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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.

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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.

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.

Insta-rant

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.

Detritus

Called Out

In my workshops the focus is on making creative and personally expressive photos that go beyond merely literal recordings. To that end I discuss the rewards of photographing ordinary subjects and elevating the mundane. During a workshop of mine last year we were photographing one morning at one of the most iconic locations in the Adirondack Park. I observed that one of my students seemed a little displeased, and when I approached her about it she politely called me out for essentially “talking the talk, but not walking the walk.” She found visiting such a grand and iconic locale to be incongruous with my teachings. The nerve! Actually, I had to hand it to her, it was a fair and shrewd observation. It also made for a wonderful learning opportunity.

One of the most important and at times difficult tasks of a workshop instructor is dealing with expectations. The objectives of those attending workshops can vary greatly. Some are there for trophy hunting and look to the instructor to take them to places that offer the biggest bang for their buck, reducing the role of instructor to that of a tour guide. For others the focus is on learning, although there is still an expectation of visiting iconic locales and the hope of returning home with at least a few very high quality images. In time I hope to cultivate a reputation such that people who attend my workshops understand that it is more about the creative experience in nature and expressing oneself through their images. If they go home with a handful of great images to boot then that is a bonus, but not the objective. For the time being I try to manage expectations as best I can.

I explained this to her, but more than that I pointed out that just because we were visiting an iconic location doesn’t mean that one is obligated to get the iconic shot. In fact, seeing beyond the obvious first (or second, or even third) impression can be a great exercise in learning to not settle for the first thing you see. Often the first thing that catches our attention doesn’t make for the most creative or expressive photograph because it’s not the thing that makes us feel. Art is more about feeling than it is seeing. If you stand at Zabriskie Point in Death Valley the first thing you will see is what everyone who visits there sees. Brooks Jensen, artist and editor of Lenswork Magazine, advocates for first capturing the iconic shot just to get it out of your system so that you can begin to see other things. Whatever your way of working the important thing is to see and consider multiple opportunities for photo making and not be blinded by the glitz of the obvious. The best photographs are made with our heart, not our eyes.

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The Brett Effect

I am still trying to figure out the kind of photographer I want to be. I’m not talking about my photos, that I’ve worked out. I’m talking about my identity as an artist. Do I want to be the sage, the photographer who speaks of all things related to creativity and living that life? Think … Continue reading “The Brett Effect”

I am still trying to figure out the kind of photographer I want to be. I’m not talking about my photos, that I’ve worked out. I’m talking about my identity as an artist. Do I want to be the sage, the photographer who speaks of all things related to creativity and living that life? Think of Guy Tal. Or, do I want to speak solely through my photos and embrace the nonverbal? Photography is a visual medium after all. Have you ever noticed that? For those who have been following me the last few years it would seem I’ve chosen the former. I suppose I have, but I’m not certain it’s truly me. I admire the photographers who have taken that role, but is it who I am?

I recently read the book Interviews With Master Photographers, which was published in the mid-1970s. It was fascinating to learn of the differences in philosophies between several extremely talented and accomplished artists. In particular I was struck by Brett Weston’s complete and utter refusal to discuss symbolism and philosophy when it came to his work, repeatedly stating that “I’m just a photographer, I’m not too verbal.” In this way he was the polar opposite of Minor White (also interviewed) and his Zen approach to photography and belief in Equivalence. And yet, Weston’s photographs clearly speak to his own unique vision. Why talk about that which can be so clearly seen? Here were two incredibly talented and unique artists who in certain ways couldn’t be more different. The lesson here obviously is that there is no right or wrong, only what is right for the individual. Which is precisely the point of this piece. Which is right for me? Which is right for you?

The good thing is I know who I am not. I know I have little interest in talking about the technical side of photography. That’s what Youtube is for. The are a million different ways to do this and that, and just as many photographers willing to tell you how. I am grateful for them for I too have benefitted from their knowledge. But, I have nothing new to offer that conversation.

Lately I have found myself growing weary of inspiring quotes and other reflective prose that accompanies many photos on social media. I have been one of the prime offenders. Are we intellectualizing too much, making all this out to be something more than it is? Taking it all so seriously? I still believe that the right text and image combination can elevate the whole to something greater than either of its parts. When it comes to all things creative I believe less is often more. Perhaps it’s simply the cycle of things or mood these days, but I find myself attracted to Brett Weston’s way of thinking. Stop saying so much and let the photograph do the talking. 

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Immersion

This was the scene recently outside my kitchen window. I was feeding the cats when I noticed it. I was not looking to make a photograph or even consciously thinking about photography at the time. And yet, I saw it. The contrast between the soft, scalloped curves of the snow and the hard, vertical lines of the fence as well as in tonality riveted me. I threw on my boots, grabbed the camera, and made the 10 foot trek out the back door into the wildness of my backyard. It occurred to me afterward that the experience is a perfect example of always living and thinking creatively.

Living the life of an artist is just that. It is a lifestyle, something that we live and breathe on a daily basis. It cannot be something we do on occasion, when conditions or time allows, otherwise being relegated to the back of our mind. The weekend warrior mentality does not work if we wish to grow creatively. We must always be thinking photographically. This doesn’t mean we have to make photos on a daily basis, which of course is unrealistic. Thinking creatively is a mindset that goes beyond the act of making pictures, although that is obviously an important component. Reading about art, reflecting on our own art, looking at the work of other artists, all of it is part and parcel of the creative lifestyle. The more we engage a creative mindset the more we train ourselves to think and see like an artist. In time seeing and thinking photographically will always at the forefront of our brains, even if we are not actively engaged in it at the time. 

It is doubtful I would have noticed this scene a few years ago, especially given that it is a departure from my usual “style”. (A man-made object in one of my photographs? Horrors!) That I did notice it at a time I was involved with other tasks is a direct consequence of having trained myself to always be open and receptive to things that stir an emotion within me. It is rare than an hour will pass that I do not at some point think about something related to photography and the act of creating. I used to think of it as an obsession, I now regard it more as an immersion into a creative mindset that allows me to always be seeing and feeling.  

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Anniversary

This year marks 25 years that I have been passionately practicing photography. 25 years! Right now you’re probably thinking, “Really, and he’s not any better than this?!” On the wall in my home office is the first photo I made that was worthy of framing, a sunset over Lake Murray (no relation) in South Carolina. It’s actually not a bad photo. Good job, Mr. Murray. But, I digress. The first twelve years of picture making for me was a very on/of venture. Due to the limited vacation that comes with entering the corporate world and living in a place that was less than inspiring (save for two months of the year) weeks and often months would pass without the click of the shutter. My camera was very lonely then. Still, I thought about photography often. I subscribed to the major outdoor photography magazines of the day, gazed longingly at the beautiful photos wishing they were mine, and practiced when time allowed. Each spring as the wildflowers were blooming in the rolling ranch lands an hour outside of Houston I would mysteriously become ill with “bluebonnet fever”. After calling in sick to work (cough, cough) I would head out the door with camera in hand to spend the day in photographic bliss. I cut my teeth photographing the wildflowers those few years. I was not, however, a model corporate employee.

It wasn’t until my wife and I moved back to our home state of New York in 2007 that I began to make images in earnest. Two years prior I had quit my corporate job (I could maintain the charade for only so long) and began to work part-time as a consultant, an important step on my path to eventually becoming a full-time artist. It was also when I switched from film to digital (I was a late bloomer). My photos began to look better, a consequence of practice and digital technology. Still, after a few years I felt I was stagnating. Four years ago Guy Tal swept me off my feet and my photography changed forever. I haven’t looked back. 

I have now been a full-time photographer for almost three years, a culmination of a dream that began 25 years ago. And to think, it only took me 22 years! (Let that be a lesson for all you kids out there!). The past three years have seen many challenges, some expected, others not. Fortunately, I can say with all honesty that those challenges have been surpassed by the rewards. I am interested in seeing what the months and years ahead will bring. Will my photography continue to evolve as it has these last few years? Will the Dolphins ever win another Super Bowl? Will my cats grow up to become upstanding members of society? Time will tell.

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Autumn Thoughts

Today I returned from a few days of personal photography in the Adirondacks following a series of workshops. It was interesting to return to the same places I visited less than two weeks ago, witnessing the rapid change that occurs this time of year. Most of the maples had shed their leaves, while the beeches were just now reaching their peak, setting the forest understory ablaze in shades of deep orange and gold. Soon time will usher in autumn’s second act. The trees will have been laid bare, their naked limbs seemingly stretching upward as if awaiting the first dusting of snow. 

I am always struck by a feeling of deep melancholy when I say goodbye to the woods this time of year, knowing what is soon to come. The reason is obvious I suppose, a reminder of another year soon reaching its end. And while I am more than ready to bid adieu to this year of personal tragedy and difficulty, I find the speed at which time is moving to be unsettling. Walking with the fallen leaves crunching underfoot I can’t help but realize that I too am well into this life’s second act. What will the next few years bring?

Only two days ago I leisurely strolled along an old backwoods road in the bright sunshine, reveling in the sights, sounds, and smells of this most magical time of year. It had been a few years since I last visited this place, and I made a vow to return annually at this time. Every now and then I stopped to make a photo, but that wasn’t my objective. All that mattered that afternoon was the experience of being alone with nature, to see beyond myself and my problems, to see a world much larger than me. Soon the woods will be transformed once again, and I hope I will be as well. 

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The Eyes of a Child

“…innocence of eye has a quality of its own. It means to see as a child sees, with freshness and acknowledgment of the wonder; it also means to see as an adult sees who has gone full circle and once again sees as a child – with freshness and an even deeper sense of wonder.” – Minor White

This past week I taught a kids photography camp, my latest entry into the “What was I thinking?!” file of actions. Once I got over the shell shock of dealing with adolescent girls (mind you, I have no children of my own), there were a few interesting observations. Not unexpectedly they had little difficulty learning the technical side of photography. Unlike so many of the adults I teach they didn’t regard their camera as something that might actually hurt them. Processing their images in Lightroom was also a breeze. If there is one thing that doesn’t intimidate a child it is a computer. But the biggest and most important difference from adults was in their photos.

They were fearless when it came to making pictures. With no concern for failure, they shot everything and anything. Buildings, flowers, the sidewalk, benches, desks in a classroom. And they did it from every possible perspective. Lying on their stomach, on their back shooting upward, from this angle and that angle. Sure, many if not most of the images didn’t work, but that’s not the point. They did exactly what one should do when learning to make photos: experiment. And they had zero concern as to whether or not the images would be good, all they cared about was the act. Results didn’t matter, it was all about the experience for them. And every now and then some of them made truly wonderful images, a couple that I even wanted to claim as my own (fortunately they’re too young to know about copyright. Just kidding). 

One of the biggest barriers to seeing is bias. For adults a lifetime of experiences brings about good things, but it also causes us to have judgments, prejudices, and biases. We worry if this image has been done before, either by us or by another photographer. We ask ourselves if anyone will like it, or what use it may ultimately have. Children have no such concerns. At this age they are blessedly unaware or unconcerned with the likes and shares BS of social media. They haven’t seen a lifetime of photos with which to judge against their own and they have no body of work to compare the next image they make to. It is ignorance in perhaps its most positive form. As adult photographers it is a lesson for all of us. We need to strive to see with the eyes of a child, to regard the world without judgment and fear, but rather with wonder and joy.

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