Open to the Unexpected

Gorgeous thunderstorm almost unseen

When you go out to shoot do you know before you leave exactly what you want to find? Many people do. I feel sorry for them. I greatly prefer to “go out empty” as Jay Maisel would say and let the amazing world around me surprise and delight me. Learn to expect the unexpected.

This is absolutely my opinion and my photographic style. I am a fine art photographer who works primarily outdoors. The world outside is my canvas. If I were a portrait or commercial photographer I would have to do things differently. When there are crews and talent and art directors and contracts to fulfill, I recognize that the photographer has to plan and organize tightly. I am glad that that is not my world. I thrive on spontaneity.

Subjective vs. Objective

In a recent webcast by Chris Murray on Nature Photographer’s Network, he discussed the idea of objective vs. subjective photography. (Sorry but this is a fee site, but you can sign up for a free month.) It was a good talk. He spend a lot of time on his journey from objective to subjective.

He characterized objective images as ones that document a scene and subjective images as images that convey how the artist felt about or responded to the scene.

I think most of us start out objective. It happened naturally when we point our camera at a beautiful landmark and get a picture that makes us say “wow, that’s beautiful”. But if it has no more interpretation by us, it is not really different from the hundreds or thousands of other captures of that scene.

The thing I want to point out here, though, is that Chris said when shooting objective images he would research a location, decide the time of year and time of day that would be best for it, and go there and sit until the conditions were what he expected. He told about camping on a mountain for 3 days waiting for the image he visualized.

The image he got was a beautiful scene in the Adirondack Mountains. But my reaction to it was “meh…”. (Sorry Chris). To me it did not have any passion or depth. He got almost exactly the shot he planned, but my thought was “why?”.

What do you miss?

What did he miss while he was waiting 3 days on that mountain for the “right” time and conditions? Maybe nothing, but maybe a lot. To me that is too great a price to pay.

I have heard other photographers talk about fighting for a tripod spot at a grand, iconic spot, realizing that they were about to take the same shot that thousands of others take every year. Then they turn around and see a scene the other direction that is more meaningful to them. One that most of the other photographers failed to see because they were totally fixated on the iconic scene.

I try to be open and aware of what is around wherever I am. Same applies as much if I am walking a downtown street as if I am in a wilderness. Wonderful images can be discovered anywhere.

Avoid preconceptions

If you decide before you head out what you want to shoot, you put mental blinders on yourself. It is a fact that you only see what you expect to see.

This is called “selective attention”. A famous, effective, and short demonstration of this is in this video. Watch it! It is very enlightening. I won’t give a spoiler here, but this applies to any of us. If you are only looking for birds you will tend to only see birds.

Maybe that works OK for you. It’s not what I want for me. I want to be open to all the exciting things around me. And there are a lot of them. Many of my favorite images are things I would not have known to look for if I was making a list beforehand. I don’t want to miss out on the excitement of truly seeing and openly exploring what an area has to offer..

Grow

We all need to practice our skills and our visualization. Even the most famous and experienced photographers make themselves take time for personal projects to keep from getting stale and to grow in creative ways. Learning to avoid the trap of preconception can be part of that growth.

All artists need constant practice. Pablo Casals was possibly the greatest cellist.

The world’s foremost cellist, Pablo Casals, is 83. He was asked one day why he continued to practice four and five hours a day. Casals answered, “Because I think I am making progress.”
— Leonard Lyons

Repetition is one thing. I have advocated for that before. It is necessary. But there are other ways of learning to break your habit of preconception.

A great thing to do is to go minimalist. Go out for a day of shooting with one camera body and one lens. I can hear you sputtering now. ☺ “But I might need my fisheye; or I might need 400mm”. No, not if you don’t have it. Practice getting great shots with what you have.

An interesting thing happens when you let go and go with it. Let’s say you just take your 50mm prime. When you get into it, you will quickly start to see the world from the 50mm perspective. This is probably a type of selective attention, but it is forcing you in a different dimension. Instead of being selective on subjects, you are selecting your viewpoint on the world around you. It is a great exercise.

I did something similar on a larger scale. My natural vision is telephoto. My ideal lens is 70-200mm. Even longer is great for me sometimes. I like to crop in on details. But for over a year I have switched to mainly shooting with my wonderful 24-70mm. I think it has helped me grow in my creativity. I am surprised at some of the new things I see.

Let yourself be surprised!

For me, my art is a voyage of discovery. It is exciting because I never know what I will find. I like to be surprised!

When I can get into seeing the excitement and possibilities all around me there is sometimes so much to shoot that I have to just stop and take some deep breaths. Slow down. Decide how I feel about what I am seeing and what I want to say. Pace myself. It can be an embarrassment of riches. I am drowning in the imagery.

The image with this article is an example. I was head down by a lake shooting grass and reflections. That is all I was paying attention to. Eventually I noticed that things were changing and getting colorful. Looking up, I discovered this gorgeous thunderstorm was forming practically right by me. This became the picture. The other images I shot that day are forgotten.

It even applies to post processing. Sometimes I shoot frames just because my instinct tells me there is something there I am not consciously seeing. Sometimes whatever I was drawn to becomes apparent in post. As I work an image, something magical begins to emerge. It is like creating an image in front of me on the screen directly from light and the manipulations I am doing to coax out an elusive something. That is a joy, too. It is the kind of surprise that makes art worthwhile.

So I invite you to stop limiting yourself artificially. Don’t block your vision by deciding in advance what you only want to find. Let go. React. Be open to the unexpected. Go out empty, as Jay Maisel famously says. Enjoy discovering what there is instead of being frustrated by what you can’t find.

Ansel Wasn’t an Oracle

Rusty Truck

Ansel Adams famously said that the negative is the score and the print the performance. Ansel was one of the great lights of 20th Century photography and his writings are generally very good. In this case, though, I think this famous quote has become a little outdated by technology changes.

I love this quote and have been guided by it for a long time. As I began to understand it more deeply, it was empowering. For a long time my work was basically a documentary or reportage style. It was very literal photography of scenes in the natural world. I even for a time subscribed to the false doctrine that if an image was altered in any way it was no longer pure and virtuous.

Ansel’s quote helped me understand that that had never been true and was not a worthy or even useful goal. At least for me. I truly believe that the negative (raw file now) is only a start. It usually must be perfected by the artist to become art rather than just a record of something.

The darkroom process

Let me talk a little about the darkroom process, as I understand it. This is so I can contrast it to the current workflow. I will confess that, although I built a darkroom in my basement, I only ever used it for a few black and white images. About that time I discovered a new program called “Photoshop”. 🙂

The image captured on film is generally considered “read only”. It is never modified. There are exceptions to every rule, but this is by far the typical case.

The extensive set of transformations and modifications that can be applied to the negative in the course of printing are done in “real time”. That is, it is a dance involving adding or holding back light from certain areas during the time the paper is exposed to light. It can also involve variations of development time or chemicals and even manual operations like bleaching or spotting of the print.

Given this workflow, it is completely appropriate for Ansel to describe it as a score that will be performed by an artist. The outcome will vary somewhat with each performance, depending on the feelings and inspiration of the performer. Each print is a unique creative process.

The digital workflow

Fast forward now to the current generation of digital imaging. Digital imaging is wonderful in too many ways to list. I absolutely believe it is superior to film in almost all important respects. There is no reason for most artists to ever want to go back to film and chemicals. Your mileage may vary, but that is a personal artistic decision.

One of the places where digital processing is most different is in the post processing to complete the image. The raw file (the “negative”) is processed in the computer using software like Photoshop.

The software allows extensive, non-destructive manipulation of the image. The great dynamic range captured by modern sensors now gives us far more information to work with and more freedom to transform the image. It is easy to remove distracting elements, composite images together, and vastly change the tone and color profiles and even exposure.

Ansel had to select a type of film to use prior to taking an image. He also had to use color filters to change the tonality of his black and white images. It was a guessing game based on lots of experience. He called it “pre-visualization”. Now we retain all the color information until processing time and we can convert to black and white via multiple types of software transforms and with extensive control over tonality. Much more subtle artistic decisions can be made. He would have loved it.

Furthermore, these changes are built on the computer and recorded as a complete package. All the modifications can be done slowly and I can backtrack, undo things I don’t like, try alternatives, even easily create multiple versions of an image.

The “performance” aspect of Ansel’s darkroom manipulation now becomes a considered, one-time transformation. All the artistic decisions are immediately seen on my nice color corrected monitor. I can study the effects at leisure and decide to change them. When I am done, I have virtually a finished image.

The print

It almost sounds like printing has been reduced to a minor step. Not so. It is still a complex artistic process. But again, the digital world gives many new options.

Choice of paper is a big deal. It controls a major part of the look of the resulting image. A glossy Baryta has a very different look from a matte watercolor paper. Paper with varying textures and base color can be selected.

This is assuming you are printing yourself. I recommend it. It is a joy and it connects you with the final product. But many other options are available. You can have your image rendered on canvas, metal substrates, acrylic, transparencies, cloth – too many to list. All vary the look and potential use of the final image.

But the thing that is ultimately the most different from film days is that the artistic result has been determined prior to hitting Print or sending the file to the producer. Each time you print the image, the results should be so repeatable as to be indistinguishable. As Alain Briot said, somewhat tongue-in-cheek I think, this is one of the problems with printers: they do not need our help in any way while they do what they do.

So, in a way, a print is like a good illusion. The magic happens before we ever see the print appear. This is a huge contrast to the film days where creating a print required a virtuoso performance in the darkroom.

Was Ansel right?

I believe Ansel was completely right and very insightful when he wrote this famous quote. Like with many things, though, time and technology changes. Since he was describing a particular technological process, it is not surprising that it will change.

The real genius of the quote, and the reason I believe it is still useful, is to point out that the captured image is only the starting place. I am free to apply my vision to complete the image. Without that injection of originality, it is too easy for it to just be a snapshot.

How that is done is not that big of a deal. Art is a physical product and expressed via currently available technology. The technology should not determine an artist’s vision. Make it your own.

The quote was an observation by a great and experienced artist. It did not come down from heaven written on stone. Don’t be limited by changes of process or technology. Understand that it frees you to create!

An Outsider

Reflections in glassware

I have always felt like an outsider. Not a social pariah, just not fully a part of what I see around me. Research is discovering that this may be common to creatives. It may even be necessary to them.

In an article by Olga Khazan, she quotes ‘Sharon Kim, who teaches at Johns Hopkins University’s business school, told me she’d always noticed that some people credit their creative successes to being loners or rebels… So rejection and creativity were related, Kim determined. But with a caveat. The advantage was seen only among participants who had an “independent self-concept”—meaning they already felt they didn’t belong. There appeared to be something about being a weirdo that could uncork your mind and allow new ideas to flow.’ This is adapted from Olga’s forthcoming book, Weird: The Power of Being an Outsider in an Insider World

Ah, so there may be some advantage to being a weirdo. That is great to hear after all this time.

A social outsider

It is never comfortable being an outsider, even for those of us destined to be one. You always wish you could “fit in”, to be a valued part of the group, whatever that group is for you. To have your opinion solicited, to be valued. Outsiders are the ones who get the funny looks when we give our opinion. Most of us learn to stop sharing our opinions.

Most people say they want to be unique, but there is tremendous social pressure to conform to the norm. Take any teenager “rebelling against society and conformity” and try to get them to wear something other than the standard uniform all their peers wear. People want to be different, just like everyone else.

I was always taught by my parents to be an independent thinker. Well, I learned it well. I was taught by my faith that I am an outsider here, a pilgrim. Yes, I accept and understand this. But it is not always easy. Such independence makes you different.

I take comfort in Mark Twain’s quote “Whenever you find yourself on the side of the majority, it is time to pause and reflect.” I find that joining the majority is often a warning sign of me losing my way, or at least my independence of thought. But sometimes it would be comforting to feel like I belonged.

A creative outsider

Since I started calling myself an artist, I also came to accept even more my position as an outsider. I feel that viewpoint gives me a fresh insight on the world around me. And it helps me to be truly independent in my creativity and protects me from copying other people’s work.

In Guy Tal’s book More Than a Rock, he says “although the artist participates in the world as any conscious being, in making art he is also afforded, temporarily, the privileged perspective of an outsider. To one who cares and feels and acknowledges his own flaws and fallibility, having such a place within him also is a powerful form of self-therapy.”

And the great Steve Jobs said “Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life. Don’t be trapped by dogma — which is living with the results of other people’s thinking. Don’t let the noise of other’s opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition.”

So I value and nourish my independence. It helps that I am an introvert. That keeps me from feeling as much pressure to conform to the majority. Not too surprisingly, research shows that a large percentage of creatives are introverts.

Freedom

No one, no matter how independent they are, likes to be criticized or demeaned by others. But there is no shortage of people who see themselves in the role of taste maker and art critic.

I will say that being independent and seeing yourself as an outsider helps a lot. I want people to like the work I present to them. But if they don’t, it is more important that I like it. And when criticism comes it is important to honestly evaluate what is said and who said it. Maybe I can learn something. But I will not, I refuse, to alter my fundamental beliefs and vision to conform to someone else’s opinion. If I believe they have a good point of view I might grow in a new direction.

I also reserve the freedom to pursue any subject matter I wish. If a gallery or buyer says “you do abstracts, what’s with these landscapes?” I will have to let them know I do images that call to me. The subject matter and genre means little to me. I know this is not a smart financial position. Conventional wisdom says I should stick to one genre and become known for that.

That’s the problem with conventional wisdom for me. It is usually not conventional and it is seldom actually wise. When the majority goes a direction that seems wrong to me, I follow my own instincts.

Exclusion

A characteristic of photography that I like is that it relies on exclusion rather than inclusion. It is a busy, complicated world out there. Unlike a painter’s canvas, the camera will record everything you show to it. Our job as a photographers is to intelligently select only the small set of things that should be included in the frame and light and compose these important things in a way that makes for a good image. This means excluding most of what is out there.

I guess I like that because it seems to be complementary to my outsider point of view. It is an exercise in throwing away most of what you see and homing in on that small piece that is significant. Declaring what is significant and what isn’t requires strength of character and independence. I believe it is easier for me to make those decisions if I can keep an outsider’s perspective.

There is a saying known as Sturgeon’s Law that says “90% of everything is crap”. I believe this is quite true in most things. My own corollary to this law is that Sturgeon was an optimist. In my photography I get to look at a scene and decide what to throw away and what to keep. It’s very empowering and makes my independent self-concept feel great. ☺

I would love to hear your thoughts on this. And I get no financial incentives from the books I mention.

Aging Well

Rusty old Chevrolet

I”m not necessarily talking about me or the state of health care for the elderly in the US. One of the subjects that calls to me is how some things age with character. Aging well is of interest to me personally and as a photographic study.

A couple of weeks ago I used “Not all who wander are lost” as a theme. This is from a J.R.R. Tolkien novel The Fellowship of the Ring. This time I want to focus on another line from that poem: “The old that is strong does not wither”.

Discard after use

The US is a “use and discard” society. This is as true of people as it is of paper plates. (Try getting a job if you’re over 50). That is a shame and a moral dilemma to consider another day. What I want to talk about here is our short sighted view that things have to be shiny and new or they have little value.

It used to be that many things were designed to last a long time. Designers were not sophisticated enough to create things to be cheap and only last for a short time. Most people only had 1 or 2 sets of clothes. They wore them until they wore out, then salvaged what they could to make other things. Cars may not have been very reliable, but mechanically they lasted a long time. A set of plates was made to hand down to generations to come.

No, I have not become consumed with nostalgia for the “good old days”. We are living in the best times as far as goods being reliable and affordable for more people.

I’m a designer. When I come across something that is designed well I’m impressed and I have respect for the designer. Many times these kind of things are aging well, too.

Wabi-Sabi

It’s hard not to go all “Zen Buddha” on this topic. I will touch very briefly on the Japanese philosophy of Wabi-Sabi. Briefly because this is a very deep and rich subject that requires much more time and space to develop. Also brief because after a lot of reading on the subject, I am barely scratching the surface.

The concepts of Wabi-Sabi don’t translate to Western languages very well. At a simple level, it is concerned with the acceptance of transience and imperfection. Rather than throwing away a cracked pot, they might fill the cracks with gold to emphasize the beauty of the imperfection of the object. A simple pottery cup used in a tea ceremony may be chipped and stained from long use, but that makes it beautiful and unique in their view. At many levels this is beautiful and healthy.

But I’m not Japanese or Zen. I appreciate the depth of some of this philosophy, but how can I use it in my everyday work?

Aging well

As I get older (I’m already older than dirt) I appreciate things that have stood up to the passage of time with a certain elegance and, maybe, defiance. Some thing seem to have more character than our typical modern discardable products. And these same overcomers seem to develop more character as they age.

It seems that most of the admirable things I encounter are mechanical or works of Civil Engineering. Our modern technical products seldom age well and haven’t had a chance to age very long. But take a Detroit vehicle, say from the 1940’s to 1960’s. These are still there, defying the weather and elements, still holding their shape, and it’s a shape that has style and personality.

I think, for me, that idea of these objects shaking their fist at time and proclaiming “I’m still standing” is very encouraging. Yes, they may be all rusty. Their glass and seats are cracked. The engine doesn’t run anymore. But the product the designer created is still there. The thing that people created out of steel and rubber and paint and leather is still recognizable. It is still pretty sound. You have to think that some scraping and polishing and paint would restore it to it’s glory. Indeed, some people make a living buying these old survivors and restoring them.

Badge of honor

Even if it will never be restored, never run again, it is still there in evidence. It resists the passage of time. It rusts, but that adds a new certificate of accomplishment to it. The cracked glass can take on a new beauty. It acquires a grace that is only paid for through years of weathering.

These things call to me. I like to stop and acknowledge them by making a portrait of them. I want to remember them and be encouraged by them. These things are not just a rusted heap of scrap metal. They have acquired a character that few objects achieve. They are treasures. The designers who created them are probably long gone, but their work still give testimony to their accomplishments.

I hope to weather well. I hope people will look at me and admire that I am still defying time: He is old and scarred but still there. He may be cracked and rusty, but it has a certain grace to it, too. Time changes everything and always wins in the end. I am encouraged by things that pass gracefully into time.

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?