Apples or Oranges

Old man pushing bicycle up hill in Italy

If you’ve taken a personality test, it probably showed you to be either rational or emotional. This may be true for most people, but you are an artist. This notion of your personality being a binary, either/or relationship probably presents a false dichotomy. It is based on built in assumptions that go back many years. People are not such a simple thing where you can label or classify them easily into rational or emotional, apples or oranges.

Basis

People have been trying to figure out human behavior, well, as long as there have been humans. There was a flurry of activity in the late Nineteenth and early Twentieth century time period. Two prominent psychoanalysts of the time were Carl Jung and Sigmund Freud.

I won’t attempt to go into their beliefs. It is too deep and depressing and actually not that useful. One outgrowth of Jung’s theories, though, that has become ingrained in our culture is a model of personality theory.

Jung postulated that there are patterns of personality common to most people. Many personality tests have been developed. You may have taken one or more of them. They can seem very insightful, but in the same way a horoscope can seem to predict events or behavior. We tend to believe what we are told from an “authority”. I do not recommend you bother with any of the tests.

Anyway, one part of Jung’s theories is that people’s personality tends to be rational or emotional.

Only choice?

What I observe is that people are complex creatures. A simple model can predict some behavior of large populations of people, but is too simple to say much about an individual. Each individual has innate tendencies, but they are also modified by past experience, beliefs, education, circumstances, age, and a host of other factors.

And we have this annoying habit of jumping around all over the map at different times as far as our behavior seems to go. Let me use myself as an example. I have a rational mind trained by decades of engineering experience. I fit that mold well at the time. But I also have become intuitive and emotional. I follow my feelings and intuition first. Rational thought is generally used to analyze my intuitive decision and justify or reject it.

Also, in another completely different dimension, I am very introverted. If we were together at a networking event there is a very good chance you wouldn’t know I was there, because I probably wouldn’t come talk to you. I’m too shy. Yet I have little trouble speaking in front of a large audience. I actually enjoy it and feel relaxed and welcome spontaneous discussion and questions. Weird. Complicated. Contradictory. But that is what people are.

Artist viewpoint

This is about artists, though. Let’s focus down on this strange group.

I believe artists have to be both rational and emotional. At least if you are a photographer.

Rationally, we have to know our tools and processes. We have to understand what we can and can’t do and how to use the technology to accomplish what we want. Using the equipment, both camera and computer, need to be second nature. No matter the actual complexity. As effortless as a painter using a brush.

The rational mind also gives us purpose and continuity. We decide where we are going, what our goals are, and how to market our self. Without a conscious focus on these things, we will drift. Our rational side helps us work out composition, framing, exposure considerations, and lighting.

But on the “soft” side, we have to understand our feelings and intentions. Why are we doing what we do? What experience are we trying to bring to our viewer? If we do not have strong feelings for our work how can we expect our viewers to? For most work, if we are not conveying strong emotions, it will fall flat.

Those of us who are naturally rational may have trouble with this. But it is possible to bend, to learn, to open up. We have to.

It’s a balance

The trick for artists is that we have to balance these two sides. Most non-artists can get away with not having to do that as much. Think of your stereotype of an accountant. Cold, objective, numbers person? Unemotional?

An artist needs balance. The rational side will decide what we are trying to do and what path we will follow to get there. It keeps us focused. Yet if we are totally rational our work will be static and dry. Precisely composed and technically perfect, but empty.

Our feelings will bring us passion and emotion, love of the image. Our viewers will sense this. They want to feel what we were feeling when we created it. But if we live totally in our feelings we will drift. We will follow every whim that tweaks our interest at the moment. We could even become one of those self-indulgent stereotyped artists whose personal life is a mess, who can’t keep focus on any goals and neglect their family and friends and even personal care.

Talking about that tendency to go too deep into the emotional side, Sean Tucker said:

Our rational minds are the foil that serves to balance those tendencies. They allow us to go deep but stay tethered to something truer and more stable than our shifting moods. They allow us to make our way far into the maze, knowing that we still have a thread to follow back into the light when we are done.

Sean Tucker, The Meaning in the Making

I love this image of the rational mind providing a safe path back when we have run off too deep into the wilderness of our feelings. We need to explore this maze, but we need to be able to get out, too.

Don’t be put in a box

Never allow yourself to be defined into a box by other people. Always surprise them, and yourself. Do the unexpected. If someone labels you as something, understand that that is just their opinion. It does not make you into anything. Other people’s expectations should not define us. You do not have to be either an apple or an orange.

Likewise, do not put yourself into a box. It limits your thinking. It artificially places bounds on what you can and can’t do. What thoughts you will allow yourself to even think. How much freedom you have to experiment.

Always do new things and try new ideas. This self-limitation is an even more serious problem, because we do not think there is anything we can do about it. Be aware of it and fight it.

When we feel trapped in one of these boxes, rather than accepting it we should ask “who put the box there” and “so what?” That is someone else’s box. If someone comes up to you on the street and draws a chalk box around you on the sidewalk and tells you you are in this box, just step out of it and keep going. Let them have their box. You don’t have to be in it.

Balance

I believe, as artists, we have to be both rational and emotional. I’m not trying to give a new personality theory. Are we exhibiting both conflicting traits at the same time or are we bouncing back and forth between them? Don’t know and don’t care. The results are all that matter to me.

It doesn’t have to be either apples or oranges. That is letting someone else define the problem. We are walking a tightrope. If we get overbalanced too far one way or the other, we will fall off into the pit. We won’t like that and won’t be doing much satisfying art there. But we have to walk the tightrope. It is part of the artist calling.

Today’s image

The image above represents this tightrope. I took a brief time to get a reasonable composition, proper exposure, depth of field, balance of forms, etc. That was mostly instinctual. But mostly, I hope you get how I feel about the guy. And I hope it makes you feel something, too, and think about him. I have my story, influenced by the range of sights and emotions at the time. I’ll let you tell your own.

Am I Creative?

intentional camera movement creates a unique view of fall colors

Am I creative? I wonder this a lot. Especially when I look at a lot of other people’s art. Surprisingly, it is not that I think the other work is better, it is that I look at most of it and think: that’s not very creative. I must not understand.

Is everyone else creative except me?

When you seem to be going in a different direction from everybody else, you have to think either they’re wrong or I’m wrong. It is hard to tell, because there are no anchors, no fixed points of reference, no authority to judge. So in a sense, it seems to be entirely subjective.

If there are no absolute standards, I guess I can’t look at other art and think it is not creative. It might be very creative, I just don’t see it. Or maybe I am jaded from making images too long. Maybe I am burnt out or I have set my standards too high.

Been there, done that

It is hard for me to look at art with the wonder and joy I want to. Too often my reaction is “been there, done that; seen it before, and better”.

Is it true that everything has been done? That there are no more new images to make, no new songs, no new novels to write? I hope not. That would be very depressing. It seems like fresh, new, creative things happen. I’m just not seeing it too much in photography.

What is creativity?

It has been said that creativity is your capacity to make innovative connections and free associations that others don’t do the way you do. So apparently there is something unique about our particular makeup and viewpoint of the world. I see things different from everyone else. You do too. So, if we can execute on our ideas, we should be able to bring forth unique and creative things that other people would not do.

But if I create something, does that make it creative? Most of us love to create. The joy and personal satisfaction of bringing something into being that would not have existed without us is extremely satisfying. Those of us who have learned that we can do this become addicted to it.

I hear people equate the concepts, though. I create therefore I am creative. This seems to be at the heart of the issue for me. Creating vs. creative.

Here is one of the places I get stuck. I see a lot of people go to extremes, to the bizarre or ridiculous just for the sake of being different. Is being different sufficient to be creative? By my standards, not every creation I see seems to me to be creative. I can relate to this somewhat satirical quote by Banksy: “Modern art is a disaster area. Never in the field of human history has so much been used by so many to say so little.

On the other hand, even if it is not bizarre, much of what I see labeled as “creative” leaves me puzzled. I look at it and think “how can that be creative? I’ve seen images like that lots of times.”

Buzz word

Has “creative” become just a required buzz word that everybody uses? Like “story telling” It seems like today everybody is story telling with their art. No, most of what I see has no story. It is just art that may or may not invoke some feeling or imagery in you. It may just be a pretty picture.

I guess “creative” has become like that. It would be an insult these days to say that someone’s art is not creative or not telling a story. Even when it is not.

Does an image have to be truly original?

It seems to me that there are 3 general classes of creativity: imitative, derivative, and unique. In my opinion, most art is in the first 2 categories. A few works are truly unique.

In imitative art, we see something we like and file it away so we can do something kind of like it later. We may create a very pleasing image, but it has not added anything new to our understanding. Maybe your goal was only to create a nice image. That’s OK, but it will not take you to the level of great art. It is not creativity.

In derivative art, something we have seen someone else do connects with some other ideas in our experience and inspires us to visualize something a little different. To me this is a valid type of creativity. We are building on other ideas and adding to the dialog. We have created fresh new art.

Occasionally, rarely, we or someone come up with something that is a leap from the mainstream. Something that is unique, that truly did not exist before. But even that is kind of an overstatement. There are stepping stones that lead even the greats to where they end up. Andy Warhol couldn’t have gotten to where he went without Picasso, Duchamp, even DC Comics. It is just that some artists seem to leap further and get there ahead of the rest of us. And we envy them.

But maybe I am arguing myself into the position that there is little wild, radical creativity. Most things progress in small steps.

Maybe it just needs to be our own?

With no scientific data, I am guessing that the majority of artists are imitative, and that most of the rest are derivative, as far as their creativity goes. A very few are truly, uniquely creative. Maybe that is good. If there were more creativity then the art world would be yanked in too many directions at the same time.

Even the art world, that thinks it is always looking for something new, resists change. Every major trend, like impressionism, modernism, realism, etc, was resisted by the critics and the entrenched leaders of the current movement. People actually don’t like wild leaps.

Maybe the best we can hope for is to look for derivative opportunities. Try to connect disparate ideas to synthesize something fresh and “creative”. Take risks, but not just for the sake of being different. This will help us rise above conventional ways of viewing things. It will let us contribute new ideas into the discussion and help people take their own steps to new ideas. Maybe the best view of creativity is that we make associations our own unique way to create things different from other people.

This is probably the level of creativity most of us can achieve. Maybe that is all that is required.

For me, I guess I will try to stop worrying about it so much. It shouldn’t matter to me whether or not I think other people’s work is creative. I will focus on making my own work creative in my estimation. I’m the one who has to be satisfied with my work.

Fall in Love

Organic flow. Creative expression. Fall in love.

I advocate it, but I’m not talking about a romantic meeting. Making art should be an act of love. We should fall in love with our works, or else, why do them?

Because it’s there

I mostly wander and explore without a lot of planning or result in mind. Sometimes I shoot pictures just because something is kind of interesting and I’m there to see it. That can be good, but usually not.

Being an explorer, I follow my curiosity. I tend to try a lot of experiments to see what happens. So if something tweaks my interest I often see what I can do with it. Occasionally I have a tingle and excitement when I press the shutter, knowing that I have captured something I love. Sometimes it doesn’t happen until I am reviewing the image large on my computer. Then I discover that it is far more interesting than I thought at the time I took it. Both are joyous occurrences.

More often than not, I find I have well composed, well exposed pictures of – nothing much. I look at them later and say “yeah, it was an interesting scene and it’s an OK picture, but it doesn’t grab me.” Usually I think it is because I did not feel strongly about the subject or scene. I didn’t fall in love with it.

If I don’t feel passion for the image, how can I expect you to when you view it? It is pretty obvious to me which ones really grab me. I think you can perceive it, too.

Over-planning

At the opposite end I see some photographers occasionally get trapped by over planning. Conventional wisdom from many renowned photographers is that any photo trip or outing should be planned out in great detail. They will research a location extensively, looking at pictures from other photographers to try to find the “best” places and positions and angles and times and seasons. In addition, they will use tools like The Photographer’s Ephemeris to select the exact time and day and location to get the exact sunrise/sunset/moonrise/ etc. shot they want. And they may book an outing with a workshop or guide to help with the logistics and transportation.

Is there anything wrong with doing it this way? Absolutely not, if that is the way you work. Different personality types need to approach things in different ways. Do what works for you, but don’t get into a mental trap.

One of the traps I see is that we tend to get so invested in the preparation for the shot that we have to take it. We spent a lot of time and money to get to that point. It becomes a quest. It has artificially become so important that we have to take the pictures to validate and justify the trip.

But what happens when you get there and the weather is “bad”? Bad being not what you planned for. Maybe you don’t like the workshop leader or structure. Worst, what do you do when you get there after all the planning and expense, look at the scene, and feel “meh”?

Of course you take the pictures. You have to. But if you’re honest, they may not make your portfolio set you are excited to show people. There was just no life there. You can check off that you got the iconic shot, but maybe it ends up not being very important.

Having our expectations too high can lead to disappointment.

Anti-planning?

You can guess from what I’ve written that detailed planning is not for me. I am almost an anti-planner. I tend to come at things the opposite way. Going to iconic locations and fighting for a tripod location and taking the exact same image 10,000 other photographers have taken just in the last month is not a motivation for me.

Yes, the scene is beautiful. Yes, it is probably salable because it is the type of image people like to have on their wall. Economically it is foolish to not get this image and pander to the crowd.

But for me, even though I think the scene is beautiful, I probably will not feel great passion for it. How can I distinguish myself from the thousands of other photographers shooting the same things? How can I tell my story or share my feelings?

In love

Back to the original statement of this article, I believe I have to fall in love with my images. If I am going to show you something I have made, it has to be much more than good. It has to have a passion you can sense. How can I bring you art you want unless I feel strongly about it?

Thoreau said “A man has not seen a thing who has not felt it.” The famous photographer John Sexton said “Too often we attempt to force a photograph out of a situation rather than allow the situation to speak to us.”

I am guilty at times of trying to force images to be there when I’m not actually listening and feeling. I recognize it. It is painfully obvious when I am reviewing them in Lightroom that I have a bunch of well executed pictures that mean nothing to me. Trashing them is the best thing to do. And use it as a reminder to follow the passion more than the light. If I don’t have a sense of wonder and passion for the image that is a good sign that it probably didn’t work.

“Follow your passion” is not always good advice in life – you have to do a lot of things you don’t like. But in art it is great advice. It may not be the clear path to fame and fortune, but you will feel good about what you create. And your viewers can tell. Love your work.

This example

I have used this image at the top before. It is a good illustration of my point here, though.

I love this image. I could stare at it for a long time. It speaks to me at a level I can’t even describe. The rich color, the organic flow, the streaks of movement over time, the standing wave shapes, the minimalist simplicity all move me.

This as shown here is almost straight out of the camera. It is what I shot. Yes, it has been cropped square and had some minor tone corrections, but this is what I discovered and jumped on. The color and the time effects of the flow are as shot. I liked it as seen through the viewfinder. I loved it after I saw it large on the computer.

It is one of the few pictures I have hanging on my wall at home.

Competition

Starting fear in the eye

Why is it that we feel like we are in competition with other artists? Maybe, at its root, it is envy or insecurity. I don’t like to live in a competition. My desire is to make art and share my vision with other people. I believe that feeling we are in competition with other artists leads to problems for ourselves and can be a malignant stress eating away at us.

Not competing until…

Most people merrily go through their lives enjoying art without feeling any sense of competition. But for those of us who become artists, unfortunately, we tend to become critical and competitive.

Once we are in the game we tend to look at other artist’s work more critically. It is hard to not think we could do better. Or think that our image that was similar was better composed and executed. Maybe we are right. Often, though, it is our ego or fear talking.

Theodore Roosevelt (may have) once said “Comparison is the thief of joy”. Regardless of who said it, it is true that comparing ourselves to others is seldom beneficial and uplifting.

Fear

Why should we fear looking at someone else’s work? I think a lot of us are insecure. We aren’t secure in our conviction about the adequacy of our artistic skills. We have to boost our confidence by convincing our self that we are as good as them. Perhaps we fear failure and are unwilling to put our work out in the world publicly and face the potential criticism and rejection.

It is not really a zero sum game – one winner and everybody else looses. When we see someone’s work that is good and excites us, we should be happy. It was a great achievement by them and it can inspire us to rise to greater levels in our own work.

But doesn’t their achievement strike fear into us? Oh no, we aren’t any good, why am I calling myself an artist, how can I ever compete with them? This is our insecurity turned to fear. We try to compensate by criticizing the other artist’s work. Maybe it will make us feel better. If we believe our self.

Jealousy

Another negative feeling we may get is jealousy. We may not like to admit it, but think about it. Other people are getting praise and attention. They are selling well and making a lot of money. I should be in this gallery instead of them.

We wish we were them. So we resent them. We look for ways to tear them down and to prove, even just to ourselves, that they are not so great. To believe that we are just as good.

But don’t forget, you are jealous of them because you recognize their talent. That should be sobering.

Become a critic

Even if we don’t have full on, green-eyed jealousy, we may become a critic. To paraphrase George Bernard Shaw’s famous quote: “Those who can, do. Those who can’t become critics.”

We can get to this point through festering fear or envy or jealousy. We try to put ourselves above the other artist. To give ourselves credentials to label them, to minimize their achievements, even to just nit-pick (the top left corner is not in perfect focus).

Let me be very controversial and say I don’t think there are many critics who are worth listening to. Unless a critic has demonstrated history of creativity and success in similar art forms, they should be just another voice of someone entitled to their personal opinion.

If George Lepp or John Paul Canponigro gave me a critique I would listen closely and thank them for their opinion. I would carefully consider it and may or may not act on it. If I decided to critique George Lepp, he probably wouldn’t listen to me at all. As he should. I have little experience in his genre and zero track record compared to him.

Competitive market

It is unavoidable a highly competitive market. We are always being compared to other artists. Fairly or unfairly, there will be winners and losers. The best don’t always win. “If you make it they will come” is ridiculous. There are biases and vested interests and politics at play everywhere.

When we compete – and we always compete – we need to avoid the attitude that we are competing against “all those other artists”. That is turning our view out to worry about forces we cannot control. Instead, do your best and make work you are proud of.

Sure, for a particular contest, we could research the judges and their styles and biases and research the audience and what usually sells and create work designed to score well here. It might work. But whose art are you creating? Is your work going to be dictated by other people’s attitudes?

Relax

Fear, jealousy, envy, and being critical are self-destructive attitudes. Look at other artist’s work and admire the ones you like. Go to them and sincerely congratulate them. It will have rewards for both of you. You will reclaim your self confidence and creativity. Getting over the competition and fear and jealousy will free up your emotional energy to create art.

The reality is that we have our own unique vision, our own style and viewpoint. We are best off when we try to be the best version of our self we can be and create our own art. Even is nobody appreciates it. (cue a vanGogh discussion here 🙂 ) Unless you are starving and view your art as a job to earn money, it is better to follow your own vision. It would feel good to win that contest, but wouldn’t it be more rewarding to feel very proud of what we created?

Art is an intensely personal internal journey. Hence the tag line for my blog: An artist’s journey.

Reality is Overrated

Realistic, but not real

Is this controversial for a photographer to say? I hope so. 🙂 Photography used to be the land of total realism. Not so any more. Photography for me is purely artistic expression, with little concern for reality. That’s because reality is overrated.

Reality – the good

There is a long and honored tradition of highly realistic landscape and street photography. When you think of landscapes, you might think of John Fielder or Art Wolf or Ansel Adams. For street photography maybe it is Henri Cartier-Bresson or Jay Maisel or Elliott Erwitt.

All of these artists were true to the reality of the scenes they found. Of course they looked for the best composition or the right light or the dramatic expression – that is why they are recognized artists. But the photographs they took were not modified at all, other than routine spotting or color corrections.

Is their work good because they only shot reality? No, their work is good because they are great artists. I could walk outside and shoot a picture looking down my suburban street and publish it. It would be absolutely real and unmodified. Would it be good art because of that? Not to me.

Reality – the bad

Following up on the point about shooting down the street, a picture isn’t good just because it is reality. Reality can be boring. It can be depressing. It can be dreary and banal. While there may be a time and place for these things, they are not where I want to spend much time.

I am not a critic or authority. I would never say such subjects do not constitute art. But don’t get caught up in the post-modernism depression where you don’t view art as worthwhile unless it is depressing or banal. That is just one passing movement led by some people with a very dark world view.

Be yourself. Express your own values. Like, and buy, what you like.

Assume no reality

Photography has become much wider and more diverse than it was a few decades ago. It used to indeed be true that “a photograph didn’t lie”. You could believe what you saw. Not anymore. Photojournalism may be an exception, but in today’s climate, I wouldn’t rush to ascribe too much credence to any particular image you see on the news unless you know the circumstances. News has become just a business, not a guardian of truth.

A lot of artists, including myself, no longer consider it necessary to represent reality. Now, some of my work is extremely detailed, with sharp, crunchy texture and edges. I actually like doing these sometimes. It is almost reveling in the detail that can be captured by my sensor and lenses. Quite the opposite of some of my blurred, low texture images.

But if you see one of my images with super sharp detail, don’t necessarily assume it is reality. Even when I am going for crisp and detailed, I am not at the same time representing to you that it is reality. It could be manufactured. Even if I know that it is real, it could look so abstract to you that you could not describe exactly what it is.

It is art, not a documentary

My point being that I am making art. I think most “artists” are making art. Enjoy it as art. Don’t be disappointed if you find out it is not reality. I’m not sure there is much overlap between art and reality.

Art may speak to universal truths and bring deep insights into our lives, but it does it through its metaphors and imagery. It does it by touching something within us. In the same way that Shakespear gives us a lot of insights about life, even though his stories are fiction.

So don’t assume photography has to depict reality while painting does not. Both are art.

It is art, not reality

I will go out on a limb and state that art is not reality and it cannot be. Art might show a representation of reality. Even a very realistic representation. But the art is not the reality. Art is a 2 or 3 dimensional object you look at.

To take an example that may be easier to comprehend, it is like a book. An excellent work of fiction may create a reality in our mind, but that reality is what we interpret from what the book describes. The places may seem real. The characters may seem real and alive to us. But they are feelings the author has communicated to us through the words. Not reality itself.

I am drawn to joy

On a personal note, I am drawn to joy and things that are uplifting. Even when my images are dark or showing bleak mid winter scenes, they are not depressing. At least, not to me. I try to find a hopeful angle on my art.

For instance, I love finding certain types of old rusty trucks and cars. After surviving for 50 to 90 years, it seems these relics have something to tell me. They have resisted the elements far longer than most things. They may be beat up and rusty and out of service, but they are still there defiantly. That is the joy to me in old things like this. They are still standing and making a statement; they are not junk. There seems to be something significant about that generation. Some quality that makes people want to keep them. A 1952 truck is often still around in 60 years. I don’t expect that many 2022 trucks will still be in as good a shape after 60 years.

The picture with this article is composited from shots of some old vehicles. It is detailed and sharp, but it is not “real”. No object I know of in the world actually looks exactly like this. That doesn’t keep me from creating it. I could even represent it as something that could be, even if it does not currently exist. But realism or potential realism is not an important consideration for me. I only care about if I like it. I do.

What do you think?