Be Courageous In Your Art, Photography, and Life

Be Courageous In Your Photography, and Life

Doing good photography is risky. Living a full life is risky. But can you really be happy doing anything less?

Being an individual is what it is all about

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.

Being prepared to stand out from the crowd is what living creatively is all about


This Week in Photography 11th March 2012

Below are some online articles that caught my eye over the last week:

25 Wonderful Black and White Countryside Landscapes

40+ Amazing Free and Premium Mac Apps for Photography


My attention was elsewhere this week, like the next issue of DIMi magazine, and so the list is short

A Hermetic View of What Makes An Image or Work of Art Great

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.

iPhoneography and MagCloud For Photographers

As you might know, I blog for HP on their Professional Photography blog.

My two recent posts have been:

MagCloud and Publishing for Photographers

covering my experience using MagCloud to produce the DIMi print edition


Why Apple’s iPhone Can Be a Fun, Useful Camera for Photography Pros

covering my ideas on why we should embrace the iPhone even when we have far more sophisticated gear.

Both articles are worth a read and I’d encourage you to read the other articles on the HP Professional Photography blog. All the other contributors are great writers and photographers and the articles are informative.


The Dilemmas of Digital Image Making

I must admit to being deeply conflicted as a digital image maker. I love the image making. But, and this is a big but, I really hate the physical stuff necessary to present my work, like printing and framing. Truly and profoundly hate it.

Photographers and digital artists come in all sorts of shapes and sizes, for sure. Some like the chemical darkroom, some like the alternative processes, some adore the perfect lab print and others love a perfect digital print they have done themselves. Others love to experiment with digital printing on all sorts of surfaces, doing transfers and such and others treat their print as only a starting point for a long development journey.

A recent conversation with a friend also showed that there is another type of image maker, the type who enjoys the making of the image, whether it is the capture with a camera or the rendering on the computer, but who do not really like the steps involved in presenting our work physically. I had thought it might just be me, but obviously not. And this got me thinking.

My wife is a painter and the great thing for her is that the process of making her art also makes the artefact that gets exhibited and sold. Now I know that is not quite true of all painters: watercolourists need to matt and frame their paintings, as do printmakers. But acrylic and oil painters can, if they want to, just exhibit and sell the painted, stretched canvas.

In discussing this with my friend Tony we both came to the conclusion that, in so many ways, the old Polaroid film that gave use both a nice print and a negative for later work, was perfect for us. Well of course it wasn’t perfect, with the negative and positive having different ISO settings. But the idea of a shooting process that automatically produces the resulting artefact to exhibit is not a bad one.

Sadly, it isn’t there with photography these days. We can shoot with digital or film, but either way this is only the start of a long process. And no matter what you do it is a lengthy process from there to a finished, exhibitable image.

Now the printer manufacturers claim it is a one stop job to print, but we all know that is not true. Aside from the processing to get your image ready to print, there is also the stuff to do just to get a good print, from calibrating your monitor to adjusting profiles and more.

It strikes me that my feeling about it cannot be that rare. We see masses of people uploading huge numbers of images to places like Flickr and Facebook (F is for Foto, after all). But those numbers are not also appearing in people producing hangable images. So something is stopping them, either the cost, time, expertise or just the interest in going to all that hassle.

So what is to be done? Well, for many people the solution is not to print, but to simply upload to some site.  For others it will involve only occasional printing. And of course many photographers and digital artists actually enjoy all that mucking around with printers, matt cutters, glass cutters and framing. It would be nice of the printer manufacturers and others found ways to make the whole process from printing to a hangable image much simpler.

Of course, it is also a waiting game. Eventually large electronic flat panel displays will be cheap enough to allow, those who want it, to avoid the whole issue of printing and then framing and go straight to the electronic display. I know I am one who can’t wait.