The Fugaciousness of Favorite Things

There are recurring questions photographers are asked when discussing photography: What is your favorite photograph you’ve made? What is your favorite photograph by another photographer? What is your favorite place to photograph? What is your favorite camera/lens? etc. Questions about a photographer’s opinion of things that more often than not have no actual relationship between the photographer and the person asking the question. Sometimes it’s genuine curiosity, but most often these are “easy” questions as a conversation starter, perhaps. But, do you really want to hear why I like a certain photograph or location or piece of equipment? Because, from me at least, you’re likely going to get more than you asked for. Besides, how do I describe a photograph you’ve probably never seen in a way you understand why it’s a favorite of mine? Without the ability to show you the picture you form in your mind from my description won’t be close. Even if I could show you the photograph, my reasoning is probably going to be too long, too short, or lack relationship with your own experiences or expectations. The same for locations, gear, and my praise of another photographer’s work. These and other “favorite” questions are difficult to answer or are even irrelevant because favoritism is temporary, and because we don’t favor THINGS.

Make a list of your favorite things. Do it now in your head or write them down. It’s likely a long list: movies, food, people, events, beaches, music, cars, clothes, cities, countries…the list goes on. Then review your list. What’s missing? I’ll bet what’s missing are some of your favorite things from last year or when you were 40 or 25 or 12 or 3. Why aren’t your favorite things from high school still your favorite? Do you have a singular favorite that has withstood the ravages of time? If so, examine it, analyze for yourself why this favorite thing has persisted. Brainstorm and write down everything you can think of that makes it a favorite. Compare the characteristics with your favorites that have come and gone or are in your “favorite bin” at the moment. Any similarities? What are the differences?

Our favorite thing is not actually a thing, but an experience or emotion. It’s what moves us to feel good, strong, empowered, empathic, safe, smart, accomplished, alive, accepted. The list of favorite things changes with our knowledge, experiences, preferences and skills. How many times have you said on vacation “I want to live here”, only to have that feeling replaced by the next awesome place you visit?

Our favorites can be fleeting or grow in stature over time, like the accumulation of a patina. A favorite dessert of mine is cherry pie. But not just any cherry pie. There are certain characteristics of texture, flavor, intensity and consistency that elevate a cherry pie from simple preference to the favorite bin. The mixture of sour and sweet (more sour than sweet), the consistency of the filling (not thick), the texture of the crust (flaky, not doughy), and the addition of complimentary spices that add an element of surprise, all add up to a pleasant emotional experience that I will return to as long as that experience is maintained. It’s the experience I enjoy, not just that I like sour cherries.

Your favorite location might be the beach, but if you think about it, it’s not just any beach and it might not even be a specific beach. It’s a beach with certain characteristics that can exist at many different locations – a certain slope of the beach, the composition of sand or rocks making up the beach, the sound of the surf, solitude or bustling with activity. And, if you’ve visited several beaches, you likely have more than one favorite type of beach depending on your mood at the time, or your “need.”

In photography, our taste in photographs, equipment, locations, is controlled by similar criteria. Our favorite camera is the tool that is easiest to use and/or gives us the ability to control the factors that allow us to create the visual image we have locked away in our head, that allows us to make a photograph when we need to. In some situations, my favorite camera is my smartphone because of its simplicity and I can make a complete photograph while in the moment, a spontaneous creation inspired by the subject, event, and emotion of the instant. At another time, my favorite camera is my 35mm DSLR because of its flexibility and sometime need for deliberate contemplation, exploring the subject, composing visual elements, choosing the aesthetic appearance of depth of field, shutter speed, focal length, lighting, etc. Previsualization of how I’m going to process the image, it’s final appearance, may or nay not have an influence or relationship with my experience of the moments surrounding when I make the exposure. But there is almost always influence and inspiration from the external and internal environment as I make the many decisions needed to make a meaningful photograph (meaningful to me, primarily. If you as the viewer also find it meaningful – Bonus!)

Our favorite moments are juxtapositions of ideal circumstances – atmosphere, companions, emotions, location, etc. We often try to replicate these circumstances to relive the emotional high produced by these special happenings. But it rarely works. However, there will be other such moments that eventually replace the previous moment as a favorite, and those older moments join the others in the group of favorites we can lovingly recall from memory.

The basis of our favoritism can be complex. A significant object or event is often connected to a significant experience. The favorite thing is a memento mori of sorts, reminding us of our vanity (how good we felt, how good we made others feel), mortality (you can’t take it with you), and the transience of everything (this, too, shall pass). Emotions and memories fade and are replaced, material objects break and decay. A true favorite, though, withstands time, trends, fads, and vanity. It remains because of its influence on you, its emotional importance, and despite negativism and ridicule by others.

In 1943, Abraham Maslow wrote A Theory of Human Motivation in which he proposed a hierarchy of needs. Diagrammed as a pyramid, physiological needs necessary for survival form the base, or foundation. This is where food, space, shelter, and mates exist. Moving up the hierarchy are safety, love/belonging, esteem, and self-actualization (the motivation to realize one’s full potential). It’s interesting to note that 3 of the 5 levels in Maslow’s hierarchy are emotional motivations – esteem, belonging, potential. The association of motivation and favorite things has been exploited by salesmen and marketers since the dawn of history. Creating pleasurable emotional experiences engages customers, helps control their buying impulses, and retains them as repeat customers. In some circumstances, people will be repeat visitors or customers for the experience even if the product is not considered a favorite.

For photographers (and other artists), our satisfaction comes from creating beautiful, interesting, meaningful work as the result of experiences we have in life and in making art or making photographs for a client. A photograph of a landscape can be as much of a favorite as a corporate headshot or a sporting event. And as our experience grows and our skill set improves our list of favorite photographs and locations and gear will change. Even the much-discussed and promoted concepts of personal style and vision are just the current ways a photographer uses to interpret their world and communicate their message. These, too, change over time.

Favorites are fugacious: transient, temporary, ephemeral, ever-changing. That’s a good thing. It’s improvement, variety, growth. Don’t hold too tightly to favorites. It can be sad to see a favorite go, but the new ones will be just as good, if not better.

The Reimagining of Quotations

I’m a collector of quotes. Sometimes I search for quotes of a certain theme, other times I come across them serendipitously. I began compiling them in a small notebook, just writing them in as I found them, in no particular order or category. They are mostly quotes about photography, and art in general. A lot of people collect quotes because they are inspiring. Most quotes collected are probably from someone who is admired or respected and what they’ve said strikes a certain chord within us; we can relate to it in some way. That’s how I started. But, along the way I discovered something else about the quotes in my notebook. Sometimes the quote would lead me to new information. Rather than simply stuffing quotes into a book like trophy heads on a wall or names on a birding life list, I’d search their name online and do a bit of a ‘background check’ to find out more about them, what they do/did, and also to confirm the quote actually belonged to that person. Sometimes, attribution is difficult to determine or is for the wrong person, yet the quote continues to persist, passed around forever in the aetherspace. More often than not, when I research a quote I meet a new person I didn’t know about before, learn a bit of history, a philosophy, a different concept, understand a bit of technology, it’s usually something interesting.

One interesting thing I uncovered, too, is what I’m going to call “quote reimagining” after the ongoing fad of reimagining older movies into newer movies, either to upgrade an aging film or topic or to completely alter the story for a new audience. After a while, I starting coming across quotes that I knew I saw before but thought it was attributed to a different person, or it just sounded really familiar. Since I don’t have my quotes in a database, I had to “scroll” through my notebook to find the “duplicate”. Sure enough, there are some quotes that appear to have been ‘reimagined’ or ‘recycled’, with a sprinkling of new words or phrases to be sure it’s not an exact copy. I do think some of these duplicates may have been coincidence. It’s not as if these concepts are proprietary, and the approach to some topics, like failure and observation/seeing, tends to breed similar sentiments.

So, here is a compilation of some reimagined quotes. The earliest (though maybe not the first) instance of the quote is listed first (1), then any similar are below (1A, 1B, etc.). You be the judge as to their similarity, coincidence, or copy.

1. You can’t depend on your eyes when your imagination is out of focus – Mark Twain (1875 – 1910)
1A. There is nothing worse than a sharp image of a fuzzy concept – Ansel Adams (1902 – 1984)

2. The aim of art is to represent not the outward appearance of things, but their inward significance, and this, and not the external name and detail, is the true reality – Aristotle (385 – 322 BC)
2A. Vision is the art of seeing things invisible – Jonathan Swift (1667 -1745)
2B. It’s not what you look at that matters, it’s what you see – Henry David Thoreau (1817 – 1862)
2C. No great artist ever sees things as they really are. If he did, he would cease to be an artist – Oscar Wilde (1854 – 1900)
2D. Anything that excites me for any reason I will photograph; not searching for unusual subject matter, but making the commonplace unusual – Edward Weston (1886 – 1958)
2E. I didn’t want to tell the tree or weed what it was. I wanted it to tell me something and through me express its meaning in nature – Wynn Bullock (1902 – 1975)
2F. I am not interested in shooting new things; I am interested to see things new – Ernst Haas (1921 – 1986)
2G. To me, photographing is an act of observation. It’s about finding something interesting in an ordinary place…I’ve found it has little to do with the things you see and everything to do with the way you see them – Elliott Erwitt (1928 – )

3. No great genius has ever existed without some touch of madness – Aristotle (385 – 322 BC)
3A. Before the beginning of great brilliance, there must be chaos. Before a brilliant person begins something great, they must look foolish to the crowd – I Ching (200 BC)
3B. You need chaos in your soul to give birth to a dancing star – Friedrich Nietzche (1844 – 1900)
3C. What garlic is to salad, insanity is to art – Augustus Saint-Gaudens (1848 – 1907)
3D. Do not fear to be eccentric in opinion, for every opinion now accepted was once eccentric – Bertrand Russell (1872 – 1970)
3E. If at first an idea is not absurd, there is no hope for it – Albert Einstein (1879 – 1955)
3F. All great deeds and all great thoughts have a ridiculous beginning – Albert Camus (1913 – 1960)

4. Art is not to be found by touring to Egypt, China, or Peru; if you cannot find it at your own door, you will never find it – Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803 – 1882)
4A. The artist’s world is limitless. It can be found anywhere, far from where he lives or a few feet away. It is always on his door step – Paul Strand (1890 – 1976)
4B. If you do not see what is around you every day, what will you see when you go to Tangiers? – Freeman Patterson (1937 – )
4C. When one says, ‘Look, there is nothing out there’, what we are really saying is ‘I can’t see’ – Terry Tempest Williams (1955 – )

5. Don’t be satisfied with stories, how things have gone with others. Unfold your own myth – Rumi (1207 – 1273)
5A. If you’re out there shooting, things will happen for you. If you’re not out there, you’ll only hear about it – Jay Maisel (1931 – )
5B. You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take – Wayne Gretzky (1961 – )

6. It is better to fail in originality than to succeed in imitation – Herman Melville (1819 – 1891)
6A. Failure after a long perseverance is much grander than never to have a striving good enough to be called a failure – George Eliot (1819 – 1880)

7. One must learn by doing the thing. For though you think you know it, you have no certainty until you try – Sophocles (496 – 406 BC)
7A. For the things we have to learn before we can do them, we learn by doing them – Aristotle (385 – 322 BC)
7B. We learn to do something by doing it. There is no other way – John Holt (1923 – 1985)
7C. One of the things about the arts that is so important is that in the arts you discover the only way to learn how to do it is by doing it. You can’t write by reading a book about it. The only way to learn how to write a book is to sit down and try to write a book – David McCullough (1933 – )

10 Things Photographers and Artists Should Consider

I don’t usually do lists, but as I was working on a project and reading at the same time, this popped into my head. I’ve left off explanations for some and used minimal explanation for others. You should fill in your own blanks (that could be #11 or #12).

1. Explore: internally (introspection) and externally (exteroception)
2. Experiment: Don’t follow convention (for too long). Blaze your own trail
3. Challenge yourself mentally and physically: Don’t bite off more than you can chew – work in increments you can accomplish yet have a need to push yourself beyond current limits
4. Challenge your skills
5. Share your progress in a way that is informative and interesting but not self-serving or bragging
6. Don’t care what others think about what you do or how you do it. They are not you and you are not them. You are you. Do what you love, create what you love
7. Set goals (see #3 & #4) but be flexible in how, when, and if you reach them. Don’t be afraid to coast, regain your bearings or your balance or to reassess and change course. They’re your goals, they don’t belong to anyone else
8. Don’t be afraid
9. Seek knowledge and experience wherever it can be found, in all areas. You never know when one thing will connect with another in an amazing way
10. Have fun

Ok, here’s an 11

11. Be a friend to other artists

Don’t Be A Dilettante

There has been and continues to be talk about how the professional photography industry has been “overrun” with amateurs, flooding the market with photographs and driving down photographer income. This is only one part of the phenomenon. Three main elements are 1) technology which allows nearly anyone to make a well-exposed and, if they are competent, a well-composed photograph, 2) the capability to distribute photographs worldwide for almost no cost, and 3) buyers who enjoy increased profits from lower fees paid to individuals who have very little or no knowledge of the photography industry or how to price their work accordingly to make a reasonable profit.

You could distinguish amateur from professional based on a wide range of criteria. Some amateurs are very competent and in many ways operate similar to a professional while others have really no clue or care what they are doing.

One critical factor that separates amateur from pro is commitment. Commitment to stick it through the tough times, to understand the industry, to build relationships with clients, to maintain a certain level of technical and creative skill, to use ethical and moral business practices, to help others become better professionals.

Another term for an amateur who isn’t committed is dilettante, an Italian word which in its first usage referred to a person who loved art. But today, the term is more negative, describing a person who engages in non-serious dabbling within a presumably serious field and is ill-equipped (or actually has no intention or desire) to meet the minimum standards of that field, study, or practice. One of my pet peeves is hearing someone tell me “I don’t want to be a professional” when we’re talking about pricing work. That’s the sign of a dilettante. They’re happy to make a little money from their efforts, but not committed enough to take it further – to learn about the business side of things, to help themselves make more money, for one thing. You don’t have to be a “professional” to act like one and just because you don’t intend photography to be your career doesn’t mean you must give away your work for free (or nearly so) or not understand copyright or how contracts work. Meeting the minimum standards (and in photography, the minimums are fairly reasonable to meet) would help boost the industry, help raise the “standard of living” of photographers across the board.

I wouldn’t presume to call myself an auto mechanic because I have a complete set of tools and know how to replace an alternator belt, and if I did I’m sure auto mechanics across the nation would scoff. I might make a decent pizza dough or cornbread, but I’m no baker. I painted landscapes and abstracts a lot when I was younger, but I don’t claim to be a painter.

I’ve been making photographs since I was young. I don’t have an art degree, but I’ve been a full-time photographer for 15 years and part-time for 6 years before that. I study copyright law and business methods even though it’s not my favorite thing. I’d much rather be out photographing. I’m a member of professional organizations and become involved in their operation, though I’d much rather be out photographing. I spend hours on the computer processing photographs, keywording, uploading to galleries, creating marketing materials, creating invoices, chasing invoices, calling and emailing clients, even though I would really much rather be out photographing. I attend professional education programs and continue to learn online and from others so I can maintain and improve my skill level (this I enjoy, even though I would still rather be out photographing).

I have a college degree and graduate education in wildlife biology and ecology. I worked in that field for over 10 years. I still mention that in my bio and casual conversation because it helps inform others about my background, but I don’t call myself a wildlife biologist anymore because my commitment to that field is much less than it was when I was actively conducting research, working in that field and getting paid for it according to the standards in that industry.

When I was working as a wildlife biologist, people would be envious of my job when I mentioned what I did. They had a romantic ideal of what it was like to be a biologist, imagining how beautiful it was to be “in Nature”, sitting beside gurgling streams or contemplating existence on a mountain top, handling cuddly animals, or having the pick of hunting and fishing spots. Sure, those times happened and it was incredible when it did. But, that was in between days of fighting off mosquito attacks, avoiding sunstroke or hypothermia, getting drenched in freezing downpours, digging a stuck vehicle out of the mud, dealing with the politics of government and private agencies and organizations, egos of co-workers and supervisors, writing reports, writing grants, filling out job applications, packing and unpacking.

The same applies when I tell people I’m a photographer. They imagine the romantic National Geographic travel photographer roaming the world seeing beautiful places, meeting new people, having an ongoing vacation. Yes, that happens, and when it does it’s magical (I’m not a National Geographic photographer – but for an ideao f what it’s like check out this short video about NatGeo photographer Joel Sartore, and his full length video called “At Close Range”). Most of the time, it’s simply work, background stuff. Especially these days when I’m doing all my own marketing, image processing, accounting, doing shows, in addition to being in the field shooting.

Being a professional is not about how much you spent on equipment. It’s not about your level of education, how much you charge, whether you are full time or part time, if you have a studio or work out of your house, although these things can contribute to the appearance of professionalism. It’s the level of commitment you choose which meets or exceeds the minimum standards for whatever industry/career you’re in.

If it falls your lot to be a street sweeper, go out and sweep streets like Michelangelo painted pictures. Sweep streets like Handel and Beethoven composed music. Sweep streets like Shakespeare wrote poetry. Sweep streets so well that all the hosts of heaven and earth will have to pause and say, here lived a great street sweeper who swept his job well.” — Martin Luther King, Jr.

Why complain about low fees?

I can understand (a little) when a new photographer or a photographer not educated in the industry complains about being hassled about the low fees they charge or accept from clients. I get it. Being in business is difficult. It’s not like your “hobby days” when you could shoot whenever and wherever you liked, and if you sold a print to a friend or someone at a show for a few bucks it offset some of the cost for equipment or gas, or whatever. It’s actual work, believe it or not. More work than the typical 40-hr-per-week worker puts in because self-employed persons aren’t just working on one or two or three tasks, but 10 or 20 covering a broad range of skill sets from accounting, management, design, interpersonal relationships and networking, to marketing, computer science and other technology, industry trend monitoring and Oh yeah, photography. It takes a lot out of a person who basically relies on their own knowledge and skill to get through the hoops and barriers blocking the way to a paycheck. So, I can understand how it can be easier to simply accept what’s offered and go a merry way on to the next project without spending too much time or effort worrying about price. Who needs yet another hassle to deal with, right?

There are, honestly, a lot of professional photographers complaining about other photographers accepting low fees from clients. Why is that? Is it because those photographers have been used to receiving the cream and now have to fight over the hind teat with someone who doesn’t know an aperture from a lens opening? Are they jealous of newbies getting work without any effort when they’ve been slogging their bones for decades? Are they afraid of losing their lofty position as “The Photographer”, soon to be referred to only as “photographer”? Maybe. But I think it’s really about the lack of industry understanding on the part of the up-and-coming-new-camera-acquiring population of photographers who have a romantic notion of what it’s like to be a professional photographer (i.e. business owner), but little knowledge of what’s actually at stake when taking that “one-hour” $200 job that actually takes three days to complete.

So, here are some hard numbers to ponder when you’re considering what fee to accept when that potential client calls and they claim poverty or no budget when they tell you what they will pay (take it or leave it).

PricewaterhouseCoopers, in their 2013 – 2017 Global Entertainment and Media Outlook report, says global spending for media and entertainment will reach $2.2 TRILLION in 2017, compared with $1.6 TRILLION in 2012. That includes such things as digital media (cable and satellite television, online movies, games, news, etc.). Related to that, and of the most importance to photographers (especially those in the commercial or editorial side of the industry), is that advertising revenue just in the United States is expected to grow 4.1% to $204 BILLION by 2017 compared to $167 billion in 2012 and internet advertising is expected to outperform traditional print advertising with annual gains of about 14%. Print advertising revenues have been declining, with 2012 seeing less than $5 billion in ad revenue. However, the business-to-business market continues to use about 30% of print advertising.

eMarketer estimated that online marketers would spend over $37 BILLION to advertise online in 2012, with Google, Yahoo!, Facebook, AOL, and Microsoft combined receiving $24 Billion of that total. Growth in online ad spending is expected to be in the double digits through 2014.

Granted, not every company that calls will be a Google or Facebook, but they are paying designers, marketers, illustrators (sometimes), publishers, printers, delivery drivers, copywriters, editors, salespeople, art directors, etc. etc. and photography is being used more than ever in all sorts of ways to be the “face” of a product, company, story. The fee you charge should be appropriate to the value the photographs you provide will give to the company using them. Put ego aside and get out the calculator.

When you contemplate the numbers, the BILLIONS and TRILLIONS of dollars spent in the U.S. and globally on advertising, compared to the effort you put in to develop your skills, purchase your equipment, receive a salary for your work, pay your living expenses and all your other business-related costs and expenses, doesn’t it seem a little unfair that those BILLIONS and TRILLIONS in revenue going into someone’s pocket other than yours, is riding on the backs of $200 and $400 and $1000 photography fees?

Think about it.

references:

http://www.pwc.com/us/en/industry/entertainment-media/publications/global-entertainment-media-outlook.jhtml

http://www.iab.net/about_the_iab/recent_press_releases/press_release_archive/press_release/pr-060313


http://www.emarketer.com/newsroom/index.php/digital-ad-spending-top-37-billion-2012-market-consolidates/

http://stateofthemedia.org/2013/newspapers-stabilizing-but-still-threatened/2-print-ad-revenue-continues-to-decline-copy/

http://www.marketingcharts.com/wp/print/b2b-print-advertising-revenues-failing-to-keep-pace-with-2011-levels-24589/

Again With The Watermarks

In response to the ongoing debate of “To Watermark or Not To Watermark?”:

If a photographer is a photographer because that’s their chosen profession, career, and livelihood, their desire to protect their work should not be lessened by this debate. Why not also decry people who lock the doors of their homes or their cars? I don’t know of any restaurants, doctors or auto mechanics who “brand” their services and products then allow free use (theft) without pursuing some recompense if it does happen. If they do offer free stuff, it’s on their own terms, just as it should be with photographers and other artists. We shouldn’t be “required” to give up or give in just because people love our work so much they’d rather not pay to have it. While I also agree art is an important component of a healthy society, why are artists compelled to “gift” their livelihood to that society and others are not? Honestly, I (and other artists, probably) would do this for free if I could live without money. Perhaps artists should be exempt from paying for anything in return for gifting their work to the world. I’d go for that.

I know this is an old, old debate, and there are photographers and artists who are consumed by it, which impacts their ability to do their work, blunts their creativity, and generally makes them grumpy. I do watermark my images so people know who the maker is, not really for theft avoidance because, as you say, if they want it they’ll take it. Just like locking your doors when you go out doesn’t deter the determined thief. I do agree that obnoxious watermarks are overkill (Would you like a photograph with that watermark, sir?). During a workshop I attended in 2001 led by Jay Maisel, during an image review session I showed some images with watermarks (during a workshop, yes) and Jay stopped and told everyone he didn’t know why anyone who posted their work online would not watermark their work, simply for the ability to be able to identify the owner, if nothing else. So, I see no downside and I don’t really care if someone doesn’t like it. It’s my work and if they want to purchase a photo for themselves I’m happy to provide them with one minus the watermark. The watermark also becomes the only identifying, traceable, means to find the owner when embedded metadata is removed (by services like Facebook, for example).

There is the distinction between professional and amateur photographers as it relates to watermarks and interest in copyright protection. But more often these days companies are approaching amateurs, using their work, for the very inexpensive fees (if any at all) amateurs are willing to accept (because they are uninformed).

I’ve also wrestled with the “clients hate watermarks” issue. Some art buyers hate to see them (just like they hate websites with black backgrounds). Again, if the mark is obnoxious, I understand. But I feel less inclined to remove them from my website display. If they want comps they can have a watermark-free image via the download process.

There will always be two groups in this debate. I prefer to be identified for my work when the purpose of my posting work is to easily identify the work as belonging to me. Watermarking might afford some small amount of theft protection, but even if the photo is used and the watermark retained, I am still identified as the owner of that image and that is more important than “sharing”.

The First Gate

Some time ago, I received an email from someone I didn’t know out-of-the-blue asking if I’d provide some feedback on an attached photo. I like to help out photographers by providing feedback on their work when I have the time. I had the time, so I looked at the photo and replied with some detailed comments.

Artists, regardless of the media worked in, need feedback to improve. It’s extremely difficult to know if your work is appreciated if nobody gives you feedback about it. It’s hard to improve your skill if others don’t comment on your style, technique, materials, and other aspects of your work. Artists put their work “out there” in art shows, galleries, informal and formal exhibits, contests, clubs, associations, on their personal websites and online forums like Flickr and Facebook. But, the feedback you receive from those outlets and forums is not always from qualified sources or of any real use. How many comments of “I Love It!” does it take for you to believe you’re the next Ansel Adams? So, it’s not unusual to seek out someone whose work you admire (or at least they appear to know what they’re doing) to ask their opinion.

The next day, I received a very gracious thank you email from the person. They greatly appreciated my thoughtful comments and wondered if I’d look at some other photos. Attached to the email were about 30 identical variations of the same photo previously sent.

My first reaction was, honestly, “Are you kidding me?” and a bit of a laugh. My next reaction was a little angry that this person thought I didn’t have anything better to do than look at a pile of similar photos of the same subject and compose an essay of critique for each of them. I wondered if they even comprehended what I wrote to them about the first photo (which was a better photo and the comments I wrote applied to this second set as well). I could have reacted like I’ve seen others do, in a condescending and overbearing, “holier-than-thou” response full of wisecracks and veiled (and not-so-veiled) put-downs, asking them in certain terms if they thought I sat around all day responding to requests for free reviews of buckets of similar photographs. Responding in such a way doesn’t do anyone any good, neither the reviewing photographer nor the requesting photographer. And, it furthers a stereotype of the condescending professional who thinks everyone “below” them is unworthy, even though that person started out on the lowest rung of the ladder sometime in their life. We tend to forget that. Even if I chose to ignore the request and just not respond, I would be essentially doing the same thing.

So, I composed a friendly reply explaining, that while I’m happy to provide feedback on the occasional photo, I have other duties required for maintaining my business and I’m unable to review and comment on such a large number of photos outside a formal, paid, session. As a professional artist I understand the desire for feedback, validation, a kind word, a helpful hint, etc. from someone who appears to know what they’re doing. I was there once and I’m sure most, if not all, artists of one stripe or another have been in the same boat….nervous and eager to approach the “local pro” to have them peer at your work and pronounce their judgment, either letting you pass through the “First Gate” or send you back to try again.

I hope I wasn’t a pest as I was starting out. Getting through that “First Gate”, the first time you have someone other than family or friend evaluate your work, is a first step to moving forward with your work. Asking a stranger to look at your work is a request for validation as much as it is for actual constructive feedback. “Am I good enough?” you’re asking. Am I good enough to keep trying?

My first formal request for a review was to a local photography gallery owner. I’d been in the gallery a few times and the guy seemed to know what he was doing, so I gathered up my courage one day and asked him if he’d look at some of my photos. We set an appointment and I brought back a book with some prints and slides (back way before digital). His review, as I remember it, wasn’t detailed. He didn’t give me suggestions for improvement or tell me specifically what he liked or didn’t like. He did tell me he liked my work, though, which was enough incentive at the time to continue making an effort. At the time, I didn’t really know what I was doing with my work, didn’t know what I wanted my work to be (fine art or stock), or what to expect from the review. I figured this guy who had his own business would know what to tell me. He’d obviously reviewed other work, right? And, he was good at what he did so he must have some sense of what a good photograph is. That was my First Gate.

Some First Gates are large, ornate, sturdy, with an intricate lock; difficult to get through unless your work is the right “key”, and more like a “last gate” than a first. Others are similar to a rickety garden gate; most of the time propped partially open so you can walk through with little effort. The rest in between pose varying challenges. Your task is to select the First Gate that will do you the most good (at least how you perceive that to be at the time. You may actually pass through several First Gates throughout your artistic career, especially if you change your style, media, or artistic or professional focus. If you change from an editorial photographer to a commercial photographer, you might need to pass through a commercial First Gate to move forward. So, how do you get to, much less through, the First Gate?

How best is it to approach someone to ask for their feedback/review? It’s simple, really. I tried to do as much research as I could first. I found a photographer that did work similar to mine and lurked around his gallery for a while until I was more or less sure he was “qualified” and until I had enough guts to ask. Now, I would be more specific, and suggest you be, too.

Research the people you’re interested in getting feedback from. Do they do similar work? An architectural photographer might not be the best choice to review landscape or wedding photography. Is there any indication on their website or other materials that they’d be willing to review work? One indicator might be that they teach. Call, stop in, write a brief email, introducing yourself (briefly), get to know them if possible, and when you’re ready ask if they would be willing to review one or two (only) pieces of work before you dump a portfolio on them. Remember, this is your First Gate, not your 4th or 9th or 20th. You can always go back to them later and ask if you could arrange a more detailed review.

I must stress something here. If you’re going to seek out someone, a professional, to review your work, you must show the best work you’ve done to date. This is work you’ve spent time with, and used your equipment and skills to the best of your ability. I can honestly tell you if you aren’t presenting your best work you will likely only get a brief and perhaps brusk response, although only somewhat encouraging, to “keep trying”.

But, I must also stress something else. Don’t take unfavorable feedback (in your opinion) personally. You have to distance your attachment to your work to receive feedback properly, so that it’s beneficial to you. Because you’re going to get feedback you don’t want to hear, no matter how good you are. The feedback about your work is not about you, but about the work. Receive that feedback with the same enthusiasm you would receive praise because it will help you grow. Be respectful of the person’s time and willingness to help you. Don’t make excuses about your work. Don’t berate the reviewer or you won’t get any more help from them.

Getting through the First Gate is a big step. You’re announcing to yourself and the world your intention to be serious about your work. Challenge yourself and avoid the propped open garden gates.

I also encourage professionals who are asked to review work to do so (or decline to do so) with respect. If you aren’t comfortable giving feedback, tell the person. Recommend someone you know who might be willing. If you respond like an asshat, regardless if it makes you feel superior, it only makes you look like an asshat. And the world could do with less of those. Reviewers as well as reviewees learn from the experience. And the world could do with more quality art and artists.

Neighborhoods Supporting Artists

Art often gets a bum rap. Well, I should be more specific and say art making often gets a bum rap. Making art is often viewed as something done for fun, a diversion from the day-to-day responsibilities of job and family. Art is something we do in our spare time, like reading a book or gardening. Unless, of course, you’re actually making a living at making art, then it’s ok and you can go about your business as a respectable member of the community without being asked when you’re going to finally get that “real job.” The artist character in movies, television, and literature is often portrayed as the loveable and talented but nonetheless jobless, irresponsible freeloader who sleeps on the couch at a friend’s house. Some even say making art, and funding it, is a waste of time and money. I should also say I’m referring to art in the context of this article mostly as works created by an individual artist through his/her own passion, voice, and creativity, not commercial art created for a particular audience.

We occasionally attend plays, concerts and exhibits and watch artistic television and movies, saunter down to the local pub to hear the latest band, or purchase art from galleries and individual artists. Otherwise, as a society and as individuals we are generally not engaged with artists or making art on a regular basis. Our individual participation in the arts is minimal and from a distance: “We have become a society composed almost entirely of audience” (Ted Orland, artist & author). As a society, we relegate the responsibility of the support of the arts to the government as a common good, or to the consumer as a commodity. These two forms of validation leave out the majority of art makers who create works because they love it, not because they’re getting paid. And, in times of financial or political uncertainty the arts are usually the first to suffer because art is perceived as an elective rather than a necessity, as a hobby rather than a pathway to greater understanding, creativity, and innovation, as an after-school activity to keep kids occupied until parents get off work rather than a means to bridge cultural understanding.

But, according to the The Global Agenda Council on the Role of Arts in Society 2012

The arts exert a powerful influence on the development of societies. Artists often challenge commonly-held perspectives with innovative thinking, raise awareness of social issues, break down barriers to cross-cultural understanding and global dialogue, and inspire creative ideas.

If art is important to the development of societies, yet art funding is unpredictable and insufficient, and art is not viewed as an important pursuit, what encourages people to set aside time to doodle, write a poem, walk in the park, paint a picture, or photograph?

Artist and author Ted Orland, in his book The View from the Studio Door, brings it home when he writes

Art is not made by a special breed of people, but by ordinary people who have dedicated a piece of their lives to special work… Artists are regular people who work all the time, and lead real lives all the time as well… The need for more art in the community is not nearly so great as the need for more artists in the community. Every neighborhood should support a musician or two, a painter or two, a writer or two.

I suggest “artist” refers to anyone who makes art, dedicated individuals and “part-time artists” alike; adults and children. Many, if not all, neighborhoods have a local artist living there or at least nearby. They may not call themselves an artist, but it is someone who paints, draws, knits or quilts, makes scrapbooks, wood toys or builds kites. What if neighborhoods engaged with their local artist(s) to have them teach about their art, supported and encouraged their art making, and neighborhood residents became more active making their own art as a result? What if the neighborhood artist, supported by the neighborhood, inspired a neighborhood of artists?

What does neighborhood support of an artist look like? How about hiring the artist to lead after-school programs, to give demonstrations in the local park, neighborhood musicians getting together in the park or on a cul-de-sac for an evening concert or jam session. A neighborhood art show, play or outdoor movie night? And support doesn’t always mean money. “Artists need to feel they have the support of the community in their art making efforts; if not for what they have already achieved, then for the potential they represent” (Ted Orland). What about working with city and state arts organizations to engage neighborhood children in creating public art where they live? Could a neighborhood be inspired to support neighborhood artists? If a neighborhood doesn’t have a local artist nearby, arts organizations and clubs may have a list of artists you can contact.

In Toronto, Ontario, the Neighbourhood Arts Network works with communities to show

The arts are a powerful tool in building and sustaining successful neighbourhoods. Community-engaged art making is a unique and effective approach to community building that fosters relationships between artists and residents while producing exciting, unique art, and nurturing mentoring opportunities. The result is a dynamic explosion of creativity that changes how art is made, how communities are built, and how we live together.

In Lowell, Massachusetts a neighborhood created a public art piece that involved local children.

In Taos, New Mexico, the Harwood Museum of Art set up Neighborhood Arts Projects that went to neighborhoods to bring art to children and families during the summer months. There’s nothing stopping a neighborhood from doing something similar on its own with their local artist.

In Detroit, a neighborhood of abandoned homes was turned into an art gallery that changed the character of the area for the better.

Back to Toronto, a city that created Neighborhood Arts Hubs (NAHs) that act as catalysts for projects, link artists and residents, offer meeting and networking space, and generally promote the cultural activities in the neighborhood. NAHs are designed to act as a resource and to support a spectrum of arts activity, not compete with community art programs already happening. NAHs cooperate and complement the work of other NAHs including libraries, health centers, schools, and after-school programs.

How can this be done? Where will the funding come from? Your projects don’t need to be expensive. There are many art projects that can be done with items found around the house. Neighbors could collect materials from their own homes to provide for projects. There are many sources for funds that can be found working in collaboration with your artists. State, county, and city arts agencies provide grants, so do foundations like The Knight Foundation. Several outlets for crowd-sourcing funds are out there like www.kickstarter.com, http://crowdfunding.com/, www.indiegogo.com, and www.razoo.com. Neighborhoods can self-fund projects entirely or in part through their own fundraising efforts. Your local arts council/agency and community centers will be very happy to work with you and your artist(s) to help find sources, write grants, and build your neighborhood art community.

As an artist, explore the possibility with your neighbors. As a neighbor, explore the possibility with an artist you know. I’m pretty sure it’ll be fun, challenging, and beneficial to everyone who participates (and probably even to those who don’t).

When you make art, you are making the world a better place. Everything that happens afterwards, whether to you or to your art or to society, flows directly from that initial act” – Ted Orland

Scale in Photography: Space

This is part one of a two part discussion of scale in photography, starting with Space.

First, let’s define scale. For this discussion, scale refers to the relative size of things and the perception of detail. A pencil is a small scale object while a car is a relatively larger scale object and a tree on a larger scale still, etc. As with a map, small scale refers to a greater perception of detail (the stamens and pistils within a flower) while large scale refers to wider coverage and less detail (many flowers within a patch in a meadow).

When Space is mentioned and we’re talking about photography, we usually think of how elements are arranged relative to each other in a composition, and how that arrangement creates the illusion of depth. We might also consider negative and positive space. But space is more than what appears in our photograph and the methods we use to manipulate it in a two-dimensional image. Space encompasses us, our movements, our perceptions, our actions, and influences our photography. In this newsletter, I’m going to describe space in terms of our body and our senses.

We generally live within a small space (our individual body, our house, neighborhood, city) relative to all possible spaces (our state, country, continent, planet, solar system.). The activities of our lives are also contained within a certain space, with more specific activities (more influence) occurring at the smaller scale (body, family, home) and becoming more general and less specific (less influence) at larger scales (city, state, country, world). It’s easier to contemplate a smaller space because there are fewer and more familiar elements and interactions to consider. Though, think about some specialists, like physicists, architects, and astronomers who look at and understand their (our) world differently from most people because of their familiarity, knowledge, and experience with spatial scales very different from everyday life. These specialists even view the world differently from other specialists, based on the space occupied by their subject of interest; physicists with subjects measured in billionths of an inch, architects in hundreds or thousands of linear, square, or cubic feet, astronomers in millions and trillions of miles. Our understanding and perception of our personal relationship to the space around us, often called our environment, helps influence how we create our photography.

Two types of spatial perception are proprioception and exteroception, terms defined in 1909 by Sir Charles Scott Sherrington, a Nobel laureate neurophysiologist, histologist, bacteriologist, and pathologist. Proprioception, which means “one’s own individual perception”, is the small scale awareness of our body movement from the actions of muscles, tendons, and joints, the sense of the relative position of the various parts of our body, and their position/orientation in space; whether your body is moving or still, which body parts are moving or still, where your body parts are in relation to one another, and the strength of effort necessary to move or be still. Our brain constantly monitors our muscles consciously and unconsciously (mostly unconsciously and automatically), adjusting their position, tone, and motion to maintain balance, grip, support, and movement. One example of proprioception, or body awareness, is learning to drive a manual transmission car. At first, we are very conscious of our body position – feet, legs, hands, ears, eyes, arms, head – as we try to coordinate the movements of clutch, gas, gear shift, with our ears listening to the engine and/or eyes looking at the speedometer or tachometer, while maintaining awareness of the road ahead. At first, the operation is clumsy and we wonder how we’ll ever be proficient. But, after practice we eventually perform the relatively complex movements automatically. Our body is aware of its position and the actions needed to perform the task. We reach for and move the gear shift without looking at it, and our feet find the right position on the gas and clutch pedals and know how to operate them in sequence, often even in cars we’ve never driven before.

Exteroception, meaning external perception, is the large scale awareness and perception of the outside world through stimuli originating outside the body. Exteroception is accomplished through our primary receptive senses such as sight, smell, hearing, taste, and touch. Through these senses we gain awareness, understanding, and experience of the environment around us – the temperature of the air, the texture of the ground, the smell of a marketplace, the colors of fabric, the metallic taste of ozone in the air during a thunderstorm.

An example of proprioception and exteroception working together, using the car example, is how we’re able to know where the boundaries of our car are, even when we can’t see them. We instinctively know where the front bumper or rear bumper are relative to our position in the driver’s seat, how long our car is and how wide, even its maneuverability. We visualize the space it occupies on the road and can judge fairly accurately whether it will fit between two lines or two objects or not. We’re able to manipulate the controls of the car easily without thinking of hand and foot positions, and maneuver the car through sensing it’s position in space. This type of awareness is sometimes referred to as body thinking.

How does this apply to your photography? Increasing your awareness beyond your immediate surroundings, beyond just what you’re looking at, beyond the elements you’ve selected to compose into a photograph, you stop simply viewing and begin experiencing. You begin purposefully monitoring where you are in space, in your environment, instead of cruising through on autopilot. As with the car example, your body awareness and external awareness merge, you know how to manipulate the camera controls instinctively, you’re aware of your surroundings, you stop being a photographer documenting a scene separate from what is occurring and become part of the composition itself. Photographer Sebastio Salgado describes it as “There comes a moment when it is no longer you who takes the photograph, but receives the way to do it quite naturally and fully.” Zen and Taoist practice calls this a part of Great Understanding, which is different from, but related to, other “modes” I’ve covered such as Flow and Being in the Zone.

It all comes down to being more than a spectator, more than simply an observer or recorder of things we find in front of us, more than the knowledge of aperture and shutter speed, depth of field and perfect exposure. It’s the combination of all these things not in a confined bubble closely surrounding our body, but in a limitless space in which we move and think freely and are aware of our environment. When I’m standing in the forest looking for a subject to photograph, I sense the ground under my feet, the air moving across my skin, the light entering my eyes, the sounds coming from near and far, the movement of trees, grass, shrubs, the texture of mountains and clouds, the sound of water in a stream or river. I imagine how the trees and rocks are rooted into the ground. I sense the distance between myself and my car, other people I’m with, the nearest town or city, and road. I may not see anything interesting right away, but I might hear something interesting in the nearby stream or river, the rushing of rapids or banging of rocks, and go investigate.

Everything exists in space. We continually expand and contract our awareness of what exists in the space around us, sometimes contracting space to the point of becoming completely unaware. Through practice, you will arrive at a comfortable awareness space you can maintain all the time, and expand or contract it at will. I’m pretty certain when you become more body and world aware, you’ll experience more enjoyment in your photography (even if you aren’t “successful” in getting that great shot) and get better shots. Try it.