Our contemporary world combines the digital and the analog in most things. Whether we are thinking about images online or a light show in your neighborhood, aesthetics matter. There is more to art than merely a pursuit of the beautiful, but it would be foolish to underestimate the power of its experience. You need go no further than to witness West Cliff in Santa Cruz during a Winter sunset. Throngs of sky watchers crowd the cliffs drinking in the changing light and gasping as the clouds become a temporary canvas unrivaled by human efforts. The same is true with photos posted online. The beautiful images get more play.
Authenticity and Aesthetics
One of the dangerous things about our current age for artists is the tendency for feedback to alter your approach to art making. It is all too easy to let the data influence your artistic choices. If this type of photograph got a lot of likes and shares, then it is tempting to repeat that in hopes of increasing your following. Many artists believe that allowing what the audience thinks to influence your style. Indeed, there is a fine line between sharing what you love and what you know will get you love. The trick, I’ve found, if discovering those areas of overlap where you feel good about what you are publishing and the public does, too.
Keeping Your Thumb on the Pulse
For me, it is equally important to spend time hunting the world for images both beautiful and intriguing and to pay attention to the ever changing culture online. It is only by doing this work that you can discover that fruitful zone where what you truly love and what the public wants are a match. The exciting thing about this process is that both are constantly changing. Spending time walking through the world looking and absorbing the details and finding enchanting scenes is as important as understanding the technical aspects of photography and online marketing. You have to both understand the spirit of the times as it reveals itself to us through the Internet and the particular qualities of beauty and intrigue that exist fleetingly in our physical world.
A Shining Light in Dark Times
Part of what Internet culture reveals to us is the presence of extremely disturbing problems. From the opioid epidemic, to mass shootings, there is no shortage of tragedy that happens every single day. This has become so predominant that we are becoming a very strange culture. One response is to create more and more disturbing content. The American public has become obsessed with true crime and particularly serial killers, among the darkest examples of human potential for destruction. The reasons for this trend are many, but one of them must be a kind of coping mechanism to deal with the daily news. Bad things are happening, and many people are immunizing themselves emotionally by exposing themselves to the worst of the worst. In this context, striving to create beautiful images serves as a counterpoint and requires a tremendous courage. The easier thing is to follow the numbers and to create disturbing imagery and controversial content.
Adapting to the Conditions
I have been walking around various Santa Cruz neighborhoods during the day and at night to get exercise, to scout for images I want to make, and to study the world around me. As the period between Christmas and New Year’s has come to an end, I have been focusing on some of the amazing light shows that people have created. Last night, it was raining making a walk with my camera inadvisable, but I decided to shoot two scenes from within the safety of my car. Setting up the tripod on the seat, I composed some photographs and used the window to add another element.
Abstraction in Photography
With a background in painting and a true love for modern and abstract art, I have always enjoyed using a camera to make images that are non-objective. This task is difficult even with a paintbrush, but when you use a camera it is even more challenging. I enjoy using lights and long exposures to soak up the colors without any discernible forms. This reduces the image to line and color and I find it to be fun and interesting. What do you think? Do you like the abstract images or the realistic ones better?
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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.
I’m most interested in photographs that include and involve humans. I find the challenges and rewards of portraiture keep me studying this mysterious art. I value work that gets me to think and to feel something unique or universal about the human condition from looking at a photograph of a person. Sometimes less is more and in the case of my taste in portraiture that is true a lot of the time. I feel like people are so complex it can only help to give them some space.
The biggest obstacle to truth in portraiture is that sometimes we carry lifelong habits of creating masks to protect ourselves. Whether it is a smile or a neutral face, there is something that you do to preserve yourself from the intruding eyes of strangers. At least, hopefully there is. Because it can be a rough world if you don’t know how to move with an understanding of the ways people are likely to behave. If you don’t have a grasp on the business, then you are going to have to learn.
Portraits have lots of uses in our contemporary lives. We can use them for our LinkedIn profile, for any articles people may be writing about us, for other social media profiles, and for finding love. Whether you need a good Tinder shot or something to show your grandma that you are doing well, a skillful portrait can go a long way towards helping you to reach your goals.
But there is more to a portrait than that. It is something that belongs to the canons of art history and if you care that much about the result, then you can make some magic happen.
A big part of a great portrait is the lighting. The way you place the model in relation to the light is going to determine how a viewer’s eyes might travel around the composition. The light is going to give shape and interest to the form of your subject’s face, hair neck, etc. You can use light to draw attention to important parts of the face, like a catch light for the eyes. This is when you place a light in view of the subject so that a small white light appears in the dark of their pupil helping to create a sense of depth and importance in the eyes.
One huge advantage of working in the studio is having the ability to create a comfortable environment for the subject. In general, there is a lot more ability to control the results. Natural light can be amazing and the experience of being outside sometimes can make a person really shine, but there is a much higher rate of success with the advantages of studio lighting.
I like to use continuous lights, because I find it is much more comfortable for the model. Not having the flashing of the lights and the beeping of the unit recharging makes it a much more enjoyable atmosphere. The vibes of the shoot always matter. That is one reason why working with someone you really like can help to make great work, or in my case with someone you love. When I photograph Madison I know that there is going to be a whole world of energy, emotion, intrigue, mystery and fun all bundled up into one frame. The feelings. Oh the feelings. We have a lot of them, and they show up in the work. I like that. That is what I like art to be. This portrait is an expression of love, fear, lust, faith, and so many other things all at once.
The other night we set up the studio and had two continuous lights going to get this shot. What we did next was something amazing. We did an experiment with using long exposures and candle light. This is one area where it is so radical to have a model as a girlfriend because she is so beautiful and I tell her that all the time. She knows it. It’s not a question. It’s not an issue. What is great about this, is it give us the freedom to be silly and to have fun. We did a series of portraits that are not flattering even though they have a beautiful topless woman in them. I’m not going to show them here, but not for the reasons you might think.
This series is art. As a series, it is a powerful experiment that worked. The images are intriguing as fuck. She looks powerful but sometimes scary in these portraits. Because we have done a lot of work together and have a deep sense of creative trust, we were able to do something original and cool.
Now, we have a few different series going and I am super excited about the direction and shape our work is taking. Our collaboration is getting stronger and smarter at every turn and I can’t wait to see what we learn next. So many lessons. I’ll be sharing more of them here as it makes sense in the coming days. I feel as though I have made some very important discoveries and I am excited to put them into practice and to share with other people looking for ways to be more effective and to improve their outlook.