Comfort Zones

•June 10, 2018 • Leave a Comment

little-ones

I’ve become a creature of habit. For certain subject matter I go to certain places that I think will provide what I’m looking for. Most of the times they do, and once there, I can play within my defined realms.

It’s getting on summer, which means that the grasses should start beginning to look interesting. There are two locations where I do nearly all of my grass photos. They are both on land managed by Boulder Open Space and Mountain Parks (OSMP), but they are also open to grazing of cattle as well. For some reason my go-to place for beautiful delicate grass flowers has now been chomped down so fully that it looks like it’s been mowed. And in my second go-to place they redid the fencing, so there is basically nothing that’s not been chomped either.

Will there be anything in either location for me to photograph this summer and fall, I don’t know. It looks pretty bad now.

So besides feeling sorry for myself and imagining my calls to Boulder OSMP, I had to make do with what was there.

I was out of my comfort zone. I was looking at what grasses weren’t eaten and seeing if there was something to photograph there.

I noticed these long single stalks with no leaves and little flowers growing right out of the stalks. Could I make something interesting with this? No knowing how it would turn out, I let myself get into them. I think I got some nice things. Photos grow on me over time so it will take me some time to really know, but I’ll come back and photograph them some more.

Instead of my go-to places I’m now looking at other grassy locations where there are no cows. It’s not summer yet when my favorite flowers start appearing, or fall when the grasses turn wonderful colors, so I don’t know how these places will turn out; but I’m enjoying getting images that are definitely different from my usual grass photos and that’s a good thing.

For as much as being creative means inventing and looking things in new ways, I find that I develop habits out of fear and control that are antithetical to creativity. Maybe Boulder OSMP has done me a favor by making me get out of my comfort zone. We may give lip service to getting out of our comfort zones but I think we all need to be pushed sometimes.

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Making It Up

•June 3, 2018 • 4 Comments

We’re a country of contrasts. We laud successful entrepreneurs, but most of the training we get in our families and schools is to be a good sheep. For the every Jeff Bezos and Steve Jobs there are hundreds or probably thousands who’ve tried to do something original and failed. These “failures” are scorned and we’re again reminded that no one ever got into trouble by being a good Sheep.

I try to be a good sheep, but I fail miserably at it and being a sheep is so boring. Being creative and original is so much more fun.

The same goes for photography. I used to frequent a nature photographer’s critique site where I would post photographs. I tried to do good landscape photos, but I was never one of the stars. When I started veering into other subject matter—clouds, trees, grasses, I became even less popular.

At one point I realized I wasn’t benefiting by posting images on the site. These people obviously weren’t my audience and I would never find my audience there.

Some time later I published a blog where I warned about choosing your critics wisely, and someone I knew from the site posted a comment accusing me of being a coward for leaving. If I stayed, then I would have been a coward.

There are a lot of places where you can get your work critiqued, but I find most of these critics are blinded by what’s trendy. And, what’s trendy in nature photography is very different from what’s trendy in “art” photography. Occasionally an original comes along and manages to get recognized and then they’re trendy, and we see a whole lot of copiers.

Like most people my age, I learned about love from TV and friends. I tried to do the right thing with relationships but I was not very successful and I was mostly alone. Then by some unaccountable luck, I met my wife of 35 years. Shortly after we were married I noticed that I was very frightened because I didn’t know how to be the good husband. I was making it up as I went along. I immediately realized that that was it. There were no rules to being a good husband that meant anything. You had to make it up as you went along.

The same goes for being an artist. People who want to sell your art may give you all sorts of rules to follow so you’ll be successful, but ultimately success is mostly luck and being in the right place at the right time. You might as well make it up as you go along—your chances are probably the same.

Do you want to be a Sheep or a Failure? Even better, don’t be either. Just be who you are, naturally. Make it up as you go along.

When people ask me what the best photography magazine is, I invariably say LensWork. I’m thrilled to announce I’ll have a portfolio of my grass images or as I’m thinking of calling them, Grass Menageries, in the August version of LensWork. I’m just praying it wasn’t a psychotic episode and I really did receive the email.

Unsellable

•May 31, 2018 • 2 Comments

I was recently in discussion with an online gallery to handle some of my images. They were interested in my grasses and maybe another portfolio. Then they took a look at my web page. It wasn’t organized around portfolios and had too many images which they considered unsellable.

I have no argument. My web page needs upgrading. A lot of people are now presenting their work in terms of portfolios or projects instead of locations and subject matter like my site is. On top of that, it would help if I had a beautiful description of my intent for each portfolio.

I’m okay with all that. If you want to sell your art, you have to present it to possible buyers in a way they can be open to it. And, if portfolios and descriptions help, I’ll do it.

To me, portfolios and descriptions are all about marketing. I don’t shoot in terms of portfolios. Portfolios take shape as I find myself gravitating towards a particular kind of subject matter. What bothers me is, what about all the images I want to make that aren’t so easily categorized? Do I not make them because I can’t sell them? If art were a business to me, I’d say the answer is yes. But to me, making photographs is not a business—it’s a love affair.

So, this past week I was at a sublime retreat in the Sierras. The Sierras have their own beauty that is so different from the Rockies. I wandered around with my camera, got quiet, and looked at everything. There were some beautiful grasses, some interesting rock faces and the little creek run-offs were captivating. And I gave into my lust and took photos. Now I wonder if any of these photos will fit into my “portolios.” Since I don’t spend a lot of time in the Sierras anymore, will I ever be able to put these images into portfolios? Am I wasting my time making unsellable images?

The photo above of a Russian Olive tree is one of my favorites. Russian Olive is an invasive tree here in Boulder and I have no other images that will work with it in a portfolio, But have an idea. Along with the Grasses, Leaves and other portfolios on my new website, I will also have a portfolio called Unsellable.

Creativity

•May 26, 2018 • 6 Comments

I grew up in a home where creativity was considered the norm. My dad was an artist and he would spend most days painting in his studio. He had good days and bad days but I never heard complaints about dry spells or difficulty coming up with ideas.

My dad, like myself and many artists, had difficulty distinguishing between creativity, inventiveness and recognition for one’s creativity and it took a toll on his self worth. His lack of material success caused him great suffering.

I wanted to avoid that suffering, so I got into commercial art. However commercial art is about producing a product and being creative is for the enjoyment of creation. So I left photography for many years.

When I got back into photography, like so many others I tried to imitate the kinds of images that I liked. I was a big Galen Rowell fan so I did a lot of near/far landscapes. To give Galen credit, his work is much more diverse that that.

At some point the artifice of my approach dawned on me, and quite naturally I started using longer lenses and focusing on more intimate scenes. The change heralded something in the way I related to myself in that I became very conscious of wanting to do my own images and not imitate others. I also gave a lot less credence to feedback from others. My process and my discovery became more important. With this increased inwardness, my style became more inventive and unique; and going out with a camera on many mornings became a regular part of my life, like eating and sleeping.

Obviously there are times when I’m more productive than others, but I don’t experience dry spells. There’s rarely a time I spend in the field that I don’t find enjoyable, enlivening and life enhancing.

I have a pretty active mind. I can hike down a beautiful trail and if I’m going over things in my mind, I’ll see very little.

However give me a camera and put me on the same trail and I’m a different person. Whatever may have been troubling me is put on hold or dropped altogether and I’m quiet and focused on my surroundings.

Yes, I consider myself extremely fortunate.

I think the biggest obstacles that we have to creativity and originality is thinking that it means more that it does. Don’t get me wrong, creativity is extraordinary, but it is no guarantee of our producing great art or getting recognition for it. If we pursue creativity, and expect to get into it, we must pursue it for an end in itself.

In this country, success is everything and those of us who follow a different path are generally not appreciated, to say the least, unless we’re successful. Then we’re lauded as great thinkers and inventors. But if success is not in our cards, we’re considered failures for not being good sheep.

Neither success or failure will make you a better artist. Actually going inside and listening to yourself is a lot easier than listening to others and trying to please them. We’re just conditioned to think the other way.

So, what do you want? Do you want to be successful? Do you want to be liked? Do you want to produce great art? Or do you want to be an artist? I have those other desires too, they’re just not as strong.

I’ve made my choice. I love being an artist.

Beauty

•May 14, 2018 • Leave a Comment

I originally got back into photography because I saw a lot of beauty around me and I wanted to capture it in photographs. I soon learned that photographs of beautiful places rarely capture the specialness of the place and I started to look at my surroundings more critically and deeply. I realized that for a work of art to stand on its own, it’s not enough for it to represent something that’s beautiful, the work of art has to have its own intrinsic beauty.

I don’t mean pretty. Pretty you can tire from relatively quickly. I mean a beauty that draws you in, takes you out of your present occupations and takes you on a little adventure, if only for a moment.

How does one achieve that? I don’t know, but I know it when I have achieved it and the more I take photographs, the more I’m somehow intrinsically drawn to making these kinds of photographs.

Most of my work is posted online these days, but I really like to appreciate photographs on a wall where I can spend some time and enjoy them. Sometimes, even just in passing, I can glimpse an image and it can give me joy.

These days, beauty for me has a lot to do with quiet. A beautiful work of art or a beautiful piece of music can take me out of my busy mind and lead me to feeling peaceful and expanded. I think we can all use a lot more beauty in our lives.

The Landscape Photographer’s Guide to Photoshop by Guy Tal

•February 18, 2018 • 2 Comments

I’m very familiar with Guy Tal as a wonderful photographer and writer, but I originally was not interested in reading his new book, The Landscape Photographer’s Guide to Photoshop. Boy am I glad I took a look at it. I’ve been working in Photoshop for over 20 years. I know that there’s always more to learn about it, but I was very comfortable with my workflow. Guy’s description of his techniques are so clear and simple that it was a joy to try them and incorporate some of them as regulars of my own. There are still more that I’m looking to try out when the need comes.

There’s a lot of information and technique in Guy’s book but it’s not your standard how-to cookbook. It’s more of a prolonged one-on-one workshop with Guy.

The first part is not about Photoshop at all. Guy leads us into how he works—how he looks at landscapes and envisions the photographs he can make of them, how he captures the landscape with composition and exposure with his vision in mind.

He shows you how he looks at the raw image in Lightroom and Camera Raw and makes a list of each aspect of the work it needs. He does very little in these raw conversion programs except open shadows or bring in highlights. Everything else is done in Photoshop.

So instead of a cookbook of different techniques, we’re instructed in how to see, how to visualize and how to actualize that vision. Photoshop tools are not taught so you can have more techniques in your tool belt. They’re taught with very clear examples of how to take the raw material that your camera gives you and actualize your vision.

A lot of plug-ins and applications are out there that are readily available for making different tricks in Photoshop easy, but that’s not Guy’s way. Off-the-shelf plug-ins often make the same types of adjustments for everyone, making our images look similar. Guy leads us step by step to make these adjustments ourselves, always using his own images as examples.

I was always nervous of blending for dynamic range or focus, but Guy makes these jobs so easy, I’ll never use an external program again.

No matter what kind of photographs you take or how much you think you know about Photoshop, I think that most of us will find something valuable to take away from this book.

Here’s a link to it on Guy’s website.

Forces of Nature

•February 11, 2018 • Leave a Comment

If you ever have doubts about your life—you’re at the wrong job, with the wrong mate, you need to radically change your personality, etc; just log onto Facebook or the social media platform of your choice and you’re sure to find that your doubts are well-founded.

You’ll be told how to think. What affirmations to use. How to visualize your perfect life, etc.

Or, if you’re like me and still have all these doubts, but have done all the self improvement crap and realized that most of it is crap, you might be lucky enough to just stop and realize how lucky you are. And in that realization you might be lucky enough to accept the messes that we are and move on.

What does this have to do with photography? This is life and photography is part of life. Photography is one way for us to be creative and this is about being creative. How does one be creative? There are lots of theories about independent thought and not following the crowd, but that’s all looking at it from the outside. And just like self-improvement from the outside is ultimately unsatisfactory, so is creativity from the outside. We can’t do creativity. We can’t follow certain rules to be creative.

I think of creativity as a lot like love. You don’t affirm yourself into love, though I’m sure we’ve all tried it; we fall in love. We don’t make ourselves creative—we’re naturally creative. We just stop doing uncreative things like thinking about being creative and let creativity arise.

I was lucky enough to do a workshop with Galen Rowell a year before his untimely death. He taught us how to see like film, how to use split neutral density filters and such, all things that I already knew. I didn’t learn any techniques at the workshop; I got so much more: I got to spend time with a truly creative person. I saw a person so confident in his creative self that he just ran with it without looking back. I spent time with a force of nature.

When Galen was out with his camera, you could say he worked very hard, but it wasn’t what we call work. It wasn’t drudgery. He wasn’t working on being more open to his surroundings. He wasn’t working on being a better photographer. He was just letting his creativity come out and take him over. In being around him I too chose to trust myself more and just let my creativity flow.

How do we allow ourselves to be more creative? Being creative is not something that we do. It’s natural for us. What we can do or at least observe is how we stop ourselves from being creative. How we try too much. How we over-criticize ourselves, how we try to limit and protect ourselves.

Go out and be creative. Make mistakes. Get embarassed. Feel stupid; but don’t let any of it get to you. Keep going.