Looking for Compositions: Previsualization in Landscape Photography

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Content Pillars and Purpose

Cannabis, Writing, Photography, Marketing, Art, Landscape, Ocean

Cannabis: I believe cannabis can do the greatest good for humankind immediately and in the long run. Worldwide legalization of cannabis will set the scales back towards justice and will restore some faith in the sincerity of the systems of governance. It is hard to trust anyone who is against cannabis. It’s like being against naps or being anti-mellow. You people are getting along too well! You must be stoned. What’s next? Cooking up some dank munchies? Crimes against culinary standards? Too much caramel sauce on the cereal? Not only do I believe that the side effects of cannabis are harmless, we all know they are beneficial to many people. Anyone struggling with loss of appetite or insomnia can regain control over vital parts of their health with the help of some quality cannabis. I think that more than the obvious advantages legal cannabis creates (tax revenue instead of criminal activity, for one) the main shift that legal cannabis will bring is a shift in tone. It will open up that beautiful space that only stoners know where there is a sense of innocence, a mellowing out of the harshest vibes, a sense that daily life is ok and that it really matters. Cannabis leads people on an introspective journey that leads to gardening and preserving tomatoes and that is a-ok. As a content pillar, I intend to write about cannabis to advocate for its use, to highlight brands that are doing good things, to interact with cannabis influencers, and to share stoner experiences.

Writing: Writing is thought given shape and refinement through the logic of composition and editing. We use the tools of composition to establish our thoughts on a topic and to express our opinions, ask questions and to share stories. Through editing, we revise both what we think and how we compose our ideas. Writing is the mysterious revelation of self. Instead of merely looking into a mirror, we have to slowly develop a sense of how what we think looks in the external world. Our thoughts are native to our experience, but the moment we externalize them and give them form through a composition, in the shape of an essay, we begin to see who we are. This gives us the ability to change what we think, and in the process to direct the development of our character. Writing gives us intellectual intentionality. Through writing, we are able to determine how to use the best of what we think to the advantage of those we wish to help. Writing about writing is important because thinking about thinking is important. It’s fundamental to improving your form. Strategizing about writing, coming up with prompts, working on exercises and having a dialogue about strategies and techniques keeps the ball in play. By paying attention to writing, we can improve our quality of thought, we can make better decisions, and we can help other people to find their direction and purpose. Language is uniquely human, and writing is the focused and deliberate use of language to express ideas. By writing, you become more human. You can both learn about who you are, discover how you want to be, and work on growing into the kind of human you respect and admire. Writing is our most powerful tool of self-analysis. When combined with the introspective tendency of cannabis consumption, writing can lead to breakthrough after breakthrough. 

Photography: Photography is my main visual mode of work, these days. I love video and painting, but I have been thinking about and practicing photography for the past fifteen years with a passion and dedication. Photography has helped me to grow, to give people valuable memories, to help promote businesses and to have amazing relationships. Studying photography was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made. The history of photography is so brief, but it has accelerated to such an impossibly enormous volume. Being thoughtful about photography both leads to making better photographs and to understanding the world of photography, but it is also a tool of introspection. You go out into the world to find subjects. You explore compositions with your camera. When you return to the studio to edit your photos, however, you are faced with some idea about yourself and your job is to present that to the world in a way they will find the most interesting. This can also lead you to understand things about yourself and about how the world feels about you. Like all meaningful growth that can be painful at times and pleasurable at others. 

Marketing: The future is going to have more marketers than ever. That is the logical conclusion of a workforce left with nothing but creativity and communication. With the advance of automation, people will increasingly need to become more adept at messaging and branding. While some people feel an aversion to sales, they don’t like being sold to, marketing can be much more than a pitch. It can be beautiful design, thoughtful writing and interesting research. Marketing can be useful to you and when it is, then it really works well. There is no escaping marketing. One common form of marketing you see is the marketing of no marketing which is essentially a business or person bragging that they are so good and so in demand that they don’t have to spend much on advertising or branding. It shows an ignorance about branding, though. That is marketing and branding: it is the branding of no marketing. We don’t need no stinking marketing marketing. Yes you do. We all need good marketing.

Art: The category of art as a separate sphere of concern from other forms of media will always be interesting to me and so I will always think and write about it for those who are interested in what I have to say about it. If art can be any media, then why not consider all media art? There are deep philosophical reasons for wanting a category of cultural production that defines itself differently than the rest of culture. There is something deeply generative about the category existing in the first place. It is an invitation to experiment, an ethos of innovation, a reputation for making things new. Art matters the same way freedom of speech matters. It is so fundamental to the way we think, even if not consciously, that it is almost impossible for us to see why it matters. Writing about art is an attempt to give us that perspective even if just for a moment to look behind the curtain at what the category of art is doing socially and culturally and why it matters.

Landscape: Being out in a natural setting, watching how the sun travels, moving through the landscape in a way where I understand the various textures on the trail, all of these things matter to me deeply. As a human animal, I crave a connection to the landscape. I want to know what is happening in the woods. I want to explore every creek and know every tree. Writing about the landscape is important because it can help us to remember our priorities in times that we are easily distracted by other things.

Ocean: The ocean connects us all. As the universal symbol of the unconscious, the ocean is the most dynamic and deep subject for humans to ponder. It is so dramatic and expressive, it demands a million artist pay attention at all times. I am one of them.

Creativity or Discipline?: Art Matters

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

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

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

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

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

Creativity is the conception of form.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In Cannabis We Trust

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Erin Schwartz: Executive Assistant Extraordinaire

We are in a weird spot as a culture. I think most people would agree with that. Things have shifted in ways we don’t even understand yet. Major world historical events like the Covid-19 pandemic are formative for the generations who live through them. Your age and your social position have a lot to do with how you are able to navigate those challenges, how the times affect you. This is a generational event.

One year of involuntary widespread unemployment is going to have major psychological effects on people. This has to be expected in order for us to be able to help, in order to survive. We need to be ready. We need to actively be finding ways to assist ourselves and others to adapt. What do we need to focus on? 

In order to climb our way out of the economic and energetic abyss into which we’ve fallen, we are going to need leadership. We need collaborations. We need positivity. We have to think about the situation critically and work creatively to find solutions. What is the new need, how could it be a new market? How can we address it? What positive energies can we summon to help us overcome our despair?

Enter the alpha executive assistant, Erin Schwartz. The pandemic has restricted so many of our movements, but some personalities are indomitable. Some people have overcome tough situations before and are emotionally equipped to face uncertainty without falling apart. Erin is one of these people. She has that warrior like strength that you need in times like these.

During the restrictive months of lockdown, Erin took charge of her own work life by basically creating a job for herself as a virtual executive assistant. Erin is talented at networking. She thinks of other people and wants to involve them in projects. She has the instincts of a producer. But, she is also a very clear communicator who is not afraid to ask the hard questions or to be strong in her requests.

We are in an era where small businesses are experiencing existential threats, but also where there is a rise in entrepreneurship. It is when we effectively combine the usefulness of the new category of entrepreneur with the needs of businesses to adapt to changing times that fruitful synergies can occur. I have seen it happen so many times in my own work, and this is a time where the opportunity is there for lots of other entrepreneurs.

I became a full-time entrepreneur out of necessity back in 2011-12 and found over time that it is something that I love. I enjoy thinking about business and marketing as much as I do art and literature. I now see them as all so connected there is no way to separate art from business from politics. It’s all intertwined and there is a middle path you can follow, a way to sanely and productively interact with others despite the seemingly divisive times.

I started working with Erin as a model probably three or four years ago. When I work with models, I care more about the results of the collaboration than anything in particular about the person. I’m never looking for a specific look in terms of gender or ethnicity or age. I care about energy and results more than anything. You have to keep it moving and get stuff done, so whenever a collaborator brings that go -etter energy to a project it more often than not leads to more work. 

Momentum is a powerful force in creativity, so when you find someone who is stoked to get pictures, who brings creative energy to the project, it adds to your momentum. The same thing is true in running a small business. You need team players.

Everyone has things they can’t do, but that are important to their work. I work with models because I need subjects for lifestyle and commercial photography. I can’t do that by myself. When I work with a model and have a successful shoot, I am able to deliver lots of great content to a client and that often leads to more work. Their positive energy adds to the overall process. So, I end up working with the people who bring the best energy most consistently. Over the years, Erin has proven to be a reliably positive collaborator.

As I mentioned, Erin brings a kind of alpha energy to her life. She is not one to let circumstances stop her. As a result, she managed to get married during the pandemic and I was honored to photograph the ceremony in beautiful Carmel. With her own wedding as I have seen her do in her life in general, she found the will to bring people together and to accomplish a big thing together. 

This is Erin’s knack. She has an indomitable will and an awareness of how other people could come together to create a larger team to tackle a project, to accomplish a goal. With all that is happening in the world, it is refreshing to be reminded that the human spirit will find a way. Artists generally make their way to the stage one way or another, and we are living in a world more entertaining for their efforts.

I strive to create the best content for brands, which is why I work with people who bring the best energy to the project and Erin is one of those individuals who responds to the potential of a situation. We are all collectively building the future as we go, and this has been a time of rethinking and reimagining what that will be.

As we move into Spring and whatever that brings, it will be good to add new entrepreneurial ingredients into the mix. Now is the time for young people to initiate internships, to look for mentors, to figure out how to get experience in business. It is also the time for businesses to find ways to work with content creators, influencers, virtual assistants and anyone who is able to bring value to the table.