Teamwork

A crowd of trees. Working together or independently?

Teamwork can be a great thing. In my professional life I have been on excellent teams and worked with talented people to achieve amazing results. Different people can bring varied background and experiences to the mix and blend them to achieve good results.

Art, though, is a different thing. We are basically not trying to create a good result or a solid product, we are creating a work of art. Art is inherently not a team sport. It is a creation from one head – the artist’s. Some artists use a team, but they supplement the effort of the artist. The creativity and decisions come from one head.

Teamwork does not lead to creativity

I am going to have to say some controversial things. Things that go against the conventional wisdom you hear everyday. But all “conventional wisdom” should be challenged sometimes.

Collaboration is not creativity. It sounds like I am dismissing collaboration as useless. Not so. There are good times for it. Collaboration can let us overcome obstacles and come up with solutions to hard problems.

Working collaboratively is all the buzz in the corporate world. Schools have picked it up as the great thing for doing projects. I was there for years and my experience was that collaboration is a leveling process. It lets a group create at around the average of their capabilities. It is like the Olympic scoring where they throw out the high and low scores and average the rest.

This may be decent insurance for a company. It ensures that they will probably get OK work not poor work, but it is not creativity. I have not seen these efforts lead to actual original, creative solutions. And I have been through lots of creativity exercises with very capable teams. Even sessions facilitated by top consultants.

Let me concede for the moment that a team effort may lead to a creative solution. Whose creativity is that? Can I call this my creative work? Other people directly contributed to it. Is it really mine?

A lonesome sport

For an artist, the buck stops here. The artist has no one else to blame or defer to. No one else is responsible for coming up with the ideas and making the decisions. Right or wrong, it is his call.

Think what goes through your mind when you see an art piece: what was the artist thinking? Why did the artist make these decisions? Why even choose that subject? You don’t wonder if the artist’s team did mind mapping or used a focus group to select and refine the ideas and style. No, you assume the art is the work of a singular artist.

It can be lonesome and terrifying. As an artist you are sometimes almost paralyzed with fear and uncertainty. There is the terror of the blank canvas, when you don’t seem able to come up with ideas. There is the embarrassment of riches, where you have several images you like a lot but are unable to select the one to present. A certain subject is calling to you. Should you pursue that, even though it is different from your normal work? Should you go with the creativity you feel or play it safe and stick to producing work that is safe and mainstream?

Only you as the artist can solve these problems and answer these questions. That is, only you can answer them for you. Your answers are part of what make your art your art.

Teamwork examples

OK, to answer your objection that teamwork can work sometimes. Yes, it can, in certain ways. There are husband and wife teams like Wendy Shattil and Bob Rozinski or Sarah Marino and Ron Coscorrosa that work together very closely. And there are great friends who collaborate closely, like Tony Hewitt and Peter Eastman. These are very healthy, symbiotic relationships.

From what I’ve seen, these teams work closely on idea generation and location scouting. They give each other very candid and honest critique. They encourage each other and honestly want the other to succeed. But at the end of the day, they are in competition. Only one name goes on the print. They collaborate, but the final art is one person’s work.

If it was not one person’s work it would be a corporate product, not art.

A land of introverts

It has been said that a disproportionate number of artists are introverts. I believe that is true. We tend to enjoy working alone without having to negotiate with anyone to get something done. We are OK being in our heads without needing the validation of other people’s opinions. And many of us are shy. It is easier to create in silence than to ask other people for help or critique.

We may get completely caught up in our work, almost as a way to hide from the world. It is safe – until we have to exhibit it or sell it. We can let our inner self be expressed through our art rather than have to interact with people.

I disagree, though, that it is disproportionate. Who says what the right proportion is? Given the descriptions above it seems natural that introverts would gravitate to art. That is like saying a disproportionate number of talk show hosts are extroverts. No, the introverts run away from that and say “you can have it”.

Teamwork is not the natural style for us introverts. We tend to be very independent and self reliant. Not to say we are immune to fear and self doubt. If anything we are more susceptible to it. But good or bad, we want it to be our own work.

A circular argument

Since this is based on my first person experience, it is somewhat of a circular argument. The thesis is that artists are generally introverts and don’t do teamwork. This is true of my experience in my world. That is all I can really speak for.

There certainly are many successful extrovert artists. These people would need lots of interaction with other people and need to bounce ideas off other people. But even so, who creates the art?

Let me come back to the original thought. Introvert or extrovert, the art is almost always the creative expression from one head. It is not a team sport. We can get inspired and motivated by talking to other people. People can stimulate us or give us feedback to help point us in a slightly different direction. But in the end, no one but me is responsible for what I create. And I wouldn’t want it any other way.

Failing

Walking in the rain

Most of us fear failing. We often avoid taking a risk because we don’t want to fail and feel bad about ourselves. This is a deep seated behavior that is hard for most of us to overcome. Fear of failing can paralyze us.

But I feel that, if you are an artist, you do not have the luxury of always playing it so safe you can never fail.

Fear failure?

Most of us fear failure in most things. Maybe almost as much as we fear public speaking.

Are you a perfectionist? Are your expectations so high that you cannot try new things for fear that you might not do a good job? Does even thinking about the possibility of failing give you rapid heart rate, chest tightness, trembling, dizziness, lightheadedness, sweating?

Or, sorry I’m getting very personal with myself now, are you afraid you are a fake? That you are not good enough or able to do what you profess to do?

Do not believe the labels other people want to put on you. They are quick to want to do it. Did you get rejected for that exhibit you applied for? It doesn’t mean you are a failure. Did a gallery reject you? They were just looking for something else. You can’t really be a failure unless you accept that you are.

Accept disappointment

Not getting the recognition or sales we are seeking hurts. Being rejected by the ones we seek approval from is painful and discouraging.

We have to have a core of confidence in our ability that will keep us going. Our belief in our self must be stronger that the negative messages we get from the outside. Otherwise we will either give up or we will believe that our art is not worthwhile the way we want to do it and we will change to try to become someone else’s idea of an artist. That is living a lie.

We must persist. There are very few true “overnight successes”. Here are some examples from authors. They seem to keep score more.

JK Rowling’s Harry Potter was rejected by 12 publishers.

John Grisham’s A Time to Kill was rejected by 16 publishers before he decided to get an agent. The agent eventually rejected him as well.

Chicken Soup for the Soul, by Jack Canfeld and Mark Victor Hansen, was rejected 140 times.

Stephen King’s Carrie was rejected 30 times.

These are just anecdotes, data points. Your mileage will vary. But isn’t it great that these people persisted despite what must have seemed like overwhelming failure?

Redefine

Perhaps your expectations are wrong. Maybe you won’t be the next Joe McNally. There are very few of them.

It could be time to change your metrics. Are you defining success as huge sales? Is success for you to be rock star-famous or published in National Geographic? Try looking at it in terms of the satisfaction you get from what you create. Whether you get fame or rejection, the inner evaluation of your art is your own.

Maybe the failures are a necessary part of our growth and maturing. They can reinforce our will to succeed and our belief in our self. It is part of growing up as an artist.

Seek failure

I’m kidding, right? Who in their right mind would seek failure?

Well, when we put ourself out there, that is giving the world an opportunity to reject us. To consider us a failure. We have to do it, to persist, to accept that the rejection will come because we need to have our art seen.

“I love my rejection slips. They show me I try.” – Sylvia Plath

We should embrace the rejections and failures as steps along the way. It is never fun or easy, but we need to get used to it. Keeping on trying even after rejections helps us overcome fear of failure. If we retreat into our shell and refuse to try anymore we will consider ourselves failures. We will believe that self-talk.

Plus, we learn from the experience.

Learn from failure

Whenever we are learning something challenging there is a time of testing ourselves to see if we are getting it. If we are studying math, we solve problems and take tests. If we are learning Karate we spar and go through testing to measure our proficiency. When we are learning music we are asked to do recitals to demonstrate our capability. The exercises develop our skill and the tests not only prove our ability, they develop our mental toughness.

If we never confront our fears we will never know what we are and what we are capable of. This is easier for some of us than others. It is pretty hard for me. I don’t like it. But I force myself to keep on. I may grumble and be in a bad mood for a while after getting a rejection, but I know I have to keep on.

Perhaps the real thing we are learning is how much we believe in our self. Do we consider our art worthwhile and worth the pain?

What Excites You?

Pictures of pictures

I believe artists are passionate people. We do our best work when we are excited about it. Have you considered what excites you? Do you seek the excitement?

Do you get excited when you are shooting?

I try to have that level of excitement. Of course, we are just human and it will not be there in full strength all the time. Like everything in life it ebbs and flows with our mood or circumstances.

I find that I have different grades of excitement about the things I shoot. It can range from “I really should shoot this; it is kind of interesting; I might can make a decent image out of it” to “Wow! I’m so excited right now I can hardly be still enough to expose a frame properly”.

I don’t consider anywhere along that continuum to be “wrong”. But the high excitement side is definitely more fun and easier to get, well, excited about.

Not all scenes are great

What makes the difference in the excitement level? One is probably the inherent quality of the scene or subject. When I say inherent quality this is a subjective measure, as is almost everything in art. It can only be evaluated by you for you. I think it is a function of the scene itself and how it interacts with our values and our mood. Sometimes we just don’t feel it, even though the artist right next to you thinks it is spectacular.

It may not be what you wanted or hoped for, but it is what it is. Work with it.

Another difference is our perception of the scene. The reality is that most of us are not surrounded by world-class, once-in-a-lifetime opportunities everyday. Most of what we see is rather average. An average scene offers the opportunity to exercise our creativity by making it interesting. We have to work hard to make something of it. This is valuable exercise. It is not a bad thing.

As a matter of fact I will assert that the rare, unique, wonderful scene may not be that much of a creative opportunity. If the scene is amazing in itself, we may only have to record it. Yes, it lets us use the technical and compositional skills we have spent a long time developing to capture it well, but we actually don’t have to do much. Just don’t screw it up. It can be exciting to know we captured a rare and great moment, but it may leave us a little unsatisfied because we did not contribute much to it.

Dealing with the average

Mostly we encounter more mundane, average, day-to-day scenes. How can we build or keep our excitement going when surrounded by ordinary?

I have stated before that I like to go out empty and let myself be drawn to subjects. Still, just in wandering around randomly I mostly encounter pretty average things. If I think there is something there, the exercise is to be able to make it above average. Can I see it differently? Is there a better angle or lens choice that would bring it out to advantage? Does it need to be simplified? Or juxtaposed with another element to make a different statement? Does it need different light or even a different season?

My friend Cole Thompson says “I believe the real test of creating isn’t cherry-picking great images from great locations, but rather to see the extraordinary in the ordinary. To be able to find something remarkable in my everyday surroundings.” Very wise.

When I am able to take an ordinary subject that I am drawn to and make it into something special it builds excitement in me. It gets my energy flowing. I become more conscious of other things around me and more empowered to go after them. It is a reinforcing cycle. It helps me see other things as well.

Ideas to being back excitement

Working with the ordinary is one process that is very important to get me excited. Each of us is different. We have different values and expectations and points of view. So there is no simple list of “hacks” that will work for everyone. But let me give some suggestions to try:

  • Set yourself projects to work on. The thought process of concentrating on a fixed subject causes us to focus and think different. It can be energizing.
  • Travel. A change of scenery can help to change our perspective.
  • Shoot with someone. The interactions and discussions can be stimulating and refreshing.
  • Take on a new style or technique. It doesn’t have to be a permanent change, just something to shake up the norm.
  • Make it look strange or absurd. It helps you see it fresh. This is the Russian Formalism technique called “ostranenie”. It is interesting. More on this another time.
  • Go to a museum. Not just a photography museum. Studying works by masters can never hurt.
  • Look at other work. Read blogs and other artist’s web sites. Get books of art. Get more familiar with the way other artists see the world. Do not copy them, but feel free to steal. 🙂
  • Find what gives you joy. A sense of joy is an important driver for excitement. Know what works for you.
  • Get out and do it. Really. Just making yourself do it can lift you from a funk and get you going.

Shoot for yourself

One of the most powerful motivators is reserved for a select few.

Do you consider yourself a “fine artist”? One of the definitions of that is that we create work for ourselves. If you are in the enviable position of creating art to please yourself, take maximum advantage of it. Follow your instincts. Don’t worry about what you see other artists doing.

When you get excited about a subject or a location or a technique follow your feelings. Work it to see what develops. It may be something entirely new that you become extremely excited about and that changes you. Or it may end up not being interesting to you and abandoned. Either way, you followed your artistic instinct. This builds excitement.

You don’t get a hit every time your swing, but it is important to keep swinging.

Is it work?

What is the difference between work and art? Maybe nothing. Please don’t read this blog as saying we should sit around waiting for the muse to visit us. Or to think you shouldn’t go out today because you just don’t feel any excitement.

Most of the things I describe or suggest are active. Based on taking positive steps toward creating something. We have to work at it. Action leads to feeling.

So whatever inspires you and creates excitement for you, don’t just think about it. Get out of the chair or up from the couch and go do something about it.

Finally, here are some quotes to reinforce that concept:

Motivation exists, but it has to find you working. – Pablo Picasso

Hard work will outperform talent any day of the week. – Joel Grimes

Inspiration is for amateurs. Us professionals just go to work in the morning. – Chuck Close

Catch on fire with enthusiasm and people will come for miles to watch you burn. – John Wesley

A Balance

Airplane landing over water, moon

Being an artist is a balancing act. There are many dimensions that must balance against each other. Get too far off in the weeds in any dimension and you risk losing the path you are seeking. This time I will discuss the balance between egotism and self doubt.

Egotism

Egotism is the sense of being self-important. It is arrogance. It is being focused on yourself and thinking, for instance, that your opinion is more important than others.

Who would want to be such a person? Well, an artist does.

He doesn’t seek to be arrogant, but it is a necessary component of the creative struggle. An artist has to feel he has something to say. That he has a point of view that is unique and worthwhile. And you feel compelled to share your vision with other people.

You have to believe you have the right, even duty, to grab people and say “look at this!” Because you are bringing something fresh and new into the world that people should see. If you are not bringing something new, then why are you wasting your time? But you are, so you should shout about it.

Your art is the best art you know how to make. You believe it is worthwhile. Therefore you should be a little pushy and arrogant. Egotistical, within bounds..

Self doubt

On the other hand, most artists are plagued with self doubt. There is always the voice whispering (shouting?) in our ear. Telling us we are not good enough. We aren’t doing anything new or creative. No one would want to see our work. What the critics say is right – we’re not really an artist.

Because of that self doubt we shrink back. We don’t shoot those extreme or controversial images. We don’t push our work to galleries or contests. Aren’t we quick to believe the worst about ourselves and equally quick to believe that everyone else knows more than us?

That little voice thinks it is doing us a favor by trying to keep us from making a fool of ourselves. To keep us from being hurt. But the reality is we can’t be an artist unless we are willing to be a fool. We will be hurt and rejected and told by the “experts” that we are not good enough.

It is up to our egotism to balance that and help us push on despite criticism and disappointment.

The intersection

Where egotism and self doubt balance is where I believe most artists live. You need both.

Egotism gives us the confidence to believe in ourselves. Self doubt makes us evaluate ourselves more objectively and see if we need to improve. We need both.

If they are not in a healthy tension we can go off track. Unchecked egotism can be self destructive. We can delude ourselves into believing everything we conceive is wonderful and a benefit to the world. Unchecked self doubt will cripple us and shut us down from ever risking anything.

On the other hand, a healthy amount of egotism keeps us moving forward, creating new work, experimenting, believing that we are doing something useful. Balancing that with a certain amount of self doubt will temper us. It will make us question and evaluate things but not be enough to paralyze us.

Like many things in life, being mature and creative means being able to manage the tension of competing and contradictory ideas. We have to use our core values and faith and life experience to understand the inherent contradictions and still deal with them. Without going crazy.

It’s about balance.

Frozen in Time

Weathered car

Many of us go around trying to freeze moments in time. For a lot it takes the form of happy, smiling images to post to social media to prove (to us?) what a great time we are having on vacation, graduation, the wedding, etc. Or we may freeze great landscapes or seascapes or sunsets so we can show their beauty.

But what is your experience when you share these moments with other people? You pull them up on your phone to show your buddy. Flip, view a few seconds, flip, flip (faster now), flip…. People only look at images on screen for a couple of seconds.

As someone who shoots thousands of images and makes prints I can say from experience that an image is not really complete and meaningful until a great print is made.

Digital images are impermanent

Digital images are impermanent in several ways. They are just bits on your hard disk or in the “cloud”. Unlike in the days when we had albums or even shoe boxes of prints, our pictures now can disappear in an instant. Hard disks fail. I know very well. I have thrown away dozens of them.

My main storage devices now are all RAID drives. This means they have multiple drives in each and the information is partitioned so that if one drive fails, everything can continue with no data loss. But that is just mitigating the problem.

Technologies change and become obsolete. How many of you have some pictures on a floppy disk or CD or some other media that you can’t read anymore? It happens. Fairly frequently.

And your cloud provider can go away or stop serving you if you don’t pay. Or if you don’t keep up with the never ending system updates for your computer and they stop supporting your version.

Another problem with digital images is that most people do not have a good cataloging system for them. Are your images stored in chronological order in Apple Photos? How do you locate that great photo of Grandma you took once? Do you even remember the year? It sounds harsh, but if you can’t find it, you basically don’t have it.

Digital images are fluid

Another property of digital images is that they are fluid. That is, they can be changed at any time. That can be useful sometimes. Break up with that loser? Edit him out.

On a more serious note, it also means that the look of the image can be changed at a whim, depending on your mood or your developing Photoshop skills. Your digital image will be content to exist on your disk in an easily editable state. By its nature, it is perpetually a work in progress. It does not require you to ask or answer hard questions. It is not forcing you to confront your feelings or interpretation. But a print commits the image to a hard media.

When you make a print, you are compelled to think it through in more depth. You are not going to take the time and effort and expense of printing unless you know how you view the image. You work on it more that if you are going to put together a slide show. It has more permanence and It represents our convictions about the image at a point in time. This forces us to think about it more.

When the ink is laid down you have created a piece of art, not just some bits. It means something different to you and your viewers.

A good print is compelling

Have you been in front of a well crafted original print by Ansel Adams or Dorothea Lange or John Paul Caponigro or any great photographer you like? It has depth and significance that is impossible to create on a screen. We assume from our experience that images on screen are fleeting. But these great prints are different.

People look at images on a screen for a few seconds. They study great prints for minutes. The print can grab you; stop you in your tracks; confront you with something you can’t ignore. It is a piece of art, not just flickering bits. It is real.

Prints are the gold standard

I talked before about how transient bits can be and how devices fail and technologies go obsolete. Good prints, though, have substance. They are physical. They are a real object with weight and texture and size. A well done print can last 100-200 years without degrading. It is something that can stand the test of time.

Ansel Adams stopped printing over 40 years ago, but one of his prints is as impressive today as it was then. And it will probably be as impressive 100 years from now.

A print is a frozen idea

As I mentioned, you are not compelled to “finish” your digital images. It is far easier to shoot than to finish them. You can leave them sitting there on your computer with only a fuzzy notion of how we really feel about them.

When you commit to creating a print it forces you to confront your feelings or interpretation. You go through some serious self-examination. Once the ink is on the paper it is not going to change. It represents our idea about the image at a point in time. We have to go through the work to decide how we really feel about the image in order to print it. And we spend a lot more time bringing it to a high level of perfection.

This is a good thing. We are creating a real, permanent object. It represents us. We feel pressure to make it our art. It is our expression for the world to see. We are creating something that will probably outlive us. We want our viewers to see what we saw and feel what we felt.

It is quite possible to return to an image years later and make a new print that is very different. That is quite common and healthy. It means we have grown and developed new viewpoints. If we rework the image and create a new print, it is a new work of art. It could hang proudly beside the original as portraits of the artist at 2 different points in his life.

It is the only physical result of photography

When I press the shutter of my digital camera, not much really happens. Some photons are exposed to the sensor and some electrical change is read and converted to bits and transferred to the memory card.

Even when I import the digital files into my computer, they are still just bits – minute, almost unmeasurable units of electrical or magnetic energy. I can hit the Delete key and they are gone without a trace. My main photo disk has over 6 TBytes of data on it (6,000,000,000,000 chunks of 8 bits). But it does not weigh a gram more than it did empty.

I can argue that I have not actually made anything of value until I make a print. The print is something real. It is physical. People can see it and feel it and look at it as art or garbage. But regardless of how they feel about it, they can’t see or feel anything until it is a print. The print can be framed and hung on the wall and passed down to generations or sold. The bits cannot.

It completes the cycle

And printing is good for you as an artist. It completes the process. It brings art to life. You have to work at it, wrestle with it, make mistakes and do it over. You have to make hard decisions that shape the final result. The print is a commitment of your vision, frozen in time.

And when you get done, you may be disappointed. You envisioned more. You hoped, when it was just bits, that it would be more. The reality of the print can be cruel. You have to reexamine everything from your conceptual idea to your technique. It is what it is. Learn from it. We want people to see and feel what compelled us to take the picture. Sometimes it works. Sometimes it doesn’t.

But you won’t know what it really is until you have made the best possible print. That is your art. If you revisit the image later you may see it differently and print a different interpretation. Printing is a key expression of our art.

I reference Ansel Adams a lot in this article. In closing, he famously said:’

The negative is comparable to the composer’s score and the print to its performance. Each performance differs in subtle ways.”