Christmas is just around the corner now that we have survived the apocalypse. Photographers everywhere will get all sorts of goodies on Christmas morning, or Christmas Eve, depending on the traditions in play. But most will not get what they really need for Christmas.
What photographers really need for Christmas is time. Yes, time. Not more camera gear or software or filters or camera bags or whatever. Time.
To be a creative person requires space to thing, time to ponder and consider, and time to really examine the work we have already shot. We need time to browse through books and/or the Internet for inspiration. We need time in our own heads.
All creative bursts come out of a time of stillness. That might be stillness in our photography because we’ve been stuck for some time producing the same type of work. It could be stillness of meditation, or just time alone, wandering in nature. But in busy lives we need to make stillness.
So if you have a photographer that you want to give something to, offer to drive the kids to school so they can spend some time thinking. Or do the dishes, wash the house, send them out for the day with you handling all that they leave behind. Or whatever, but give them the gift they really need, time. And this is true of all other creatives too.
Doing good photography is risky. Living a full life is risky. But can you really be happy doing anything less?
The Oxford dictionary defines courage as “the ability to do something that frightens one; bravery” and as “strength in the face of pain or grief”. If you think about it, both these definitions apply when it comes to making great images.
We have all had the realisation of a new direction we wanted to take, whether in life or photographically, and yet been scared to move in that direction. It is natural. The familiar feels safe and comforting, even when in reality it is far from it, whilst the new seems unsettled, risky and scary. Our fears may be one or many, tied up with whether we are good enough, whether we can pull it off, what others will think and a myriad more. In fact fear is a many-headed hydra – cut one head off and two grow back in its place.
As we have seen above, courage is feeling the fear and doing it anyway. That is really all courage is. It is not anything miraculous, nor supernatural. It is not something that some have and others can never have. It is simply a state of mind. It is simply being able to say to yourself ‘ok, I’m scared, but I’m going to fucking do it anyway’.
Some of our fears are internal and some are developed by people around us as ways to control us. In other places I have written on the importance of being very careful who you listen to. The reality is that there are people out there, in your lives, who will try to hold you back. Some will have the best of intentions, but be misguided. Others will do it with purpose and intent – their own lives are so weak that they can’t stand to see others actually doing something.
I started thinking about this yesterday when having a conversation with a second cousin by marriage. She is nearing the end of high school and is very close to my daughter. We were discussing what she wanted to do at university. My advice was to find a course she could be passionate about and to do that. Choosing a ‘safe’ or conservative course would destroy her, I advised. She has a very outward personality and certain career directions you can just see would suit her. Yet she found others telling her to be conservative, to play it safe. The world really is divided into two groups of people – the risk takers and the risk averse. She is what I would call a studied risk taker – one who needs to be on the edge but does her homework and weighs things before taking the risk. Doing something safe would strangle the passion in her.
Natural chronically risk averse people are unlikely to be reading this. Those who are reading this are far more likely to be suppressed risk takers or risk takers who are fairly comfortable with what we are. A suppressed risk taker is someone who either through upbringing or life experience has pushed their risk-taking nature down and tried to ignore it. Abusive parents or well meaning but fearful parents may have caused this. It can be caused by an inappropriate choice of life partner or friends. And it can be caused by being so beaten down by bad life experiences that one withdraws into a virtual foetal position.
For those of us severely traumatised, we may benefit from professional support. Counselling or group-based therapy can be extremely helpful in working through our blocks. Note that you can get great therapy by being the member of a supportive creative group – it doesn’t have to be a psychological one. My wife is a member of two such wonderful groups – one an artist group for mothers who are very supportive and nurturing of each other, and the other a tight knit artist run gallery that is similarly supportive of its members. The former was very supportive of my wife when she was going through grieving for her parents and brother. I’ve also seen the same thing with some of my class groups in creative disciplines, such as writing or photography. So there are lots of ways to find such support. You just have to be prepared to shop around and do not be afraid to leave a group that is not working for you.
It can also be very important who your life partner is, if you have one in your life at present. I am fortunate that my wife and I share a passion for creativity and growth, and we also share a strong commitment to compensate for each other’s weaknesses and to help each other forward. Sadly, I’ve seen many people where their life partner actively holds them back, often subconsciously out of fear that they will be outgrown. I’ve also seen partners who, rather than play to a person’s better traits, has instead developed a person’s worst traits, to very sad consequences.
For many of us the blocks will not be as major as those we’ve been discussing above. It is normal to have some fear of the unknown – it is a basic survival instinct after all. But being ruled by our fears can not only hurt us, but those we hold dear. So how do we work through some of these issues and move forward?
Here are some ways to overcome fear and try something new:
Break a big step down into a whole series of small steps that individually are not so scary, then start doing the little steps
Consider the worst possible real consequence of what we want to do. Think about how likely this is to happen and how you might deal with it if it did. You will usually find that when coldly analysed the worst possible outcome is not really so bad anyway and is very unlikely to happen
Brainstorm some alternative paths that might get you to the same point but don’t seem quite so risky. Now that you have choice your fears about your original idea may seem to have less power over you
Talk about your fears out loud with a trusted friend. Fears actually voiced often have less power
Decide to take the risk and do it anyway
Mistakes are, in fact, good
I am amazed at how we tie ourselves in knots over creative directions. A lot has to do with our programming about failure. Many have come out of childhood with a deep fear of making mistakes. This can be from parents and their reaction to red marks on our schoolwork, or be caused by teachers who do not understand the value of mistakes. The truth is that we have to make mistakes to grow and develop in any area of our lives. Mistakes are, in fact, good. They show that we are working outside of our comfort zone, pushing boundaries. The only problem with mistakes is that we can get so caught up in negative internal dialogue about ourselves that we forget to learn what we can from the mistake. If that happens we often end up repeating the same mistake over and over again. Better to stop the internal sabotage, learn what we can from the mistake and move on to make new and different ones.
One thing that we ‘creative types’ cannot ignore is the strong linkage between our creativity and our general wellbeing. We are often only really happy when being creative. I know I am. I am lucky because I can express my creativity in many ways: my teaching, my photography, writing, parenting and life with my partner. But all that has taken work. Being blocked creatively often means we are blocked in other aspects of our life. Unblocking one thing can create a cascade effect. It is easy to be fearful of this, fearing that our lives will unravel in a cascade of cause and effect. Such cascades can unveil blocked aspects we have been trying to ignore. But rather than be fearful of this we should see this as an opportunity to examine and finally deal with our blocks so that we can move on from them. I know, my first marriage ended in divorce because of this effect. But in reality I am far better off now than I was then, stuck and constipated creatively. Unhappy at a deep soul level, it was not really me.
Life moves on.
This is a key aspect too – life moves on whether we want it to or not. Sure, we can hold back the waters by sticking fingers in the dam. But eventually we run out of toes and fingers and the whole thing falls apart worst than if we had not resisted change in the first place.
So how do I know if I am blocked creatively? If I’m happily producing similar work for too long then I know it is time to shake something up. And that, my friends, is a topic for another essay.
I currently use an iPad 1 and my daughter has my old iPhone 3Gs. Both suffer from SHBS – Sticky Home Button Syndrome. SHBS happens to older iThings and manifests as a slowness in responding to a press of the home button. Thankfully the fix is easy.
Boredom plays an undervalued role in stimulating your creativity and improving your photography.
On Saturday my wife had an exhibition opening. We all went there early as she had to setup food, etc. There wasn’t anything for my daughter and I to do and no one had really showed up yet so, given that we were already tired, Lauren and I became bored. So we decided to go for a walk and then come back when people had started turning up.
Since I had my camera with me to photograph the exhibition I naturally started thinking what to shoot while my daughter and I walked. Since the light levels were falling (it seems to be into winter here early) Some possibilities dropped away. So I decided to play with blur. The important thing there is the word play. I had no expectations about result, was just filling time and using it to teach my daughter a part of photography she hadn’t played with yet. We sat down in a cafe and had a hot chocolate and I started shooting. My daughter shot some blur. I explained what was going on. Then we slowly wandered back to the gallery shooting blur on the way. Here are some of the images I took.
The important thing is that boredom led to no expectations and a willingness to just play with the camera. This is really important and we all need to do this more often.
Let’s be honest, copyright is a complete mess. There are differences in law from country to country and, in a day when putting an image on Facebook or your blog makes it vulnerable to attack under any copyright jurisdiction in the world, the risks are considerable.
The largest problem for artists is that techniques and approaches that they have grown up with do not apply in the digital. So I can legally take a magazine, cut out a photo and glue it onto a canvas to make a physical collage, but if I copy the same image off the magazine’s website and paste it into Photoshop I have breached copyright if I publish the result. It makes no sense, but unfortunately that is not a defence under the law.
Until the law catches up with the realities of the modern world we all need to be careful.
So what do I do when I need source images that I do not have in my own image library? Well, I do one of three things:
Buy them from a stock library, like iStockPhoto for a few dollars
Go out and shoot them myself
Google for open source or public domain images
My own image library is, of course, large. But it doesn’t cover everything. I have supplemented that with a number of collections of images on CD and DVD that I have bought the right to use. But what about when I can’t find what I want there either?
My preferred solution is iStockPhoto and the other micro stock libraries. I know I have the right to use and I have supported another artist in their activities. Everyone wins. This is the approach I use in designing book covers and also occasionally in artwork, though in my own artwork I prefer the integrity of using all my own imagery if at all possible.
Googling for open source, free or public domain images can be tricky. When you Google, what Google is doing is looking for pages where all those words occur. That means the words public and domain may occur on a page but not mean that the images are explicitly released into the public domain. To stand a better chance you need to enclose the phrases in quotes, as in “public domain’ or “open source” so that Google will only return pages where these expressions occur as is. Still what you then need to do is to then check the page the image occurs on to see if there is an explicit statement that the images are public domain.
Many government agencies make images available for use, such as US Government agencies like NASA. But you should always check the terms and conditions of use on the websites. They will be there somewhere.
In education it is common to take a more relaxed view over copyright when allowing students to experiment and develop experience and techniques. Note that while there are general exemptions under copyright law for educational uses, it is a grey area when it comes to then putting such images up on the Internet, which is effectively publishing. So students should be careful about publishing assignment work to Facebook, LinkedIn, Pinterest, etc. While it may be acceptable to a teacher for a particular purpose, like a skill building exercise, that does not make it legal.
Photographers protect their work in many ways. There are encoding techniques that embed within an image traceable information that is capable for surviving extensive cropping and modification in Photoshop. This is a very effective way of identifying images on the net that have incorporated your work. Many professional photographers do this and it makes sense when your living is your images.
There is also the danger of urban myths. The main one relevant here is the idea that you can use a certain percentage of an image. This is just plain wrong. There is no percentage use figure in copyright law regarding images.
A complication is that copyright laws are constantly changing. Not only is there the general copyright law, which differs from country to country although there is general agreement on some aspects, as agreed by international conventions. Individual countries are also active with special legislation that covers certain areas of copyright. The US in particular is one country that has special digital laws and one where new laws are being proposed frequently in response to lobbying be areas of industry with particular interests.
All the above makes it a nightmare for digital artists. My advice is to be very conservative.
As is obvious, I am not a lawyer and this article does not constitute or substitute for legal advise. Seek the advice of a lawyer over your particular circumstances.
Since I was recently adding more memory to several MacBooks a friend has, and so had my anti-static mat out, I decided it was time to add some RAM to my MacBook Pro.
Over the years I used various RAM in my computers but tend to prefer Micron (Crucial). They make life really easy on you with a system scanner application (http://www.crucial.com/store/drammemory.aspx) that you download and run. It communicates back to the website and takes you straight to the right page for the memory that works in your machine. I’d order an 8G set last Thursday and it arrived on Monday morning in Australia. Quick install and now a happier Mac. As a bonus the RAM in my MacBook Pro is the same as that in my daughter’s white MacBook. So the 4GB that was in mine went into hers, replacing the 2GB it shipped with. So two upgrades for the price of one. Pretty recent MacBooks make the memory upgrade quite easy. Remove the screws on the back and there are the RAM slots waiting for an upgrade.
On the horizon is an SSD disk drive upgrade, making the boot disk the SSD and the hard drive will move into the optical drive bay. This seems a recommended setup for heavy Lion users. I may up the hard drive to a 750GB 7200rpm drive at the same time. This setup gives you the best of both worlds – system on the solid state drive for fast boots and wake from sleep, swapping, etc and a large pretty fast drive for all my files.
Updating your system is not hard. Some small Philips head screwdrivers and I recommend an anti-static mat, but you can also just earth yourself by touching something like a metal tap that connects to copper pipes. There are videos and step-by-steps you can quickly find through Google for your particular model of computer that will show you exactly what is required. Naturally use common sense and take it slow. And I accept no liability for anything that goes wrong, as I’m sure do the step-by-step tutorial writers. But I have to say that it really is not hard for most people.
While you’ve got the back open gently blow dust out of the machine. I use a rocket blower that I have for my camera gear (big rubber squeeze device that shoots out a decent force of air).
I use a MacBook Pro 15″ for much of my work. It is a great machine that mixes suitable portability with a decent sized screen and can run a much larger screen when I’m in the office. Love it.
But there are times when it gets really slow and unresponsive. I’ve been investigating this for some time and have slowly removed things that were not helping. But still today my machine went really slow and I decided I had enough of it. Running Activity Monitor (Applications/Utilities) showed the culprit to be Flash, both in Chrome and in Safari, which were both open. I stopped the Chrome Plug-in (Window -> Task Manager) and closed the tabs that had Flash running. I also closed Safari. My machine came back to life, being responsive and fast. So there lay the problem, Flash. I am in the habit of leaving multiple tabs open in my browsers on content I want to look at later and this was killing me if there was Flash content on the page, usually crap I didn’t want anyway, like adds.
So I decided it was time to get rid of Flash once and for all. At the system level you remove the Flash plugin by going to Library/Internet Plug-Ins/ on your boot disk and removing them or (as I did) moving into another folder the files Flash Player.plugin and flashplayer.xpt. This removes Flash from Safari after a reboot.
To remove Flash from Chrome (or rather force Chrome to use the system plugin, which is now gone) you type About:Plugins into the Address field and disable Flash.
You may be asking how I can do without Flash. Well, much of the time I view the web on my iPad. That handles most things well, including playing Youtube videos. I don’t like Flash games and most Flash on normal web pages is ads, which I don’t want to be annoyed with anyway. If I have trouble with this approach I’ll re-enable the built-in Flash plugin in Chrome and simply use Chrome for viewing such content. At least I know now how to just kill the Flash plugin in Chrome anytime it is slowing my machine down.
Yesterday I was in a conversation with my closest friend, Steve Danzig, about how art affects us. I put forward to him what makes a work of art or a photograph great and it got me really thinking about it. So in this post I want to explore that.
For those who don’t know, Hermeticism is a philosophical system that has greatly influenced Western esoteric thought. For the last few weeks I have been totally absorbed, to the exclusion of all else, in Western Kabbalistic and esoteric thought as it relates to the arts as part of a Masters degree I am working on, so the topic is forefront in my mind at present.
One of the core concepts of the Western esoteric tradition, including Hermeticism, is that of the four classical elements: earth, air, fire and water. These four classical elements are tied to aspects of our being, so earth is the physical, air is the mental, fire is the inspirational and water is the emotional. In many systems of esoteric thought there is a fifth element, spirit. So at the personal level we consist of five ‘dimensions’ of ourselves: the physical, intellectual (conscious), inspirational (subconscious), emotional and spiritual aspects that as a whole make up who we are.
When I consider the artwork that has really touched me profoundly over the years I realise that such work has impacted me at all five levels or dimensions of my being. Take, for example, the large, dark paintings from Rothko’s mature work, the viewing of which I consider one of the most profound experiences of my life. These works impacted me on all five levels:
physically, by their size and dominant ‘presence’ in the space;
mentally, by stimulating thought of colour resonances, use of space and proportion, etc;
inspirationally, in that they appear in my dreams and have inspired some of my own, meagre in comparison, art explorations;
emotionally, as they evoked deep and profound emotional reactions;
spiritually, in that even now, many years later, when I bring them to mind there is a shift in consciousness and a profound connection with the ‘other’ that is impossible to put in writing.
I have had similar reactions with other works of art: Pollack’s action paintings, especially Blue Poles, some of Bill Viola’s video works and such.
In thinking about all this I realised that, informally, I rate art and photography on this five point scale: the most profound work hits all five levels, other work may only hit one, two, three or four of them.
Contemporary art has stressed the intellectual, the conceptual and, indeed, there has been an active pull away from emotional and spiritual art. However, as the research I’ve been doing has shown, whilst the pull away from the emotional and spiritual in art has certainly been there at the institutional level and among most art critics, curators and art historians, it has certainly not been there for the actual creators themselves. A careful examination of the literature shows large numbers of artists who are connecting with their work at all levels and certainly aspire to state something profound in their work on all five levels. It is just that, for the sake of their careers, many artists are reticent to speak of such things until such time as they are well enough established that the institutions will want to show their work no matter what they say.
This idea of multi-dimensionality also explains why much of contemporary art is shallow. Certainly when I examine new work being shown I find it appealing at some levels, perhaps physically from its presence or use of materials, or intellectually from the conceptual aspects. But if that is as far as it goes it only rises to a one or two on my five-point scale. This is a particular problem for digital art and photography, which can often even miss out on the physicality aspect.
As an artist, I strive to bring all five aspects into play in my own work. I’ve not succeeded yet, to my satisfaction. In my writing I try for the same, as yet, unachieved target. And that is the thing that pushes me to keep trying, to keep going deeper into my own self and tap all levels when making my art.
It may benefit you in the production of your own work to just try looking at things from this way too and seeing how you feel about it.
In truth, photography is nothing to do with the gear you use, your mastery of exposure and any fancy post-processing. Photography is about seeing, pure and simple. There are an infinite number of images surrounding you at this very moment, if you can see them.
Improving your ability to see images is key to developing as a photographer. In fact it is this photographic seeing that is a large contributor to a photographer’s style: what you see and how you choose to capture it. Photographic seeing can be practiced.
Now I normally do this exercise with my students in courses, so there is the added push of having to bring resulting images to class next week to motivate, so you, working at home, will need to provide this push for yourself. Perhaps decide that each week you will put the best image up on your Facebook page for feedback, or on Flickr or your blog, show it to your husband or wife, or take it to the camera club. Whatever you need to do to motivate yourself, do it.
The exercise is in fact very simple. Pick a location that you are very familiar with, one where you would normally not consider taking photos, go there and keep shooting all sorts of different images until you think you have something. Then evaluate the images, paying attention to sections that work and not just the whole image. Then return to the same location and repeat.
Vision and perception is a muscle, like any other (figuratively) and so must be exercised to get stronger. I often point students to their local shopping strip, school and even rooms in their own home. In fact one of the most interesting I have ever set, and the results being so amazing that I now do this every course, is to get students to shoot in the smallest room of their home, which is usually the toilet. It pushes so many buttons: “what could I possibly shoot there”, “that’s disgusting”, “boring”, and so much more. Yet the photos that people bring back the following week are really amazing. In fact I sometimes push this further and make the assignment to only shoot within the toilet bowl. It is amazing just how creative you can be.
This exercise is really about restriction. By restricting your shooting to a well-known location it pushes the brain into a problem-solving mode of operation: “what can I do to get a good shot HERE?”
The extension of this exercise is to do this whenever you have some time to kill, such as waiting for an appointment or whatever. Use whatever camera you have with you, which for many will be their phone, and explore the space photographically in the time available.