked like?

At the risk of offending some people, I will say that a reproduction of what a scene looked like can get pretty boring. Once you have seen it you know everything about it. There is no challenge. No mystery. Nothing to draw you back to look at it again and again.

Unless I, as an artist, am able to bring something unique to it, what is the image worth? When I bring you my point of view, though, you have something more to consider. You may not agree with my point of view. It may not speak to you. But I want you to know that this is mine.

I hope, of course, that my viewpoint will challenge you, make you think, make you see at least a small part of the world differently, maybe even open up your perception to other things. That is my role as an artist.

Art is

So I would challenge you that “did it really look like that?” is not the right question. It would be better to ask “what is the artist saying?”, “what does it mean to me?”, and “how can this help me see the world differently?”

Art is art. It is a unique work of human creativity. It does not have to mean something. It does not have to faithfully reproduce a real scene in nature. It cannot be fake unless it is a mindless copy that brings nothing of the artist.

Art is art. It is not truth. Any truth you find in it is what you derive for yourself from what the artist has shown you. It is a communication between the artist and the viewer. Both have to do their work.

Don’t shoot what it looks like. Shoot what it feels like.
David Alan Harvey