In response to the ongoing debate of “To Watermark or Not To Watermark?”:
If a photographer is a photographer because that’s their chosen profession, career, and livelihood, their desire to protect their work should not be lessened by this debate. Why not also decry people who lock the doors of their homes or their cars? I don’t know of any restaurants, doctors or auto mechanics who “brand” their services and products then allow free use (theft) without pursuing some recompense if it does happen. If they do offer free stuff, it’s on their own terms, just as it should be with photographers and other artists. We shouldn’t be “required” to give up or give in just because people love our work so much they’d rather not pay to have it. While I also agree art is an important component of a healthy society, why are artists compelled to “gift” their livelihood to that society and others are not? Honestly, I (and other artists, probably) would do this for free if I could live without money. Perhaps artists should be exempt from paying for anything in return for gifting their work to the world. I’d go for that.
I know this is an old, old debate, and there are photographers and artists who are consumed by it, which impacts their ability to do their work, blunts their creativity, and generally makes them grumpy. I do watermark my images so people know who the maker is, not really for theft avoidance because, as you say, if they want it they’ll take it. Just like locking your doors when you go out doesn’t deter the determined thief. I do agree that obnoxious watermarks are overkill (Would you like a photograph with that watermark, sir?). During a workshop I attended in 2001 led by Jay Maisel, during an image review session I showed some images with watermarks (during a workshop, yes) and Jay stopped and told everyone he didn’t know why anyone who posted their work online would not watermark their work, simply for the ability to be able to identify the owner, if nothing else. So, I see no downside and I don’t really care if someone doesn’t like it. It’s my work and if they want to purchase a photo for themselves I’m happy to provide them with one minus the watermark. The watermark also becomes the only identifying, traceable, means to find the owner when embedded metadata is removed (by services like Facebook, for example).
There is the distinction between professional and amateur photographers as it relates to watermarks and interest in copyright protection. But more often these days companies are approaching amateurs, using their work, for the very inexpensive fees (if any at all) amateurs are willing to accept (because they are uninformed).
I’ve also wrestled with the “clients hate watermarks” issue. Some art buyers hate to see them (just like they hate websites with black backgrounds). Again, if the mark is obnoxious, I understand. But I feel less inclined to remove them from my website display. If they want comps they can have a watermark-free image via the download process.
There will always be two groups in this debate. I prefer to be identified for my work when the purpose of my posting work is to easily identify the work as belonging to me. Watermarking might afford some small amount of theft protection, but even if the photo is used and the watermark retained, I am still identified as the owner of that image and that is more important than “sharing”.
Some time ago, I received an email from someone I didn’t know out-of-the-blue asking if I’d provide some feedback on an attached photo. I like to help out photographers by providing feedback on their work when I have the time. I had the time, so I looked at the photo and replied with some detailed comments.
Artists, regardless of the media worked in, need feedback to improve. It’s extremely difficult to know if your work is appreciated if nobody gives you feedback about it. It’s hard to improve your skill if others don’t comment on your style, technique, materials, and other aspects of your work. Artists put their work “out there” in art shows, galleries, informal and formal exhibits, contests, clubs, associations, on their personal websites and online forums like Flickr and Facebook. But, the feedback you receive from those outlets and forums is not always from qualified sources or of any real use. How many comments of “I Love It!” does it take for you to believe you’re the next Ansel Adams? So, it’s not unusual to seek out someone whose work you admire (or at least they appear to know what they’re doing) to ask their opinion.
The next day, I received a very gracious thank you email from the person. They greatly appreciated my thoughtful comments and wondered if I’d look at some other photos. Attached to the email were about 30 identical variations of the same photo previously sent.
My first reaction was, honestly, “Are you kidding me?” and a bit of a laugh. My next reaction was a little angry that this person thought I didn’t have anything better to do than look at a pile of similar photos of the same subject and compose an essay of critique for each of them. I wondered if they even comprehended what I wrote to them about the first photo (which was a better photo and the comments I wrote applied to this second set as well). I could have reacted like I’ve seen others do, in a condescending and overbearing, “holier-than-thou” response full of wisecracks and veiled (and not-so-veiled) put-downs, asking them in certain terms if they thought I sat around all day responding to requests for free reviews of buckets of similar photographs. Responding in such a way doesn’t do anyone any good, neither the reviewing photographer nor the requesting photographer. And, it furthers a stereotype of the condescending professional who thinks everyone “below” them is unworthy, even though that person started out on the lowest rung of the ladder sometime in their life. We tend to forget that. Even if I chose to ignore the request and just not respond, I would be essentially doing the same thing.
So, I composed a friendly reply explaining, that while I’m happy to provide feedback on the occasional photo, I have other duties required for maintaining my business and I’m unable to review and comment on such a large number of photos outside a formal, paid, session. As a professional artist I understand the desire for feedback, validation, a kind word, a helpful hint, etc. from someone who appears to know what they’re doing. I was there once and I’m sure most, if not all, artists of one stripe or another have been in the same boat….nervous and eager to approach the “local pro” to have them peer at your work and pronounce their judgment, either letting you pass through the “First Gate” or send you back to try again.
I hope I wasn’t a pest as I was starting out. Getting through that “First Gate”, the first time you have someone other than family or friend evaluate your work, is a first step to moving forward with your work. Asking a stranger to look at your work is a request for validation as much as it is for actual constructive feedback. “Am I good enough?” you’re asking. Am I good enough to keep trying?
My first formal request for a review was to a local photography gallery owner. I’d been in the gallery a few times and the guy seemed to know what he was doing, so I gathered up my courage one day and asked him if he’d look at some of my photos. We set an appointment and I brought back a book with some prints and slides (back way before digital). His review, as I remember it, wasn’t detailed. He didn’t give me suggestions for improvement or tell me specifically what he liked or didn’t like. He did tell me he liked my work, though, which was enough incentive at the time to continue making an effort. At the time, I didn’t really know what I was doing with my work, didn’t know what I wanted my work to be (fine art or stock), or what to expect from the review. I figured this guy who had his own business would know what to tell me. He’d obviously reviewed other work, right? And, he was good at what he did so he must have some sense of what a good photograph is. That was my First Gate.
Some First Gates are large, ornate, sturdy, with an intricate lock; difficult to get through unless your work is the right “key”, and more like a “last gate” than a first. Others are similar to a rickety garden gate; most of the time propped partially open so you can walk through with little effort. The rest in between pose varying challenges. Your task is to select the First Gate that will do you the most good (at least how you perceive that to be at the time. You may actually pass through several First Gates throughout your artistic career, especially if you change your style, media, or artistic or professional focus. If you change from an editorial photographer to a commercial photographer, you might need to pass through a commercial First Gate to move forward. So, how do you get to, much less through, the First Gate?
How best is it to approach someone to ask for their feedback/review? It’s simple, really. I tried to do as much research as I could first. I found a photographer that did work similar to mine and lurked around his gallery for a while until I was more or less sure he was “qualified” and until I had enough guts to ask. Now, I would be more specific, and suggest you be, too.
Research the people you’re interested in getting feedback from. Do they do similar work? An architectural photographer might not be the best choice to review landscape or wedding photography. Is there any indication on their website or other materials that they’d be willing to review work? One indicator might be that they teach. Call, stop in, write a brief email, introducing yourself (briefly), get to know them if possible, and when you’re ready ask if they would be willing to review one or two (only) pieces of work before you dump a portfolio on them. Remember, this is your First Gate, not your 4th or 9th or 20th. You can always go back to them later and ask if you could arrange a more detailed review.
I must stress something here. If you’re going to seek out someone, a professional, to review your work, you must show the best work you’ve done to date. This is work you’ve spent time with, and used your equipment and skills to the best of your ability. I can honestly tell you if you aren’t presenting your best work you will likely only get a brief and perhaps brusk response, although only somewhat encouraging, to “keep trying”.
But, I must also stress something else. Don’t take unfavorable feedback (in your opinion) personally. You have to distance your attachment to your work to receive feedback properly, so that it’s beneficial to you. Because you’re going to get feedback you don’t want to hear, no matter how good you are. The feedback about your work is not about you, but about the work. Receive that feedback with the same enthusiasm you would receive praise because it will help you grow. Be respectful of the person’s time and willingness to help you. Don’t make excuses about your work. Don’t berate the reviewer or you won’t get any more help from them.
Getting through the First Gate is a big step. You’re announcing to yourself and the world your intention to be serious about your work. Challenge yourself and avoid the propped open garden gates.
I also encourage professionals who are asked to review work to do so (or decline to do so) with respect. If you aren’t comfortable giving feedback, tell the person. Recommend someone you know who might be willing. If you respond like an asshat, regardless if it makes you feel superior, it only makes you look like an asshat. And the world could do with less of those. Reviewers as well as reviewees learn from the experience. And the world could do with more quality art and artists.
Art often gets a bum rap. Well, I should be more specific and say art making often gets a bum rap. Making art is often viewed as something done for fun, a diversion from the day-to-day responsibilities of job and family. Art is something we do in our spare time, like reading a book or gardening. Unless, of course, you’re actually making a living at making art, then it’s ok and you can go about your business as a respectable member of the community without being asked when you’re going to finally get that “real job.” The artist character in movies, television, and literature is often portrayed as the loveable and talented but nonetheless jobless, irresponsible freeloader who sleeps on the couch at a friend’s house. Some even say making art, and funding it, is a waste of time and money. I should also say I’m referring to art in the context of this article mostly as works created by an individual artist through his/her own passion, voice, and creativity, not commercial art created for a particular audience.
We occasionally attend plays, concerts and exhibits and watch artistic television and movies, saunter down to the local pub to hear the latest band, or purchase art from galleries and individual artists. Otherwise, as a society and as individuals we are generally not engaged with artists or making art on a regular basis. Our individual participation in the arts is minimal and from a distance: “We have become a society composed almost entirely of audience” (Ted Orland, artist & author). As a society, we relegate the responsibility of the support of the arts to the government as a common good, or to the consumer as a commodity. These two forms of validation leave out the majority of art makers who create works because they love it, not because they’re getting paid. And, in times of financial or political uncertainty the arts are usually the first to suffer because art is perceived as an elective rather than a necessity, as a hobby rather than a pathway to greater understanding, creativity, and innovation, as an after-school activity to keep kids occupied until parents get off work rather than a means to bridge cultural understanding.
The arts exert a powerful influence on the development of societies. Artists often challenge commonly-held perspectives with innovative thinking, raise awareness of social issues, break down barriers to cross-cultural understanding and global dialogue, and inspire creative ideas.
If art is important to the development of societies, yet art funding is unpredictable and insufficient, and art is not viewed as an important pursuit, what encourages people to set aside time to doodle, write a poem, walk in the park, paint a picture, or photograph?
Art is not made by a special breed of people, but by ordinary people who have dedicated a piece of their lives to special work… Artists are regular people who work all the time, and lead real lives all the time as well… The need for more art in the community is not nearly so great as the need for more artists in the community. Every neighborhood should support a musician or two, a painter or two, a writer or two.
I suggest “artist” refers to anyone who makes art, dedicated individuals and “part-time artists” alike; adults and children. Many, if not all, neighborhoods have a local artist living there or at least nearby. They may not call themselves an artist, but it is someone who paints, draws, knits or quilts, makes scrapbooks, wood toys or builds kites. What if neighborhoods engaged with their local artist(s) to have them teach about their art, supported and encouraged their art making, and neighborhood residents became more active making their own art as a result? What if the neighborhood artist, supported by the neighborhood, inspired a neighborhood of artists?
What does neighborhood support of an artist look like? How about hiring the artist to lead after-school programs, to give demonstrations in the local park, neighborhood musicians getting together in the park or on a cul-de-sac for an evening concert or jam session. A neighborhood art show, play or outdoor movie night? And support doesn’t always mean money. “Artists need to feel they have the support of the community in their art making efforts; if not for what they have already achieved, then for the potential they represent” (Ted Orland). What about working with city and state arts organizations to engage neighborhood children in creating public art where they live? Could a neighborhood be inspired to support neighborhood artists? If a neighborhood doesn’t have a local artist nearby, arts organizations and clubs may have a list of artists you can contact.
The arts are a powerful tool in building and sustaining successful neighbourhoods. Community-engaged art making is a unique and effective approach to community building that fosters relationships between artists and residents while producing exciting, unique art, and nurturing mentoring opportunities. The result is a dynamic explosion of creativity that changes how art is made, how communities are built, and how we live together.
In Taos, New Mexico, the Harwood Museum of Art set up Neighborhood Arts Projects that went to neighborhoods to bring art to children and families during the summer months. There’s nothing stopping a neighborhood from doing something similar on its own with their local artist.
Back to Toronto, a city that created Neighborhood Arts Hubs (NAHs) that act as catalysts for projects, link artists and residents, offer meeting and networking space, and generally promote the cultural activities in the neighborhood. NAHs are designed to act as a resource and to support a spectrum of arts activity, not compete with community art programs already happening. NAHs cooperate and complement the work of other NAHs including libraries, health centers, schools, and after-school programs.
How can this be done? Where will the funding come from? Your projects don’t need to be expensive. There are many art projects that can be done with items found around the house. Neighbors could collect materials from their own homes to provide for projects. There are many sources for funds that can be found working in collaboration with your artists. State, county, and city arts agencies provide grants, so do foundations like The Knight Foundation. Several outlets for crowd-sourcing funds are out there like www.kickstarter.com, http://crowdfunding.com/, www.indiegogo.com, and www.razoo.com. Neighborhoods can self-fund projects entirely or in part through their own fundraising efforts. Your local arts council/agency and community centers will be very happy to work with you and your artist(s) to help find sources, write grants, and build your neighborhood art community.
As an artist, explore the possibility with your neighbors. As a neighbor, explore the possibility with an artist you know. I’m pretty sure it’ll be fun, challenging, and beneficial to everyone who participates (and probably even to those who don’t).
“When you make art, you are making the world a better place. Everything that happens afterwards, whether to you or to your art or to society, flows directly from that initial act” – Ted Orland
This is part one of a two part discussion of scale in photography, starting with Space.
First, let’s define scale. For this discussion, scale refers to the relative size of things and the perception of detail. A pencil is a small scale object while a car is a relatively larger scale object and a tree on a larger scale still, etc. As with a map, small scale refers to a greater perception of detail (the stamens and pistils within a flower) while large scale refers to wider coverage and less detail (many flowers within a patch in a meadow).
When Space is mentioned and we’re talking about photography, we usually think of how elements are arranged relative to each other in a composition, and how that arrangement creates the illusion of depth. We might also consider negative and positive space. But space is more than what appears in our photograph and the methods we use to manipulate it in a two-dimensional image. Space encompasses us, our movements, our perceptions, our actions, and influences our photography. In this newsletter, I’m going to describe space in terms of our body and our senses.
We generally live within a small space (our individual body, our house, neighborhood, city) relative to all possible spaces (our state, country, continent, planet, solar system.). The activities of our lives are also contained within a certain space, with more specific activities (more influence) occurring at the smaller scale (body, family, home) and becoming more general and less specific (less influence) at larger scales (city, state, country, world). It’s easier to contemplate a smaller space because there are fewer and more familiar elements and interactions to consider. Though, think about some specialists, like physicists, architects, and astronomers who look at and understand their (our) world differently from most people because of their familiarity, knowledge, and experience with spatial scales very different from everyday life. These specialists even view the world differently from other specialists, based on the space occupied by their subject of interest; physicists with subjects measured in billionths of an inch, architects in hundreds or thousands of linear, square, or cubic feet, astronomers in millions and trillions of miles. Our understanding and perception of our personal relationship to the space around us, often called our environment, helps influence how we create our photography.
Two types of spatial perception are proprioception and exteroception, terms defined in 1909 by Sir Charles Scott Sherrington, a Nobel laureate neurophysiologist, histologist, bacteriologist, and pathologist. Proprioception, which means “one’s own individual perception”, is the small scale awareness of our body movement from the actions of muscles, tendons, and joints, the sense of the relative position of the various parts of our body, and their position/orientation in space; whether your body is moving or still, which body parts are moving or still, where your body parts are in relation to one another, and the strength of effort necessary to move or be still. Our brain constantly monitors our muscles consciously and unconsciously (mostly unconsciously and automatically), adjusting their position, tone, and motion to maintain balance, grip, support, and movement. One example of proprioception, or body awareness, is learning to drive a manual transmission car. At first, we are very conscious of our body position – feet, legs, hands, ears, eyes, arms, head – as we try to coordinate the movements of clutch, gas, gear shift, with our ears listening to the engine and/or eyes looking at the speedometer or tachometer, while maintaining awareness of the road ahead. At first, the operation is clumsy and we wonder how we’ll ever be proficient. But, after practice we eventually perform the relatively complex movements automatically. Our body is aware of its position and the actions needed to perform the task. We reach for and move the gear shift without looking at it, and our feet find the right position on the gas and clutch pedals and know how to operate them in sequence, often even in cars we’ve never driven before.
Exteroception, meaning external perception, is the large scale awareness and perception of the outside world through stimuli originating outside the body. Exteroception is accomplished through our primary receptive senses such as sight, smell, hearing, taste, and touch. Through these senses we gain awareness, understanding, and experience of the environment around us – the temperature of the air, the texture of the ground, the smell of a marketplace, the colors of fabric, the metallic taste of ozone in the air during a thunderstorm.
An example of proprioception and exteroception working together, using the car example, is how we’re able to know where the boundaries of our car are, even when we can’t see them. We instinctively know where the front bumper or rear bumper are relative to our position in the driver’s seat, how long our car is and how wide, even its maneuverability. We visualize the space it occupies on the road and can judge fairly accurately whether it will fit between two lines or two objects or not. We’re able to manipulate the controls of the car easily without thinking of hand and foot positions, and maneuver the car through sensing it’s position in space. This type of awareness is sometimes referred to as body thinking.
How does this apply to your photography? Increasing your awareness beyond your immediate surroundings, beyond just what you’re looking at, beyond the elements you’ve selected to compose into a photograph, you stop simply viewing and begin experiencing. You begin purposefully monitoring where you are in space, in your environment, instead of cruising through on autopilot. As with the car example, your body awareness and external awareness merge, you know how to manipulate the camera controls instinctively, you’re aware of your surroundings, you stop being a photographer documenting a scene separate from what is occurring and become part of the composition itself. Photographer Sebastio Salgado describes it as “There comes a moment when it is no longer you who takes the photograph, but receives the way to do it quite naturally and fully.” Zen and Taoist practice calls this a part of Great Understanding, which is different from, but related to, other “modes” I’ve covered such as Flow and Being in the Zone.
It all comes down to being more than a spectator, more than simply an observer or recorder of things we find in front of us, more than the knowledge of aperture and shutter speed, depth of field and perfect exposure. It’s the combination of all these things not in a confined bubble closely surrounding our body, but in a limitless space in which we move and think freely and are aware of our environment. When I’m standing in the forest looking for a subject to photograph, I sense the ground under my feet, the air moving across my skin, the light entering my eyes, the sounds coming from near and far, the movement of trees, grass, shrubs, the texture of mountains and clouds, the sound of water in a stream or river. I imagine how the trees and rocks are rooted into the ground. I sense the distance between myself and my car, other people I’m with, the nearest town or city, and road. I may not see anything interesting right away, but I might hear something interesting in the nearby stream or river, the rushing of rapids or banging of rocks, and go investigate.
Everything exists in space. We continually expand and contract our awareness of what exists in the space around us, sometimes contracting space to the point of becoming completely unaware. Through practice, you will arrive at a comfortable awareness space you can maintain all the time, and expand or contract it at will. I’m pretty certain when you become more body and world aware, you’ll experience more enjoyment in your photography (even if you aren’t “successful” in getting that great shot) and get better shots. Try it.
In photography classes, workshops, seminars, casual gatherings, magazine articles, blogs, Tweets, and Facebook posts there is much ado about the appearance of a photograph. We talk and debate on the merits of the use of a small aperture or large, this lens or that lens, Photoshop versus Gimp versus Lightroom, the use of this shutter speed or that one, color or black & white, right subject or wrong subject….the list goes on. Now and then, someone will make the comment “you were there at the right time.”
A photograph is formed by light. It’s the light and its direction, color, brightness, absorption and reflection that gives us the ability to see the things we see, and the colors, shapes, forms, and gesture make the photo appealing to our eyes and emotions. Overall, the photograph is an interpretation by the photographer of what was seen and/or felt emotionally at the time. When we look at a photograph the photographer hopes they’ve accomplished their task to allow us to see what they saw and maybe experience in some way a sense of “being there”. While the visual aspect of a photograph is important to the viewer, timing drives a successful or unsuccessful image.
You’ve probably heard or read the popular phrases “F8 and Be There” and “the Decisive Moment“, both terms coined back in the hey-day of photography. You probably understand their meaning, and maybe even used them to describe one of your photographs or a photograph you’ve looked at. These phrases embody one philosophy of photography almost to the exclusion of all other aspects of creating a photograph. If a picture is a little blurry or a bit too dark or too light, but captures an important occurrence or captivates the viewer in some way, we’re more forgiving than when the picture is of a more mundane subject rendered sharply. Of course, we will probably mutter “I wish it was in better focus”, but a photograph of an important moment at the right instant captures that moment forever and blurry or not people will probably still be impressed, and even more so if all the technical aspects are met. But even the technically perfect photo capturing the moment just before or just after the critical instant pales in comparison to the less-perfect one made “at the right time”.
“F8 and Be There” is believed to have been coined by the famous photojournalist and street photographer Weegee (Arthur Fellig), though some say the source was photographer Allen Hopkins. We’ll probably never know for sure. The general philosophy behind “F8 and Be There” is by using an aperture of F8 (or thereabouts; in general, a small aperture) you’re likely to have a generous depth of field to ensure all the important elements are in focus. And you have to “be there” to get the shot. Photographer Jay Maisel also said, “If you are out there shooting, things will happen for you. If you’re not out there, you’ll only hear about it.” Regardless of the technical details of camera settings, if you’re not “out there shooting” you won’t be there when things happen, you won’t get the (or any) shot, and you’ll only hear the stories from the people who were (and probably see their photographs, too).
The Decisive Moment is a term described by photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson as “…the simultaneous recognition, in a fraction of a second, of the significance of an event as well as the precise organization of forms which gives that event its proper expression.” The awareness of activity and moments surrounding us and the ability to predict (pre-visualize, in a sense) what will happen next, as well as preparedness in the face of pure dumb luck, is what helps create a good to great photograph. The photos below illustrate this concept. The first photo is the iconic Decisive Moment image by Cartier-Bresson called “Behind the Gare Saint Lazare”. Try to imagine the impact of this photograph if the man was more or less blurry. Think about the timing that went into the making of this photo, the prediction of when the man’s foot would enter the water and the near instantaneous calculation of the shutter delay between pressing the shutter release and the opening of the shutter. In most SLR (single lens reflex) photography in which the photographer looks into the viewfinder and through the lens, the photographer never sees the shot in the viewfinder. The view is always obscured by the mirror when it flips up away from the opening shutter (except in a very small number of pellicle mirror cameras). Cartier-Bresson used a rangefinder camera where the viewfinder is offset from the lens, not looking through it, allowing the photographer to see the action during the exposure. The use of the rangefinder camera gave Cartier-Bresson better advantage in capturing the decisive moment because he could watch events unfold through the viewfinder and more accurately predict when to press the shutter to capture the single exposure. Today, we have continuous motor drives shooting 8 – 14 frames per second and many photographers adopting the “spray and pray” method, hoping within the mass of exposures that they “got it.”
The next photo is “Fire Escape Collapse” by Pulitzer Prize winning photographer Stanley Forman. This photo is a prime example of “right place, right time” coupled with preparation and awareness. Forman, as he arrived on scene, was listening to what was going on and heard a call for a ladder truck because there were people trapped on the fire escape at the back of the building. He chose a position on top of the firetruck as the best position to view what was expected to be a routine rescue. But, as the rescue ladder was positioned, the fire escape gave way. Forman was able to shoot two exposures as the woman and child fell. The story of the fire escape collapse photograph is Here.
All the technical skill available is next to useless if you’re not “at the right place at the right time”; the coming together of light, subject, moment, viewpoint, and technique.
Being There can encompass many things:
* the time of day, season, or year/decade * serendipity (simple luck) * hard work, research, and preparation * juxtaposition (the arrangement of elements in the photo) * being aware enough to capture a gesture or emotion * selecting a shutter speed to show or stop motion * positioning yourself at a good viewpoint (to boost serendipity and juxtaposition) * understanding what’s happening so you’re able to think ahead and anticipate what’s coming next, etc.
The right place and the right time may only last a second, so you have to be ready. Cartier-Bresson masterfully describes it:
“The creative act lasts but a brief moment, a lightning instant of give-and-take, just long enough for you to level the camera and to trap the fleeting prey in your little box” and “Photographers deal in things which are continually vanishing and when they have vanished there is no contrivance on Earth which can make them come back again”
We’ve all “partly been there”, when we’re in the right place but the wrong time, at the right time but the wrong place, or have selected the wrong camera settings for the situation. Bringing the primary conditions of “right place” and “right time” together takes work, knowledge, practice and patience, and experience teaches us to identify when that moment occurs or is about to. To put ourselves in a position to maximize our “luck” and Be There at the Decisive Moment we likely need to do some serious and in-depth research on our subject or subject matter, acquire special access and/or permits, learn new skills (photography and non-photography-related), hike or drive long distances, climb hills, cliffs, trees or buildings, stand, sit, or lie down for long periods of time, or generally spend hours, days, or longer waiting, waiting, waiting. Or, it can happen in front of us in nearly an instant. A good percentage of the time, however, “being there” is simply being aware of your surroundings because opportunities for good and great photographs happen all around us all the time. We have to be ready for the unexpected and prepared for the long haul. And, once the moment arrives we need to have the technical skills to accurately capture the moment the way we intend to interpret it.
In addition to the critical ecological value of the Serengeti, its economic value to the region and the world is also very important. Tourism fuels local economies and livelihoods from hotels and staff to guides, auto mechanics, park rangers, grocers, farmers, etc. and world economies including airlines, travel agents, photo and wildlife viewing workshop instructors, equipment and clothing manufacturers and designers, publishers of tourism guides, field guides, and magazines, studios, producers and cinematographers of wildlife and nature documentaries…..the list goes on. With the highway comes death of thousands or millions of animals, urbanization of one of the last great remaining wilderness areas on Earth, and the loss (in your lifetime) of one of the wonders of the world. So sad, when there is a much more viable alternative available approved by numerous ecologists and world governments. You should let your Senator and Congressman know you support saving the Serengeti so they can help pressure the Tanzanian government to do the right thing. You may never go there, but your children might. There is absolutely no good reason for this highway to go forward.
It was a couple weeks ago when I was sitting at my desk and this iconic phrase by Muhammed Ali popped into my head, “Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee”. I didn’t realize at the time when this came to me that it was Ali’s 70th birthday (Jan 17). Funny how things like that happen, sometimes. Actually, what I was thinking of was not Muhammed Ali and his career, but how that phrase applies to photography, especially the photography business.
As a photographer/artist, we need to “float like a butterfly”, be agile and light on our feet, able to be flexible and innovative when the trends and interests of the market change, when the shoot location isn’t large enough, when we need a piece of equipment we didn’t anticipate and need to improvise, or when a client wants you to do something outside of your normal “box”. We need to be aware of new technologies, techniques, methods, and materials we can use in our art when necessary and applicable.
And, an artist needs to “sting like a bee” – not hold back, aim for the target and hit it with intention and force (soft and subtle can be forceful, too). Since art strives for “a truth”, that truth may be uncomfortable to some people, even to the artist. It might sting, but it needs to be put out there.
Inspiration and guidance can come from a wide range of sources. Don’t just look to photography and photographers because we, like others engaged in specialized pursuits, can be a little near-sighted and think there is no philosophical relationship between our own interests and, for instance, sports or finance or politics.
When I started my research, blogging, and posting about Creativity a few years ago, I jumped head first into a very deep and broad pool. We often think of creativity in terms of its definition; the tendency to generate or recognize ideas, alternatives, or possibilities that may be useful in solving problems, communicating with others, and entertaining ourselves and others. But, the definition only describes what we think creativity is, not where it comes from, how it manifests itself in our daily activities, whether we can call it up at will, whether it actually exists, or what, if any, the related aspects of creativity are.
One aspect of creativity is what is commonly called The Zone. It’s the mental state we adopt when we’re fully immersed and engaged in an activity we’re passionate about. It’s a heightened state of consciousness and completely focused motivation where our emotions are channeled and positively aligned in the service of performing or learning. Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi coined the term flow to describe this mental state, and I’ll use this term from now on. Other philosophies that could be related to or incorporate flow are Chi (China), Prana (India), Mana (Polynesian culture), rLung (Tibetan Buddhism), and Humors/Vital Energy (western culture).
Flow is more studied and researched in sports than in the arts, though flow transcends disciplines as well as cultures. Individuals from all walks of life have experienced instances of flow, described as being on autopilot, the outside world diminishes, the senses are focused, you know what to do and how to do it without thinking about it, there is a feeling of selflessness and timelessness, of being outside reality, hours seem to pass by in minutes or minutes expand, passing slowly.
But, what actually is flow? Csikszentmihalyi determined the human nervous system is only capable of processing information at about 110 bits/second. To hear and understand one person speaking requires about 60 bits/second. When there are three people speaking to you at once, you generally have a difficult time separating out who is talking about what because your brain is having trouble processing all that information (180 bits/second is 70 bits/second more than your brain can handle). So, Csikszentmihalyi theorizes when you’re fully engaged in creating something new, or immersed in working on a task or learning, you’re using all your attention bandwidth and don’t have enough left over to do well at that task and, at the same time, monitor how your body feels, or to address your issues at home, or even realize if you’re tired or hungry. Your brain stops recognizing these things – your body and everything non-essential to the task at hand disappears from your conscious thought processes – your existence in space and time is temporarily suspended.
It’s recognized that flow, similar to inspiration, can’t be called up at will. It simply happens when the conditions are right. Research has shown those conditions to be when a person is experienced in the skill being exercised, physically relaxed, mentally calm, experiencing low anxiety, is energized, optimistic, mentally focused, self-confident, and in control. Flow is temporary, involuntary, and not necessarily associated with a successful performance outcome (winning, for example), although mastery of the basic skills necessary for the task seems to be a pre-condition for the occurrence of flow. Cskikszentmihalyi says a truism of creativity is you can’t create anything new with less than 10 years of technical knowledge and immersion in a particular field; that it takes that long to begin to change something in a way that’s better than what existed before. Malcom Gladwell, in his book Outliers also stated it generally takes 10,000 hours of practice to become proficient in any task (20-hours a week [3 hrs/day] for 10 years). Of course, if you spend more time practicing, you’ll shorten the 10-year estimate. Does it take 10 years of practice at something to be able to engage in flow? It helps, probably, but I think it’s not a requirement. However, the more skilled you are at what you do, the easier and more frequent flow occurs. I suspect individuals who have the ability to engage in deep concentration probably experience flow even when they are working on relatively unskilled tasks. So, I think the ability to focus your attention is a key component to flow. I experience flow, in various degrees, when I’m photographing, writing, teaching, listening to music, taking a walk, and I certainly did when I was actively rock climbing and skiing as well as back in the day competing in sports in high school.
Getting to a state of flow is a balance between skill and challenge, between the point when you’re excited about something but not over-challenged by it (stimulation), and when you feel comfortable but not really excited or challenged (control). If you are pushed beyond your comfort zone at the stimulation level you can move into flow with a small increase in skill level (i.e. learning something new). If you are comfortable but not excited, you can move into flow by increasing challenge in the control area (i.e. driving) – see chart below. The mean level of challenge and skill (the central point on the chart) is different for each individual and changes for each individual throughout their life. Csikszentmihalyi says, though, if the mean level is known, a person could accurately predict when they will be in flow.
The seven characteristics of being in flow:
1. Focused concentration – being completely involved in what you are doing, there are clear goals and feedback 2. A sense of ecstasy (ecstasy means to “stand beside” or to be in “a state beyond reason and self control”), a balance is reached between challenge and skill 3. Great inner clarity – knowing what needs to be done and how well you are doing, action and awareness merge 4. Knowing the activity is doable – that our skills are adequate to the task, we have control 5. A sense of serenity – there are no worries about oneself, there is a feeling of growing beyond the boundaries of the ego, a loss of self-consciousness 6. Timelessness – being thoroughly focused on the present, hours seem to pass by in minutes or minutes are expanded, passing slowly 7. Intrinsic motivation – flow is a self-rewarding experience
Flow is a fragile thing. It comes and goes only under certain conditions and can easily be interrupted if you become distracted. A sound, a touch, a thought not related to the task can put an end to your run of creativity. Your self-consciousness about your activity and how you look or are perceived by others is a barrier to flow; if you think you’ll look ridiculous to others or be judged negatively in any way, you won’t be able to get into flow. Flow is a fleeting thing, like inspiration. You have to take advantage of it while it’s there.
How can you encourage flow?
1. Choose an enjoyable, challenging activity. Do something you love that challenges your skill level 2. Eliminate distractions. Turn off your phone, TV, email, social media. Find a location without distractions and where you are not likely to be interrupted 3. Think before you do. Do your research and preparation before you engage in the task. Stopping to do research or other unrelated tasks will knock you out of flow 4. Let go. Give up expectations about yourself and the results of the activity. You’ll be distracted by comparing what you’re doing to what you expect to achieve and risk narrowing your focus too much, removing any flexibility to change if your flow takes you down a different path. Don’t second guess what you’re doing. Go with the flow 5. Forget time. Placing a time limit sets expectations. Once you’re in flow, time will melt away, anyway. Once you think about how much time you’re spending on a task, other issues of the day will intrude and kick you out of flow 6. Control/ignore fear. Leave your ego at the door. Your self-consciousness will sabotage your flow. 7. Practice. The more practiced you are in your activity, the easier it will be to enter a flow state.
But, flow (being in The Zone) is not a magic bullet. It’s only a state of focused concentration. While being in flow can help your creativity and productivity, it is not necessarily a solution to a problem or will lead to the creation of great work. And, if you think about it too much, or try too hard to enter a flow state, it won’t likely happen. So, there’s the paradox; when you’re in flow you can’t think about it and when you’re not in flow you can’t think about it. Usually, you recognize flow once you’re on the other side of it. While you’re in flow, you experience that sense of being “in the moment”; it’s very pleasurable and you feel very productive. It is a good place to be. As more research is done on this elusive mental state, perhaps one day we’ll be able to harness it and use it in a more productive way. Until then, enjoy the ride.
Csikszentimihalyi, M. 1990. Flow: the psychology of optimal experience. Harper & Rowe, NY. Csikszentimihalyi, M. 1996. Creativity: flow and the psychology of discovery and invention. Harper Collins, NY. Csikszentimihalyi, M. 1997. Finding Flow: The psychology of engagement with everyday life. Basic Books, NY. Gladwell, M. 2008. Outliers. Little, Brown & Company. Loehr, J.E. 1986. Mental toughness training for sports: achieving athletic excellence. Plume, NY. Maslow, A.H. 1962. Toward a psychology of being. Van Nostrand, Princeton, NJ. Ravizza, K. 1977. A subjective study of the athlete’s greatest moment in sports. Proceedings of the Canadian Psychomotor Symposium, Psychomotor Learning and Sport Psychology Symposium: 399-401. Coaching Association of Canada, Toronto. Ravizza, k. 1984. Qualities of the peak experience. In J.M. Silva and R.S. Weinberg (eds.) Psychological Foundations of Sport: 452-461. Human Kinetics, Champaign, IL. Young, J.A. 1999. Professional tennis players in flow: flow theory and reversal theory perspectives. Unpubl. PhD. Thesis, Monash University, Melbourne, AU.