Scale in Photography: Space

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In Photography, Timing is [Almost] Everything

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.

The Serengeti and the Highway

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.

For updates and more information:
http://www.savetheserengeti.org
http://www.facebook.com/pages/STOP-THE-SERENGETI-HIGHWAY/125601617471610

Float like a butterfly…

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.

Getting in the Zone

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.

Flow Diagram

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.

References

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.

Is Social Media Killing Artistic Creativity?

I’ve been thinking about this subject for awhile, based on my own experiences over the past 2-3 years and my involvement in Facebook, Twitter, Linkedin, primarily, and online forums, blogging, apps, in general. The August 2011 issue of Wired Magazine and an article by Chris Colin (Rate This Article) prompted me to sit down and right it out. In the process, I found some other artists who are thinking about this and others who have ‘been there, done that’ when it comes to the effect social media had on their art.

What is social media and how does it affect what I do and how people interact with me? I’m a card-carrying introvert, so when social media came into its own it was/is seen as a great way for people like me who aren’t great networkers, smalltalkers, schmoozers, self-promoters, gregarious party-goers to let others know we exist. But, it turned out not to be the magic bean we hoped for. Even for the gregarious, participation in the social media scene takes its toll.

Social media reaches a global audience, even if you’re tuning up just for the locals. You’re inundated with Liking, Digging, Stumbling, Thumbs Up, Thumbs Down, going Viral, Am I popular?, Am I popular enough?, Where am I seen?, Where am I not seen? Do I text, picture, podcast, or video? Blog, ebook, or app? Linkedin, Facebook, Twitter, Google+, Ning, Meetup, Friendster, YouTube, Foursquare, MySpace, Plaxo, Tribe, Behance, Orkut, Badoo, Bebo, Picasa, DeviantArt, Flickr, or Smugmug (short list)? Forums, online discussions, questions asked and answered.

With the need to participate in all this activity, where does creativity go? When do we, as artists, have time to just “be”, to think about just art, developing concepts, becoming inspired, exploring materials and techniques, making art? “Popularity is fleeting”, Napoleon once said, “obscurity is forever.” We are trying so hard to become popular, we risk fading into obscurity.

Artists need time to develop before bursting onto the scene. You often hear musicians or comedians saying how it took them twenty years to be an overnight sensation. Social media has gotten us to think there is a possibility of being an overnight sensation without the need for all that work. As an artist, you need to know who you are and what your art is about (what it means to you) before you can “convince” others they should think it’s worthy. If you come on the scene too soon, undeveloped, unconfident, you could be eaten alive by critics, burn out trying to please your audience, lose your direction. The Age of Instant Gratification has also become the Age of Instant Fame (or Rejection). Contest shows like America’s Got Talent, American Idol, So You Think You Can Dance, America’s Next Top Model, The Voice, etc., etc. fuel the flames of the desire to be “discovered”, to be famous, wanted, successful, popular, recognized, validated. Sure, out of all the seasons of each of those shows, there are probably 2 or 3 individuals who have actually “made it” and remain popular today. The rest become fillers for “where are they now” Entertainment Tonight segments, make the round of celebrity reality TV shows, or simply disappear. Are we really working to be ‘discovered’ or are we, through social media, depending on others to provide our lucky break?

Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter are well-known for creating viral celebrities who burst on the scene like a supernova, burning brightly for a time then rapidly disappearing, overshadowed by the next greatest amazing thing. The Wired article by Chris Colin talks about the ever-present ratings systems online and that “our ever more sophisticated arsenal of stars and thumbs will eventually serve to curtail serendipity, adventure and idiotic floundering…When the voices of hundreds of strangers, or just three shrill ones, enter our heads…we’re denied the pleasure of articulating our own judgment…” While this article was about the average person exploring and discovering interesting things on their own, how does this proliferation of reviews, yeas and nays, thumbs up and down, likes and dislikes, affect how artists create their work? While artists try to maintain a “self-trueness” to their work, how long before the pressure of making a living and the enticement of the world stage has them creating for the masses, pandering for the most Likes? We’re seeing this in music and cinema now. Remake after remake (or ‘re-imagining’), sequel after sequel. The ‘latest’ gadgetry and rehashing/remixing, simple lyrics and instrumental phrasing in pop music. Nothing seems original anymore.

Attention is the new scarcity. To gain attention in the social media world you need to be more of whatever it is you do than anyone else and show/tell everyone about it on a regular basis so you can stay top of mind. Without being a dick about it. Once you start, it’s very difficult to take a break. In the breakneck pace of fame and turnover (the business world uses an appropriate word…”churn”), if you stop telling people you’re here they can easily forget you because you’re replaced by someone else who hasn’t quit. A certain car commercial illustrates that. A young woman exasperatingly tells the viewer, from behind a laptop, that she turned her parents on to Facebook because she read part of an article about how older people are becoming more anti-social. “They have nineteen friends”, she says, then mouths “so sad” as a cutaway shows her parents unloading bicycles from their car, preparing to have some fun. “I have 687 friends. This is living” the daughter continues.

Musician and singer John Mayer is a popular guy. He also got sucked into the feeling that he “needed” to maintain a social media presence. In a summary of a 2011 clinic Mayer gave at Berklee College of Music, Mayer says “I remember playing the guitar through the amplifier facing out the window of my house onto the street in the summertime – that was social media in 1992”. Mayer quit Twitter because it became a drain on his ability to function as an artist. He began using the criteria of “is this a good tweet” as the basis of his creativity rather than the creation of music or lyrics. On self-promotion he says, “As you start playing music [regular gigs, getting paid] you’re going to stop thinking about getting better. As soon as you flip the switch into showing other people your music, for some reason, the other brain [creative] sort of goes away.” The drive to self-promote and the social media ‘requirement’ of putting out only perfect work, leads artists to second-guess their work, to judge it before it’s finished, Mayer says; to fear to fail.

Another singer, Usher, agrees with Mayer to a point, that too much participation in social media can interrupt the flow of creativity and be a distraction. But Usher disagrees with Mayer that artists should distance themselves from social media. Young artists who don’t have staff dedicated to promotion need to use social media wisely to promote themselves and their work in such a way that it’s effective but not a distraction to creating new work.

It would be extremely nice to have even one person take care of the social networking portion of what I do. And another person to handle bookkeeping and invoicing. And another to create my marketing materials. And another for scheduling and client relations. Then I could spend nearly all my time thinking of new work, planning, and shooting. I could really, truly, be immersed in my art. Maybe one day. But even if that were to happen, I think the reality is my time would be taken up not by spending time on social media, but in managing my staff. Perhaps I would then need a staff manager….

All in all, I believe social networking is here to stay for the foreseeable future, as is the need to participate in it. Selecting which outlets are best for you, and how much time you dedicate to it, are up to you. And, that’s really the hard part. There isn’t anyone telling us which is the best networking site to participate in, whether we should spend time on the newest site getting the most buzz right now, how often to tweet or post, what to tweet or post (well, there are those who try to tell us), how often, what’s the best content, etc. It’s all up to you. Artists are, by and large, independent souls and also introverts (pardon my generalization, but I think it’s accurate). Even though some of us say we don’t care if anyone likes our work, secretly we do. Social networking is a very inexpensive way to self-promote (it’s only time, right?). It’s current technology we can all participate in very easily. Everyone is doing it, so why not us? Why not me? If I don’t, I won’t succeed. If I do, I have a chance. If you are doing the social networking thing and haven’t realized it yet, though, prepare yourself for a decrease in creative energy and output. We say we can quit social media anytime we want to. But, then we have to work twice as hard to get back to the status level we were at before, and we always have to be coming up with the next greatest amazing perfect thing. Our fans are quite fickle, you see.

Freelance Job Sites, Are They Worth Your Time?

A few months ago, I spent some time looking over 3 – 4 websites posting freelance job opportunities for photographers. I’m also looking for editorial writing jobs, so I checked out sites for writers as well. For this post, I’ll be talking about my experience with the freelance photography jobs sites, but it also applies to the writer site. I had my suspicions but rather than dismiss them entirely chose to do some research. Unfortunately, my suspicions and misgivings were mostly proven. I found many potential clients were looking for very cheap rates from probably amateur or beginning pros who didn’t know how to price out work. Not a very positive experience. Each freelance job site operated in basically the same way. A freelancer searches for opportunities by keyword and/or category, reviews the available jobs and bids on the ones they’d like to do.

Today, I went back to one of the sites and browsed the listings. I was again appalled by some of the requests being made. I’ll outline a selection below so you can see for yourself what’s out there and what the expectations are of some “clients” when they contract with a “photographer”. On average at this site, the payment per job was less than $1000 with most less than $500. The work requested for this fee varied from a single, simple product photograph to multiple images of products (products the photographer would need to acquire, presumably at their own expense) including retouching and resizing. These kinds of jobs seemed to be from studio photographers too busy to do some tasks and looking to outsource some of their work, and companies or individuals needing photographs of products or other subjects for a website. More often than not, the expected budget was low, with specific image requirements. In particular was a request for product photos for a website selling various electronics equipment. The budget was for less than $500, the requester listed a website as an example of “exactly” the style of photography required, the photos were needed ASAP, and the photographer needed to have “Access to items like mobile phones, laptops, ipods, mp3 players, cameras, etc is essential. Not own worn/scratched items.” For this job, the photographer, not the client, was expected to provide the products being photographed.

For the most part, these sites are catering to the client who is looking for the best price and the jobs are “work-for-hire”, which means the “client” gets all rights to your work produced on the project. Competing on price is relatively easy for Wal Mart and Amazon, but difficult for individuals like you and me who are not selling on quantity, but on quality.

My conclusion is that I found freelance job sites to be unproductive and not very promising prospects for freelancers to find consistently well-paid creative work. You might, like on Craigslist, come across a gem in the rough, but it takes more time to do that than it would to apply for and work at a non-freelance job.

**The sites post jobs and you can bid on them. Inevitably, someone will underbid significantly and get the job. Therefore, if you want to work for far less than you deserve, this is the place to go. You’ll get arguments from bidding site regulars that it’s a great place to find work. Of course, defining “work” for most people means fair compensation. Sweat shops are also great places to find work, but would you really want to apply? Proceed with caution and always get money up front if you work with anyone other than a well-known company. Unfortunately, the number of quality postings does not match the number of quality freelancers looking for work.**

When is digital manipulation wrong?

Inspired (dredged up) via a blog post by Gary Crabbe (Enlightened Images): when is it right or wrong (or is it right or wrong) to remove elements from a photograph?

I also went through a period of agonizing over this question. I began a photography “purist”, mostly due to my relative inability to effectively manipulate images in the darkroom (or laziness, either is probably accurate), and thus grew an inbred belief the film negative or transparency and the photographic process was inviolate; what the camera saw and the film recorded was as it should be.

Try telling that to Jerry Uelsmann.

I realized after hours spent debating the issue online and with my photographer friends that there are only two instances when manipulating a photograph is wrong (and to what degree do you consider a photo to be manipulated?): When you’re trying to show people the truth and when you’re telling people what they see is accurate. It doesn’t matter if this is done for photojournalism or editorial or some other. If you’re telling the viewer what they’re seeing is “real” and you’ve made significant changes to alter the reality, i.e. changing the story, then it’s wrong.

All else is fair game.

As an artist, I am not going to be fenced in by a viewer or other photographer’s misguided understanding of art and photography, expecting everything I shoot to represent reality in its true form (whatever that is). People tend to assume all photographs are digitally altered, anyway, even when they are not (and then smirk in disbelief when it’s explained, yes, this is the way it actually looked).

So, I “grew out” of this debate, I suppose. As a professional, and a human being, I know the difference between honesty and dishonesty and following that guidance makes deciding what to do with the digital file so much easier.

Even with my artwork, although there may be significant digital manipulation, I am being honest to myself, to the artwork I’m creating, and to my viewers, in the creation of the work. That means I’m not slathering on filters and layer effects and this and that just because I can (a form of dishonesty) or because a friend is doing it.

It’s the intent of the manipulation that is at the core of this external and internal debate, and the honesty with which it’s done.

This leads, again, to the age-old debate of labeling photographs that have been manipulated. I still don’t have an answer for this one, but tend to shy away from it except in cases where alteration is significant from the original (editorial, mostly. Art is still art and there shouldn’t be any reason to label….would a painter have to make a declaration they used oils AND acrylics on the same painting, or combined scenes from different locations and times? What about using photographs and other illustrations as the basis for their work?).

So, I think if you’re doing art, do it. If you’re shooting photojournalism, no. Editorial? Generally, no, but check with your editor.