Recharging the Soul with Personal Projects

Recharging the Soul: Personal Projects and Private Moments

This is kind of a personal post for me. There are challenges that I face as an artist and writer. And photographer. And sometimes those challenges can take its toll on me, and us. Creativity, for me, takes nurturing and constant practice.

I have always felt that photography, was more than what I could do. It was a big part of what makes me. In my DNA so to speak. It partly defines me more than any other endeavor that I involve myself in.

I came to photography the usual way. My dad was a photographer / writer and his enthusiasm was contagious. I would go into the field with him and he would photograph fishing ‘flies’ and how to sight in a rifle and such. I would be his note taker, and he would talk to me as he was working and I would write down the distances or the exposures. He wrote and illustrated magazine articles for outdoor magazines. I miss my dad.

When I was a kid I would wait every Wednesday by our little mailbox to get the issues of Life and Saturday Evening Post. Cover to cover by nightfall. I cut out images and stuck them in a little box. Names like Eisentaedt and Margaret Bourke White started to become recognizable.

The images were so beautiful, and sparked such interest… I would go back again and again to look at the photographs. Moments in time caught forever in a frozen tableaux… to be shared and remembered. Film (movies) doesn’t do that for me. I rarely want to sit and watch a movie again and again. But I can pick up my copy of Ansel Adams Monographs, a Minor White collection, or my old dog eared Cheyco Liedmann book and enjoy a few quite moments.

There has also been some stuff online recently that lets me know that other photographers are talking about and thinking about this stuff as well. Chase Jarvis, Zack Arias, Scott Bourne, Jack Hollingsworth, Kirk Tuck, and others have posted on creativity.

I have been feeling the burn of captivity lately. Seems like I am tied to a desk as I am working on two books, redoing the curriculum for the workshops and editing/post processing images for clients.

So I wanted to go out and do something that spoke to how I was feeling. I generally don’t try to make ‘pretty’ pictures, others do that very well. I like environments that show themselves to be involved in life. From decay to renew, old contrasted with new, and the mark of man on the environment.

Since I am feeling a little isolated and in need of a recharge, I decided to take an afternoon and do something photographically that made sense to me. At this moment… where I am and what I am feeling now.

More after the jump below. I just wanted to remind you that our new feature “Rants and Raves” are shorter form articles that are just that… rants and raves. I have the first few months of the schedule up at Learn to Light, so if you are considering a workshop this year, check the schedule out. I think my workshop is one that will change your lighting and photography for the better.

This is the road that I chose. It is fairly close to where I live and goes through some rather flat and mundane farming land.

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It isn’t a long drive, and it offers no typical ‘beautiful’ scenery. I had a nice slightly overcast sky and it seemed right for my project. I wanted to capture in my images what I was feeling and this light, environment and somewhat desolate landscape was exactly what was called for.

Abandoned migrant worker facilities. Don Giannatti

Abandoned migrant worker facilities.

I find that just getting off your ass and doing something, anything, can get the juices going and create situations that allow vision to be explored. I had nothing in mind as far as photography and gear, I just wanted to make images that would help me understand what I am feeling.

My gear was simple: Canon, 20-35 L, 80-200 L, 4 speedlights, several stands and modifiers, a small boom, and a kit of Mamiya 6×7 film cameras. Tripod, extra batteries and my “lighting’ kit was also along. At the end of the day, nothing but the Canon and the 20-35 was used.

Crossroads in the desert: South of Maricopa, AZ

The lines caught my eye and the clouds added some beautiful texture to the sky.

I guess that was fitting looking back. I am looking for simplicity in the images and the gear seemed to follow. I like the way the wide angle lens adds so much to the field of the image… letting the subject be more isolated within the environment.

Simplicity is the thing for me right now. I want to narrow my acquisition of things and increase my understanding of the ways creativity are manifested in the soul. Too much time spent chasing the material world can create havoc in the creative world. At least it does for me.

The simple, or minimalistic, aesthetic is one that appeals greatly to me. It runs through my photography and design, and it needs to be brought into my self as well. I wanted the images that I do to speak to the minimalist in me.

I didn’t leave the house with the intention of shooting only one lens, or to do ‘that shot’ I have been wanting to do. I tried to clear my mind of all that stuff and just think about the emotion of the world in front of me… and how to get that into a photograph. Without expectations, I am open to serendipity and that allows the world to present itself.

Remove the filters of self-imposed arbitrary limitations.

Tree and Sky. Between Maricopa and Stanfield, Arizona

The trees made me stop and turn around. I knew there was a shot there and I wanted to find it

I drove right by the trees. I was listening to some music I had brought along and thinking about something I had just seen. The trees just wizzed by my passenger door with only a glimpse. I kept on driving for a mile and realized… that was part of what I need to do. Stop going so damn fast and missing the moments that can be created.

I turned around and went back to the three trees. Closing the car door it looked kinda hopeless. Access was denied due to the fencing and there was a fairly soggy ditch between me and the trees.

The more I didn’t see a shot, the more I wanted a shot. I needed to make that image. I didn’t know what image, but there was one here. I refrained from making images that I knew would not cut it. I worked the camera like it held precious film… not taking the shot till I knew I had something.

That was important to me. I wanted to come back with as few images total as possible, with the maximum amount of images I like. I finally found the image I was looking for, and made a few exposures.

I was feeling less melancholy at this point. I knew I had a few images that would make the day worth it, so I got in the car and headed further south with the feeling that I was making some images.

Entrance to an old ranch house, near Stanfield, Arizona

I have always been drawn to the frame within the frame. It says something metaphorical to me.

This is the power of the personal project. Some projects are large in scope and some are small – like this one. It doesn’t matter which you are on at any one time, but having projects to focus intent on makes a big difference when you are shooting.

Some projects are driven by external elements, a desire to do something to help or elevate or bring attention to a cause or an interest. And some are driven by internal elements… like this one.

Projects help open the mind to opportunities, it let’s the images that may not be seen get through. Awareness of parameters and goals helps refine the creative self to find the answers and solutions.

I waited for the truck to get in position and made the shot. I only got the chance to shoot 3 trucks, and like this one.

Finding emotional meaning in images is so important. The image as metaphor, the image as a reflection of one’s soul. The image as an iconic touchstone for people to refer to in thought and action. A great image can transcend the reality of the object. A piece of paper with some ink or emulsion on it is NOT what a photograph is. We bring so much TO that little piece of paper from our own perceptions, emotions, community and culture. The fact that images can provide that for people of diverse situations is a testament to the power of the still image.

Well, it use to be called the Burnt Buns Cafe. It is under new management. I didn't go in, but I did do the shot.

When I got to the ‘destination’, actually the turnaround spot for me, I found that the “Burnt Buns Cafe” had been taken under new management and was no longer.

No problem. I made my photograph anyway. I didn’t dwell on the loss of an old friend, I instead made an image that showed the distance between. The loss that I felt, instead of the cafe itself. I hope you can see that in my images, but if you can’t, that is fine as well. I cannot guarantee that my images will do what I want them to do. And I don’t make images that scream the message or are so totally flagrant in the metaphor. At least… I try not to.

In the end, the trip was well worth it. I got these 6 images and 7 more that I really like. And I got off my ass. And I took my cameras and gear and set out to do something. Anything.

But I also left with a plan… to make images for ME about the way I am feeling and hopefully to share those images with people who will enjoy them…even IF they don’t know what I am trying to say.

Other projects: I have a 365 iPhone project here, and I am working on a few books and new site for art photographers. In March I will start a photograph/article per day project that will culminate in a book.

I hope that you found the article interesting, and have started a personal project for yourself. It doesn’t have to be a big project, it can be as little as a few hours on a lonely county road.

Post processing was on my mind from the first image. I wanted to mute the colors and increase the contrast from the very flat light. I used overlay layers (soft light), highlight painting, luminance masks and localized sharpening on the images. I then desaturated the image and added a tone of warmth to all the images.

Follow me on Twitter, and visit my website for more of my work.

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  1. I love this post Don. I love the images as well.

  2. “My gear was simple: Canon, 20-35 L, 80-200 L, 4 speedlights, several stands and modifiers, a small boom, and a kit of Mamiya 6×7 film cameras. Tripod, extra batteries and my “lighting’ kit was also along.”
    Simple indeed!! :-))
    Great images.

    • I should point out that I counted my ProFoto kit with the stands in order to be honest. I just lived in the trunk and I was never going to get them out on this trip. But they went, and I counted it. My trunk also holds a big stand and boom for whenever I need that.

  3. Message received. Thanks for the stimulant.

  4. Great Post!!! It is nice to realize you don’t need a big project to get you thinking creatively. I like the image of the tree. Looking forward to seeing you at the Houston Workshop.

  5. I did this on a smaller scale (no road trip) yesterday. Went down to the square and found an eclectic group of drummers, fire dancers and hulahoopers all practicing. I asked if I could photograph them. A couple of people asked me, "What are these photos for?" and I said, "They’re for me. But I’m willing to share."

  6. Hi Don,

    Another great post.

    Have you realized the “eye” looking at you in one of the photos?

    • Nope.
      Where do you see that?

      Thanks for visiting!

  7. Hi Don!
    You have shown that photography is a philosophy too. You have shown that photography is a way of life. You have shown that photography can be poetry.

    Thank you Don!

  8. Good article and great photos. I’ve always enjoyed that type of photography. Thanks for sharing you thoughts and images.

  9. Such a great post.

    Did you feel guilty about leaving all of your “work” to do something personal? I feel that way a lot when I’m doing personal work. That guilt usually makes me stay with the never ending tasks on hand and I don’t devote enough time to personal work. That’s changing for me this year.

    I would totally retweet this post if I was on Twitter this month. :)


    • Thanks Zack.

      You know there is that pang of guilt when I go to do it. And believe me when I say I don’t do it enough. I am so swamped these days that it is too easy to simply stay put and behave the way my boss (heh) wants me to. Nose to the grindstone.

      But there is also a sense of achievement when I tell the boss that I gotta… and eventually he agrees with me. About the time I am working on shot number two.

      The pile of work that I left… hey, ‘sall good. Still waiting for me when I get back. And I get it done.

      But that guilt when there is work to be done? Yeah.

      I just clobber the SOB with a large diet pepsi and get on with the task of having a bit of fun… I deserve it. So do you. 😉

  10. Don, You have obviously got the ‘glam shot’ nailed down to a science, and I get it that this is your bread ‘n butter, however, when I read your eloquent description accompanying the desolate landscapes I get the sense that it’s time for you to ‘go where no Wizwow has gone before’.
    Not a criticism just an observation…

    • OK…

      Not sure what that means, but I am changing things up a lot this year.

      Thanks for the note!

  11. My comment was predicated as a result of looking at a few glam shots you posed in the LE group. I got to surmising how you would handle character shots, so, I paddled over to the LE site and came across the Desert Landscapes and your commentary. From there I formed an opinion based upon nothing more than my own shallow misconceptions of someone I have never met. There you go… makes perfect sense to me.


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