Searching for style is an interesting task in photography. Why do you choose the compositions and subjects that you do? Are you finding things that please you and sharing them with the world? How is what you are photographing representative of you as a person? How do you recognize your own photos?
In some way, style is unavoidable. It is the result of lots of work. The more work you do, the more you are able to distinguish your style from the rest of the world’s photographs. And it is a world full of images, more photographs than ever before by far. Every day it seems to increase, too.
There are different formal choices you can make that will mark your images as being yours. You could do only black and white or only focus on one color or any other number of ways to say this is your photograph. You can also do this with subject matter.
Your editing has as much to do with it as your shooting. I like to see natural looking light in photographs, so I tend to edit with an aim to having it look as close to the scene as possible. I care about color and want my photographs to show the truest version possible. Other people opt for a super saturated look. The important thing is to have a reason for your decisions. Why is this your style?
Another key distinction with style in photography comes from the use of perspective to achieve depth or flatness. Some photographs (with a foreground, middle ground and background) invite you to look into them as though mentally stepping into a world. On the other hand, some photographs lack perspective and are more for looking at than in.
You also have to choose where along the spectrum between abstract and figurative your work will exist. Some photographers focus on color, texture and geometry and exclude storytelling elements to create a formal viewing experience. Other photos attempt to show you a world, to depict a scene, to tell a story.
It is also very possible for one photographer to have several styles. It is fully possible to create different styles for your work. Different series have different elements needed for their effects.
What is enough? Enough is enough? Have we had enough? What a funny word.
First of all, there’s the spelling. What’s this shit? For one thing, it has what my daughter calls a sneaky g and h. We have a very confusing language, but English is the one I know best and I love it. It’s a funny thing to love words, but there are worse things to become obsessed with, for sure.
But back to enough. What does it mean to have enough, to give enough, to be enough? Enough is the right amount. If there is too much of something, then we say that we’ve had enough. But, if we want to buy something beyond our budget, we have to raise enough capital. Enough is a happy medium, a transactional middle, a form of health, a proper measurement. When adding salt, you taste the food to know if that’s enough. When you look to see if a task is finished you ask if it’s good enough. So, it’s qualitative as well as quantitative.
This is one of the key judgments in photography. Finding the right exposure, the right shutter speed, the desired depth of field, the clarity of shadows, the quality of light you have to experiment to find out what is enough light, speed, dynamic range, etc. Once you have a composition, photographic technique consists of experimenting with the settings to create the desired visual effect. The funny thing about this is that you have to feel it out to learn what is enough. It is a feeling. Keep pushing the settings one direction and then the other until you find the right exposure.
Moderation is a value I believe in, and it has everything to do with the idea of what is enough. Excess leads to sickness, scarcity leads to desperation, but enough leads to the zone of happiness and health. In art, there is a concept known as density, which describes the amount of visual information within a given work or collection of works. Some work is very light and minimal, and some is very dense and baroque. You have the ability to make this choice when composing photographs, too. What do you look for to make a minimalist composition? What is interesting enough? How engaging is the work? Does it ask enough? Does it give enough?
Content creation can be a tricky thing. When you are working for clients you have a much different task than when you are creating content for the public, but they are very much related. In both cases, you have to consider the purpose of your task. When you work for a client, there are multiple overlapping areas of concern. You have to create content that works for you, for the brand, for the brand’s investors, and for the public. When you do personal work, you have the same categories of viewers to consider, but their rank of importance is different.
For example, if you are a content creator and you are posting on your own page, you have different goals. You are trying to sell the service, not the content. You are showing people that you can consistently put out high level quality content.
One thing that I want to think about is the difference between content and art and where art lives in today’s world. The marketing world, the media world and the academic world all thrive on content. They are pushing messages. Art is different. What is the message of art?
On one hand, I am not sure that art has any validity in our world at the current juncture. Who are your favorite contemporary artists? What are they doing? Maybe this is a common feature of art, to be misunderstood. Isn’t that part and parcel of the experience of putting art out into the world? In order to push the boundaries of art, you can’t do work that is already accepted. This means that you are going to have to endure lots of people not understanding what it is you are doing or why you would want to do it. Not that artists always understand either. But you have to do things that are not part of the program. At least that’s my understanding of art. I remember Seth Godin talking about how there are places in developing countries where people crank out oil paintings of scenic views and that is not art; it is painting. There is no invention, no originality, no thought. It is simply craft, just a going through the steps to make something.
What is this element that we call art, then, and does it apply to content creation for brands? On the one hand, we have a definition of art as something done extremely well. There is an art to anything. When Kobe Bryant worked his magic on the court there was an artistry to his movement. This is something else, though, than Rodney Mullen figuring out the most insane flatland tricks on a skateboard. Kobe Bryant always had the goal of scoring a basket, of winning the game. In art, the goal is less clearly defined, and the expressivity is much more important. Sure, there is a technical execution to what Mullen does on a skateboard (he either succeeds in making his tricks or doesn’t), but the goal is to do something new, something innovative. Kobe Bryant wasn’t trying to play basketball in a new way, he was just trying to be the best.
It is these two competing definitions of art that leave us somewhere in the middle. Is art a form of experimental research designed to bring new things in the world, or is it a talent contest that aims to bring the best of what already exists into being? Probably both are valid even though they are so different, but they definitely contribute different values to the world. One is playing golf better than it has ever been played. The other is inventing an entirely new game. We need new games, too, since we are evolving as a culture.
I think of these two qualities that we describe as art, excellence and innovation, as being the result of technique and experimentation. In order to hit a golf ball so well that we consider it an art, you have to master the technique of golf. While there may be subtle nuances of invention in your particular version of the swing, it will be fundamentally recognizable as golfing to anyone who knows about golf. This type of “art” is recognizable based on the results and the form of the technique. It is a much easier thing to see. We already know what the activity is and how it is supposed to go, so it is a recognition of quality not of kind.
When you understand the difference between these two definitions of art, you begin to see how people get confused about contemporary art. They are looking for a display of the mastery of technique when what they should be asking is what the artwork means. Art is not just be a display of talent with technique, but it can also be evidence of originality, of invention.
On the other hand, there is the kind of art that is unrecognizable, at first. This kind of art is entirely based upon experimentation and questioning what can be interesting as an art experience or object. Think of Marcel DuChamp’s readymades. There is almost no technique required. Someone else did the work of manufacturing the object. All DuChamp had to do was select it, sign it with a pseudonym, and place it in a context where it was sure to cause people to ask questions. This changed the conversation from technique “how did the artist do this?” to concept “how did the artist dream this up?”
Robots are already making art. We have used machines to create images for almost two hundred years, now. The human element in art is the courage to experiment when failure is both highly probable and when the results matter greatly. This is the thing that defines the kind of artist I admire: the courage to experiment under fire.
And it is for this reason, that I understand art to be more about experimentation than the flawless execution of technique, that I have begun to understand business, war, and media as more related to art than not. Not only is there an art to war, but war is a form of art as well. Business, media, military force, and art all are attempts to influence others in order to create a space to exist. Through these efforts (to build a brand, to produce media, to enact military campaigns, to create art) we collectively create our way of life. Politics and Religion do this also, but I don’t like to discuss those topics because I like you too much to do that to you.
So I’m asking you next time you see something that calls itself art, that is shown in an art context, to ask different questions. Instead of looking to the work to display talent and technique, see if you can just sit with the thing long enough to see what it does to you. If it makes you mad, note that. If it makes you hate art, note that. But whatever it makes you feel, the way to get the most out of an experience of art is to ask what it could mean, what were the stakes of its being made, why does this matter to other people? If nothing else, this kind of art is a form of mental exercise to practice being open minded. Can you sit with a work of art that doesn’t go out of its way to please you long enough to listen to what it might have to say? In a world full of visual yes men, some art that keeps itself at a distance might be just the thing we need. Think about when you go to the grocery store. The cereal boxes are practically jumping off the shelves to give you pleasure. Is this a red light district or Safeway? Chill, cereal boxes, I’m not looking, lol.
Victim mentality: what is it and why does it happen? People are complicated creatures with lots of layers and many of the deeper ones are unknown if not unknowable. Our interactions are so numerous, varied and of different qualities that it can be difficult to understand who is having what effect on us. How do the people you relate to change the way you experience the world? More importantly, how do you take charge of the situation.
I think that one of the reasons that we can get stuck in a victim’s mentality when something goes wrong is our inability to see the negative in our own personality. Instead of looking at your own decisions, you see your problems as external. This is something that Covey talks about in 7 Habits. It is very easy to be reactive instead of proactive.
The thing is, your happiness depends upon you reclaiming your own power. Whatever has happened to you in your childhood or even this morning is not going to help you to make good decisions today, unless you face it and figure out why you made those decisions back then. That can be very scary, but the other alternative is far more worrying.
I think that part of the challenge of life is an idea that we could ever get to a comfortable place. That is just not going to happen. Any illusion of comfort you have is just a side effect of the distortion of space. You are just focusing on one part of the picture in order to feel pleasure, but what you are ignoring is possibly going to be much harder to deal with when it arises.
How do we move from a victim’s mentality to a warrior’s attitude of unrelenting drive? I think you have to keep asking what it is that you can do. If you focus on how you can improve the situation, then you give yourself a chance.
Still, things will happen that are beyond your control and some of them are going to be negative and will hurt. How do you experience your losses without sliding into a victim mentality? The easiest way to let go of a loss is to own it. I gave it my best shot, but it was not enough. The competition found a way to do more and they won. It is really that simple. You cannot blame anyone else for your problems.
One way you can identify the degree to which a victim’s mentality has infected your thinking is by looking at the language you use. Are you writing in the active voice or are you using passive voice? This is such an important difference, but sometimes we do not even know that we are doing it. Let me give you an example and hopefully it will show how the language we use is more than just descriptive, it is formative. Language creates meaning, it doesn’t just communicate it.
Say you want to share a story about going to photograph the moon. Every sentence has a subject (the hero of the sentence) and a predicate (the hero’s action). If you phrase it so that the action has more importance than the hero you have fallen into passive voice. If you put the hero of the sentence in the driver’s seat, then they have the chance to be actively leading the charge. Let me show you in an example.
The crescent moon was going to set at 7:20, so we had to get in place early in order to capture that last twenty minutes of moonlight.
What or who is the hero of the sentence? What actions are they taking? In this version, it could be easy to mistake the moon for the main actor, because the moon is going to set. It is driving the action. Let’s try it another way.
We knew that the crescent moon was going to set at 7:20, so we positioned ourselves on the beach ahead of time, and we were able to capture that last twenty minutes of moonlight.
The difference can be subtle. It is a matter of agency. Is it the moon that is driving the action or is it your decision to photograph it setting? If the moon is in charge, then you are positioned as a victim who is slavishly doing what you have to in order to achieve your goal. While it might seem subtle, the difference is huge. You are either putting yourself in the position of being the hero of your own story, or you are being acted upon.
This is especially important in a world with mobile internet, because we are subject to news all day every day, so it becomes very easy to slide into a passive mode of reacting to what is happening. The victim mentality is sneaky as fuck. We have to watch the way we think.
Yesterday we got some very troubling news here in California, the land of celebrities, the oasis of cultural heroes. One of our greats, one of our all-time legendary basketball players died in a helicopter crash along with his daughter, another family, and the pilot. Nine people died. Obviously, most people care about all of them, but not many people knew the other family. Basketball fans of a certain age KNEW Kobe, though, and that was why we were so devastated by the news. If you were following Kobe’s story, then you probably were loving his dedication to his daughters and his care in passing down his skills and drive to them. Learning that he died with his daughter on their way to a basketball game sent an enormous wave of grief through our entire country if not the world. Every father’s worst fear came to life in that moment. We all experienced something of the sheer inability to protect your daughter from death as you plunge towards the earth in a fiery death trap when we realized what actually happened and that, that, that is just too much to bear. It is too fucking tragic to believe. When I heard the news there was a moment where the emotional well inside of me threatened to break through the dam. I could feel all the fear and grief of fathers immemorial inside of me as I considered that last moment of fear and of love. Did Kobe comfort Gigi? Did he tell her that he loved her and that it is going to be ok?
Grief is something that enters our life unexpectedly and puts a heavy weight on our minds and hearts, but we do not need to let grief get the best of us. How do you own your grief? How do you take charge of your own process of feeling sad about something you have lost? There is nothing any of us could have done to change the outcome of Kobe and his daughter and that poor family who was with them and the pilot who had no ability to save them. It was an accident. There is nobody to blame. How do we act in a way that reflects our own agency?
You own your grief. You experience sadness and melancholy in proportion to the amount that you care. When you hurt because of a loss, it means that you care about winning, you care about life. You have to translate that pain into strength. It might seem impossible, but the human spirit is beyond what we can imagine. People have endured and transcended unthinkable challenges, and we can too.
Kobe taught us many things. He inspired us with his single-minded-focus and unshakable drive to win and to excel. He also combined the strange ferocity of an apex predator with the goofy sensibility of a kid who loves basketball. While he is undoubtedly one of the all-time greats, I love Kobe because he reminds me of a kid I never knew, a kid who was a basketball nerd, a gym rat, a hoop god. But, what I loved most about Kobe was the way he talked about his daughters.
When tragedy strikes, we are tempted to fall into negative patterns, but if we have the courage to own our own sadness, then it can make us grow stronger, more careful and more available to our loved ones. You never know what is going to happen, so it is always important to let the people in your life know that you love them. RIP Kobe and Gigi. Prayers for the Bryant family, for the Altobelli family, for the Zoboyans, and for the Mauser family. We grieve for those we know, but it is not difficult to remember these other people and to feel for them as well. Prayers and thoughts go out to everyone affected.