Checking Our Ego

We had an unusually strong aurora borealis event here in northern New York the other night. Not surprisingly, social media has been replete with images from the display. That it was spectacular to behold is without question. The images, however, are not spectacular. They all look the same. Besides, we’ve all seen countless aurora borealis images before, these offered nothing new. While I understand the desire to capture it, it left me wondering, why bother posting them? What does one hope to gain?

During the first dozen or so years I was practicing photography hardly anyone viewed my work. There was simply no easy way to share it with others. I was shooting slide film in those blessedly innocent days before social media. The only way others could view my work was by either setting up a projector and screen or forcing people to view my slides through a loupe on the light table, both a surefire way to lose friends and family fast. It was just the way it was. And then came Facebook and with it a complete shift in behavior. From the moment I posted my first image and the likes and comments came rolling in I was hooked. I began to feel compelled to post. When I was in the field and made an image I was excited about I would find myself looking forward to sharing it on Facebook. What was I looking for? 

Throughout my time on social media, I had an uneasy feeling when it came to sharing my work. I had the sneaking suspicion it was little more than the need for ego gratification at work. Look at what I did and witness the greatness that is me. I began to fear that the excitement of sharing my work was having an undue influence on the reasons I was making photos. We are all now aware of the dopamine rush we experience when people positively respond to our posts, every like and comment filling us with a sense of validation and success. To quote Sally Field’s Oscar speech from some years back, “You love me, you really love me.” 

When photography became my full-time profession I would tell myself that my posts were necessary to build an audience, some of whom may feel I had something to offer and would take one of my workshops. There was truth to that. And yet, part of me felt as if I was just fooling myself. Was I seeking an audience to support my work? Or, was I seeking recognition, to be seen as special, as standing out from the crowd? The former is understandable, the latter a consequence of my ego.

The seeking of recognition is a dangerous thing. It’s a human need to be respected, recognized, and appreciated. However, too much recognition, especially early on, can go to our head and lead to delusions of grandeur. Not enough recognition can lead us to feel like a failure. Both offer a false reality that can sink our hopes and dreams. I realize of course that just because I had an unhealthy relationship with social media doesn’t mean you do, too. However, I would encourage you to reflect on what you’re looking for on social media and what you hope to get out of sharing your work. Is it in line with your goals? What’s truly important to you? My goal was not to be recognized as the Ansel Adams of my generation. My only goal was to lead a creative life full-time. I’m doing that. I find immense satisfaction in the act of creating, be it photography or writing. If I work hard enough the requisite recognition that allows me to lead that creative life will follow. Hoping for anything beyond that is all ego.

In the days before social media, I was fine with not much of my work being seen and the lack of regular validation. I quit social media because I wanted to be fine with it again. 


Tuning Out

Why I Quit Instagram

I recently quit Instagram. I’m surprised if you hadn’t heard, it was in all the newspapers.

My decision to quit Instagram was not an easy one, born of weeks if not months of introspection. For reasons both personal and ethical I could no longer in good conscience be a part of the Meta machine (full disclosure, as of this writing I am still on Facebook, though that too will soon be a thing of the past). There are numerous accounts out there by artists who have quit social media and in particular Instagram, many of them ironically on YouTube. While the overall reasons are similar, there are differences according to the individual.

First, let me begin with the reasons that are not behind my decision to leave.

Algorithms. Yes, the constantly evolving algorithms seem to do little more than increasingly stifle the reach of our posts. However, I learned early on that Instagram and Facebook would never contribute much to my bottom line. The increasing lack of reach, while annoying, ultimately never concerned me much.

Ads. What can you say, ads are now everywhere on social media when they didn’t use to be. Such is the way of the world. Everyone needs to make a buck, even Meta.

Greater emphasis on videos. Much was made of Instagram’s decision to place greater emphasis on videos (Reels) than pics, a decision made to counter Tik Tok’s success. Photographers left Instagram in droves, preferring what at first appeared to be greener pastures on Vero. Let me know how that worked out. Again, whatever. What’s the difference between 100 likes and 500? 400 likes. That’s it.

Privacy concerns. As someone who creates, I should be appalled and insulted by Instagram’s privacy policies, specifically that we grant Instagram a royalty-free exclusive license to use our photos however they wish. And yet, for some reason, I just can’t get myself all worked up over it. Odd. Although, the more I think about it…

Now for the reasons I did leave: 

The ethical and moral shortcomings of social media have been well-documented in recent years. By now we all realize the addictive nature of social media and its ability to hijack our attention, all in the name of increased ad revenue. What many don’t realize, however, is the cost of that hijacked attention in terms of our ability to focus and be productive in our daily lives. I have found myself reaching for my phone or checking Facebook or Instagram on my computer while I was working every five minutes just to see if there were updates, an almost Pavlovian response. It has been shown that this interruption in attention and focus severely inhibits our cognitive abilities. One may argue that it takes discipline on the part of the viewer. While true, we need to recognize that these platforms have been engineered this way. Extremely bright people have been paid millions of dollars to make these sites addictive. It’s a stacked deck we’re up against.

Much worse in my mind is that social media rewards and even encourages incendiary and outrageous rhetoric as it has been linked to more prolonged engagement on social media. How sick and twisted is that? Again, more engagement leads to greater ad revenue. See where this is going? It all boils down to making more money at the expense of our personal and societal well-being. Last September Meta disbanded its “Responsible Innovation Team,” a group made to address “potential harms to society” caused by Facebook’s products. ‘Nuff said. This is a broad topic that deserves greater attention beyond the scope of this humble blog. For those of you interested in learning more about these topics, I highly recommend Johann Hari’s book, Stolen Focus.

Moral outrage aside, my primary motivation for quitting Instagram is much more personal. To put it simply, I could no longer deal with all the noise. The endless posting of photos and stories (not to mention Reels) became too much to healthily consume. There have become too many “celebrity” photographers who seem more influencers than artists. Can one be both? If so, I have no desire to be the former in service of the latter. Artists used to pursue their vocation privately, allowing us only glimpses when they were ready. Today everything is public. Most of it should remain private as it is of little interest to anyone but the artist.

The result of all this was that instead of feeling inspired, I found myself drowning in a sea of relentless “content.” I am in no way promoting “photographic celibacy.” My point is that Instagram is not a healthy and useful vehicle for viewing art, a realization that should come as a shock to no one. 

It’s been said that “comparison is the thief of happiness.” Try as I might, I couldn’t help but compare myself to other photographers’ work and accomplishments. A scroll through Instagram became a confidence-shattering ritual, at least in the short term. With a little time away my confidence would gradually be restored, only to be crushed again at the next scrolling session. I found I was becoming petty and bitter with envy, qualities that took me farther away from the joy of creating. I didn’t like the person I was becoming. 

To be clear, my decision to quit Instagram is a personal one and in no way should be read as an indictment of those who continue to embrace (i.e., tolerate) the platform. With time I realized that social media does not align with my sensibilities and personality. My reticence in quitting sooner was mainly due to a fear of no longer being part of a photographic “community.” Nothing is gained in this life that doesn’t also require sacrifice. I have been exposed to many fine photographers worldwide whose work I admire and find inspiring. This would not have happened were it not for Instagram. There was some good, but ultimately it was greatly outweighed by the bad. I will continue to follow those photographers by visiting their websites on occasion, I hope they do the same, not just my website but each other’s as well. There is life outside of social media for artists, it is not the only path to success. In fact, it may be the thing holding you back. 


On Self-expression in Photography

In a recent article discussing creativity I wrote this line: “The way to true creativity is through self-expression. Anyone can repeat a technique, no one else but you can replicate your vision and express your own voice. You are what is truly unique.” A reader commented that he agreed, but admitted that he found the concept of self-expression “nebulous and hard to pin down,” asking what he is self-expressing when he captures a quiet scene that drew his attention. He is not alone in his questioning. For a long time I too pondered the concept of self-expression in photography. If expressive images are those that are not of things, but about things, as Guy Tal states in his book More Than a Rock, then what are my images about?

My workshops are centered around the topic of self-expression in photography and the rewards that come with it. I introduce the idea that photographs can do much more than record the outward appearance of things and can be used as a tool of creative and personal expression, to make images that reflect our thoughts, feelings, and sensibilities. In short, rather than outward representation I look for subjective interpretation of the subject matter. It brings to mind the famous Minor White quote, “One should photograph objects, not for what they are, but what else they are,” the “else” coming from the subjective mind and imagination of the photographer. I think where people get tripped up is in the idea that self-expressive images must be about something, or more specifically the definition of “about.” I looked at my own images and had no idea what many were about. Some were obvious metaphors for life or an emotion, but most were not, or at least not that I was aware. We often hear about story-telling with our photos, but what does that really mean? There is no narrative, no story behind most of my photos, at least not that I’m aware. I simply saw and felt and went with my instinct. Did that not make them self-expressive? I wasn’t sure.

In time I came to realize I was defining the idea of “about” much too literally. Simply put, self-expressive images ultimately are about you, not the object in front of the lens. Objects and location are secondary, at best. Self-expressive images are about your way of seeing, your relationship with the subject matter, your way of feeling and experiencing it, all of which is manifested in how you compose the scene, the choice of framing and perspective, as well as edits performed in processing. With my own photographs I ask myself, would another photographer have noticed the subject matter or composed the image like I did? Would they have processed it the way I did? If I feel I can answer no fairly confidently then to me that means I saw and experienced something according to my own sensibilities, hence the image is “self-expressive.” The image is a reflection of me and my voice, of how I see the world. After all, isn’t that what art is, a creative expression of ourselves?


On Being a Photography Ambassador

In a blog post earlier this year I discussed my experience entering my work in an annual juried exhibit at my local arts center, and the reason I believe more subjective work, particularly black-and-white photography, doesn’t sell. For this year’s exhibit I decided to double down and submitted two images, both black-and-white. One was a definite stretch, the other more of a sure thing. Not surprisingly, the former wasn’t selected. The other did make the exhibit, but has yet to sell. Having the experience of exhibiting at this particular place and knowing what photography does and doesn’t sell, why would I choose the pieces I did? I could have easily selected much more easily appreciated, more objective images from my portfolio. And yet, I went in the other direction. I am known to be stubborn and a contrarian at times (sometimes to my own detriment), but there is another reason.

One of my goals as an artist is to challenge the viewer and their notions of beauty, to help them to learn to see beyond the spectacular and find beauty in the mundane. Look at the pattern and texture in those tree roots, or that carpet of pine needles! Beauty in nature is manifested in countless ways, yet too often we notice only the obvious. It behooves artists to learn this, but it greatly enhances the experience of the viewer as well. In his essay Lessons From Joni Mitchell, Brooks Jensen discusses how Mitchell’s ceaseless evolution and growth as an artist throughout her career challenged him to also grow and evolve, ultimately teaching him much about himself. What more could he ask from a creative artist, he asks. What more, indeed. 

It is interesting to me that while most landscape/nature photographers are vocal advocates for the environment, much fewer of them are ambassadors for photography and its potentialities as an art form. All too often photography is saddled with the expectation of “reality.” Photography serves many purposes, but as an art form the only reality that matters is that of the photographer. It benefits both the artist and viewer to educate our audience of the creative potential in photography. My hope in choosing the pieces I did was that the viewer may learn to appreciate nature in a new way, if not learning something about themselves along the way. Artistic integrity comes into play here as well. As mentioned, I could have chosen more obviously beautiful photos, but the two I did choose more closely represent my vision. The more personal our work is, the less popular it will be. So be it.

Am I bitter that my pieces didn’t perform well? Hell yeah, I’m bitter! No, I don’t take the rejection of my work personally (well, most of the time I don’t). In fact, I don’t think of it as rejection, rather a case of my work not resonating with that particular audience. I admit my first reaction was to forgo partaking in next year’s exhibit. Why spend the money on printing and framing when the piece most likely will end up in my closet at home? As a full-time artist economics do come into play. Still, I’m sure I will submit something. I am an artist. It’s what I do.


Never Say Never Again

Thoughts on Exhibiting Photography I told myself never again. Never again would I participate in another solo exhibit of my work. It’s a money losing proposition, always. A simple case of not enough return on investment. So, it was with surprise to hear myself agreeing to an exhibit of my work that is currently running … Continue reading “Never Say Never Again”

Thoughts on Exhibiting Photography

I told myself never again. Never again would I participate in another solo exhibit of my work. It’s a money losing proposition, always. A simple case of not enough return on investment. So, it was with surprise to hear myself agreeing to an exhibit of my work that is currently running at a local venue. Fifteen pieces went up, and I fully expect 15 pieces will be coming home with me when it ends. I believed that would be the case the moment I was approached last spring to exhibit. So, why did I say yes? Am I a glutton for punishment, a sadomasochist? Quite possibly. Am I just stupid? Most definitely. However, that’s not why I agreed to it. 

I’m certain this sounds familiar to many working photographers. How many of us have stacks of beautifully framed photos leaning against the wall of our home office? Hundreds of dollars of inventory just sitting there, collecting dust. Seems like not the brightest of financial moves. But, what are our options? In the digital age social media is obviously the most popular platform for showing our work, as imperfect and crappy as it is. Most of our photos will be nothing more than bytes on a computer. Think about it, how often do we see our work in tangible print form? I would love to print my work more often, but to what end? I simply can’t afford to do it without a reason. An exhibit gives me that reason. It’s an opportunity to display my work the way it should be. Beautiful prints professionally framed. Even I am sometimes wowed when I see the final product. Yes, it makes little financial sense, but as an artist we can’t always think with our wallet. Clearly, we do this for reasons other than financial. No artist has ever chosen art as a way of life for the money.

Over the years I’ve thought often about exhibits and how the general public perceives landscape photography. Do they consider it an art form on par with painting and other media? I have participated in an annual juried group exhibit at a local arts center for many years now, and it’s given me insight into what types of landscape/nature photos sell, at least in that market. It’s a mixed media exhibit, with paintings comprising the majority of the pieces. I always include one black-and-white photo and a color photo. The black-and-white pieces never sell. Which tells me, when it comes to photography the general public wants photographs based in “reality.” Ironically, I believe it’s this desire for reality that prevents photography from being sold. It too closely resembles what we can see with our own eyes. Why hang something on our walls that looks like what we see out the window? Van Gogh’s Starry Night looks nothing like reality, but because it’s a painting it’s not expected to, whereas photography is. Painting by its nature is abstract, photography is not. Consequently, do people perceive photographs as less artistic than paintings because they are based in the literal? Most photographers know what photography can be, but does the general public, those that will be (in theory) buying our work? Are they willing to accept photography that is more personal and goes beyond objective representation? In my experience, the answer is no. 

As artists I believe we are at least partially responsible for this disconnect. It is our job to educate our audience, to inform them of the potentialities of photography. If we show them nothing but the spectacular, how will they learn to appreciate subtlety and nuance, to find beauty in the mundane? Through example we can show them that photography can be a tool of creative and personal expression. We can produce photos that are subjective in nature and have deeper meaning beyond obvious appearances and location. If we do that, perhaps our audience will not only become aware of what can be, but will also be more accepting.


New Ideas in Landscape Photography

Has it All Been Done?

“For most of the last century, America’s cultural landscape—its fashion, art, music, design, entertainment—changed dramatically every 20 years or so. But these days, even as technological and scientific leaps have continued to revolutionize life, popular style has been stuck on repeat, consuming the past instead of creating the new.” ~ Kurt Andersen

While indulging in the rabbit hole that is YouTube one recent afternoon I happened upon an interview with Ian Anderson, aka Jethro Tull (apropos of nothing I am a huge progressive rock fan). At one point in the interview he stated his belief that all the breakthroughs and creative epiphanies in rock music happened from its inception in the 1950’s through the mid 1980’s and since then there has been nothing new, that over the last 30 years the trends in rock music have been nothing more than rehashes of past styles. He was not speaking to the originality of contemporary music artists, rather the dearth of new movements within the rock genre (e.g., R&B, progressive rock, heavy metal, punk, new wave, etc.). What about grunge, you say? Well, he argues that grunge is a recycling of the “fairly basic, rugged rock music” from the 70’s with some updates. Surely there are those who disagree with the assertion, and no doubt that disagreement is largely spread along age lines. Still, it naturally had me thinking of creative movements and breakthroughs in landscape photography. Have we seen it all?

Anderson’s belief is that we can’t endlessly expect things to be as creatively new and exciting as they once were. He goes on to say that most of what one can do has been done in rock music and perhaps even jazz and classical music. Sound familiar? With regards to landscape photography, there have been many movements and breakthroughs over the years, from pictorialism to straight photography to the advent of color photography and so on. There are those who believe that everything that could be photographed has been photographed, and I think that’s largely true. On the surface it sounds downright depressing. However, the silver lining is that not everything has been photographed by you. You have the potential of seeing a familiar object in a completely original way. It sounds nice, doesn’t it? But, let’s be honest, aren’t there only so many ways of seeing something? When a million photographers worldwide have photographed the Mesquite Dunes in Death Valley, are there really any new creative epiphanies happening? I don’t mean personal epiphanies, but rather with respect to the genre. As a whole, are we bringing anything new to the conversation, or are we simply seeing things as they’ve been seen before? Painting continued to evolve over centuries, has landscape photography already hit a wall after only 150 years? Will landscape photos look different 50 years from now? It’s difficult to imagine how as they don’t look all that different from 50 years ago when 35mm became the dominant format. Certainly the process of making photos will continue to rapidly evolve as it has thus far in the digital age. But, process doesn’t guarantee new creative epiphanies, just a new and different means to a familiar end.

I realize of course that none of us entered into landscape photography with the goal of inventing a brand new style or movement, to do so would be ludicrous and ultimately futile. It’s not about reinventing the genre, it’s about us, our own personal journey, discovering our own epiphanies. Personally speaking, I consider myself a good photographer. But, in no way am I the most creative photographer out there. I look at my work and wonder, is it just a recycling of the work of those photographers who inspire me? Thinking that gives me something to work toward. I can continue to explore the limits of my potential and work to push past them, hopefully adding something of my own to previously established ideas. It is certainly a challenge. Maybe innovation of the form is not as important as excellence of individual execution. Will I personally invent a heretofore unknown style? Doubtful. I think of the Allman Brothers, blending blues, rock, and jazz into a new and unique “sound,” what became known as Southern Rock. Alas, I am no Duane Allman. Dammit.

I find I am inclined to agree with Anderson, especially considering the myriad innovations in rock music in the 70’s, something we are unlikely to see again. Likewise, it is hard to imagine radically new breakthroughs and big ideas in landscape photography in the years ahead. Again, I am referring to ends, not means. Will the next generation of landscape photographers oversee a revolution in landscape photography? And if not, is that okay? What happens when an art form stagnates? Does it not ultimately die? A question I will continue to ponder while I listen to King Crimson.


In Defense of “Greatest Hits”

I often read about the virtues and benefits of photography projects. Without question they are a very popular way of working for many, if not most, photographers. Brooks Jensen, the editor of LensWork magazine, is a huge proponent, stating that “Random photography is fun, liberating, useful in its own way, but far less motivational than photography that is engaged in for a defined project. Simply said, wandering around the landscape looking for “greatest hits” photographs does not have the potential for success as trying to do a specific project.”  Indeed, the format of LensWork is predicated on the photography project. 

I am not a project-oriented photographer. It’s simply not how I am wired. Ideas for projects don’t naturally come to me as they do other photographers. It would seem this places me in the minority, a fact that causes me a fair degree of anxiety and doubt. I ask myself, am I missing out on something here? Am I holding myself back? To be clear, I am a fan of Brooks’, particularly his writings (his book Letting Go of the Camera is a must have in any photographer’s collection). However, I take umbrage to his views on this topic. To be fair, Jensen is not the only person to hold this view. I recently read an article by another photographer who labeled photos not part of a project as “greatest hits”. Apparently, this definition has taken hold. Why this narrow belief? 

I find the label “greatest hits” inaccurate and insulting. My issue is the rather narrow way in which the topic is defined and the assumptions on which it is based. One assumption is that “greatest hits” images result from being at the right place at the right time, a place we only visit once before moving on. Certainly that is one way of practicing photography, but it is not how I work. When I am in nature with my camera I am not trying to come home with any photos, great or otherwise. I visit familiar places over and over again, becoming intimately familiar with its character and moods. When I am out in nature I simply wander and observe, seeing and listening, and when so moved I make a photo. My approach to making photos is deliberate and with intent. Is that any different from that related to a project? Does one not wander when working on a project? Does one not work with intent? I find the idea of projects antithetical to my preferred way of working. I don’t like having preconceived ideas of what I am to photograph.

An oft stated advantage of project photography is that self-imposed limitations inherent in project work can fuel creativity, a belief with which I agree. However, I find plenty of limitations with my own photography, random or otherwise. The types of images I make, the places I visit, the conditions at hand, all place limitations on what I am to photograph. I also disagree with the notion that random photography is far less motivational. Motivation is entirely dependent on intent. Yes, if I wish to submit a photo essay to LensWork I need a set of 20 high quality images that are unified in theme. If that is not my goal then why does it matter? Communion with nature and self-discovery are my primary motivators when it comes to photography, both of which have little to do with projects.

I agree that projects are a great way to produce a cohesive set of images that explore a specific theme or concept at depth, I’m not refuting that. Moreover, the nature of projects makes them ideal for creating content around our images. A collection of images unified in theme readily lends itself to exhibits, articles, book ideas, the list goes on and on. However, I believe a stand alone image can tell a story and be every bit as expressive as a set of thematically similar photos. In fact, I find a series of photos that are too similar to be very boring, each image being nothing more than a subtle variation on a theme. It is also worthwhile to remember that projects need not be conceived beforehand and can come after the fact simply by reviewing our work and selecting those images that are unified in theme. The question of whether to pursue a project or not ultimately depends on the goal.

Should an idea for a project someday strike I will pursue it. Until that happens I will continue working as I have. Ultimately, I don’t look at my images as stand alone works of art, let alone a collection of “greatest hits”. They are all related in that they represent my vision, a part of a continuum of creative work, each piece building on the learnings from what came before. It could be argued my body of work is one long, ongoing project, united in vision and intent.


November Reflections

“After all, there seems to be no objective meaning in human existence; life has only whatever meaning you choose to give it.” ~ John Keats

Overnight the first snow of the season fell where I live. While only amounting to a heavy dusting it clings to the trees despite the gusty winds. As the dark of night gives way to the drab, gray light of morning I remind myself that we have yet to reach the half-way point of fall. Yesterday I heard Christmas music playing outside a shopping plaza, no doubt intended to fuel the holiday shopping craze. But, it’s still fall, and will be for several more weeks. One of the tragedies of adulthood is our inability to focus on the present, we so often are thinking of tomorrow, or worse, dwelling on the past. It is November 2nd. Winter is coming, but not today.

I hope to return to the mountains sometime this month to experience the woods in transition, “stick” season as some call it. It seems to me an almost vulgar name for such a quietly beautiful time of year. There are trails I have been meaning to explore for years now, this would be an excellent opportunity. Where I would stay is nestled in a quiet valley along a river, well away from the hustle and bustle of the larger towns. I try to encounter as few people as possible when I visit, just as I aim to deprive myself of news from the outside world. It is cathartic in ways I cannot explain.

Photography is easier this time of year, my attention no longer divided by the glitz of the fall foliage. I am reminded of a quote by Erich Fromm, “Creativity requires the courage to let go of certainties.” November offers no such guarantees, and for that I am grateful. I have found that many of my most meaningful images are made under such circumstances. I am sure some photographs will be made, but that is not the point. Wandering the woods with no particular destination, observing and listening, that is what it is all about. I find it difficult to maintain that mindset in the early weeks of fall when trying to make photos in between workshops and other obligations and I believe my photographs suffer for it.

Several friends and family have expressed dismay over the coming winter and the isolation it will bring, especially in these times. It may be an overstatement to say I am looking forward to it, but I am certainly not dreading it. Each season brings with it opportunity, and for me winter is a time of reflection and preparation. There is a new presentation in my mind that I would like to put together. I would like to get back to writing. It is November 2nd. Winter is coming. There is time.

Photo Competitions – A Better Way

I am not a fan of photography contests/competitions, especially within camera clubs. A shocker, I know. Anyone familiar with my work or thoughts knows of my disdain for contests in general. I realize it’s a somewhat tired subject, but it came up often in this fall’s workshops from the participants themselves, almost always in a negative way. It has led me to question why this activity continues to exist in the first place. I found myself pleasantly surprised to hear the griping. As an instructor I don’t like to see fellow photographers engaging in habits that inhibit growth. It gives me hope that we may finally move on from this tired and useless activity. It got me thinking that there has to be a better way.

I understand that photo competitions within camera clubs exist as a way of sharing and getting feedback on our work. We view the work of others and learn, not just by observing, but also from the judge’s comments. That’s in an ideal world. There are several problems with this model. Much of the griping centered around the judges. I recall from my tenure in a camera club many years back that finding quality judges is a difficult task at best. Many judges seem to possess no more knowledge of art or photography than the Rule of Thirds or other basic formulas and have little appreciation for creativity or originality. A bigger problem is the intrinsic subjective nature of the entire exercise. One judge’s trash is another’s treasure. Enter the same photo for two judges and get two different opinions. What can one possibly learn from that?

The most dangerous aspect of photo competitions is that they can breed conformity at the cost of personal creative development. In our desire to “win” we create and enter photos designed to appeal to the contest or judge’s tastes, the types of photos that do well in contests. In other words, we create for others rather than ourselves. Nothing could discourage creativity more than relenting to external forces. On more than one occasion I heard workshop participants evaluating a photo they made based on how well it would perform in their club’s competition. Steam was almost literally pouring out of my ears. It’s a mindset that needs to go, to say the least.

The first step in improving the situation is eliminating the competition part entirely. No awards. What is the point? The next step would be to have discourse between the photographer and judge. In my experience the judge evaluates the photos without any comments from the photographers. I believe that a photo can be much better evaluated when the judge knows something of the photographer’s motivation and intent. Of course, all of this assumes a qualified judge, which is anything but a given. A better way is to eliminate the judge entirely. Every camera club has members who range in experience from beginner to expert. Work would be shown and the members would comment in a kind, helpful, and constructive way with the more experienced photographers assuming something of a mentor role. Certainly that would be more rewarding than taking home meaningless ribbons every month. I have no doubt these ideas are nothing new and are in fact being used by groups and clubs already, I would simply like to see them become the rule rather than the exception.

Outside of camera clubs it would seem the primary reason for entering photo contests is that they are a great way of getting “discovered”. I have no doubt that winning a prestigious photo contest has served as a springboard for some photographers’ careers. However, I would argue that if the talent is truly there they would find success regardless. If the goal is to receive feedback on your work I would suggest having a portfolio review with a “professional” photographer with whom you share similar sensibilities, one whose work and philosophies align with your own. Ideally the reviewer would take the time to get to know you, your motivations and objectives. Only then can your work be constructively critiqued. 

My overarching reason for rejecting photo contests is that competition has no place in art. Winning is not the metric by which art should be evaluated. It’s not about who is better, it’s about your own personal development and achieving your potential. The ultimate judge of your work must be you, no one is more qualified. It takes time and practice, but eventually you will learn to critique your own work and evaluate your progress. 

Getting the Most Out of a Workshop

I have been leading photography workshops for four years now and have learned a great deal, most importantly how to express my own voice as an instructor, just as I’ve had as an artist. When I became a workshop instructor I decided the focus of my workshops was going to be on the creative side of photography rather than the technical. This doesn’t mean I am not happy to answer technical questions, but my desire is to help people not only with composition, but also to learn to “see” and express their own vision. It’s a challenge, not only for me, but also the participant because there is no recipe, no blueprint on how to achieve a desired outcome or product. I don’t believe creativity can be taught, at least not in the sense of making it happen. We each have to figure that out for ourselves. What can be taught is how to prepare for creativity and how it can be nurtured. That is my ultimate goal as a workshop instructor, to help other photographers learn to express their individuality.

Workshops provide a unique learning experience in that one has access not only to an experienced photographer, but fellow participants as well. For many photographers (myself included) it is a rare opportunity to socialize and learn from each other. However, workshops are not inexpensive. Over the past four years I have observed behaviors which I believe prevent participants from realizing the full potential a workshop offers. What follows are some ideas that I believe will make the workshop experience more productive and help make you a better photographer.

Have a Clear Objective(s)

During the introductions at the beginning of a workshop I ask each participant what it is they wish to learn or work on during our time together. Most will have an idea, which is good. I urge you to carefully consider beforehand what it is you wish to accomplish. From my perspective, my primary goal for you is not to come away with fabulous new images, but rather new learnings that you can apply on your own after the workshop. This is the difference between a workshop and a photo tour. I understand the desire to return home with a collection of wonderful new images, but that is something you can do on your own at any time. Use the workshop to learn, not only from me but the other participants as well. Good photos will happen in due course, but it should be viewed as a consequence, not a goal. We visit beautiful locations in a workshop, if you photograph nothing but the obvious you will undoubtedly come away with good photos, but you will have learned little. Embrace the unique opportunity for learning that a workshop offers. If you arrive with well-defined expectations the better I will be able to adapt the workshop to your needs. To that end…

Utilize the Instructor

Presumably (hopefully), the main reason you’re interested in a particular workshop is a connection you feel with the instructor’s work. At least, that’s what I tell myself. However, unless the instructor is a big name I realize that location also plays a role. Regardless of your reasons for attending, be sure to utilize the instructor to the fullest extent. In a recent workshop I admitted to often feeling bored when we are out in the field during a workshop. After a brief introduction to the location the participants do their thing and often ask few questions or request help. Some will go off on their own, and while I applaud their independence it means that I will have difficulty being present for them during the shoot. 

For several reasons I rarely make my own photos during a workshop. First and foremost I am there for you. I don’t wish for participants to feel as if they can’t disturb me. Second, I have photographed these places countless times, it is rare that I will encounter conditions I haven’t seen before. Finally, in order to make meaningful photos I have to truly see, which is impossible for me with other people around as I am easily distracted. The bottom line is that I am there to help you at all times. You are paying good money to attend a workshop, let me help you make it worth your while. 

Know Your Gear

Many participants use a workshop as a time to learn (or relearn) their gear. The problem is, unless I have the same camera (or a similar model by the same manufacturer) I can’t be of much help. I may know a good deal about photography, but there are far too many cameras on the market with which to be familiar. Learning your equipment is completely up to you. Too often I see students wasting precious time fumbling with their equipment (including the tripod) when they should be focused on much more important tasks like seeing and composition. I urge you to do a lot of shooting in the weeks or days leading up to the workshop so that you become intimately familiar with your camera and associated gear. This can be done anywhere, do it from your backyard. The goal of such an exercise is not to make beautiful images, but to become familiar enough with your gear so that you can make the most of your time in the upcoming workshop. I like to say that your camera should be so familiar to you that it’s almost like an extension of your hand. Shooting a good deal before a workshop will also have the added benefit of helping you identify issues that you would like to address with the instructor.

And finally…

Bring the Instructor Cookies

Lots of cookies. Preferably chocolate chip. A happy instructor makes for a happy workshop.


Please allow me a few moments to rant. I realize this is well-trodden territory, but I feel compelled. I will make it as entertaining as possible.

As an artist sharing his work I’ve always had a tolerate/hate relationship with social media. It certainly has never been love. The reasons are numerous and familiar to any photographer who is active on Facebook or Instagram. The ever increasing limited reach, the competition with thousands (if not millions) of photos posted every day, the far too-small photos, the lack of engagement from viewers beyond a cursory glance before moving on to the next post in their feed, the list goes on and on. 

Out of curiosity I read an article on how to outsmart the latest Instagram algorithm. I quickly learned that I’m screwed. Among the steps the article recommended taking were more frequent posting (um, no, I can’t stand when photographers post every day. You don’t have that much compelling work. You truly don’t), making videos (not gonna happen), creating Stories (I hate the Stories feature with a passion), and finally, and this is straight from the article, posting photos with “Bold colors. Breathtaking landscapes. The sort of stuff that gets people to stop in their tracks and smash “Like.””. Which anyone who is familiar with my work will realize is exactly NOT the type of photographs I produce. Subtlety and nuance? Black-and-white? Sorry, pal, no smashing “Like” for you!

I am aware that most of my disdain is personal and that for some people social media is very useful. We all have our own objectives and our satisfaction with it is based on our expectations. And I would be lying if I said nothing good has come from it. The issue is, it simply doesn’t jive with my values. The decision to not participate in the strategies or tactics to increase the eyes on my work is on me. I simply find the strategies abhorrent.   

So, what’s a photographer to do? Despite my misgivings I’m not going to quit social media, at least not yet (aren’t you relieved?). Why not? Well, I’m chicken. What I am going to do is start sharing photos via my newsletter. No more than two a month, I don’t wish to inundate people with more emails than they already receive. There will be no marketing, no agenda, just me sharing my work with those who have shown interest in my photography. Which means now is a great time to subscribe to my newsletter if you already haven’t. 

Rant over.