I Don’t See Anything Interesting Here

Is it interesting?

I had just parked at a trail by a river near my house. It was a crisp late fall day. As I was getting my equipment out of the car a woman passed me coming back from the trail. She asked if I was going to take pictures. (Seemed obvious to me, but people are funny) She then gave the pronouncement “I don’t see anything interesting here.” I was stunned and probably said something non-committal like “I’ll take a look anyway”.

That has stuck with me. I’m still trying to figure it out. Sometimes it seems deep; sometimes it seems just silly. But it intrigues me.

I must confess that I have the same problem at times. Sometimes I set out with the idea that I am looking for a certain “thing”. I don’t advocate that and I have written against it, but I fall into the trap sometimes. Our marvelous, adaptive brains do amazing things to “help” us achieve our goals.

A funny thing happens when you go looking for something. It seems that that’s all you find. It is just human nature and it can hardly be avoided. If you go out looking to take a picture of a monkey then all you will see are monkeys or non-monkeys. Your focus and perception are tuned to reject anything that is not a monkey. You are often throwing away wonderful scenes because of your mental blinders.

But to take it a step deeper, it raises some interesting questions that I have to ask myself. Things like, is everything interesting? What does it take to be worthwhile to take a picture? How much of a picture’s interest is based on our perception at the instant? Is it a failed outing if I don’t get a good picture? Who says if an image is interesting?

It is my position that many things are interesting in the right conditions. I believe this to be generally true. I don’t agree with some post-modernists who seek out intentionally bland and uninteresting subjects, but I believe many things can be interesting. But on this day, in this light, in this weather it may not be interesting. So don’t force it.

What makes it worthwhile to press the shutter? When I’m in doubt I usually ask myself “is this actually an interesting picture? Will I actually use this?”. If I can answer that it is or might be, I press the shutter. I also need to follow up and ask if this is the best time, location, atmosphere, lighting, etc.

Ah, but how much of the interest is based on our perception at the time? A lot of it, I think. I trust my perception, my instinct, when it is calling to me. But I tend to err on the side of taking too many images. Sometimes when I’m editing later I ask myself “what I was thinking?” as I delete blocks of images. But sometimes there is a rewarding payoff. Those happy times when I discover my intuition was really on to something and I have a gem there. Of course, since I only had a vague idea of the worth at the time I might only have a sketch that I need to go back and work in more detail. But still, my subconscious is sometimes more perceptive than my conscious mind. Some say perception is reality. I don’t know, but perception certainly guides our view of reality.

And one of the painful questions, is it a failed outing if I don’t come back with a good picture? I have come to the conclusion that there are seldom failed shooting outings. They are all useful, if only for practice. Being out, with your senses sharp and searching, getting to take pictures – how can this be bad? You don’t hit a home run every time at bat.

Then there is the existential question of who gets to say if it is interesting? My answer is, the audience I am trying to please. In my case, that is me. Of course, I hope some other people will like it, even occasionally buy it. I will be the judge, though, of worth or success of an image. I may be wrong and I may change my mind over time, but it’s my call.

So how about that day. After she “challenged” me about no interesting pictures I was determined to prove her wrong. That is the wrong attitude. I regret it. Following my normal process would have helped. I allowed her to throw me off. So I don’t like much of what I got that day. But it wasn’t a total waste. I hope you like the image at the top of this article.

The Raw Edges

Art is created by people on the raw edges of human experience. But that does not mean suffering. A heightened state of awareness can just as easily be a state of joy.

I was intrigued by this quote from Ryan Frawley (I couldn’t find the reference):

Art is born at the raw edges of human experience, and joy or love or awe will get you to those edges as surely as unhappiness will. An artist is one who responds to the unknowable mystery of existence with fascination, not despair. 

We all know the stereotype that the miserable, doubt plagued, suffering artists are the truly creative ones. That is not my experience so far in my journey as an artist. I certainly hope it is not correct. That’s not the kind of life I want to live. Who would?

The really good artists I have met are passionate and joyful. There are a lot of passionate people in the world and some joyful ones. Most of them are not artists. So passion by itself is not the key.

I believe one of the key differences is self awareness. It seems to me that most people drift through their lives in a fog of busyness and activity, trying to anesthetize themselves with entertainment, which our world uses as a proxy for happiness. This puts our focus inside our head. Entertainment may lead to brief happiness, but it is not joy. Real joy is an internal decision. It may be closer to contentment, where you are at peace with yourself regardless of your current state of happiness.

As Ryan said in the quote above, this joy or love or awe leads to a response in the artist. One of the aspects of this is a heightened awareness of the wonders and possibilities all around. To opening yourself to more of the experience. To seeing with fresh eyes or a new viewpoint. This makes an artist an explorer. Each stimulus can reveal a new path or lead to a new insight. Looking.

Where we look and what we see can make all the difference. If we choose to look mostly inside ourselves we tend to be isolated, cut off from what is happening around us, unaware. If we maintain a state of joy and awe we can see a bigger and more wonderful world. The heightened awareness makes us see more, feel more, perceive more. That is where a lot of art comes from. Everybody has a chance to see roughly the same things, but what do we each perceive? Fascination is a wonderful guide to lead us to perception.

Try it! Try to feel joy and awe. It is not an easy transition. It’s unfair of me to say to “just start feeling awe”. But you can start with small steps. Practice it. One of the keys to these attitudes is that they are internal values and perceptions. They are not dependent on what is happening to you. They are a choice. Look around with more open eyes figuratively. Look outward. Be more aware of your surroundings. That boring scene you go by every day may look fascinating one day, maybe when the light is just right. You might come to a whole new appreciation of it. Then tomorrow notice something else.

You do not have to wait for the world around you to “get right”. You just change your own attitudes, your perception, and that changes everything. The artists I know seem to have the talent for engaging this heightened self awareness. Maybe that is more important than talent.

Be Different, Like Everyone Else

I hate getting cynical (even though I am), but at times it seems to me that there is little originality in the art world. It’s just a business. The gatekeepers want to put you in a box to make it more convenient for them to stereotype you and know “where you fit in”. Difference and variety are actually discouraged.

Galleries and dealers say they are looking for fresh and creative and unique, as long as it is like all the works they already carry. Curators look for cutting edge, original work, as long as it is just like the shows they usually put together.

This sounds like middle school, where everybody is consumed with angst and frantically seeking their individuality; trying to be themselves. Which means they are desperately trying to look and dress and act exactly like everyone else in their group. Because if they actually were themselves, the leaders in their peer group would make fun of them. How ridiculous.

Standard advice for new artists is that you have to develop a signature style and a body of work focused on a few projects or themes. That does not work well for some of us. My themes and subjects are wide ranging. I might be doing street photography this morning and landscapes this afternoon and still lives tomorrow and composites the next day and … The forces that motivate me, helped by my borderline ADD, also prevent me from focusing all my attention on one theme or subject. I wander where my curiosity leads me and enjoy seeing what I find along the way.

So when people ask what I do, I can really only say “I’m an artist”. If they push beyond that, well, most of my work is outdoors, all is digital, it is usually based on photography, and it is “fine art” in the sense that it is not intended as documentary or reportage. I am not representing any of my work as “truth”. I lean toward the abstract and even surreal, but I also enjoy crisp, highly detailed shots of an old barn. My work may be heavily manipulated or composited – or not. I intend for the main destination of my art to be prints.

If I put together a portfolio for a gallery it may have an image of a church building, and an abstract view of a tree, and a wide landscape on the high plains, and a pure composited abstract, and a black and white landscape in the mountains and several other seemingly disjoint things. Their reaction is “what does this mean? what do you shoot?” I can only answer that this is my style. I am curious about a lot happening in the world around me. My style is the subject, the point of view, the way it is shot, the attitude and feeling I bring. Each one is me, my expression and my reaction to what I encounter. Purity, consistency, and following rules is not my strong suit.

Because of my wide interests, my inventory of images is pretty large. I would be glad to pull special portfolios for a gallery or designer if they have a certain subject or genre they are looking for. But if they take the attitude that I’m not worthy of consideration unless I only do the type of projects they value, it makes me wonder who they think the artist is. They expect me to be different, like everyone else.

So should I follow the path that calls me or do what other people expect of me? I like what Darius Foroux said: If you want to stand out from the crowd, guess what, you have to stand out from the crowd.

Visit my web site

To get a better idea of the range of things I value and do, please check out my web site:

Seeking Boredom

Frosty high plains morning with a flock of birds

I actually create opportunities for boredom. I seek it at times. I enjoy it, in the right measure. It is necessary to my mental health and vital to my creative process.

Patricia Meyer Spacks argues that the contemporary concept of boredom did not exist until the 18th century. Up until then people were too busy surviving to think about the quality of their free time. You had to plant the crops, tend the animals, harvest the crops, weave your cloth, make your furniture, kill and cook your food – there was no time to reflect on whether or not you were entertained.

Our life today is much more indulged. We are never far from an endless stream of movies, tv shows and funny cat videos. In the same way that being “too busy” has become a badge of honor for many people, the idea has spread that life is not worth living unless you are entertained every free minute. Most of the people I know are completely at a loss if they are cut off from the internet. They are like a trapped animal ready to chew its leg off to escape.

So am I some sort of masochist bent on inflicting pain on myself by intentionally allowing boredom? Quite the opposite. I have discovered that I need time to process information. We need to “let our mind wander” to give our subconscious freedom to make associations and connect the dots as Steve Jobs put it. A major part of creativity is being open and receptive to ideas, to what if? questions, to seeing things in different ways. I believe it is nearly impossible to do this when we are immersed in the noise of modern life.

Being bored is a great motivator. It may force us to pick up a notebook and write, or pick up a camera and shoot aimlessly, or pick up a tool and start making something. Something will come of this. The product we are making right now may not be great, but it is exercising our brain, it is allowing our creativity to flow, it is giving us the space to connect the dots. It may lead us to a place we never anticipated.

One of the exercises I do that is totally mysterious to most people is to turn the audio off when I am driving. Try it and you will find yourself locked up with your own thoughts. The boredom crashes in on you. Try driving across eastern Colorado or western Kansas with the radio off. The thought of it would make most people ready to chew their leg off. But if you are lucky, you come to accept it and realize the benefits it can release.

Being alone in your own head, without someone else’s programmed video or audio track to lead you, you think random thoughts. Unanticipated ideas come. You look back on things and forward to things and think about who you really are, what you have done, what you want to do. And if you are driving you spend time really looking around, actually seeing things, wondering about them. You can think “hey, I’ve never been that way; I wonder where that road goes?”. And you might even check it out.

One of my early guides in photography, John Shaw, said: We are surrounded by beauty and live in a world of wonder, if only we take the time to see what is all around us and permit ourselves to feel deeply and genuinely. In the smallest detail we might discover tranquil harmony, and in the largest expanse elation and joy. Thoreau said Most men live lives of quiet desperation.

I believe a way to break out of that desperation, to feel deeply and genuinely, is to practice boredom and let that lead us to a new place. A place where we are directing our own lives and thinking our own thoughts.

The image attached to this article would never have been found had I not put myself in a very boring place – and gotten lucky. Actually, it’s not just luck, but that’s another story.