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.

Constraints are Important

Most of us would say we don’t like constraints. But I believe constraints are fundamentally necessary for art and most things.

If there were no constraints, everything would be possible. There would be little or no creativity or learning because everything is too easy. Any art form I know of relies on its constraints. Take painting: paint on a canvas is (mostly) 2 dimensional, canvases are usually rectangular, they are (somewhat) constrained in size, they don’t glow or move or talk. In addition, each particular sub-medium of painting introduces more constraints. What you can do with watercolors is different from what you can do with oil.

Or consider a cello, one of my favorite instruments. It does not have the range of a piano, it is designed to play only 1 note at a time, it is relatively slow because it requires fairly large movements of both hands to play it. But it has a wonderful mellow sound that can produce very pleasing music, when played in a way to take advantage of the constraints of a cello.

Likewise photography is a very constrained medium. It is 2 dimensional, rectangular, static (I’m not discussing video), limited in resolution and speed, depth of field is limited, and so much more. Sounds like a real pain. Why even try to use this? Because great images can be made by recognizing the constraints and using them to advantage.

Consider the image above. Taken at night it required seconds to expose well. That would possibly blur the subjects. It was especially difficult since I did not have a tripod and an 8 second hand held exposure would just be a blurred smear of light streaks. Now, I sometimes like to do things just like that, but not this time. So by bracing the camera on a park bench and pressing it down firmly, I was able to get a sharp image of everything except the airplane taking off, which is exactly what I wanted. This uses the constraints of the medium to show the passage of time, something you could not see live.

A creativity exercise I use and recommend is to limit yourself to 1 camera and one lens on a photo outing. It will seem frustrating at first, but with practice you will learn to see just as you lens sees. You will automatically recompose things to fit what you have. It is exciting and freeing and it helps your creative eye by training it to use the discipline of constraints to improve your vision.

So stop viewing constraints as a hinderance. When you push against them it is an opportunity to improve as an artist, writer, teacher, employee, manager — person.

Gesture

Gesture has become an important concept to me. I was introduced to a more broad meaning of it by Jay Maisel. Jay is one of my favorite photographers to follow. I hate him for his work (it is so good) and he is an abrasive New Yorker with an outspoken opinion on everything. But I tend to agree with his opinions.

The Merriam-Webster dictionary says gesture is “a movement usually of the body or limbs that expresses or emphasizes an idea, sentiment, or attitude“. Boring, but we know what that means. We see people using gestures all the time. It is instinctive to us. Jay has taught me to look for and be more aware of those gestures. It is usually a key instant, a decisive moment as Cartier-Bresson would say. Looking for moments punctuated by gestures has improved my candid people photography immensely.

But even more important to me, Jay expanded the concept. He says that almost anything can express gestures: trees, buildings, lamp posts, anything. I look at it as an implied relationship between things. That has broadened my creative vision. When I can find it, I now look for more than just an object in isolation. I look for implied relationships between it and other things in its environment.

The image with this post is a good example. I see an implied gesture between the tree and the cloud. I know, this is just silly anthropomorphism and the tree is not aware of the cloud. In a pst life I used to be an Engineer; I’m used to cold rationalism. But don’t take it away from me. Seeing the tree as being curious or longing to touch a cloud makes it deeper and alive for me. And I will pretend like it is true. Finding and expressing gestures has become part of my creative quest. The artist part of me wants to believe it is real.