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. πŸ™‚

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.

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.

β€œI love my rejection slips. They show me I try.” β€“ 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?

To Be

High alpine valley

No, I’m not addressing the existential “or not to be” question. I was triggered by reading questions from photographers about planning photo trips. There were lots of concerns about locations and what lenses to take and time of day or even time of year, but it seems to me they are missing a fundamental point. You are an artist. You are going out to be, to create, to be inspired. Collecting a stack of the same standard pictures everyone else takes is not the goal.

Being the same

I have written on this before. I hope you believe your task as an artist is to create new work, your own work, not imitate what has already been done. Yes, Yosemite is full of iconic locations. If I was there I’m sure I would shoot at some of them. The difference is these shots would be just for me, to remember being there. I would not be shooting for my portfolio unless I encountered exceptional and unique circumstances at one of these overshot scenes.

I see a lot of photographers actively planning trips to these locations to intentionally try to duplicate these iconic shots. It makes no sense to me. If that is what you like, have fun. Each of us is motivated by different things. But if you were starting out as a writer would you write a knock-off of Moby Dick just so you could have a copy of it you could say you made? I hope not. Write your own book.

Maybe you don’t really know who you are as an artist yet. I understand. I’m still trying to figure it out for myself. I decided long ago, though, that imitating other people will not help me create my own work.

Letting go

If you are not going to imitate other work then you are put in a potentially scary place: you have to create on your own. But what if I can’t? What if I’m not really creative? Maybe I don’t have anything to say? These are all normal and valid concerns.

You will never know until you try. And guess what, when you try you will probably fail. How’s that for encouragement?

I want it to be encouraging, though. When you start doing anything new you are not good at it at first until you try and fail and practice – a lot. As a matter of fact, if it is too easy you are either not challenging yourself enough or you have picked something that will not keep your interest for long. If it is too easy it becomes boring.

Let go and start doing your own art. Follow your own vision, not someone else’s. Don’t visit all the iconic locations to recreate someone else’s art. Focus on your own ideas.

Sometimes you will be left high and dry creatively. That’s OK and normal. Push on. Don’t fear that. Use that time to start understanding what interests you. Believe that you have a creative voice. Keep digging and you will find it.

Put yourself in a different place

One strategy I like to use is to intentionally ignore the popular, iconic locations. I like to seek out little known things that most people have never seen. I love the challenge of finding something in nothing.

I’m lucky in that from my house I can be in the Colorado mountains in 30 minutes or far out on the eastern plains in less than an hour. I go to these places a lot and enjoy them immensely.

But I also wrote recently about driving through the heartland and finding interesting things to photograph. That takes a special discipline and mindset. It is fun for me after long practice. I have come to firmly believe there are interesting scenes almost anywhere.

This brings up a special point. There are interesting scenes all around. You don’t have to go to mountains or national parks or famous locations to do your art. You don’t have to take off for 2 weeks to travel to exotic locations. Beauty and interest is everywhere. Most of it is ignored by everyone around you. Learning to see what is there is a skill that can be learned.

React, create

Learn to be open to what is there around you. Accept it and embrace it as creative possibility. What can you do with it? Just “be”.

You have seen people who thinks selfies or family shots mean lining everyone up in front of a location and giving big fake smiles for the camera. I’m not criticizing them because that makes them happy. I want to encourage you not to try to manage your shots like that. Accept what is there and work with it. Use your creativity to isolate it, to make it interesting for other people, to point out this interesting thing they probably didn’t see.

A photographer friend wrote this in a private newsletter:

“To just be. That is what it is all about. When I find a high place with views all around, every sense just soaks it up into my pores. It is subtle; the opposite of the raucous and titillating world in which we normally live. … These sounds mean vast open spaces and pure freedom. I can peer into this space, keeping my gaze wide. At first I see the far-off trees and rocks and snowfields. Each thing has meaning. …

But after a while my gaze becomes soft, and I focus on the air between myself and the distant ridges. Everything becomes a soft palette of shape and color, devoid of meaning or expectation. The world just is. My experience of sound, sight, and senses just are. If I look for myself I fail. I literally can’t see β€œme” without a mirror – not my face or head, the features we most often associate with identity. It’s times like these that I can look for myself and just see the beautiful world. It is in this place where I can be exactly what I was designed to be. Just me. And for a brief moment, I am a bird sweeping into the storm.”

When we can learn to experience places or events in this manner we can just be and flow with them and into them. Even if it happened on a walk in our neighborhood. The experience becomes part of us and we reflect it back out in our work. What we produce is something from deep within. It is honest. It may even surprise us.

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. πŸ™‚
  • 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