Don’t Rush

Unsuccessful Panorama. I decided on reflection that I do not like it.

It seems most people rush to share results of any photo outing on social media immediately. But why? Does that make sense? Wouldn’t it be better to wait until you have a few great images ready? Let your work and vision mature.

Don’t be a slave to social media

I am freely admitting my prejudice here. I am not a fan of social media and I don’t participate in much of it.

A lot of people I see feel compelled to post some of everything they do to social media as soon as they are within cell phone range. They put themselves under a lot of pressure. If you are dependent on the “likes” and upvotes you get online, you serve a very capricious master. And what if several people don’t like your work? What do you do? Change? Abandon what you are doing? Who is deciding your style and artistic interests?

It’s not collaboration

Is your art a group process or are you, the artist, solely responsible for your creations? “Collaboration” is one of those powerful sounding words thrown around in corporations these days. I’ve been there. I know there is a place for it in corporations where they’re trying to achieve at least an average result and wanting to make several special interest groups feel included. But I claim it is not appropriate for our art.

Our art should be a highly personal expression. To a degree, it should not matter if it is not universally popular. Maybe we should not try to be universally popular. If it appeals to the masses and looks like “everybody else’s” art, is it a creative expression? My work is going to be my own total responsibiity.

Ask why you are sharing

If you are sharing on social media, I think it is important to ask why you are doing it. Likes feel good, but do these people actually buy your art? Sorry to be crude and talk about money, but isn’t that the grease that lets things run?

If your social media strategy is well tuned and you have a good mailing list of people who are real customers and eager to buy your work, good for you. That is a reason to publish on social media.

But, how fast should you do it? Conventional wisdom on social media is that you should show work in progress. This is where I tend to disagree. I believe we should never show our work until it is ready.

Curating takes time

A lot of my art has to mature. I may have an idea of something I want to pursue, but my first attempts are usually not representative of where I will end up. It is typical for me to have to work with an idea or a subject for a while to refine my view, to understand my underlying feelings about it. The ideas have to age, to mature some. This can take from days to years.

So if I’m shooting a project, the first images I shoot may be scatter shots all around the idea I haven’t really “discovered” yet. After dong work on the project a while I begin to understand what I really want to say and what will make the best visual presentation. It could be that one or more of those original images actually work for the final project, but that is almost an accident. It usually means I shot an image instinctively even though I did not consciously understand where I wanted to go. But projects can last from weeks to years, so my vision likely evolves over that time.

In a similar way, it is sometimes the case that I shoot an image, I like it, but something tells me it is not complete yet. Maybe it needs to be worked as a low key black & white image. Maybe I need to do some serious cropping to isolate the part that really interests me. Perhaps I need to composite it with some texture or other elements to complete the look. Or maybe it just isn’t as good as I originally thought.

Be patient

If you’re like a lot of photographers, you shoot a lot of images when working a scene. Sometimes it is not immediately clear to me which is the pick of the group. I often have to live with them a while to understand what I was really drawn to. It may take days or weeks before I can look at the set and say “this one” is the one that captures what I was feeling at the time.

If I am under pressure to get a quick look out to social media, I would find that what I am publishing is not really representative of what I end up with. Maybe that is OK for you. But I do not want anyone to see what I would consider inferior work. A secret of most photographers is that they seem very good because you only see about 1% or less of what they shoot. They throw away or rework what doesn’t work before it ever gets out of their studio. What you do see is good.

A line from a famous old Paul Mason ad said “We will sell no wine before its time.” I don’t know if this is still true or if it ever was, but the idea has merit. Don’t be in such a rush to get things out. Wait for them to mature. A few great images is more impactful than a bunch of mediocre ones.

Today’s image

This is a pano I shot earlier this year. At first it was a pick of the day. I really like the clouds and mountain shapes. After living with it for a while, though, I realized I do not like the foreground or the middle ground (the lower forests are too dark). And there is more visual clutter to remove than I wanted to do. So this went into the “eliminated” pile. There was another one that I liked much better.

Recording the Obvious

Balanced between. Which path to take? Uncertain.

The great photographer Edward Weston once said “I see no reason to record the obvious.” But isn’t recording the obvious what most of us do most of the time? What are the alternatives?

Cameras record everything

As I have pointed out many times, our marvelous high tech sensors are great recording devices. They do a great job of capturing what they are pointed at.

Because of that, these days our phones have become an invaluable data capture device. We record a sign we want to look into later, or a wine label we want to remember, or selfies of us and friends. When I rent a car I always do a 360 degree bracket of it before leaving the lot, just in case there are and disputes about when some damage happened. We have our phone with us, so when in doubt, snap a picture.

Most of this is never intended to be considered art. It is just data. Maybe memories. They are a ubiquitous part of our lives.

Most pictures are of a clear, well defined subject

Most of these images, whether on our phone of our “real” camera, follow the rules of composition we have been taught. The subject is centered and as sharp and well lit as we can do. Perhaps we have a clear foreground, middle ground, and background. Maybe we have made the lighting interesting: high key or low key or strong side light.

What is common is that the photos are “of” something. They are generally straight representation or even utilitarian.

I do not dismiss this as unimportant. But it is not art. If we want to make art we have to take a different path.

Can there be more?

Trillions of pictures are taken every year, no exaggeration or typo. One more image I take is just a drop of water in the ocean. Why should I bother? How can I stand out? What can we do to be a new voice?

We are often told to be creative. But almost everything has already been tried. True creativity, in the sense of something that has never been seen, is very rare. We may never do something truly creative, but we can do work that is fresh, because it captures our feelings and point of view.

If we try to get in touch with what we feel and our reaction to a scene, we can capture it in a way that no one else has seen. We are unique, in that our thoughts and experiences and values are different from anyone else. Therefore we should be able to see things somewhat different.

This difference that is unique to us is what sets our work apart from everyone else. We just have to follow our unique view and not try to make our work look like everyone else’s.

Look for the story within the story

You walk up to a beautiful landscape. There are 20 other photographers there snapping away. What do you do? Are you going to make the same image as all the others?

Go ahead and shoot it. Capture a record of that standard scene. Get that out of the way. Now start responding to it at a deeper level. What do you really see? It may be a famous scene, but what draws you? Everyone else is using wide angle lenses. Maybe you feel like using a telephoto to isolate just part of it. Small sections of a scene can give an impression of the whole. This is making the picture “about” something.

It doesn’t matter what people expect to see there. What do you see? What tweaks your interest? One fresh, interesting frame is better than a whole memory card full of “me too” shots. You are the audience you have to please.

Look deeper

I find it useful to keep asking myself questions and demanding an answer. Especially “why?”. Forcing myself to go through 3 or 4 levels of why questions about a scene can reveal a lot. But only if I make myself answer truthfully and with some detail. It is too easy to accept a vague idea of what I feel. No, be specific.

Can you find something more there than the surface image? Is it actually interesting? Does it excite you? Paraphrasing the great Jay Maisel, “If the thing you’re shooting doesn’t excite you, what makes you think it will excite anyone else?”.

So peel back the layers until you discover the truth or essence of what you are drawn to. It doesn’t have to be a deep, profound truth. It could simply be “I really like the way the water is flowing over that rock.” But you have identified what part of the scene you are drawn to and why. Now the resulting image can clearly convey your intent.

Edward Weston famously told us “This then: to photograph a rock, have it look like a rock, but be more than a rock.” (Guy Tal based a whole book on the idea. It is good. Get it). This statement is pretty Zen-like, but it brings up a lot to think about.

How can a picture of something as simple as a rock actually be about a deeper idea? Maybe it can or maybe it can’t. I have to say that some of the pictures in Mr. Tal’s book did not bring deep concepts to me. That is the problem of conveying feelings to another person. It doen’t always work. But, the artist attempted it and discovered something meaningful for him. Perhaps I cannot perceive it, but it was there for the artist. It is an honest attempt to bring me more than a rock.

Get over the obvious

So I encourage us all to dig below the obvious when we are creating our images. The obvious may be pretty, but is there any substance to it, in the sense of engaging our brain, our thoughts, our feelings?

I have come to believe that I just bring you the same images you would have shot if you were there, I have probably not added much value for you. I owe it to you to force myself to understand what I was drawn to and capture my feelings, while making a beautiful image.

Today’s image

New Orleans French Quarter comes alive at night. The color and interest of this scene really drew me in, but it lacked depth. I had an idea of what I would like to see and I refined it as I watched various people stop and look in. This person finally paused there in the entrance, alone, questioning, swiveling. He seemed torn between conflicting ideas. Go in or keep going? To me this captured inner conflict and moral ambiguity. Choices.

Reality

Paint swirls with water drops. Not real, but close.

Is reality objective? Is there one reality that we all share? Do our perceptions and experiences and values form a reality for us? How do we know?

Objective reality

Is there an objective reality? Sorry to disappoint you, but I will leave most of this discussion to the philosophers. I have know some of them and listened to them discuss this, and I know I cannot follow the twists of their arguments. It’s above my pay grade as some would say.

I believe most of us wish for an objective truth. It would seem like it would make this chaotic and confusing world make more sense. While I can’t help much with arguments for objectivity, I can give some perspective against it.

It’s personal

Even though there may ultimately be a “true” reality, doesn’t it seem like we each perceive our own version of it? Why else could we have a society so polarized? In America these days, if an event happens about half the people see it one way and the other half see it the opposite way.

Are half the people at any time totally foolish? More likely nearly all of us are wrong. We have lost sight of the societal norms we used to share. When we collectively believed in certain rights and wrongs, in shared goals, in expectations of behavior, it was much easier to share a common view. To see roughly the same reality.

I cannot solve this problem and it would be foolish to waste effort here trying. My point being that each person’s reality seems to be based on their values and perceptions, on their beliefs, and on who they listen to and talk to.

Do we form it?

I think I can safely say we form our own reality to a large degree. The conclusions we come to may be false. There may be objective reality we completely miss. But our own reality is what we perceive. The way we choose to react to what happens to us.

There is an old story, completely made up I”m sure, about a psychologist studying kids to understand their perceptions. They made 2 identical rooms piled high with horse manure. One boy was put in each one with a shovel. In the first one, the boy cleared out a little space and sat down and did nothing. When they interviewed him and asked him why he did that, he said the place was filthy and smelly and there was nothing of interest there and he couldn’t wait to get out. But they found the other boy gleefully digging through the piles of manure and throwing it all over. When they asked him why he was having so much fun he said with all this manure , there must be a pony around.

Reality is based on perception and our choices of what to believe. Each of us can look at the same facts and perceive a different reality. We do it every day without even realizing it.

There are, of course, limits to this. Objective reality often intrudes on us. You may truly believe you can levitate, so you step off a cliff to prove it. Objective reality wins.

Just because we believe something strongly does not necessarily make it true. Even so, it could form our personal reality. At least until objective reality crushes us.

Seeing through our own lens

But this isn’t a blog about philosophy. It is about art. Where does that come in to this discussion?

I have touched on this before, but I believe a photographer can either think they are capturing and presenting objective reality or they can realize they have a subjective viewpoint.

I know I have been on both sides of this dilemma. Way back as a young photographer and engineer, I thought the goal was to be impartial and objective. Being an engineer pushed me strongly toward the objective side. “Pure” photography. Think Mr. Spock.

Now I realize it is almost impossible to be truly objective. Even if I attempt to present a scene “just the way it is”, I am making subjective decisions of framing and composition and lighting and timing. These selectively view only parts of the scene and strongly influence the perception of the viewer. Any scene I photograph is influenced by my point of view and feelings.

As I push further and further into fine art, I realize strongly that my point of view and subjective judgement are a primary component of the image. It is the reason for the image. One of the mantras is “is the image I made the same as what anyone else there at the time would have made?” If it is, then why did I bother? I am not adding anything. I am not sharing my experience or my perception.

A work of art which isn’t based on feeling isn’t art at all.

Paul Cézanne

Photography as seeking reality

But let me come back for a moment to the perception of reality in a photograph. I think this is a trap most people fall into because we don’t really examine our perceptions.

I believe most people consider a photograph to be reality for 2 reasons. First, they know the sensor records the live scene it was exposed to, so therefore this must be real. But second and more subtle, I believe most people are wishing for truth.

We want confirmation that there is truth and absolutes, even if we do not really know what they are. So we invest photographs as a symbol of truth.

This is one reason why people love pictures of beautiful landscapes, sunsets, waterfalls, forests, etc. It is a reality to grab onto. We wish it to be real, so we believe it. We want truth.

I confess that I love to take these beautiful pictures, too. It is good for the soul sometimes. Please take pictures of beauty when you find it. But remind yourself it is a subjective view of reality.

Whose reality?

So do not be too quick to accept a picture as truth, an objective reality. It can be beautiful. We may love to hang it on our wall and look at it every day, but it does not necessarily represent reality.

The reality we see is the artist’s reality. It is the sum of their perceptions and feelings and values. Do not lose sight of the fact that, if you were standing next to them at that time, you might have perceived something different. You might have pointed your camera in a different direction or framed it different. Your reality could differ from this other artist.

A photograph is reality, but it is the artist’s reality.

No great artist ever sees things as they really are. If he did, then he would cease to be an artist.

Oscar Wilde

Purity in Photography 2

Pseudo Landscape. Not an actual aerial image. Art, not reality.

Because of its nature of recording the scene in front of the camera, people assume that photography is some kind of “pure” imaging form. That is, that what you see is reality. I take opportunities when I can to dispel this myth. Never assume purity in photography unless it is explicitly presented as such. This is a theme that just won’t go away.

Recording

Our excellent digital sensors do a pretty good job of reproducing what the lens images onto their surface. For good and bad. Because of this, some people assume that photographs represent exactly what was captured.

This is just an assumption that in no way restricts me in my art. And it does not restrict anyone else unless they make the explicit determination to not do any manipulation. What the sensor records is often just a starting point in my photographic vision. Not an end point.

It is so easy now to alter images that you should always assume it has been done.

Manipulating

From nearly its beginning, artists have manipulated photographs. Black and white film photographers quickly invented ways to alter their images. Sometimes these were done to overcome limitations with the technology of the time. Sometimes to correct or improve the images, for instance by “spotting” defects and removing distracting objects. More and more commonly alterations were done for artistic improvements.

For fun sometime look up a “straight” print of Ansel Adam’s famous Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico compared to one of his later interpretations. The later is almost unrecognizable as the original. Does that mean there is something false about the later prints? No, it is considered one of the great examples in the history of photography. The artist chose to alter it heavily to make it appear as he wanted it to look.

It is never safe to assume that a photograph exactly represents reality.

What is truth?

Is a photograph “truth”? Is it some form of purity? Why? What makes you assume it is?

The technology of its capture process leads some people to assume a purity or truth that may lead you astray. Yes, the sensor recorded all the light falling onto its surface, but there is still a long journey from there to a finished image.

Some might say that Photoshop eliminated truth. That is overstated, but not entirely false. The positive statement is that Photoshop enabled greater artistic expression. Photoshop and other image manipulation tools, along with powerful home computers and large disks, opened a new world of creativity to artists.

Now most photographic artists do extensive manipulation of images. Photoshop, Lightroom Classic, Capture One, and other tools open new worlds of creativity to photographers. Photographers have always done this, but the modern tools add new power and possibilities.

But this power is just a modern convenience. It has always been true that images are created in the artist’s imagination. A great example is Albert Bierstadt, a German painter who helped popularize the American west in the 19th Century. His paintings created a lot of interest, but they were often, let’s say, fanciful. For example his work Rocky Mountain Landscape does not depict any real scene I have ever found in the Rocky Mountains where I live.

The artistic view is that an image is the expression of the artist’s vision and feeling for the image. It seems the truth comes from within rather than being a property of what is represented.

What is the intent of an image?

Does this manipulation make an image less “true”? That depends on the intent of the image.

Maybe it seems obvious, but any image presented as truth must be true. If I see a picture in a news article that claims to show a certain event, it better be exactly that. If it is altered to manipulate the scene or misrepresent the event, that is false and the reporter and their organization should be severely censured.

In my opinion no AI generated “news” or images can be presented as truth. They were generated by a machine rather than being a direct capture or observation of an event.

Let’s go a little away from news and talk about a portrait. Must a portrait be a literal, completely truthful depiction of the subject? Well, they never have been. Portraits are always “retouched”, maybe altered extensively to hide blemishes. Perhaps to make the subject look slimmer or taller or a little more handsom. So a portrait should be a recognizable representation of the person, but do not assume it is literally true.

But I live in the world of art. Art is fantasy and imagination and vision and creativity. We should never get confused that art is reality. I am free to do anything within my image that I think expresses my artistic vision. This makes Bierstadt’s Rocky Mountain Landscape acceptable art, even if not reality.

Don’t waste your effort thinking photographs are always reality. Most do not even pretend to be anymore. Photographs are another artistic expression, unless explicitly presented as reality.

Today’s image

A high altitude aerial? Maybe. Maybe not. Since I have been talking about photographic art not being real, it might be best to assume this isn’t exactly what it seems.

I won’t say more about it now. This is part of a series I am working on.

Passion

Twists and turns on or path.

I believe the best art is based on passion. We hear advice about “follow your passion” all the time from self help gurus, but what is it? What does that mean? Do you know how to find your passion?

What you think you want

In these times I think it is harder than ever to find our real passion. There are too many demands. Too many competing voices calling for our attention.

My personal opinion is that we are seldom equipped to know our passion until we get more experience of life. True, some people have a clear “calling” for something. They may know from childhood what they want to do. I don’t meet many of those. Expecting to identify your passion when you are young seems as unfair as expecting a 17 year old high school junior to pick their major when applying for college. They don’t know. They haven’t experienced enough life to really know what they will be good at and want to do for the rest of their career. That’s why so many change majors. Sometimes several times. Nearly half of older millennials — 47% — wish they had chosen a different career, according to a CNBC Make It survey.

So some people might say their passion is landscape photography. Next month it may be French literature. Another month later it may be organic cooking. But they are not being dishonest. They really don’t know. They are trying to figure it out.

Maybe our friend likes a certain thing so we think that is our passion too. Often a celebrity feels strongly about something so we get caught up in it for a while. But those are someone else’s passion, not necessarily ours. We quickly get tired of following other people’s passions.

What you’re willing to work for

Passion demands work. I think a lot of times we discover our passion accidentally. We find our self putting a lot of time and work on something, and to our surprise, it doesn’t seem like work. It actually energizes us and makes us happy.

That is a passion. They are usually not easy. If they are too easy they will not hold our interest. It takes a lot of time and effort to master something worthwhile and even more to practice it and keep learning and exercising our creativity. Our passions are those things where this work seems almost like play. We would rather be doing this than almost anything else we can think of.

What are you working for and what can you effect? You may be “passionate” about homelessness, or the environment, or inequality, but what are you doing about it? If you are just saying “someone needs to work on that”, then it may be a value of yours, but probably not one of your passions.

In A Beautiful Anarchy, David de Chemin makes the point that a lot of people tell him they envy his lifestyle. They would love to travel to exotic places and do interesting projects that benefit people. But, he says, the reality is they won’t make the sacrifices required to do it. They “wish” they could do it but won’t pay the price or go out on the limb to risk it.

What price will you pay? And what is worth paying it? Those questions help you understand if something is really you passion.

Learning is part of it

Ramit Sethi promotes the idea that we should always be willing to invest in our self, to constantly learn. I completely agree with this. He goes on to offer actionable advice. He discounts the time honored “10,000 hour” rule as being what is required to be an elite expert in a field.

Instead he says that for a great many things, if you put in 20 hours learning it, you would be better at it than most people and far enough along to know if you are interested in going deper. So he advises if something appeals to you even a little, get a book on it, take a class, spend a week focusing on it and trying it. If after a week it has run it’s course and you feel done, then you know. But if you are still interested, keep digging.

This is great to build a base of experience to build on and it can be a great help to identify your passions.

But whatever our passion turns out to be, we need to be a student of it. Be familiar with what has been done in the past. Stay somewhat aware of trends and directions in the present and who the thought leaders are. Learn the technology involved. Master the tools. These things are just a base to build on.

Long term

When we find our passion, our commitment to it is usually long term. While it is true that our passions can change over time as we mature and our experiences change our values, we usually hold on to a passion for quite a while. Years.

It may take years to build sufficient expertise in our area of passion to achieve mastery. Then we can enjoy pursuing it at a high level of skill and satisfaction.

But mastery is an illusion. We may become quite proficient in the technology and the practice of the subject. If we feel like we have learned it all and there is no more challenge, then our drive and our passion will evaporate. The reality is that for most art we learn that no matter how far and deep we go, we are a beginner. We can always look at it fresh and discover new paths to explore.

This is the challenge that keeps it engaging and captivating for us.

More than a feeling

Your passions are not just a matter of feelings. Feelings are ephemeral. They come and go with our mood. Our passions are like love. Love is not a feeling, it is a commitment.

Passions touch something deep inside of us. Something that is a need that seems to be fulfilled by pursuing the passion. I like the quote “What is it that you can’t not do? This is your art”. And your passion.

We have many demands on us. Sometimes we just have to block things out and go spend time on something else for a while. Like, you know, a job. That is life. But our passion is what we daydream about when we have a few moments. It is what energizes us when we think about it. Subconsciously we are usually planning new projects or envisioning new creative things to do. We can’t not do it.

Your value in the work

We pursue our passions because they have value to us. It may not be monetary. It can just be a sense of fulfillment. Or just the joy it brings us.

For those of us who are artists, our passion is often our art and much of the joy comes from creatively engaging in the practice. Speaking personally, my value derives from being able to do creative things, to grow and stretch my limits, and my love of the things I create. I get little pleasure in doing the same things over and over. Creatively discovering new ways to present my vision is what I need.

It’s ours to make

We are all unique and different. All were born into a situation we did not control. Each of us is given a certain set of talents and capabilities. It is up to each of us individually to decide what we do with what we have. Saying we are disadvantaged or not capable of doing what we want is just whining. We each will chose what to do with what we have and can do and the time we get.

I could never have played NBA basketball and I can’t even draw well. OK. Those are some paths that are closed to me. I will do other things. It may turn out that the particular things we do may not be important in themselves. The important thing is our fulfillment of our needs and the benefits we may bring to other people.

Today’s image

I would not call it great art, but I appreciate this image. It shows an aspect of railroads we usually don’t notice. I wonder sometimes how trains are able to stay on their track.

Beyond that, it reminds me that our path is usually twisted and with many branches and turns. It is seldom clear at the start where we will end up. But the choices we make lead us somewhere. Following our passion involves making choices and tradeoffs. Do it consciously. Let’s choose the best outcome for our self that will help us become the best person we can be.