Talent

Different view of aspen forest

Not everyone can do everything. When your parents told you you can be anything you want to be, they weren’t being entirely honest. Each of us is suited for some things and not for others. We each have certain gifts and talents. It is wired in to us.

I could never have been an NBA basketball player or an NFL football player. I don’t have the strength or physical traits or athletic skill – or the killer drive to succeed in sports – that is required. No amount of work on my part would have overcome the deficiencies i have.

Some things come easy

How do you know what your talents are? One way is to look around at your peers. You will probably find that some people struggle with things that seem easy to you. Many of us have trouble recognizing this. We think if we can do it then everybody else can, too.

Let me give one example. I am OK with math. I don’t love it, but I do it comfortably. A career in Engineering helped a lot, but there was also a natural inclination. They are related. You wouldn’t succeed in Engineering without being comfortable with math. It is frustrating to me to see people struggling to figure out simple things when it should be easy for them to calculate or even estimate an answer. I have trouble understanding that inability because I don’t have it.

But this is supposed to be about art. I find that composition and exposure come easy to me. Yes, I have studied for a very long time, but it always felt like it wasn’t a problem. I still enjoy reading about principles of perception, and leading lines, and contrast and using the frame, and exposing to the right and all the other “theory”. It is comfortable and familiar and valuable. I do not struggle a lot with this. When I see someone who seems unable to get it together, and who worries way too much about what camera settings to use, I’m afraid I just have to walk away. I can’t relate to their mystery.

Some things come hard

Being easy is not the measure of your talents, though. Some things we are capable of doing come hard. It can take a lot of work to develop the ability. I would go so far as saying that if it took hard work to develop that talent, that is better. You will appreciate it and value it more when you succeed. You will probably know it better because you had to work at it. Things that are easy are not very personally rewarding.

If you feel you have a talent for something, don’t give up. Not until you have spent a great deal of time and effort on it. Sometimes talent isn’t recognized until we reach a certain stage of life. Perhaps it has to build on other things or we have to get to a point of maturity to appreciate it.

One thing that came hard for me is giving myself permission to really experiment. To play far outside the norms and the conventional rules. I am getting better now. Hopefully I will continue to grow in that creative direction. I feel a pull that makes me think I should.

My background was very literal and hyper realistic. It was a struggle to break out of that. But I discovered I like the other side as well. Maybe more. Now I am comfortable with intentionally blurring things. I can composite images and play with more extreme colors. It seems the further I go off the normal path of photography the more I like it. Is this a talent? Hard to say. Maybe it is just a preference. I’m not sure where the line it.

At some point, though, we sometimes have to decide we were wishing for a talent we don’t really have. If we have done an honest job of trying and it is just not working, time to change direction. In the process we have learned something new about ourselves. I’ll mention this later, but I found that I have very little talent for drawing or painting. I had to abandon that.

Do you need talent?

Do you need talent to be an artist? A sensitive topic, and I will probably offend someone. My feeling is yes, you do. The mechanics, the rules and patterns can be learned by almost anyone. What is the difference between someone who can barely take a usable selfie and another person who makes what people recognize as very good art? I don’t know. It could be creativity, or knowing how to use the tools better, or natural skill. For lack of a better term I will call it talent. Something separates the very good from the rest.

But, and this is significant, I believe most people can learn to do a lot. You don’t have to be the best in the world to enjoy doing something. Get over thinking everything is a competition with 1 winner and everyone else a loser. Do what you can. Relax. Enjoy what you can do.

Study yourself

To grow, it is necessary to curate our talents like we would our art. We should evaluate and refine and seek to understand. It is a life-long process.

I see it as a past/present/future sequence. We must honestly evaluate where we have been and what talents we have discovered. We also need to realistically assess where we are now. Are we content with what we are doing? Do we feel we are making the most of what we have? And looking to the future helps us plan a path forward. Where do we want to go? What talents will it require? This obviously is wider in scope than just art. We are evaluating our life.

To be realistic, I’m not talking about forcing myself into a lotus position and doing navel-gazing for days. I would probably need the rescue services to pry me out if I ever got folded up that way. The idea is that we need to be self-aware. We are the only one who really understands what we feel and like and what our goals actually are. I believe we should be intentional about our life.

Optimize your strengths

One of the big disservices of the corporate world is the annual review. We and our manager and maybe our peers are supposed to review what we have accomplished and assess our strengths and weaknesses. A lot of focus is on coming up with a plan to improve our weaknesses.

Sounds good, right? Sounds like the self-evaluation I recommended. What I finally figured out over the years is that it is a normalization process. The corporation is trying to make us interchangeable parts they can move around at will. This optimizes their goals, not mine.

It finally was clear that, if you are a top performer, you get rewarded for what you do excellently. You very seldom get down graded for your weaknesses. It became my goal to optimize my strengths. When my weaknesses were pointed out I could say, yep, that is a weakness, and be confident that it will not hold me back.

Relating this to art, it became clear to me early on that I had so little talent for drawing or painting that I would never be happy pursuing that. Also, I have a relatively short attention span for working on an image. I want to see results quickly. I did not want to spend weeks working on a single painting. But I was compelled to create art. Finding photography worked for me as the outlet that I needed . That became a whole world that was creatively satisfying and challenging. By following my strengths I can honestly consider myself an artist.

Our talents are our strengths. They make us unique. We should try to be very aware of them. We should cultivate them and be looking to develop new ones. I believe we all have a lot of potential. No one but you can really know you. Keep pushing yourself. Learn new things. Try new directions. Find those buried talents and bring them out. Be all you can be.

A Sense of Wonder

A result of following curiosity

Remember wonder? Most of us came with a sense of wonder. Think of a kid at Disneyworld. Or that kid with a brush or a pencil or sidewalk chalk drawing their creations. Or just playing with toys.

Somewhere along the way this sense of wonder is squeezed out of most of us. We “grow up” and see everything coldly and analytically, or we live in fear of everything that could happen to us. Of course we have to grow up, but losing our joy and wonder of the world is a tragedy.

My point of view here is mainly that of an artist, but the comments generally apply in a much broader scope. In a sense this article is a followup to a previous one on learning what excites us.

Wonder drives us

As artists (or well-balanced people) wonder is what makes us take a fresh look at everything around us. It propels us forward to discover and explore. Wonder lets us walk around the block and see something we have never noticed before that interests us or leads us to make a connection with something else.

Wonder is the “what if?” that leads us to see new things or try new things. Without it we tend to do the same things over and over mechanically, routine. As artists we can easily get in a rut. We always produce similar work, because that is what we do. Maybe that is what we became known for.

A rut is stagnant. It always goes the same places. We don’t grow. Eventually we get bored with what we are producing and it shows.

Wonder feeds our curiosity

One of the greatest benefits we have as humans is curiosity. Most of us are not grubbing around to look for our next meal or to simply survive. We want to create, to make our mark. We know there is something more than the day to day activities that occupy us. Questions intrigue us and we want answers. Or at least, we want to try to figure them out.

I believe, and this is totally non-scientific, that wonder leads and drives our curiosity. If you don’t wonder at something why would you be curious? Wonder sparks the “how?”, “why?”, “what if?”, “could I?” side of us. It shows us there are new dimensions to explore, new sights we have not found yet.

Being open and receptive to wonder makes us take a fresh look at the world around us.

Permission

Are you looking around you and really seeing things? Or are you moving through life in a fog, with your headphones on and buried in your phone?

Not to sound judgmental, but that is what I observe of most people around me. The reality is that wonder is a still, small voice that needs quiet to be heard. It is easily drowned out by noise. The world around us inundates us with a constant stream of media designed to keep us captive and tuned in to their stream. I know from my own experiments that I have to unplug to activate my wonder and curiosity.

Try it. Go out sometime without a camera or sketch book, just you. Leave your phone in your pocket. Put away the headphones. Just wander. It will seem very strange at first. Disconcerting. But keep at it.

After a while I predict you will start to look around more. You will start to actually see things, maybe for the first time. Let your curiosity feed on it. What is that? Was this always here? That’s interesting, but I’ve never noticed it.

It basically comes down to giving your self permission to slow down and explore. This is a hard step for some of us. Practice it. It is kind of like meditation. It may seem strange at first, but it gets easier and more beneficial with practice.

And in my experience, it works the same driving in a car. That is, turn off the radio and just look around (as much as you safely can). Give your self permission to take side trips, to stop and look at anything that catches your eye. Let those cars pass you. Try it. It feeds your mind and it gets easier with practice.

Play

I started off talking about the natural wonder we had as children. To some extent we can recapture it. We just have to un-learn some of our adult traits. A good path is to learn to play again.

As kids we played a lot. BTW, I hope you let your kids have lots of unstructured time for play. Not with socially relevant or educational toys, but with a box or some paper or string or … Anyway, adults can play, too. It is good for us. Very good.

Follow your curiosity. Pursue goals that probably won’t lead to a profitable outcome, but that you are interested in. Learn something new.

As an artist, assign yourself a strange project. One you have never done before and aren’t likely to put in your portfolio. Explore the dark recesses of your tools, like Photoshop blending modes for example. Not to create something great, but to explore and find out what might happen.

That’s one of the things about play, it is usually unstructured and just for you. There is no intent to produce something for other people. The benefits are indirect and very personal.

Be different

I highly recommend you redevelop a child-like wonder for your work and the world around you. Give your self permission to be unconventional. You will start to see more. You will become more curious about things. Hopefully you will act on your curiosity. Observe, experiment, plan to throw your experiments away. The joy and learning is in the doing or the seeing.

In my art I have followed my curiosity and am starting to see beyond the traditional limits of my media. I push past the conventional views I have long held and try to re-imagine the normal. I am doing whole new views of common everyday scenes. You may not like it. Nobody has to other than me. But it renews me. I feel like I am opening up new doors.

Please try to renew your art and your life. It is the only life we have.

The Value of Editing

Rusted old Chevrolet against a contrail

Image editing has great value beyond just the corrections done.

I often hear photographers state a goal of minimizing or even eliminating the time they spend on the computer editing images. Some say they don’t like technology. Or maybe they are too busy to spend the time editing. There are some who seem to think that a well executed image should already be complete right out of the camera.

I believe all of these attitudes are mistaken.

Technology

I have ceased to like technology for it’s own sake. I’m not impressed nearly as much as I used to be by fast chips with great graphic processing and lots of memory. However, the computer is a necessary tool. Virtually all imaging is done digitally now. Digital images need a fast computer to process them efficiently.

Like it or not, photography is probably one of the most technical art forms you can find. It is inextricably linked to technology. The computer is our darkroom. Just like Ansel Adams and his generation spent hours in the wet darkroom processing their images so we will spend hours at our computer doing the same.

Of course, we have the advantage of being able to have a nice glass of wine next to us while we work. 🙂

The inescapable fact is that computer-based processing is required for modern photography. In practice, this means learn to love Lightroom and Photoshop.

I have seen videos from well known photographers describing their process and it is apparent they only have a limited depth of Photoshop knowledge. Yes, results are what count, but I am sorry for them. They could possibly do more if they became more familiar with the technology they use. A craftsman should be an expert with their tools.

So if a computer is a necessary tool for our art then we should consider getting an adequate one. Bigger is better here. Bigger meaning more speed, more cores, more memory, more graphics, etc. Get one that makes editing very large files as speedy as possible. It is part of the cost of doing business.

Need for editing

It is a common misconception that the image you just downloaded from your high-end camera should be ready to share or print with little processing. Some people are able to do this for limited applications. For instance, I have seen wedding photographers or sports photographers who are able to ship their images out to clients almost immediately. What you often don’t see is the preparation that enabled that. They are able to shoot and ship jpg files and they spend lots of time getting their exposure and white balance dialed in before the shoot, along with presets for their typical processing steps.

This can work excellently for an experiences artist. But only for certain niches.

If you are following this blog I hope you do not shoot jpg files. For landscape or fine art RAW files are a requirement to make all the sensor information available to you for editing. Most of us need to dedicate the time for processing our RAW files.

Wasted Time?

OK, our images need some processing. Is the goal to minimize this time? To what end?

Something I am discovering is that, at a higher level, the goal is not to see how many images I can accumulate. The goal should be to make great art. I hear people complain that time at the computer takes away from time shooting. Yes, it does. That isn’t all bad.

I am even starting to consciously throttle my image making production because I get too far behind on the processing and refinement. Making new images is a joy. I would prefer to be out in the field shooting. But a balance is necessary and the follow on editing is equally important.

The images have to be assimilated and processed, both by my computer and by me. This is the process I am referring to as editing.

Value of editing

What I have come to realize is that editing is not just about making some corrections in an image so I can get on to shooting more. Editing is an extensive and necessary process. There is the filing and culling. There is the tagging and quick corrections. Then there is the more extensive edits required to bring a promising image to fruition. Sometimes over and over. Finally, there is more culling. Yes, ample opportunity to throw things away. And be sure to set aside time to play and experiment.

I am not a conceptual artist. Unless I am working on a project I do not shoot planned or designed images. Most of my images are discoveries, something that captured my imagination. Because of this the value of an image may not be consciously recognized by me until much later.

Some of my images need time to mature, time for me to understand why I was drawn to them in the first place. Sometimes this requires trying several variations on editing an image. And time. It just takes time for a tricky image.

The realization can sneak up slowly or it can come in a flash of insight. It is great when I finally understand a difficult image. Sometimes it never happens and I end up just filing it away or even deleting it.

I have written before that we should kill our darlings. It is painful but true. One mark of our maturity is what we choose to keep.

Understanding

It sounds mystical, but editing, for me, has become much more than correcting an image. The time spent with my images is a key part of the process of me understanding my art. I start to see patterns of being drawn to recurring themes. Understanding the way I subconsciously work a subject over time is significant. When I spend more time with my existing images I can gather more insight to better understand my art and myself.

Just the time spent browsing, culling, rearranging, and grading my images has led me to better understanding of some of the themes that are important to me. By removing good images that no longer align with my style or interests my portfolio gets stronger. Less is more.

So, if anything, editing time is becoming more and more valuable to me. I value it as a necessary and important part of the image creation process. Your mileage may vary, but this is where I am.

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.

Projects Give Focus

Airplane taking off. A short project.

Sometimes when we feel burnt out or empty and aren’t finding anything exciting to shoot, setting ourselves a project to do can help to focus our creative energy and invigorate us. For some of us, the projects become the core of our work.

Focus

I tend to be an omnivore photographically. I look for interesting scenes, almost regardless of what the subject is. So, in other words, I shoot everything. Sometimes that leads to my attention being stretched too thin.

Temporarily selecting a particular subject for a project focuses my attention and energy down to a narrow point. Rather than finding any interesting subject I spend some time tuned up to only a certain subject.

I find that this period of focus can be refreshing. I would not want to permanently exclude a broader viewpoint. That would become boring and it is not my style. But doing it for a short time is a good creative exercise.

Creative channel

Creativity is an ephemeral thing. It seems to come and go. Once we have developed it, I don’t really believe it ever goes away, but I do see it get stronger and weaker at times. When we cannot feel the pull of our creativity, it is scary. We doubt ourselves. We fear that we are a fraud.

At these times taking on a project can often be a great refresher for me. Picking out something that interests us and is very narrow and specific presents a new challenge. Just the slight seeming reframing from “go be creative” to “find a creative approach to this subject” creates a very different exercise.

I’m fairly competitive and like solving problems. A project is a challenge and a problem solving opportunity.

For a short time I get to narrow my focus down to just the project subject. It fills my thoughts. My creativity has a clear goal. It becomes a problem to solve.

I find that good things come out of this.

Body of work

A lot is said about having a well curated body of work. Projects can add greatly to this. When done, the project may only be 10-20 carefully selected images. But hopefully, they have a theme, a consistent style, and they tell a story. This helps build your body of work.

Several projects in your portfolio are like boulders in a stream. They stand out as the rest of the collection flows around them. They are solid cores that the rest build on.

Ansel Adams famously said “Twelve significant photographs in any one year is a good crop.” I would say that, in the digital world, we shoot a lot more and probably our standards have relaxed from Ansel’s. Still, shooting projects increases our probability of good images. We have most of our creativity focused on a certain theme for a period of time. That has to help. These great images build our portfolio.

Doing good?

The process of selecting a project is subjective. Some people feel they can and should contribute to a cause. Whether that is wilderness preservation or global warming or human trafficking or any other large important cause, that can be great. You can feel like you are making a difference in the world. And maybe you are. I would not discourage you. Wanting to do good is a great human trait.

But a project does not have to be grand in scale or in impact. It only has to be focused in scope and interesting to you. Remember, first, the project is for your benefit. It can be as small or large, as local or global as you want. The purpose of the projects I am talking about is to energize you. To get you through a creative slump.

For instance, I am doing a project on speeding trains. Sounds dumb. Maybe it is. But I see something in these that inspires me to work it. I like what I am seeing so far. As a matter of fact, I dropped this blog for a few minutes to go out and capture one going by. I hope you don’t mind the interruption. 🙂

Only projects?

If projects are so good, why not only do that? A valid question. Some artists only do projects, like Brooke Shaden or Jennifer Thoreson. It works for them. It is aligned with their creativity and the way they see the world.

A project-only world doesn’t work for me. As I said before, my interests are wide ranging. I like to go out empty and be inspired by what I find. That is just me. I find that contrasting this with occasional projects gives me a good balance and it keeps me sharp and energized.

I will certainly not try to tell you you have to do it like me. Your mileage may vary.

Remember, we are discussing art, not brick laying. Art is a purely creative process. There is no one way or objective right or wrong. If anyone tells you it has to be done a certain way, run. Fast. Don’t look back.

Try assigning yourself projects occasionally. They do not have to be big or long or hugely involved. Pick something of interest that you would seldom work on. This gives yourself permission to spend time on it. Let your creativity focus on the project and see what you come up with. Hang your 10 best images from the project on your wall and consider them. It might become a habit.