Photography vs Photograph, Part III

Part III

But for me photography is essentially not about art, society, or representation; I find seeing is essentially solitary, and photography is one of the emblems of that solitude
James Elkins, What Photography Is, 2011

The photograph is as complex a thing as the gesture of photography (as I’ve defined them in the previous two parts). The photograph, as Ansel Adams stated, is the performance, from the culmination of the preparation, practice, seeing, and imagination of the photographer. It is also the product of the use of the mechanical device of the camera recording the quality, quantity, and color of light reflected from, transmitted through, emanating from, and wrapped around the elements that lie before them. A photograph is a means of expression, artistically or otherwise, a way to communicate a concept, emotion, instruction, evidence, in a form and detail other types of communication lack. A photograph can be fact or entirely false or lie somewhere in between, can deceive, persuade, or inspire, but almost always serves as a prompt to memory, whether the memory is directly related to the content of the photograph or not. Photographs are part of our legacy, what we leave behind as our footprint marking our passage, A way for our descendants to know something about us when we can’t speak to them directly.

A photograph is both an image and a thing. As a thing, the photograph is part of the material culture of photography, something physical we hold in our hands, put in books and albums, burn, tear up, write on, send to loved ones, put in frames and hang on walls. When asked what possessions they would rescue from a burning home, one of the most frequent answers is photographs. We grieve when they are lost, as if part of our memory, our past, or our accomplishments has been taken. Most of the photographs made during the 19th Century have not survived to the present. Those that do still exist have acquired a value well beyond their original intent. Many of those surviving photographs have no more information to them than the image, no place, time, or name. Who are these orphaned people? What is their legacy?

In 2014, more photographs were made than in the 100 years of the 19th Century. In 2022, it’s estimated that 54,400 photographs were made worldwide EVERY SECOND, 196 million every hour, 172 TRILLION photographs in that year alone. These numbers are increasing. In 2014, the number of photographs made was a little over 1 trillion. It’s likely many of those photographs made in 2022 did not survive the year, and most will likely not survive another 20 years, never venturing beyond taking up space on a memory card or hard drive, lost during a power outage, hardware failure, or accidental hard drive formatting. The digital photograph is much more fragile than the analog photograph and film of history.

The photograph as image is the content representing the context in which the photograph was made, interpreted by the photographer and current culture, whether that is today or decades from now. The photographic image can be used differently than the physical print, especially in these days of electronic images. A physical print has a front where the image is and a back where information about the image can be placed. An electronic image may have meta data embedded into the file or in a separate location. If those parts, the image file and the associated sidecar .xml data file or other data file, for example, are separated, knowledge about that image is lost. I would argue that most digital photographs made today do not have embedded meta data, even information about who the photographer is. But it’s easy, and almost habit, to write something on the back of a printed photograph. An ongoing philosophy is a photograph is not a photograph until it has physical form as a print, which then begs to be shown and displayed. Though a physical print in a drawer is the same as a digital file on a hard drive. But a physical print also begs some other questions, such as how large should it be, what type of surface and display (mat, frame, paper, canvas, glass, metal, wood, fabric), where should it be displayed (wall, wallet, photo album/book, magazine) and the location (home, gallery, coffeeshop, pop-up, art show)? What is the appropriate way to showcase your photograph once you’ve created it?

The use of photographic images is also quite varied, from family memories to advertising, education to forensics, photojournalism to art. These days the distinctions are becoming more arbitrary, with the exception of forensic photography, perhaps. Though given enough time separation from their creation and use, even some forensic photographs could be used for commercial applications or art.

The use and meaning of a photograph changes with time as it moves from place to place and hand to hand. A family snapshot today is history tomorrow, or art. The camera in the hands of the photographer creates what Henri Cartier-Bresson called “a sort of visual chronicle.” Roland Barthes called the camera “clocks for seeing.”

The first (surviving) photograph is by Joseph Nicephore Niepce of rooftops seen from his upstairs window in France, in 1826 or 1827, although there is evidence others made photographs as early as 1800 (Thomas Wegdewood) or earlier, but they did not survive. Niepce’s photograph, as it is, must be kept in a light-tight box to keep it from turning black from exposure. Once photography reached the public, around 1839, it took off. Everything was fair game for the camera. A list of “firsts.”

1826-27 first surviving photograph, Joseph Nicephore Niepce
1839 first portrait, a selfie
1840 first hoax photo, Hippolyte Bayard photographed himself as a drowned man, reportedly in protest against the French Academy for failing to recognize his contribution to photography in preference to Daguerre. So, perhaps also the first protest photograph.
1840 first photo of the moon
1840 first nude portrait
1843 first photo of a US president (John Quincy Adams, after being in office). The first sitting president to be photographed was James Polk, 1848)
1843 first photo book, Anna Atkins cyanotypes of algae
1844 first commercially printed book illustrated with photographs, The Pencil of Nature, Henry Fox Talbot, calotypes
1845 first photo of the sun
1847 first war photograph, Mexican-American War, photographer unk
1848 first news photograph and first photo printed in a newspaper (not the same photos)
1860 first aerial photo
1878-1886 Edweard Muybridge pioneered the photographic study of animal and human locomotion and high speed photography (chronophotography)
1879 Edweard Muybridge invents the zoopraxiscope, precursor to the movie projector
1882 first photograph of lightning
1931 electronic flash invented by Harold Edgerton
1946 first photograph from space, camera aboard a V-2 rocket from 65 miles up
1957 first digital photo
1976 first photograph from Mars
1985 first personal video camera
1988 first digitally-manipulated photograph, by Thomas Knoll (inventor of Photoshop)
1995 digital videotape
1997 first camera phone photo
2000 Apple’s iMovie

Imagine, today, a world without photographs. It’s almost impossible. Photographs have become an integral part of human culture, although such a photo-less world existed for hundreds of thousands of years of human culture before the invention of the camera. Our current world is stuffed full with photographic images of all sorts and the convergence of audio-visual technology and the ability to nearly instantly transmit digital images around the planet to billions of people in the 20th Century fundamentally changed the importance and prevalence of photographs and how people record, interpret, and interact with the world. There are many important, inspirational, and influential photographs. Creating a list of them is a subjective exercise like Top Songs of History. Everyone has their favorites. Here is a list of 25 I’ve compiled, not necessarily in order of importance, or complete:

1. View from a Window, 1826/27 Joseph Nicephore Niepce
2. Earthrise, 1968, Astronaut William Anders, Apollo 8
3. Blue Marble, 1972, Astronaut Jack Schmitt, Apollo 17
4. Falling Man, 2001, Richard Drew
5. Man Jumping Puddle, 1930, Henri Cartier-Bresson
6. Clearing Winter Storm, 1937, Ansel Adams
7. Mushroom Cloud over Nagasaki, 1945, Lt. Charles Levy, Bombardier
8. Tank Man, Tiananmen Square, 1989, Jeff Widener
9. Pillars of Creation, 1995, NASA Hubble Telescope
10. Deep Field, 2022, James Webb Space Telescope
11. The Terror of War, 1972, Nick Ut
12. Pale Blue Dot, 1990, NASA Voyager 1
13. Woman & Child Falling from Fire Escape, 1975, Stanley Foreman
14. Child Coal Miners, 1908, Lewis Hine
15. Tutokanula Pass, Yosemite, ~1880, Carleton Watkins
16. Men on the Moon, Buzz Aldrin by Neil Armstrong, in reflection), 1969
17. Little Rock Central High School, 1957, Elizabeth Eckford
18. Nelson Mandela Becomes President of South Africa, 1994, Walter Dhladhla
19. Starving Child and Vulture, 1993, Kevin Carter
20. Shell & Rock Arrangement 15S, 1931, Edward Weston
21. Horse in Motion, 1878, Edweard Muybridge
22. Bullet Through Apple, 1964, Harold Edgerton
23. Atomic Bomb Explosion, 1952, Harold Edgerton
24. Cotton Mill Girl, 1908, Lewis Hine
25. Migrant Mother, 1936, Dorothea Lange
26. Bonus – Black Hole, M87, 2019, Event Horizon Telescope collaboration

When photography was first introduced, photographs were perceived as a perfect documentary medium because the detail recorded by the mechanical camera left no question about the “truth” of the subject depicted in the photograph. “No one”, writes philosopher Susan Sontag, “takes an easel painting to be in any sense co-substantial with its subject; it only represents or refers. But a photograph is not only like its subject, a homage to the subject, it is part of, an expansion of, that subject; and a potent means of acquiring it, of gaining control over it. Photographs do more than redefine the stuff of ordinary experience (people, things, events, whatever we see – albeit differently, often inattentively – with natural vision) and add vast amounts of material that we never see at all.” From the beginning, though, the perception that the camera doesn’t lie has been exploited by charlatans, propagandists, advertisers, and others to persuade and influence. In 1861, a jeweler named William H. Mumler, accidentally made a portrait photograph on a previously-exposed negative plate. The result was a ghostly, superimposed image of a previous client. The resulting photograph was passed around as a gag, but eventually found its way into the hands of someone at The Herald of Progress, a spiritualist journal, who printed the photograph in the journal, and “spirit photography” was born. Mumler latched onto the opportunity, perfected his double exposure technique, and embellished his marketing with spiritualist rhetoric. For nearly two years, Mumler was a very successful spirit photographer, making portraits of clients and capturing the “spirits” of lost loved ones looking over the living. Spiritualists caught up in the phenomenon claimed the photos were scientific evidence of their belief in the afterlife. Mary Todd Lincoln, wife of Abraham Lincoln, was a client of Mumler’s.

In 1863, a doctor (perhaps someone who should have known better, but representative of the popularity of the fad) sat for a Mumler portrait. However, when he received his photo he recognized the “spirit” as someone who was still quite alive. The doctor led a campaign to discredit Mumler. Mumler was also sued but was acquitted. By then his reputation was ruined. Other spirit photographers popped up all over the country, capitalizing on the belief by consumers the photographs were real.

Photographs today are much more easily manipulated than 140 years ago, yet photographs are still widely believed to be factual records, or disbelieved based on the perception they have been altered, regardless to what degree. The interpretation of the photograph, its subject, content, meaning, is almost entirely the responsibility of the viewer. Interpretation is formed by the viewer’s own knowledge, understanding, experience, prejudice, with the subject and content, just as it is in the creation of the photograph by the photographer. A portrait can be disbelieved by the sitter if they perceive, or wish themselves perceived, differently than the camera reveals, just as a photograph of a landscape or event (UFO sighting) can be disbelieved – or believed to be true – based on the expectations of the viewer.

Once a photograph is “released into the wild”, control by the photographer, how the photographer intended the photograph to be received and interpreted, is lost. The job of the photographer is to include in the photograph enough clues and information to solidify the intended meaning or message, whether it be factual or fanciful. Revealing the methodology used to make the photograph, especially in the fields of photojournalism and science/engineering/forensics, allows for “peer review” and assessment of the validity of the photography. Such a statement is also useful for differentiating the photograph as a type of art. Even manipulated artworks would benefit from a simple statement regarding the type of manipulation, such as sky replacement, composite, or element removal for clarity.

Obvious manipulations probably don’t need any such declaration, though there will always be someone who points out the manipulation or who thinks it’s real. Though what constitutes manipulation has also been debated since the beginning. Henri Cartier-Bresson went so far as to oppose the use of flash for a photograph, “if only out of respect for the actual light – even when there isn’t any of it. Unless a photographer observes such conditions as these, he may become an intolerably aggressive character.” László Moholy-Nagy, in 1923, expressed the problem and benefit with photography, photographers, and photographs: “The photograph enables us to experience space in new ways through an enlargement and sublimation of our appreciation of time and space and the perception of our surroundings, and its existence, with new eyes…The camera allowed for phenomena imperceptible to the human eye to be perceived, revealing aspects of existence never before seen or contemplated.” Edward Weston, in his Daybooks, Vol II, wrote in 1932, that “The variety of options available to the photographer for self-expression beyond the exact reproduction of subject/scene by the machine of the camera, give the photographer a myriad of possibilities for personal choice – one has far greater opportunity for self-expression through material opportunity than is granted the painter. The trouble has been with photographers, not photography!…for to produce work of any value in any line of creative endeavor, one must bore into the spirit of today. Old ideals are crashing on all sides, and the precise uncompromising camera vision is, and will be made so, a world force in the revaluation of life.”

The gesture of photography and the making of photographs provide one way for the discovery of oneself at the same time of exploring the world. The two processes are separate and interconnected, with intent and meaning, knowledge and experience important, even critical, components of both. Photography can mold us through the act and by viewing and discussing photographs. Photography, as I’ve described before, can be a Way of Life, not just professionally, but personally and experientially; a gateway to exploration and personal growth. Photography is a mode of specialized and personalized communication. Ansel Adams eloquently stated “When words become unclear, I shall focus with photographs. When images become inadequate, I shall be content with silence.” The photographs left behind are a record of the time, a visual chronicle of a person’s experience and existence in the world, a view of the culture and associated events, and a story of each generation for future humans to view, interpret, and learn from. There is much more about photography and photographs, a treasure trove of information waiting to be learned, explored, and discovered. Review the history, read past and current interpretations, view photographs, explore and reflect on your own part in all this, and above all, engage in photography and make photographs.

Photography vs Photograph, Part II

Part II

What makes photography a strange invention – with unforeseeable consequences – is that its primary raw materials are light and time. – John Berger

We can probably agree there are many different perceptions/concepts/philosophies about photography. Otherwise, we wouldn’t still be having these discussions. Similar discussions to those that began in the 1800s and are renewed at each inflection point in the evolution of photography: the initial introduction of the technology, painting and drawing vs photography, realism vs pictorialism, digital vs analog, mirror vs mirrorless, and now the introduction of “artificial intelligence” in image making and image processing. We’re still trying to resolve, whether for ourselves as individual photographers or in an attempt to create a type of “general theory” of photography, the relationships between the photographer, the device (camera), and the photograph, in addition to the viewers and interpretations of photographs. In this Part II, I’ll discuss the act of photography and aspects of the relationship between the photographer and the camera. In Part III, I’ll address the photograph.

A photograph needs an audience. Or does it?” – Ted Orland, The View from the Studio Door

As a reminder, I stated for simplicity in Part I, and to distinguish between the two parts of the title, photography is a process and the photograph is a thing. A somewhat controversial concept might be that a photograph isn’t even a required component of photography. The process of making the photographic exposure alone could be enough for the photographer to gain pleasure and personal growth. And, at least, showing your photographs to others isn’t a requirement to call yourself a photographer or to receive something from photography. An example is Vivian Maier, who photographed for years and never had her film developed. Not everyone will agree. Henri Cartier-Bresson even said “My passion has never been for photography ‘in itself,’ but for the possibility – through forgetting yourself – of recording in a fraction of a second the emotion of the subject, and the beauty of the form; that is, a geometry awakened by what’s offered.” For HCB, the process was a means to an end; the capture of the subject, like the capture of a prey. But this dichotomy of photography is different from most every other art form where the process nearly always results in something physical.

In most art forms the process and the product are inseparable. You can’t paint without making a painting or carve a piece of stone or wood without making a sculpture (quibbles over definitions of painting and sculpture aside). Painting, drawing, pottery, and carving are words describing both the action and the product. Photography, and photographing, are words describing an activity during which the photographer is doing something toward the eventual making of a photograph. This activity involves a wide range of things the photographer does, sometimes well before finger depresses shutter release: researching subjects, thinking about the subject, processing memories or life in general, exploring locations, observing the light, observing the subject and color, shadow, form, and texture, juxtaposition, balance, subject and compositional element relationships, etc., thinking about and reviewing past photographs and their strengths and weaknesses, reading, listening to music, talking with other photographers, friends, strangers, etc. All of these activities inform and influence the eventual photograph, whether the photographer is consciously thinking of these elements at the time of exposure or not. The process of photography doesn’t just happen when you have your camera in hand searching for something pretty or interesting or funny to snap. Regardless if I have my camera or not, when I’m looking I’m seeing photographs. As I’m scanning the environment I’m “cropping” various parts of the scenes in my mind, “zooming” in and out with an imaginary lens, examining arrangements, isolating, including, exploring relationships. This prepares me for when I do have my camera, searching for subjects to photograph and looking through the viewfinder. This process not only applies to photography, but also to every other art form, and to just being. Awareness and observation of your surroundings makes things more interesting than succumbing to sensory adaptation.

Photographers (and viewers) often think of photography and photographs as indistinguishable parts of the process; one cannot exist without the other. In a sense, this is true. But, the process of photography and the making of the photograph can be broken down into sets of discrete steps and, thus, separated from one another as distinct but interconnected processes. I’ve described the steps (phases) of photography in other texts; they are Exploration, Isolation, Organization, and Exposure. The steps involved in the photograph are Exposure/Ingestion (digital download), Edit, Process, Print, and Display.

The camera, the photographer’s primary tool for making photographs, and its operation, can also be addressed separately with a list of discrete steps for both photographer and camera and in which photography becomes a subset of the individual. Photography, for some, becomes a way of being, a way of interacting with the world. The steps in camera operation are, generally, Observe, Compose, Focus, Settings, Expose. There is overlap with the final step of camera operation, Expose, and the photography process. Exposure, the press of the shutter release, is the culmination of a number of factors leading to that particular moment that can take seconds or years to reach. Those factors are specific to the individual: Experience, Skill, Knowledge, Prejudice and Bias, Goals, and Intent (past, present, and future). All aspects of the processes of photography, photographer, camera, and photograph are interrelated, overlap, and the relationships between them are circular, or web-like. Rarely is the line from inspiration/conception/idea/influence to finished image a straight one. The camera (using the word as a catch-all including all other photographic equipment), different from tools of other art forms, has almost from the beginning of photography taken over the definition of photography. I’m not aware of any other art form other than digital illustration and some aspects of music, where the primary device for creating the art receives as much, and sometimes more, attention than the art or the artist, and for which an entire industry has been developed. Where are the paintbrush and typewriter websites, magazines and podcasts?

Well-known photographers Edward Weston, Ansel Adams, Minor White, Mary Ellen Mark, Man Ray, Yousuf Karsh, and many others, wrote and spoke about the photographer’s relationship with equipment. The general consensus among these photographers is the photographer makes the photograph, not the equipment. But the camera, its type/format, brand, capabilities, accessories, etc. is often at the forefront of many discussions and inquiries about photographs and photographers. Vilem Flusser (1920-1991), in his book Toward a Philosophy of Photography (1984), asks a question “is a human being in possession of a camera, or a camera in possession of a human being?” We see it in photography quite often, especially with questions from photographers and non-photographers alike when viewing photographs; what camera did you use?, what lens did you use?, what were your settings?, what software/action/preset did you use?, as if the equipment is the key to making the photograph interesting or beautiful and duplication in another time and place will produce the same result. We all know the photographer who is defined by their gear, who must have the latest and greatest equipment, but their photographs are maybe not up to par with their arsenal. But that’s not entirely what Flusser means when asking the question.

Our equipment does partially dictate what and how we photograph. In the act or gesture of photography the camera does the will of the photographer, but the photographer can only photograph what can be photographed given the capabilities of the camera and the light-sensitive medium the camera uses to record the energy from photons. Even if we have all the funds available at our disposal to acquire all the equipment we need, our photographs are still limited by the capabilities of the gear we hold in our hand at the time of making the exposure. We’re still limited by the field of view and depth of field of the lens, of the size of the image sensor or film stock, the noise and grain of sensor and film, the dynamic range of light recorded by sensor or film, the weight of camera equipment, the availability of accessories and the cost of cameras and accessories, etc., in addition to our own skill and knowledge to operate that equipment to the best of our ability.

Flusser categorizes the camera’s possession of the photographer by defining two types of images, traditional and technical. Traditional images are symbols which come directly from observations of the real world, made by the “hand of the artist” from original and unique expressions of experience and interpretations “in the [artist’s] head”. Prehistoric cave painting is his example. I think modern painting, drawing, pottery, sculpting, and other art forms made directly by the hand of the artist would fit the definition of traditional images as well. Technical images are made by apparatuses (cameras, for our purpose of discussion) which are twice removed from the hand and mind of the artist through the programming, mechanics, and limitations of the camera. Technical images are also infinitely reproducible by apparatuses (printers or darkroom reproduction) where traditional images are one of a kind. Flusser views the camera only superficially analogous to artist tools like the paintbrush. The paintbrush or chisel and the resulting artwork is directly connected to the mind of the artist through the hand, whereas the complex programming, capabilities and limitations of the camera intervene between the artist and the photograph. In the photograph, we only indirectly see the hand and mind of the photographer because the photographer’s observation of the real world, the internal traditional image, is abstracted and controlled by the capabilities and limitations of the apparatus, the camera.

John Berger (1926-2017), in Understanding A Photograph, adds that the invention of the lightweight, automatic, camera changed the process of making photographs (and art, in a general sense) from a ritual (taking time to observe, set up, wait, expose) to a simple reflex – point and shoot. This resonates with me because when I was learning photography I wanted to photograph using medium and large format cameras, but didn’t have the funds for the equipment. So when I was learning the process of photography using 35mm, I treated the camera as if it was medium or large format, taking time to observe and set up the shot, to make the exposure count, rather than “spray and pray” then pick out the best and “fix it in Photoshop.” Make the photograph in the camera as much as possible. That has always been my philosophy and practice.

In what Flusser calls the gesture of photography, the act of making a photograph is a sequence of events during which the photographer overcomes several barriers or hurdles. At each barrier (what subject to choose, composition to select, settings to use, can my camera record this scene as I envision it, should I ask for permission?…) there is a hesitation. Each hesitation is an opportunity for doubt and an interruption of concentration, awareness, and flow. Photographing is a start-stop process, especially when first learning photography. Experience removes some of the doubt, some of the hesitation, but not all. At some point we have to make the decision when to press the shutter. Because of the multitude of choices available when selecting and composing a photograph, there is no real “decisive moment,” except in the mind and intent of the photographer. Cartier-Bresson even points out the photographer needs to stay with the moment, even after thinking the strongest image has been made; to keep shooting in case something else develops with that particular situation. But to avoid “shooting like a machine-gunner” which produces needless waste and exactness about the portrayal of the event, all the while remembering there are no do-overs.

The act of photographing, the gesture, is the experience, the journey, the discovery by the photographer in researching the subject, traveling (near or far), the personal growth inherent in exploring new places, meeting new people, encountering and working through challenges, fears, and biases, and the satisfaction of the learning process, whether you achieve your intent or not. I think we learn at least a little more from not meeting expectations than from our successes, though arguments can be made for the opposite. The process of photography, for me, is a mechanism to living a Way of Life, a way of experiencing the world and interpreting it; not necessarily interpreting it for you (which is something I once told people as a bit of a conceit and marketing ploy – as if I somehow had a better sense of what you needed to know or see better than you did) but interpreting the world for me. The journey, for me, is at least as important as the destination, because the destination is a moving target. I doubt I’ll ever reach it, or even discover what that destination is. My process of photographing, the way I think about it, approach making photographs, how I see the world, is different than yours. There might be similarities, but they aren’t exactly alike and can be very different. That’s great. Diversity makes life interesting. I like to share my journey and for those who want to come along, in person or through my photographs, I welcome you.

Photography vs Photograph, Part I

This is the first of a three part essay exploring the different aspects and understanding of the act, or gesture, of photography, the photographer, and the photograph. I use material from Vilem Flusser, John Berger, Henri-Cartier Bresson, Ted Orland, and others to describe and comment on the different ways photography and photographs are perceived. This is one way to look at it. You’re going to have something different to being to the discussion or you’ll learn something new. We’re learning all the time.

Part I

Photography, like any artistic practice, is a multi-faceted activity involving materials, equipment, process, learning, technique, philosophy, a few other things, and the making of physical or otherwise visual representations of the photons recorded by the camera which, whether on film or digital sensor, are at first not visible to anyone (reviews on the camera screen notwithstanding). In this and the next one or two newsletters, I’m going to write about some different philosophies or approaches to the concept of photography versus photograph; the interconnected but also separate ideas of the process of photography and the product of the photograph. As you might already know or guess, there are, and have been, several different ideas throughout history about photography, its purpose, how it should be done, presented, and thought about, as well as the impact, importance, and relevance to the society, culture, and technology of the day. It’s a pretty big bundle to unwrap.

I’m going to focus, or try to, on just the concepts of photography and the photograph. There is spillover into other aspects of both, and I’ll try to keep that to only directly relevant offshoots. First, definitions. Photography I’ll consider to be the process involved in most of the activities NOT related to the creation of a physical photograph. I define the photograph as the physical or visual representation of a photographic image, whether that is a darkroom print, digital print, digital display, or some other physical or visual representation. In general, to keep the concepts as separated as possible for clarity of discussion, I’ll treat the image of the photograph as different from the process of photography. But first, we might need to delve into a brief overview of the long history of photography.

In some ways, photography has come a long way since its recognizable beginnings in the early 19th Century, while in other ways it has remained much the same. The arguments for and against photography and photographs in the 1800s are much the same in the 2000s; technological advances haven’t changed those arguments much but, in some cases, it has amplified them. The pursuit of photographs came about as a means to accurately record what we were looking at. The camera obscura, the first rudimentary camera device, or pinhole camera, required an operator to trace an image projected onto glass or onto a surface in a darkened room. The accuracy of the illustration depended on the patience and skill of the individual making the drawing, the technology used to create the quality of the camera obscura image (bare pinhole versus lens), and environmental conditions: the sun had to be shining for a bright enough image to be projected on the tracing surface. The camera obscura was first built and used in 1100AD by Persian (now Iraq) polymath Alhazen (Ibn al-Haytham) and used after that by several others in their process of discovering the properties of light. But the principle of the camera obscura was known since it was first described in 400 BC in China (Mozi) and 350 BC in Greece (Aristotle) and again in more detail by Leonardo da Vinci in 1550. Artists caught on to the usefulness of the camera obscura in the 15th Century, using the device to make drawings and paintings of landscapes, cityscapes, and portraits. There is evidence, though, suggesting pinhole images were used by prehistoric humans to make art as far back as 15,000 years ago. Light sensitive substances, such as chlorophyll from plants and other chemicals, were explored in the 16th Century, but it wasn’t until 1614 that an Italian chemist named Angelo Sala showed that silver nitrate, when coated on paper, darkened in the light of the sun. But, even though the camera obscura was in wide use by then, the two were not brought together until the 19th Century. So, the use of light sensitive chemistry to accurately record scenes and objects from the visible world is relatively new compared to other art forms like painting and sculpture.

The word photography was coined by Sir John Herschel, in 1839, from the Greek words photos, meaning “light”, and graphe, meaning “to draw or write”. As soon as the first permanent (more or less) image was made in 1839 (the date and maker of the first photograph is still debated today), photography became a much-argued technology. It continues to be debated today, regarding what constitutes photography or a photograph, and whether a photograph is actually art. For me, photography and the photograph are interconnected as part of a whole, an integrated process that includes both philosophy and practice, the metaphysical and the physical. But each can also stand on its own, separate from the other; photography doesn’t need to conclude as a photograph, and the photograph can be devoid of all but the technical and mechanical aspects of photography. Photography, capital P, is both art and science and can be a Way of life (in a Zen sense, as I describe in my podcast from a few years ago), or as Brooks Jensen, editor of Lenswork, describes in his podcast; a way of “living the Art life.”

This should provide a good foundation so far. I think this will be a three part essay. The general format will be to give an overview of the ideas of two or more individual’s thoughts on both the process of photography and the object of the photograph. These individuals will be photographers and non-photographers and will hopefully offer a broad look at how photography and photographs have been, and continue to be viewed in the world’s society. I’ll begin next time with philosopher Vilem Flusser (1920-1991) from his 1984 book, Towards a Philosophy of Photography, and critic, novelist and poet John Berger (1926-2017) from the 2013 book of his essays edited by Geoff Dyer, Understanding A Photograph. The remaining parts of this series will explore the thoughts of Edward Weston, Alfred Stieglitz, Ansel Adams, Ted Orland, David Bayles, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Paul Strand, Minor White, Gary Winogrand, Jay Maisel, John Paul Caponigro, Jerry Uelsmann, and others. In the end, I hope you might have an appreciation of photography in a different way than you may now, and maybe a deeper understanding of the history of photography as well as something to think about regarding your own exploration of this art form and practice.

Creativity

Being creative is one of the most multidisciplinary things a person can do. When making a photograph, you don’t just wave the camera around, randomly pressing the shutter release. Admittedly, you could do that if your intent was making abstract images. But, that’s not the usual practice. For all the parts involved in making a photograph to come together, even a mediocre photograph (a “snapshot” in the opinion of some), the photographer consciously and unconsciously dips into their internal resource of knowledge and experience, pulling inspiration from education and practice, other interests, from family, culture, and from occupations. The photographer actively and purposefully selects the subject, elements, arrangement of those elements in a pleasing and/or meaningful composition, and sets an exposure to achieve the result visualized in their mind. From the relative chaos of our surroundings photographers create the appearance of a selective world, define a visual space with boundaries in which we decide what is relevant, what is worthy of our attention, and what we want to bring to the attention of others. We select the elements of the story we want to tell and the meaning important to our intent.

Around 2500 years ago, philosophers began trying to answer the question “what is creativity?” Well, they’re still at it. And in the last 60 years or so the philosophers have been joined by neuroscientists who are attempting to tease creativity out of the cells of our brain and the wiring of our body. In all that time, there is still no agreement as to where creativity comes from or how it’s generated or a single definition of creativity. There are even different aspects of creativity: general creativity (as defined several ways), the creative person (who is a maker and/or thinker), the creative process (the process/steps in being creative), creative thinking (solving intellectual puzzles), and the creative object (which can be creative in and of itself in addition to being a created thing). What is, though, the essence of creativity? In this article I’ll be describing a definition of creativity, characteristics of the creative person, and the creative process.

In my research and through a bit of thinking on this question, a common denominator seems to form the foundation of creativity, in both humans and other animals: curiosity. The act of curious investigation involves a recognition and comprehension of things inside and outside our mind and body. The simplest definition of curiosity is exploratory behavior, the recognition that knowledge about something is missing which creates a desire to know and understand that missing information. Curiosity is seeking the answer to the question, “why, how, what?” and answering that question often relies on non-standard ways of finding out the answer; relies on the making of devices or formulas or ways of thinking or processes that previously didn’t exist. And humans are not alone in their quest for the answers to curiosity.

It’s a fact that the once held belief humans were advanced above other animals because we used tools and communicated has been debunked. We have to choose another criteria because in the last century we’ve discovered that birds, other primates, marine mammals, fish, and even invertebrates use tools, and often in a creative and innovative way once reserved strictly for us. The male bower bird of Australia builds an elaborate performance arena from grass and sticks, clearing an open “dance floor” then decorates his construction with specifically-colored items to attract females. Crows, ravens, and jays have been shown to possess advanced puzzle-solving skills equivalent to that of a 5-yr-old human child and even invent tools on the spot to solve those puzzles. Herring gulls and some hawk species drop hard-shelled prey onto hard surfaces to crack them open. Chimpanzees, orangutans, and gorillas use tools to get food from hard to reach places, use stones and sharp sticks as weapons, and leaves to make noises to warn of predators. Octopus have been observed using coconuts as “armor” against predators and for camouflage and their skill in figuring out how to escape enclosures is well known. Humpback whales expel air while rising from the deep in a circle to create nets of bubbles trapping fish they scoop up at the surface. So, curiosity leads to novel solutions to discovered “problems”. I put problems in quotes to refer to the general idea of solving puzzles or finding solutions, like how to get a termite out of its home, to eat, without destroying it so more termites will be available later, to eat, in the same place.

I mentioned earlier how creativity is more than a single thing, that creativity applies to people, processes, things, and thoughts. The definition of creativity is somewhat separate from the creative person, the conditions for creativity, and somewhat separate from the creative process, but let’s see if we can narrow down a definition of creativity to start with. Almost every definition agrees that creativity is the ability to bring various elements together that previously were related, unrelated, or believed to be unrelated to form something new or innovative, involving an agent (person), a process, and a product. Newness and innovation are important criteria in all the definitions I’m aware of. “Original” pops in now and then, too, but there’s a different discussion about originality, and a person, thing, or process can be creative without being original. Another aspect of creativity is the product must be of some value. The thing has to have some utility, which I think is meant to differentiate actual innovative creativity from things that are made for no other purpose than simply to be weird or shocking, or otherwise generally useless.

The creative person can refer to a person who devises or makes innovative and new things, or a person who lives a life outside of convention, conformity, and habit. These two characteristics are not exclusive to creatives, though many creative people, as I’m sure you’re aware, live lives somewhat different from the “norm”. There are four or five components to the creative person, as determined by observation and psychological study:

1) Openness to experience, the ability to recognize novelty and to seek out novelty. It’s the way the creative person views the world and the various situations that make up a given experience. It’s an awareness of how things are in an open, nonjudgmental way that allows for connections, juxtapositions, and nontraditional associations to be examined and explored. This is called observational learning by some authors working on the theory of creativity. Novelty and seeking out novelty has a significant impact on the brain and how we feel, both releasing amounts of the neurotransmitter dopamine into our system, which makes us feel good. Our brain and body, once it tastes the “high” of dopamine can, in some people, enforce what we might call risky behavior like rock climbing or BASE jumping or car racing. For most of us, we don’t directly notice a sudden flood of euphoria but, when we make or do something that makes us happy, dopamine is one of the primary motivators to “encourage” us to try again.

2) An internal source of evaluation. The creative person values the creation based on internal criteria; Is this creation satisfying to me? Does it accurately express a part of me – my emotion(s), thoughts, interpretation of my experience and knowledge? The value of the creation isn’t based on external praise, validation, and criticism by others, by acceptance or rejection to one show or another, by sales numbers or mentions in the news, and not by likes and numbers of followers on social media. There’s an old saying that the harshest critic is yourself (or should be, though I’m not 100% behind that part, because as the harshest critic you could also be the worst). Self-evaluation is important to your growth as an artist, and there is an external component to that evaluation, to be sure. The primary self evaluation is “have I created something I intended, that meets the standards I set for myself, that has meaning to me and my experience with the world?” rather than “have I created something of value others have requested or others have told me I should be doing?”

3) Innovative behavior. The ability to see beyond form and function, beyond labels and categorizations, to be able to play spontaneously with ideas, colors, shapes, relationships, combining elements into impossible or previously unconsidered juxtapositions, to shape wild hypotheses and express the ridiculous (Albert Einstein once said “If at first the idea us not absurd, then there is no hope for it”), and to translate from one form to another the wild, nonjudgmental exploration of what if? Creativity is, in many ways, problem solving. Creative, innovative, behavior is risky. But without pushing boundaries we never know where that boundary lies or what potential lies beyond. History is full of individuals, partnerships, and groups who thought to themselves, “that’s interesting, what if…?” or “there’s got to be more to it than that…” I’m sure you can name several off the top of your head right now.

4) Interest. This is a characteristic I haven’t seen in the literature I’ve read so far, but one I feel is as important as the others. A person might be extremely talented, but what if they don’t have any interest to pursue or apply that talent in any way? We read about talented individuals who “just had to do it” as if compelled by some unseen force or internal mission. How many piano concertos or computer systems or architectural designs or theories of everything have never been made because the individual had the capability, but was more interested in something else? A couple relevant examples that come to mind is Ansel Adams, who was an accomplished, trained, concert pianist, but chose photography instead, and Henri Cartier-Bresson was an accomplished painter before switching to photography. What if Elon Musk wasn’t fascinated by transportation?

5) Dexterity. This is another characteristic not addressed in the literature. Is dexterity a characteristic or requirement for creativity? Must we be a Michael Jordan or Alex Honnold or Picasso or Beethoven to be considered creative? Certainly, some creative endeavors do require some physical skill and coordination; dance, rock climbing, basketball, playing the piano. But there is mental dexterity and dexterity of leadership; Stephen Hawking, Richard Feynman, Ernest Shackleton, Abraham Lincoln. Included in this group are those with savant syndrome, who can solve complex equations in their head or play impromptu original musical scores without training, but not tie their shoes or tell you how much to pay for a hamburger. These people are no less creative, in my mind.

6) Knowledge/Experience. What you know and what you’ve experienced play a big role in being creative. Sometimes, not knowing anything can produce innovative results by not being caught up in the rut of “we’ve always done it that way”. I’ve had a couple jobs that I wasn’t as experienced as someone else might have been in that position, but being able to see processes from an outside perspective allowed me to make suggestions and change procedures to make improvements. But, in general, the wider your experience and knowledge the more likely you’ll be able to make those unconventional associations between unrelated or related elements. Throughout history, many of the most creative individuals had interest, experience, knowledge, in a broad range of subjects. Called polymaths, these people were (and are) philosophers, scientists, musicians, painters, chemists, mathematicians, all rolled into one, and through this broad range of exposure to different things were able to make connections that were unseen by specialists.

Being creative also involves some type of process, not just in the making or creation of the thing, but in the period of time leading up to and after. Nearly every study of the creative process concludes the same way: there are four stages to the creative process. They might use different terms to define the stages and slightly different descriptions of what happens in each stage, but they are essentially the same.

1) Inception/preparation/exploration. This is the stage where wild ideas are born. This is usually the point in the process that inspiration strikes you in the face, when you suddenly have an insight into associations you may never have consciously considered before. And, often, you’re not consciously aware of the mixing and thinking that goes on in your brain behind the scenes, putting things together like a puzzle with no picture to follow…..does this fit here? What about there? This process involves what has recently been discovered as the default mode network, the unconscious or subconscious brain processing that sometimes comes to our awareness when we’re not occupied thinking of other things or concentrating on an activity – like when we’re in the shower or taking a walk, watching television, or in the moments right before we wake up (or makes us sit up in bed in the middle of the night – better write it down or you’ll forget it!). We may also be inspired by a news report or movie or event we’ve witnessed, and this puts us on track to see where that inspiration leads. Sometimes we can visualize the end product, other times we’re heading down a blind alley. But there is always an initial idea or concept that propels us forward and keeps us moving.

2) Incubation/illumination/development/selection. This stage potentially incorporates separate, but related, processes. Each of the stages in the creative process are interactive in many ways, it’s seldom a linear path from beginning to end. Here is where we ask “will it work?” and “can I do it?” Do I have the skills to pull it off, can I learn these skills? do I have access to equipment needed? How much will it cost and where will I get the funds? It’s in this stage we sift through the various ideas and select the one we’d like to pursue. Maybe it’s the most interesting, or most challenging, the one we’re most prepared for and able to complete, or the one we’re finally at the stage of experience and knowledge to do it justice, to bring out the essence. It’s also the stage at which we’re most likely to quit. Answering our questions may reveal we’re not prepared, and self-doubt can creep in. We begin to feel isolated, anxious perhaps, about embarking on a new project. We tell ourselves, “nobody has done this before, maybe for good reason”, or “this has been done before, and much better”, “I’m foolish to pursue this, nobody will be interested”, “I’m not good enough to do it justice”, “I don’t have time.” These are strong thoughts and anxieties to overcome, but everyone has them, whether they admit to it or not. Most often what overcomes this anxiousness is the desire to communicate your idea or concept, especially to others who share your idea (even if the creator has to also create or imagine such a group).

3) Completion/verification. Completing the project depends on your personal evaluation: is it done? Has it answered the questions you intended to answer or asked the questions you wanted others to consider? Is it of the quality you envisioned? Will this be put out for others to see or is it only a stepping stone to something else and will be kept private? This is where external validation/feedback can come into play (also during the incubation stage), where you find out if your efforts translate to others the way you intended. While your creativity should primarily engage your own enjoyment (photographer Vivian Maier, is perhaps a recent example), there might be interest by others in your work that inspires you to keep expressing your creativity, and provide the funds to do so.

Creativity is complex. It can be argued that creativity is more highly developed in humans, yet other animal species exhibit profound creativity where it was once thought not to exist. There is in creative development a beginning, middle, and end, like any good story. We have to start somewhere on that journey, and each step forward adds something new, which may change the project entirely or improve it beyond previous imagination. That step forward always holds the potential for making things worse, too. And we either go back and try again, give up, or transform it into something else. The creative process, if I now include the creative person, the process, and the thing, is a contiguous process, each stage is connected to the previous and following stage. All along the way, elements are connected, discarded, discovered, often by their appearance, familiarity, placement, and perception of the element in space and time. Elements, like words in a poem, are associated by their similarity and by their structure – rhyme, rhythm – and other elements become contiguous because of common elements, like mathematical or chemical symbols. Anytime otherwise remotely related or unrelated ideas become related, a creative solution can be formed.

Ansel Adams: conservation under Reagan and Trump

It’s somewhat surprising, but not entirely, to see similarities between the administrations of Ronald Reagan and Donald Trump, particularly in their respective Secretaries of Interior, James Watt and Ryan Zinke. Another controversial appointee in the Reagan cabinet was Anne Gorsuch (mother of now Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch) who was the head of the EPA and acted to reduce the budget and staff of the EPA as well as lessen regulations on pesticide use. Watt and Gorsuch were the prominent anti-environmentalists (other than Reagan) in that administration, and luckily did not have broad support in the government for their agenda. Thus, the damage they were able to accomplish was relatively limited. However, other than Zinke in the Trump administration, there are several cabinet and cabinet-level members, in addition to Trump himself, hostile to the environment that, together, along with Tea Party Republican sentiments, form a stronger force for change than was possible in the Reagan era. These current members are Administrator of the EPA Scott Pruitt, Secretary of Energy Rick Perry, and Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue.

I’ve steered away from politics on my blog with the intent to maintain a purely art-centric dialog. However, as with Ansel Adams and Ronald Reagan, so with Trump and his administration. Many artists, as well as anyone who visits public lands, whether a National Park, National Monument, National Forest, National Wildlife Refuge, or Bureau of Land Management, depend on, enjoy, and receive countless economic and non-economic (non-quantifiable) benefits from those visits and the experiences gained. In addition, surrounding communities benefit from the trade visitors from all over the world engage in while they are in the area. Lodging, all forms of general retail, equipment rentals, guide services, restaurants, grocery stores, auto repair and rental, airlines, buses, travel agencies, art supply stores, camera stores, outdoor and hunting supply stores, all local or at some remove from the particular area benefit from the establishment and maintenance of public lands. A much greater and sustainable benefit than resource extraction which, when completed, disappears leaving behind an economic and environmental wasteland. In the 1980s, with the appointment of James Watt as Secretary of the Interior under President Reagan, public lands came under fire for exploitation and privatization. Ansel Adams, who was by that time nearly 80 years old, became very active, politically, to address the very serious threat to our public lands. Throughout his life, Ansel was always in contact with his representatives and president. But when Reagan was elected and Watt appointed, he embarked on what opponents would call today a liberal rampage or a snowflake campaign. In letters to the editor, to conservation organizations like the Sierra Club and Wilderness Society, in interviews, and in letters to his representatives (I don’t know if he ever wrote to Watt or Reagan directly) he engaged in what he called in a 1981 letter to then Wilderness Society director William Turnage a “…TOTAL IDEOLOGICAL WAR ON SECRETARY WATT AND HIS COHORTS” (emphasis from the letter).

He was very concerned about the future of public lands, in particular National Parks, which were being considered for resource exploitation and privatization. In a letter to the San Jose Mercury News (1981), Ansel wrote (notice the similarities with the concerns of today, though today’s concerns I believe are even more real than they were then):

I have spent a good part of more than 60 years working with many others on the problems of conservation and the environment, beginning in 1919 as the summer custodian of the Sierra Club’s center in Yosemite. I do not intend, at the age of 79, to now stand back and observe the destruction of our environment and all that has been accomplished to appropriately preserve and manage the resources of the earth – the physical, recreational, and aesthetic qualities of the world in which we live…The present administration’s endorsement of free exploitation of our basic resources will have tragic consequences for the well-being of our people and the amenities of continued life on this earth. These dangerous new policies are expressed through Secretary of the Interior James Watt. I address my critical remarks directly to him as the spokesman of these dire policies…The impact of the fearful concepts and intentions expressed by Watt is not fully realized, except by a few experienced conservationists…Indeed, Mr. Watt acts ignorant about the park system that he now controls (and)…can do great damage just through ignorance of the facts of what our public lands represent…It is common knowledge that Watt is a religious fundamentalist. He has his right to embrace any religion or creed he desires, but he has no right to impose his religious philosophy on the management of his department and the future of the American People. I have heard that he justifies his program of using our land and resources now without regard for the future by saying, in effect, there will be very little future; the Second Coming is due any time now…The overwhelming problems of our economy and defense have taken precedence over consideration for our natural and cultural resources. I sympathize with the President in his difficult economic and political decisions. I implore him to recognize the important fact that if we lose the essential qualities of our environment no political philosophy and no effort for defense will have validity. Secretary Watt’s values appear restricted to the material, immediate, and profit-oriented mentality of a two-dimensional group with little wisdom or conscience…We are fighting for our life and the future of our descendants. We must stand up and be counted! As a citizen I urge each of us to take on responsibility: write members of Congress, Secretary of Interior Watt, and President Reagan; write or phone people you know and urge them to do the same. Impress on everyone you can that this is not just an “opinion” problem but the most intense threat we have ever faced to the integrity and future of our land.

In an interview with Playboy Magazine in 1983, not long before his death, Ansel Adams issued a quote that I and others have often repeated. The quote is part of a longer statement in response to the question “What is the most critical fight now?”:

To save the entire environment: wilderness protection, proper use of parks, breakdown of Federal operation of the parks in favor of private interests, acquiring new park and wilderness land, unrestrained oil drilling and mining on land and offshore, etc. First on the list now is that all the wilderness areas must be protected. It is very important. With the current Administration, they are gravely threatened. It means that the small inroads this country has made in protecting some areas, both for scenic beauty and for invaluable resources, are threatened.

Here is an important point: Only two and a half percent of the land in this country is protected. Not only are we being fought in trying to extend that two and a half percent to include other important or fragile areas but we are having to fight to protect that small two and a half percent. It is horrifying that we have to fight our own Government to save our environment. Our worst enemy is the person the President designated with the responsibility of managing the country’s environment: James Watt. No wonder it is a monumental battle.

We are experiencing today what Ansel Adams feared would happen in his time. We have already seen the lessening or removal of protections for migratory birds and endangered and threatened species, the allowing of toxic waste to be dumped into our streams and rivers and the spraying of known and previously banned toxic and harmful chemicals on our crops. We’ve already seen the declassification of public land specifically to allow for resource extraction. We’ve seen law enforcement and private contractors enlisted to protect commercial interests when they were clearly in the wrong (and proven so in the courts after the fact). We’re seeing attempts to defund and privatize our public education system which, I think, Ansel Adams would be angry about because education is a foundation for understanding the world, the complex relationships found in the environment we depend on and, thus, the foundation for understanding why we need to conserve and protect these areas. The parallels between the Reagan era administration and the Trump era administration is curious at least, frustrating, and in the end, infuriating, because there are many more in this current administration who previous to being appointed to their positions, were adamantly opposed to the function of the agencies they now control. Trump has stacked the deck in a way Reagan could not have. Back in the 80s, the fight was mostly against Watt and Reagan and, to some extent, Gorsuch. Today, the fight is with nearly the entire administration as well as Congress.

Ansel was able to use his considerable weight as a prominent artist and activist to influence those in power who could do something. We average citizens must rely on our combined weight to inundate our representatives with facts and fact-based opinions. We must use our individual power of the vote to replace those we disagree with with those who support continued progress and economic growth, the conservation of our environment and the protection and proper management of public lands, the protection of human rights and individual freedoms, and reasoned discourse and cooperation with those who have differing opinions and ideologies. These may seem to be disparate subjects, but they are all related and connected. We live in a more complex world than we did in the 1980s. We can’t just let others do the work for us. We have to speak up before it’s too late. Once the land is gone under an open pit, oil field, or resort development, we can’t get it back.

reference: 1984. Ansel Adams: Letters and Images 1916-1984. New York Graphic Society, Little Brown

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/