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Photographer Jay Maisel Shares Insights From A Lifetime Of Working With Color

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Master photographer Jay Maisel shares insights from a lifetime of pursuing his passion for color.
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Turn Your Inner Critic Into An Ally

Your inner critic can be a terrible adversary or a powerful ally. Which one it becomes depends on how you relate to and use it. Like any animal, proper care and feeding can work wonders while neglect and abuse can produce monstrous results.

The inner critic’s powers of analysis and forethought are truly exceptional. Your inner critic is a protective mechanism. Its job is to help you avoid potential dangers. It’s excellent at identifying weaknesses or shortcomings that if left uncorrected and allowed to continue unchecked may have adverse effects. It can quickly identify potential areas for improvement. It can provide all sorts of extremely valuable feedback.
But, the inner critic has its limitations. The inner critic speaks from a point of fear. It motivates with fear too. It’s a pessimist. It’s often accurate, but never infallible. Because of this, it isn’t good at being supportive but instead may create doubt and insecurity. Its criticism may not be constructive if its feedback isn’t placed in a useful context. If it goes too far astray, its effects can produce negative results and even lead to paralysis.
So how can you turn this powerful voice from enemy into ally?

First, consider the inner critic a trusted ally – one with limitations. Whenever you hear the voice of the inner critic, ask if what it has to offer is helpful. If it is, use its feedback to improve your results. If it’s not, calmly acknowledge it, tell it you value it as an ally both in the past and in the future, and clearly state the reason(s) you’ve decided to make the choice you’re making. Tell it you will continue to consult with it in the future.  Your inner critic will believe you if you make a regular habit of consulting it – and even respect you for doing it. You might even give your inner critic an alternate project to work on in the background while you’re busy with other things. Stay calm; your inner critic can feed on negative emotions. Once you’ve made your decision, be firm. Remember, like a child having a tantrum, there may be times it needs to be silenced. But don’t silence it for too long. Many of the things it has to say can be extremely useful if you remember its strengths and limitations.

Read more in my Creativity Resources.
Learn more in my Creativity Workshops.

Coach Yourself

A voice inside my head was grousing, “There’s nothing here. It’s not good enough. You’re not good enough. Someone else has done this before. You’ve done this before. You’re uncomfortable. You’ll have better luck next time.” I’d heard it all before. So I changed my inner dialog, “There’s something here; you just have to find it. You know how much you like the surprise when you do. You have a unique sensibility. You’ll bring something new to the situation. You can do it. It will be great. You’re enjoying this.” If I hadn’t shifted the tone of my self-talk I would have given up before I got started, instead, I stuck with it, for hours, and succeeded, many times. Refraction LX was just one of that morning’s successes.

You’ve heard it all before too. “You’re just like … you always … you never … you’ll never … why try …” As Carla Gordon said, “If someone in your life talked to you the way you talk to yourself, you would have left them long ago.” We’re told that to improve and reach our full potential that we have to be our own worst critics. It’s true that there is a time and a place for this – but it’s limited. Don’t make it a full-time occupation. If you do, you may never get where you need or want to go.

Professional athletes and performing artists have coaches and directors who not only train them but also encourage and inspire them as well. So do many CEOs and salesmen. So do many people from many walks of life at different times in their lives and stages in their careers. They may even engage different types of coaches at different times for different needs. When was the last time someone coached you? When was the last time you coached yourself?  Even if you’re lucky enough to find the right creative coach who can help guide you to perfect practice, they can’t do all the work for you; you have to do the work too; after all, in the end, they’re training you to do it yourself. You can’t afford to wait and find your perfect creative coach. Instead, become that person.

Energize yourself. Affirm your abilities. Take note of your previous accomplishments. Set tangible goals for the future. Chart your progress along the way. Provide yourself incentives. Reward yourself. Celebrate your accomplishments – both verbally and visually, privately and publicly. Be specific using precise language. Give yourself pep talks. Frequently use positive affirmations. Don’t think you can do it? Tell yourself you can. And then do it. Watch your self-talk – and change it for the better. It’s a mindset. If you want better results create a better mindset.

When you talk about yourself or your work, do you use positive or negative words? The words we use can be very revealing about our orientations, attitudes, and beliefs. Many times, when we speak about ourselves, if we speak about ourselves, we downplay our abilities and accomplishments. It’s true that no one likes a raving egomaniac. But, there’s a real difference between arrogance and confidence. Confidence is attractive and inspiring; arrogance isn’t; neither is insecurity. Don’t let your insecurities get the best of you. Be careful not to talk yourself down, cut yourself off short, or fall completely silent. Instead, learn to speak simply and directly about yourself and your work and above all share your enthusiasm. Not feeling it? Act as if you do. With just a little practice you will begin to feel it. It’s true we should all beware of overconfidence. And, critical feedback, the right kind and the right amount, is useful for improving performance too. Peak performance and growth take the right balance of positive and negative feedback. But ask yourself, “How balanced are you?” If you’re like most people, you’re not very balanced at all. Change this and you’ll tip the scales in your favor. This takes constant monitoring and recalibration but you’ll soon see substantial changes that make it not just worthwhile but invaluable.

How important is this? Consider how much money is spent every year on motivational resources like books, videos, lectures, workshops, and more. The figures are enormous. That’s how important it is to other people. Ask yourself, “What’s the price of not doing it?” That’s far greater. Don’t pay it. Just do it.

Questions

What is the state of your current self-talk?
How many ways can you improve your self-talk?
How many ways can you make your self-talk more energized?
How many ways can you make your self-talk more meaningful?
How many ways can you measure the results of improved self-talk?

Read more in my Creativity Resources.
Learn more in my Creativity Workshops.

The Big Differences Between Vision & Style – And How They’re Related

Many people think vision and style are the same. They’re not. What’s the difference?

Vision is what you have to say; style is how you say it.

Confusing one for the other or focusing on one and not the other can be disastrous.

Just because your images look different doesn’t mean you’ve said anything or said it well. No matter how dazzling something may look, when style becomes a substitute for vision ultimately the viewer leaves unsatisfied – though they don’t always know why. If you confuse style for vision it confuses your viewers. And when you use a style that’s inappropriate for your vision it distorts the way your work is seen and it’s likely that you’ll be misunderstood. A style without a vision is a gimmick; visual cleverness. A style that supports a vision is a vessel for deep authentic expression.

You don’t have to make your images look different to say meaningful things and say them in your own authentic way. Sometimes less is more. Less style, more vision. Stronger styles make the viewer work harder to see past the surface of an image and find the deeper meaning within it. Strong styles work only if they complement a vision – then both become stronger.

Vision and style are related. Hopefully, vision drives style. Vision gives style meaning and purpose. When style reflects purpose it deepens the whole experience, making statements more deeply felt. Style can create meaningful connections between the subject and the way an image looks and even between multiple images. Subtle shifts in style throughout a body of work and even an artist’s lifetime have the potential to communicate even more meaning.

Style is easy to identify because all you need to do is make formal statements about what you see. You simply describe how the things in an image look. When describing style you focus less on the things you see and more on how they look. You state what your eyes actually see, the visual building blocks of an image not the content those elements are used to represent. To do this well, you need to learn a little vocabulary to formally describe images in ways that others will understand, but there’s an added benefit, learning that vocabulary will help you look more carefully and see more things and relationships between them. Each one of those relationships is a creative opportunity. Line, shape, volume, color, texture, scale, proportion, range, and compositional patterns are the fundamentals – and you can make finer distinctions in each of these categories. Some aspects of style describe relationships that are visible between multiple images such as the number of images used, their sequence, its pace and rhythm. Style can be extended to anything you do in a particular way, not your actual practice (she used a camera) but the way you practice it (she always moved in close). The ways you do things communicate the kinds of connections you like to make and the relationships you like to cultivate and so they imbue what you make with meaning.

Vision is harder to identify than style. Vision is the mystery you (and your viewers) are trying to solve; style offers the clues to figuring it out. It takes some guess work and repeated confirmation to figure out where your images are going. But vision is where you move beyond taking pictures of things (subjects) and start making pictures about things (themes). It’s part plot; your subject, events that happen to it, actions it takes, reactions, and consequences. It’s part theme. The theme is the big (or main) idea and subthemes are smaller (or subordinate) related ideas. It’s what the work says about a subject. It’s the overall message and the underlying messages. This is the least literal often least visible aspect of work and it’s often where the most soul can be found.

It’s part you … the patterns you see and create, your relationship to your subject and the images you create of and possibly about it, all the associations and connections you make between it and other things, the things you choose to show and not to show, your emotional reactions to things and events and even their appearances, the reasons why you care and why we should care. All these things say a lot about you, so vision is also about self-discovery and expression.

If the style of your images is appropriate it will help us see your vision … in a very particular meaningful way.

You don’t have to figure out your vision or your style before you start making meaningful images. Whether you start with no idea or a good idea, it’s likely that you won’t know the full meaning of your work until you make it. An essential part of the process of creating images is figuring things out. Show your process, not all of it, just the interesting parts, the ones you decide are meaningful. What you finally make doesn’t have to be perfect, finished, or even fully resolved; you just have to do it well enough to create a compelling experience. And to do that, you have to figure out a few things, perhaps only the most important things, about your vision (what you have to say) and style (how you say it). Then make more images and figure out a little more. Keep repeating this process enough times and you’ll find your way, your vision and your style, If you hold nothing back and give it everything you’ve got, you will be amazed by what you discover.

Download my Vision worksheet here. (Coming Soon)

Download my Style worksheet here.

Read more in my Storytelling resources.

Learn more in my Creativity & Photography workshops.

Exhibit – Worldwide – Cove Street Arts – Portland, Maine

After a year of staying close to home, travel around the world through the photography of twenty-three Maine artists. Curated by Bruce Brown, this exhibition features stunning photographs from every continent but our own. From natural vistas to manmade wonders to intimate glimpses into diverse cultures, the scope of this show is truly Worldwide.

Judith Allen-Efstathiou, Linda Alschuler, Roberta Baumann, Brendan Bullock, John Paul Caponigro, David Clough, Christian T. Farnsworth, Barbara Goodbody, Ella Hudson, Knapp Hudson, Carl Austin Hyatt, Nanci Kahn, Michael Kolster, Dennis Landis, Olga Merrill, K. Min, Munira Naqui, Robert Pennington, Damir Porobic, Ni Rong, Jan Pieter Van Voorst Van Beest, David Wade, and Katarina Weslien

See the exhibit in person at Cove Street Arts in Portland, Maine.

Preview the exhibition here.

How To Title Your Images

Neko Harbor, Antarctica, 2007

Watch how the focus shifts when these alternate titles are used.

Freezing Point, Glacial Retreat, Blue, Constellation

 

When in doubt, when selecting titles for your images keep them simple and neutral. Less is more, more or less.

Good titles complement works by giving viewers more relevant information that makes their experience richer, indicating its creator’s relationship towards a subject and medium and audience, suggesting but not limiting attention to dimensions of a work that might otherwise remain overlooked, all the while leaving room for viewer’s extended interpretation.

Bad titles dominate or subvert works by attempting to make up for what’s missing, focus attention on one aspect of work and deflect attention from others, add heavy-handed interpretation leaving less room for viewer participation, or tell viewers rather than show them.

To avoid bad titles, rather than becoming a master of language, keep it simple. While there are notable examples where this maxim has been defied with success ­– singer/songwriter Fiona Apple titled one of her albums with a complete poem containing over four hundred characters causing a buzz-worthy stir which reinforced her reputation for being both poetic and eccentric ­– at a minimum, it takes a significant flair for style or even genius to pull a stunt like this off.

You might be tempted to keep it really simple. Remember, Untitled is still a title. It’s the most neutral to the point of being nondescript and almost uninformative. Sometimes it works – well. Many times, it’s not enough. But eliminating it altogether and simply stating the medium used is almost always never enough.

In a majority of cases, just a little more will do just fine. The classic convention for titling an image is to identify the subject (name the person, place or thing) and add the date of creation: if it’s a photograph use the date of exposure; if it’s a painting use the date of completion; if it’s a composite photograph default to the latter; if it’s an image of a historic event add the date of the event in the first part of the title and add the date of completion of the image.

It’s the times when this convention doesn’t fit that more creativity is warranted.

Use this list as a springboard for exploring your options.

1     List the subject and date – Neko Harbor, Antarctica, 2007.
2     State a relationship to the subject, yours or someone else’s; i.e. My Mother or Her Home.
3     Use a general category for the subject rather than an individual one, such as Statistic.
4     Name a formal element in the work – number, shape, color, size, etc.
5     Refer to another medium, such as poetic or musical form.
6     Loosely interpret the subject; similes and metaphors often work well here, such as Smells Like Teen Spirit.
7     Use a technical term, related to the subject or the creation of the work, Ascent or Descent for example.
8     State what the subject is not – Is Not Untitled.
9      Create a contradiction ­– think of Magritte’s famous painting of a pipe entitled This Is Not A Pipe.

You’ll no doubt find ways to expand this list.

It’s interesting to note that when you keep it simple and conventional, specificity works in your favor, yet the more creative and unconventional you get the more ambiguity, sometimes coupled with a dose of irony or contradiction, works in your favor
You may hit upon one ingenious title. If you should be so lucky quickly ask yourself, “Can you repeat it?” One genius title amid a cluster of duds will stand out like a sore thumb. Bodies of work beg some consistency. That said, you may find that varying your titling conventions between different projects is an effective way to further differentiate them.

Consider creating a standard for your titles, after giving considerable thought to both its short and long-term effects on the way audiences will respond to you work. There are many benefits to creating a consistent practice, including the creation and fulfillment of expectations and the reduction of the time and energy you put into resolving new terms. This will also call more attention to the times when you deviate from your standards, which can be advantageous if used strategically.

Like your art, titles are all about communication. Titles become a part of your art. Make sure your titles make a contribution to effectively communicating what you want to communicate. It’s worth the time you invest to put some thought into how you title your work.

How do you title your work?

 

Read How I Title My Images.
Read more about how writing can help stimulate your creativity.
Learn more in my digital photography and digital printing workshops.

How I Title My Images

Illumination I, 2000 

 

Titles have always been challenging for me. While I always use a working title for a developing series, often, I don’t know what to title the works until I truly understand them – and that can be long after they’ve been created. Sometimes I change the titles of a few of my images after I’ve released them.

Most of my images, being a combination of at least two images from different times and places, don’t fit the typical place date format. To date, I’ve only used this type of title for one series, Antarctica, because I want that work to be seen as more editorial in nature.

Because I want to leave plenty of room for the viewer, I avoid titles that impose a single interpretation on a work of art – Exhibit A : Evidence Of My Failed Relationships. I also don’t want a title to make up for what’s not already strongly felt in an image –Unimaginable Grace.

Initially, I grouped work according to the dominant natural element in it, using a set of six series, interlocking because many images can fit into more than one series, under one larger title – Elemental: Dreaming In Stone; Waterway; Fire Within; Aerial Boundaries; Songs From Wood; and Animalia.

Later, I came to understand there was a further reason I didn’t use standard place/date titles. I want my images to be seen not as records of things (a materialistic viewpoint) but as traces of processes (a wholistic viewpoint).

I’d like to use an active verb for my titles, but the image isn’t the active process itself, it’s some thing made from observing processes. So instead of the word Illuminating, I use the word Illumination.

I use a number to indicate the order of creation in a series.

The date attributed is the date of release, not the date of exposure.

Read How To Title Your Images here.
Read more about how writing can boost your creativity.
Learn more in my digital photography and digital printing workshops.

The New Book – Workshop Stories

Find out about the new book Workshop Stories.

Elizabeth Opalenik celebrates the photography workshops community in this beautiful new book.

“Each teacher was asked to tell a workshop story that influenced or inspired them personally—involving colleagues, peers, or students—whether funny, poignant, profound, or sad. These authentic stories are universal, and in them we find ourselves. More broadly, the goal of this book is not only to preserve memorable workshop experiences but also to share the varied and unique images of the photographers who contributed their talents and expertise to these institutions.”

View image spreads on Instagram.

Read my conversation with Elizabeth Opalenik here.