A Private Journey

Obscure found image. Track to nowhere

Being an artist is a private journey, but one the viewers are invited to participate in. I don’t collaborate or take votes to guide my journey. It is just me. It is intensely private.

Private

I have to make my own way in the world. As such, I am stuck in my own head. Creativity has to somehow spring up from within. Being an artist is lonely. LIke a writer, there are those terrifying times when you are facing a blank page (or empty frame) and you have to create something. No one else can do it for me.

Not everyone agrees with this approach. Some people, especially if they are young and just learning, want to run in a crowd. They have to immediately post every image to social media to get feedback. To me this is a form of insecurity. My values and style is deeply ingrained and I do not seek immediate validation from the internet. But that is just me.

What works for me is to explore, to be receptive to what I encounter. I seldom have a detailed plan for what I want to shoot. Rather, I turn myself loose and let myself be drawn to scenes that interest me. It doesn’t always work, but that is what inspires me. The word that keeps coming up is”me”. Not in an egotistical way, but in the sense that I am the only one who can take this journey. If it wasn’t me it would be someone else’s art.

I also find, and this is just me, that when I put pressure on myself to “have” to come up with something creative the results may be good but they are seldom great. But when I let go and just react and experience then creativity can flow. Understanding this about myself has let me keep my art constantly being a joy.

A journey

Virtually all my subjects are collected outdoors. It is extremely rare for me to set up a controlled indoor shoot. So a shoot for me involves movement. I have to leave my studio and get out in the field where my subjects are.

This is a joy for me. I am an explorer. It is hard to pass a road I haven’t seen the end of. As an example, just a couple of days ago I was exploring up along the border of Wyoming. I went down an obscure dirt road I knew was a dead end, but I had never been down it. It was great! I loved the sights, the remote wildness, the windswept barrenness, the newness. It was fresh. Something I had not seen before. It energized me. Even if none of the images make it into my portfolio, it was well worth it for me personally.

But a journey doesn’t have to be far. I do a lot of shooting while walking around within a mile or 2 of my studio. Journeying is an attitude. A sense of exploring and investigating. It is sometimes difficult to feel a sense of discovery in an area I have been over and over so many times. But that is part of the game. It is a mental discipline. If I can find new and fresh sights in a familiar area then it is even easier to get inspired in an interesting new place.

Viewers

It is true that my art makes me happy. If I never showed it to anyone I would still have the joy of creation and discovery that would compel me to make it.

But artists are also somewhat egotistical. We feel we have something worthwhile to share with other people. I hope those who see my work enjoy it and can share in the sense of wonder and amazement I felt while making it. I’ll be honest, I also hope you decide to buy some of my prints for your walls. The money is nice, but even more is the knowledge that this had an impact on you and that it will now continue to influence you. We all would like to leave a legacy.

I know your time is valuable and increasingly scarce. I seek to make art that is captivating enough for you to give me some of your time to view it and think about it. I hope my art will awaken some new thoughts and feelings that will make your day better, to refresh and renew you. I like to feel that some of my pieces on your wall will have a long term benefit as you see them every day.

Internal and external

My art is a private creation of my own mind and energy. I do not collaborate with others or shoot assignments. What energizes me is exploring and finding wonder in the everyday sights around us. I may work a project or a theme at times, but mostly I let myself be drawn to whatever is exciting me at the moment. I am very much in the moment when I am creating, even when working at the computer.

Even though my art and my process is intensely private and personal, I also have the viewer in mind. I am constantly reaching for something creative and fresh to share with my you. If you give me some of your time and attention I want to give back. I hope I can succeed with you. It is my private journey but I want to share it with you.

Go to my web site at photos.schlotzcreate.com to view a little of my work and let me know if any of it resonates with you. Please join me in my private journey. I welcome your feedback.

The Histogram

Very high contrast; bifurcated histogram.

Please permit me to rant briefly. I get incensed by the practice of most photo instructors to “dumb down” what we do. They assume people are incapable or afraid of anything technical. So they give a very short and often unintelligible description of something we, as photographers need to know, then go on. One example of this is the lowly histogram.

I’m sorry to have to tell you, but all art has a technical component to it. Photography is one of the most technical.

The histogram is like taking your temperature or looking at a graph of your portfolio performance. It is data that does not mean anything in itself but it is very useful to check. In this case, the histogram is just a measure of our image. It is valuable, but it is only one of many possible measures.

What I hope to do here is do what your dad probably did (or should have done) in this situation – tell you to get over it. You need to know this, so get on with it. 🙂

Not high tech

The histogram is not a complex, fancy piece of technology. It is just counting and marking.

Let’s say for simplicity that your image is black & white and is 8 bit depth. You know that this means the image is a grid of pixels, each having a value of 0-255. Now you decide to go through each pixel one at a time and keep track of a count of each pixel value you find. You come to a pixel that has the value 87. Go to your row of 87’s and increment it by one. You know, like

Keep on going. If the next pixel is 127, go and increment the count for that bucket.

After you count the values of all the pixels, you will have up to 256 groups of counts. Now, draw a graph (technically a column chart) or put the data in Excel and have it graph it. If you put the numbers 0-255 on the x axis (the horizontal line) and draw a point above each number corresponding to the count you made for that number, you will have a histogram.

That’s all it is, just a count of the number of each pixel value. The actual number in each bin does not matter. What counts is the overall shape of the curve.

An example

Here is a fairly balanced black & white image and its histogram.

People would call this a “good” histogram. It shows that the tones have counts from very close to 0 to almost 255, a full range from black to white The tones are spread fairly evenly. There is a bump in the distribution of the light tones – the right side- which is natural because there are big areas of snowfields and light gray clouds.

There is no magic. You could manually follow the pattern I described and derive this yourself. It doesn’t “mean” anything of itself. It is just a way to get some information about your image.

Descriptive, not prescriptive

This is where people get confused, partly because they are misled by their instructors. The histogram does not tell you if you have a good or bad image. The histogram is descriptive, not prescriptive. That is, it is just information for you. It does not grade your image or tell you you exposed it wrong.

IN GENERAL, if your histogram shows values bunched up far at the left or far at the right, that is a warning sign. It is telling you the image may be too underexposed or over exposed. Those values at the extremes show that you may be losing data that cannot be recovered.

Whenever you see this situation it is a warning flag, not a stop sign. It may be necessary for the effect you want.

Expose To The Right example

You often hear the advice to “expose to the right“. This is good advice in general. It means bias your exposure higher – more histogram to the right – as long as there is no clipping of the highlights. This is because of some of that scary technical stuff you need to know. The dark areas of an image are more subject to noise. If you have to boost the dark areas that magnifies the noise. The best results are often obtained by overexposing a little and reducing the exposure of the whole image in post processing. Digital data retains more information when you are scaling it down than when you are scaling it up.

Expose to the right is an example of a good way to use histograms. I always have the histogram view turned on in my viewfinder. As a matter of fact, possibly the single best reason to go to mirrorless cameras is to be able to get a real-time histogram. I always check it, before and after taking a frame.

Let me emphasize again that this is information for you to use and make your own judgment. Do not let the histogram take your pictures. Keep artistic control.

Yours can look anyway you want

It is not unusual for me to shoot images that have a “bad” histogram. When I do this it is deliberate and I do not have to answer to the data police (yet).

One class of very low key images is night photography. Often these are nearly all dark with only a few points of light. This is an example:

It is hard to see at this size, but you can tell what is important from the histogram. Most data is clustered at the dark end. There is a spike at the brightest whites. These are the stars. Your instructor would tell you it is not a good histogram, but the image is exactly what I wanted. An image is properly exposed if it comes out the way you want.

At the other extreme, a high key image is almost all white. This fence in a snowy field is almost all bright values:

The distribution (the arrangement of the data values) is skewed way to the right, but not overexposed. But there is a spike at the left representing the black fence posts. Very high contrast. This is the result I wanted, so it is correct.

These 2 examples of “wrong” exposures should broaden your understanding of what is allowed. Anything that matches your intent is a properly done image.

A great tool, but just a tool.

I hope I have given you a better feel of what a histogram represents. It is just an overall look at the data values in the image. It is there for information to help you make the images you want. A histogram is neither good or bad. It is just information. Other people have given their own interpretation of histograms and their importance. This is a good one.

I am very thankful for the invention of histograms and their availability in modern cameras and post processing tools. It is an indispensable tool. I use them every day. But remember it is a tool. It is not there to tell you what you can do. You are the artist. Only you can decide the result you want.

Meaning

Bucked off, failure

Does art have “meaning”? Especially a deep meaning that leads to truth or changes the life of the viewer. This is a thorny subject that has been debated for centuries. I’m not going to settle the question. (Sorry) But I can give my POV.

The Elitist view

Some say that all art does, or should, have meaning. It should educate or enlighten. It should lead the viewer to a new state of understanding. To some all art should support a cause or attempt to change the world. One of the unfortunate extremes of this is the frustrated attitude that if you don’t “get it” you are not in the privileged elite. You are too lowly, unworthy to understand.

This very high minded view is often presented by galleries and some artists in their artist statements. I can understand it, really. They are selling a product. The more elite and special it seems to be, the higher price it can command. The more collectable it is. I’m guilty of it at some level.

And it probably is more typical of art that takes a long time to produce. If you worked for weeks or months on a painting or sculpture you naturally want to believe it has some reason to be worth a lot. Otherwise, why did you waste your time? It is natural.

But I don’t want to discuss those more classical media. My art is based on photography.

Does my photography have intrinsic meaning?

Does a photograph, one of my photographs, have meaning or represent some great truth?

Maybe.

Sorry, that’s the best I can do, because I believe it is the right answer. Meaning, if any, is a communication process between the artist and the viewer.

Take the image with this post. Does it have meaning to you? I could write a whole post on the symbols and relations I see in this. That does not mean you will or should.

Communication

When I produce an image, it is an instant of the world seen through my eyes. But is it also interpreted through your eyes. I may believe it has significance, but I may not communicate it effectively to you. Or I may capture something I think is interesting, but to you it represents an insight or truth I did not consciously see.

That represents part of the problem. There are multiple parties involved. There is me, the author, on one side. I produce it. It is interpreted through my viewpoint, through my beliefs and vision and talent. I had a reason for creating the final image. On the other hand, each person viewing it sees something different. Some may see deep meaning. Some may only see a pleasing image. Others may be completely bored with it. Even if I believe there is meaning there I may fail to effectively convey it to you.

My thought is to say it is my failing if I do not succeed in conveying the meaning, but that is too simple. We each have our own values and history and viewpoints. You may not be receptive to what I have to say. If that is the case it is not so much that I have failed, but that we just can’t get together on our viewpoints. Maybe that’s kind of like the current political mess we have.

Do I have to bring meaning?

Ah, but there is a subtle assumption in this argument. It assumes I really was trying to teach you something deep. Here’s a secret: I don’t usually. It is often sufficient that an image is pleasing to me.

Life is multi-faceted. There are many layers and levels. Not everything has to be deeply significant and serious. Lighten up. Let some things exist just for pleasure. I am very happy with an image that I believe conveys beauty or joy or simply brings something interesting to your attention.

It is a consistent theme with me, but I believe our high pressure, hurried lives are causing many of us a great deal of stress and actually reducing our pleasure in life. I want to produce art for your wall that will give you a moment of pleasure when you notice it. Hopefully you will slow down a minute, contemplate it, use it as a reminder to look around more for what is going by all the time. That’s enough meaning for me.

So, meaning? It’s overrated. I hope my art beings you to a new place, but art should bring joy, not be a school exercise. I promise I will not score you down for not seeing all I believe there is in one of my images. Analyzing the meaning of my work doesn’t being me joy, I just want to create!

But that’s just where I am. What are your thoughts?

Something out of Nothing

composite art

A great image is more than a subject. Sometimes the obvious subject itself fades to the back and the overall effect of the art becomes dominant. I would call this making something out of nothing.

Geoffrey James, a Canadian photographer, has said “A photograph is more than its subject. The real challenge is to make something out of nothing.” He goes on to say “it used to be everything had to be beautiful, picturesque”, but he was now making images where the subject (something beautiful) was not the notable part of the picture.

I don’t exactly subscribe to his vision, but the phrase captured me.

I find myself frequently making something out of nothing. It’s subtle and difficult to explain. It is not normally about the beauty of a subject. And it is not “it didn’t work in color, try black & white“.

Liberated from reality

I am a fine art photographer. (the term is actually distasteful to me; I consider myself an artist who uses digital media, but that’s a subject for another article.) This is extremely liberating.

One of the things this means to me is that the pixels I capture with the camera are just raw material. I am free to transform them any way I wish to create art. The resulting image may be “about” something entirely different than the original capture. Occasionally I see an opportunity to composite 2 or more images to make something different. I love doing this and I am sometimes surprised at the result.

Back in my early learning curve, I was active in my local photography club. It was great experience and a good organization, except for certain aspects of the competitions. They were narrowly focused on the “purity” of the image. It could have some minor spotting and color correction and cropping, but that was about it. In other words, about what you could do in a chemical darkroom. I’m afraid I generated quite a controversy when I submitted (and won a blue ribbon for) a digitally manipulated image what had some serious warping applied. That was the beginning of my break from any assumption that an image should be “as shot”.

The joy of Photoshop

What a time to be an image maker! Photoshop is a marvelous tool for working with images. There are other tools, but I do not use them so I will not try to act like I know anything about them.

Photoshop brings us almost infinite control over our pixels. It is far better control than the best darkroom masters ever had. We can adjust tone precisely and in totally localized regions. We can adjust color balance and tint in the most subtle or extreme degrees. It allows us to color grade, convert to black & white, remove distractions, selectively sharpen, warp and distort the pixels, and basically do anything possible with pixels. Pixels are raw material.

So images are now completely malleable. There is no reason to stop processing an image until it is exactly what we see in our mind’s eye. When we get done, the image might have a completely different “meaning” or effect than the original. It has been fashioned into a different piece of art.

What do pixels mean?

This has been a difficult transition for me. Coming out of a background that valued a respect for the image “as shot”, it has been hard to give myself permission to push the original image into something completely different. But this is what art is really about. And I love it!

In one sense, pixels are just pixels – a grid of little colored spots. They are a resource the artist has available to work with. Like paint on a canvas, they are there for whatever the artist wants to make of them. If the intent is to enhance the original image, that is great. If the artist wants to shape them into something completely different, that is their privilege and joy.

We are no longer “stuck” with the image we captured. We can make it into something entirely different. In that sense, we make something out of nothing.

If I have misused Mr. James’ quote, I apologize to him. I transformed the raw material through my own values and perspective and made something out of nothing.

Note

Please let me know what you think and what topics you would like me to address. I value your comments.

Art or Craft?

Headlights on a mountain road at sunset

Is photography a “pure” art or is it a craft? One of the arguments against photography is it is too quick and easy. Anyone can do it. It only takes a moment, not days or weeks to create. Let’s examine that.

It’s a medium

Photography is a medium. It is a technology for expressing images. It seems to me that any medium that produces the results the artist wants is a valid medium. I know people with formal training in painting who switched to photography because it better expresses what they want. I have also known people to go the other way, moving to painting after doing photography. That indicates they are equivalent medium.

Any art form is a craft

An artist is a craftsman. To be at the top of your field you have to develop an excellent ability to use the medium you have selected. For photography that is one thing that distinguishes the person who “just takes pictures” from the artist. A tremendous depth of craft and technique has to be mastered to make great fine art photography. I have used photoshop for nearly 20 years and I am still learning new ways to use it all the time. Hardly a day goes by that I don’t spend some time learning and practicing to improve my craft.

What is art vs. craft?

Some have said that art is based on creativity while craft is skilled application of technique. Something you learn from practice. That is a little obscure, basically that if you build the same things over and over it is a craft. Hmm….. That might sweep out a lot of artists.

Most of us have an inherent understanding of the difference between art and craft, even if we can’t articulate it clearly. Hardly anyone would claim that selfies at Disney World are art.

The harder part seems to be asking ourselves if the “art” we are presented is really art. What is that indefinable but perceptible thing that takes a work from just a well executed piece of craft to being called art? We often call it creativity, but that is hard to define. But we all have our values and preferences. I know the things I call art. I’ll leave it to you to define your own.

The point for this blog, though, is that the question of art or craft is independent of the media.

Photography is too easy

The story here is that you just point at something, click the shutter and you have an image you are trying to sell as art. It was too quick and easy. You have to suffer for art. It isn’t art unless it required hours of labor.

So if it is easy it’s not art? But a good painter thinks painting is easy. A good sculptor thinks sculpting is easy. A good writer thinks that is the hardest thing in the world. Oops – wrong argument. The point is that easy is relative and subjective.

It seems to me the discussion should revolve around did you, could you, would you. Did you take a picture just like that? Or did you look past it? Could you have done this? Ignoring the “my kid could have painted something like this splotch of color” reactions, could you really have captured this image? Do you have the technical knowledge, the equipment, the time to invest, the image processing skill, and the eye to have seen and composed the image? And would you? Would you really see this, or would you have walked by in a fog of busy thoughts that occupy most of us too much?

Capturing an image in the way the artist wants it can take days, months, even years. Realize that some of the images you quickly dismiss were long term projects. And for an artist, an image is never finished out of the camera. Each one requires extensive processing. This is one of the great creative processes in photography.

Are you ready to say it can’t be art unless it was hand carved from marble?

It’s a creative act

The same amount of creativity goes into photography as any other work that considers itself art. The technology may be very different, the process may be different, but it is still creativity. Creativity is hard and requires a lot of work on the part of the artist. Good art is art and craft. There is something that sets some works apart as not just craft. It is easy to recognize but hard to define.

Because it is so hard to define, be careful. It is fair to say that an image doesn’t appeal to you. Be careful judging that it is not art.