Illumination XXXI, 2014
It was one of my best sessions.
I had come prepared.
I knew the location well. My father first brought me to the Point Lobos region when I was very young. Later, during my college years, I spent more time exploring the coast. Long after that, I visited many more times, including several visits to prepare for leading workshops where you have to orient yourself more objectively. This was one of those times.
I knew the subject well photographically. Photographing in the region had a long history and I knew the images and their creators, often first-hand. Adams, Bullock, Caponigro, Sexton, Weston(s), White, Witherill, Uelsmann (and so many others) – they’d all made images there. I’d revisited them all to prepare for this session. I knew that if I made successful images, that it was inevitable that some comparison to other works would be made. I knew that their images had influenced my vision and that I needed to more fully digest that influence to be free enough to make my own images, in my own ways, and on my own terms. And, I’d failed many times before.
I knew how to work the situation well. I came before the light was best and stayed sometime after it had passed. I didn’t make just one image; I made many. I surveyed a variety of aspects of the subject; planes, peaks, valleys, boulders, grottos, cracks, pools, waterline, etc. I framed each composition deliberately, then asked how it could be improved, and made that image too.
I knew myself well. I’d taken stock of my history, my vision, my themes, my style, and my goals. My natural tendencies resurfaced; I approached the land as if it were a human body. Long-standing themes reemerged; birth, death, and rebirth. I was aware of what I was bringing to the table – personally.
I also knew that, despite all this preparation, this would become a purely intellectual affair if I didn’t respond associatively and emotionally. So I let this all well up, holding nothing back – and I was surprised by what I discovered.
Old memories resurfaced, specifically of my first wife, who I used to visit these places with and who died of cancer when our son was very young, leaving a great deal unresolved. Then more memories surfaced of the decision not to have children with my second wife, a cancer survivor, because of health concerns. And here I was turning stones into wombs. I was emotionally present, raw even – and moving forward. I kept this inner dialog alive as I continued to make images. I had to answer this call to greater depth. Doing this work and making these images had become extremely personal.
Perhaps the images from this session are not my very best pictures, but it was one of my very best performances. It became a milestone for me. It had exceptional intensity and depth. That’s a level I now try to get to more consistently – or exceed. And I know what it takes.
It’s wonderful to see someone bring their A game. It can even help you find your own. But, your A game may be very different than someone else’s A game. To know what your A game is, you first have to get there. Once you know what’s possible, what it feels like, and what it takes to get there – you can bring it.
What performance would you identify as your best performance to date?
How would you describe your best performance to date?
What criteria do you use to evaluate your performance?
What areas are you concentrating on to improve your performance?
What steps are you taking to improve your performance?
When is it useful to separate your evaluation of performance from results?
February 13, 2014 | Leave a Comment |
With Incubation II, I got everything I wanted – and more.
I’ve been working on a line of thought for some time now, planning to make a series to fully develop it. Make multiple exposures of the same subject from different angles and combine them seamlessly. It’s like Cubism without the artifacts. Show what’s hidden by one angle of view by combining many angles of view. Show many sides of the same object simultaneously. Show the background that an object hides. Make a visual experience that more powerfully presents the experience of moving around, in, and through a space.
Not knowing what I wanted to do ahead of time would have changed the way I made exposures. I would have selected angles that offered the best relationship between object and environment, often prioritizing one over the other if any compromises were necessary, instead of selecting the optimal angle for both in two or more exposures. I wouldn’t have made as many exposures nor would I have know which alternate exposures to make – and why. Despite my best plans, I never could have planned for this magnificent moment of light, where its shape, split by a crack, echoes the shapes of the two cracked halves of the rock below it.
On my first visit to Argentina’s Atacama Desert I was able to gather several exposures that once combined served as proof of concept. They results, not just for one image but for multiple images, were successful enough to show that this idea and approach had lasting value.
My initial concept didn’t work entirely as planned. I tried a solution that looked similar to double exposure and while I was (and still am) interested in the way this made the objects look like they were vibrating (a new idea), it was too busy and unclear for the effect I was looking for here. On impulse, while I was processing the images, I tried nesting the stones within themselves and it was immediately clear that this was a powerful new solution. The technique served more than a visual device. The psychological dimensions of the work were heightened. The work was challenging me to expand my vision.
Finishing the first few images brought both clarity and productivity while photographing the location for the second time. I was able to make many related images, aware of what was different and what was similar. I was even able to rephotograph several subjects. Now, in addition to single images displaying multiple angles of the same subject, multiple images in the series do the same. It’s surprising how different things look from different angles of view – sometimes they’re unrecognizable.
The questions arose “How many images will this solution hold for?” and “What other related solutions will I find?” One thing led to another. Along the way, duplication, reflection, and distortion were also used. So new questions were posed, “Is this one series or many?” and “Will one series title hold them all?” (The working title for the series is Incubation.)
I’m not sure all of these images belong in the same series. While they’re all from the same location and they look similar stylistically and are related thematically, they also explore different ideas. Some are diverging significantly enough to make the case for placing them in several interconnected series. What’s the answer? Right now, it’s a mystery. I simply have to do more work to find out more about it.
I’ve found that the best plans are clear enough to stimulated productivity and flexible enough to evolve.
What are the benefits of working without a plan?
What are the benefits of working with a plan?
How do you create a plan so that it is generative rather than restrictive?
What mindset do you need to approach plans with to maximize productivity and insight?
When should you abandon one plan in favor of another?
It’s not the most dramatic wave; it’s rather small in comparison to the enormous waves you find in the Pacific ocean. The ocean waters aren’t glassy smooth; the wave line isn’t fully continuous; the surrounding waves aren’t perfectly scalloped; and the foam in the foreground serves only as accents, indicating a previous passage, rather than forming a clear and present pattern. It’s not illuminated by the clearest light nor does it glow from within. Still, there’s an intensely quiet presence about this image (Condensation X), deceptively calm on the surface but potentially turbulent below, with an air of mystery (Where is it coming from and going to? What surrounds it?) that makes it powerfully expressive in a complex and unique way. It’s not obvious but it is rewarding. You might say it’s a sleeper, something you might not pay close attention to at first but the more you look at it the more it grows on you.
Being sensitive to times when less is more and more is less will help you get it just right. In today’s constantly competitive culture, it’s hard not to over achieve. But sometimes, that’s exactly what you need to do. Sometimes what you really need is to get it just right – and nothing more.
I like to do my very best. I like to try to do it better every time. Sometimes I try too hard and do too much. I’ve wasted hours, days even, trying to perfect something only to find out that along the way the life had gone out of it. I’ve found that things that I thought were distractions were really things that made something richer and more complex, after removing them. I’ve come to the realization that what I thought were flaws made something perfectly imperfect. This is not to say that I don’t still try to make things as good as I can and even to up my game. It is to say that the answers I’m looking for transcend technical perfection and sometimes are better for less of it.
In the world of photography it’s easy to lose sight of the big picture for all of the details. We have an extensive list of physical characteristics to evaluate the quality of photographs – focus, depth of field, frozen motion (or extreme motion blur, but nothing in between), low noise, detail in highlights and shadows, contrast, credible color casts, believable levels of saturation, no lens artifacts, the list goes on – yet we are much more challenged to describe the quality of photographs on the levels of perception and content, which are more important. There are times when technical perfection can be distracting or worse a cover up for what’s lacking. Photographer Ansel Adams remarked that, “There’s nothing worse than a sharp image of a fuzzy concept.”
It’s a matter of appropriate means. You don’t want to create dynamic images to portray quiet, tender moments. You don’t want to retouch portraits of victims of war, famine, or pestilence. You don’t want to reenact the truth to make it picture perfect.
There are many times when things seem more authentic if they’re not perfect.
Besides, the more perfect your presentation becomes the more attention you call to the delivery. When you want to call more attention to the content perfect presentation may not be perfect for the purpose. Make your delivery effective. Sometimes it’s more effective to deliver just enough, not more, not less. It’s part of getting it just right.
What isn’t good enough? How do you know?
What is good enough? How do you know?
What is too much?
What is perfectly imperfect?
November 6, 2013 | 1 Comment |
Out of the corner of my eye, I caught a glimpse of two icebergs passing by outside the window of our ship. I seized my camera and ran to the back of the ship. The pair glistened and glinted in a glowing haze of diffuse fog. I check the first few frames. Perfect exposures. And I continued shooting until they disappeared.
Thrilled, I returned to my cabin to download these beautiful new images. I opened the camera and found there was no card in it. To fix a recently developed quirk, I had reset all the settings on my camera to their defaults, which was to fire without a card, a behavior I disliked before and loathed now.
Yet again, I was forced to learn from my mistakes. The pain and frustration of what was lost drove this lesson home deeply. I redoubled my efforts to keep my systems streamlined and my habits well maintained – plus periodically check them.
It’s only a small comfort that Thomas Edison, one of the most innovative men in history, set a monthly quota for making mistakes; he felt that if he wasn’t making a certain number of mistakes, he wasn’t pushing the envelope enough. Easier said than done, the trick is not to make the same mistake twice. I had made this mistake before. It was already on my checklist – Mistakes I’ve Made.
A black cat mysteriously failed to appear in exposures I made as a small child with my mother. No one had a camera the day we released a magnificent rehabilitated golden eagle. On close inspection, exposures from the Scottish highlands were found to be out of focus. A dozen sheets of film used inside Chartes Cathedral were re-exposed to light before being processed. A roll of film shot in Death Valley’s Golden Canyon was improperly processed. A camera shutter failed to open despite making its customary noise at Point Lobos, California. Files made in Chile’s altiplano were deleted from a hard drive. A camera fell to the bottom of the ocean in a Maine harbor. The list goes on. I keep looking for the book people refer to when they use the phrase “every mistake in the book” – but until I find it, I’ll continue writing my own.
To this day, I can see these images in my mind as clearly as if they were made yesterday. But you can’t. They’re the ones that got away. In their place, I have lessons learned.
What can you learn from your mistakes?
How many lessons can you learn from a single mistake?
What can you do to try not to make the same mistake twice?
How can you learn from other’s mistakes?
What can others learn from your mistakes?
I’d been scanning the iceberg struck horizon for hours when suddenly the clouds grew thin enough to let the sun through for a brief moment. The sun and the light it cast on the surface of the water completed the picture. It was there only for a moment. And then it was gone.
There are so many moments like this in life. In these times, there’s a narrow window of opportunity and only those who stay alert recognize them and are able to take full advantage of them. Of course it helps to have the right tools for the job and solid training, good instincts, and fast reflexes. But none of these will do you any good if you aren’t aware enough to recognize the many opportunities before you.
Photography (and its extension in motion pictures), relies on the power of the moment more than any other medium. Sure music, dance, and theater also require precise timing, but the moments they present can be created and recreated. You can practice until you get the moment right. But with the historical photographic moment, you get one chance and then it’s gone.
To be sure, not all moments are equally fleeting. Some moments last longer than others. And certain events do reoccur more than once and even recur repeatedly. Sometimes you do get more than one chance. Sometimes you don’t. It helps to know how long a window of opportunity you have and if you’ll get another chance. When you do have more than one chance, depending on how much time you have between each recurring event, you may find it time well spent to observe carefully on your first opportunity before acting on your next opportunity. This is perhaps the best preparation of all. When you won’t have another opportunity, you need to think fast and when you don’t have time for that you need to trust your instincts. No matter how many opportunities you have, to succeed you need to stay alert.
Maintenance is key. It’s harder to stay alert if you don’t take care of yourself. Sleep, diet, and exercise all contribute to your being. (And never underestimate the power of motivation.) Start with the basics, but don’t stop there.
Just as you can practice to hone your reflexes, there are things you can do to develop your awareness, such as studies and meditations – and there are many ways to do both (too many to mention here). You can learn to bring yourself into heightened states awareness more consistently, quickly and intensely. This too requires practice. It’s time well spent. Like anything, the more you do it, the better you get at it – especially if you stay alert while you do it.
What can you do to increase your sensitivity?
What can you do to increase your understanding?
What can you do to increase your emotional responses?
What can you do to increase your ability to sustain your awareness for longer periods of time?
To find what I was looking for, it took three visits to this waterfall.
On the first visit, I made conventional postcards surveying the site with a curious eye; cliffs, grass, moss, waterfall, pool, river, rock, vapor, rainbow, sun, clouds, rain, tourists, horses. The images I made were competent – and nothing more.
On the second visit, I identified my primary focus – the fast-moving complex patterns the water made as it fell in waves through the air. Images that isolated these patterns contained a number of qualities that I was excited about, both something related to what I had been developing in other images and something new. I had found what I was looking for. But, when I evaluated the images I made and developed the material further (enhancing the patterns by combining them and adding new elements) it became clear that I needed more material to make a complete statement. During development, I made notes and sketches to chart my progress and refine my ideas.
On the third visit, I walked up to the waterfall and stood in front of it silently watching for new patterns and making exposures for the better part of an hour. I was thrilled to be immersed in a magical moment, completely focused, and undisturbed. At the end of this session my good friend and colleague Arthur Meyerson asked, “Did you get anything?” “Yes,” I responded, “I got a body of work.”
With so many wonderful possibilities out there, why would you return to the same well more than once? Let me count the reasons.
1 You’ll get to spend more time with your favorite people, places or things.
2 You’ll have an opportunity to make the images that almost worked or that you missed.
Make a list to learn from your mistakes and create a working plan.
3 You’ll have an opportunity to improve your images.
Practice makes perfect.
4 You’ll learn more about a place.
By increasing your understanding of the places you photograph your photographs will become more interesting.
5 You’ll see changes in the place.
Time reveals new things, changing subjects and changing us.
6 You’ll see new things.
Having first found the images that come to you naturally, you’ll later find yourself challenged to look for other kinds of images, which will stimulate your creativity and increase your visual versatility.
7 You’ll learn more about yourself.
You’ll be called to identify your habits, changes, strengths and weaknesses, hopes and purpose.
Just because we see new things doesn’t mean we will see in new ways. In fact, it’s often during times when we are engaged by a great deal of new information that we fall back on our habits. When we see the same things again we are challenged to see in new ways and/or deepen the ways we see them.
What things would be most valuable for you to revisit?
How many new ways can you imagine approaching a subject?
What do you hope to accomplish when you revisit them?
What can you learn about yourself when you return – preferences, tendencies, habits, core strengths, areas for improvement, etc?
It took a clear set of plans to make this image – Procession II. First, I had to know what kinds of images I wanted to make, prioritizing some over others. Second, I had to figure out the elements needed for a general composition. Third, I had to identify the specific final composition I wanted to make. Fourth, I had to identify locations I could find these subjects in, travel to them, and make exposures at the right time. Fifth, I needed to photograph one stone from multiple angles in a light comparable with the overall scene. Sixth, I needed to plan the location, shape, and quality of the shadows that needed rendering during compositing. It all came together, after a lot of planning. Without a plan it would have involved a lot more trial and error requiring more time and resources and even then it’s quite likely that I may never have arrived here without a clear vision for where I wanted to go and why I wanted to do it.
There are other kinds of planning that are needed to succeed both professionally and personally. Whether you’re engaged in your creative life professionally or simply as a vehicle for personal growth (an important distinction to make), I recommend you make a creative plan. If you do this, you too will find both your productivity and fulfillment will increase, in a way that’s meaningful to you.
Set a mission (why you’re doing it), goals (what outcomes you want), projects (the big things you do)(set goals for 1 year, 2 years, 3 years, 5 years, and end of life) and actions (the small steps you take to getting your projects done)(detail your 1 year next actions list) for your creative life.
Align your creative mission with your life’s mission. Most people need at least two missions; one for their life in general (which includes many things – health, family, finances, etc) and one for a specific area, like their career or creative life, which may or many not be the same. Make sure that your missions share something in common – something other than yourself. The more you can align them, the more likely you are to achieve them, increase your productivity, and be more fulfilled.
A plan is a work in progress. The best plans are flexible and can be modified. If I don’t learn something new from a process, often something that shifts my perspective significantly enough to start doing something better than before, then I feel I haven’t truly excelled at what I’m doing. I expect to improve my plans. That doesn’t mean I shouldn’t waste time making plans. It does mean I can waste time making plans that are too detailed or too speculative. In addition to learning when and how to plan, it’s also important to learn when to stop planning. But do plan. Planning not to plan is planning to fail. If you don’t make plans, life just happens and you may not make the time for the things that matter most. Make that time.
How can planning help strengthen your creative efforts?
At what stages and in how many ways can you encourage the evolution of those plans?
When is it better to abandon an old plan for a new one?
What are the positive and negative effects of having no plan at all?
Motion picture director Wood Allen famously remarked, “80% of success is just showing up.” One wintry night at Iceland’s glacial lagoon (Jokulsarlon) it seemed like all I had to do was show up. The heavens danced with aurora borealis’ green fire for hours. Cascades of light appeared and disappeared dynamically illuminating the heavens with a light brighter than the stars and moon rising above the dormant volcano, icecap, glaciers, frozen lagoon, icebergs, black sand beaches, and crashing surf. The waves of radiation formed and reformed into shapes suggesting animals, birds, fish, flowers, and more. When there’s fire in the heavens every moment is a magic moment.
You’ll score if you just stay in the game and keep rolling the dice. The more you roll the dice the more likely it is that you’ll score. The longer you stay in the game, the more you get to try your luck. You’re lucky to be playing, and who knows you might just get luckier. Sometimes, all you have to do is be at the right place at the right time. Sometimes, it’s that simple.
How frequently do you show up?
Are you selective about the places you show up?
Are you selective about the times you show up?
August 19, 2013 | Leave a Comment |
It had been a very long drive. Looking for other exotic locations along the way, we (I was traveling with colleagues Seth Resnick and Eric Meola) had taken the long way around, traveling for five days at high altitude, up to 5,000 meters, through Bolivia’s Altiplano to Salar de Uyuni the largest salt desert in the world. On arrival we began looking for water, which was seasonal and unpredictable. Unsuccessful at first, at first we found only mud beneath a cracked crust, later we found a few wet stains, still later a larger area slick enough to glisten in the sun, much later a larger slick against a mountain that offered limited reflections, and finally, late on the second day we found a large expanse of water. But there was wind and in many areas the water was too deep to access. We waited at our nearby hotel, made completely of salt; the walls and floors and tables and desks and chairs were all made of salt. Returning for the day’s final light, we found the wind had moved the water and then died down leaving a glassy sheet of perfect reflections as far as the eye could see, ringed by clouds. Walking on/in it was disorienting. You felt like you were walking on/in the sky. And then the color began to change and bloom. It was divine. We spent hours photographing, until the light faded and the winds picked up again. We returned the next day, our final day, to find similar almost ideal conditions and later the new introduction of lightning storms and rainbows behind us. We felt exceptionally fortunate.
If there was no rain, there would be no water to hold reflections; we would have been limited to making photographs of cracked salt patterns, a few piles of salt, and the distant mountains. If there were no clouds, there would be little to reflect. Even though this type of weather was typical at this time of year, and this time of year only, there were no guarantees. We had not only timed it just right and planned for enough time to succeed in, we also got lucky.
Stack the odds in your favor and do your research to know when optimal conditions are most likely to occur. There are situations where you can take actions to increase the probability of ideal conditions occurring and there are situations when you can’t – and knowing which situation you’re in is important. In situations where you can’t be more proactive, it’s wise to plan for a little extra time, in case you have to wait for ideal conditions to arise. It’s never easy to know when it’s best to move on and when it’s best to wait it out. Prior experience helps but it will only get you so far. Keep your eye on the weather and seek out local knowledge whenever possible.
How can you best prepare to make the most of optimal conditions?
What are optimal conditions for the task at hand?
When are you most likely to experience optimal conditions?
Is there anything you can do to increase the likelihood of optimal conditions occurring?
Is there anything you can do to improve current conditions?
When is it better to move forward rather than wait?
When is it better to take a new approach rather than return?
Illumination XXVI, Jokulsarlon, Iceland, 2012
French microbiologist Louis Pasteur famously remarked, “Chance favors the prepared.” Just showing up doesn’t guarantee success. You can stack the deck in your favor by being prepared. To be prepared you have to find answers to a lot of questions – or at the very least know what questions to ask … like where to go, when to go, how long to stay, what to bring, how to use what you bring, what you hope to accomplish, what your priorities are, and what you bring to the situation that is unique, for starters.
To get this image (and others like it), I had to do a lot of preparation. I thoroughly understood the subject; following Yogi Bhajan’s advice ““If you want to learn something, read. If you want to understand something, write. If you want to master something, teach.” I had done all three. I was in the right place; Iceland is on the auroral oval. I was there at the right time: as Iceland is just south of the arctic circle, skies are dark enough for a long enough period of time at only certain times of the year. I brought the right equipment; a sturdy tripod with a good mount and a fast lens were essential, plus there was new game changing camera technology that generated less noise at higher ISOs, which would open up new possibilities. I knew how to use the equipment; using your camera in the dark and focusing on a star doesn’t become fluid without some practice. I performed relevant tests to find out how much time it took before stars trailed and how high I could dial my camera’s sensitivity up before without getting objectionable levels of noise. I learned from my failures; after careful examination of images from the previous week I found out how shallow the depth of field or focus was at very fast apertures and that certain lenses produced unacceptable artifacts. I took stock of my community’s previous accomplishments; I looked at a lot of images of auroras, identifying what made some more successful than others. I made some time for self-reflection; I noted what was likely to make my images more authentic and what would make them more likely to stand out from others’ images, either on their own or through their relation to my other work, and I prioritized what I wanted to accomplish. All of this preparation contributed to my being able to work quickly and make the most of each passing moment in a focused way that was most likely to generate results that were relevant to satisfying my goals.
It was so easy to make dramatic images that night and there were so many other photographers making images around me that the bar was raised, which called me to succeed not just on others’ terms but more importantly on my own terms and not just once but multiple times.
Some preparation is specific to a task and/or a moment. A great deal of preparation is more general and cumulative. Often, one builds on the other. Author Malcolm Gladwell suggests that mastery comes when we put in 10,000 hours. Even if you haven’t put in the 10,000 hours to achieve general mastery you can still master the moment; and if you have put in the time, you’ll be able to master many more moments. I’ve often been asked, “How long does it take you to make an image?” I answer, “Anywhere from 15 minutes to 6 months – but the real answer is 47 years and counting.”
How many kinds of preparation do you need to do – physical, mental, emotional, communal? Why?
What kind of preparation do you need to do the most/least of? Why?
At what point do you get diminishing returns from continued preparation?
Can you be overprepared?
When does preparation become avoidance?
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