Bucked off, failure

Does art have “meaning”? Especially a deep meaning that leads to truth or changes the life of the viewer. This is a thorny subject that has been debated for centuries. I’m not going to settle the question. (Sorry) But I can give my POV.

The Elitist view

Some say that all art does, or should, have meaning. It should educate or enlighten. It should lead the viewer to a new state of understanding. To some all art should support a cause or attempt to change the world. One of the unfortunate extremes of this is the frustrated attitude that if you don’t “get it” you are not in the privileged elite. You are too lowly, unworthy to understand.

This very high minded view is often presented by galleries and some artists in their artist statements. I can understand it, really. They are selling a product. The more elite and special it seems to be, the higher price it can command. The more collectable it is. I’m guilty of it at some level.

And it probably is more typical of art that takes a long time to produce. If you worked for weeks or months on a painting or sculpture you naturally want to believe it has some reason to be worth a lot. Otherwise, why did you waste your time? It is natural.

But I don’t want to discuss those more classical media. My art is based on photography.

Does my photography have intrinsic meaning?

Does a photograph, one of my photographs, have meaning or represent some great truth?


Sorry, that’s the best I can do, because I believe it is the right answer. Meaning, if any, is a communication process between the artist and the viewer.

Take the image with this post. Does it have meaning to you? I could write a whole post on the symbols and relations I see in this. That does not mean you will or should.


When I produce an image, it is an instant of the world seen through my eyes. But is it also interpreted through your eyes. I may believe it has significance, but I may not communicate it effectively to you. Or I may capture something I think is interesting, but to you it represents an insight or truth I did not consciously see.

That represents part of the problem. There are multiple parties involved. There is me, the author, on one side. I produce it. It is interpreted through my viewpoint, through my beliefs and vision and talent. I had a reason for creating the final image. On the other hand, each person viewing it sees something different. Some may see deep meaning. Some may only see a pleasing image. Others may be completely bored with it. Even if I believe there is meaning there I may fail to effectively convey it to you.

My thought is to say it is my failing if I do not succeed in conveying the meaning, but that is too simple. We each have our own values and history and viewpoints. You may not be receptive to what I have to say. If that is the case it is not so much that I have failed, but that we just can’t get together on our viewpoints. Maybe that’s kind of like the current political mess we have.

Do I have to bring meaning?

Ah, but there is a subtle assumption in this argument. It assumes I really was trying to teach you something deep. Here’s a secret: I don’t usually. It is often sufficient that an image is pleasing to me.

Life is multi-faceted. There are many layers and levels. Not everything has to be deeply significant and serious. Lighten up. Let some things exist just for pleasure. I am very happy with an image that I believe conveys beauty or joy or simply brings something interesting to your attention.

It is a consistent theme with me, but I believe our high pressure, hurried lives are causing many of us a great deal of stress and actually reducing our pleasure in life. I want to produce art for your wall that will give you a moment of pleasure when you notice it. Hopefully you will slow down a minute, contemplate it, use it as a reminder to look around more for what is going by all the time. That’s enough meaning for me.

So, meaning? It’s overrated. I hope my art beings you to a new place, but art should bring joy, not be a school exercise. I promise I will not score you down for not seeing all I believe there is in one of my images. Analyzing the meaning of my work doesn’t being me joy, I just want to create!

But that’s just where I am. What are your thoughts?

Moment Hunting

Once in a lifetime

An intriguing Japanese concept called Ichigo Ichie has recently been revealed to me. It literally means “one time, one meeting”. A better translation may be “once in a lifetime”. An expanded translation, that appeals to me more, could be “What we are experiencing right now will never happen again. We must value each moment like a beautiful treasure. We must become moment hunters.”

This idea of becoming “moment hunters” is very powerful to me. This is one of the things I love about photography that is different from most other art forms. I can capture moments as they are happening. When I press the shutter on my camera, the entire world visible through the lens is recorded on the sensor. It does not have to be slowly drawn and/or painted. Have you noticed that most paintings are static? If not, the artist probably took a photograph and painted from it later.

No tomorrow

This has been impressed more and more to me as I get older. There is no assurance of a tomorrow. Even if there is, the moment you see now probably will not exist. The light, the weather, the interaction taking place – these things will never repeat exactly, if at all.

So now, if I see something, I take the picture. It doesn’t matter as much if I am late to something or if I lose my place in traffic or if I even have to turn around and go back (something guys are supposed to never do).

Even when I am out driving or walking with friends I will stop and capture an image if I really like it. My real friends understand and others, well, hopefully they will be patient, but that is not my problem. The image is very important to me. I have learned that you can’t come back later and find it.

We’ve all experienced it

I am starting to learn. Too many times I have thought “that is really great; I will catch it next time”. Even if you get back in an hour, the light will be different; the clouds will have moved; something. Or if you note something interesting enough to return to, say next month or on another trip next year, it will be different. That very shapely tree is covered with leaves and is not as interesting. That great scene is now a housing development, never to be interesting again.

One of my heroes Jay Maisel tells a story from early in his career. In his book “It’s Not About the F-Stop” (I do not receive any compensation from this) he has this example. He was at the Tokyo Fish Market.

“I find a room with cakes of ice, light coming from below, cutting knives on top. This is great. I take a few shots, but I’m really supposed to be shooting something else, so I figure I’ll go back there later and really work it.

I get back a few years later. I’m looking forward to working on it, but it’s not there anymore. It’s been replaced with air conditioning.”

Based on this and other experiences he always tells his students “Never go back”.

Not a new concept

This idea of Ichigo Ichie comes from about the 16th century. It came out of tea ceremonies. The ideas migrated into Zen Buddhist philosophy and was expanded with their thoughts on transience.

It also appears in martial art training. The idea was that even in training you can’t just stop and do it over. In a life-and-death struggle you don’t get a “try again”.

And isn’t life such a life-and-death situation? Now is what we have. Use it.

Ichigo Ichie was even used as the subtitle to the 1994 release of Forest Gump in Japan. It seemed to reflect the events of that movie.

All we have is today

Great scenes don’t stick around. Everything changes all the time. If you like the image, stop and capture it. There is little chance you can find it again later. Now, you might find a better one by coming back to a location with better light or better weather. Landscape photographers try to do this all the time. But it will be a different scene. This one you see right now will never be the same.

Usually I focus these almost exclusively on art and photography. This concept is much broader.

It scares me now to think of all the transient things I miss if I’m are not disciplined about recognizing them. Your kids, for example. They are growing up every day. They are learning new things all the time. Are you spending the time to interact with them, to help them and shape them?

Or your mate? They are really the most important person in your life. I hope for your sake they will be with you the rest of your life. Are you conscious of your interactions? Do you always treat them with respect and love? Do you work to keep the romance going?

Or friends. Being with friends is special. When it happens, be fully there. Take advantage of the time. Treasure every encounter. This is one of the things life is really about.


Sorry to get so philosophical. Usually I try to stick strictly to art. This topic is very close to me and I believe it is important.

Oh, and the image at the top of this post? It is a good example. I was driving in a remote area, with my wife and best friend, as darkness approached on a blustery winter night. We were in a hurry, but I had the guts to stop anyway and take this. I’m glad I did!

Hunting the Image

Street vendor, Paris market

Certain types of photography have a lot in common with hunting. At least some types of hunting. This can heighten the experience for many artists.

Some of the ideas for this article come from Michael Freeman’s excellent book The Photograper’s Eye. I encourage you to read it. It is part of a series, all excellent. And no, I get nothing from recommending this. I seem to base a lot of ideas on Freeman’s writing. He is one of the most articulate and insightful photography authors I know.

Street photography, wildlife photography, even portrait photography have the characteristics of having a “decisive moment”, as the great Cartier-Bresson said.

He also said: “Photography is not like painting. There is a creative fraction of a second when you are taking a picture. Your eye must see a composition or an expression that life itself offers you, and you must know with intuition when to click the camera. ” He also said “once missed, the opportunity is gone forever“.

In my opinion, street photography is perhaps the highest form of this art. It is done in the chaos of busy, uncontrolled scenes. The photographer does not influence or position the subject or typically even ask for their cooperation. He has little control over lighting or crowds passing by. All the many decisions of recognition of an interesting scene, composition, exposure, framing, and the trigger of the decisive moment must take place in the artist’s mind in an instant. One second is a luxury in this field.

And when the moment passes, it is gone forever. Forget it and go on the the next opportunity.


The artist can do some important things to prepare for street photography. One of the simplest is to become so familiar with your equipment that it is an extension of your mind. Adjustments must be instantaneous, automatic. If your camera requires traversing through menus to adjust required settings, that will probably not work. You should be able to set up your camera in the dark.

Another thing to do to learn to be good at this is developing an enhanced ability to observe and be aware. In flying this is called “situational awareness”. It really just means you are constantly attentive and alert. The US Marines would say your “head is on a swivel”. You have to be aware of everything going on around you. The more quickly you can recognize a developing scene, the better chance you have of capturing it.


This brings me to the hunting analogy. I used to really enjoy bow hunting. Stalking through the woods tracking a quarry really focuses you and heightens your senses. I was successful in never actually shooting an animal. Eventually I realized I enjoyed the process of hunting much more than I wanted to kill something and I would be much happier hunting with my camera than with a bow or a rifle.

Cartier-Bresson also said, in an uncharacteristically Zen-like statement, “In whatever one does, there must be a relationship between eye and heart. One must come to one’s subject in a pure spirit.” I choose to interpret is as meaning that when you go out seeking images, you must focus your whole mind and attention on what you are seeing. You must have all your skill and concentration turned up full. All your spidey senses tingling and ready to pounce.

It is best to go out empty, as the great Jay Maisel says. He means do not bring preconceived ideas of what you want, because that is all you will see. Instead you must be completely open to what is going on all around you. It may be totally different from what you thought would be happening, but that’s OK. Embrace what is there and make the best images possible.

In case you hadn’t guessed, I love street photography. It takes me out of my comfort zone. It gives me intense practice in mental focus, fast reaction, decisiveness. I may not be great at it, but I enjoy it and I think it helps improve my other photography.

This awareness and tension and flow becomes almost a spiritual state. Hours can pass without you being conscious of the time. Like with any state of flow, it can be euphoric We are called by instinct and intuition to be intensely aware of those peak moments that define our subjects.

The hunt is on!

Let me know what you think!

Night Photography

Night photography sample

Most people put away their cameras when the sun goes down. But night photography can be a wonderland of visual interest. It does require some new disciplines and knowledge, though. It’s a different world at night.

What’s to know? My camera has excellent exposure metering. I just point it at the subject and take a picture. Right?

Well, your mileage may vary. If you are taking pictures with your phone or taking jpg images, you will get pretty good results sometimes. That is because the jpg processor is making many creative decisions for you to try to render an image it thinks you wanted. If it guessed right it might do an OK job.

With night photography, more than many other types of image making, you really need to be the decision maker in charge of your images. Your intent determines how you approach each scene. The type of subject, the type of light available, whether or not movement is desired, the mood desired, weather conditions, etc. all factor in to the strategy. And most of these factors are interrelated.

Type of image

A portrait at night will (probably) require a well lit subject. This may involve external lights and/or reflectors. A star field scene, on the other hand, may have just a vague or silhouetted foreground. No lights, but you need to know good techniques for capturing the stars as crisp points. A cityscape at night may require very long exposures to streak car lights.


A big decision is if movement is desired or not. Some possibilities: a street scene with everything crisp and frozen, a street scene with car lights and people streaked, a star field with crisp points of light, a long exposure star field with obvious streaks from rotation of the sky, a portrait with a crisp subject but blurred background motion. Each of these requires a different exposure approach and different planning and preparation.

Motion is often one of the signature characteristics that distinguish night images. It is something you completely control by your exposure settings.

Mood of image

The time of day, the subject matter, and your desired treatment establish the mood of an image. Time of day? We’re talking about night. Well, “night” starts at different times. There is sunset, twilight, dusk, blue hour, and full darkness. I don’t have space here to discuss each one, but I love all of them and enjoy making images in each. Probably blue hour and full dark are my favorites, except I can seldom resist a beautiful sunset.

Blue hour probably deserves some discussion. This is the time after the sun is completely gone and the orange glow is gone from the sky. The sky is a rich, dark blue and still light enough to set off a foreground like city lights. It is a beautiful time of day. Blue hour is perfect for some city skylines and for some landscapes.

Full dark is required if you want to see the stars. It is probably necessary if you want long exposures like smoothly streaked car lights.

But all of this is modulated by the desired result. Do you want dark and gritty or more cheerful and upbeat? Is it a realistic image of architecture or an abstract?

Full manual control

You will usually need to override the auto exposure of your camera. The poor exposure system with fail miserably trying to determine what you want if you point it at an almost totally black sky. So a camera with full manual control is required. You will need to determine and set the ISO, aperture, and shutter speed yourself.

This is not as bad as it seems. You will learn some guidelines for initial settings for the scenes you most commonly shoot. And with digital, it doesn’t cost much to shoot some test shots. Since you can get immediate feedback you will quickly zero in on the correct settings.

Technology and technique

Night photography is an extension of normal daylight photography. Some new techniques must be learned. They are specialized, but most are pretty straightforward.

Night photography generally implies longer exposures. This implies keeping the camera rigidly positioned. Therefore a good tripod is almost a necessity. And a shutter release to minimize camera shake when you press the release button. And if your camera is an SLR with a mirror, you need to know how to lock the mirror up to eliminate shutter slap motion.

Let me emphasize again, a good tripod is necessary. Don’t scrimp on this. Get the best you can afford and use it all the time. I generally use Really Right Stuff tripods and heads (I get no compensation for this), but I know that Gitso is also very good. There are many good tripod manufacturers, I just don’t have first hand experience to allow me to recommend others.

Unless you are going for really long exposures, you will often need to use a high ISO at night. Many modern digital cameras have excellent high ISO performance. If you go back to film days or early digital cameras, you probably think of ISO 800 as a really fast and grainy setting. Not anymore. On the Nikon Z7 I use now, noise is hardly detectable at 3200!

Another example of a specialized night photography technique is the “rule of 500”. Like all photography “rules” it is a guideline. It can be a helpful starting point for setting up a night sky shot. For a full frame camera, set the ISO to 3200 and the shutter speed to 500 / [focal length] seconds. So using a 24mm lens, that is 500/24 or approximately 20 seconds. This is a great guideline to memorize for when you are out in a really dark place at night trying to get the night sky exposure tweaked in.


Noise during the image capture is a potential problem unique to digital sensors. At least we do not have to try to estimate reciprocity failure as we did with film. Noise in electronics is a function of temperature. Long exposures power the sensor much longer than usual, which can heat it up and increase noise (it looks kind of like grain).

Most camera manufacturers provide a setting to have the camera take a dark frame immediately following an exposure. This gives a noise sample which is automatically subtracted form the image you just took. This does a pretty good job of compensating for the sensor noise. Sometimes you will want to use it and sometime not. I usually do not, because it is often cold when I am out, which minimizes noise. The main cost of the noise cancelling is doubling the exposure time. If you set a 20 seconds exposure it will immediately follow it with a 20 second noise sample.

Post processing

Post processing is almost always required, in night images or any others. It is common to want to reduce luminance and/or color noise, to make the blacks deep and full, to sharpen, and, for some scenes, increase saturation or contrast.

I mention it here, not because night photography necessarily needs it more, but to emphasize that you need to shoot RAW and always post process.

After the sun goes down

A whole new world opens up when the sun goes down. Don’t put your camera away as soon as sunset fades! Get out and experiment. Try some different things. You don’t have to go to Moab and shoot grand night sky shots of the Milky Way with arches in the foreground. Experiment in your city. Learn to be confident manually setting exposures. Practice until you regularly get the results you want.

Try it! Don’t worry about failing. It can be fun and instructive! I ended up loving some of my failures.


Trying to maintain the status quo

Inertia is a principle of physics that says a body in motion tends to stay in motion and a body at rest tends to stay at rest. This is a fundamental physical property of the world. Inertia is also, I believe, a mental attitude.

Some of this harkens back to one of my favorite blog posts called “A Road Less Traveled“, but with a different slant.

Most of us stay very busy “doing” our lives. We have job, family, bills to pay, Facebook posts to read and reply to, clothes to wash, etc. It’s full time trying to keep up with all the demands and expectations. There never seem to be time to kick back and do the things we wish we could do.

Is that really true or are we our own worst enemies sometimes?

Safe and comfortable

It is always easier to keep on doing the same things the same way. It seems safe and comfortable. The familiar ruts are easy to travel. Following the ruts means we don’t have to make hard decisions or examine ourselves. We don’t bring up uncomfortable questions.

It takes a rather large injection of energy to change. But we’re so busy and tired we don’t have the energy. Inertia. It keeps us doing the same things over and over. Ooh, that sounds like the famous quote Insanity: Doing the same things but expecting different results.

No, I’m not saying any of us are insane (I don’t know you and I wouldn’t admit about myself). But many of us have this characteristic of insanity: repeating the same unsatisfying patterns over and over without questioning why. It’s the easy way.

The reality is few of us are as helpless as we think. If you are feeling ground down by your job, increase your skills and get a better job. If you don’t like your environment or don’t feel safe, move. Stop watching the news, that will make anybody less depressed. Take 24 hour breaks from Facebook (or your drug of choice) at least once a week. The world will not come to an end. You don’t need to check your phone every 10 minutes. Put it on airplane mode for hours at a time. Take more charge of your life. Stop assuming you are powerless.

And then you can start controlling more of your life, start adding in things that are more meaningful to you. Reading, meditation, spending more time with friends, playing with your kids, learning new skills, doing art. It’s not making sweeping changes in your life; it’s taking small but deliberate steps toward your values and beliefs.

Bump, bump, bump

I love this quote from Winnie-the-Poo:

Here is Edward Bear, coming downstairs now, bump, bump, bump, on the back of his head, behind Christopher Robin. It is, as far as he knows, the only way of coming downstairs, but sometimes he feels that there really is another way, if only he could stop bumping for a moment and think of it.

A.A Milne

Most of us are bumping down the stairs with a vague idea that there should be another way. We are not really helpless. But change takes determination, energy, conscious effort, and a vision of where we want to go. It is uncomfortable at first. It can be scary. Start small and build your confidence. Small successes lead to larger ones.

What about “creatives”?

This blog is ostensibly about art and my artistic journey. Does this idea of inertia apply?

Oh, yes. Definitely. It is the old saying that when you point a finger at somebody, you have 3 fingers pointing back at you.

I have to consciously fight this all the time. It is too easy to keep taking the same path, to create the same images over and over. I have to constantly ask myself “Why am I doing this? What am I trying to say here? Do I still really resonate with this subject or style? Do I have a better idea I feel like I should try, but it seems risky? What if I fail?”

Artists can easily get stuck in a rut. Then they stop growing and developing and exploring their creativity. It is an humbling self-examination I have to go through all the time. For an artist, maybe more than most people, “no risk, no reward” seems to apply.

Call to action

I am not a believer in “New Year’s Resolutions”. I am not throwing out another suggestion of something to make a half-hearted attempt to do and then give up in 3 weeks. I am suggesting you take one thing you are not satisfied with and decide to change it.

Please, start recognizing some of your frustrations as inertia. This is something you can do something about. Force yourself to take action to change a few things. Start taking control of your life.

And check my gallery at You may find images that bring you peace or help focus your energy.

As always, I welcome your comments.