What’s Your Photography For?

Sometimes, in photography as in life, the questions are just as important as the answers. So, with that in mind, think this one over for a second: What is your photography for?

I don’t necessarily mean that in the sense of “What kind of photographer are you?“, though I think that’s also a useful question to ask. We can think of this in terms of utility, obviously. That is to say, we can ask to what use our photos will be put (would we like to see them on our own walls, or in a museum, or on the glossy pages of a magazine?). There’s a tradition of this in craft, from the earliest human history to the Bauhaus* and beyond. And that, too, is valid.

But there’s another, equally important, sense in which we need to ask the “What’s it for?” question. That is: What is my work for? What does it affirm? It’s a point of pride among some photographers to let you know that there are certain lines they won’t cross. They’ll only shoot film, or only with prime lenses, or only portraiture, but only in the style of a certain photographer or school thereof. They’re very quick, in other words, to tell you what their photography negates, ignores, or works against. Each photographer becomes his or her own Groucho Marx.**

There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with not wanting to shoot certain ways, or to sidestep certain trends. Our “look,” such as it is, comes from a complex set of variables that come into play each time we frame the shot, and the things we choose not to do each time are hardly the least of those considerations. We cannot, and should not, stop there, however.

It’s all well and good to oppose something, but that fades after a while or becomes a pose of sorts. On the other hand, if your work is an extension or expression of your values, both photographer and viewer can sense, I think, that the photo is grounded in something. Our purpose in our craft, as with our lives, changes with time and experience, so I don’t think there’s a single purpose, or a one-size-fits-all definitive answer. Instead, it’s something we need to revisit from time to time.

Photograph with a sense of purpose. It doesn’t even have to be the same purpose each and every time, but there should be something there. Doing that, and thinking it over every now and again, is more difficult than nihilism (at least in the short term), but questioning your motivation, even if it’s as simple as being a better photographer today than you were yesterday, gives you a touchstone when your inspiration flags or life throws you a curveball, and can also help your work to express depth and sincerity.

That’s my two cents’ worth (adjusted for inflation). What do you think?

*Walter Gropius et al., not Peter Murphy et al.

** “No matter what it is or who commenced it/I’m against it.” (Horse Feathers)

Michael Wilson Interview (Or: A Few Words About Photography, By Way of Lyle Lovett)

Lyle Lovett, "Release Me" (Photo: Michael Wilson)

One night a couple of months back, I was at a total loss about what to write in this space. I’d been shooting, and had even been doing a bit of writing, but it seemed like nothing was clicking. I actually came within a hair’s breadth of reviewing the new-ish Lyle Lovett CD, Release Me. Even by my standards, and even with my habit of tying things that, to the untrained (or perhaps more sane) observer, have very little to do with photography back to photography, this was a bit of a stretch. So I was thinking, This being a photo blog and all, I’ll have to bring it back it back to photog– oh, wait, got it.

Generally speaking, you don’t judge something by its cover. Well, you’re not supposed to, anyway. But I always thought that  Lyle’s covers, shot by photographer Michael Wilson starting with The Road to Ensenada, were a bit like the singer himself; there’s a touch of melancholy suffused with just the right amount of wry humor (as with Release Me‘s shot of the singer entangled in a lariat). In other words, Wilson’s photos fit the albums (including shots for The Bears, Emmylou Harris, David Byrne, the Bodeans and others) in a way that album covers don’t always. After a series of emails, I finally managed to catch up with the aforementioned Mr. Wilson. For someone who worried aloud that he might not have much to say, he proved to be… well, as affable and perceptive about photography as I’d hoped. I’m happy — heck, make that honored — that he was kind enough to sit through an interview with me.

The Bears, "Car Caught Fire" (Photo: Michael Wilson)

It’s no mistake that Wilson’s best known for his portraits of musicians. His first ambition in life was to play the French horn. There was only one small problem; as he admits, with a laugh, “I was one of those people who was blissed out by it but I really couldn’t play it. I had no talent but a lot of enthusiasm.” The money that would’ve gone into a French horn went instead toward a Pentax Spotmatic, which Wilson calls “the first piece of the puzzle.”

The second piece of the puzzle, as Wilson tells it, was a scholarship to Northern Kentucky University. “I got a camera because I couldn’t play the French horn, I got a scholarship because nobody else wanted it. I go to sign up for classes, and the advisor asks me what I’m interested in studying. I told him I didn’t really have any plans, but that I was interested in photography. Lo and behold, he said, “Oh, we have photography next year in the Fine Art program. Would you like to be an art major?” So I said, “Well, I’ll give it a try.” That was the third piece of the puzzle.”

At NKU, he credits Barry Andersen for helping him to realize that photography wasn’t, as he’d originally thought, something people did for newspapers. “I got there and it was like being in a darkened theater as the lights go down… the curtain goes back and you see this wonderful thing you never would’ve expected. That’s what the history of photography was to me. I had no clue that for 150 years people had spent their lives taking pictures. That did it for me. Watching a filmstrip of Bruce Davidson talking about his photography, that’s the moment I realized, ‘This is what I want to do.’”

Upon graduation, he found he had no interest in graduate school, or in teaching photography. However, even as he wandered from one odd job to the next, he found himself working his way closer to a profession in photography. Here, I’ll let the man himself take over:

Nick Hornby (Photo: Michael Wilson)

Michael Wilson: I took a job as a photographer’s assistant at a textbook publisher. They had an in-house studio and I did the darkroom work and assisted on shoots. It was very controlled photography, everything lit to the nth degree. By this time, I was three years out of college, out of my honeymoon with photography, and I felt a sort of dread of photography coming over me, especially on days we’d be in the studio doing these controlled pictures. I remember thinking, “If this is what a photographer is, I don’t want to be a photographer.”

All the while, music has always been my main inspiration. I couldn’t help but notice that when I’d spend a couple of hours at a record store, you’d occasionally run across a really beautiful photograph, like a Stephen Shore photograph, or a Robert Frank photograph, and I’d be reminded of the pictures that made me love photography when I first discovered it, the pictures that made me want to be a photographer. The work of the usual suspects… August Sander, Robert Frank, Bill Brandt… all those people and that work was so unlike the sterile, institutional work I was doing for my 9 to 5 job. So when I’d go to the record store after work and I’d see a photo on a record that really came from the heart, I’d say, “Man, how did that happen?” So there was all this frustration building up, but it didn’t take too long for it to come to a head.

Paul: That dread, was it the work itself being so regimented starting to grind you down?

MW: It was that. Think of it like money sitting in a bank account somewhere. It was like that money was being spent on something I really didn’t care about and I felt like I was going broke. I’d get envious, because I’d see these photos and say, “Well, somebody’s doing beautiful work.” I think after a while the chip on my shoulder got big enough that they just asked me to stay in the darkroom.

The Bodeans (Photo: Michael Wilson)

I had a friend who was an illustrator, and he knew what was going on. He said, “Well, show somebody your pictures you care about.” I put together a handmade book of portraits, work I’d done for myself, and I sent it to a name – she really was just a name that I’d seen on a bunch of record covers that I liked. She was the creative director for Warner Brothers. I didn’t even know what a creative director was at the time, but I knew that if I looked over five records that I thought were really beautiful, three of them would involve this person. And I thought, “This person responds to the same things in the world that I am.” So I made a handmade book of about ten to twelve photos that my wife bound together, and I sent it over. A few weeks later, I got a call from the manager of the Bodeans. They’d been given my name by Jeri Heiden at Warner Brothers and she suggested I get together with them and make some photos. That was my first break.

PB: So you sort of drifted into this.

MW: I drifted, but what was deliberate – and I tell this to photographers now – is instead of following the money, I’d say to look at the pictures you wish you would’ve made. Go back and follow that picture back to a photographer, back to a photo editor. I just followed pictures I loved back to a name, and back to a person. It’s a long shot, but that’s probably the best advice I can give to anybody, especially if you’ve got a strong photographer who has an idea of the kind of pictures they want to make. I meet a lot of young photographers who are trained to do specific things – tabletop, headshots – and that sort of shotgun approach is a different approach that I don’t really know as well. If you know what kind of pictures you want to make, and you know what kind of pictures make your heart beat faster, see what names are attached to those pictures.

PB: Speaking of pictures that make your heart beat faster, who are some of the photographers who’ve done that for you over the years?

MW: I’ll name an unfair and very partial list. August Sander is one of my favorites. Bill Brandt, Eugène Atget, Robert Frank, Bruce DavidsonEmmet Gowin, Robert Adams (also for his writing). I could go on and on. I’m not as aware of the current “edge” of photography, but there’s a portrait photographer in South Africa I really love named Pieter Hugo. And Andrea Modica is also wonderful… But once you start talking about photographers, it’s like talking about music, the records you really love. You start, but you can’t really stop. I’ll leave it at that.

[After a pause, he continues] The woods behind our house are filled with grapevines. I love how those grapevines grow. There’s something in you, there’s work that exists out in the world, and it has the role that light does on a plant from the inside out. Without thinking about it, we grow toward things that move us. And those are people who’ve been light to me.

PB: Continuing on music and some of the photographers you’ve mentioned previously, how did you arrive at your style? Was it something learned, or…?

The Replacements, "All Shook Down" (Photo: Michael Wilson)

MW: Yeah. Now I’m getting nervous, like I’m about to teach a workshop. [laughs] I don’t perceive myself as having a style. I have a way of working, but that’s just the tools in my toolbox. I just throw a bunch of pictures on the table, and… okay, this works, this doesn’t. They tend to be pretty simple. There’s a photograph I did for the Replacements for All Shook Down, it’s just two dogs standing in the middle of the street. I hesitate to call it a style. It’s not a deliberate choice. What I have done is I’ve chosen to work in a very reductionist, simple way. I think I benefited a great deal from those four years at that book publisher, where everything was lit and gelled and we would tweak shadows a half an inch one way or another. For me, that was painful. I felt like, “Life is way more interesting than what we’re doing here.”  I realize now that I was shortchanging it, ‘cause there are people who make great pictures by exerting a lot of control over a photograph, orchestrating every element. I think I came to find that that’s not going to suit me well in the long run. I just didn’t have the patience for it.

The other thing was, early on when I went freelance, I’d take along a strobe and a softbox, and I’d try to be professional and get the lighting just right, but those pictures were never as good as the pictures I made when I was just walking around and I just had to find the lighting. So that was more of a subtractive decision. I got to the point where I just told artistic directors, “I don’t use lights.” The truth is, there are occasions I carry a light with me. I recently did a shoot for a record company I work with, they told me I’d be shooting in a club basement with no lights and no windows, but 99% of the time, I don’t augment the light. If it’s fluorescent, or bare bulbs, or whatever, I just use it. I’m better off that way.

PB: It’s funny, ‘cause I look at somebody like David LaChapelle, and I say, “You know, I wouldn’t have the patience to do this.” But I wonder, am I copping out doing that?

MW: If you look at LaChapelle’s work and it resonates with you in a way that you want to do that… in his case, there’s a lot at work in his pictures. The lights, the styling. Anyway, I’d say that you know when your pictures complete the thought that’s in your head. If you’re making pictures that feel like a finished thought, it’s not a cop out. The pictures I made with the strobes and all that stuff, I didn’t want to show those to anybody because it didn’t feel like me. I wouldn’t feel guilty about it unless the nagging persists. And then you need to call a doctor. [laughs] Certain people are almost like directors. It’s a different mindset. They know what they want before they go in. I’m a total reactionary. I need something to respond to. They imagine things, and create them… “Wouldn’t it be great if so-and-so was covered in a suit of leaves?” And then they go to the lengths it takes to execute that vision. If you’re the kind of person that has that kind of vision but won’t do the work, then yeah, you’re copping out, but otherwise it’s not.

PB: Speaking of reacting to what you see, what strikes me in your work is how the album covers especially just seem to go with the music.

Emmylou Harris, "Red Dirt Girl" (Photo: Michael Wilson)

MW: Yeah, that’s more serendipity than anything else. In the case of Emmylou Harris, Buddy Miller’s a friend, and he’d played guitar for her. He suggested me, and that worked out well. Sometimes, like with Lyle Lovett, the art director knew me and knew him, and because he knew both of us as people, knew that we would “get” each other. I’ve also worked on projects that haven’t turned out well. There was a time when I was getting offered work because of Lyle Lovett’s popularity, people would say, “We should get the guy who did Lyle’s picture,” but they had no knowledge of me. They saw it as a “look,” and almost without fail, those didn’t turn out well.

I can give you an exception, though.  The most recent Lyle Lovett record… Release Me was his last album on Curb. It was just me and him. We were sort of joking around, then we saw this lasso and it just came together. It was a silly joke on the title. But I wasn’t allowed to get his suit dirty. [laughs]

PB: Walk me through the process of getting from that first contact from an art director to me holding the disc in my hands.

Shawn Colvin, "All Fall Down" (Photo: Michael Wilson)

MW: I’ll give you a specific example, a best-case scenario. I do a lot of work with Nonesuch Records. They’re really good, a great record label that respects photographers. There’s a new record by Shawn Colvin that I shot. I knew the title of the record, I’d heard the music, and that’s good, but it doesn’t change how I make the pictures. It helps me to know them a little bit, but I don’t pick different cameras or change the shots.

Nonesuch isn’t committed to your photo being the cover. They’ll say, “Go make pictures, and we’ll see what happens.” So what I’ll do is just go and make the strongest pictures I can. Some will be color pictures for publicity, but then I’ll also just take pictures I like to make. This shoot, I did some shots with a pinhole camera, and just played around a lot. The cover picture was taken at the end of the day in her back yard. I knew the music, I knew the title, but you’ve still got to make an interesting picture. I just spend a day, however long the artist has, usually about four to six hours, and make a bunch of pictures. They’re really simple pictures if you look at them. If you saw me taking them, you’d say, “He’s really not doing anything.” The Shawn Colvin picture is a woman smoking a cigarette by her garage. There’s no high drama. But it’s a lovely thing as a photographer to have a designer who gets it and can put it in a setting where it resonates. I feel really lucky when that happens. Those are pictures that are really simple, but I’m happy that they’re out in the world.

PB: So the photos are more a reaction to the people than the music.

Jeremy Denk, "Ligeti/Beethoven" (Photo: Michael Wilson)

MW: Exactly. It’s funny, the Jeremy Denk record… he’s a classical pianist. The music is inspired by fractals, but the pictures that ended up working were the simplest ones. It’s just a guy sitting on the floor. Sometimes the ideas behind a record are so huge – a broken heart, being really happy – they’re usually big things that are hard to photograph. What’s cool about doing portraits is if you make a really honest picture of somebody, there’s a kind of power in that that leaves room for lots of complicated ideas that you’re not talking about in the portrait, but they’re there.

PB: A lot of the photographers that I’m drawn to, it’s like… whatever life puts in your lap, that’s what you’re photographing that day. It seems like you leave your subjects room to speak for themselves.

MW: When I’m looking at a portrait, I kinda want to feel like I trust that picture of that person. I know that’s a slippery slope, but I think you can tell. You see someone trying to look coy, or look some kind of way, and you say, “That’s not real,” you know? But when you see a strong human connection, those are the pictures that hold up over time, even when it’s a family snapshot in an album. It’s like trying to cross a stream and you’ve got your choice of rocks to put your foot on to get across. You look at a rock sometimes, and even though something’s sticking out over the surface, you know it’s not steady. You find somewhere else to put your foot because you know it’s solid. That’s the kind of portraits I want to make. I don’t want someone to feel duped. Like the Lyle Lovett pictures. They’re often exaggerations, but hopefully there’s something honest about them.

PB: Whether someone’s just starting out, or if they’re rethinking how and why they shoot, how would you advise someone to get to that kind of honesty, if that makes sense?

Hugh Laurie (Photo: Michael Wilson)

MW: Yeah, it makes sense. I guess I’d say there’s a few things that go into that. It’s gotten to a point now where you can push a button on your camera, and the picture looks pretty good. But the biggest dose of reality or inspiration I can give someone is to just go to the library, pull the photo books off the shelf, and look at them. There’s a really powerful energy when you’re learning something new and you’re excited. That’s a really important energy, and we need to keep that enthusiasm. Robert Adams talks about how artists live by curiosity and enthusiasm, and you need that. But you also need to look at pictures that are beyond you. Look at the history of photography. Yes, take pleasure in the pictures you’re making and stay enthused, but spend deliberate time looking at people who’ve made pictures for their whole lives. That, to me, feels like something really important to do. To know what the scope and power of the medium is. That’s bound to be frustrating, but none of us are original. We’re all mining veins that exist in the soul or in the world. We see someone who’s mining from a particular vein that’s also where we want to be digging. That’s different from the early pleasure you get when you pick up a camera and start playing. The curiosity is good, but you need to add to it some deliberate looking.

PB: The understanding versus a scattershot approach…

MW: Not even an understanding of how they did it. Just to know that there is somebody named Robert Frank who took a little camera and surreptitiously photographed what it felt like to be the outsider. To know Karl Blossfeldt, who in the 20’s and 30’s made these incredible photographs of plant forms. Emmet Gowin and these incredible family photos that read like stage plays… that stretching that comes from being exposed to something. Not the settings. Just having your eye and your head stretched.

PB: Any particular piece of advice you wish you’d had starting out, or some piece of advice you wish someone would’ve given you early on?

David Byrne (Photo: Michael Wilson)

MW: The first thing that pops into my head is, “Beware of jealousy.” Learn to be grateful for what you’ve got. Whether you’re trying to get attention to try to make a living, or get attention to get shows, it’s hard to just be satisfied with the smaller stuff, like making pictures and doing it as well as you can. It seems to me that most of the energy and desire to enjoy looking and be out with your camera gets sapped. You suffer from the desire to get noticed. If you’re a freelance, you need to let people know what you do, but it’s that part of it that I wish someone would’ve said, “There’s no reason to be jealous.” If photography doesn’t exist in some truthful, joyful place in your life, if you don’t get unforced joy or don’t see something beautiful and want to say a prayer of thanks – that sort of prayerful part of the process needs to stay intact by whatever means you can do it. A lot of damage happens when you’re just trying to get attention.

PB: When you get to that point, whether it’s jealousy or frustration, or just a rut, how do you get out of it?

MW: The physicality of the process. The actual walking outside and realizing, “this is what I love to do.” Lately in my life that’s happened a couple of times. A younger photographer’s asked me a few times to walk with them and take pictures. That’s been a godsend to me. Doing something physical, doing the duty part of it – the actual discipline of shooting. Maybe nobody needs or wants you to make a picture, or is going to pay for it. In my case, I’ll just find a neighborhood and start walking. Just do the work of a photographer.

PB: Any thoughts in closing?

MW: There’s a quote I love by John Berger: “What makes photography a strange invention with unforeseeable consequences is that its primary raw materials are light and time.” And this one’s by August Sander, who’s one of my heroes. It plays off the same idea. He said, “If I have attempted to pursue and represent the revelation of the spirit through nature with only the photographer’s usual means, both the stimulus and contemplation necessary for this has come to me through my experience that miracles do happen.”

Afterword: All photographs reproduced in this post appear by kind permission of Michael Wilson. There’s plenty more where they came from; his website is http://www.michaelwilsonphotographer.com/ and I’d suggest not missing his series The Pipe Coverer’s Ball for all the album covers and famous people.

Beyond Photography: Gustavo Cerati, Meet Man Ray

The first time I heard Soda Stereo was around the time that their last studio album, Sueño Stereo, came out. Though the band would soon go their separate ways, I continued to follow the solo career of the band’s frontman, Gustavo Cerati, through a series of albums that dug deep into ambient, electronica, guitar-driven rock, and even a full-blown orchestral album. Cerati’s work always made for interesting, and sometimes even challenging, listening. This was not least because he sings in Spanish, but also because the musical style itself was constantly changing, slipping in and out of genres even over the course of a single song.

The language barrier, in my case, meant that bits of half-remembered high school Spanish, things understood in passing and in context, rendered the lyrics are as slippery as the music itself… acertijos bajo el agua, to borrow a lyric. The funny thing is, the lyrics still tend toward the cryptic even in translation; between that, and the music, the whole experience reminded me a bit at first of Radiohead minus the alienation and paranoia, but over time, it’s become something else: a reminder that the things we create sometimes resonate with people in ways that they might not understand themselves at first.

Man Ray, Violon d'Ingres

Which brings us, in typically circuital fashion, to Man Ray. Over the course of his lifetime would cross paths with all manner of artists (Duchamp, Stieglitz, Ernst and Arp, among others) and have a hand in Dada, Surrealism, photography, film, and conceptual art. In nearly every case, whether it was the eye-on-metronome Object to Be Destroyed/Indestructable Object (1923), the memorable portrait Violon d’Ingres (shown at left), or his Rayographs (objects developed directly onto photographic paper), familiar objects, and familiar artistic conventions, were repurposed or turned inside-out by the artist.

They’re different enough to provoke a double-take, maybe even a touch of unease; at the same time, though (as we might expect from an artist who’d been classically trained, and who also worked in graphic arts), they’re grounded in forms we know, and have seen countless times before. Like Cerati, Ray’s “language”, his visual syntax, isn’t always immediately apparent, so the work reveals itself in layers, and leaves itself open to interpretation.

Both these artists’ efforts work in much the same way. There’s a strangeness there, among the musical textures, lyrics, repurposed irons, and photographic prints, but in each case, it’s also anchored in something familiar, whether it’s a four-on-the-floor rhythm or the conventions of portraiture, even as it subverts what we’ve come to recognize or take for granted.

Quiero hacer cosas imposibles… If you’re going to attempt something new and different, therefore, it helps to remember that the things that have the power to surprise us aren’t always those that are radically different. Instead, that little “poke” is just as likely to come from something we know, speaking to us in a language or a syntax that teases just at the edge of our consciousness. Venture off into the strange, but keep one foot in the familiar…


Gustavo Cerati:

Official Site (Spanish): http://www.cerati.com/
Official Site (English, via Google Translate)
Official YouTube Channel: http://www.youtube.com/user/gceratioficial
Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gustavo_Cerati

Man Ray:
The Official Website of the Man Ray Trust: http://www.manraytrust.com/
Man Ray on UbuWeb: http://www.ubu.com/film/ray.html
Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Man_Ray
A recent article from the Wall Street Journal on the artist’s estate and legacy: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052702304070304577394304016454714.html

How Do I Become a Photographer?


Taken by a photographer. Really.

If you were expecting a comment about Carnegie Hall and practice, practice, practice, you’ve come to the wrong blog. I’m a whole ‘nother class of wiseass.

You want to know how to become a first-class photographer?

Step one: buy or borrow a camera.
Step two: take lots of photos.
Step three: repeat step two, frequently and with furious enthusiasm.
Step… well, no, that’s it, really.

Gee, wasn’t that easy?

The ironic part is, I’m not exaggerating. It really is as simple as that, which means (to compound the irony) that it’s also actually as difficult as you want it to be, or maybe would rather it wasn’t. You can put all sorts of labels on it, take classes, get degrees, sit at the feet of some guru or other, and it’s all going to boil down to those three things.

All that you’ve learned doesn’t matter, and whatever else a teacher might teach you, her advice is still going to be to get out there and make photos (although, hopefully, with some instructions or caveats attached). It also doesn’t matter where you got the camera, much less what kind it is. I don’t care if you’re using a pinhole camera you’ve made out of a modified Altoids tin, a Pentax with a 2GB class 2 card and a lens you got for $7.50 at a garage sale, or a Hasselblad with a digital back and lenses for which you’ve mortgaged the house. Are you making photos? Good. You’re a photographer.

Let’s look at the other side of the same coin. You’ve got an expensive camera body, you’ve invested in enough glass to restock your local camera shop twice over, and you’ve got top-of-the-line everything? Well, good for you. Are you taking photos, or are you spending more time on various internet fora debating the merits of various doodads? Whatever else you may be, you’re not a photographer.

Now, I’m not talking about the distinction between a professional and an amateur photographer. That’s a post, or series of them, for another time; suffice to say for now that merely owning an expensive camera body and getting one good shot in a thousand doesn’t make you a professional, even if you got paid for that one good shot. But just being a photographer? That’s easy. If the camera’s out, and you’re using it to make photos instead of as a conversation piece (“Hey, is that a Canon 60D…?”), congratulations. You’re officially a photographer for the duration. Now quit worrying about whether you’re a photographer, and go photograph something, dammit!

Burn The Box

Reflected Flag

Whether you’ve been doing photography (or some other creative endeavor) for about five minutes, or for something closer to five decades, it helps to think about your craft, your approach to your subject matter, and eventually, even your thinking about your thinking. It’s easy to find yourself blocked from time to time, unsure of what (or even whether) to photograph next because it feels like the well’s run dry. It’s easier still sometimes to find yourself wanting to do something different just for the simple reason that you’ve been doing your “thing” for so long.

If this were a certain type of blog, and if I were a certain breed of blogger, I could tell you to just “think outside the box” and be done with it. End of post, end of story. Pat self on back, have beer, and think of the next blindingly obvious bit of pablum to foist upon my unsuspecting readers. There’s just one small issue: the problem with “Thinking Outside the Box” is that our “boxes” aren’t a bunch of discrete little things stacked on shelves. They tend to be more like those nesting Russian dolls, one box inside another inside another. We think we’re thinking outside the box, only to find that we’ve traded our usual box for a larger, or smaller, one.

Worse still, we might even find we’ve traded our box for someone else’s. We follow someone’s formula, or try to learn from their example, only to find that all of a sudden, we’re boxed in by a process of thought or creativity that doesn’t feel right because it isn’t ours. Individuality is just that — it’s as individual as you are, but it happens by default and not by effort. The easiest way to get out of a box or a rut is to be aware of your boxes – your processes, methods, ruts, even your prejudices – especially when they box you in, but don’t obsess over them. Acknowledge them, play with them, but don’t allow them to become an impediment to doing, or being, what you really want.

Sometimes, just casting light on our process is the thing that allows us to change it or trade it for another. This isn’t something passive; you’re going to have to be aware at the various stages of your creative process, breaking down each step, and being aware of the what, how, and especially why of each one. When you start to unpack all of those steps — both as you’re taking the photo, and when you’re evaluating your finished results — you can begin to identify the ways you might be boxing yourself in, and perhaps even gain some insight as to why you’re doing it. Having done that, you can start taking the necessary steps to change what you feel needs changing.

Postscript: Tell me: What do you do when you find your work’s beginning to get stale? How do you change your thinking or your practice to refresh what you’re doing, and how well has it worked for you?

Here’s Your Permission Slip.

Knock, knock...

Hopefully neither of you will mind if I do a little thinking aloud in this post. I realized something today: I’ve read an awful lot of books on photography in the few years. Some covered technique, some had a more philosophical bent, and still others were just collections of great photos from the last 150 years, give or take a couple of decades. We’re talking thousands of pages, thousands more photos, and countless pieces of advice (some of it explicitly contradictory).

In some cases, I knew quite well what I was looking for, especially when someone had some technical knowledge to impart that’d help me nail some setting or compositional technique or other. Sometimes, with the more philosophical stuff, it helped to read someone whose ideas and philosophical approach to the craft were close to my own; it’s nice to have your thinking validated to some degree I suppose, and/or to find out you’re not (that) crazy. And the collections of photos were great for inspiration and visual literacy… 

Every once in a while, though, I found and still find that I come away from all that stuff — the thinking, the knowledge, the input, even the inspiration — feeling like I’m missing something. I finally figured out that all of this amounts to nothing more than asking permission. Not to pick up a camera (once the bug bit, it was already too late for that) or to get the pictures themselves, but to just let go. It’s taken (or taking) me a while to realize that sometimes what we need isn’t more knowledge, more technique, more inspiration, or more stuff. Sometimes it’s more about letting go of all that, and not worrying so damned much whether you’ve got enough of it. Face it: you do not know enough. You will not know enough, ever, since the more you know, the more you start to get the broad outlines of how little you know and how much you have yet to learn. And that ignorance (I use the word literally, not pejoratively) is enough to intimidate the hell out of you if you care about something enough to have learned about it in the first place. You start to realize that if you’re waiting for enough knowledge, or the right knowledge, you are and will remain paralyzed.

At some point, then, you just have to say, “enough,” and mean it. Know that you have enough, even when it doesn’t feel like nearly enough, and even when you’re told it’s not enough. Improvise, learning as you go, allowing and even welcoming the mistakes. That kind of faith feels rash and counterintuitive, but having faith that what you’ve got is sufficient to get you started can mean the difference between taking those faltering first steps and remaining perfectly, frustratingly still. Maybe we need to set our knowledge aside in order to move past our ignorance?

If you were anything like me in elementary school, you probably came thisclose to missing out on some cool stuff ’cause you were probably a bit late with a permission slip or three. When it comes to your craft, whether it’s photography or something else altogether, stop waiting for permission. Don’t wait for someone else to tell you it’s okay, or that now you’re ready. Indulge, experiment, screw up/succeed beyond your wildest dreams. You don’t need permission, not mine or anyone else’s. And if you’re still waiting for it after reading all this, what you need is not permission, but a swift kick in the ass. You want permission? It’s already yours for the taking… the only catch is, you have to give it to yourself.

Repetition, Evolution and Craft

La Cruceta del Vigia, Ponce, Puerto Rico

A friend recently shared something with me that I’d like to pass along. Paying it forward, as it were. Before I show you what he shared, though, I’m going to go back a couple of weeks to Art and Fear, which I reviewed in this space. There’s a parable in there about quality versus quality.

The short version goes like this: a ceramic teacher divides his class in half, and tells half of them they’ll be graded on quantity, and the other half that they’ll be graded on quality. To get a good grade, the “quality” group has to produce a masterwork; the quantity group, on the other hand, is being graded by the pound.

When the end of class rolls around, the group graded on quantity fares better; while some of what they’ve created is of poor quality, much of it is at least competent, and some of it even great. The quality group, in the meantime, has gotten itself so bogged down in endless debates over what makes a good pot that they don’t have much to show for all their talk, and the pots are lousy anyway.

There are a few lessons to be drawn here, not least of which the simple fact that all the theory in the world, no matter how attractive or how good it may sound, doesn’t amount to squat unless you can back it with results. Just as importantly, it’s by putting things into practice that we learn what works and what doesn’t; it’s where all that theory is realized, and made concrete (or porcelain, if you’d rather).

Speaking of making it concrete, let’s go back to our regularly scheduled post. What my friend passed along is a story that unfolds over several years’ worth of practice. An artist named Jonathan Hardesty (who also goes by MindCandyMan on www.conceptart.org) charted his evolution online for all to see. His first attempts at painting – just working out the basics of line, shape, color and composition – are all there, and you can chart the progress all the way through to his later works, which are fully realized art by any standard.

It’s inspirational, but not in the often-told, generally hackneyed “person just happens upon their art or craft one day and almost immediately discovers a long-buried talent” sort of way. While I’m sure that happens every now and again, I think there’s something in that conventional narrative that poisons the well, ‘cause people miss the part of the equation that involves them putting in a shitload of effort no matter how talented they are. At the beginning of this “version,” on the other hand, there’s no inkling of some phenomenal talent. There are just a handful of studies in color, line, shade and shape. That and a lot of effort that leads, slowly and seemingly inexorably, toward someone finally being able to fully realize their vision.

It’s inspiring because it applies to the rest of us, as well. There’s a debate to be had over the role and nature of talent (whether it’s inborn or cultivated), and we’ll no doubt get to that another time. Leaving talent aside for a moment, though, just think about your own work. If, as it’s been said, it takes ten thousand hours to get good at what you’d like to do, that’s an awful lot of hours to invest, especially when you’re measuring them out 1/125 of a second at a time. I’m not sure that the 10,000 number is meant to be taken literally, or if, like Jesus’ “seven times seventy,” it’s just a simple reminder that it’s something you’re going to have to do quite a lot of. Whichever it turns out to be, plan accordingly but also realize that you will see results for your effort, even if it doesn’t always feel that way at the time.

As sometimes happens, this story came along just when I needed it. It’s easy to look at other people’s amazing work and be intimidated by it. After all, they’ve already had so much time to get to where they are, and here we are – well, here I am, anyway – still a newcomer by comparison. How and when do I get to that point, if ever?

But then I’m reminded of something: when you see work like that, you’re (hopefully) seeing someone at their best. Like a first date, an artist (no matter what their medium is) is going to put their best foot forward. Often as not, that means you only get to see the pinnacle of their work – the peaks, with all the valleys (the false starts, the doubts, the things left unfinished or never started) glossed over or omitted. Part of the value of Hardesty’s work is the reminder that none of us is alone in that process… it’s just that most of us aren’t generally brave enough to put all of it – not just our highest highs, but our lowest lows and every point in between – out before an audience, and essentially grow up in public.

I rather like the idea of calling the act of something “putting it into practice,” ‘cause really, at the end of the day, that’s all we’ve got. Practice, and when that’s over, more practice. We continue ‘til we’ve got it right, and keep going ‘til what’s right gets that much better. There’s no destination, no perfection; only perfecting.

You can see the original thread tracing Jonathan/MindCandyMan’s evolution here, and further along his journey here. His personal website is here. And the “Online Atelier” he started to pass on what he knows is here.

The Lightning Rod Theory of Photographic Inspiration

Wow, that’s a mouthful. Let me explain:

You hear creative types talk about inspiration all the time. Sometimes, it’s because the muse is talking, the inspiration’s flowing, and it seems as though, artistically speaking, you’re a fount of useful and interesting ideas. Other times, of course, it’s because of the dreaded “block.” You and the muse aren’t on speaking terms, and as far as ideas go, someone might as well have shut off the spigot, because what was once a torrent of stuff now seems to have slowed to a miserly drip.

And think about how we talk about inspiration. It’s the “lightbulb moment,” a “bolt from the blue,” or the “shock” of recognition when it all comes together. Very charged language (pun partly intended)  for a feeling that, when it comes, can definitely be electric.

Let’s take that electrical metaphor a step further. If we’re waiting for that lightning bolt, like Ben Franklin flying his kite in the middle of a thunderstorm, it helps to remember that lightning — both the high-voltage, knock-your-shoes-and-socks-off variety, and the inspirational kind — tends to strike the tallest thing it can find.

Of course, unless you’re fixing to be electrocuted when a thunderstorm comes, you’re likely going to get your ass indoors, or find some cover. It only makes sense. But what works when it’s raining is counterproductive if you’re looking to get inspired; laying low, not getting out there and even taking the small risks, means the odds of a good flash of inspiration are pretty dramatically decreased.

A couple of days ago, I advised you to always have your camera with you. One reason, as I stated in that piece, is that you’re simply not going to get pictures if you don’t have your camera with you to make them. There’s another, more elemental, reason as well. Photography, I’ve found, can be a lot like exercise. The longer you don’t exercise, the harder it gets to exercise. If your only exertion is vacuuming the crumbs out of your bellybutton, it’s going to get difficult after a while to drag yourself off the couch, to say nothing of running a marathon. If, on the other hand, you’re active every day, it becomes much easier to stay that way.

Similarly (yes, there was a point to that bit), if you let your camera gather dust for days, weeks, or months on end, it becomes a lot more difficult with the passage of time to get out there and get photos that don’t look like they were a chore to make. You don’t need to have an angel on your shoulder to take good photos, but if you feel dull and uninspired, don’t be surprised if your photos reflect that. If you make photography a habit, you can make inspiration a habit as well.

Here’s what it all comes down to: photographing every day (or, if you came here by accident, doing whatever else it is you do, whether it’s writing, cooking, or interpretive dance) makes it stand taller in your consciousness, and gives those lightning flashes of inspiration something to strike. The longer you do this, don’t be surprised if those lightbulb moments become much more regular, and much less unpredictable.