37,000 feet over the Great Plains of these wonderful United States and I find myself drifting off a bit, as the days have been long and nights short lately. The workshops are the most fun I have had in a long time, and they keep me pretty busy. As well, time must be given to this site and the other sites I manage. And I am photographing a project, working on a book, and running my design business.
I don’t tell you these things to complain (or brag), but as a preface to the words I am going to write below. Loving what you do means that even being dead tired from the multiple endeavors that one is working on, one rarely ever ‘works’. My workshop folks can attest to the fact that we go full out for two days. And when it is over, I wish I could stay and do another day with them. I love what I do.
That is the gift that creativity has given me. Most of the things I have ever done have involved creative work… I crave it. From building competition class model cars when I was a kid to playing drums for a rock band that traveled the Caribbean. My own jazz quartet led to some amazing play dates, and sessions with musicians both famous and incredible. And I have stood on the stage at Grady Gammage Auditorium and conducted three of my original compositions for orchestra and voices. I have also loaded trucks, short-order cooked, washed cars, hauled dirt as a landscaper, and sat my ass in a chair as Creative Director of the third largest Advertising Agency in Arizona (2000).
But the act of taking images holds some of the greatest memories for me. Making a still image is one of the most powerful and exhilarating things I have ever done. It is ego driving, selfish, self-centered, magnanimous, charitable, and selfless all at the same time. The world of dimension and time caught forever – with no dimension or time. A laugh, a glance, a moment that will never be seen again, and I captured it. My way.
Think about it. Most people have the gift of sight and can perfectly see the world around them. But photographers take it a bit farther – we want to show other people what WE SEE. “Hey, I know you have seen the Grand Canyon a dozen times, but look what I SAW there. And I captured it and brought it back to show YOU what I did.”
Ego? You bet it is. Without the self-assuredness to believe I can actually show something to you that you haven’t seen before, it would be a totally empty act. Devoid of the surety that I would give you a glimpse into a place you “thought” you knew, showing a picture of your hometown would be met with smile and a nod.
I want more than that. I want to show you something that has an emotion tied to it. I want to use cropping and color and light and shadow and gesture and point-of-view and size and dimension and texture and saturation or the lack of it to make an image that the viewer has an immediate reaction to. It is all important to me for the viewer to be engaged.
I recently read on a forum this statement “anyone with some knowledge of Photoshop can take any old crappy picture and make it great.” I was simply stunned (yeah, like them interwebs don’t continue to stun)
I should be used to it). I think that statement summed up a lot of young approaches to photography. And by young I am not referring to chronological age, but the amount of time that one has spent working their craft. It is a shame. No other art form seems to have that low self-image from the artists that create it.
Imagine a musician showing up on a gig without having practiced or played his instrument for a year or two. (“Anyone with some knowledge of ProTools can record shit and make it really great.”)
Imagine a poet telling an interviewer “oh, I just write stuff down and then type it up over coffee while watching the soaps. (“Anyone with some knowledge of Word can type up shit, hit ‘Auto-Summarize’ and have it sound pretty good.”)
Or imagine a world-class cook telling you “I rarely cook anything. It’s Taco Bell and Panda Express for me. Occasionally I make weenies and eat them with mustard.” (“Anyone with some knowledge of a Wok can cook up gourmet food with world class appeal. Just add ‘sun dried’ tomatoes!)
Put me in the skeptical column when talking to the above “experts”.
Musicians play every day. For hours and hours. Poets write all the time, and we see maybe 2% of what they do. Cooks – well, they cook. A lot.
I am a photographer. I make images. I use tools to do that. Cameras and lenses, lights and the sun, film and bytes, papers, chemistry, inks, and a whole studio full of gear that helps me do one thing – make the best pictures I can. If it doesn’t help me make images, I don’t really need it. But tools are merely a medium for capturing, they are not the art. Without a camera, I cannot make a photograph. But without the best camera, I can still make a photograph that I love. I love my iPhone camera, and my little red Kodak P&S.
I take photographs with them. I make snapshots with them. I record moments and places to share with my daughter with them. I make pictures that help me relive the workshops or the shoot with that great model, and without any muss or fuss. They are capturing devices that let me make photographs everywhere, anytime and without thinking about anything but the image. They are practice tools for seeing.
Malcolm Gladwell, in his book “Outliers”, talks about 10,000 hours of practice to get to a level of proficiency to make one a contender for being an expert. I don’t think he is referring to exact numbers, nor should it be taken in that black and white sort of way. (“Yep, next Tuesday will be 10,000 hours and I will be great on Wednesday.) If you are not great at this point, you most assuredly will NOT be great next Wednesday. I would bet the farm on that.
And if you think that you can approach the work with a half-assed, half-hearted attempt and amass enough time to put yourself over the top with the hours spent, sorry – that wont work either. A figure skater who practices a jump wrong for two years will do that jump ‘perfectly wrong’ when given a chance. If you practice crappy photography for 10,000 hours you will be a crappy photographer on 10,001 hour. Just a fact.
It takes focused practice, with levels of outcome expected and reached to become good at something. There must be a progression of competency, with deltas and points along the way to measure the result of the work. Is it getting better? Are there places to improve? Are there new things to try to help move the level up to the next? It takes even more and a little special thing called talent to be great at something.
Perseverance to stick with something difficult until it is no longer difficult, but something that is second nature, can be a challenge. It isn’t taught, nor is it revered in most of our culture. Working and practice are no longer held in esteem. At least that seems like the case to me. I see and speak to too many people who are looking for an easy, fast and simple way to reach the point where people recognize you for your achievement. Fame without excellence is fleeting and daft.
Wanna be a famous singer? There’s a reality show for that. Just show up and ‘œbaddabing’ You are America’s Next Top Idol/Model/Talent. Hell, it’s easy. Watch the show in the first few episodes and you will see dozens of people who show up with NO PRACTICE or PREPARATION then are devastated when they don’t make it. They suck, but they showed up and wanted it. Dancers who can’t want to be famous at it. Singers who don’t want to be famous at it. (And while this may say a lot about the insipid fascination with fame, I think the same correlation can be made in the search for excellence in the arts.)
I find those people to be pathetic, and insulting. Do they think that all Ella did was show up at Basie’s gig one night? Do they think that Bonnie Raite just picked up a guitar and BAM – she could write and sing music that touches people across all genres? Baryshnikov simply put on some ballet slippers one day – and flew? Is it really a stretch to understand how long the great creative talents in our culture have to practice and work and work and work to get to that level? What an insult to the great artists who work so hard to think that all it takes is a lunch-break audition to catapult one to the top. Morons.
(Caveat: Disney. As far as I can tell, one can be devoid of any talent at all and be a star on the Disney channel. Kids and adults who cannot deliver a line spew from the tube with the ever-present laugh track – needed, because the crap isn’t funny. (Why don’t you tell us what you really think — ed?) )
Sorry for the digression. We were talking about practice and hard work. It is the fuel for our successes. It is the only sustainable fuel. Fame wont do it. Money wont do it. The newest camera on the block wont do it.
Neither will a bag full of gear.
You, a camera, and a lens. Making images. That is the essence of photography. Not “The” camera… any camera. A P&S, an iPhone camera, an old film camera… just a tool to transfer your vision of the world into a two dimensional representation… a photograph.
I talk about two different types of photographers in my workshops. One type of photographer loves the act of taking photographs. The gear, the tools and toys, the challenge of getting the image captured on card or film is fulfilling and exciting for them. The images may not have that emotional grab of an art piece, but the image is perfect for the challenge presented.
Many commercial photographers are in love with the process. The finesse it takes to shoot a jewelry shot, or food, or even a catalog of auto parts with lots of chrome that the client wants to see shot on a nearly impossible background. Get to work – struggle with it – get it – got it! Will that image go on someone’s wall? Nope, probably not. But it is a perfect image for the job it is to perform in the ad or catalog. It is a successful photograph. It is a point of excellence for the photographer. Pride in the work.
The other type of photographer is the one who is looking for a “final” image. A print or final digital image that can convey what is in their minds-eye to a point to share with others. Utilizing the tools in the best way, and meeting the challenges of getting that image down is just as important as the previous shooter. This photographer wants to take it to one more levelâ€¦ an emotional level. A connection with the audience means success. Editorial, portrait and fine art photographers readily come to mind for this type of photographer.
Neither type is better, or more creative than the other, but the goals may be a little different. And most of us who do this for a living find that we shift between the two types of photographer depending on the job. I may want to connect with that portrait I am doing on Tuesday, and struggle to get the highlights just right on a tabletop setup of hard drives for a catalog on Thursday. Such is the nature of a professional photographer in a smaller market.
I know many of both types of shooters. The ones who are successful work very hard at what they do. And they are taking pictures when they are not Taking Pictures, ya know. Looking at, studying, taking workshops, giving workshops, reading and practicing. Finding new ways to do old things. Finding old ways to do new things. Striving, striving, striving to be better than yesterday. Every artist I have ever known was in a constant state of striving for excellence.
My kids often laugh when I will simply stare at the way light is playing against a wall, or highlighting the edge of a building. I love to look at light. My iPhone lets me capture the simplest things to simply delight me. Not earth shaking images that will rock the art world. Just a play of light, or an interesting shadow fall. I dunno, I just love to get that captured so I can look at it. I love to look at photographs. (My youngest is developing a pretty good eyeâ€¦maybe she will inherit dad’s love of the medium of still imagery.)
So what is the point of this column? We have talked about creativity, perseverance and work ethic. Now we tie it together and we get:
Passion. A passion for the medium of photography. A passion for the captured moment. A passion for connecting with people, the still image and a passion for perfection of the craft.
It’s all passion, baby. Without it, there are no tears, no desperate longing, no amazing joy no glow of success. Without passion there is no striving. When the road gets hard, the gear goes up on Craigs List. And the challenges are many, and they come at all levels. Without something driving you to get from where you are to where you want to be, the climb can be more difficult than imagined.
So now it is time for the self-exam.
Do you have a passionate desire to make images? Images!
Do you look forward to trying things that are new, different, demanding?
Are you satisfied with your images as they are? No need for improvement?
Do you know about the deep and rich history of the medium? Does that fascinate and interest you?
Do you take pictures, images, photographs every day? Or does it seem that there are thousands of ‘reasons’ that you don’t?
I love it when one of my students, or a photographer I am working with one-on-one has that moment – an epiphany maybe – where they realize they would rather make photographs to nearly any other activity. The quest for images becomes insatiable, and the gear become the conduit – not the art. Focus turns outward from megapixels to dancing light, from transfer speeds to sublime smiles, from steel and glass to images that delight.
I read too frequently about how hard photography has become as a profession.
“There are too many photographers.”
“There isn’t enough work.”
“How do you compete against the CL guys who do it for free?”
“The bar has been lowered too low.”
“Digital means everyone can be a photographer.”
“I live in a place where no one will pay for photographs.”
A photographer with PASSION wont be stopped by that crap. There are lots of people with cameras, there are still few ‘photographers’ in relation to the GWC’s. There ARE jobs, there are. There is no reason to compete with CL shooters if you aren’t one. The bar has been lowered at the beginning level, no doubt… but it has been raised at the top. And at the top is where you want to be. That rarified air can fill the senses. Of course digital can make everyone capable of making a well-exposed image – so what… if you think that is the mark of a ‘photographer’ think again and research the great work being done by photographers all over the world. And if you live in a place that wont support you, and your work… move. Just move. Yeah, its hard to do and all that… Passion will sustain you if you have it.
Being passionate about the work and working hard to better oneself at any endeavor is probably one of the most successful methods of achieving more than one imagined.
Work hard, practice, revel in the successes, and learn from the failures. It is a recipe that has worked for creative people from the beginning.
Thanks for joining me at LE for a somewhat different post. I hope you enjoyed it.