It Is What It Is

A story and a lot of unanswered questions

It is what it is. This is actually an expression I hate, but I’m used to it because some of my kids occasionally use it. In one sense, what I photograph is what it is.

My methods

I photograph outdoors in natural light. The subjects I shoot are “found” things. Things I encounter on my way and I shoot them as I find them. That is, I do not stages shots. I will very seldom move anything or do any “gardening” to remove distractions or competing elements.

This is the method that appeals to me. There is a kind of honesty or transparency about it that feels right.

One of the things I am indirectly pointing out in it is that most of us go through our daily life with blinders on. We tend to be oblivious to most things we encounter unless they are what we are looking for or they seem a threat.

What I want to do is take these found subjects and elevate them in a way that makes them interesting and to gently say, “see what you missed by not being mindful”.

Explore

To accomplish this, I have to be an explorer. I forage for images rather than planning them. And it requires heightened senses. I have to be outside my head and paying attention to things around me. Some may say I’m out of my head, but I will call it outside my head. I have to quiet the inner critic and be constantly scanning around me for interesting things.

It is a learned skill that I have practiced for quite a while. While I am far from perfect, I feel like I am getting better at it.

It has become a joy to me. I look forward to these explores. Most often I am just wandering in the vicinity of my studio. Familiar and well worn paths. It constantly surprises me that I can discover new and interesting things in such familiar territory. Some days it is easier than others. But more often than not I find something new or I see something differently. Even if I don’t come back with any images, I have enjoyed getting out and being in tune with what is around me.

Go out empty

One of my inspirations is Jay Maisel. I have mentioned him many times. Jay is a famous photographer living in New York City – now Brooklyn. One of the many things he is famous for is just going out rambling every day on the streets close to home.

He is so good at spotting interesting scenes that it is almost depressing. I would hate him if he weren’t so phenomenal. 🙂

Jay describes what he is doing as “going out empty”. He wants to go out as unprepared as possible so he can get filled up with what the world has to offer. The point he makes frequently is that if he has a certain thing in mind to shoot, that is a mental block. He might find that, but would probably miss everything else that’s on offer.

Through lots of practice I have determined this style works well for me, too.

Make something out of it

So I explore. I wander. I’m searching for things that catch my interest. And when I find them, I don’t rearrange them or clean them up, except maybe for a stray blade of grass or a piece of trash.

Therefore, the challenge is to make something out of what is there. Position, crop, lens choice – these all factor in to making the image. Someone has said the picture is already there, we just have to crop it. There is truth to that. The excellent instructor Ben Willmore once said “What elements are adding to the image? What elements are detracting? How do I remove more of the detractions and add more of the good?” That is a good description of the game: try to remove enough of the bad and include enough of the good.

It is what it is – work with it

It is often stated that everything has been shot. What matters now is our personal treatment of it. Can we use our unique vision to see the subject in a new and interesting way?

I choose to work with things that interest me as I find them. It is what it is. How can I make it the best it can be? It can be a challenge, but the reality is there is a lot more interest in the world around us than we usually notice.

It is a joy to me when someone exclaims over one of my images and I can think – or say out loud – that is right where you go by every day and you’ve never noticed it.

A final quote from Jay Maisel: I want people to see what I see. It’s all out there. It’s a joy to look at.

Yes, it is what it is, but it can be more.

This process works for me. It fits me and there are benefits. I recommend you experiment with it. It might need several outings to become comfortable. You might discover a new world around you.

Let me know your experience!

Today’s image

OK, I didn’t find this around my studio. But thousands of people passed by this daily and I bet few if any ever glanced at the scene closely enough to take notice of it. It was clearly visible from a main highway. There seems to be a story and a lot of unanswered questions wrapped up in a single frame.

I was driving and I turned around and came back to it. I’m glad I took the time. It is a good memory for me.

The scene is gone now. But that is a topic for another day.

Traveling

An unexpected travel shot. It came from taking the time to stop and watch and wait.

I have been traveling more than usual this year. It gives me the opportunity to reflect on what I shoot and why. Perhaps it will trigger a response in you.

This is not a typical travel photography article. You won’t find the expected rules and checklists and how-to advice.

How I travel

Travel for me is a rather solitary activity. Being an introvert, I work best alone. Having people around who want to talk about what I am doing and “help” me find pictures is almost always a negative. My wife is occasionally along on these trips, but she has learned to get out of the way and leave me alone when I am shooting. Not always, but that is the norm. I don’t want to make it sound like I push her away, it is just that she knows me enough to recognize when I am in a zone and don’t want to talk.

When I am traveling with an option of doing photography I prefer to drive or be on foot in a large city. In either case I preserve the freedom of exploring, setting my own path, managing my time. I strongly prefer to explore out of the way, seldom seen sights, even if it means missing the main tourist attractions. Actually, especially if it means missing them.

As you can tell, if I have to take a tour, especially in a bus, I feel handcuffed, in prison, doomed to follow someone else’s agenda. I may see some interesting things, but there is seldom the chance to explore something as i would like.

What am I seeking

As I learn more about myself, I realize I can never restrict myself to certain subjects. I’m afraid I will never be that guy who is known for mountain landscapes, or still lives, or seascapes. I recognize that this is a disadvantage from the sense of marketing and branding. Too bad.

Of course there are certain subjects I am naturally drawn to. I like particular kinds of landscapes. The area that might be termed wabi sabe – simply things that age and weather with character – appeals to me. It is almost a given a given that I would check these things out. A joke with my wife and some close friends is that, if we see an old rusty truck, I will want to stop and photograph it. Like most humor, it is based in truth.

But in a more general sense, I have learned that what draws me is the chance to exercise my creativity. When I see an opportunity to bring a fresh perspective or a creative treatment to a subject, I go for it. It does not matter if it is an obscure something on a back road that nobody cares about. If I can visualize it fresh and make an interesting image, that is what I want.

This is one reason I seldom hang out at the iconic viewpoints that everybody seeks. I have no interest in shooting the same image that thousands of other photographers have made. Yes, I may shoot it for my memory, but I would seldom publish a photo like that.

How I approach subjects

This is pretty nebulous. I do not have a distinct process I have written down. I’m just trying to reconstruct my thought processes.

Basically I have an imaginary dialog with the subject. “Who are you?” “What is your story?” “How would you like to be seen?” I don’t really express these things verbally or even consciously. But this is a process I think I go through.

In effect, I am making a portrait of the subject. In a good portrait, the photographer tries to get to know the subject enough to recognize the key characteristics and the underlying personality of the person. This is what I try to do, even if I am shooting an old truck.

It sounds kind of silly to write it down, but it is how I work.

Environment

There are some powerful environmental conditions I have control of that have a strong influence on the outcome and productivity of my shooting. I have learned over time to manage these things.

A powerful one is to get off the freeway. I have seldom made an interesting image alongside a freeway. Cruising down that wide road at 75 mi/hr or more tunnel vision takes over. My focus is the road ahead and cars around me. The most wonderful scene I have ever imagined could be right there next to the road and, if I noticed it at all, I would probably convince myself it was not worth pulling off and falling behind in the traffic stream.

Another is sound. I find that listening to the radio gives a focus that distracts me from creative viewing. My car radio is often off all day. If I am driving at night I may turn it on to help keep me alert, but that is the only time.

Having mild ADHD tendencies, I find I cannot ignore words, either when someone is speaking or in music. When that stimulus is occupying me I tend to ignore a lot of things going on outside. And it is easy to get in a groove and be reluctant to stop to check out possible subjects.

And having a fixed agenda works against my creativity. If it is the middle of the afternoon and I know I have 250 miles to go before I stop, it becomes too easy to judge that this thing I just saw is not worthy of stopping and putting me behind schedule. Agendas can’t always be avoided, but I try.

Gear

Photographers tend to be obsessed with gear and the technical side of the art. Who doesn’t like a great camera and a selection of excellent lenses?

Sorry to disappoint, but I find I become less interested in that with time. The key thing is what you see and what you can do, not your gear. I seem to take less gear each outing.

On a 1 week road trip I just returned from, I took one body and I only shot with 1 lens – a 24-120 f/4. I had a couple of excellent lenses with me, but never attached them. The lens I used is surprisingly good and covers the range I normally shoot in. I like to become comfortable and familiar with what I am using so that once I have visualized what I want, I just pick up the camera and it is a quick and automatic process to capture my vision.

Actually the bulkiest equipment I brought was 2 tripods and a monopod. And I didn’t use 1 of the tripods. Next time I will probably not bring it or the other lenses I had with me.

Just me

I readily say these characteristics are peculiar to me. And I am peculiar. I am in no way suggesting you should do things this way.

Over time I have learned what works for me and what I did that increased the amount of images I like. Being an introvert makes it easier for me to reflect on things like this. I like to figure things out. You need to figure out what works for you and maximize it.

We each have our own unique characteristics and strengths and weaknesses. Learning who we are and what works for us is a big step toward improving our work. And being happier along the way.

Side Trips

Medieval manor house

I love to wander, to travel slowly. Side trips are a refreshing joy to me. Let me encourage you to join in the adventure.

Wandering

I am a wanderer. It seems to be deeply ingrained in me. A good way to frustrate me is to put me in a situation with a tightly planned itinerary. It feels so scripted and limiting.

For years I resisted my wife’s pleas to go on a cruise. I knew I would not like the regimentation and fixed schedule. Reluctantly, I finally relented, but only because we would be gong with close friends. I was right. It was frustrating and I was always concerned about getting back to the ship in time. Seems like we are always leaving port just as the light was getting good for photographing on land. I don’t totally hate cruises. We have been on several now. but I have to put myself in cruise mode and accept that I am not going to be doing much photography that is interesting to me.

Some of my peak travel experiences came back when we owned a timeshare. Ours was exchanged in blocks of 1 week. They were very nice properties, but often in out of the way places. After a day or so we had “seen everything”, but we were there for a week, so then I could get down to hard core wandering. I would get the most detailed map I could find (can’t count on data service in these places) and we would head off. We encountered places we had never heard of or envisioned. Things that were not on any tourist brochures. It was a great joy.

BTW, don’t buy a timeshare now. the prices and rules have changed so much that they are not a great deal. Timeshare now is VRBO.

Excursions

This kind of wandering I described from our timeshare I would call excursions. We had a great fixed base and went off exploring on day trips. I prefer this to planning a route, packing up every day, estimating where we will get to, and trying to arrange ahead for lodging in unknown places. What can I say, I am spoiled.

I also frequently do similar excursions from home. Recently I had to take my wife to the airport for a short trip. The airport is about an hour from our house. After dropping her off, I went for an excursion in eastern Colorado. It turned out to be a 12 hour trip. No itinerary, no real goals, just the freedom to wander and explore the wilds of the plains. I loved it. I haven’t processed them fully yet, but I think I got some shots I will love long term.

Side Trips

Another example: on a family trip coming back from the southeastern part of the country, we were passing through Arkansas. We were on 2 lane highways, as I prefer, when I saw an intriguing sign talking about a marker for the Louisiana Purchase Survey. Never heard of it before. Curious, and always up for possibly interesting side trips, I turned off on a very small road that took us about 5 miles out into what became swamps! Did you know Arkansas had swamps? Neither did I.

Anyway, after the Louisiana Purchase in the early 1800’s the government devised a system for surveying the land so they could start parceling it out. Two survey teams were sent out and where they crossed was designated the”Initial Point of the first survey of the American West” . A marker stone was set there. in the middle of the swamp. Lucky for us, it is in a nice Arkansas park now with boardwalks to take us over the swamp to the survey marker.

This was a fascinating bit of history I did not know and the location was spectacular – to me, since I love swamps. We probably took over an hour seeing this bit of interest we did not know existed. A great side excursion. Sure it put us “behind” on our trip, but so what? This side trip is what I remember.

I love interesting side trips to find obscure things I did not know existed.

Exploring

Long ago I figured out that I am an explorer by nature. Not a Lewis & Clark “head out into the uncharted wilderness for years” guy. But someone who likes to discover new and interesting things. I will get out in all kinds of weather, but I don’t sleep on the ground anymore. 🙂

Exploring doesn’t require long treks in the wilderness. I explore all over my small town all the time. I am surprised that I can still find new and interesting sights. When I’m in town, almost every day I take side trips a few miles around my studio. I have done it so much that is is getting harder to see compelling new sights, but sometimes there is the thrill of discovery. Sometimes familiar things take a whole new look in different light or weather.

If I go to a new city I usually head out on the streets to get oriented and familiar with the sights and looks. Sometimes I even take a camera. Exploring is creative fun. There are always surprising new things to discover.

Don’t be in such a hurry

I know it is totally counter to the modern lifestyle and expectations, but slow down. Look around more. Find new interesting things where you thought you had seen it all. Be willing to take side trips and excursions. It is a creativity exercise that keeps your mind open to discovery.

Not all side trips pay off in great images. Probably most don’t. Even if not, there is the joy of trying and learning something new. As has been said by wiser people, “it’s not the destination, it’s the journey”. But sometimes…

This image

Today’s image is a classic “found along the way” find for me. This is in the Lake District in England. We knew roughly where it was, but, as I am prone to do, we came in from a non-normal way. Basically we came in the back door. I won’t say more because I don’t want to rental car company to know what we did. 🙂

it was a great and beautiful place and I’m glad we did the side trips and wandering necessary to see it.

Learning to See

A scene found walking through an airport

Learning to see is something we all need to constantly practice. Seeing is actually a learned process. Yes, we can image scenes on our retina, but that is not what I mean. With practice we can learn to see more of what is around us, to be more aware and mindful.

We learn to not see

Children seem filled with a sense of wonder at everything around them. It all seems exciting and amazing. But somewhere along the path to becoming an adult, this excitement is squeezed out of us.

In school our peers pressure us to look down on everything with disdain. Being excited about things is “not cool”. In our work life we have to learn to develop a single-minded focus on the tasks of the job. Non-essentials get pushed away. We may get married and have a family. This is great, but it focuses us even more on the day-to-day activities we have to do to earn a living and keep the household going.

Eventually we no longer really see anything except the immediate problem that seems important. To some extent, we have to do this. It is a survival technique. But it takes away so much potential joy and beauty from our life.

It takes an effort to start to see

Are you at a point in your life now where you realize there is more going on around you that you are not perceiving? You look at other people’s art and become aware that it is not just about great iconic locations. They seem able to find beauty and interest in all kinds of places. They are attuned to their surroundings and open to more.

Practice seeing. No, really. That sounds silly, but maybe it is time to re-learn how to see. That vision that came so easily and naturally when we were a child can be regained to a great extent.

You know that it takes practice to develop any skill. Why does it seem strange to practice seeing? Isn’t seeing a critical first step in making art?

Does it seem unlikely that seeing is something that can be learned? We just do it. I believe it is a skill that can be improved. The fact that we used to do it easily but forget how over time means we have the inherent ability to see better. Sharpening that skill can make a huge improvement in our art.

Overcome lazy habits

As I mentioned before, we tend to narrow our circle of interest as we “grow up”. Part of this is a coping skill, but some of it is just laziness. We’ve seen it all. We’re bored with it. It is all the same, so why pay attention?

You would be surprised at the interest all around if you were just looking. Seeing more is rewarding in itself. It brings more interest to our life.

Like developing most new habits, a key first step is awareness. When you are out walking or driving or riding your bike, make a habit of reminding yourself to look around. Changing any habit takes time and you will need to remind yourself over and over to do it.

Pay more attention to where you are and what is going on. Even if you do not improve your art, improving your situational awareness will keep you safer.

Try to become more curious about what is around. Where does that road go? Those tree branches make an interesting shape. I’ve never noticed that this little stream is quite lovely at certain times. Look at the great reflections in that glass.

Curiosity is the magnet that helps pull us to look more. It is also a trait that can be developed. If you re-awaken your curiosity you will find it almost impossible to keep from seeing more interesting things around you.

Becoming mindful

I almost hesitate to say we need to become more mindful. The concept is great and true and is a good description of what we need to be able to see more. The problem is that too many people go overboard with it. It gets all wrapped up in transcendental meditation and eastern religious practices. You do not have to be a yogi to be mindful.

As the link above states, “Mindfulness is the basic human ability to be fully present, aware of where we are and what we’re doing”. That is harder than it sounds. Consequently, many say “we don’t want to spend time to learn what this means. Give us a quick hack that will let us do it in 10 minutes”. So it becomes a program someone is selling. Or a mystical incantation. Or something you wedge into a daily meditation regime.

Instead of all that, just pick out a certain time and place and practice for a little while clearing your head of the normal clutter that vies for our attention. When you go out for a walk, whether or not you bring your camera, forget about the project that is due tomorrow or tonight’s game, or what you will fix for dinner – and especially Facebook or your personal social media addiction. Instead, try to be fully aware of just the moment. Where you are, what you feel, what sensations you are experiencing. Look around with curiosity. Try to see things you have never seen before.

It may be hard or even frustrating at first. Push on. It gets easier.

The more you see

When you really get in to it, you will find this exercise relaxing. Getting out of the normal grind for a few minutes is refreshing. It is a vacation for your head. And you start to see more things. Interesting things you never noticed before. Even right there in your neighborhood. You will probably find the experience to be invigorating and something you want more of.

As a matter of fact, it is a feedback process. The more you begin to see, the more you see, the more you like to see, the more you want to see. Each outing, it becomes easier to see new things. You find it easier to focus you attention on the external things in your environment. Things that you used to pass by with no recognition start to become very interesting in themselves. It is a mental game that sparks new interest and awareness. You come back from an outing refreshed instead of tired.

Practice

Start slow. You will “fail” a lot at first. That’s OK. As long as you keep trying, you will get there. Just commit to doing it.

Don’t think you have to go out for 3 hours with a totally clear head, completely open to new sights and sounds. Maybe someday, but don’t frustrate yourself with setting a goal like that initially. Start with 10 minutes. Just walk around and note a couple of things you haven’t seen or haven’t paid much attention to. Then celebrate by rewarding your self with a coffee – or your preferred beverage or treat.

It is a cause for celebrating. It is a step toward re-awakening your awareness of the world around you. Dare I say, you are becoming “mindful”?

Today’s image

The image with this article is an example of what I suggest for your exercise. I was stuck in the Orlando airport. Everything was shutdown temporarily by a thunderstorm. I got bored reading and walked around to stretch a little.

Then I noticed the trains coming in from the terminal. This one was mostly empty because no flights were going. It was beautiful. I shot several images and this one captured the spirit of the occasion.It brings me joy. I am glad I noticed it.

Time Builds Perspective

Water flow, mountain ranges, abstract oil painting?

I find that a distance of time often builds a healthy perspective on my images. Sometimes, when the images are “fresh”, the experience of the capture clouds my judgment. Letting them age can build a clearer judgment of them. They can take on a new life.

Let go

I have written that we need to fall in love with our images and capture the emotions we were feeling at the time. That is true, but the experience of the moment is not sufficient to make it worthwhile. I could point to many images in my catalog that bring back great memories. Ones where I felt alive and on fire when I took them.

They will always be meaningful to me, but that does not make them great images. I have to learn to let go of my emotional attachment to them and look at them with detachment. That is the only way to begin to see if they could bring satisfaction to other people.

Be analytical

I have said that we need to balance our emotional side with our analytical side. This is one of those times. Looking at one of my images may bring back a flood of joy or suffering or pain or other feelings. But I must coldly and analytically figure out if I have brought any of that to my viewers.

Just because it was significant to me does not mean it should be to you. This may be the last picture I took of my father before he died, but that doesn’t make it meaningful to you unless it brings out something significant about the human condition.

I may have a group of shots I took in 2 feet of snow in white-out conditions where hardly anyone was dumb enough to be out. The images may be beautiful to me and bring back the experience as a pleasant memory, but what can they convey to you?

If I can’t bridge from personally important to an exciting image from your perspective, it is only a selfie.

Distance

One way to be able to see this is to use time as a distance mechanism. I have found myself instinctively doing this a lot, but it was interesting to see it discussed by Alister Benn, CaptureLandscape’s 2020 Photographer of the Year:

When I turned professional, I suddenly found the time between shooting in the field and getting around to processing was extending from a matter of hours, to months, or even years. I have thousands of images I have never looked at since importing them (apart from rating and deleting any obvious weak ones.)

Alister Benn – Luminosity & Contrast

He goes on to describe how this separation helped him by allowing him to view images more objectively. They are distanced from their original meaning. How he perceives and reacts to the image right now is all that matters. Sometimes he looks through old images and “discovers” ones he was cool to at the time that he can now develop into a great image. Seen on its own without the baggage of the emotions of the shoot, it means something new. Distance builds perspective.

See them for what they are

Alister asks how, then, does he decide what images to work on? “Simply, I work the ones that speak to me.” Sitting in front of the computer days, or even months after the shoot, they look different. They have different meaning. A meaning may arise independent of the original context.

He is in a different place – literally and figuratively. He has different feelings and emotions. The images are perceived different. Some become more important. Presumably some become less important. But he is processing them from the point of view of where his head is at the time.

At the time

Interestingly, this means that there could be a kind of ebb and flow to our perceptions. At any given time our feelings will be different. We may be happy, sad, melancholy, reflective, hopeful. How we feel at the time determines how we perceive our images and how we process them.

In a recent article, I suggested an exercise to discover our natural themes: pick your “best” 100 images from your portfolio. Brainstorm descriptive terms. Group those into categories and name them. I also gave the opinion that this was not deterministic, because repeating the exercise at another time could be a little different, because you would pick different images as your “best”.

I think I was discovering the idea that even our portfolio is not a fixed set. There is not necessarily 20 or 50 or 100 images that is fixed in time that represent me. The members can change, not only as we do new work, but as we change our perspective. Time brings new points of view. Distancing our self from the emotions of when we captured the image changes how we view it. We are always growing and learning.

It’s actually exciting for me to look back through old images in my catalog. The excitement is when I have one jump out at me and I look at the way I processed it and say “what were you thinking?” Then I re-process it from a different point of view and create a new, different image.

Example

The image here is an example of this idea. Every time I come back to it, I see something different. Sometimes I love it, sometimes not as much. It is in or out of my portfolio on any given day. The longer I live with it, the more I like it. I am tending to see more layers and ideas swirling through it. Right now I would say it is a definite “in”. It speaks to me.