What Are You Going To Do?

Isolated, Quarantined

As I’m writing this many of us are stuck at home, effectively quarantined. It’s the Covid-19 virus, of course. The world seems to be in a panic.Many people seem to be running around like chickens with their heads cut off. But what are you going to do?

Panic seems to be consuming the world, at least if you listen to the media for long. And our political leaders must spend most of their time listening to the media and looking for ways to feed the panic. A great line in MIB is “a person is smart, people are stupid.”

People seem to be panicked because they are not “safe” anymore. As if they ever were. We are never safe and we never actually control our circumstances. You have a better chance of getting killed in a car wreck tomorrow than to get the virus. The illusion of safety is the unrealistic goal the media holds up and the fears of not being safe are what whip people into panic.

You’re stuck at home

So. you’re stuck at home for a while. You can’t go on with your normal routine. That’s great! Make some changes! Use this as a blessing. Do things for yourself. DO NOT spend your time panicking with the herd on social media or numbing yourself with hours of movies on Netflix. Take the opportunity to improve yourself and grow.

In an email, Srinivas Rao makes this observation: “he told me a story about a man in China who was quarantined for 40 days after contracting the coronavirus. The reporter interviewing him asked how he spent his time. And he told her

‘I’ve always been a terrible cook. So I learned to cook. I also taught myself another language.’

There’s a profound lesson in this story. Time and attention are precious resources. You can use them to consume content that continually stokes fear. Or you can use [them] to create content that fuels hope for yourself and others.”

This is an important observation. For me, I am going to double down on coming out at the other end of this session a better, wiser, more capable person.

Use the down time

Take classes. Study a foreign language. Read. Write. Create – begin to, even if you don’t think you can. Whatever it is that draws your interest, challenge yourself to get deeper in it.

For me, I am committed to pursue some personal projects with my art. I am also committed to learn and internalize several new photographic techniques that have intrigued me for a long time but I have never had the block of time available to really dig into them. I plan on reading several biographies and history books I have wanted to get to, as well as a fluffy fiction or 2, just for relaxation. Oh, and, I’ll admit, one of the big vices I have, watching Aussie Rules Football. It is the only sport I like to watch, and it may be the only one still being played.

Maybe you never thought of your self as a writer. But you can write to friends. Direct email them rather than using social media. Better yet, you know those pieces of paper with stamps on them? Do it. They would love to hear from you.

Be prudent, not afraid

I mentioned the fear that paralyzes many. So far what I observe validates the MIB quote I used earlier. While on the media I see panic and hoarding and people barricading themselves in their houses, I don’t actually observe that from normal people around me.

I just returned from traveling back and forth across much of the country to see family. We ate out at nice restaurants every day, went where we wanted to,Ubered, went through airports and flew in airplanes. I saw a very few (like 6) people wearing masks, none on the airplanes.

Today I went out for a nice walk in the afternoon. The weather was good and I walked down through a natural area by the river where I live. I was surprised and encouraged that the parking lot at the natural area was completely full. I couldn’t see an empty space. Lots of people were our walking, walking dogs, running, bicycling, etc. Families with little kids. Old people (old means older than me). And they were friendly and good natured and sometimes wanted to chat. It was great to see.

My wife went up to Rocky Mountain National Park to snowshoe today. She said it was very crowded for a Wednesday. Same thing. People were out enjoying nature and using their time well.

I am in one of the high risk groups for the virus, but I don’t huddle inside. I don’t believe in living that way. Safety is an illusion. Be prudent, but live a worthwhile life.

Your time is short – and precious

It seems that a learning from this is that we are only given a very short burst of time on this planet. We should consider every minute precious. We should do what we can every day to improve ourselves and help others. Develop the habit of being grateful for what we have and what we can do right this minute.


Conceptual Abstract

Photography is traditionally thought of as giving a very realistic representation of a subject. It is usually concrete as opposed to abstract. But this is only the norm. There is nothing to say that photography cannot be as abstract as the imagination can conjure.

Very short history of photography

Photography is agreed to have become practical with the invention of the daguerreotype process in around 1839. Photographers went crazy recording the world around them. There was a joy in being able to capture a realistic representation of the world quickly, without spending days or more drawing or painting a copy. Landscapes and people were the preferred subjects.

As processes and equipment improved it has come to the point where almost all of us carry around a camera all the time. And people still use them mostly for snapping images of people or landscapes. We take for granted the ability to capture almost exact representations of whatever we point them at.

But some would say this is the weakness of photography. It blindly records the world in front of the camera. No evaluation; no filtering; no interpretation. Unfortunately, it is a valid critique. Much photography is just capturing pretty pictures. It is literal. Now I like beauty and uplifting things, but I have to agree that most of it lacks vision and a spark of greatness.

What is abstract?

Abstract images have been around a long time, but there is no real agreed definition of what it is. The one I like is “If you look at a photo and there’s a voice inside you that says ‘What is it?’….Well, there you go. It’s an abstract photograph.”

The first recorded mention of abstract photography was by Alvin Langdon Coburn in 1916. He proposed an exhibition be organized with the title “Abstract Photography”, for which the entry form stated that “no work will be admitted in which the interest of the subject matter is greater than the appreciation of the extraordinary.”

I had to wrestle with this definition for a while, but I have come to believe it is brilliant. The interest in the subject is secondary to the appreciation of the extraordinary. So abstract photography is not about the subject as much as a unique view of it.

Break the rules

Our cameras and lenses are truly amazing these days. Most of us spend years learning how to create highly detailed, tack sharp, properly exposed images with sharp focus from front to back.

Then some of us try abstract, and we find that now we violate all the training we spent such a long and difficult time learning. We deliberately create images that may be blurry, that may have high levels of camera shake, that may not be level, that may not stop motion, that may be composed “strangely” – all the things that would have gotten them thrown out of our camera club competition back when.

It reminds me of a musical group homed in my area, Acoustic Eidolon, a guitar and cello duo. The cello player sometimes remarks that she is now going to be making sounds on her instrument that she spent years of formal training learning how to avoid. That is kind of what abstract photography is to me.


How do we usually do abstraction? There are far too many approaches to abstraction to list them all. One technique is to intentionally obfuscate the subject. This could be by panning to blur the frame, slow shutter speed to lengthen motion, or “hiding” the subject, such as behind a foreground screen

Another productive source of abstraction is focus and depth of field. We are used to seeing photographs done a certain way. Try shooting a group of people up close with a very large aperture, say f/1.4. Only a small part of the group will be sharp. Or shoot something where the viewer expects one thing to be the subject., but you have focused on something completely different.

One thing I like to do is to isolate detail. Go in very tight on one small part of a subject and challenge the viewer to figure out what the whole is. This works in landscapes, too.

Another approach is to give the viewer an unexpected scale or position. Macro shots are a scale example. Blowing an unlikely object, like a fly’s eye, up to fill the frame is a type of abstraction. Or a drone view from high above can be disorienting.

Mostly, though, when we thing of abstract images we think of what I call conceptual abstracts. These may be just patterns, compositions of color or forms that have no objective subject in the normal sense. I must admit, these can be a joy to do and a great creative break from more “typical” photography. Now that our computer tools are so good there are few limits to our imagination. The image at the top of this post is kind of most of this. Actually, it is quite concrete, but processed to be completely abstract.

Why abstract photography?

Why do we do abstract photography and why is it an enduring genre? I’m afraid that’s above my pay grade. I’ll have to leave the real answer to the philosophers and critics.

For me, I know that sometimes I feel the need to do something different. To express myself in a different dimension from my normal work. Sometimes an idea just doesn’t fit as anything except an abstract. Or sometime a subject just calls to be made into something other than what it seems to be in “real life”.

In a previous life I was a software architect. In that role abstraction was one of the key design patterns to learn. It was very important to be able to look at complex designs or requirements and be able to “abstract” out the essential attributes of their nature. I think I am still doing that as an artist. Continually challenging myself to find the real essence of a thing. When I get an idea, there are almost no limits to where it can go.

I guess that is what abstraction is to me. You will have to find your own answer. Have you? what do you think?

How Fragile is my Style?

Deserted playground

Some photographers say you should look at and study as many examples of other artists work as you can. Others say you should not view other’s work. Underlying it is an assumption of how much our own style might be affected by other artist’s work. Is my style fragile and easily influenced or is it inherently robust?

I have been reading the book More Than a Rock by Guy Tal. (I have no financial incentive in recommending this) Guy is a very thoughtful writer and the book is challenging. I recommend it. It has no tips for taking pictures, it is about why we take them.

Artistic Promiscuity

A recent chapter titled Artistic Promiscuity made me examine some of my beliefs. Like many artists, I occasionally have self-doubt about my style – about whether I really have one. Guy poses the situation ‘I was baffled when I recently heard from a fellow photographer asking if I would recommend avoiding viewing other people’s photographs as a means of isolating one’s own “vision”.’

A vocal proponent of just such a position is my friend Cole Thompson. His blog is well written and has some great insights. But he has a controversial position for his own life, he does not look at other people’s images. He calls it Photographic Celibacy.

Guy attacks this straw man he set up, arguing about artistic history and how creativity flowed and developed over time as artists were inspired by other artist’s work. And he talks about how seeing great art is inspiring and elevating, especially to another artist.

He goes on to say “So be promiscuous, at least when it comes to art. Seek and study and contemplate and revel in art of all kinds and genres and styles – the more the better. Find what inspires you and articulate to yourself why it inspires you. Borrow but don’t steal; incorporate but don’t imitate. Find inspiration, wisdom, and knowledge in the works of others, and in return strive to inspire others with your own work. Such has always been the way of artists.”

Guy’s advice is very mature and inclusive. He has a strong world view and belief structure. A self-confidence that comes from experience and values. It is good advice, at least for him. It may not be universal advice for everyone in every stage of development.

Photographic Celibacy

Cole, on the other hand says; “As I stopped looking at other people’s images and focused on what I was creating and what I thought of my work, my Vision began to emerge. The work I am creating now is my work, not an imitation of someone else’s.”

He has been on this path for years and is not likely to change his mind. He says “Ten years later and I’m still practicing Photographic Celibacy because I find it a useful practice for two reasons: first I’m still inclined to copy other’s work. … And the other reason I still find Photographic Celibacy useful: it keep me focused on what I am doing and not what others are doing. When I look at the work of others I find myself comparing their images and successes to mine. Sometimes I get discouraged at the large number of great photographers out there and all of the great images being created. All of this is an unnecessary distraction that keeps me from my purpose: creating images from my Vision.”

This seems to work well for him. Cole has a distinct style and he is a great photographer.

What is Vision?

These two good artists disagree in how to develop your vision and grow as an artist, but what do they believe “vision” really is?

Guy says “There is nothing to find – your vision, voice, and personal style are already in you by virtue of the unique amalgam of experiences, sensibilities, stories, and beliefs that make you who you are.”

On the other hand, Cole says of vision “It is the sum total of your life experiences, it is the lenses you see the world through, it is your photographic personality and it is your inner voice (or the ‘force’ for you Star Wars fans). There is no need to be able to define, identify or describe your Vision. All you really need to know is that your Vision is there and then follow it.”

Put these side by side and they are really saying the same thing – our vision is a unique property of who we are. It is inherent in each of us.

Who is right?

It seems that the Artistic Promiscuity position and the Photographic Celibacy position share the same belief of what Vision is. The difference is how to get there.

Who is right? I believe Guy is right for Guy and Cole is right for Cole. They each recognize something about themselves that requires or allows them to behave in a certain way.

Cole adopted his philosophy early in his formal career when he had doubts about his vision and style. He recognized that he was being influenced by other artists and needed to isolate himself to discover his vision. He recognizes and clearly states that this path is not for most people.

Guy seems to be have a personality that thrives on the inspiration from other artists. He is confident in his vision and does not feel any temptation to imitate them.

They are both right – for themselves.

Fragile style?

So is style really fragile? Probably not, but following and expressing our style is a very personal and individual journey. We may be going to the same place but we all take a different path to get there. Some of us get lost on our path and end up in the weeds.

I admire that Cole recognized his nature and need and acted accordingly. It would be great to have the confidence of Guy, but in reality I am more like Cole. I am getting better, but the artistic spirit is a strange mixture of fragile and robust.

Theodore Roosevelt said “Comparison is the thief of joy.”

I think this is a wise warning. It is well proven that spending too much time on Facebook is destructive because you compare your everyday life that you know has problems to the happy, exaggerated image others portray.

Likewise, being a photographic artist is a difficult thing these days. Everyone in the world is a photographer it seems. We are flooded with beautiful images all the time. It is hard not to compare ourselves to the best work we see out there and not feel doubt. It is hard sometimes not to think we should do work more like something we admired.

Promiscuous or celibate? I think we have to know our own nature enough to decide.

Is style fragile? No, not if it is really just who we are. It is probably not the style that is fragile but it can be hard to have the confidence to believe in ourselves and follow our own style. It can be hard to go against the stream of popularity. And some of us may need a quiet place to recognize our style and get to know it.

How about you? What are your thoughts about style?

Not All Who Wander Are Lost

Sunset, wide open spaces

You are probably familiar with this quote, even if you can’t place exactly where it is from. I’ll get to that. The point here is to talk about my need to wander. I am seldom lost, especially when I wander.

This quote is part of a poem by J.R.R. Tolkien in The Fellowship of the Ring:

All that is gold does not glitter,
Not all those who wander are lost;
The old that is strong does not wither,
Deep roots are not reached by the frost.

This is only half of the poem. The rest is specific to the plot of the story. But these 4 lines are golden. I may write about each line sometime.

This time I am drilling in to the second line: “Not all those who wander are lost.”

Get lost

I am admittedly weird. I intentionally try to get “lost”, in the sense that I end up in places few people visit, that aren’t apparent on maps, and I don’t know what I’ll find when I get there. One characteristic of this kind of place is that there are few if any people around.

Perhaps I am just an anti-social loner, but this kind of place invigorates me. I experience a kind of freedom I don’t feel in well populated areas.

No, I don’t think I am dangerously deranged. As a matter of fact as I’m writing this I have to leave in a few minutes to meet with a group of friends. As much as I like friends and companionship, I will leave them for times to seek out the “off the map” experiences I crave.

So far I find that these times of solitude are best experienced alone. I am shy and quiet. If people are around I find the “noise” drowns out the voice of the wilderness I am trying to listen to. With people around I feel compelled to “get on down the road” or get to dinner at a reasonable time. Not so when I am alone.

One of my joys is to get an extremely detailed map and try to explore the tiniest, most remote roads I can find. And that is paper maps – a lot of the places I like to go don’t have cell phone service, so forget Google Maps, and I often can’t trust my Nav system in the car. They are seldom detailed enough.

Don’t be foolish

I am painting a picture of just heading off into the wild randomly and getting into all kinds of predicaments. When you go out to explore barren areas, don’t be stupid. Even though I generally travel alone, I have a good 4-wheel drive vehicle (with a large gas tank), food, water, and winter or summer survival kits. And I try to give someone a general idea of where I am going and when I should be back. And I’ve done this type of travel for a long time.

Getting stuck in some of these places can be dangerous, even life threatening. Know what you are doing and be prepared. Ease into it to get a lot of experience before heading off solo.

So, what’s it going to be — safety, or freedom? You can’t have both. – Louis Sachar

I personally am willing to take a fair amount of risk to live a more free and rewarding life.


I find that getting away and taking time to “listen” to that part of the world is refreshing and renewing. It does not have to be a conventionally beautiful place. I can easily be as renewed in the barren plains of eastern Colorado or Wyoming as I am in the mountains. The image at the top of this post is in eastern Colorado.

When I come to one of these places and I feel a connection to it, I have a better chance of getting images I love. Ones where I feel I have something to say. I find I am usually missing that deep connection in a place that is just beautiful and where other photographers often record the same scene.

Even if I do not get any great images, the renewal of my mind and soul is well worth it.

Get found

We live in an increasingly noisy world. Our jobs demand almost full time engagement. The giant media companies demand we be “plugged in” 24/7 because of fear of missing out. Learning to be content in solitude is an antidote to this. It is a way to take back control of your mind. Don’t be afraid of missing something. Those things actually don’t matter much compared to the benefits of our mental health.

I don’t fully understand it, but there is something about the wild or neglected places that are uplifting to me. I don’t really know what it means to “find yourself”, but I often experience something that must be like it when I spend time in some remote places.

Right now it is not as important to me that I understand the why. It is sufficient for my psyche that I know how to get found. And when I am found I can do work that calls to me, lifts me up, and pleases me.

I hope it calls to you, too. Try it sometime. You might not know until you unplug for a while and try. Let me know what you find.