Photographing the Path

One of the things a photographer should do if they want to be an artist is to show the public things they are not used to seeing. The novelty of something that is not immediately recognizable is often magical and often takes up a lot more attention than maybe it even deserves. What really matters is when a photographer can show you something new but it is also lasting.

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Most of the new directions don’t work. That is the nature of experimentation. Most don’t work, but occasionally there is a spark and a match ignites and the fire can be used to light a stove. In these cases, where we end up cooking, there is a lot of energy for the project until it too becomes well known and unsurprising.

 

Any photographer who chooses the natural world as a subject can tell you that there is always something new and surprising even in a place that you have photographed a thousand times. The sunset continues to stun us with its awesome qualities because every time it does something spectacular it feels like it is brand new.

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That is one of the great lessons to learn from photographing the same place many times: the dynamism of light and life. Everything is constantly changing and the moments that make the most magical photographs may only happen for a few brief seconds.

 

The other night as I was hiking, I came upon a great horned owl sitting on a post. It was totally unaware of me as it was focused on the grass in the last light of the blue hour. I got out my camera and lens and set up my tripod and just as I was focusing the owl plopped down into the grass, belly-flopping onto some rodent in the field, which it took away up into a tree for its meal.

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I didn’t get a photograph of the owl at all, but moments like that are why you go out into the field looking for anything and nothing in particular. I almost always get the shot. That is one of the reasons why I decided to write about missing this one. The exception underlines the rule.

 

I have this thing that I have felt as an artist for a long time, but Norman Locks helped me to realize it as a photographer. That is, you want to meet things eye to eye. You have to have the integrity to believe that you and your subject are equals and that this moment is going to make a photograph because you and the subject are coming together out of the flow of life for a split second of connection.

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This means that you have to have purpose out there, too. If you are only hiking to find the animals, then they have the leverage and you have positioned yourself more as a hunter than as an artist. The artist doesn’t need the animal to have an experience, so if the animal becomes a part of the experience then it just so happens to be. It is not forced, though.

 

In order to do this, it helps to give yourself some sort of difficult goal that impresses even you when you accomplish it. I have been pushing myself to hike long distances on a regular basis and that gives me the gravity to just go out there and whatever comes across my path will be part of my experience. I’m not chasing images. I’m cultivating the strength and the patience to be out there enough so that when it happens, it happens. It is what it is. Nothing forced, nothing faked.

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Style and Imagination in Art and Personal Branding

What drives us to make the photographs that we do? This is a question applicable to almost everyone, these days, photographer or not. It makes me pause, though, and wonder how many people really have phones, and if a camera is really the necessary tool. Is this the right question, or am I thinking within my own bubble of familiarity?

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Am I only speaking to the people with enough economic activity to have cell phones, or is this a fundamental question to humanity? If you don’t have a camera, not even on a phone, then how do you make pictures? How do you make your imagination known?

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First of all, I would like to think about the question of universality. That is what I am trying to understand: is there a universal impulse to make pictures, and if so why? Do we all in one way or another engage in the act of making what we imagine into reality?

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I think that making pictures, whether with a camera or a pencil, is really just another way of manifesting thought, of turning the mind’s conception into something real through the exercise of will. We all do this in our lives in numerous ways.

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In reality, we all are artists and we actively create our ways of living, unconsciously or not. From the way you stand, the amount of exercise you do, the food you eat, your hygiene habits, every person creates their own physical image first and foremost. We are all brands. We always have been. This situation is just showing us that more than usual.

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In this way, every person is a model first, an actor second, and an artist most of all.  We are models because we create our personal image, we are in control of our look, and how we present to the world determines a lot about how we are received. We are actors because we control how we communicate, how we speak, how we express emotion. But, we are also writers because there is no script. There are just situations, relationships and decisions. From these things we each write our story every single day.

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In addition to existing as an improvisational writer and actor, we also design the set and the costumes of our lives. Every single person does this no matter how limited or extravagant their budget. The prisoner on death row and the billionaire with their own island both are equally involved in the production of their space. While they have radical differences in their access to resources, what they do with their space is still determined by them. This is just something we do naturally, and in the case of the prisoner it is so limited that the entire process of choice becomes so subtle that it exists entirely in a world of nuance. Still, it exists.

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In this way, humans act as brands. Or really, it is brands that mimic this form of pattern production, this chosen style of presentation. It happens in the natural world in an infinite array of varieties. The Cheetah is a brand of predator. We take from this natural tendency to express, or to hide (as in the case of the chameleon), our character. How does our appearance communicate our character?

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Just as there is a power dynamic in the natural world, there is one in culture. Flaming Hot Cheetohs have a complicated set of codes that you can trace back through a series of business decisions based on feedback from the public. In business, there is a massive collaboration between creatives and consumers. In life, it is the same. We act and react based on how we feel about the response we get from the people we interact with in our day to day lives. Going against or with the grain still depends upon the grain.

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Back to photography, though. Back to the records that we keep, the art that we create. If you have a phone with a camera on it and you scroll through your pictures you can see a lot of different lines of thinking.

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On the one hand you have evidence. A photograph of a missing tooth, to show grandparents that the first baby tooth has left. We use photographs as evidence in complying with the rules, or of breaking them, which is evidence of rebelliousness. Lots of photographs these days show people confessing their inability to follow the rules, or their decision to break them. That is also be a kind of creative choice. We see that a lot. It’s a kind of trolling, really, but so common that we maybe don’t see it that way. People breaking the rules for the sake of breaking the rules is a huge part of American rebel without a clue culture, but I don’t think it is the prevalent tone today.

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Instead, I see a lot of people figuring out what they are most passionate about and use their media to communicate their cause. We are a world where people who change the rules will be much more important than people who break them. This is another reason we make images. We want to express our values in order to attract the right kind of people into our lives so that we can create change, so we can write new rules together. So, photography is just an extension of being human, just another way we create an invitation to people to engage with us in living and reimagining what it means to be human.

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Because it is a deliberate mental activity, it is natural to think about photography by considering psychology. Of course, there’s a psychological understanding of all human behavior, but our formal communications are especially open to this kind of interpretation. The choices we make in our photographs say a lot about who we are, even though the question of identity is never a simple one.

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Psychology gives us data through experimentation that helps us to understand certain patterns or to try and fix some types of problems. There is a lot that we can learn about ourselves and others through a psychological understanding of the kinds of photographs we habitually consume and create.

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But, beyond self-awareness there is another level of thinking about choice in photography. It is the basis of artistic form: style. Even with all of the anti-aesthetic theory of postmodernism, style has been the one unrelenting factor in the consideration of art, but especially when you understand that form and content are inextricable.

 

Style is the only thing left that has any ability to create leverage in art and life. Style itself comes from the exercise of creative control, from decisions made in the making of art in choices about life.

 

If you were simply to make whatever you want, to scratch whatever particular itch you are feeling, then would that make a more consistent and authentic type of content or is that simply an unconscious reaction to events? And if the latter, then is that just bad style or is it actually better being more authentic? What makes it good or bad?

 

That of course is subjective. It depends upon whether you like wild spontaneous diverse uncontrolled forms or if you appreciate precise controlled focused concentrations. Both are equally valid and can be expressed in art. In some ways the amateur impulse, when someone starts making photographs for fun, is the same as the artistic one. It is to create pleasure, but a certain kind of pleasure.

 

Richard Feynman wrote a book about the pleasure of finding things out. That is a certain kind of intellectual production: a scientific experiment. It is, like art, a way of organizing one’s mental energies: it is a style of living. It is based on shared values.

 

The art of making photographs has something of this intellectual joy of experimentation, of research to it. All art does. You have to try and make something that matches the way you feel, the effect you want to have with the resources available to you, and it is the completion of this experiment that creates an intellectual value to the work. When you stop to think about how the photographer does what they do, it enters into this other dimension of education, of learning about the world and about techniques of representation.

 

In this way, every moment of every day, we are creating the world around us. Never before has this been more apparent to us than during this time of changed habits. What we have is an opportunity to become more aware of the way we interact in the world, who we are, how we want to be perceived. This is a moment to reinvent, to experiment with new ideas, to take calculated risks. It is a time to work on our style.

 

Whether that means working to imagine greater sustainability, to envision economic opportunity, to create cultural change, or to contribute to the greater good by innovating and making something new that helps people to become who they want and need to be regarded as being: it is all the same. We are in the midst of a cultural revolution.

In Common: Building Community through Communication

Hello friends hope you all are well

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So, I have a bunch of things on my mind that I want to communicate to you, and that is the first topic actually. That is what I want to talk to you about the most today: this idea of community and communication. It’s such a strange thing to think that virtually no one in the world is unaffected by this pandemic and nobody seems to be clear about how to deal with the problems, so we have this very common situation and that alone is not going to create community. It’s going to take communication for us to be able to understand that our common situation puts us in the position where it is best to build community. But how does that really work? What does it look like? How do we build community in a way that feels good to us. I think that a part of the challenge of community is the fact that we have so many individual differences and that is part of our value system. We tend to reward individualism and we have a strong sense of accountability and you can’t be accountable and you can’t earn rewards if you don’t have a strong sense of individuality, but that can work against building community. In other words, if we have a culture that values individual efforts, then how do we focus on things that affect the larger whole? We have individual efforts but we also have team sports. How do we pay attention to individual contributions while staying focused on the team? These are age old ancient questions about society itself about organization, about families, etc.

 

The first answer to the question what makes building community difficult is the fact that people get into conflicts and a conflict taken to extremes becomes uncomfortable for everyone and at its extreme conflict eventuates in violence. So, the attempt to build community can actually lead to violence. So, here we are in this unknown window of time where we are prohibited from gathering in groups. We need to keep doing good work even though we can’t get together.

 

I’ve always tried to imagine myself as part of the human family even though I have a clear idea that I only know a tiny fragment of what that means. I belong to this vast family of humans and I know so little about the majority of them and it is this proximity and lack of knowing that creates the fear and the intrigue. There is the idea that it may be rewarding but the fear that cultural contact could be fatal.

 

But here we are in this time where getting together is impossible, so maybe getting to know each other is possible from a distance. If we take this challenge, then maybe we can actually work on understanding each other and creating cross cultural bonds. I would guess that if given the opportunity we might find out that we have very similar situations as other people in other parts of the world.

 

When I am looking to connect with people in other parts of the world I am trying to think about the personality types that exist here and I’m speculating that there are other people in other parts of the world who have more in common with you than with the people who are in your own family and since we can’t come together physically we have an opportunity to learn from each other.

 

We are going to have a lot of new work to do. A lot of work is going to be based around rebuilding. We are going to have a lot of work of recovery to do.

 

It’s a strange thing, but we have this fear of other people having power over us and with good reason but when we can take the risk of communicating without the danger of physical violence then maybe we stand a chance of getting to know each other better. In other words, I’m thinking that we might have friends out there we don’t even know exist.

 

The biggest question we all face right now is how we will continue to do business. How will we pay the bills to continue operations during this economically difficult time? How are we going to create communities where trust is apparent so that we can transact and build networks of exchange?

 

One thing that is hopeful is that we will be analyzing the basics of human interaction from this new point of view. We will need to break down the fundamentals of human economic activity and we will figure out how to do things in a way that saves lives and keeps people on a healthy path.

 

Before this pandemic I was already beginning a rugged campaign of sustainable content creation practices. I had been training for very long hikes to get up early and out in the morning light so that I can create content for businesses that is of a very high quality but that doesn’t rely upon fossil fuels for its production. My studio is still on the grid, so I’m not without a footprint, but relying upon my own locomotion, using my power of walking to get me where I need to be has been my practice for the past half year.

 

I believe that at their highest level, forms tend to merge together and I am hypothesizing that we will have in art something that will merge together with marketing in a kind of art experience that leads to action. For example, in the dialogues of Plato philosophy and literature merge in a high form or art. I believe that we are due for a new form art that works like marketing to convince masses of people to take an action. Philosophy and literature merge at their highest point and the same is true with marketing.

 

Art history shows us how artistic forms change over time and adapt to meet new needs of humans. So, while artists of the Italian Rennaisance were mainly painting portraits and scenes from the bible, modern artists created so many different artistic movements and the whole idea of art for art’s sake had to do with understanding what art can do when it is not in the service of another discourse. But where we are now as a human race requires of art something that is more similar to marketing. We need art today that will give us the experience of art but will also have the effect of marketing. In other words, our art is going to convert us into certain kinds of action.

 

Part of that is going to be about building community through artistic communication. While we have this window of time where we have decided to stop all human contact we have an opportunity to learn more about each other and ourselves.

Discipline, Pain and Outlook

The virtue I possess that adds the most value to my life is my desire to continue to improve myself. I have a hunger to be better, to do better and to be a better partner in all of the relationships in my life. I believe that we generally can become smarter about a lot of things in life and can build up amazing reserves of wisdom and strength by doing a little bit every day over a period of time. My desire to improve keeps me interested in the details of life, in the day to day choices we make and in the research that we are learning from as humans about what the possibilities of being human really might be.

Every day, I work on writing, photography, research, running my business, being a dad, being in a relationship and more. It is this interconnectedness that gives me the most energy and leads to the feeling that I would describe as thriving. When my energy and inspiration are at high levels and there is plenty of work to do, I feel excited to attack each task.

The question is: what do you do when you aren’t feeling inspired and your energy is flagging?

In part, my answer to myself is don’t let it get that way. It is much easier to maintain a sense of purpose and motivation when you have momentum on your side. With that said, there is always the possibility of having to start from scratch. How do you motivate yourself when the chips are down?

As with so many things, you have to embrace the feeling of growth. If you focus too much on results or numbers, then you run the risk of too much friction from the frustration of not reaching your goals. If your goals are about growth and not about some baseline standard, then you have a much better chance of pushing through. The thing is: how do you know what is enough? That is always going to be the tough part. I can’t tell you how many times in my life I have experienced what I thought were limits only to one day burst through that imagined ceiling to reach levels previously unimagined. Whether that is going from hiking 10 miles to 20, from 300 pushups to 720, from writing 3 pages to 10 there are these activities I have done where when I push myself to go twice as far as my normal limit, I have some breakthrough experiences.

The thing is, it takes a lot of discipline to break through those barriers of discomfort. For me, the hardest part is the decision to begin. Once I’ve committed to something, I generally will put my shoulder to the grindstone and get it done. So, I know for myself that working on decision making is key. Having good time management and energy management helps, too. In order to commit to doing something epic that is going to really expand my sense of the possible, I have to create the space in my schedule for that to happen. That requires a lot of daily discipline.

It takes daily discipline to get together the economy of time and energy to take on an epic task that will double your sense of the possible, and then it takes the courage to commit to that adventure, and finally it takes the discipline to follow through when the going starts to suck. At the beginning of a challenging hike you feel so great. Your legs are full of energy, you have a bounce to your step, and you are generally without pain. At the last half mile, though, you are basically causing yourself agony with every step and as much as you breathe or focus on form it doesn’t matter. Pain is an inevitable part of this growth, which is why the question might not be discipline or masochism, but how much pain is the right amount of pain?

I also do believe that fighting through the pain that you encounter when you set yourself some challenging task builds up the strength that you need in life to deal with the pain of loss and defeat. When you are hurt by things that happen to you outside of your control your response is going to depend upon your relationship with pain. I’m not suggesting that we look at pain as a positive, but that when we embrace it as inevitable, then we can fight through the resistance it can create. If we want to accomplish our goals, then we are going to have to be willing to put up with some hurting.

If it is true that it hurts to be human, and we embrace this basic fact which makes us stronger, then how do we shift our thinking about feeling? If pain is just a temporary discomfort that is the price you pay for growth, then it becomes some sort of battle between your lack of understanding of the importance of growth and the resistance to the pain required. In other words, the way we battle our demons is by reminding ourselves why it is so important to grow that we are willing to go through tremendous fear and pain. In some ways our willingness to go through pain is a direct measure of our love.

Our character is forged from the daily decisions to undergo the discomfort of discipline or to face the horrors of disappointment. When we don’t do what we can we feel a sense of wasted opportunity, of the lack of love. When we succumb to apathy our lives are unenthusiastic and dull. But even worse, they are toxic. Because growth is also often alimentary. There is something intrinsically healthy about many kinds of growth. The kind of growth that derives from consciously chosen work generally is of a healthy variety. Occasionally, as in the case of Olympic athletes or astronauts that drive can go too far into unhealthy zones of activity. And there is cancer, of course, and suburban sprawl…

Are we suffering as a culture from too little or too much discipline?

One of the most fun feelings you can experience as a writer, and as an artist generally, is to be in a flow state. When you can stop thinking for long enough to just allow something creative to happen you can really create some interesting things that are entertaining to you and to other people. I am convinced that those flow states emerge out of practice and are a result of the work you have previously done. The more reps I get in, the better the results. That is why I want to keep trying to radically increase my workflow. The more I do, the better I get, the more response, the more fun, the more I want to do, etc…

And yet, burnout is a real thing. How do you explain that? Everything requires a balance, and mental fatigue is just as much of a factor as physical exhaustion. What is the connection between burnout and not getting the results that you want? I believe that burnout is a real thing, but I also believe that the answer is more work not less. How many hours can you work in a day? What about spending time with your kids? What about fun and play?

These are all important questions and I don’t have all the answers, but it also depends on what you consider to be work. Work is anything you have a resistance to doing, right? Like if you just fucking love doing bench press then that is not really work for you. You might need help with flossing your teeth. That is where you need work. Everyone knows what they need to work on but finding the time and the courage to commit to it is another thing altogether. And, as much as people might complain about things in their lives that they don’t enjoy it is not as common to find people working hard to get through the barriers to their happiness.

Is happiness a choice or is it a result of having done something? Is happiness a decision or a side effect?

I find that my happiness comes from little things I do almost every day. When I complete a workout, while photographing the sunrise or sunset with my love, delivering photos to a client, making posts on social for a client, making slime with my daughter…there are so many little things that make me happy. I love cooking food for my family. I love listening to podcasts. The wealth of daily joys I get to experience is vast. I feel extremely lucky and I want to make the most of every day.

One thing that discipline does is it limits us in a productive way. By choosing to do certain exercises you stress your body in this way and not that way. We make decisions based on the results that we want to achieve. I think that this is also true in art, and one of the decisions that I have made recently is to radically minimize the amount of energy I use in making my art. The last thing I want to be doing is driving long distances to find some spot to get a great photograph. No, I have limited myself to a five mile radius for making art.

Because I live in such a beautiful part of the world a five-mile radius still gives me a ridiculous amount of spots to choose from, but there are two or three that are my go-to spots. By not wasting time traveling to a location and by conserving my energy in making that decision ahead of time I get to focus my drive on different kinds of innovation. That means that I have to push myself to look for more things in the same places, to think about making photographs differently and to really own these locations.

The sunrise is the best opportunity for great photographs for me because I start the day without any internet and by writing. I wake up at 4:30 and drink two cups of coffee while I write five to ten pages before I’ve even looked at my phone. Fresh from dreaming, straight into writing and then out the door to photograph the sunrise, this is a moment in the day when I have my thoughts all aligned and ready to make the most of the best light of the day. Yesterday, we headed down to the wharf and the sunrise was popping off. Watching the colors of the sunrise is the closest I come to painting these days, and it is something I enjoy wholeheartedly. I hope you enjoy this photo. Thanks for reading my thoughts about discipline, pain and mental framework.

Aesthetics and Photographic Style

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?

Heavy and Light

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.

Wet Reflections

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.

Morning Wave

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?

Story in progress

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.

West Cliff Cypress

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.

Winter Light

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.

Hawk Moon

Enough, Already

What is enough? Enough is enough? Have we had enough? What a funny word.

Cotton candy enough for ya?

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.

Tough enough Seagull

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.

Beautiful sunrise season in SC

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.

Put enough birds on it

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?

Own Your Sorrow

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.

Action

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.

Right place right time

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.

Be in charge of your story

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.

Less is moon

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.

Own your experiments


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.

Own your dreams

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.

Abstract Expressionist photo

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.

RIP Kobe and Gianna

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.

Waves on Mars

Why are people drawn to the edges of things? When you fly over the country, you see the patterns of our development very clearly. We form tight grids and stick to the edges of things. It is almost like the edge of a territory is the surface of some kind of water. We tend to remain where there is visibility. We stay out in the open.

Attracted to light

But there are some who choose to live up in the mountains. Some people make that commute each day and nestle away in some canyon nook up in the higher elevations. There are lots of reasons to live in a remote location, but can we escape from the advance of the digital age? These things are hard to answer, because we don’t know what is going to change. For example, we only learned about CFCs and their effect on the ozone layer after the damage was done. Now, we are seemingly waiting on an innovation from technology to save us from catastrophe.

Exploring dusk

We are experiencing a high degree of Techlash, or backlash against tech, and are putting all of our faith in technology at the same time. The thing is, we have no reason to trust. That is possibly our stupidest trait, but maybe it is also our most beneficial. Intelligence doesn’t equal the good. For something to be good it has to work for people and there are so many different ways that things work or don’t. You have to judge things by their results.

Lighthouse wave

In some ways we are on the edge of a new territory because of the rapid advance of technology. We are entering a new phase of discovery. Some of those ways are literal. Elon Musk is planning on sending a million people to Mars. I didn’t think that was possible, but there he went and said it and he seems to be quite serious about it, too. Now talk about proactive, that’s really getting ahead of the curve. That is a serious programmatic attempt to radically increase the human sphere of influence. Why is he doing it? To get away from AI? Is it inevitable to colonize other planets? Are we already beyond repairing the earth’s atmosphere? If it is possible to make Mars suitable to human life, then why are we so worried about global warming? Isn’t Mars hotter than anything we experience? Lots of questions with that one. The edge of where humans call home is about to radically expand.

Golden hour

There’s one big unanswered question: will there be waves on Mars? What kind of gravity is there? Is it possible to harvest water from deep space to create a wave pool? Will Kelly Slater still be ripping at that time? Questions, questions, questions…

Put a bird on it

I don’t want to go to Mars, but I can see it happening. That shit is likely as fuck. I don’t know why. It just seems like something I would do. Hopefully it’s cool. The main thing I don’t like about Mars is the whole family aspect. I don’t want to leave my family. Maybe we will all go? Hopefully, we will make that voyage after they’ve worked out a few of the bugs and have that wave pool pumping. What about skateboarding? What is the gravity situation like on Mars? I’m sure they will be pouring tons and tons of hempcrete up there, so there are sure to be some sick spots. But what about the oxygen levels? I know so little about the red planet.

Life on Mars

I know that Elon Musk is a highly effective person, though, and it makes me wonder if he read the 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, because he would make Stephen Covey proud as a pride of lions. I’m studying that landmark book because I think that it is one of the most helpful self-development books of all time and anyone who I respect is basically working through different parts of this system. Covey was a genius. All hail Stephen Covey. He is a lighthouse in the darkness for people who didn’t receive adequate discipline or structure as a youth. For anyone who wants to be more effective in what they are doing, the book is a treasure trove of wisdom and practical advice.

Covey is a lighthouse

Say you are a skateboarder and people are starting to comment  on your style and you want to try to move beyond casual and occasional sponsorships to really create a career for yourself, then this book can help you to master the process of creating your path in such a chaotic world. I mean think about Elon and all of the thousands of things for him to think about, but he is still coming up with these huge visions. It’s because he has good habits and has mastered how to make effective use of his time.

Texture and color baby

The first habit is to be proactive. That is such an important word. It has roots in Ralph Waldo Emerson’s idea of self-reliance. To be able to get things started is to increase the likelihood that business will happen, that other people will care. If you take it upon yourself to produce your own media, to curate your own projects, and to communicate with the public about the work you are doing and want to do, then lots more things are likely to happen for you. Being proactive is key to attracting opportunities you want.

Metaphoto

What does it mean to be proactive in photography? It can mean all kinds of different things depending on the kinds of photos you take. It could include contacting models, brands, clients, doing a podcast, having a YouTube channel, creating tutorials, networking with other photographers, etc. The only limitation to the ways you can be proactive is your imagination. You can study other photographers. What is working for them? Why? You can learn about art history. What is the meaning of the way we make photographs today? You can learn about the technology. What makes a mirrorless camera different? Education is always a way to expand the circle of your influence, as Covey suggests. You need skills, knowledge and desire in order to do good work and there are ways to develop each of those elements. That is part of what it means to be proactive as a photographer.

Father and son

It also means having vision. You have to get really good at knowing what you like and why and how to get it. How do you make your photographs? What would you say your style is? That is always the question that keeps coming back up. Being able to answer it is an important first step to increasing what you are able to do.

Lighthouse during a swell

Waves, Color and Light in Photography

There are a million valid approaches to photography and any of them can lead a dedicated lover of light to a path of making successful images. The goal of all photography is the same, however: it is to be seen. The experience of looking at a photograph is the thing that we are contributing to the public. What kind of looking experience are you hoping to create?

Sunset Watchers

I’ve been thinking lately about the difference between photography that is inner directed versus externally stimulated. This is a key distinction and I’m not saying that one is better than the other, but if you want your work to have style and vision then you might need to think about this nexus. It always comes down to the question: why are you taking the photograph? What is your motivation?

Tension in the Water

When you photograph a product or a lifestyle shot you have certain goals. You are trying to please a client and to create beautiful images that they can use confidently to represent their brand. You want to tell a story about the experience that they are offering. This helps you to understand how to direct the elements of your photography. When you do work for a client, you start with the purpose of the shot.

Morning Show

You can do the same thing for yourself, too. You just have to think about it as though you are your own boss, because you are. There is a tremendous urge in the era of social media to create images that are pleasing to the public. Sunsets, puppies, etc. Are these things genuinely your interests or are they just an effective way of getting your work seen? They say that is one of the first rules of marketing. If you want to sell lots of stuff then choose something that people already like. Some things are more appealing than others, even though it is really up to the public to decide. If you are making things that people like, where is your point of view being expressed?

Waves and Light

That is why it is important to do personal work as well as the work that is going to pay the bills. If you spend time scratching your own itch, if you figure out what it is you really like and why, then your work will grow. The thing is, you can still like the things that other people like. You don’t have to avoid the sunsets just because they are popular. That’s not what I’m saying. I think that it is important to carve out your own inner driven photography, too.

What Draws Your Attention?

What does it mean to do inner driven photography? I guess it is easier to explain the opposite. Yesterday morning I was writing and finishing up my coffee when I checked the window in the kitchen that faces the ocean and I could see the clouds already starting to light up. At that moment, I could tell that if I didn’t move quickly I would miss my favorite part of the sunrise light. So, I got my stuff together and met the morning light ready to get those shots. This was not motivated by my feelings about where we are as humans, well not entirely. Maybe it is just how you think about it, too. But it was the indication of color in the sky that alerted me to the possibility of an amazing shot. And, since we are in the business of getting things seen it is important to be there to get those shots, too.

A popular spot to watch the sunset

The shots that I am working on that are more inner driven and personal are portraits of Madison that we do on our hikes. Those are more meaningful to me because of our connection. We are in love and we share some amazing areas of overlap in our interests. She is a beautiful woman and a model so when we work together our personal feelings are enhanced by our professional skills. By combining these elements, my hope is to create images that will be profoundly individual but also universal. Love is one of the great powers that humans have access to and this is a project that is based in love.

Love the break of day

Since it is flu season, however, not every morning is available for hiking into the cold to get a beautiful photo. So, I have been going solo. And yesterday morning it was obviously going to be an amazing day. The sunrise was mystical as any day breaking over the sanctuary of Monterey Bay has ever been. Huge sets bringing high tide steamers through crashed against the cliff and increased the drama and energy of the morning. The sunrise is a symbol of hope and renewal. At least it is for me. It is also an amazing show. My love for sunrise and sunset is genuine as anything ever has been. As a painter, I am continually amazed by my own capacity for shock.

The qualities of light in the morning are varied. First of all, you have the blue hour. This is when the darkness of space gradually gives way to the day’s illumination in silver blue tones. We read color symbolically, so this time of day is often a mood that invites calm and reflection if not melancholy, but if there is the right amount of clouds in the sky, then that blue is violently interrupted by shocking hues of red and pink that are brighter and more gauche than any neon artist’s dreams. In fact, there is something so lacking in subtlety about the sunrise that it is extremely tasteless. No rich person would ever choose to paint the sunrise the way it happens on those most colorful days. No, that kind of color is too much for old money. It begs too much attention. It is narcissistic. It is a performer on the stage. To some people, the sunrise is a dancing bear working for peanuts.

Not for us, though. For us, it is inspiration. It is courage with color. It is aggressive happiness. The sunrise is a message of more than hope. It is screaming at us. This is your essence. You are this beautiful, crass, dramatic extreme moment of wild untamed energy. The sunrise is our true calling. We are eternal, we are infinite, we are light. When you see it and recognize it your entire being fills with that energy. And then the first five minutes of light after the sun crosses that horizon line are the softest most golden rays of light you will ever have access to. There is no softbox in the world, no reflector, no strobe, no led, no nothing that can compare to the beauty of that light. This is a subtle light, though, and it is exactly the kind of light that old money loves. It is gold, it is finite, it is rare. This special light can be used in a number of valuable ways. It is only five minutes past sunrise and you have already experienced three radically different kinds of light. This is what it means to be a photographer to me.

Some days the light is amazing. Some days the ocean offers you a dynamic swell that you could just chase and watch all day. Some days you get both. This is when it is very difficult to do anything but feast. It is an embarrassment of riches and you feel like you are shooting fish in a barrel, but they are still fish.

When the waves are good, Santa Cruz focuses on the ocean. Most people are trying to get in position to get some waves. For me, I get as much satisfaction from a great photograph of a wave as a ride on one, and I can use the photos afterwards, so I stick with the camera. I think that some people can do all kinds of things, and I do work in a lot of different media already. But, I like to keep my obsession squarely directed towards the act of making photos. I don’t dilute any of my drive. I focus it on photography and let making images be supremely important to me.

Also, it gives me the opportunity to photograph professional surfers or my friends who want photos. Photographing surfing is difficult. You need the right equipment and a lot of knowledge. Angles and timing are even more important when you are trying to capture the act of riding a moving ramp of water that wraps around the reef hitting moments of light and reflection that create magical sparks of interest in the photos.

Yesterday my friend Sasha hit me up mid-day with a report of some good waves and so I met him somewhere cool and got a few photos. Standing on the beach looking through a 400mm lens watching the sets and trying to pick out my buddy from the pack of non-descript wetsuit-wearing surfers is a challenge for sure. There are so many distractions from the birds to the people walking by and the waves themselves are constantly drawing your attention. As you wait for someone to take off on a peak you see a grinding barrel down the beach. It takes a lot of timing, patience and self-control to stick with one surfer and try to get them shots. Yesterday, we got some good ones. Sasha is a brilliant lawyer who also happens to love surfing and art, so we get along well and laugh at ourselves as often as possible. It’s so important to me to not take myself too seriously. You have to laugh at yourself. It is mandatory in my book. Out in the morning watching the sky painted with crazy colors that would make a hip-hop artist blush and you are standing there with a tripod and a camera. It’s funny.

Due to the popularity of surfing, there is often a lot of tension in the water. The best way to deal with this increasing tendency is to be respectful, but you see a lot of conflicts going down. There are limited amounts of waves each day and sometimes people fight over them. It happens and if nobody gets too hurt, it is funny. Of course, it is much, much better to be cool and respectful and to enjoy your time in the water peacefully. There is definitely the potential in the water to achieve a powerful state of equanimity and equilibrium. It is good for us. But, the stress of trying to compete for waves can get the best of us, too.

Yesterday was a day that couldn’t stop giving. The sunset was just as dramatic and powerful as sunrise. The cliffs were full of people watching the sunset and it was a great scene. Instead of just getting the color and the landscape I enjoyed portraying the whole scene including the sunset watchers and the guy with funny santa pajama bottoms on. You see a lot more people watching the sunset, which doesn’t make it less valuable to me. I just like to get them in the scene sometimes. That is one of the great things about living here. We see sunrises and sunsets over the water.

We are in the middle of an amazing run of weather and waves and so busy is the way to be, but I’m looking forward to a slower time coming up when I can refocus on the work that we are doing up at Wilder, which is much more inner driven and important to me. It’s all important, but I feel like that work is the greatest contribution that I have to make. You have to be the judge of your own work. You have to say what you think is good and important even if nobody else likes it. You get to decide what you put out there and what you leave behind. What other people think of it is not yours to control, and that can be difficult when people don’t see what you do, but that is the nature of art and photography.

Light, Subject and Style in Photography

If you want to photograph with natural light, you have to get really good at understanding how your camera reads light. Every camera setup is different and not every camera is equally good at capturing what you want, but if you work with any camera for a period of time you can discover what lighting situations work best. Looking for good light is a huge part of being a photographer, but that is only one part. Photography means writing with light, but what are you writing about?

Empty waves are a great subject

Sometimes photographers struggle with finding a subject that inspires them, but that can be achieved through trial and error, too. The thing is, you have to figure out what you are good at and what other people want to see. That is the goal: to give people something to study.

Apex predator hunts the cliffs in Santa Cruz

You might need to choose a few different subjects depending on where you live but that is a super important decision. Now, the subject you choose is going to be very key to how people perceive you as a photographer, but you also need to keep growing and finding ways to keep your tools sharp.

Big swells hitting Santa Cruz coastlines

Living in Santa Cruz, there is no shortage of beautiful scenery, but is that what makes a great photograph? Is it just being somewhere beautiful at the right time, or is it more than that? Sometimes it might be that simple, but that is not going to lead you to a personal style or a recognizable voice. I don’t think that I have enough power to resist the shots that want to be taken. When you look at a landscape, how do you make it personal? What are you looking for that nobody else sees or sees as being important?

Blackbirds in green grass

Subject can be an entry to style all on its own. Think about Humans of New York, which is possibly one of the biggest photography projects of modern times. That has little or nothing to do with Brandon’s style as a photographer. It has to do with his desire to collect stories and to celebrate the city that he loves. Because it got big enough, his project has more than a style: it has an ethos. People want to be a part of it. It brings you serious fame and acclaim to be featured on the HONY page.

Why you choose your subjects will matter, too. What is your personal connection to what you are hunting with your camera? It isn’t necessary for there to be a clear and obvious connection. Maybe sometimes that is better left unsaid, but you want to know why you choose a subject. There are some subjects that are hard to own. All subjects are hard to own. There are so many photographers working today and getting great shots that it is really important to do everything you can to set yourself aside from the crowd.

Connection with a place matters

Here in Santa Cruz we have a mixture of different cultural things that can make good subjects. We have the waves, we have skateparks, we have mountains, redwoods, wildlife and beautiful people. We have tons of possible subjects for photographers to choose, but what happens is usually everyone tends to go in the same direction, and it is not that hard to figure out why. The ocean has a huge allure for a lot of people. We are drawn to it. It has a mesmerizing quality.

Steamer Lane showing power

I shoot lifestyle, product and commercial photography for businesses in Santa Cruz and I am always looking for good opportunities to create some content that will work well for those brands. Creativity is just what it is. You have a task and you do your best to think of new and fun ways to achieve it.

Barney Roll?

This time of year, there is a lot of good light. The angle of the sun never gets too high, so it is always somewhat soft and golden. Plus, the sunrise and sunset each day doesn’t have that much time in between. We get some amazing color at daybreak and at dusk and it’s hard to imagine many photographers resisting the call of those tones.

Big Pete’s sunset

We are in a period of the month right now where the moon is already set by the time the sun goes down. The nights are cold and wet. The air is clean and stings your face in the morning when you go out to a pre-dawn car and head out to shoot. Being out for that kind of beauty in the morning is a great way to start the day. You have to be ready early, though, because the colorful part of the sunrise sometimes happens a full thirty minutes before sunrise. It’s good to know what the weather is doing so that you have some idea of if you need to be out there super early or what. It is probably a good idea just to always get out there early so that you have that as a habit. Even if there is no great early morning color, you can always make some interesting shots before the first light of day. Plus, you will be out there warming up your skills so that when the light peaks the way you want it to it will be easier to capture what you want.

Waves on waves

Even though photography only involves pushing a button as the consummate act of creation it is actually a difficult skill. All it takes to fire a gun is to pull the trigger, but there is a huge difference between shooters.

Rainy flowers

Santa Cruz is a surf town, a college town, an organic farming town. These are the things that define us. There are other factors, of course, but those are core to who we are. I think that your subject matter is best to have something personal and something about the place you are working. You should both be expressing something unique to your own experience and something that is useful to the people who live where you work.