I like to earn my photographs. I don’t think a robot could ever feel that way, but maybe artificial intelligence will include emotional dimensions. Maybe we are not special as human consciousness. Still, I feel better when I do something hard that leads to a great photograph.
A lot of it has to do with timing. You have to synchronize your life with the light and the landscape. You have to be in the right place at the right time, and if it is hard to get to that place then you have the added reward of achieving something that is difficult. It is not just what the camera can see, but what the body operating the camera feels and why.
Riding my bike through the mountain trails gives me a ton of physical challenges and a lot of satisfaction. It feels good to climb up to a ridgeline with the power of your own legs and the view is that much sweeter. It also means knowing the trails and how long they take and how fast you can go. It means having enough energy and physical comfort to be able to stop and compose your shots despite the fatigue or the hunger you feel.
It also adds the element of the unknown. You have some extra elements of chance at work. Getting yourself in the right spot at the right time is much harder when you are riding a bike, but it is also much more rewarding.
One of the side effects of the shutdown, the shelter in place order, or whatever you call this corona virus crisis is weeds. Great bushy volunteers crowding unkept sidewalks. We are in the middle of a drought. Otherwise the weeds would have swallowed us all up by now.
The stay home order has given people a renewed appreciation for simple things like a walk through your neighborhood park. The last light on Cypress trees indicates the setting of the sun.
I like to use a 400mm lens to photograph the landscape, especially when the moon is going to be a good subject.
The almost full moon making us all remember that we are in this together.
Spring brings winds and longer days to Santa Cruz. You can feel Summer on its way.
Before long, the Southern Hemisphere will awaken and send us powerful long period south swells.
Last night as I walked back from photographing the moon, I saw a couple of great waves smoking and spitting and generally rolling through in true Steamer Lane fashion right as I passed Barney’s bench. I have some theories about what he’d be doing during this time, but I’ll save those for a podcast sometime.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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?
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Yesterday I set out on a photo hike. I do these hikes with a certain amount of faith that something will happen on the way that will attract my attention. So, I put on an audio book and focus on breathing while I walk. It becomes a kind of moving meditation. Lately, no content before the virus outbreak has seemed appropriate. We need to learn how to live in this world, so listening to people who are talking about our current situation seems a lot more relevant.
Yesterday, though, I decided to put on Bertrand Russel’s History of Western Philosophy. While things that were created three months ago seem absolutely obsolete, the intellectual documents of the ancient past and of the beginning of modern times can engage your mind without all of the fear of our current situation. Listening to what they were thinking about way back when can help to feel a sense of faith in our ability to have continuity. Humans have survived plagues and wars and all kinds of natural devastations and have somehow figured out the movements of the celestial beings all the while. This is an amazing accomplishment. Even with all of the brutal conditions of earlier times, there were still minds focused on the heavens and trying to figure out the nature of truth and the truth of our nature.
So, I was listening to the ideas of some great thinkers and avoiding the fuck out of people as I made my way to the base of campus by the path that leads up to the classified workers yard. I was stopped in my tracks by an apparition. It was a Great Blue Heron. There it was standing in the grass not minding anyone, just seeming to enjoy a moment in the late afternoon sun. I approached quietly and got my camera ready with a long lens.
The Heron seemed to notice me but was not bothered by me and I was able to get as close as my camera could focus. Only once as a man ran by with a dog did the bird show any signs of disturbance. But even then it merely flew twenty feet away and landed again. As I crept over to get some shots of this majestic bird it started circling back to me. I crouched and watched as it came closer and closer to me and I flashed back to when the Turkeys bum rushed me. This time, though, I actually had a moment of concern as this bird is much bigger, standing probably 4 ft. with a serious knife for a beak.
It got so close that I could only focus on its shoulders, and then it struck the ground and pierced a rodent right through the head. The photos I got are kind of graphic, as you can see the scream of the prey as its consciousness is obliterated by a massive dagger. The bird then flew a dozen yards away and proceeded to swallow the small mammal whole.
These are the kinds of experiences that I hope for on my hikes, and you cannot force them. The more time I spend out in those landscapes the more familiar I become with the patterns of the animals, but you still can’t plan for an encounter like this one.
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.
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.