Excuses

Trying - and succeeding

Excuses, we have them for every occasion. There’s nothing interesting here. It’s too hot. It’s too cold. I’m too busy. The weather is not right. I don’t like this light. I’m not good enough. I’m shy. It could go on for a page or more. Excuses are our way of letting ourselves off the hook when we are scared or don’t want to do something.

As a heads up, this is about the dreaded topic of marketing. In case you want to stop reading now. 🙂

Why make excuses

Excuses are a way of absolving ourselves of responsibility. We shift the blame to someone or something else. It lets us off the hook. We didn’t fail, it was “their” fault we couldn’t do it.

Have you done that? I sure have. We don’t want to feel bad about ourselves. After all, we have a self image to nurture. The problem is when we rely on excuses to not do anything.

Fear

A lot of times we make excuses because we are afraid of doing something. Contact that gallery? No, they wouldn’t want my work. Submit for that show? No, I’m not good enough.

Fear of failure keeps us trapped in our own prison. We build a cage of excuses around us to protect ourselves from failing. But we can become trapped in a cage of our own making.

But we’re thinking about it wrong. What we fear almost never happens and not achieving our objective is not the same as failing.

What we fear

I believe a lot of us artists are introverts. We shun confrontation and don’t like to be criticized. Even if we are not introverts most of us do not like these things. So we fear that if we put our self forward we might be rejected. People might even think bad of us.

Here’s what I am learning: we will be rejected, again and again, and no one really knows who you are or cares enough to think bad of you. That sounds harsh, but it should actually be somewhat comforting.

I apply for a show and my submissions are rejected. I don’t know why. They do not give a critique. Perhaps what I entered doesn’t appeal to the juror. Perhaps they had different styles in mind. Maybe the juror was in a bad mood at the time. I cannot know. But what they didn’t say was “you are a failure; I hate your work; you are not worthy of being an artist; don’t ever enter this event again”. No, it was just a rejection. Get over it and go on.

Trying

You know the old Yoda line “Do or do not. There is no try“. It is a great line, but kind of misleading. Like Luke in the scene with Yoda, if we do not believe we can do it, we are probably right. The reality is that for most things, trying is all we can do. We cannot always create the outcome we want as long as we are dependent on other people’s decisions.

Trying does not mean we doubt ourselves. It means we recognize that many of the attempts we make will not succeed. And we’re willing to live with that.

It’s the trying that we fall short on. We’re afraid so we never try. We get a rejection so we stop trying. Persistence is required in order to succeed.

As I have said before, “build it and they will come” doesn’t work. We have to let people know about ourselves and our work. This is called promotion. It is called marketing. That is not a bad word. It is what makes us recognized and successful.

Just do it

For years I had the attitude that I love doing art but I hate marketing. I am shy so I am not good at it. People will eventually recognize the worth of what I do.

Ain’t going to happen.

People are not out there waiting anxiously to “discover” me. They do not know I exist and don’t really care. I have to take definite and active steps to make them aware of me. It may take many attempts before they will take a serious look at my work and see something they like. This is called “marketing”. I now see it in a different light. Rather than being a distasteful thing I should do, but don’t, I see it as an exciting opportunity to promote myself and be recognized.

No more excuses.

The great Wayne Gretzky famously observed “You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take.” You cannot succeed unless you try. I have finally internalized that. Just coming to believe that made it far less distasteful. Starting to do it and discovering that a rejection is not fatal and no one blacklists me for trying has made it far easier as I go along.

Try something. Act quick. Learn from your mistakes. Keep trying. Believe in yourself and never give up.

You haven’t failed unless you don’t try. Stop making excuses. Just do it.

Polarizing

Contemplation

I wish I were talking about the great polarizing filters I routinely have on my lens. But no. We live in highly polarizing times. Just look at almost any political talk, at least here in the United States that I am familiar with. Or any “discussion” of social values, climate control, animal rights, etc. There seems to be a bimodal distribution on all things. That is just a fancy way of saying everyone is to one extreme or the other with few in the middle – we are polarized.

I actually want to encourage it. Let me explain.

Emotion

One of my goals is to create a reaction in you with my images. It doesn’t have to be a strong reaction. I don’t shoot for social causes, so you won’t see starving refugees or sex trafficking or such subjects. Congratulations to those who are drawn to exploring such things, but that is not me.

Nor do images need to be graphic and depressing to evoke emotion. One of the side effects of the extreme polarization in most things is that promoters of a cause are extremely “serious” about what they are doing. To the point where, if you don’t agree and support them, you are a worthless human being.

I promise never to deal with you that way. My images look at the world around me, wherever I am. I try to find joy and wonder in even the smallest things. If I can transfer some of that wonder to you, I am successful. We all need more wonder and joy in our lives.

So one metric I look for is that an image needs to be more than just about something. It needs to make you feel something.

Boring

I will express my personal opinion that most photography is boring. Including some of mine. Beautiful sunsets get old quick. Technically perfect images aren’t much use unless the subject or composition is also very strong. And selfies – I won’t even go there.

I believe an image should move you in some way. Even if it is just to make you stare at it in disbelief or puzzlement. Ideally it should connect with you in some way. Some way that makes you pause and consider it for a while.

It takes a lot of effort to make an image that is not boring. That is one reason it is fun and creative.

Conventional

Another trap is making conventional images. That is, subjects and compositions that we expect, that are similar to what most other people do. This is playing it safe. This is a danger of thinking in terms of social media “likes”.

Learn the rules, then decide when to break them. You are an artist. There are really no rules. If we apply our creativity we can probably do better than the average and conventional. Try to look at things differently. Maybe a different position or unconventional lens choice. Spend time thinking about what you want to say.

Being different can easily be abused. I do not care for images that are different in some weird way just for the sake of being different. What makes you think that landscape actually looks better out of focus? Have something to say.

Wonder

For me, it comes down to trying to keep a sense of wonder and finding out how to convey that to my viewers. It’s easier said than done. Most of us lose our wonder as we mature. That is unfortunate. We are just getting to a place where we can understand enough of the world to actually wonder at it.

I understand. I lose my wonder at times and have to re-discover it. Especially now that I am old cynicism seems to wash the color out of everything. I fight it. Sometimes I win. It feels good to really get interested in something.

Power of art

I’m a hopeless optimist. I believe art is one of the things that can bring people together. It rises above our polarizing differences. There is not conservative or liberal art. No Blue or Red art. Even if we disagree on many things, we can share enjoyment of an image that speaks to us. We can even share dislike of an image.

Maybe agreeing on something we both don’t like can start bringing us together.

Love it or hate it

That brings me back around to my theme for this article. I want my viewers to feel something when they look at my art. Ideally I would like them to love it. But is they don’t, I would prefer them to hate it than to be indifferent.

This is my art. I labored over it to present it to you. Being indifferent is the most terrible outcome I can imagine.

Unlike our divided political climate, I would prefer a polarizing, bimodal response to my art. If you don’t feel anything one way or another I have probably failed. Even if you hate it, perhaps you will at least consider it for a few minutes and decide maybe there is something there to take away.

Try and Fail

Experimental Image

No, I’m not saying try “to” fail. If you have been there trying to do creative work, you know that you will create a lot of failures along the way to some good work. In creative work we often do not clearly know where we are going. That leads to a lot of failed experiments and dead ends. When we try and fail, is that bad?

Attitude

Our attitude about failure will have a lot to do with our results. A reality for many of us is that, if we are not failing, we are not stretching ourselves and developing new skills or vision. As creatives we cannot play it safe. We have to be risk takers.

I love a quote from a blog by Benjamin Hardy. He was talking about Molly Bloom and said “The moment you realize you can try and fail — and that everything will be okay — then you are free to create.

This is a liberating event in our creative journey. Failure isn’t final. Failure leads to growth. When you fail, no one comes and takes away your camera or your brushes. No one even laughs at us. Realizing we can fail and go on with no consequences frees us to try without worrying much about failing.

Learn by doing

We don’t upgrade our skills and exercise our creativity just by thinking about it. We have to take action. But just taking random action will usually lead to random, unwanted results. We need a way to follow a path that will take us to desired results.

You are probably familiar with the “do it, try it, fix it” loop. It goes by different names, but the concept is pretty much the same. This is an excellent process for improving things.

The basic idea is you try something new. Then you evaluate the results, Was it a success or an improvement? Decide what, if anything, you want to keep of this experiment to incorporate into your tool set. Then, based on the evaluation, plan what to try next. That becomes the basis of the next experiment. It is important to realize this is a cycle, meaning it continually loops and repeats.

Evaluate

At the evaluation stage many experiments may be tossed out. They did not take us in the direction we want to go. It was a failure, but that does not mean we failed. We just tried something that we decided didn’t work for us.

This is part of a process. It is a deliberate plan to systematically push the limits. To do that, we will try a lot of things that don’t work out satisfactorily. The failures are expected, planned even. Not something to be ashamed of. We should be happy to know we tried. Now we are free to do another experiment in a different direction.

Freedom

Freedom is at the core of the process. We are not just trying random things and mostly being disappointed with the results and insecure with our creativity. Instead, we are following a deliberate process of improving our self and our art. And knowing we can try anything with no fear of failure is extremely liberating.

It is easy to get discouraged and think of our self as the failure. We have probably all felt like a fraud who has no right considering themself an artist. Remind yourself that we have to change and grow creatively, and to do that requires a lot of risk taking and failed experiments. Following a process like outlined above makes it a methodical plan. It help us keep in mind that the failure is not a personal failing but a necessary and expected outcome of the growth process. It can be exciting. We can risk more when the fails are not catastrophic.

The image with this article is an experiment. It is probably not what it appears to be. I will leave it to you to decide if it was a failure. I have my own evaluation.

Failing

Walking in the rain

Most of us fear failing. We often avoid taking a risk because we don’t want to fail and feel bad about ourselves. This is a deep seated behavior that is hard for most of us to overcome. Fear of failing can paralyze us.

But I feel that, if you are an artist, you do not have the luxury of always playing it so safe you can never fail.

Fear failure?

Most of us fear failure in most things. Maybe almost as much as we fear public speaking.

Are you a perfectionist? Are your expectations so high that you cannot try new things for fear that you might not do a good job? Does even thinking about the possibility of failing give you rapid heart rate, chest tightness, trembling, dizziness, lightheadedness, sweating?

Or, sorry I’m getting very personal with myself now, are you afraid you are a fake? That you are not good enough or able to do what you profess to do?

Do not believe the labels other people want to put on you. They are quick to want to do it. Did you get rejected for that exhibit you applied for? It doesn’t mean you are a failure. Did a gallery reject you? They were just looking for something else. You can’t really be a failure unless you accept that you are.

Accept disappointment

Not getting the recognition or sales we are seeking hurts. Being rejected by the ones we seek approval from is painful and discouraging.

We have to have a core of confidence in our ability that will keep us going. Our belief in our self must be stronger that the negative messages we get from the outside. Otherwise we will either give up or we will believe that our art is not worthwhile the way we want to do it and we will change to try to become someone else’s idea of an artist. That is living a lie.

We must persist. There are very few true “overnight successes”. Here are some examples from authors. They seem to keep score more.

JK Rowling’s Harry Potter was rejected by 12 publishers.

John Grisham’s A Time to Kill was rejected by 16 publishers before he decided to get an agent. The agent eventually rejected him as well.

Chicken Soup for the Soul, by Jack Canfeld and Mark Victor Hansen, was rejected 140 times.

Stephen King’s Carrie was rejected 30 times.

These are just anecdotes, data points. Your mileage will vary. But isn’t it great that these people persisted despite what must have seemed like overwhelming failure?

Redefine

Perhaps your expectations are wrong. Maybe you won’t be the next Joe McNally. There are very few of them.

It could be time to change your metrics. Are you defining success as huge sales? Is success for you to be rock star-famous or published in National Geographic? Try looking at it in terms of the satisfaction you get from what you create. Whether you get fame or rejection, the inner evaluation of your art is your own.

Maybe the failures are a necessary part of our growth and maturing. They can reinforce our will to succeed and our belief in our self. It is part of growing up as an artist.

Seek failure

I’m kidding, right? Who in their right mind would seek failure?

Well, when we put ourself out there, that is giving the world an opportunity to reject us. To consider us a failure. We have to do it, to persist, to accept that the rejection will come because we need to have our art seen.

“I love my rejection slips. They show me I try.” – Sylvia Plath

We should embrace the rejections and failures as steps along the way. It is never fun or easy, but we need to get used to it. Keeping on trying even after rejections helps us overcome fear of failure. If we retreat into our shell and refuse to try anymore we will consider ourselves failures. We will believe that self-talk.

Plus, we learn from the experience.

Learn from failure

Whenever we are learning something challenging there is a time of testing ourselves to see if we are getting it. If we are studying math, we solve problems and take tests. If we are learning Karate we spar and go through testing to measure our proficiency. When we are learning music we are asked to do recitals to demonstrate our capability. The exercises develop our skill and the tests not only prove our ability, they develop our mental toughness.

If we never confront our fears we will never know what we are and what we are capable of. This is easier for some of us than others. It is pretty hard for me. I don’t like it. But I force myself to keep on. I may grumble and be in a bad mood for a while after getting a rejection, but I know I have to keep on.

Perhaps the real thing we are learning is how much we believe in our self. Do we consider our art worthwhile and worth the pain?

Terrible Images

Blowing grass by old shack

This is a follow up to my previous post “Kill Your Darlings“. It is too big a subject to let go that easily. There is a time and place for making terrible images. Even to seek to do it. Terrible images can be a springboard to new insight and growth.

One of my heroes I quote often, Jay Maisel, said

“I used to tell my classes when they raved about my work and compared it to theirs, ‘Believe me, I’ve taken more terrible images than all of you put together.’ The trick is not to show them to people.”

Experiment

I believe that experimentation is one of the most common and valid reasons for making terrible images. Many of us photographic artists spend a long time trying to discover our style. But once we have done that, I believe it is a mistake to settle down and only shoot to that style for the rest of our career. We need to push ourselves is different directions. View the works of other artists. Do things to make ourselves uncomfortable.

I am always reading articles and looking at videos to get new ideas. Making myself get out and try some of these ideas I pick up is necessary to see if they work for me. Sometimes they do, but sometimes I just make terrible images.

I have determined for my own values that if I am not growing in my concepts and techniques there is no reason to keep going. Keeping an uncomfortable edge to my work keeps me asking questions. It keeps me fresh. I do not want to keep shooting the same picture over and over.

Shoot a lot

As Jay Maisel hints in the quote at the start, shooting a lot of images is one of the keys to having good ones. The reality is that for even the best of us, the percentage is depressingly low.

No, just walking around and pressing the shutter every few seconds will not lead to some gems. It might make a mildly interesting time-lapse video.

Doing good work in any field takes practice. The infamous 10,000 hour rule is not a truth, but it is generally true. Any discipline takes uncounted hours of practice in addition to formal training. I believe it is certainly true for photography.

It is important to get out every day and practice. Practice seeing, discovering subjects, planning shots, framing compositions, executing good images. Sometimes you should even use a camera. ☺. The point being that you don’t always need to be actually taking pictures. You can practice while walking to the coffee shop or driving down the street. It is a mental discipline.

But it is a physical discipline, too. And it is very helpful to use your camera every day. Just having it in your hands helps sharpen your senses. Carry it everywhere. Actually using the tool builds muscle memory. And coming back and having to edit what you have done closes the loop. It makes me evaluate my work and really think about how I have done.

Edit ruthlessly

Ah, editing. The point of my previous post on killing our darlings. I believe this is probably the second hardest part of photography (the hardest being marketing).

Shooting a lot of images means having a lot to edit. This can get to be a real time sink. And it can be depressing. I’m trying to look at it, not as making lots of terrible images, but as having lots of failed experiments.

If you go out every day and make yourself shoot and try new things, most are going to fail. That is OK. A few will succeed. That is one of the things that keeps me going. A few succeed.

The failures should be learned from and then trashed. There is little reason to keep a bad image, unless it helps you remember what your were going for and why it failed.

Even if you are constantly experimenting and expecting large number of failures, there is no excuse for letting down your standards in the editing. Be ruthless. If I get even one “keeper” out of a day’s shoot, I am happy for it. Having no keepers is not a failure for a personal day.

Another insight from Jay Maisel is “It’s my obligation to take out all the ‘wrong’ pictures.

Be honest with yourself

I like to experiment. I like to put myself in new situations and try out new ideas and techniques. But I have to be honest with myself and admit that most of them do not work well. Sometimes there is a glimmer of hope that might lead me to experiment further with an idea, but a glimmer of hope does not mean an image that should be shown to someone.

I have to accept the fact that the vast majority of the images I make are bad. That is, bad by my standards, which is all I can go by.

Most of them should be deleted. Even of the ones I keep, that may have some personal significance to me, very few should be shown to people. I am starting to understand and accept this.

One of the lessons that has been hardest for me is that a tack sharp, well exposed and focused image may well be worthless. It probably is. If it does not have something useful to say it does not matter how technically perfect it is. I owe it to you, the viewer of my images to only show you one worth looking at and considering.

Don’t fall in love with them

So I know I am going to throw away the vast majority of the images I take. I know I will throw away piles of technically perfect images. I know I will throw away away most of the experiments I make.

Because I know that, I have to keep from falling in love with them all. That’s hard. I made them. But the digital ecosystem is littered with useless bits. I have to do my part by cleaning up as much as I can.

I said in the previous blog about this that I go through many rounds of edits and culls. I really try hard to delay falling in love with any of my images until they have survived several rounds and seem to be contenders. I am not always successful. There are times when I just love an image. I try to not let that bias the objectivity I need in my edits, but of course, love wins sometimes.

Not falling in love with them is more a goal than a hard rule. But the hard reality in photography is that most of what I produce is not really good and is destined to be deleted or buried deep in my filing system never to be seen by anyone other than me.

But if it hurts and they are going to be thrown away, why shoot lots of terrible images? I don’t know of any way to improve beyond where I am or to expand my vision without experimenting and then ruthlessly editing. Terrible images are necessary.