Overcoming Cynicism

Intentionally blurred train. A strategy for overcoming cynicism.

Other than doubt and discouragement, cynicism is probably one of my worst traps. Do you ever think there is nothing left to do or no use trying to do it? Overcoming cynicism is a constant battle.

It’s been done

It has been done already. Everything has been photographed. Trillions of photographs are taken every year (“Trillions”, not a misprint). How can I find something new and interesting?

It is hard to look around at all the work that is out there and not be cynical. And depressed.

But occasionally I see something that looks new and fresh to me. That gives me hope that there are still opportunities to be creative. It can be hard to hold on to the hope, though.

Nobody wants it

There are probably millions of people with web sites selling photographs. And there are probably thousands of galleries carrying art, including photography. This is in addition to the limitless supply of photos on social media. It is an over saturated market. What makes me think my work can stand out and be noticed and bought?

It seems like most photographers who have to support themselves with their art do workshops to earn enough money. There seems to be more money in teaching than in sales.

Why try?

Given all this discouraging news, it sometimes seems like none of us should even try to sell photographic art. The probability of success (however you measure it) seems remote.

It appears that an artist needs to become a marketing machine to survive. Marketing has to be an almost full time job. Promoting our self, contacting outlets, getting recognition, talking our self up constantly seems necessary to be noticed. But a lot of us are rather introverted and would almost prefer a root canal to doing these things all the time.

So why bother? It seems useless.


When I am feeling like this, one of the things that will sometimes pull me out of it is going back through my image catalog. When I do, I sometimes decide maybe I do bring something to the market that is useful. Maybe I do have some occasional creativity. My point of view, my vision might be fresh and different enough to be welcome by some people.

I find that reviewing some of my favorite images can, if not cure cynicism, at least diffuse it enough for me to go on. It can reinforce my faith in myself and encourage me to believe I should keep on, because I have something for people to see.

Sure, a lot of my work is mediocre and “me too”, but some, well, seems to me to be extraordinary. When I can get out of my own way, when I can take the pressure off to try to produce great images, I can occasionally create something nice.

I find that feeling like I have to create an outstanding image in a given situation is self defeating. It is like sitting down with the goal to write a world class bestselling novel. Too much pressure.

Instead, my working style is to let it flow. If I can get excited by what I am seeing, it draws me in and inspires me to create. Feeling too much pressure chills that creativity. I am better off to relax and just be me.

For me, that is what art is about. Being myself, expressing my vision, my point of view in my art. If I am doing that, maybe that is enough. Maybe I don’t have to be famous or rich. The first and most important person to please is myself.


Being creative and producing art that pleases me is the reward. That is what I can control. I cannot control how it is received or if galleries are contacting me to get me to exhibit with them. The internal reward of being satisfied with my work is for me to create in myself. No one else can give it to me.

So the way to combat cynicism is the same as the way to combat depression or fear or inertia: get up and get moving. Being in motion – doing something constructive – will help overcome the doubts and negative thoughts. Doing something positive almost always beats sitting and feeling sorry for yourself.

Today’s image

This is a train. An “ordinary” fright train. Actually, they are extraordinary. Have you ever seen one like this? Probably not. You would have to be stupid close to a fast moving train and shoot it with a slow shutter speed a certain way. I think it captures the moment in a creative way. What do you think?

Waiting for Permission

Abstract mountain sunset

Are you using all your artistic talent and showing the world what you really see? Or are you waiting for permission to be an artist? Guess what, no one is going to give you permission.


You are an artist. As such, you have to be fiercely independent and confident. Yeah, I know. Few of us are really that confident, especially when we get criticism. But criticism comes with the job. We are an artist if we let it roll off and not distract us from what we feel we have to create. It hurts just as much, but it can’t derail us.

As an artist, we each have a unique viewpoint. This is what gives us our own style. Expressing our viewpoint has to be a priority for us. Even if it is not popular. Even if it seems to be going in a different direction to the mainstream.

Our priority has to be making the art we see and feel. If we are not following our own heart artistically, we are not authentic, we are an imitation of someone else. Sorry to be harsh, but if we are copying someone else’s art to be popular, we are a fake.


The world has an agenda. Never believe otherwise. Galleries are not interested in the creativity or uniqueness of your art. They only want to include what their customers have historically bought. Curators have built a reputation for promoting a certain style or type of work. They are only going to select art that matches their program. Art consultants seek to maximize sales by choosing safe, known styles for their applications.

If you are creative and following your own path, you may well not be a match for their agendas. Anything even slightly outside the norm or expected will be rejected.

Does that mean your work is inferior? No, If it is your heartfelt creation, it is your art. Just because the gatekeepers do not embrace it does not mean they have the authority to deny you being an artist.

It may not be popular

There are people selling programs to “help” us sell our art to a wider audience. Usually they are based on some version of “look on Etsy or Artfinder and see what is selling, then do that.” These programs probably work, and if your only goal is to sell things, that is OK.

But I’m assuming you feel a burning need to create your own art, not a copy of someone else’s popular work. Now things get more difficult.

In his marvelous little book “A Beautiful Anarchy“, David duChemin writes:

Of course, public reaction, either negative or positive, in not the point. The point is that the long history of creativity – in every imaginable field – takes us inevitably into places where we have to pour new wine into old wineskins, and that invites criticism, which in turn invites fear, and soon we’re back to hiding in the shadows, letting others take the risk while we abdicate the responsibility to do the one great thing we can do with our lives – be fully ourselves and make art of our lives.

A Beautiful Anarchy, David duChemin

What you see and feel

As an artist we have to be able to stand up and say “This is what I see and feel; look at my view of the world.” We are out in the world seeing with fresh eyes. Capturing images to present to our viewers from a new perspective. No one should be able to take that away from you.

As Mr. duChemin puts it, we cannot shrink back in fear and hide in the shadows. If we do, we have robbed our self of creating our art and we have robbed the world of what we can give them.

Go your own way

One of the sayings I live by, to my wife’s alarm, is “ask for forgiveness, not permission”. Actually, I seldom ask forgiveness either.

Asking permission gives someone the opportunity to say no. Why give this person the authority to place rules or limits on your creation? They should not have the right to deny you your art. Do not be left waiting for permission.

An artist is driven by his vision and a need within to create. Do not let the world discourage you or quench your creative spirit. Do not accept labels or let the world pigeonhole you. Take responsibility for your own art. Avoid the trends and whims of the gatekeepers around you. Be what you feel is right for you. Create for the joy of creating.

Am I A Failure?

Dead tree in snow. Bent, broken, but still trying to stand.

It’s the end of a calendar year. For most of us, it is a time of reflection. Are you having doubts and insecurity about your art and your capability? Do you, sometimes, deep down inside, fear you are a failure? I know I do. At this time of the year especially, I wonder if I am a failure.

An ongoing problem for most creatives

I have written before about failing. We all feel it. I think creatives feel it more than most.

The fact that we are creatives means we have to create. But when we show our creations to the world, we are very likely to get rejection and criticism. That hurts. It bruises our ego and makes us insecure. As creatives we have to be out doing new, fresh, interesting work that sets us apart from our peers. But we can’t always feel the inspiration or be on top of our game. When we look at other artists work or awards, it is natural to feel inadequate. A failure.

My reading tells me most artists feel this way at times. Sometimes a lot. Even the famous or well known are troubled with this doubt.

What are your metrics?

We have to be careful to select what we are measuring and how we are doing it. When we feel a failure it is usually compared to what we see other people doing, or our goals, or based on some negative feedback we get.

So one problem is who do we compare our self to? Remember, what you see on social media or magazines or gallery shows is the very best work they can do. But we compare our everyday work, or even our throw-aways, to them and feel a failure. What if you took your carefully selected portfolio of a few great images and compared those to these other people? Would you compare better? Even if you say they are better, can you justifiably say, “but mine is very good”? Don’t assume you are not up to the measure.

External metrics

And we tend to tie our sense of worth to external measures. Like money or recognition or winning contests. One problem with this is that these are things out of our control. We might work hard and market our self extensively, but still we cannot control our sales success. We may enter a lot of contests and open exhibits, but the fact that we are not picked very often is mostly dependent on circumstances we cannot know or understand. And no, saying we just need to get better doesn’t ensure success there.

Recognition is more subtle and in some ways more dangerous. What artist doesn’t want recognition? It makes us feel significant. It validates us and our work. We may seek it, even need it, but we have little control over it happening. The “best” artists are often passed over for seemingly inconsequential reasons. Personal preferences of judges or curators, biases, maybe entering subject matter that is not popular with them. Any number of reasons.

Who said you failed?

But when we are not selected for the show or contest or gallery, what do we internalize? When no one is rushing to buy our prints, what do we assume? We tell our self we are a failure. We are not good enough. No one said that. It is what we tell our self. We are our own worst critic. We rush to think the worst.

Of course, we could try to game the system. We could study the styles and opinions of the judges or gallerists and design work to match their preferences. This might get some show entries and even sales. But whose work are you doing at that point? Are you still an artist if you subvert your vision to the opinions of others?

The moment I decide to create my work first for your approval, and not because it scratches some creative itch within me, I have lost.

David duChemin, “The Soul of the Camera”

All critics have their own opinions. Many are locked in to certain positions because they have developed a reputation in that movement. Some cannot rise above their training. A few are just narrow minded. A lot just may not like our style of art. I’m not saying it is useless to listen to them, just that their opinion is just that, an opinion. It is not law or given from God.

Take the failure or criticism as just an input. Think about the merits, if any, but feel free to discard the advice. Your own opinion must direct your art.

Understand your goals

Be careful of needing to seek the approval of others. They can reject your work, but they cannot judge your art. David duChemin also said, in the book cited above: “Craft can be measured; art cannot”.

The reality is, no one but you can judge your art. Our creativity is a gift from God. When we create art, we are giving back a praise and thanks to him. It is from within. The judgment of our art is our own.

Sure, we can, if we are lucky, find one or more trusted mentors who can give us good feedback. But even then, it is up to us to accept or reject their input.

Out art must scratch the particular itch within us. That is the goal that matters. We must create what we have within. This is internally driven, not dependent on the whims or opinions of other people.

Never give up

I have heard it said that if you can be talked out of your goal, you should give it up. Some disagree, but I think there is a good core of truth to it. Being an artist is particularly difficult. You must be driven and willing to follow your heart despite rejection. It was much easier to become an engineer than to become an artist. The goals were clearer and more easily attained.

I like the phrase what is the thing you can’t not do? This is your art. I think it is a good description. If we have art in us, we are almost compelled to produce it. It doesn’t matter if it is rejected. It doesn’t matter if we don’t get rich with it. This is our art. We have to do it. Other people’s opinions may hurt, but they should not knock up off course.

If I do the art that is within me crying to get out, and I’m happy with it, I am not a failure.

Despite what I may feel today.

Real Reality

Girl sitting on rock over cliff

As I write this in November 2022, Meta (Facebook) has just laid off about 11,000 employees. I feel sorry for the people, but it got me thinking about virtual reality vs “real reality” I don’t know about you, but I greatly prefer real reality.

Virtual reality

Have you noticed that many of the largest tech companies (Meta, Microsoft, Google, etc) want to move us to a world where we experience life through virtual reality goggles. We would sit in our chair and “experience” any place or time, we can do things that would be illegal or impossible in the real world. And generally is seems to be perfectly safe.

In the virtual world we don’t have to worry much about the consequences of our actions. Game over. Restart. We don’t die or go to jail. What’s not to like?

Real life

Contrast that with the real world. Things take time and money and most of us have to work to earn a living. We are “stuck” in the era we are born in. Our society has lots of laws and restrictions we have to live with. We get hot and cold and wet. We get sick and break bones. People can be cruel. Marriages break up. We die.

Wow, the virtual world sounds pretty good, doesn’t it. 🙂

It’s about the experience

To me, one of the differences is a safe, manufactured, managed experience vs what life brings us and what we can find in the world. The real world is real. The virtual world is fake. Even when the technology gets to the point where the virtual world looks real (it’s a long way from it now), it is still fake.

Deep down inside, you know fake experiences are fake. Unless you live your life with only fake experiences.

Let me chance making you upset with me. I don’t have much use for Disney World or other similar entertainment vendors. It may be fun to take the kids or grand kids there, if they’re under about 8, just to watch their excitement as they are entertained. But otherwise, I can’t escape the knowledge that it is all fake. It is all a manufactured experience made by a large corporation. That leaves me completely unsatisfied. Except for a good roller coaster. 🙂

When you know the pirates on the river cruise aren’t able to attack you, it looses any terror. When you figure out the rocket ship you’re flying isn’t going to crash no matter how badly you “fly” it, there is little incentive. Even that good roller coaster that thrills for a couple of minutes, in reality, has no lasting hold for us. It will not fly off the track or crash into something or drown you when it seems to plunge into the lake. Shallow experiences. It is just shaking us around in a safe and controlled way.

Being there

This quote captures an essence of the notion of “being there” in real life:

When I am out, I am there to be in the countryside, to have an experience; to notice, to engage, and perhaps record some good data with my camera. I am not thinking about making images, otherwise, I risk missing the experience altogether, and that seems counter intuitive. The experience comes first.

Alister Benn, “Luminosity & Contrast”

It’s not a game. No one is directing it or controlling it. No ads are being served up to us. It is the wild, unpredictable, real world. I agree with Alister’s description of the experience being key. The experience triggers our interests and creativity. We may not even know why we are drawn to an image at the time. We will figure it out later. Right then it is our subconscious speaking to us. But the experience has to be real to be meaningful.


If there is no risk, there is no reward.

When we are experiencing the actual world, we are not necessarily safe. If I am in the mountains taking pictures, I could get lost; I could make a misstep and break my leg; i could slip and fall off a cliff; a bear could attack me. Or if I am in the city shooting images, I am even more at risk.

The fact that there is danger involved heightens the experience. People these days seem to believe that anything unsafe is bad and should be avoided. The reality is that life is unsafe. We don’t know what is going to happen 5 minutes from now.

Putting our self in situations that can be uncomfortable or even a little dangerous can be good for us. We become more self reliant and able to think and handle situations. It gets the blood pumping and sharpens our senses. A little real danger is far more exciting than a lot of fake danger.

To me, the dangers of being a couch potato and spending our lives anesthetized in entertainment outweigh the dangers of exposing ourselves to the real world. Entertainment is a dangerous drug.

Don’t be stupid

Oh, I can’t say that can I? It would imply that some people do not use good judgment. But as I talk about risk and experience, let me balance that with the counsel to do it realistically. You have to appraise the level of the risk and your capability. I’m not saying you should put yourself in danger.

For instance, when I talk about going out in very cold conditions and snow, I dress appropriately. I have the equipment. And a good 4-wheel drive to get around. And a lot of experience. Getting a good picture is not worth killing myself.

Don’t put yourself in any situation that you can’t handle or that is not worth the potential cost. Get training on identifying and countering the types of threats you could face. Most of all, be aware of yourself and what’s going on around you. Situational awareness applies even out in the woods. Be realistic and make sure you are physically and mentally capable of what you are doing.

Live a real life

My art involves outdoor photography. I do all of my shooting outside. As such, I have to get out in it. Weather almost doesn’t matter. Today, as I write this, it was 22F and snowing and with enough wind to make it pretty chilly. I was out walking nearly 5 miles in it. It was a nice day. The experience was more memorable than the images I got.

It is not always pleasant. That is not my goal. Life isn’t always pleasant. Where I live we have temperatures from 110F to -20F. We can have winds over 60 mph. There is snow and blizzards and thunderstorms, even tornadoes and wildfires. Being out in those things makes you take a moment and say “Wow!”. It is real life.

I feel real and alive and in the moment when I am out experiencing the world live. I am a player, not a spectator. Despite the limitations of my opportunities and capabilities, I want to experience life for myself. I am not content to let a corporation or a game developer or a movie maker package an experience for me, to feed me the same program they give to 1,000,000 other people.

Look at the image with this article. Look closely in the top right. That woman is living a real life experience at the moment.

Live life to make art

Artists are often pictured as counter-culture, wild, living on the edge. To some extent, that is true. We don’t have to look different or dress different, but we should be different. Our art is about bringing experiences to people. As such, we have to experience things ourselves. That is a source of inspiration for us. Our passion from what we experience needs to be felt by our viewers.

Do we have to suffer to make art? Is danger required? Of course not. Monet painted many of his great works in his back yard. The issue to me is are we actually living a life that fuels our creativity and vision? We have to have real experiences, not fake, packaged, safe entertainment.

I don’t think I can generate passion for my viewers playing a flight simulation wearing a virtual reality helmet. It may be enjoyable, but it is a fake experience. I don’t want to show fake experience to my viewers. We don’t have to hang out over a cliff to live life. But get out. Be real. Live your own life, not something someone else packages and sells you. Take risks where necessary. Be yourself.


Starting fear in the eye

Why is it that we feel like we are in competition with other artists? Maybe, at its root, it is envy or insecurity. I don’t like to live in a competition. My desire is to make art and share my vision with other people. I believe that feeling we are in competition with other artists leads to problems for ourselves and can be a malignant stress eating away at us.

Not competing until…

Most people merrily go through their lives enjoying art without feeling any sense of competition. But for those of us who become artists, unfortunately, we tend to become critical and competitive.

Once we are in the game we tend to look at other artist’s work more critically. It is hard to not think we could do better. Or think that our image that was similar was better composed and executed. Maybe we are right. Often, though, it is our ego or fear talking.

Theodore Roosevelt (may have) once said “Comparison is the thief of joy”. Regardless of who said it, it is true that comparing ourselves to others is seldom beneficial and uplifting.


Why should we fear looking at someone else’s work? I think a lot of us are insecure. We aren’t secure in our conviction about the adequacy of our artistic skills. We have to boost our confidence by convincing our self that we are as good as them. Perhaps we fear failure and are unwilling to put our work out in the world publicly and face the potential criticism and rejection.

It is not really a zero sum game – one winner and everybody else looses. When we see someone’s work that is good and excites us, we should be happy. It was a great achievement by them and it can inspire us to rise to greater levels in our own work.

But doesn’t their achievement strike fear into us? Oh no, we aren’t any good, why am I calling myself an artist, how can I ever compete with them? This is our insecurity turned to fear. We try to compensate by criticizing the other artist’s work. Maybe it will make us feel better. If we believe our self.


Another negative feeling we may get is jealousy. We may not like to admit it, but think about it. Other people are getting praise and attention. They are selling well and making a lot of money. I should be in this gallery instead of them.

We wish we were them. So we resent them. We look for ways to tear them down and to prove, even just to ourselves, that they are not so great. To believe that we are just as good.

But don’t forget, you are jealous of them because you recognize their talent. That should be sobering.

Become a critic

Even if we don’t have full on, green-eyed jealousy, we may become a critic. To paraphrase George Bernard Shaw’s famous quote: “Those who can, do. Those who can’t become critics.”

We can get to this point through festering fear or envy or jealousy. We try to put ourselves above the other artist. To give ourselves credentials to label them, to minimize their achievements, even to just nit-pick (the top left corner is not in perfect focus).

Let me be very controversial and say I don’t think there are many critics who are worth listening to. Unless a critic has demonstrated history of creativity and success in similar art forms, they should be just another voice of someone entitled to their personal opinion.

If George Lepp or John Paul Canponigro gave me a critique I would listen closely and thank them for their opinion. I would carefully consider it and may or may not act on it. If I decided to critique George Lepp, he probably wouldn’t listen to me at all. As he should. I have little experience in his genre and zero track record compared to him.

Competitive market

It is unavoidable a highly competitive market. We are always being compared to other artists. Fairly or unfairly, there will be winners and losers. The best don’t always win. “If you make it they will come” is ridiculous. There are biases and vested interests and politics at play everywhere.

When we compete – and we always compete – we need to avoid the attitude that we are competing against “all those other artists”. That is turning our view out to worry about forces we cannot control. Instead, do your best and make work you are proud of.

Sure, for a particular contest, we could research the judges and their styles and biases and research the audience and what usually sells and create work designed to score well here. It might work. But whose art are you creating? Is your work going to be dictated by other people’s attitudes?


Fear, jealousy, envy, and being critical are self-destructive attitudes. Look at other artist’s work and admire the ones you like. Go to them and sincerely congratulate them. It will have rewards for both of you. You will reclaim your self confidence and creativity. Getting over the competition and fear and jealousy will free up your emotional energy to create art.

The reality is that we have our own unique vision, our own style and viewpoint. We are best off when we try to be the best version of our self we can be and create our own art. Even is nobody appreciates it. (cue a vanGogh discussion here 🙂 ) Unless you are starving and view your art as a job to earn money, it is better to follow your own vision. It would feel good to win that contest, but wouldn’t it be more rewarding to feel very proud of what we created?

Art is an intensely personal internal journey. Hence the tag line for my blog: An artist’s journey.