Rule 14: Of Course It’s The Gear

Horses of Instruction

If you haven’t heard it a million times before, wait for it. “It’s not the gear!” I’ve said it myself, including in this space last week. But just how true is it? And really, is it ever the gear?

The common wisdom among a certain class of photographers (incidentally, often the ones whose bags are chock-a-block full of expensive stuff) is that it’s more about vision than gear. After all, Ansel Adams, who knew more about photography than most, said that the most important part of the camera was the twelve inches behind it, and he must be right, right?

Not necessarily.

If it had nothing to do with the gear, we’d all still be shooting large format cameras that used glass plates. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it… we could even bring back the camera obscura. If the gear has nothing to do with it, what use do we have for wide-angle or macro lenses, carbon fiber tripods, speedlights, reflectors, diffusers, Lightroom, full-frame sensors or Velvia?

Of course that argument falls apart if you give it more than a minute’s thought. The gear evolves sometimes for the sake of convenience; I don’t know anyone, including those who still shoot with the aforementioned large-format cameras, who wouldn’t argue that 35mm roll film isn’t a lot easier to carry and work with, for instance. Other times, it’s a case of technological advancement (Lightroom versus chemicals in a darkroom), expression (a landscape photographer’s going to get a lot farther with a 12-24mm than with an 85mm), quality (if you think an iPhone’s going to give you the same image quality and capabilities as a Mamiya, have your eyes and/or head examined, please) or necessity. These things exist for a reason, in other words, and gear – the right gear, let me emphasize – enables us to do things that we couldn’t do otherwise.

So where does the “It isn’t the gear” conventional wisdom come from, and am I suggesting we throw it out? Second question first: no. First question: experienced photographers (and some of us who aren’t so experienced) realize that the gear is just that; it’s a tool that helps you get things done. A skilled carpenter isn’t skilled because he’s got an expensive hammer; he’s skilled because of the time and effort he’s put into his craft. Whether his hammer was forged by Vulcan or cost $12.99 at Sears, he knows it’s just a tool. He’ll be the first to tell you that he’s got a belt sander ‘cause there are some things you just can’t do with a hammer. It’s just as likely he’d tell you that the belt sander isn’t what’s making him a good carpenter.

What’s that got to do with you? Take the same approach to your photography (mentally, at least) that you would to anything else you do. Get the right tool for the job, but realize that the tools are a supplement to, and not a substitute for, experience and vision. If you’ve got a D3X because you need it for low light, great; but if you bought a D3X because it’s what the pros use, and after all, they make such lovely photos, you’re barking up the wrong tree. Remember, the camera can’t make the photo without you. The right gear makes it much, much easier to realize your vision, but without the vision, the gear (however good or bad it may be) is immaterial.

More Fun With Photography

Paparazzi (by kind permission of Colleen Fletcher)

Last week, I posted a handful of photography sites that are always good for a laugh. It got me thinking, though. It’s easy enough to laugh at someone’s mistakes, but really, when’s the last time you laughed at your own photography? And for that matter, when’s the last time you allowed yourself to be silly behind the camera? I’m not talking about the times you’ve made faces at your kids to get them to laugh or smile; I mean, when’s the last time you really let yourself go for your own photos?

I bring this up because I think a lot of us get into a frame of mind that says, “Photography is Art. I’m serious about my Art, and my photography.” And at that point, we forget to just get over ourselves and have fun. Now, I’ll admit that I’m slightly biased when it comes to the intersection of humor and creativity. Maybe it’s a personality quirk, or maybe just some kind of genetic predisposition, but I have a hard time being too serious for too long. As a result, some of my photography circles back to humor, and I’m also drawn to photographers whose sense of humor informs their work. As you’ll see in the examples that follow, you can still make some seriously good photos from a lighthearted place.

Let's go find some rebel scum! (by kind permission of Christian Cantrell)

Consider Colleen Fletcher of What started as a way of decorating the bathroom became something close to an obsession. She now has ducks for every occasion, holiday, and even location. Her ducks have seen Vegas, Jersey, and Europe, and have been photographed with sailors and celebrities alike. Christian Cantrell’s Microkosmic would be a favorite even if I weren’t already obsessed with both Legos and photography.

Jedi Chipmunk (by kind permission of Chris McVeigh)

And some photographers have turned funny into serious business. Brian McCarty (McCarty Photoworks) has combined a love of art toys with some serious composition and lighting skills and parlayed it into a client list that includes the likes of MTV, Rockstar Games, Cartoon Network and Southwest Airlines. Chris McVeigh’s unique vision (a vision that frequently includes Lego, Star Wars figures and a couple of semi-professional chipmunks) has led to gigs with Gizmodo and MacWorld.

It doesn’t stop there, of course. You don’t even need to be that funny that often, though a bit of humor in the right place goes a long way. “Straight” photographers have also found a dash of humor to be one of the most potent tools in their kit. Philippe Halsman’s collaboration with Salvador Dali, Dali Atomicus, comes to mind, as does much of David LaChapelle’s oft-imitated work. In other words, there’s a time-honored place for this. The photography police aren’t going to confiscate your equipment because you weren’t sufficiently intense, I promise (though your local police department may be a different story).

Untitled (by kind permission of Brian McCarty)

Let’s go out on a limb for a moment, and assume that if you’re reading this, you take your photography pretty seriously. You’re willing to take the time to learn your gear, technique, and anything else you have to get the hang of, in order to get better photos, and you’re aware that this isn’t a day trip you’ve embarked upon, but rather something that’s likely to be a lifelong journey. So far, so good. But if you’re taking yourself, and not your craft, seriously  (because really, it’s more about you than your “art” at that point), that verges on fatal. It’s bad enough that your photos won’t be much fun; it’s much worse that you become dull at that point. Besides, as Robert Benchley once astutely pointed out, if you don’t put humor in the right places, you risk people laughing at the wrong times, or for the wrong reasons. You don’t want that, do you? Lighten up!

Postscript: A heartfelt “Thank you” to each of the photographers whose work you see here.

Rule 13: It’s Not The Gear

Sleepy Hollow Cemetery

There’s an anecdote (likely apocryphal) that’s circulated among photographers for probably as long as there’ve been photographers. A famous photographer goes out to eat, and is spotted by the chef, who raves about the photographer’s work and says, “Your photographs are lovely. You must have a very nice camera.” A short time later, after a delicious dinner, the photographer asks to see the chef. After being ushered into the kitchen, he tells the chef, “That was a wonderful dinner. I just wanted to see what kind of pots you use.”

That little story speaks to a truism among many photographers: It’s not about the gear. The reasoning is similar to what you hear from artists and craftspeople of all stripes; if you gave a master the most rudimentary tools, they’d still find a way to produce something of worth. It’s not the camera that matters, in other words, but the person behind it.

It’s a useful thing to remember, especially when you’re starting out. It’s easy to fall into a mindset that our photos would be better if we had a nicer camera, faster lenses, expensive software for post processing, and maybe a speed light or three. Admit it, you’ve said – maybe aloud, or maybe just to yourself – “Y’know, if I just had a (fill in the blank with this week’s photographic object of lust).”
The gear isn’t the only thing making those photos. You are. Think of it as a collaboration with your camera; each of you needs the other to get the results you’re looking for. A camera’s not going to be much use without someone to call the shots, and the photographer is likewise at loose ends if she’s got nothing with which to take the photograph. The problem is, any collaboration’s only as good as its weakest link; if your skills aren’t equal to your gear, you’re just going to be taking rather more expensive crappy photos.

McMain Building, Rutherford, NJ

Let’s take this out of the theoretical and into the practical for a minute. One of the photos accompanying this post was shot with my recently deceased Kodak point-and-shoot, and one was shot with my Nikon. Without peeking at the EXIF data, you want to take a good guess at which one’s which? And for that matter, does it matter?

The shot from Sleepy Hollow was the one taken with the Kodak, and remains one of my favorite shots I’ve taken (if I may be so immodest). The other one, taken with my Nikon, isn’t one of my favorite shots, and wouldn’t be anybody else’s either. There’s technically nothing wrong with it; the lighting and exposure are acceptable, the composition at least isn’t awful, but at the same time, it doesn’t really have anything to say. I could have gotten the same shot with the Kodak, and could also have gotten the same shot no matter what lens I’d put on the Nikon. More to the point, any other person could have gotten the same shot; there’s nothing that makes it uniquely “mine” or anyone else’s. But it’s not the camera’s fault it came out that way, it’s mine.

So the next time you’re contemplating plunking down money on some doodad or other, think about it first. Ask yourself one simple question: “What’s the issue here?” Be willing to honestly assess your own skills, since the problem may not be with the camera, so much as what’s behind it. Sometimes we’re the ones that need the upgrade.

Postscript: Next week, we’ll revisit this question from a bit different perspective.

Rule 12: Photograph Like a Beginner

The face rings a bell...

Stick with photography, or pretty much anything else, long enough, and it happens: you begin to understand what you’re doing well enough that doing it becomes nearly automatic. At first, this can be gratifying. After all, you’ve worked your butt off, experimenting, studying, and shooting, all so you could get to a point where you could render what you see in the viewfinder, or your mind’s eye, with some degree of reliability.

However, if you allow it to be something you do without thinking long enough, something else starts to happen: what started as an easygoing familiarity begins to look like you’ve been phoning it in. It’s one thing not to have to sweat the settings, but it’s something else again when you just sit back and figure that the composition will also take care of itself.

Most of the cameras I’ve used for any length of time allowed very little control over their settings. This made them user-friendly, and gave me the ability to concentrate more on composition, but there were plenty of days when I’d shoot just because there was something in front of me, and I happened to have a camera. I could excuse this early on — after all, I was just getting started — but once I had some experience under my belt and a better understanding of what made a better photo, it became a lot harder to justify taking bland photos.

Upgrading to an SLR has made a difference. Granted, there are times I’ve taken a few dozen shots just to experiment with settings and see what happened with the changes I made (something I’d also suggest if you’re new, whether to photography or just to a new type of camera or lens). But I’ve also tried to turn this into an opportunity to look at things with a fresh set of eyes, as it were.

As frustrating as it’s occasionally been (especially when you shoot for an entire night and find you haven’t got much worth keeping), it’s also been very helpful. When you have to stop and think about what you’re doing with one part of the equation, it generally forces you to slow down and think about the other bits as well. In a way, this is one more reason not to shoot in Program or Auto. Having to stop and think — to make a series of choices, and to also consider what each of those choices is going to do to your end result — is a useful speed bump, of sorts, that usually results in you also thinking over your choice of subject (do I really want/need a photo of this?) and how you compose the shot.

If you’ve gotten more experienced, try to find a way to change something. Maybe it’s going to a mode you don’t generally use, or a different type of subject matter; it could also mean trading gear with someone else for a day. You usually use an SLR? Pick up a compact. Committed Canon fan? Grab a Sony. Die-hard bird watcher? Spend a day photographing surfers. You can always find ways to make the familiar just strange enough that those automatic responses now become food for thought.

Rule 11: The Social Photographer

Every picture tells a story, don't it...

The photo that accompanies this post isn’t a classic by any stretch of the imagination, but I love the story that goes with it, because I think it underscores a point that’s easy for us to forget when we’re out there clicking away. Photography can sometimes seem — and in fact be — a bit of a solitary activity. In a sense, you’re alone with whatever’s on the other side of the viewfinder. I’ve previously mentioned that it’s good to engage with your subject, whether or not it’s animate; at the same time, it’s also a good idea to engage with those around you, whether or not you ever intend to take their picture.

The solitude that often comes with photography can be a wonderful, and peaceful, thing. I think it’s one of my favorite things about the craft, because you can have as much or as little solitude as you’re inclined to have at any given time.

Of course, if you’re in the habit of always having a camera with you — especially when the camera that’s with you is a clunky-looking and conspicuous SLR — you’re bound to get some strange looks from people. Get used to that. But also get used to talking to people. You might be a bit uncomfortable at first, but if you look at it from their point of view, it’s probably a bit awkward having someone in their midst with a huge-ass camera.

Also keep in mind that it doesn’t have to be a full-fledged conversation. Sometimes just a nod, a hello, or a simple smile can be enough to put everyone at ease. Other times, you have to be as willing to listen as to say anything. While shooting some of the photos that accompanied last week’s post on Hurricane Irene, I came across a gentleman who asked if I was with the press. I answered that I wasn’t, and asked how he’d made out during the storm. He talked a bit about the hard time he was having convincing his father, a World War II veteran, to move to an area where the threat of serious flooding wasn’t always hanging over his head. Before we parted ways, he thanked me for hearing him out (which, under the circumstances, seemed like the least I could do). Were there photo opportunities going on around me? Maybe. At the time, though, my presence as a “photographer” was about the least important thing I could’ve done. I’ve talked before about being present in the moment to be present in your photography, but sometimes, we need to put the camera to one side — whether figuratively or literally — and be present to what, and who, is around us.

Oh, and the photo at the top of the post? One evening, I’m wandering through town, taking shots in the fading light, and I come across this sign outside a real estate office. As I’m snapping away, I see someone beckon to me from the office window. This person, I think, may not be all that happy that I’m shooting outside his building. We meet at the entrance.

“What’cha doing?”

“Getting shots of your sign.”

He, predictably, looks at me funny. “Why?”

“C’mere. Look at this.” I beckon him to where I was standing, and point to the sign. “Look at that light! It’s perfect!”

We both laugh. He’s probably  laughing partly at me as well as with me at that point, but that’s alright, ’cause by then I can’t help but laugh at myself. I’m sure that the longer I shoot, the more stories like these I’ll likely have; every photographer has them. Keep in mind, though, that we’re not the only ones with memories and stories of times like these; you probably don’t want someone else’s stories and memories of you to be what a jerk you were. Don’t be afraid to be social!

Review: Zen and the Magic of Photography, by Wayne Rowe

Zen and the Magic of Photography, by Wayne Rowe

There’s a concept in Zen called “Monkey Mind.” Simply put, when you’re trying to be mindful — whether you’re sitting zazen or just doing the dishes — your mind’s trying to be anything but. If you’ve read this blog before, you probably know that I try to emphasize mindfulness in photography. It probably also hasn’t escaped your attention that my mind tends to wander a bit much… suffice to say, I know Monkey Mind when I see it. And Wayne Rowe seems to have quite the case of it in Zen and the Magic of Photography: Learning to See and to Be through Photography.

Normally, I’m not one to mind digression. Here, however, it gets difficult to figure out which bits are subject, and which are digression. Ostensibly, this is a book about Zen and photography, but there are stopovers in Roland Barthes, a number of Dean and Brando movies, a splash of haiku, a dash of Walker Evans, and perhaps a layover in Long Beach, during which I lost my bags (but I digress…) The shame of it is that there are some moments of genuine, and useful, insight here, but there are so many interruptions, detours and proclamations of the author’s own satori that the overall effect is somewhat like listening to a friend try to tell a story while their significant other keeps interrupting: “You forgot, he was wearing a blue scarf.”

To be fair, the author does tie each of these things back  to his subject, though some are more tenuous than others. The extended meditations on method acting especially was reminiscent of  a self-help book, in the sense that both lean heavily on a vague idea of authenticity, but neither really caution you that this is one person’s highly individual and idiosyncratic take on authenticity. The pitfall in this is that you can’t even begin to live out someone else’s authenticity; it’s about finding your own voice, and giving yourself permission to use it. In that regard, I found Karr and Wood’s The Practice of Contemplative Photography: Seeing the World with Fresh Eyes a more useful, and in a sense more inclusive, book.

According to the author’s bio that graces Zen, Mr. Rowe is both a professional photographer and professor of photography, with a stack of publishing credits to his name. I won’t fault his photographic technique; indeed, even independent of the credentials, his work is gorgeous, and at times even inspired. For all I know, he may have similar credentials when it comes to the Zen of which he writes… I’m not in the habit of questioning the depth or validity of someone else’s spiritual practice, and I’m not about to start doing that here. Having said that, however, one thing I’ve taken away from my own (admittedly wobbly) study of Zen is the idea of non-attachment. Perhaps that’s why, of all this book’s minor flaws, the author’s seeming attachment to the idea of satori (to the point that satori seems nearly an end, rather than a transient means to a perhaps equally transient end) feels like the written equivalent of a stone in one’s shoe.

This book may not have been quite what I was looking for; I may go back for a third read just to be sure (it’s very brief, to the point that you might read it in one sitting without quite intending to). As they used to say in commercials, “Your mileage may vary.” As I mentioned above, there is insight to be gleaned from these pages. Getting to that insight, however, may prove to be frustrating. Each time you feel the hint of a breakthrough, the subject changes.

Hmm. Perhaps Mr. Rowe is a bit more sly about his Zen than he lets on…

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Rule 10: Find Inspiration Outside Photography

...Like Dancing About Architecture.

Early photographers – Brady and Stieglitz both come to mind, but there were literally dozens of others – were on one hand liberated by the fact that they were working in a new medium, but on the other somewhat constrained by the limits of the equipment they were using. The older cameras and film processes were as fickle as they were time-consuming, and would not yet give the speed and mobility that later photographers would use to such great advantage. Early photography, therefore, tended to be influenced more than a bit by the other visual arts that existed at the time (especially painting). As time passed and photography evolved, it began to engage in a dialogue of sorts with painting (Chuck Close comes to mind as someone whose style practically anticipated digital photography) and the motion picture (witness Eadweard Muybridge’s sequential photos of dogs, horses, and people that attempted to capture a sense of motion long before movies were a commonplace).

As photographers we’re faced with a similar opportunity. While it’s vital that we know the works of photographers we admire (inspiration has to start somewhere) and those we dislike (since it’s equally useful to know what kind of photographer you’d prefer not to be, or the “mistakes” you’d rather not make), it helps to step outside ourselves and our craft from time to time in order to see what’s going on elsewhere, whether that somewhere else is music, sculpture, or even carpentry. Seeing the choices someone else makes to practice their craft and to realize the finished product shows the creative process in a new light, and gives us the means, sometimes, to explain our own craft to ourselves.

Of course, couched in that opportunity is a singular dilemma. We live in a time when it’s possible to have access, at relatively little cost, to more cultural output than ever before; we similarly live in a time when the means of producing and disseminating these artifacts is easier than ever, meaning that we’ll soon reach a point where these artifacts multiply exponentially, making it even more impossible to keep up with what’s being produced as it is to somehow catch up on all of what’s already been done. Find your own inspiration and build your own canon, tracing and building your own artistic lineage like a made-to-order family tree; after all, one of the best parts of creativity is choosing your lineage, and deciding where you will take it next.

From time to time in the weeks ahead, I will be profiling artists outside of photography who I think have something to say to us as photographers, sometimes highlighting parallels with photographers doing similar work. As with any other “list” (albeit one that will unfold, as it were, in slow motion), it’s highly subjective. By no means am I suggesting that you like the same people, or draw the same lessons from them that I did. You may choose to draw the same lessons from different artists, different lessons from the same artists, or you may just say the hell with it and learn something else from someone else altogether. At the end of the day, it doesn’t really matter which of those categories you fall into; what’s important is that you should be willing to engage, and learn from, others both in and out of photography who have something to say.

While it’s got nothing on painting, sculpture, or music, which have been practiced for tens of thousands of years, photography nonetheless has quite a history and heritage behind it. Part of our literacy as photographers – part of the visual vocabulary and syntax we employ every time we compose a shot and press the shutter – necessarily includes knowing at least some of that history. But part of our education also needs to come from outside photography. Just as we, as individuals, don’t evolve in a vacuum, neither has the craft of photography, or the art that’s evolved from it. There’s a sense of communication and community that takes place across different media that informs all that we do. The arts – all of them – give us so much. At different times, or sometimes all at once, they tell us about ourselves and our creativity, as well as providing us with context, inspiration, and instruction. About all they ask in return is that we pay attention, and remember.

Got a Point-and-Shoot? You Should.

Allaire, 2010

Over the last several weeks, I’ve been writing about taking more control over your camera in order to have more control over your photography and the final appearance of your images. Today, we’re going to do a 180-degree turn, and I’m going to tell you to throw all of that out the window from time to time.

It may sound as though I have something against shooting in automatic, or against compact cameras. I don’t. What I do disagree with is not using those controls when you have them, turning an SLR into an oversized Brownie, or having a point-and-shoot mentality toward photography. I also think that, from a control standpoint, having a degree of control over your settings, knowing what they do, and how/when best to use them can be essential building blocks in becoming a better photographer.

My first cameras – an Imperial Savoy and a Kodak V1253 that I still have (and have used for a handful of images that have appeared on this site) – weren’t the best out there by any stretch of the imagination. Neither granted much control, but at the time, I got them because they were what I could afford. Perhaps more importantly, I simply wanted to photograph things.

With all of that being said, the knobs, dials, and buttons are only one (small) part of an equation with lots of variables. Not least of these variables is composition. Let’s face it, the more variables you remove, the more you can concentrate on what’s left. If photography, stripped to its barest essentials, is all about light and geometry, and you’ve already surrendered most of your control over light, about all you’re left with (with the exception of exposure compensation, which nearly every camera allows you to manipulate) is the geometry, and paying attention to how the available light interacts with that. It encourages paying attention to texture, line, and form, and also gets you used to some of the quirks of exposure (sometimes frustratingly so).

Another variable is just taking photos in the first place. You should always have your camera. An SLR, because of its size, weight, and tendency to call attention to itself, isn’t always a camera you’re going to want to have with you. Many compacts will easily slip into a shirt or jacket pocket, out of sight ’til they’re needed. With the exception of pancake lenses and small primes, you won’t be able to “pocket” much of anything on or about an SLR, and trying to put it in your jacket will just make you look like you should be in the nether reaches of some cathedral or other, ringing the bells.

Another issue, as we discussed earlier in the week, is control – not just controlling the camera, but the control issues we can sometimes have as photographers. The average compact is a control freak’s nightmare; many don’t have manual controls, and they have other limitations as well when it comes to high ISO performance, camera shake at longer focal lengths, inadequate flash… the list goes on and on. I grew frustrated sometimes with those limitations; over time, however, you come to realize that limitations can be something you either obsess over, or use as a learning tool. I chose to do the latter, and to try to get the most out of what I had. Instead of worrying about ISO or flash (neither of which the Kodak does very well), I was free to concentrate more on composition. If you can’t zoom to 300mm (to say nothing of the ridiculously long 600-800mm equivalent range on some current superzoom models), you can either whine, or learn new ways of seeing things closer to you, also paying closer attention to how you frame the shot when you can’t rely on the zoom to do all of the work.

If you’re wondering what your first camera should be, or if you’ve already long since made the jump to a system camera of some sort (SLR, micro 4/3, or anything else with interchangeable lenses), don’t neglect an automatic compact. I’m not about to give up my SLR, but neither would I give up my compact. It’s a fantastic learning tool, and its simplicity allows you to forget for a while about the technical stuff, and get back to focusing on what makes a good photo.

Rule 9: Be Culturally Literate

Asbury Park, 8/20/11

I remember meeting someone years ago who, when I asked her what she did, eagerly replied with, “I’m a writer!” Well, okay. What do you write? “Science fiction and fantasy, mostly.” And who or what do you read? “Oh, well, I really don’t like to read…”

I’ll edit my mental response to a somewhat more family-friendly, “Excuse me?!?” Never mind for a minute that I find the idea of cutting reading (or music, or photography or…) out of one’s life about as sensible as cutting off your own kneecaps with a grapefruit spoon. It’s just as much the fact that a life devoid of culture – the arts, the written word – strikes me as being a sad, impoverished place.

The reason why some of us get worked up over things like arts education isn’t (just) because we weren’t terribly good at football. Even if you couldn’t possibly be less interested in creating something on your own, I think that cultural literacy* is a huge part of just getting by in, and making sense of, everyday life. Done right (by which I mean a lowercase-“c” catholic approach, being open to a little of everything), it has the ability to enrich our lives. It also gives us a means to qualify what’s good and distinguish it from crap or kitsch, which comes in handy when you’re trying to detect and/or call out crap and kitsch in other parts of life, like political speeches or paintings by Thomas Kinkade.

But let’s assume that you’re here because by some means or other, you choose to express yourself. From a more practical standpoint, if you don’t have, or are blissfully unaware of, a context in which you’re creating, how in the heck are you supposed to create? If you have no idea what’s been done before, you haven’t much idea of what’s possible, nothing to push back against, nor the sense of support and solidarity that arises even when you engage a work across cultures or centuries. Nor are our raw materials  limited strictly to the media in which we choose to work; they’re the sum total of sensory input that’s swirled around us every day of our lives from our very first days, even the dream material that arises when our subconscious mind decides to have its way with all we’ve ingested during the day. To willfully omit or block out a large portion of that raw material is to acknowledge that we’re willing to draw from a shallower well, and maybe even glad to do so. Or, to put it differently, nobody creates anything of worth in a vacuum.

I know that in many school districts, arts education is viewed as superfluous or frivolous (to say nothing of the ones that treat education, and educators, as unnecessary evils). If that is, or has been, the case where you live, teach yourself. Form impromptu discussion groups, go to libraries, concerts, museums, everywhere and anywhere your feet will carry you. But if you have the option and refuse it, do yourself a favor, and please – I beg of you – do not call yourself an artist (citizen’s enough of a stretch; artist is really straining credibility) if you choose not to be literate in, and outside, your chosen medium.

*By cultural literacy, I mean culture in all the different forms it takes, from lowbrow to highbrow and all points in between. While I think there are qualitative differences between Shakespeare and the Simpsons, I’m also more than willing to admit that life gets pretty dull if you limit yourself to one or the other.

Finding Your Vision

Prayer Flag
There’s a wonderful story about Kurt Schwitters.* One day, the artist was on the train, carrying with him the roots of a tree. When someone asked him what the roots were,

[H]e replied that they constituted a cathedral. “But that is no cathedral, that is only wood!” the stranger exclaimed. “But don’t you know that cathedrals are made out of wood?” Schwitters replied.

On the face of it, the artist probably seemed a little crazy to the man on the train. But to Schwitters, it was no more unusual to look at those roots and see the cathedral inside than it would’ve been for Rodin to recognize the lovers waiting to be liberated from the stone. His fertile imagination gave the world inventive poetry, whimsical bits of collage he dubbed “Merz” and Gaudi-esque architectural fantasias that came to be known as “Merzbau.” A more sensible man might’ve conceded that it was a bit of a stretch to see cathedrals in stumps; thankfully, Schwitters stuck to his gentle madness.

At some point, you’ll want to cultivate your own style and vision. After all, when just about everyone’s got a camera, what’s a guy or girl got to do to stand out? So we look for that individual style, the one that will at least make us stand out, if not make us rich and/or famous.


Mind you, I’m not saying “take the same photos everyone’s taken of the same things since the dawn of photography.” What I’m saying, more accurately, is quit worrying about making yourself unique. You might as well fret over your fingerprints. Each of us sees the world differently, just because. There are ways that we can see more of it, either by getting to places we’ve never been, or finding a new light (sometimes literally) in which to view that which we pass every day. Worrying about authenticity isn’t what makes you authentic. It’s a simple matter of seeing what you see, as no one else does or can, framing that in the viewfinder, and then being faithful to that vision.

There’s everything you need to find your style in a nutshell. Simple, isn’t it? Well, not really. It takes work. It’s easy to take those same shots everybody’s taken (Hey, look! I’m squishing the Eiffel Tower between my fingertips! I’ve got the Guggenheim in a waffle cone!). It’s also tempting to settle for the easy shot for lack of time, or because the more conventional shot might get more plaudits (or sales). It’s quite something else to pass those shots up for another spot altogether, or to do the even harder work of finding new angles on the same old subject that nobody’s thought of before. They may not be what’s in every vacation snapshot or postcard, but they’re something else: they’re truly, irrevocably, yours. If you can nail that, and stay true to it, you will have done something you can be proud to put your name on.

Ansel Adams said once that the most important part of the camera was the twelve inches behind it. Not the Canon, Kodak, or Nikon, nor the tripod it’s on, nor the lens that’s attached to it. You. Nobody else sees the world quite the way you do. You have a responsibility to yourself to honor the vision that only you can see, and only you can communicate.

*Related in Motherwell, The Dada Painters and Poets, p. xxvii.