Who Says?

Who are the arbiters of quality and worth in art? How did they become the gatekeepers? Why do people follow what they say? Or do they?

Art is intensely subjective and personal. Anyone in the role of a critic can only be speaking from the viewpoint of their own likes and dislikes. Who cares? They are welcome to their opinion, but their opinion does not determine whether or not the works an artist creates are “good art”. It does not matter what their education or credentials are, they were not granted a license to be a gatekeeper. But it is a role that many want to play.

In his excellent short book “A Beautiful Anarchy“, David duChemin has a great chapter entitle “Winning at Yoga”. He makes the point that, although humans are very competitive, that isn’t necessarily beneficial when it comes to art (or love or …). The very notion of art competitions seems as out of place as competitive yoga. If you practice yoga you are only “competing” against yourself. Likewise an artist cannot compare himself to any other standard other than his own vision and capability.

An artist can create to win a competition or he can create to satisfy his inner vision. The first may lead to some recognition in the short term. Longer term he will probably realize that that is not his art, it is just a work product. Which is important to you depends on your values and situation. After being in that place, I have chosen to create for myself even if it does not get recognition.

What about the gatekeepers? They can serve a valuable role, but recognize they can only tend their own garden. A gallery or a designer chooses art that generally satisfies their own opinions and values. If you find one who has curated work that you like, too, then use them. They have gone through a lot of work to sift and filter their selections. That is value. But remember, this person cannot really say what is good or bad, only what they value.

I’m an artist. That means I have to let my creations loose into the world. Not everybody will like them. Maybe nobody will like them. They are free to criticize my work from their point of view of perfection or artistic merit. That is part of the game. I have to be able to thank them for their opinion and try to find something to learn from it. The important thing for me is whether or not I like the work and am I growing in the direction that feels right to me. I cannot let gatekeepers determine that for me. I will not settle for living someone else’s opinion of what my life should be.

Does DPI Matter?

People sometimes get hung up on DPI like it really matters. It doesn’t, at least not in the way you may think. The number of pixels matters. The scaled resolution of an image to print matters. DPI is just a setting and an indication of when scaling is required. Where I’m really going is to say an artist must be a craftsman with his tools and technology.

I get information from people all the time requiring image previews at a certain DPI. One client even required images at 72 DPI stating that it was for my protection – implying that a lower DPI image wouldn’t be copied or stolen.

The number of pixels is what is important. DPI is just a setting. You get it by taking the dimension of the image in an axis and dividing it by the desired print length of the axis. So if I had an image that was 3000×3000 pixels and I wanted to make a 10×10 inch print, 3000 / 10 gives 300 DPI. This is a good resolution for printing. I know from looking at the DPI that no additional scaling or interpolation needs to be done.

But what if I wanted to print that same image at 30×30 inches? In this case the DPI would be 100. I know that is too low. To print it well I should scale and interpolate it to at least 240 DPI. This is simple to do in Photoshop and Lightroom and various other tools are available to do it. So the DPI is really only useful as a metric to the person making a print or for a designer creating a layout. How did I know 100 DPI was too low? I have to know that. That is where I’m going.

What’s the use of even bringing it up then? Well, I believe it shows a certain lack of rigor or even understanding by the people using the digital products. Too many artists say “I’m not technical. I just do things by feel.” That is too simplistic in the digital world. It is great to say you’re more interested in the artistic outcome than the technology. I agree with that. But pixels and sensors and lenses are the tools and resources we work with to create. An artist has to be a craftsman who knows his tools well. He has to know when and how to scale a collection of pixels to create an excellent print. He has to know when and how to sharpen an image to make it look great without introducing artifacts of over sharpening. He has to know how to do black & white conversions. He has to know how to do color corrections and tone mapping to achieve the look he wants. These things are specific technical skills and require knowledge of what is being done and why.

I’m not saying an artist or craftsman must use the latest, best, most expensive tools. No, use the tools that you’re comfortable with and that work for you. But master them. Whatever your tools, you should be an excellent craftsman with them.

Fail With Style

Failing. We hate the thought of it. We often don’t do new creative things because we’re afraid of failing.

If you’re going to be a creative, though, failure can’t be avoided. As a matter of fact, it shouldn’t entirely be avoided. When you try something new or when you want to develop a new technique, you’re not likely to get it “right” the first time. You fail. But in that fail you learn something. The next time you still may fail, but maybe now you can see the beginning of a new direction you wanted to explore. Several failures may be required to get all the bad ideas out and determine what you really wanted to do. That’s OK.

You don’t, generally, need to share all of your failures with your audience. I don’t agree with the philosophy of throwing everything you do out on social media for comment. Maybe that works for some people, but I am a more private person. You only see my images that I want to share.

That could be a small set of them! I will usually show less than 10% of the images I take. And when I am experimenting on new abstract techniques, you may see much less than that. So maybe overall only about 1-5% of my images are for public viewing.

That huge percentage of ones I’m sitting on won’t all be failures. Many may be variations of an image that don’t make the grade. But there are also some spectacular failures. Sometimes I have to say “what was I thinking?” Sometimes I have to say “that didn’t work and I don’t think it ever will”. But sometimes there’s the “that’s not very good, but I like the idea. I will look for opportunities to explore that space more.” Those are wins, not failures. They’re exciting; they lead me in a new direction.

Michael Jordan said “I can accept failure, but I can’t accept not trying.” Good words. Failure hurts and it may be embarrassing. The little voice in us that tries to keep us out of trouble tells us to never do that again. But if you don’t take the chance of failing, you will never advance your skill or do anything new. I believe you cannot advance as an artist unless you are willing to accept failure.

So expect failure. You can’t avoid it. Failure can be a sign that you are growing. Fail big; fail little; but pick yourself up, learn what you can from it, and start again even more motivated to create things that please you. Because you are the only audience that really matters.

Stick to Your Own Vision

You have a vision. It’s your own and it is different from anyone else. This is a hard thing for many of us to believe and accept. It sounds pretentious to say “I have a vision”. And it is hard because we are insecure and, deep down, don’t really believe we have one.

A friend of mine, Cole Thompson, tells this story about a defining moment in his career. It happened during a portfolio review. I will tell you that Cole is a B&W artist:

During the last review of a very long day, the reviewer quickly looked at my work, brusquely pushed it back to me and said “It looks like you’re trying to copy Ansel Adams.”  I replied that I was, because I loved his work! He then said something that would change my life:

“Ansel’s already done Ansel and you’re not going to do him any better.  What can you create that shows your unique vision?”

Those words really stung, but the message did sink in: Was it my life’s ambition to be known as the world’s best Ansel Adams imitator? Had I no higher aspirations than that?

That sent me on a journey to find out if I had a Vision. I did and it changed not only my photography, but my life.

What is your vision, then? It is the way you perceive things, based on your history of experiences and your values and beliefs. That is why it is yours and unique compared to anyone else. That is one reason you should not try to copy anyone else’s vision. It would be artificial. You need to do you.

Have you ever been our shooting with a friend and later compare your results? Isn’t it amazing that your images are different, even though you were both is the same place? Sometimes it doesn’t even look like you were together, because you perceive different things as significant. That diversity of results comes from our differing vision.

But what if you submit some images to a competition or a call for entry and they are rejected? What if you go to a review like Cole did? What if they tell you, in effect, that your vision is not worthy. Don’t believe them. Even the so called experts (I’m not sure they actually exist) can only answer for their own vision. If they reject your work, they have a different vision. That does not mean yours in not equally valid. That is so hard to remember when the sting of rejection is fresh.

So when I get insecure and wonder if I really have a vision, I look at a lot of my images and discover that there really is something there. There is something unique and different from what I see from other artists. There is even something I might even consider worthwhile.

Trust that you have a vision. You do. You are a person and you have a history of experiences and values that have shaped you. You will choose what you photograph and that will be based on your vision. That is you.

Unplug

Unplug. Drop out. It sounds like strange advice in our frantic, 24×7 world. But I advocate learning to detach, to slow down and take time to reflect, think, and enjoy.

Our technology operates round the clock. We are strongly encouraged to be online all the time. One of the most common fears today is FOMO (fear of missing out). If we’re not checking Facebook or newsfeeds or our email frequently we might be left behind. We might miss a viral trend. We fear if we do not respond to a message immediately our “friends” will leave us out and just talk among themselves.

Humans don’t operate on a round the clock cycle. Our technology that brings us so much information and entertainment also robs us of some things that are very important to our mental health: thought, reflection, relaxation. The human mind has to have time to think and assimilate. To have some down time to reorganize and regroup. Some time off the continuous treadmill. Downtime is also necessary to us physically, but I’m not talking about that side of things in this blog.

Since this is nominally about photography, I will use that as an example. One significant aspect of creativity is to be receptive to what is happening around us. To learn to clear our minds and actually see. We are less than receptive when we are on social media or thinking about our schedule or an email we need to send or the project we are behind on. Contrary to what some so called productivity experts tell us, our minds don’t multi-task. It is very inefficient to switch focus between different projects. Much better is to be fully engaged in one task at a time.

Because our society is pulling us in so many directions all the time, focusing on a single thing is something we have to relearn. And we can. Try this: Take a camera and one lens, turn off your phone, clear your head, and go out in your neighborhood or town and just take pictures of things you see. Actually see them for the first time. Don’t think of what you need to do afterwards. Don’t wonder about what people are saying on Facebook right now. Those things don’t exist. It will be weird at first. But try it. Practice until you can really unplug for a while and be 100% “there” for your images.

An “advanced” exercise to try is disconnecting while you’re in the car. I like to drive (actually drive, not sit in traffic). When I’m driving I always turn off the radio and I do not text or check the phone (I certainly hope you don’t ever text while driving- it is very dangerous). At first you will go crazy with boredom, because we are used to non-stop entertainment and distraction. But you learn to be alone in your mind. You re-learn how to think, to review things, to make connections between ideas. I have come to believe that drive time is much too valuable to waste with external distractions.

Unplug. Take time alone to think, to consider ideas, to make connections between ideas, to just let your mind wander. These are what humans have always done and it is an important skill we need to fight to relearn in our high tech age. Try it. You will feel strange at first, even guilty, but I believe it will have good long term benefit for you.