Walk slow

These are words from the great Jay Maisel, one of the finest photographers around. It’s a simple phrase, even kind of silly. But it partially describes a philosophy that I think has a lot of merit.

One of the tenants of Jay’s approach is to “go out empty”. That is, do not bring any preconceived plan or expectations. Just wander. Actually look at what is there. Let yourself engage with what you find rather than being disappointed because what you expected was not there or it didn’t work out. The “walk slow” builds on that by forcing us to take our time and look more and closer. Notice things you have never taken the time to really see. See details in target scenes. In some cases, wait for a scene to develop. Be patient.

This is exciting and energizing. You are in the moment, alive, fully engaged with the environment around you. You have given up trying to manage the world to make it be what you want. Instead you react to it and find beauty where it is.

This is a very meaningful approach for me. I try to go out empty nearly every day. Explore the familiar area you live. You don’t have to go to an exotic location to find inspiration. I find I can go by something I’ve seen 50 times and this time say “oh, I’ve never noticed that before” or “wow, this light changes everything”. And when you develop the habit of approaching the world around you this way, you can use the technique equally well when you do go to the exotic destination.

Jay also suggests it can be beneficial to get lost. Being lost implies you are off your normal path and encountering new territory, new sights, seeing fresh. You can probably “get lost” in your home town. The other day I was walking along a bike path going around an ugly industrial area. But with the low winter sun and some nice lenticular clouds in the sky, the bare trees were beautiful silhouetted against the sky. I enjoyed it a lot. I wouldn’t have seen that if I rejected the area because it was not pretty.

“It’s always around, you just don’t see it” is another quote from Jay. This makes me sad. It is human nature to only see what you are looking for. Taking this “go out empty” and “walk slow” approach helps us to overcome that. We will be the ones who are really seeing what is around us. And making great pictures!

Finding Your “Style”

Do you have a “style”? (spoiler – yes, you do)

How do your know? How do you find it? Does it matter if you develop one?

At some point, most people who wish to shoot “seriously” (whatever that means) wrestle with these questions. But if you’ve gotten to the point where you care, you probably already have one. You should have a deep enough body of work that you have intuitively developed your style and have enough examples to look at to discover what it is.

You have a point of view, the way you see the world around you that is different from anyone else. This determines your style. It comes naturally. When you select the lens to use and where to stand and how to compose and light your subject you are doing it based on your style. When you select the subject you want to shoot, it is guided by your style. These decisions make your image uniquely yours. Other people will make different decisions for the same subject.

To develop your style, though, you have to have the courage to make the decisions that guide your result. If you feel the subject should be shot from a certain location and the people with you or a workshop leader disagrees, listen to their opinion, but then do what feels best to you. You may not be “right”, that is, you may not like the result, but you made that image based on your beliefs at the time. That is letting your style develop. More often than not, listening to your gut is the best thing to do.

Look back through your images. I hope you grade and categorize them to let the best ones emerge. Be brutal in doing that. Examine the ones you feel best about – feel best about, not the ones that may be technically sharpest or follow the “rules”. Then decide what they are telling you about yourself. You should see patterns: of subject, of lens, of composition, of lighting, of color. There are many variables, but you should see themes. If these are the ones that you feel best about, learn from them and learn what your style is.

So, does it matter if you develop a style? Don’t worry about it. You have one already. Your preferences and likes and experiences lead you to approach an image a certain way. That is your style.

In your own back yard

Do you put off doing your art because you can’t afford to travel to an exotic location for inspiration? Well, get over it. Most of us will never have an unlimited budget to wander the world at our leisure.

Not being able to travel is an excuse we use to absolve ourselves for not doing the hard work needed to do our art. Art is hard work. There’s some inspiration and then there’s a lot of work to realize it.

But what is “inspiration”? The ancient root word means to “breathe in”. We are taking in the materials we can use to create. Steve Jobs said creativity is “just connecting the dots”. I believe he is right. But what are the dots and how do we connect them? The dots are information, examples, knowledge. We add new dots by studying something new, by looking at the work of an artist outside of your discipline, by reading lots of random, unrelated things we have never known, in short, to be receptive to new things, even if they do not seem valuable.

Ah, but the connecting is a key. This is getting harder and harder for most of us in this over-stimulated world. Connecting the dots requires quiet, alone time. We have to let our subconscious mind sift through all this juicy data we have given it and let it start seeing similarities, juxtapositions, possibilities. Go for a walk and try not to think about anything. Go get a cup of coffee and just sit and watch the world go by. Turn off your phone when you are doing these.

So, how about the back yard notion? Inspiration is not as much about external stimulation as it is about feeding your mind and connecting the dots. You can do this at home. Where you live is boring and uninspiring? Get out there and check it out again. Go out at different times and different weather. Get so familiar with it that you stop seeing just what is there, but begin seeing the details, the patterns, the structures that you never really perceived.

One of my self-assigned exercises is to go for a walk every day with my camera. I am exploring the same old area I see every day, but I vary the routes as much as I can. I usually only walk 1-2 miles. I often discover new sights that surprise and delight me. While I’m wandering my mind is switched into a mode of just receiving and thinking. Even if I do not discover a new sight, I often “connect dots” and come back inspired to do something new.

So I encourage. you to learn to appreciate your back yard. Explore, think, enjoy, use it for inspiration. It will also train you to get even more inspired when you do take one of those once-in-a-lifetime trips.

What you can’t not do

Forgive the grammar. This resonates with me.

Passion has become an overused word. Everybody is passionate about something. But what you say you’re passionate about doesn’t matter compared to what you do. If you actually have passion, you will do it.

Time is our most valuable resource, and everybody wants it. Facebook wants all of our time, plus we have a job, family, friends, a dog, … After we do everything we’re supposed to do, it seems like there is no time for what we want to do. It’s a good excuse.

But what is is that you have to do? I understand this a lot better now. I finally figured out that no one will “let” me do my art. If I have to do it, I have to make it such a priority that I am willing to say no to some other things. Otherwise I am just a wishful artist, not a real one.

Everything has a cost. Being an artist can have a high cost. Buying the tools of our craft makes us feel like we are doing something, but if you’re not doing the work, you’re not making art. I would never attempt to prioritize your life for you. I can barely do it for myself. But I would suggest you examine what you are really doing with your time. Are you “owned” by Facebook, Instagram, Twitter? How many hours of TV do you use to numb the pain of the day?

I gave up my art for a few years because I was too busy. But I had to come back to it. It was a balance to my very left-brained life. It was a peace and joy I needed to combat the world. I am stronger because of my art. The things I gave up are not missed or even remembered. I need my art much more. I can’t not do it.

Does an image have to be “about” something

Does an image have to have deep and obvious meaning to be worthwhile?  I don’t think so. I am reluctant to read too much into an image. In general, it is just a collection of pixels. Those pixels are perceived by our visual system and reconstructed as something in our brain. The viewer is responsible for interpreting the image, and that will be a function of their experiences, mood, context, etc.

There are images that do have a powerful message. They are generally a few exceptional photojournalism images or some advertising or illustration images that state their message clearly. These are not what I am talking about here. I’m talking about “fine art”, whatever that is. Fine Art is generally referred to as works that are done purely as art, not for commercial purposes.

As an image creator, I better have a “why” in mind for an image or it will be just a record shot — just an “I was here; look at that”. Now, some of these record shots can be very nice and I may really like them, but they are not generally what is considered fine art.

But just because I have the reason in mind does not necessarily mean it should be obvious to the viewer. The viewer should discover his own joy in the image. Maybe it is the combination of colors; maybe it is the shapes; maybe it is the composition of the graphical elements; maybe they just really like pictures of horses. It doesn’t matter. If the image challenges or pleases the viewer, if it causes them to ask questions or produces an emotional effect in them, it is successful.

Take this image, for instance:

It probably violates every rule of photography I ever learned (more about Rules later). But to me it has a staying power. I can stare at it for a long time just exploring the colors, movement, etc. I could say a lot about possible symbolism here, but it doesn’t matter unless you, the viewer, ask those questions yourself.