Looking for Compositions: Previsualization in Landscape Photography

One of the ways landscape photographers have legitimized their craft as an artform is by this idea of previsualization. This artistic direction is epitomized by Ansel Adams, who preached the idea of envisioning the photograph before taking it. This kind of determined and deliberate approach to making photographs is very different than the tradition of photojournalism. Henri Cartier-Bresson coined the term the decisive moment to describe what it was he hunted for in his compositions. For him, previsualization was impossible. To capture that elusive moment required stealth, spontaneity, and quickness. In this dichotomy, you can sense something of the idea posed by Jeff Wall that photographers are either farmers or hunters.

There is another category that is not part of Wall’s interesting configuration and that is photographer as shepherd. On any given day, you can find this version of photographer trying to get a group of people to stand in a particular pattern in front of a picturesque background. The drive of this work is to assemble a group, to bring them into a space and to make photographs out of their synchronized smiling. For the shepherd photographer, there is something of the hunter and of the farmer in their process. They need to both have studied the landscape to know the light and how to use it in a composition, but they are also looking for those moments of emotional truth when laughter or joy spark in their subjects. The shepherd photographer leads a group and sometimes must charm them to feel comfortable in the setting.

The shepherd photographer can previsualize a lot of the elements and they must be ready to respond to spontaneous things that happen in the landscape with the light. The landscape photographer can focus more on previsualization because they don’t need to pay attention to subjects who are constantly moving and may not be altogether agreeable to the process. The landscape never minds. The journalist has all kinds of other challenges, including the risk of being confronted by people who may not want their photograph taken.

The portrait photographer is like the shepherd but has a more intimate relation to the subject since it is a one-on-one situation. In the portrait session, you can see parallels to all different kinds of professional relationships. The portrait photographer is part director, part trainer, part coach, part therapist, part friend. There is a psychological component to portrait photography that makes it very interesting.

Each of these different modes of photography requires a different set of skills and habits. You are looking for different elements in each field but the thing that is common to all modes of making photographs is the idea of looking for compositions. For a photograph to work, it needs a powerful composition. The way a photograph leads the eye around the image is the make-or-break element for all the different kinds of photography. Composition is the unified field of photography.

The question of what makes a good composition is highly personal and it is through answering that question that a photographer develops a sense of style. When making photographs, you are constantly studying how the world translates into a two-dimensional form through all kinds of various technological constraints. You must learn about depth of field, compression of images through the distortion of a lens, and other optical effects of photographic technique. Through experimentation, you can learn what elements you need to exist to take a good photograph.

One of the ways that you can look for compositions is by walking. As you walk and notice the shifting perspective between elements you can begin to see when certain alignments happen. For example, there is a composition I have been eyeing that I am going to photograph this morning. This is my previsualization. It is of the surfer sculpture on West Cliff with the aloes in full bloom right now. I have been watching the flowers for some time getting ready for when they are peaking to get a shot of this iconic spot. Yesterday as I was walking my dog by, I saw exactly the shot I wanted as I moved along the sidewalk the flowers the sculpture and the boardwalk behind it all came into an alignment that felt like something clicking into place. That is the feeling. It’s like a seat belt fastens. All the sudden you just know that it is secure.

So, I’m calling my shot this morning and painting the picture of the photograph that I am going to take before I get out there and get it. Previsualization, baby. It’s an interesting practice that takes some time to get to. You have to know what shots are possible, you have to study a particular location over a period of time, and then you must time it correctly so that the light adds in the final elements to the alignment of subjects in space. When all of these things come together, you have a magical photograph. The trick to managing that is to do tons of work ahead of time figuring out what is possible so that you can zero in on one idea and find the ideal moment to realize your composition.

If photography is to live up to its name and function as writing and not just decoration, then composition is key. It is through assembling the elements of a photograph in a particular form that great photographs are achieved. To do this, you need to study and practice photographing your subject over time so that when you see that alignment happen you can be prepared to follow through on your vision. 

Creativity or Discipline?: Art Matters

What is the relationship between discipline and creativity? On the surface, these things seem to be opposites. Discipline implies consistency and regularity. Creativity suggests variety and spontaneity. What is the image of discipline in the US? What is our idea of creativity? What is the reality?

Creativity comes from a variety of places, including trauma. Art is sometimes a response to an emotional need, to a state of shock. The thing is, not everyone who experiences trauma creates art, and not all experiences are equally traumatizing. 

Will power, or the continuity of choice, is one of the factors that transforms traumatic feelings into creativity.  What is the difference between someone who is damaged by a traumatic experience versus someone who is able to transfigure their pain into poetry? It is their willingness to practice. Of course, not all art comes from traumatic feelings.

Another aspect of creativity is choice. Creativity isn’t found in one thing or another. Creativity is the ability to choose.  Art can be any combination of aesthetic qualities. There are no rules as to what can qualify as art. Making a creative decision, a decision to go in a creative direction and to practice a formal constraint, is definitely one of the ways to look for creativity. 

What decisions have been made? What choices can we make now? What is the basis of a creative choice? What makes up an art direction?

Creativity is the conception of form.

Discipline is sticking with a program of work designed to create growth. To be disciplined is to possess self-control, to know one’s limits, to act within a safe and measured sphere of possibility. It is also to act consistently. When disciplined practice creates strength, there is more control in the execution of decisions. The strength gained from practice brings the line drawn by the hand closer to the mind’s idea.

Creativity derives from passion. Deeply caring about anything leads to opinion and the repetition of opinion creates style. A passion for form leads to the discipline of style. 

The subject of a work also has a lot to do with the interaction between creativity and discipline. The loss of a love can lead to a loss of passion, and instead of being productive creativity becomes cathartic. Instead of being driven by a desire to make great work, the artist who is heart-broken uses creative expression to cope with the feelings. 

Imagine Jeff Koons versus Mark Rothko. Koons is an artist who conceives of ideas and blueprints for the making of a spectacular visual object. His work is not expressive but conceptual. He is not using art to express something personal as much as he is performing for art. He is making aesthetic and conceptual, formal, choices to create something for the world.

Expressionist artists, like Rothko or Pollock, use creativity to vent their anguish, to express their tragic sense of time. Both routes end up creating something new, something valuable. The expressionists, however, ended up killing themselves and Jeff Koons is one of the wealthiest artists of all time. 

The value in art is derived from the desire of collectors and institutions to preserve the work of artists for future generations. Once an artist reaches art historical status, their work is almost immediately valuable.

People get too serious about art when money is involved, and it is always involved. It takes discipline to keep a sense of humor. You have to stick to your decisions. 

The tragic artist seems more authentic to us in some ways. There is very little sense of discipline in the tragic artist because they are fueled by trauma, not will power. The tragic artist is living on borrowed time. Creativity is a drug for the tragic artist, and it is just a matter of time before it becomes impossible to re-up.

The pop artist doesn’t use their public work to express their private feelings, but instead takes the task of making an art object as a kind of engineering challenge. 

Discipline and creativity are never neutral forces and so it requires an understanding of an individual and their context to really get down to the nitty gritty. What is the purpose of discipline and creativity in your work? Do you tend to feel more creative when you are emotional or does emotion come out of doing the work?

The purpose of the discipline is to earn trust. Through the repeated performance of a task, we inherit an artist’s belief in their project. 

Why do we need creativity? Where do we need it? 

You would think that making pretty things to look at wouldn’t be super high on our list of priorities in a world that has so many serious problems. 

Creativity always starts with a question about form. How would it look if we did this…? What would a viewer feel if we did that…? How do we make this art object feel a certain way? How can we inspire certain feelings in an audience? The questions create the context for formal experimentation and an artist will use their discipline, their media, to create some answers.

In Cannabis We Trust

During the pandemic, the cannabis plant and the industry surrounding it have become more valuable than ever before. State by state, we are creeping towards federal legalization as the evidence continues to grow in the places where it already has been made legal for recreational use. Legalizing weed is the most SENSIble thing to do. With one stroke from a pen, a switch would flip that could empower hundreds of thousands of people with work, liberate tens of thousands from incarceration, and would potentially provide all of us with the therapeutic tools we need to heal and grow stronger.

Canada legalized recreational cannabis with the Cannabis Act in 2018. Mexico in on the verge of passing their legalization bill. Just as California couldn’t stand by and watch Colorado capitalize on legal weed, it seems beyond inevitable that the US as a whole will finally abandon its stance against cannabis as history continues to show that legalizing cannabis is not just an experiment, but a full-fledged transformation of global drug policy.

Cannabis users who have experienced legalization may have varying views of what legal weed looks like for the people who care most about the plant, but there is a widespread consensus among its advocates that cannabis is a beneficial plant and that making access to quality bud safe and affordable would be a good thing.

When will the US recognize its potential for leadership in the embrace of cannabis and hemp products? If cannabis is federally legalized, will that speed up the process of incorporating hemp commodities into our agricultural and industrial plans? When will we see the ascendency of Hempcrete as a building material? How soon can we phase out plastic and replace it with hemp alternatives?

These questions have urgent importance, and the more we elevate the topic as a priority the sooner we can start working on these powerful problem-solving practices. It is perhaps understandable that people are still resistant to legalization as it shows the power of the anti-drug campaigns that have ideologically backed the drug wars. If you didn’t have personal experience with cannabis, it might still seem like a dangerous or negative thing.

The truth is, cannabis is beneficial to many many people.

When you listen to leaders in the cannabis space, a common story you hear is one of conversion through injury or illness. Oftentimes, these folks will have been extremely conservative people who were anti-cannabis and believed the propaganda against the plant. After being recommended cannabis to deal with seizures, pain, or the side effects of chemotherapy, a great number of people have converted to become stoners who sing the praises of the plant and advocate for it.

One of these people was Jack Herer. He is one of the most iconic examples of a conservative converting to cannabis after trying it for the first time in his 30s. Herer opened up a head shop and started researching cannabis and hemp and became a spearhead for legalization. His book The Emperor Wears No Clothes is a cornerstone work in the legalization movement. Herer became one of the legends of cannabis during his time and he started out starkly against the plant as a Goldwater conservative.

Just as Jack Herer changed his mind about cannabis, we have seen a major shift in attitudes. The more states legalize cannabis, the less the stigma against cannabis users is able to stick, and lots of people you may not have thought were cannabis users have stepped out of the closet. We no longer see cannabis use in the same way. We are getting experienced. Jimi Hendrix would be proud.

Train for the Change You Want to See: GYB Strength

We have the occasion, during this period of life interrupted, to think about one of life’s great questions: how do we create social change? There are so many ways to approach this topic and I think that one of the great things about contemporary culture and social media is our ability to see plenty of examples and to learn from our peers. 

When you stop and look at the flow of history with the objective of seeing how social change occurs, it becomes clear that most of what we see as social equilibrium is merely an angle of repose that has resulted in a dynamic balance from ages of struggle and collapse. Beneath that image of stability is a violently churning reality. There are multitudes of groups pushing for their own interests and it is some vast turbulent ocean of conflict and cooperation that is keeping things dynamically the same and allowing for some change in certain moments.

We have professional activists who study the situation looking for nodal points of leverage where force or support can be applied to some effect. We have career politicians actively transforming ideas into reality through the drafting of legislation, the execution of mandates, and the judgment of actions. Politics is much bigger than a business or even an industry. Politics are the official and often arbitrary outcomes of power struggles. It is the public story power writes.

It is the people who are doing the struggling, though. In many cases, this struggle results in a form of work that is like existential hysteria, an outward expression of the ultimate grief. The display of displeasure, the story of true human suffering becomes a work, a narrative that can be replayed, retold, reconfigured as evidence supporting our cause. In other words, the people who are publicly hurting are providing us with the ability to discuss our underlying problems. In doing the work to understand how to change the conditions that lead to such unnecessary suffering we are honoring their sacrifice.

In many if not most cases, the people who become national topics of debate do not do so intentionally. Our great change makers often are not volunteering for the job, but people who simply suffer the consequences of an unjust system and who inspire other people through the expression of their suffering. It is through phrases of sheer terror that a truth is illuminated: “I can’t breathe.” It is in the extreme vulnerability of a human being involuntarily brought to the edge of life itself asking for their mother or their father that we see something true about our condition of being. How do we become more humane humans?

Over the weekend, I had the opportunity to work with one of my favorite artists, Gillian Young. She is too many things to name, which is why the title of artist is really the only label that fits. She is a fitness coach, a food influencer, a writer, a fashion model, a social activist and a community builder as well as many other interesting things. One thing she is not, however, is quiet about the change she wants to see.

Whenever I see Gillian in person, I have the feeling that I am in the presence of a superhero. She is an exquisitely beautiful woman, with a fashion forward style, flowing with feminine grace and elegance but accented and accessorized with an edginess that speaks to her strength. Her bright and warm demeanor are offset by a tattoo of a knife, by her shoes. This is a woman, one thinks, capable of being a great friend, a valued collaborator, but also one you do not want to fuck with.

Gillian, like anyone mentally fit enough to pay attention, is on a path of awakening to more of the world’s truths and, as we come to understand the depth of the problems we collectively face, it can be daunting to engage. How do we speak up for what we believe effectively? How can we be positive influences of change? What does that look like? 

For Gillian, as a fitness coach and personal trainer, the answer is through training. You don’t achieve fitness goals overnight. They take work and dedication and discipline. Well, why would we think it would be any different or easier to create a healthier society? It’s not. 

It has often been said, attributed to Ghandi, that one of the best ways to effect change is to be the change you want to see in the world. Gillian is taking this idea to its practical level by training to create the change she wants to see. After all, we can’t just be anything we want without doing the work. We have to practice any art or skill we want to improve.

Taking the discipline and the technique of working towards fitness goals and applying them to building a diverse community, Gillian is modeling an effective approach to changemaking. This is a kind of proactive model of protest. It is about building coalitions and sharing stories so that we can coexist more happily together.

But don’t mistake this movement as a superficial and doomed to fail because overly optimistic flash in the pan. This is not fool’s gold, it’s not gold at all. It is good. The common good. Enlightened self-interest. The social agreement. But remember the tattoo of the knife. In order to build community, you also have to have clear boundaries, and you have to establish a seriousness of your intent to preserve the integrity of the group. We are not fucking around, her smile seems to say.

We are here to do the work, her back states, to create powerful social connections and to articulate our vision of equity and friendship to anyone willing to try. Gillian’s brand name is GYB, the acronym for her full name Gillian Young Barkalow, but it also stands for her motto, her mantra, her mission statement, her mandate: Give Your Best.

Certain people are inspiring to be around because of their verve, their spark, their drive for living and this electrical aura is what makes Gillian such a powerful coach. Following her on social media is witnessing a woman building a movement. If you are looking for motivation in your fitness journey, you should consider an interview with Gillian the Great if you are ready to train for the change you want to see.

The Work of Landscape Photography

I like to earn my photographs. I don’t think a robot could ever feel that way, but maybe artificial intelligence will include emotional dimensions. Maybe we are not special as human consciousness. Still, I feel better when I do something hard that leads to a great photograph. 

A lot of it has to do with timing. You have to synchronize your life with the light and the landscape. You have to be in the right place at the right time, and if it is hard to get to that place then you have the added reward of achieving something that is difficult. It is not just what the camera can see, but what the body operating the camera feels and why. 

Riding my bike through the mountain trails gives me a ton of physical challenges and a lot of satisfaction. It feels good to climb up to a ridgeline with the power of your own legs and the view is that much sweeter. It also means knowing the trails and how long they take and how fast you can go. It means having enough energy and physical comfort to be able to stop and compose your shots despite the fatigue or the hunger you feel. 

It also adds the element of the unknown. You have some extra elements of chance at work. Getting yourself in the right spot at the right time is much harder when you are riding a bike, but it is also much more rewarding. 

Location, Location, Location: Photography and Natural Light

So much of life depends upon location. Realtors know this better than most, but photographers also are expert in understanding place. Yesterday I photographed my friends Natalia, Antonio and Derek. Natalia and Derek are realtors. Hence, the title.JJT.14.June.2020.Natalia.Antonio.Derek-20A favorite collaborator over the years, Natalia Lockwood has become a powerhouse broker of homes and it is fun to watch her grow.JJT.14.June.2020.Natalia.Antonio.Derek-5This is Derek Scranton who was voted Capitola’s “Best Realtor” in the Santa Cruz Sentinel’s Readers’ Choice Awards. Super nice guy, easy going and fun. Contact him if you are in the market for a home.JJT.14.June.2020.Natalia.Antonio.Derek-24What a team! Their smiles say it all. We chose Loch Lomond for our shoot, and found some great pockets of light along the lake. FYI, you are allowed to visit the lake for fishing and hiking, but no hanging out, as we learned.JJT.14.June.2020.Natalia.Antonio.Derek-26The homie Antonio is a capoeira master and with supreme flexibility he busted out some moves real quick. JJT.14.June.2020.Natalia.Antonio.Derek-27Had to take the opportunity to get a few shots of one of my favorite couples.JJT.14.June.2020.Natalia.Antonio.Derek-28By the way, Antonio and I talked about podcasts the whole time. He’s the only person I know who loves podcasts as much as I do. Always fun to link up with kindred souls.

JJT.14.June.2020.Natalia.Antonio.Derek-29What are your favorite podcasts? Going to be brainstorming some ideas with Antonio. Could be something cool in the works! These are wild times and we need to be discussing the issues.JJT.14.June.2020.Natalia.Antonio.Derek-21

Mountain Cure

With all of the tragedy going on in the world, mental health is super important and hard to come by. Exercise is key for my mental well being. So is being in nature. With a camera on my back, I jumped on my bike to put in some miles on the trails to achieve both goals and to make some photographs in the pretty early-summer light.JJT.13.June.2020I’ve been thinking a lot about how photography is so much more than a way of documenting the world, and when I experiment with long exposure blurs it sometimes matches how I feel better than a tack sharp image. I like to experiment with drawing with the light. It decomposes the image and shows how cameras work while using all of the points of light to draw lines. JJT.13.June.2020-26I think that there is a value to both kinds of photographs: experimental and documentary. While I enjoy the feeling of experimenting with a camera to get surprising results there is also something really rewarding about a photograph that looks and feels like the world it was made in.JJT.13.June.2020-5JJT.13.June.2020-24JJT.13.June.2020-4JJT.13.June.2020-7JJT.13.June.2020-3

Same Sun

A huge part of being a photographer is studying light, just like a writer pays attention to language. It is the medium. The camera is a tool that uses light to render images about subjects. Therefore, we need to be very familiar with the ever-changing qualities of light.JJT.Anna.SV.web-6One of the ways I make a practice of studying light is by continually being out in the landscape. Hiking, mountain biking, always being out there with a camera is critical to knowing your light and locations. When you study light for a living you learn that the difference between various kinds of light can range from excruciating to ecstatic. Riding your bike mid day facing the sun without shades is a blinding and painful experience, especially during summer. As the day begins to transpire and the earth starts to cool there is a window of beautiful light that softens and illuminates subjects with a distinctly magical effect. It’s the same sun, but radically different light.JJT.Anna.SV.web-8For this shoot, I was visiting the location for the first time. This meant that I did not know when the light would disappear over the horizon. Located north of Santa Cruz in the mountains there are canyons and ravines that get dark a lot earlier than it does along the coastline. This means that the last direct light is going to be brighter, but it also has the potential of showing up in beams that work like spotlights.JJT.Anna.SV.web-10The chiaroscuro effect has always been a favorite due to the dramatic interplay of dark and light and can really help the subject to pop in the composition. By positioning Anna directly in a beam of light there is a wonderful contrast to the light softening as dusk arrives.JJT.Anna.SV.web-20After the direct light is gone at a mountain location like this, there is still a lot of wonderful soft light that you can use to create brighter more evenly lit compositions. With a little bit of backlit highlight in her hair, I like the warm rural feel of the above shot. Anna is originally from Russia, and there’s something really cool to me about the look of traditional Russian clothing in Northern California settings.JJT.Anna.SV.print-23Portraiture is a dynamic challenge of using light and location to create interesting and pleasing compositions featuring the subject. Knowing your light is as important as knowing the technical aspects of your craft so that you can give all of your attention to the subject during the shoot.JJT.Anna.SV.print-25Another great thing to do with portraiture is to incorporate the life of the subject. Anna wanted to get some photos with her cat and it really brought out some of her personality. You can see it in her smile. How about that expression on the cat?JJT.Anna.SV.print-28This photo really succeeds at Portraying Anna to me, because in the gesture of her arms holding her cat and in her expression slightly laughing at the experience you can see the way she sounds and who she is.

Eden Edwards’ Power Surfing

It’s fun to photograph Eden Edwards’ surfing. She’s a friendly person, smiling and making jokes, but make no mistake: she’s part shark. Once in the water, she lurks and waits till the ocean shows certain bumps on the horizon and then she starts moving around in the lineup and as the best wave of the set rolls closer she’s in position and she paddles with the confidence of a surfer who has caught thousands of waves.

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As the Lane mostly serves up chunky rights and she is goofy footed, Edwards has mastered the art of the bottom turn to backside hack, a la Ruffo, and each year she is more aggressive in her approach and more stylish in her execution.

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Stay tuned for more ripping surfing from one of Santa Cruz’s bright young talents.

Natural Style

Richie Schmidt in SC

Surfing with style is hard to do, it’s an art form with a steep learning curve (ba dum dum cha).

Drawing lines

Richie Schmidt draws lines in the water like a painter attacking a wall.

Ramps that move and break

Richie’s surfing is a reminder that when you have a passion for your craft the results show in your style.