What Excites You?

Pictures of pictures

I believe artists are passionate people. We do our best work when we are excited about it. Have you considered what excites you? Do you seek the excitement?

Do you get excited when you are shooting?

I try to have that level of excitement. Of course, we are just human and it will not be there in full strength all the time. Like everything in life it ebbs and flows with our mood or circumstances.

I find that I have different grades of excitement about the things I shoot. It can range from “I really should shoot this; it is kind of interesting; I might can make a decent image out of it” to “Wow! I’m so excited right now I can hardly be still enough to expose a frame properly”.

I don’t consider anywhere along that continuum to be “wrong”. But the high excitement side is definitely more fun and easier to get, well, excited about.

Not all scenes are great

What makes the difference in the excitement level? One is probably the inherent quality of the scene or subject. When I say inherent quality this is a subjective measure, as is almost everything in art. It can only be evaluated by you for you. I think it is a function of the scene itself and how it interacts with our values and our mood. Sometimes we just don’t feel it, even though the artist right next to you thinks it is spectacular.

It may not be what you wanted or hoped for, but it is what it is. Work with it.

Another difference is our perception of the scene. The reality is that most of us are not surrounded by world-class, once-in-a-lifetime opportunities everyday. Most of what we see is rather average. An average scene offers the opportunity to exercise our creativity by making it interesting. We have to work hard to make something of it. This is valuable exercise. It is not a bad thing.

As a matter of fact I will assert that the rare, unique, wonderful scene may not be that much of a creative opportunity. If the scene is amazing in itself, we may only have to record it. Yes, it lets us use the technical and compositional skills we have spent a long time developing to capture it well, but we actually don’t have to do much. Just don’t screw it up. It can be exciting to know we captured a rare and great moment, but it may leave us a little unsatisfied because we did not contribute much to it.

Dealing with the average

Mostly we encounter more mundane, average, day-to-day scenes. How can we build or keep our excitement going when surrounded by ordinary?

I have stated before that I like to go out empty and let myself be drawn to subjects. Still, just in wandering around randomly I mostly encounter pretty average things. If I think there is something there, the exercise is to be able to make it above average. Can I see it differently? Is there a better angle or lens choice that would bring it out to advantage? Does it need to be simplified? Or juxtaposed with another element to make a different statement? Does it need different light or even a different season?

My friend Cole Thompson says “I believe the real test of creating isn’t cherry-picking great images from great locations, but rather to see the extraordinary in the ordinary. To be able to find something remarkable in my everyday surroundings.” Very wise.

When I am able to take an ordinary subject that I am drawn to and make it into something special it builds excitement in me. It gets my energy flowing. I become more conscious of other things around me and more empowered to go after them. It is a reinforcing cycle. It helps me see other things as well.

Ideas to being back excitement

Working with the ordinary is one process that is very important to get me excited. Each of us is different. We have different values and expectations and points of view. So there is no simple list of “hacks” that will work for everyone. But let me give some suggestions to try:

  • Set yourself projects to work on. The thought process of concentrating on a fixed subject causes us to focus and think different. It can be energizing.
  • Travel. A change of scenery can help to change our perspective.
  • Shoot with someone. The interactions and discussions can be stimulating and refreshing.
  • Take on a new style or technique. It doesn’t have to be a permanent change, just something to shake up the norm.
  • Make it look strange or absurd. It helps you see it fresh. This is the Russian Formalism technique called “ostranenie”. It is interesting. More on this another time.
  • Go to a museum. Not just a photography museum. Studying works by masters can never hurt.
  • Look at other work. Read blogs and other artist’s web sites. Get books of art. Get more familiar with the way other artists see the world. Do not copy them, but feel free to steal. 🙂
  • Find what gives you joy. A sense of joy is an important driver for excitement. Know what works for you.
  • Get out and do it. Really. Just making yourself do it can lift you from a funk and get you going.

Shoot for yourself

One of the most powerful motivators is reserved for a select few.

Do you consider yourself a “fine artist”? One of the definitions of that is that we create work for ourselves. If you are in the enviable position of creating art to please yourself, take maximum advantage of it. Follow your instincts. Don’t worry about what you see other artists doing.

When you get excited about a subject or a location or a technique follow your feelings. Work it to see what develops. It may be something entirely new that you become extremely excited about and that changes you. Or it may end up not being interesting to you and abandoned. Either way, you followed your artistic instinct. This builds excitement.

You don’t get a hit every time your swing, but it is important to keep swinging.

Is it work?

What is the difference between work and art? Maybe nothing. Please don’t read this blog as saying we should sit around waiting for the muse to visit us. Or to think you shouldn’t go out today because you just don’t feel any excitement.

Most of the things I describe or suggest are active. Based on taking positive steps toward creating something. We have to work at it. Action leads to feeling.

So whatever inspires you and creates excitement for you, don’t just think about it. Get out of the chair or up from the couch and go do something about it.

Finally, here are some quotes to reinforce that concept:

Motivation exists, but it has to find you working. – Pablo Picasso

Hard work will outperform talent any day of the week. – Joel Grimes

Inspiration is for amateurs. Us professionals just go to work in the morning. – Chuck Close

Catch on fire with enthusiasm and people will come for miles to watch you burn. – John Wesley

Spring

As I write this spring is fully come to Colorado where I live. This is a favorite time for most people. The hard winter is mostly over. The world is waking up. Spring is joy and refreshing and newness.

Too bad I’m not appreciating it as much as most people do.

New life

New life is breaking out all over. On a walk today I saw the first fuzzy goslings being coaxed into the lake by their anxious parents. Flowers are budding. Trees are leafing out. Grass is green (and I hear lawn mowers). Baby bunnies are running all around.

It is a time of beauty and peace, especially after a long winter. What is not to like?

What kind of curmudgeon wouldn’t be thrilled with it?

Uninspired

Me.

I went on a 4+ mile walk today and didn’t even take my camera. I never go out without my camera. But I knew I would not find shots to excite me. And I was right.

It is hard sometimes when you are so different from most other people.

Unfortunately for me, spring seems boring and predictable. At least when it first comes. Everywhere I look I see what most people would consider pretty pictures. Flowers, grass, new leaves on trees – these things hold little interest for me. Even though I will shoot a beautiful landscape when I find it, my interests are not in “pretty pictures”.

What calls to me

I am drawn to scenes with graphic interest, with stark lines or motion or drama. It is harder for me to find this in the spring. I could be out all day in a blizzard or a really cold winter day, but give me flowers and fluffy clouds and i am at a loss. I’ll take a bare tree against a snowy field. When the leaves come out the graphic structure of the tree is hidden. The tree becomes a green blob (to me).

Give me a frozen lake instead of, well, just a plain lake. A frozen lake may have interesting abstract patterns in it. A regular lake, to me, is just wet. It is very hard for me to do anything useful with it unless there are some good storms around to give nice reflections.

A freshly plowed field brings promise of things to come. But right now it is about as interesting to me as a painted wall. When the corn or wheat gets high things get more visual.

Finding lemonade

I don’t mean to whine. It is not really all lemons. There is lemonade. Spring also brings good things. I really enjoy being out without a coat. And not having to scrape ice off my car windows is great.

Spring also brings back more color. I love color, so when I get back in the mood I start seeking that. The image with this post is an example. Reflections on the river in Cincinnati are always lovely.

And hiking is opening back up without needing snowshoes. It will be refreshing to be back on trails in the mountains. Free to wander with less restrictions.

Spring kicks off the best travel time, too. It is tricky trying to do a trip in Winter. I have had interesting experiences doing that. Interesting = near death experiences.

And thunderstorms. I love them. I like the power and the awesome size and structure of them. I’m drawn to them like a moth to a flame. Winter storms can be great, but not like a good roaring thunderstorm. I am lucky to live at the edge of the Great Plains. I can pop out on them and follow some thunderstorms often. Maybe even without getting my car pounded by hail.

I don’t mean to imply it is all bad.

Learning to appreciate it

It is just harder for me to get into it when the season changes to spring. I love shooting in winter. Interesting subjects seem to present themselves to me more frequently. Spring is something I have to relearn every year. But I do. Once I get into it it is great.

Each season has its own drama and characteristic subjects. For me, spring just happens to be the hardest transition. Fall to winter seems a gradual transition here where I live. I ease into the hard season over time. Spring seems to just pop up.

But I go out shooting all the time. I force myself to find subjects. Eventually I warm up to spring and learn to appreciate it.

I’m still trying this year. It will come.

Themes

Old, weathered boat

I have come to realize I am attracted to certain themes in my art. Before I fall off into art-speak, what I mean by a theme is just the simple dictionary definition: “a subject or topic of discourse or of artistic representation”. In other words, what subjects do we chose for our art. Themes tend to be bigger than a subject. A theme may tie several seemingly separate subjects together.

Think about artists you admire. Do you also picture the typical subjects they do? Ansel Adams – grand black and white landscapes of the west. Georgia O’Keeffe – modernistic flowers. Monet – impressionistic rivers and ponds in northern France. John Paul Caponigro – abstract and ethereal seascapes and landscapes. They tend to go together in our minds because we know they very often do these subjects.

Chicken or egg?

Do artists pursue themes because that is what they like or do they pick something to get known for? Kind of a trick question. It doesn’t have to be just one or the other. Sometimes themes choose artists. Sometimes artists choose themes.

What is available to us often has a huge impact on our themes. Ansel Adams lived in California. Yosemite and the Sierra Nevadas were his back yard. John Paul Caponigro lives in Maine. Seascapes are common to him. Monet lived along the Seine River. He painted what was around him. This is quite common. We tend to grow to love what we see most. I live in Colorado, right on the dividing line between the mountains and the arid plains. Both are beautiful to me. I see them every day. The more I see them the more I resonate with them.

Some artists deliberately choose themes or subjects to become known for. They want a “signature”. Joel Grimes is well knows for his commercial work and stark, gritty treatment. Some people become famous portrait artists or wedding photographers. In general these are things they have consciously decided to build their career around.

I won’t claim there is a right or wrong. If you pick a certain subject matter to build your career and reputation on, I hope you really love it. Otherwise you could be like these old rock bands still touring around whose audience only wants to hear their hits from 40 years ago. It would get very frustrating to me.

I am a searcher and explorer. Themes are less conscious for me. Looking back through my portfolio I can detect a few. The ones I have detected make it less surprising now for me when I find myself drawn to them. I recognize it and have come to expect it. That doesn’t mean I am not open to new things, just that I can see larger patterns in my work.

Very personal

Themes or typical subjects tend to be personally meaningful in some way to the artist. It is hard to keep on doing art you don’t care for. That is probably one reason we have themes. The subjects we are drawn to are somehow meaningful to us so we keep coming back to them.

I don’t want to go too deep on the need for meaning. Our themes do not have to align with deeply meaningful social or environmental causes for them to be meaningful. If they are meaningful for us, that is sufficient.

I used Georgia O’Keeffe as an example earlier. Her mentor and, later, husband Alfred Stieglitz promoted the idea that her flower pictures had deep sexual significance. It helped build her reputation in the modern art world of the time. She later vigorously denied this was true. She maintained it was only the form and color that was important to her.

Maybe meaning is a very nebulous and personal thing. What is meaningful to me may not be to you. And vice versa. Or you may see meaning I didn’t when I made the image. I have never thought that pictures have significant meaning in themselves. The themes I discover in my work have meaning to me, but I do not try to force it on you. Maybe on the rare times I try to express my feelings in words the viewer may occasionally get a glimpse of the meaning there is to me. But I do not expect you to get one of my images and hang it on your wall unless you like it as an image and maybe, there is something there that is meaningful to you.

Consistent over long times

Themes tend to be a persistent feature of an artist. We are drawn to certain subjects. Maybe we understand there is a theme there that we are pursuing. But regardless, we keep coming back to certain things.

Our themes can fade with time and be replaced with new themes. We all grow and change our values and interests. This tends to be a slow process, but it happens for most of us. I hate to try to quantize it, but I would guess that when we find we are interested in a theme it will stick with us for a few years. Sometimes, for our whole life.

Unifying themes

Sometimes we find that several seemingly disparate subjects that interest us are really part of a unifying theme. This is a wonderful realization, because it unites large parts of our work and brings a new meaning, or realization to us to understand why we are drawn to it.

Let me give a personal example. I am drawn to old things that are worn and aged, but only certain ones. Some old things excite me and many are of no interest. Old rusted cars, abandoned buildings, old machinery, these have always been interesting subjects to me. As I’ve gotten older I have discovered the Japanese term wabi-sabi. I realized I was embracing the philosophy before I ever heard it expressed. It has become a unifying theme for many of the subjects of interest to me.

It is apparently impossible to succinctly and even correctly translate wabi-sabi to English. There are too many subtleties in the Japanese meanings. Some day I will attempt to write a better blog on it.

Here is one very compact description of wabi-sabi: “‘Wabi’ expresses the part of simplicity, impermanence, flaws, and imperfection. On the contrary, ‘Sabi’ displays and expresses the effect that time has on a substance or any object. Together ‘wabi-sabi’ embraces the idea of aesthetic appreciation of aging, flaws, and the beauty of the effects of time and imperfections. The two separate parts when put together, complete each other.”

I discovered that I am drawn to flaws and imperfections and the beauty of aging and the effects of time, especially of things that are bravely standing against time. This theme unites my collection of old rusty cars, broken down buildings, and broken flawed objects. I was happy to be able to wrap a higher vision around my old rusty things.

It makes us different

Our affinity for themes is one reason we can go out with a group of other photographers and still come back with our own unique images. We each have a different viewpoint. We are drawn to different aspects of a scene. Even if we shoot the “same” scene, we probably each have our unique viewpoint. This causes us to frame it differently, isolate a different part, emphasize different things.

Or, for some of us, even turn away from the classic landmark and shoot a different direction entirely.

Our themes help unify our images. They give a meaning and long term point of view to our portfolio. In another sense, our themes are an indication of our values and world view. What we are drawn to shoot are often things that are meaningful to us because of the themes we embrace. We still shoot other things, but something keeps drawing us in certain directions…

This image

The image with this blog was taken in Blaine Washington. It is on the seacoast right at the border with Canada. It is a lovely small town. I was across the harbor. There were good views all around of the harbor and the sea, but I was fixated on this great old boat. Rusty fittings, deteriorating paint, obviously it had seen better days. But it was still standing against the elements. That is encouraging. For me, a perfect wabi-sabi moment.

Don’t Shoot

Frost on Fence

A hero of mine, Jay Maisel, says “If there’s nothing to shoot, don’t shoot.” This is generally very good advice. He also points out that, if you love your subject, there is almost always something interesting to shoot if you take the right attitude. Inconsistent and contradictory? No more than life in general.

Don’t shoot if you don’t feel it, but try to learn to feel it. Any creative endeavor is part inspiration and part discipline and hard work. Many people say that hard work is the main determinant.

Don’t force it

Have you ever been to a great place but didn’t see anything? Did you feel the need to fire off frames anyway? Me too. But the shots I get are seldom outstanding.

Forced shots like these seldom have passion. You know there is something there and you feel the need to record it, but it is not calling to you. Your shots may be technically good, but they do not convey life or interest. If it wasn’t interesting to you, why should it be to your viewer? If it won’t come, just put your camera away and sightsee. At least enjoy being out and being there. Or use the time to practice your technical craft, knowing you will probably throw away most or all of these images.

But there is a strange and interesting corollary to this phenomenon , at least for me. Sometimes when I’m out for the purpose of taking pictures, I need the first shot as an ice breaker. Something magic happens when the shutter clicks. Now I am in image capture mode. Now I start to see. I suspend judgement and open up my emotions. Pictures start to emerge and form, even though they did not seem to be there before.

I can’t explain it, but I have seen it happen to me enough times to trust it and accept it. It is not a 100% guarantee, but it is frequent.

Flow

Psychologists talk about the state of “flow“. This amazing place brings a real mental and physical change to you and your perception of the world around you. If you haven’t experienced it, I sincerely hope you are able to find it someday. It is a wonderful thing to experience. But you are not going to get there by reading about it.

I used to go there frequently in my technical career. There would be days when I would realize it was 6 pm and I had not had lunch or even gotten up to go to the bathroom . Looking back on the day I was wonderfully productive and felt accomplished and energized.

The same happens in my art too. I may lose track of the time and even where I am. I get in a mode where I see intriguing images everywhere. Where I get in a creative mode and ideas and possibilities are flowing faster than I can catch them. Being tired or hot or hungry don’t matter at the time. It is wonderful and fulfilling.

It is not easy, and it takes getting yourself into a receptive position. This is about as far as you can get from my “don’t shoot” advice above.

Exploring

But how to get into a receptive state like this? For myself, getting into a flow state in my art often requires adopting an explorer attitude. I am naturally curious and am something of a polymath. An explorer attitude, to me, is turning off my preconceptions. I take the attitude that I am seeing these things for the first time. How do I perceive them? How will I capture this new thing to present to others who were not there?

Have you ever traveled to a new location, a different culture? Even the little things you would never pay attention to are interesting. My friend taught me to go into places like grocery stores in a foreign country to see how common and familiar things can be so different.

Capturing that attitude at home, in your everyday life can be a challenge for many of us. But it is necessary. It is one of the mental disciplines that keeps us fresh and lets us see the familiar as different and special.

Train yourself to see fresh. To look at the ordinary things around you as if you were in a foreign country and you had never seen them before. Really look and see. Forget that you “know’ what they are and have walked by them a hundred times; see them as for the first time.

Let me get painfully personal for a minute. Some people are so connected to their cell phones that it is usually in front of their face. Turn it off if that is what it takes to manage it. Your Facebook friends can live for a little while without your input. Work can wait a bit for an answer. You owe it to yourself to give yourself permission to unplug for a while. See the world for yourself.

Beauty in the common

This brings me around to one of my recurring themes, there is beauty in the common.

We do not have to travel to grand, exotic locations to get interesting images. They are everywhere. Our limitation is our ability to see them. They are there, everyday, all around us, but we tend to walk right by them without noticing.

I love grand locations, but even more, I love finding new and interesting sights in familiar haunts. Seeing new in the familiar is very rewarding. And humbling. When I see a great shot lurking in a worn out area I have been walking by it makes me wonder how many other great shots am I passing by. And somehow, it makes it more important to me. As Jay Maisel also says “It’s always around. You just don’t see it.

At a grand location any klutz with a camera should be able to make a pretty picture. But when I discover beauty in the ordinary, beauty I didn’t think was there, it is meaningful. I feel like I have uncovered something special. And it encourages me to keep looking. To keep exploring, wherever I am.

The image at the top of this post is one of these. It was a very cold winter day, probably 0F. My hands were getting frostbit even with gloves on. There was a frost that morning. This fence with bits of construction cloth stuck in it was beautiful in the conditions. Most other times it would be very forgettable.

If you really can’t get into it, don’t bother trying to shoot. But I hope you can condition yourself to be able to discover interesting images everywhere. I often find that when I can’t see good images, the problem is in me. I am distracted or preoccupied or in a bad mood. If I can change my attitude it makes a huge difference in my perception.

I would love to hear about your experiences.

15 Minutes From Home

100 ft from my studio

It is pretty easy to take good images in exotic locations. A real test of our skill is to see how well we do in familiar territory close to home. What if we arbitrarily said we were going to restrict ourselves to 15 minutes from home? Actually, that kind of sounds like the situation many of us are in right now.

I use ideas from Cole Thompson too often, but he often says things I wish I had said. In a recent newsletter of 3/27/2020 he challenged the idea that you have to go to great locations to take great pictures. Referring to the fact that many of his recent images were made in far flung locations, he said “You see the same coming from other photographers: exotic images coming from exotic lands. The conclusion is obvious: To create great images you must go to great locations! But that’s a lie. The real truth is this: great images are created anywhere you can see them. Even at home, your back yard or hometown. “

He went on to show a portfolio of great images taken within 15 minutes of his home. To me, his picture of wrenches hanging in a tool shed is at least as beautiful and intriguing at the classic figures on Easter Island.

Then why travel?

I will readily confess to being a traveler. I love to travel (hate airports and airlines though). Seeing different cultures and different landscapes energizes me. I tend to see things with a fresh eye. It’s an opportunity to give yourself permission to be a tourist and to view new things differently.

Travel makes you set aside time for the new. It removes you from the clutter and noise of your everyday environment. It may replace it with different clutter and noise, but the difference makes it new. Plus, you don’t worry much about the routine things that occupy you at home. That email you need to write, the business contact you need to follow up on, that blog post you have been meaning to write – they are just a distant murmur in the back of your mind. The lure of the exotic location tends to drown out the mundane things that usually shout so loud for your immediate attention.

The immediacy of the new sights in front of us makes it pretty easy to lose ourselves in the experience.

Burnout

Many of us can get in a rut and suffer from creative burnout. We start to think there is nothing new to photograph. Nothing new to inspire us or make it worth even getting the camera out of the bag. Travel to a new location seems to hold the hope of drawing us out of our slump.

I’ve been there. I still fight it frequently. Now with travel restrictions it seems worse than ever. What can we do?

I advise you not to get overly frustrated and fight head on against it. Reframe the problem. Go out walking with your camera. Tell yourself you do not expect to make any portfolio images today. You just want to look and practice, maybe work on technique. With no pressure to try to “make” a great shot you might be surprised at what you see. Give it time to work.

You will probably find yourself less dismissive of things. You might notice new things you never took the time to actually see because you were too focused on a preconceived notion of what you wanted to find.

Burnout is a real problem, physically, mentally, and creatively. Let yourself heal by taking it easy. Ease up on yourself by reducing the pressure you feel to make “great” shots every time.

And do something. Don’t let yourself wallow in feeling sorry for yourself. Get off your rear end and do something. Anything. Build something. Take walks or bike rides. Keep moving.

Inspiration

Ah, the problem of inspiration. I already admitted I am inspired by travel. Is that the only drug to feed my need?

Being confined at home is a great time to learn new skills. Learning should be a life long pursuit. Here is an exceptional opportunity to catch up.

We all have an opportunity now to pull back. It is a good time to read inspiring books. To view a lot of training online, such as Creative Live, The Nature Photographer’s Network, or B&H Photo. Or just play with Photoshop. Experiment. Try things you would not give yourself permission to do normally. Photoshop by itself is a life long learning experience.

But these activities do not directly apply to creating images in our particular style, do they? How do they really help?

Do you know how a laser works? (Not a laser diode; that is different mechanism) The acronym stands for Light Amplification by Stimulated Emission of Radiation. Without getting technical, a laser has two mirrors parallel to each other with a cavity in between. Electronics around it pump energy into it causing it to start emitting light. The light bounces back and forth between the mirrors, getting pumped to higher and higher energy states, until it finally breaks out as a focused, high energy beam. The point is that the signals that pump the laser to higher energy levels are not the same as the laser light. They feed the energy of the laser.

I believe my creativity is like that. I believe it is actually common to many people. Anything that feeds my knowledge, that makes me see new things, stimulates my creativity like a laser. So for me, some authors do that. Some classes may. Even some movies. In a strange way, even writing this blog pumps my inspiration. Get pumped and then do something with it.

Lack of faith in our creativity

A problem many of us have is little faith in ourselves. Deep down we believe we are fakes. That we really don’t have much creativity. Just because we did something good last week does not give us confidence that we will be able to do something great next week. This is called The Imposter Syndrome.

I believe this is more common than we let on. Some people have said that almost all creatives suffer from this. We do not like to admit it.

I am a fine art photographer and most of my work is outdoors. My personality and workflow is such that I do not plan my outings in any detail. I go with the flow snd take my inspiration from what I find. It can be scary when I’m not “feeling” it. I have to trust that something will capture my imagination and get me started and into the groove. If I relax and let myself be attuned to what is around me, it usually works.

But when it doesn’t, that can be a challenge to my self confidence. A usually reliable cure for me is to spend time in my image collection. I am lucky to have a large collection of images. Of that large collection, a small percentage are the ones I would not be ashamed to show to other people. Browsing through these picks can be inspiring to me. It reassures me that I can make good images over a long time. Remembering the story behind some of the images can be especially heartwarming. Like the times when I was in a hurry or not feeling inspired or creative or not happy with the work I was doing that day and suddenly I come up with a great image that I still love years later.

Close to home

Exercises and mind shifts like this give me the faith that valleys of inspiration, like virus epidemics, do not last. I believe most of my best work is yet to come.

It may seem easier to shoot good images in beautiful exotic locations, but there are very good reasons to focus most of our energy on the near, the familiar, the things we grow to love. Having a relationship with an area will usually lead to more intimate and insightful pictures. And I believe that there is great potential even in the overworked area 15 minutes from my home.

How about you? Are you shut down because you can’t travel? Let me know.

The image at the top of this article was made less than 100 ft from my studio.