I Want That Job

Imagined unexplored land

I got a job ad recently that really caught my eye. The position was for an “Intermediate Unreal Technical Artist”. My first reaction was: I want that job! But my scatterbrained mind spun up a lot of questions.

Unreal

The “unreal” part immediately got me. Yes, I know that Unreal is a 3D animation platform. It looks quite capable. You don’t have to write me about that. But that is not the point. Just the surreal nature of the job description gave me a laugh.

Depending on where I am mentally at any time, I like to take flights into the unreal. I never guessed it could be a paying job.

The coincidence I could not ignore is that I have been working on a project I call Terra Incognita. It envisions imaginary, unexplored regions of our world. In doing it, I had to become an unreal artist, for real.

It turned out a little more difficult than I thought to create imaginary, unreal worlds that look real. I want you to look at my images in this project and tell yourself that it could be an undiscovered part of the world. Creating a fake Sci Fi movie scene was not interesting to me.

Intermediate

The “intermediate” adjective added to the surreal situation. The possibility that there might be quantifiable levels of unreal-ness in our artistic abilities jumped out at me.

Well, I knew that I wanted my images to seem real, not fantastic or unworldly. But what would an intermediate level unreal artist be capable of doing? Would I have to be an advanced unreal artist to look real? Or does an advanced unreal artist only do obviously fantastic scenes? Would a beginner unreal artist “fail” in his unreality and create a real seeming scene? Should I be striving towards beginner or advanced level unreal art?

Inquiring minds want to know. I never knew the questions lurking here.

Technical

And it says they are seeking a “technical” unreal artist. Again, the surreal nature of the words caught me. If there is technical unreal then is there non-technical real or non-technical unreal or technical real?

Technical real is probably what most photographers do all the time. After all, we use high resolution lenses on great high mega pixel sensors to capture huge amounts of detail. Photography is inherently a technical art. We want our images to be more real than real.

The job posters seem to be seeking someone to create unreal scenes with a high degree of technical precision. Although I know what they mean, it still sounds absurd. Would non-technical unreal be like old 1950’s Sci Fi movies with the rubber creatures and terrible sets? Actually, what they did back then was the highest degree of technical unreality they could do before computer graphics.

Maybe non-technical reality would be street photography shot with a cheap plastic film camera. Terrible technical quality but real scenes. There seems to be a niche market for that with people who value alternate processes.

Artist

And they are calling the position one for an artist. Really? Maybe in that industry, which I suspect is movies, that is true by their standards. In my experience, when someone is hired to create visual work as specified by an employer, I would call them a designer or an illustrator.

A Pixar animated film or something like Despicable Me is a great achievement. I know there are large teams of animators and character illustrators and colorists and groups doing hair and fur and fabric. Others doing lighting and other effects. And many other teams doing software and asset management and other coordination roles. It is a large and complex process requiring many people.

I am probably projecting too much of my values on this, but I believe an artist creates work he conceives and in his own style. That does not sound like an employee. I am not in any way minimizing productions like an animated movie, just questioning if the roles are what I would call an artist.

The whole package

So, could I be an “Intermediate Unreal Technical Artist”? Probably not. As much as I like the sound of it, I do. not understand it. And besides, they are looking for someone to work for them. When I retired I vowed I would not be an employee again unless I was desperate. Been there; done that. I want to only do what I choose to do and on my own terms.

Thank you for following this strange diversion. It is quite a sidetrack from what I normally write. But as I mentioned, the coincidence with a project I am working on now was too much to ignore.

In addition, it fits in with a long term theme I keep bringing up about whether or not photography is about reality. To me, it is not any more. Unless an image is presented as documentary, it is not to be believed as reality. And with the rapid encroachment of AI, I suggest we be very skeptical of all images, even if they claim documentary status.

So maybe all photography is an unreal art. Maybe the job description I saw is redundant.

Today’s image

The image today is from the series Terra Incognita that I mentioned above. It tries to represent unexplored areas of our world. Maybe it just has not been seen before. Maybe it only exists in our imagination. Either way, consider yourself a modern day explorer flying over this never before seen vista.

I want to hear your comments! Let’s talk!

If We’re Not Moving Forward…

Rise Against, representing the daily struggle

We can get trapped in our own mind. Fear can pen us in. We must constantly remind ourselves of what happens if we’re not moving forward.

Can’t stand still

The actual quote, attributed to Sam Waterson, is “If you’re not moving forward, you’re falling back.” There is a lot of truth in that. As much as we sometimes would like to lock things down, we can’t. Time moves on. We move on. Relationships change. People grow apart or together. Our knowledge and tastes and perceptions change.

Have you ever gone back and looked at some of your art or writing from a few years ago? It can be depressing. Our first reaction is probably that our work was terrible back then. But no, that is not necessarily true. That was the best work we could do at the time. We are seeing what we were at that moment in the past. But we have moved on now and are in a different place. And it’s an ongoing process.

Fear

Some of us get trapped in the past by fear. We did some work we thought was very good. Maybe we received some recognition for it. Perhaps we even were so unfortunate as to become famous. Now we are afraid to move away from what we became recognized for in the past, even though we are feeling a pull in a different direction.

Past work becomes an anchor on our creativity unless we consciously cut it loose. But it is all to easy to fear that we have peaked and will never be able to do any more work as good.

Well, maybe that is true. Maybe the next body of work we do will be inferior. We won’t know until we do it. When we strike out in a new direction it is quite natural to grope around hesitantly for a while until we find our footing. The first versions of new work could be fairly bad. But if it is where we are being pulled, we will find what we are looking for.

Growth

We are growing creatures. Life constantly gives us new stimulus, new knowledge, new ideas. We meet people and have good discussions. We learn new things and connect ideas and resolve old questions and ask new ones.

At least, we are intended to do that. Some people stay in their rut, doing the same thing over and over without advancing. It’s like the question do you have 10 years of experience or 1 year of experience repeated 10 times? When put like that it seems obvious there is a big difference. But a rut is safe and comfortable. There is no risk. No one criticizes us. But where there is no risk, there is no change, no growth, no reward.

As artists, we should be comfortable learning and changing. Experimenting with new ideas and ways of looking at our art and the world. Having confidence that our best work is yet to come.

It really is true that there are only 2 paths. If we stop growing, we start dying. When we find ourselves in the inevitable rut, they can be hard to get out of. You have to very deliberately and carefully steer out. Let the wheels grab the sides and climb out slowly. Your car will complain, but change always causes criticism. Hopefully, you are not in too deep.

We are different every day

We are not the same person today that we were yesterday. Like the expression that we can never step in the same river twice. Of course, that does not mean we are jerked around in some type of schizophrenic fugue. We don’t bounce randomly to wildly inconsistent states. At lease, I hope you don’t.

Who we are, our values and beliefs, stays relatively constant. We build on that base and develop as a person. Growth is usually incremental. Hopefully becoming a better person as we progress. Our art may seem to jump more as we embrace new expressions of what we are feeling. Like Picasso going through a blue period or an African period or a cubism period. He never changed who he was, he just responded in different ways at different phases of his life.

Our art changing as we grow is natural and healthy. It is much easier said than done, but we should not fear letting go of what we have done in the past, even if we are well known for it. We should trust that we are growing as an artist and being led to new and better work.

It is exciting to look forward to what is to come and what we have yet to create.

What would be of life if we didn’t have the courage of doing something new?

Vincent van Gogh

Today’s image

I chose this to represent the daily battle we all face. The internal struggle to rise above conformity and create what we have inside us. Don’t settle. Don’t give in.

Out of Context

Packed with story

Every image has a context, the setting or framework or circumstances where it was created. Sometimes we try to tell the context to our viewers. But really, aren’t most images viewed out of context?

The setting

Every traditional photographic image has a context. It was created someplace, about someone or something, for some purpose. That is an inescapable reality. Photography records the world around us. But how important is it for an artist to bring the context to the viewer?

If I am showing you street photography, it might help to tell you the country I’m in. That may help frame the culture, architecture, people we’re seeing. But, say I’m shooting in the USA for an American audience. Does it really matter if it is in New York City, or Cincinnati, or Seattle, or Dallas? You look at the image and try to read the subject and deduce what the scene means to you.

Context in this case is supplied from a shared cultural experience. We all know enough of what it is like in a large American city to understand the image.

Or for a landscape, if it is an interesting picture, does it really matter if it is the Colorado mountains instead of the Sierras, or the Maine coast as opposed to the Oregon coast? The impact of the picture is what intrigues us.

The story

And about story, we are told repeatedly that we must tell a story in an image or a project. I struggle with this. Somewhere I missed the training to understand this. Or I read too much into what “story” means.

One legacy of growing up as an Engineer is I start out thinking fairly literally about a proposition. To me a story has character development, conflict, and resolution. What writers call the story arc.

Personally, I don’t think many images tell much of a story unless they are about people. Even then, when we see a person we are compelled to figure out or create a story to explain what we see them doing, or their expression, or gesture. Regardless of the artist’s intent.

But I seldom present images of people. To me, a landscape or an old rusty truck or an abstract motion blur doesn’t tell a story. If it does, the story would be something like “pretty” or “gritty” or “interesting shapes”. Is that actually a story? That seems weak.

My inclination is to say most images do not, by themselves, tell a story. But they might provide enough structure for the viewer to invoke whatever memories or meanings they want. To create a story for themselves.

Do we have to supply the story?

As artists, we often feel compelled to write the story and present it to our viewer to help understand the image. Or, more likely, a gallery requires us to do it. Sometimes that is successful. If they actually take the time to read it. Maybe for a photo project people will read the artist statement summarizing the intent of the project. Maybe.

Even if viewers read a title, they tend to make up their own story about what the image is. Is that bad? I don’t think so. It is their story. If they are happy with it, great. I sometimes ask viewers to tell me what they are thinking when they see one of my images. Often I am surprised. Sometimes they are far off of what I saw and felt or what the image is actually “about”. Their story may be completely outside the context of the “real” image. But they are not wrong, because this is what they experienced. I believe the best art leaves room for varying interpretation.

I know that a well written story sometimes adds a lot of context to an image. But part of me thinks a strong image should stand on its own. If I have to explain it, it is lacking impact. A type of exception I often see is a project like Cole Thompson’s Ghosts of Auschwitz. His images are strong and impactful by themselves, but a few words taking you to the context of where they were taken and what he was feeling makes it a deeper experience.

Maybe the story is already there

What I’m about to say goes against all the conventional wisdom we normally hear. Maybe we do not write the story. Perhaps, in general, the scene is already telling its story. We see it, recognize it, frame and compose it, and try to help it tell its story in the best way we can. But it is its story, not ours. Maybe we give ourselves too much credit.

If this is true, maybe we are documenters more than creators. This aligns with an interesting statement Ben Willmore makes when he says that in composing a scene we should reduce the negatives and enhance the positives. Doing that does not really change the story. Maybe we can slant the story some and write some of our own vision into it.

I am not minimizing the creativity and skill needed to make a good image. Not at all. I know it is exceptionally hard and I wrestle with it every day. I’m just suggesting that maybe we are not actually writing the story. Rather, we are helping our subject tell its own story. Maybe our job sometimes is to recognize the story that is already there and help to bring it to life.

In isolation

This idea carries over into viewing an image. When we view an image in a gallery or on the wall or online, we are typically seeing it in isolation. A gallery may provide a title and perhaps even a short statement posted on the wall next to the image. People may or may not read it.

Does that matter? Once an image is printed and hanging on a wall, it is complete in itself. When someone looks at it, their appraisal or appreciation of it does not need to be tied to my knowledge of the context or its meaning to me. The image tells its own story, or it does not.

I actually love to provide an image that raises more questions than it gives answers. It would be a joy to me for someone to buy it and hang it on their wall at home and pause over it every time they see it. For them to feel free to create varying stories to fit it. When they are showing it to friends I want then to say “today I see…”.

When they buy the print I could give them a written description of what it is, the context where it was created, and what it meant to me. But then it is all my story. Isn’t that taking away some of their joy and creativity in participating in the art?

An image exists

So if we typically see images by themselves, that means when a viewer takes the time to look at it, the print has to be strong enough to “tell it’s own story”. Or at least to tell a story to them. It must be able to communicate something meaningful to the viewer. Perhaps its job is to connect to memories or to raise interesting questions that make people want to live with it.

If we have to use words to complete the image, maybe it is not strong enough. The words can supplement the effect, but they should not be required to make us see it as a good image.

Context could be important, but usually we should not push it too hard. As artists, we should not be so arrogant as to believe the viewers will or should internalize the context and meaning we intended. Part of their appreciation can be to make their own stories. As an artist I have created this image, but I have to send it our on its own to make its place in the world.

Today’s image

To me, this image has a lot of story. But who wrote the story? Not really me. I saw it, and stopped and took the time to frame it and compose it and narrow in to what I thought the story was. Then I edited it some, not altering any important components.

I can’t honestly say “look at this great story I told”. No, I found a story already existing and tried to put a little of my touch on it to bring it to you.

Would knowing the context make this a better story? Or would it interfere with you discovering your own story?

Why Photography?

Airport at night

Photography is my chosen art. Obviously I wouldn’t continue doing it unless I loved it. But why? Why photography?

Faults

I’ll be honest. As a modern art form, there are negative aspects to photography. I’m talking about people’s view of it, not what I believe of it. And I’m not making a pun about photographic negatives. Many “serious” artists and critics view it as a lesser art, if art at all. After all, it is too easy. Just point your camera at something and take a picture. Where is the art?

The critics view photography as a mechanical art. Where the camera does the work and the photographer just holds the camera and pushes a button. How can it be “Art”, with a capital A, if it is fast and easy?

Billions of people are taking trillions of pictures every day. So it is considered a “common” craft. Just for selfies. But those critics discount the difficulty of doing something special in a field that is so crowded. Millions of books are written, but we still celebrate the relatively few authors who creates a standout book.

And photography can be reproduced pretty easily. You can get a stack of prints made at Walmart for a few bucks. This, too, devalues it in many people’s estimation.

And it’s getting to where your AI chatbot can make a fairly realistic picture. Is there any photography anymore? Or painting, for that matter?

Alternate view

But let’s examine some of those statements. I’m a firm believer that something is not correct just because people say it, especially if it is “experts” talking.

It is true that trillions of photos are taken every year. Very few of them are considered art, even by the people taking them. They are for utilitarian purposes, mostly selfies to post on social media. Of the ones whose makers consider them to be art, most are, well, forgettable. In this crowded field where the majority of people on the planet have a camera and take pictures, it is extremely difficult to take a memorable one. It takes a lot of skill and vision and technique and luck to make one of the exceptional ones.

And the fact that they can be reproduced easily should not be a factor, except for top collectors. The ability to make prints is actually democratizing. And a great art print is a very different thing than a cheap drug store copy. The materials and ink and care that goes into an art print sets it apart. If you have seen and handled one you have experienced the quality factor. A great print can be shown on your wall the rest of your life and be passed down to your heirs.

Even painters very often have prints of their works for sale. And they usually request a significant price for them. Does that make their prints not art?

It’s what I can do

I said I was being honest. I long ago discovered I have little talent or patience for drawing or painting, and sculpting is too slow and expensive for me. Does that mean I’m not an artist? Absolutely not. I found areas I have an inclination for.

I originally latched onto photography as a creative outlet to my highly logical, left-brained Engineering career. Intuitively I knew I had to have a balance. It served it’s purpose, even though I wasn’t very good at it.

But being somewhat obsessive and a perfectionist, I later pushed myself to learn and understand why I considered myself mediocre. So I improved my knowledge and education and technique. I learned about design and composition and lighting and editing. And I moved beyond just straight representational images of big landscape scenes and even pushed myself into uncomfortable areas like abstract and surreal.

So when I retired, I was eager to go full time into art as a creative activity. I do not regret it. It has been a great move for me and I feel I have grown rapidly. I would have gotten frustrated and quit if I had tried to force myself into doing art I was not suited for.

Fast moving

A joy to me in photography is that it is relatively fast moving. Move, see, compose, shoot. I get into a flow and can spend hours creating. And likewise in post processing. Unlike some photographers, I like it. Working with the images on the computer is another important part of the creative process of photography. I can edit for hours and not even realize what time it is.

This pace and rhythm of photography is part of what works for me. An important component of my creative energy. I know myself enough to know I would not be happy spending weeks working on a painting, to then have to set it aside and not touch it again.

My images are much more malleable. Even after “finishing” one I can get a new idea and revisit it, maybe alter it, maybe create a new work based on it. What I shoot is raw material. The elements emerge, combine, re-emerge and get re-imagined in a very fluid way. I love this.

Versatile

This immediacy of photography also enables one of the other things I love about it. I can do it anywhere, almost any time. Day or night; walking around town; looking out an airplane window; winter or summer; in the rain or snow or fog; alone or with other people.

If most painters see a scene they want to paint, what do they do? Take a picture. They use that to work up sketches to define their image. I skip directly to the end. My “sketch” may well be the finished image. I’ve done 20 interesting images before they finish a sketch.

I never have to worry about what pallets of colors I have with me. Did I bring a large enough blank canvas? Do I have the right grades of pencils with me? Are they sharp? Don’t care. I can take a crisp, detailed shot of a rusty truck and turn around and take a time exposure of a stream. The camera is a powerful tool that lets me express my art in a variety of ways. But I am the artist and only I determine what I want to accomplish.

Element of reality

Another aspect of photography that is unique and significant to me is that photography contains elements of reality. The sensor records the scene in front of it as imaged by the camera lens, to the extent I allow it. That is, I may blur it or overexpose it or underexpose it. That is an artistic choice. But I am working with a capture of reality.

Photography is unlike any other art in this respect. To me, there is something honest in that. That, even if I composite or heavily edit or alter the colors or tones to create a completely different scene, still, the component parts are pieces of reality.

I enjoy images of mine that are straight captures of a real scene and I enjoy the ones that are created scenes that do not exist. Both contain reality. One much more directly than the other.

I don’t use Photoshop as a blank canvas to paint imaginary scenes on. I have no problem with those who do that. It is another good talent. But I don’t. Everything I create is built from pieces of reality. In my weird value system, it wouldn’t be photography if it did not contain actual elements captured by a camera.

Easy to reproduce

I love that after editing an image and thinking it is almost ready, I can make a test print on my printer in my studio. In a few minutes. A print on paper is very different from an image on screen. Most of us are only used to seeing images on screens.

But a well done print on high quality paper is an entirely different thing. It becomes a physical object with presence. Our relationship with it is different. We hold it and look at it differently. We feel the texture and the forms and colors of the image are seen in a new way. A print changes our perception.

And this is just a test print. Usually it will have to be edited more and reworked is some ways to eliminate problems we did not notice until it was on paper. After a few cycles I now know how to print this image. This next one that comes out of the printer is one I can be proud of. We eagerly show it off, because it expresses our intent, what we saw and felt when we captured the image. It has become a physical piece of art. And I can push a button and make another one for you. Does this devalue the medium? Not to me. I think that is fantastic.

This is a unique feature of photography. I love it.

Photography is a versatile, fast moving, high quality art form. It has advantages and disadvantages over other types of media. But that is true whenever you compare one type to another. It is the perfect art form for me. I hope I have given you a clear picture of why photography for me.

Today’s image

A busy airport at night is a wonderland of lights and shapes and movement. If you are that nerd who gets his camera out and shoots out the window during takeoffs and landings. I am. I love the colors and abstract forms. 🙂

It also illustrates one advantage of photography I discuss in other places. The ability to record time. Not just a still instant, but movement over a period of time if we wish.

This is one of those scenes you seldom see painted. We cannot see this directly with our eye. The painter would have to take the picture then paint it. But is that different from taking a photograph and making a print?

The Subject?

A no subject image I had to shoot

I wrote recently about the sometimes ambiguity of the subject. But the subject itself? I’m not sure I care what it is. Is that heresy?

Subject is king

People sometimes travel halfway around the world to photograph a certain thing or event. As I write this, several of my friends are preparing to travel to photograph the upcoming total solar eclipse. Or if a friend corners you to watch vacation pictures or videos, it is of their trip to [______] – fill in the blank of the place you don’t care about.

The point is that it seems most people are highly fixated on getting the best images of particular subjects that are important to them. This is probably perfectly natural. After all, when we go to the trouble of taking a picture, it should be ‘of’ something, shouldn’t it?

Most photo instructors emphasize this. Actually, they initially put beginners through a boot camp and hazing packed with technical details and jargon about aperture and shutter speed and ISO and depth of field and … If a beginner survives that, and are still interested in photography, then they are taught to have a foreground, middle ground, and background and a clear and strong subject. Then you work on composition, lighting, exposure, etc. This is standard practice.

Is it wrong? No, but learning photography is actually a difficult thing. There are many technical levels and esthetic aspects to learn. It takes a lot of practice to get good at all of them. People have different preferred learning styles, so a one-size-fits-all regime may not be appropriate.

A genre

Many well meaning experts firmly recommend that their listeners have to pick a subject area and specialize in it. They say if you are going to make a place for yourself in this over crowded field, you have tp be well known for one particular thing.

Are they wrong? Probably not. It is good advice if your goal is money or fame. So their advice is to become the recognized wildlife photographer, or portrait photographer, or street photographer, or night sky photographer, or … pick your specialty.

Then they tell us to look at what our “competitors” are being successful with and do more like that. While I can’t believe any “authority” would recommend that artists copy what other artists are doing, I can see where it is shrewd advice for maximizing your income. If you don’t care about your art.

Develop a body of work

And then we are told that we have to have a body of work. This sounded mysterious and difficult to me until I figured out they were just saying we have to be able to demonstrate we have done this enough to be taken seriously and we have to show the sustained quality of our work. Oh, well, sure. I have to do that for myself every day. I would call it my portfolio.

But then they say our portfolio must have a consistent subject focus and style and look. One “expert” I heard recently answered a question about this by using an analogy of an aspiring musician. The gist was if you are submitting an audition tape, it should all be similar type and style. You wouldn’t do some Country & Western and some rock and some bluegrass and some rap.

Maybe that is good advice if you are trying to break into the music industry. But I don’t think it works for me in my art.

Conventional wisdom is that our work needs to have a theme or be centered on a cause. After all, we can’t be a “serious” artist unless we are dealing with serious, life and death subjects. Right?

And we need to have a recognizable look that sets us apart. And our work needs to be cropped to a consistent presentation format, like square. Of course, it should have consistent color grading so it all looks like it came from the same artist. And so on.

Omnivorous

Some of us have real trouble with this, though. We are missing that ambition gene that allows us to suborn our artistic vision to the needs of marketing and fame. At least, I suffer from this defect.

I consider my artistic interest to be omnivorous and wide ranging. To the point where I would assert that I don’t care what the subject is. If it interests me, I will shoot it. And almost anything can interest me under the right conditions.

I am coming to see that it is not usually the subject that makes a good image. It is my reaction to it, My relation to it. The interest, even love, that comes across to me and my viewer.

Ultimately, an image can seldom be great unless I love it. And few images of an “interesting” subject will be great to me unless there is a strong connection there. I have heard people debating if you should take a picture if you’re not sure it will be a “portfolio” image. I say, if it interests you, take it. You won’t know until later what your reaction to it will really be.

An artist

Am I an artist? My answer is “yes”. The style and theme of any image in my body of work is a record of what I was drawn to at that place and that time when I made the image. I refuse to restrict myself to only shooting rusty 1950’s Chevy trucks in black & white and square cropped. It would make me crazy if I closed down my options like that. I love rusty 1950’s trucks, but I could not exist on a exclusive diet of them.

I may travel half way around the world to go to a place I am interested in and want to explore. But I don’t go to photograph a subject there. As I explore, I will likely find many images to take. But when I take one, it is because the whole scene grabbed me and tweaked my interest.

Let me give an example to make it concrete. I am unlikely to ever go on a safari in Africa. But if I did, I wouldn’t care if I came back with a great shot of a lion. Why? I don’t really care about lions. I would be more interested in a nicely formed tree in great light with a stormy sky. Or a native tribesman. Or …

What seems to happen is, as I’m looking around, something clicks. My subconscious triggers a message to my conscious mind to let me know “there’s a picture there! Get it!”. When that happens, it is not just about a subject. Its the subject, in this place, at this time, in this light, with me in this mood. Bam. That makes an image. Check my current online portfolio. I try to organize it to make it easier for you to browse, but you will see a wide range of subjects and styles.

The subject

So the subject? Not as important to me as it seems to be to a lot of people. The subject is only part of a good image. And it’s usually not even the most important part. At least to me. So yeah, I will go so far as to say I don’t care about the subject.

This is just my personal approach. You do what works for you. I hope you get the shot you want.

Today’s image

Today’s image is an example of the subject not being as important to me as the overall look and how I felt about it.. You could argue there is no real subject. I loved it and had to shoot it, even though it was difficult. I won’t say here what it is, but if you write me I will at least give you some hints. 🙂