Craft Matters

When Inspiration Cuts Deep: Agnes Martin

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Ashlyn at LACMA

The photograph here is my favorite from a summer adventure into Los Angeles last year with my daughter, Ashlyn. We played tourists hitting food hotspots on Sunset Boulevard, ascending the winding roads to Griffith Park, and shopping the 3rd Street Promenade in Santa Monica.

But the highlight for me was a few hours spent at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) and discovering Agnes Martin. Agnes’s work was wholly new to me. Ashlyn was a good sport that morning accommodating my slow pace, but was tired standing and sat down. I took the opportunity to compose her squarely between two of Agnes’s paintings wishing to convey quiet contemplation. It was a perfect visual representation of what was a profound experience for me.

From the moment I entered the exhibit hall, my awareness was keenly heightened. What…is…this…I asked? Curiosity expanded to wonder and, with continued exploration, I felt hit with a gut punch of resonate connection and inspiration. The truth I felt in the work enveloped me and penetrated down to that level I can only identify as the soul.

For 30 minutes of so, I was elevated to a different plane of existence.

Agnes Martin (1912-2004) is a Canadian born American abstract painter. Often referred to as a minimalist, Martin described herself as an abstract expressionist. Inspired by Zen Buddhism, more as code of life ethics than a religious practice, Martin sought to pare down her compositions to reductive elements of simplicity that conveyed a transcendent reality. These truths, as she expressed them, were represented as hand drawn, painted lines, grids, and fields of fine ethereal color.

Martin was one of the few female artists who gained recognition in the male-dominated art world of the 1950s and ’60s. An elevated artist, she was also human. Agnes struggled with mental illness; she was diagnosed at one point as schizophrenic. She lived her adult life alone and held her homosexuality a secret. Martin’s later work is regionally associated with Taos, New Mexico. The desert environment and clarity of light must have been tremendous inspiration much as it was for Georgia O’Keeffe, another strong influence of mine.

Even now, writing this, I fondly remember that day. I acquired one of Martin’s coffee table books and while I cherish it, the book experience is a shadow of the museum experience. I believe that experience was one of those rarer moments in Life, where the inherent power of an artist’s work breaks through our clouded lives and shines light on our connected experience and understanding of the world. For me, my style and what I aspire to in my own work was affirmed and clarified. What I hold dear and truthful in my life felt celebrated. And, for 30 minutes, all my doubts and fears were erased.

We all deserve such an experience. Thank you Agnes Martin.

I cannot finish this post without acknowledging the political times (2017) we now live in with respect to art. The current administration is threatening dramatic cuts, even defunding of many arts and cultural programs. I doubt any of these mostly old crotchety white men have ever remotely experienced what I did that day in LACMA. If they did, they’d understand the essential role art plays in society and our understanding of history. It is, I believe, fundamental to our collective evolution as human beings.

Emulation: Musings on a Guy from Florida

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When learning something new, particularly, something we desire to become good at, at some point, we emulate. For the novice, emulation is often a natural response to inspiration, being moved by someone else’s mastery of the subject we’re interested in. Sports and celebrities come most immediately to mind. Gatorade made an iconic commercial, Be Like Mike, which celebrated emulating Michael Jordon, one of the greatest basketball players of all time.

But, my interest here (go figure) is photography.

In 1995, I took a photography workshop based out of Page, Arizona with an emphasis on slot canyons. We were a group of fifteen enthusiasts, intent on improving our craft. There was one notable exception, a guy from Florida, named Steve. Steve had a singular vision: to make photographs of slot canyons he’d already seen. Tops on his list were replicas of images made by one of the instructors!

Steve was a chain smoking, nervous, generally nice guy. In the evenings he proudly related stories of discovering photographs (in books or online) that triggered him into emulation mode. His inspired mission: to replicate the photograph. To place his tripod in the same three holes as the original. To compose the image in edge-to-edge complicity. If the image was made recently (and still possible) Steve could drive 3,000 miles straight across the country to capture it. And, once made (or not), he’d drive right back.

Steve has stuck with me. It’s a fun, if over-the-top, anecdote for discussing photographic growth. I believe this discussion is more important than ever because the current culture of photography is locked in emulation overdrive. From Lightroom presets to YouTube how-tos to step-by-step online guides explaining where, when, and how to find a certain place and take a certain photograph, we’re inundated with information that often lacks growth-oriented perspective.

On top of all this, our social media dominated lives constantly tease a near manic desire for self-affirmation. Unchecked, our egos can crave “likes” as fervently as the air we need to breathe. When entangled by this mindset, the easiest path to garner a respectable quota of “likes” is to emulate someone else’s work. This is rampant on the Internet. Something goes viral and the copycats quickly rise.

I understand the temptation. I’m not always above feeling a few pangs of jealousy when I see a “been-there, done-that” style of photograph receiving 1000’s of Instagram likes while I struggle to earn 100. And I know my early days included emulating photographers including Ansel Adams, Eliot Porter, Joseph Holmes, Jack Dykinga, and others. My compositions often channeled their styles, not my own.

Emulation’s dark side, quirkily represented by Steve, is the risk of falling into a chasm or stylistic conformity and creative dissonance. Working within a medium you love but expressing that love (intentionally or unintentionally) in a style that isn’t your own carries an emotional price: a growing awareness that what you do rings false. Slowly, a creeping sense of dissatisfaction builds inside you. Doubts arise. The experience scale tips from fun to frustration. You start to fret, feel yourself drifting sideways, listing. You brood in indecision, slide into self-medication, culminating in the embrace of the ever-popular Tortured Artist Syndrome (TAS™). Maybe it’s not so dramatic but, whatever the descent, it ultimately ends up with one outcome: you give up. Yes, those seduced into and trapped by emulation’s grip will lose interest and quit. What held promise to infuse your life with richness becomes an abandoned wayside station in your life’s rearview mirror.

While I didn’t stay in touch with Steve, I’m 99.9% certain, unless he experienced a creative self-breakthrough, his photographic interests are an indiscernible speck in his rearview mirror.

I’d like to believe most of us don’t want to end up like Steve, stuck in a cycle of emulation. But it happens. We do get stuck. We hit a wall. We know we need something more. It may not necessarily be an emulation issue. All sorts of issues lurk in the shadows of creative self-growth.

A number of ideas, both old and new, permeate my thoughts here. They pertain as much to me as to anybody. Too much to include in this post. So, more to come.

Duty in the Age of Trump

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So far 2017 has been painful for me. I’ve never felt such concern and trepidation over a new administration. My birthday was January 19th, President Barack Obama’s last day in office. There was no celebration.

January 20th, as Donald Trump took the oath of office, I worked in the darkroom, making photographic art, an act of solitary resistance to an untenable political situation. Emerging from my own confinement, I learned of budget proposals intended to cut funding to institutions including the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH), and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB). And, later, a bill introduced to eliminate the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

Madness.

On one hand, I get it. I’m not stupid. No blind liberal allegiance here. We’ve moved into a period of conservative backlash. Eight years of Obama, and the liberal institutions he stood for are under fire. Modern Conservatives don’t particularly care to culturally acknowledge the importance of the arts, responsible journalism, or a healthy natural environment. But this administration seems to think they hold no value at all. It doesn’t matter the federal budget impact is negligible; it won’t move the needle. One less B1 bomber would fund the NEA, NEH, CPB, and EPA for decades. This is war, a cultural war.

And what’s going on now is anything but normal compared to previous Republican administrations. The administrations of Reagan and Bush Sr. suddenly seem liberal compared to the angry isolating populist rise represented by Trump.

I tell myself, I can live with this. I recognize the cyclical nature of government. We’re a two party society and we ebb and flow every 8-12 years between the two. The long view back through history, still shows progress. We evolve. As a society, we’ve grown more inclusive, more progressive, more emphatic.

But this is different. The lack of economic progress for the abandoned predominately white middle class has spawned a resentful angry movement. A movement that propelled an angry puppet voice, Trump’s, into office. Someone wholly unqualified for the responsibility, the diginity, the fairness, the empathy such a position holds. Instead we have an administration of propaganda, leveraging the psychology of fear, to push policies, that, upon reasonable investigation, don’t legitimately address real problems. The world has changed, dramatically, in this new information age. Globalization and automation are fundamentally changing business worldwide. The administration’s proposed solutions: cut taxes, negotiate new trade agreements, build walls, all don’t address the fundamental challenges. They’ll just prove a waste of taxpayer money. A failure of true change.

The assault on principles and institutions I hold dear, at a time, when I myself, figuratively at least, am jumping off a cliff of security into an unknown artistic path, only heightened my own fears. I was in Zion with a friend on election night, a slow dread infecting me as it became increasingly clear Trump was going to win. At one point, anxious thoughts penetrated my disbelief. Is this the right time to quit my job? Is this the right time to pursue art as a primary vocation. Is this fucking nuts?

I simmered those thoughts a few days. Did some reading. Searched for inspiration. And found it.

It came in the form of a weekly newsletter, Brain Pickings, a passion project of Maria Popova that explores issues of philosophy, love, art, and growth. In short, self-actualization, a dangerous word to Conservatives. An article transported me to 1964 and an Amherst College address by our 35th president, John F. Kennedy. The speech honored one of our great American poets, Robert Frost, an anthem to a man who exemplified living his own words, “the road less traveled”. A truly inspirational listen, the speech is a call to civic service and a meditation on the value of art in society.

There, in the midst of my dilemna, one passage took hold:

“If sometimes our great artists have been the most critical of our society, it is because their sensitivity and their concern for justice, which must motivate any true artist, makes him aware that our Nation falls short of its highest potential. I see little of more importance to the future of our country and our civilization than full recognition of the place of the artist.”

Hearing this, a wave of conviction rose in me. Here I am fretting over the possible implications of this new administration and whether they could be detrimental to my own interests. It doesn’t matter. This is what I must do. If anything, the fact of the Trump administration and its assaults on values I hold dear, are all the more reason I must do this now.

It is my duty.

Ode to Ruth Bernhard

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Viewport in my Home's Stairwell — an ode to Ruth Bernhard

“My quest, through the magic of light and shadow, is to isolate, to simplify and to give emphasis to form with the greatest clarity.” — Ruth Bernhard

I have a 3-story ascent of stairs in my home. It’s great daily exercise. And occasionally, in the stairwell, the light gifts me with inspiration, particularly in late afternoon when natural exterior and artificial interior lights converge. The inspiration and simplicity in this photograph conjured up the wisdom of Ruth Bernhard. If you’re interested in photography and not familiar with her, educate yourself. You’ll never see Lifesavers the same way again. Ruth passed away in 2006 at the too-young age, for her, of 101.

From the NY Times obituary:

Ms. Bernhard was known primarily for her dramatically lighted nude studies, which expressed her interest in abstract shape and form…. In 1935 a chance meeting with the photographer Edward Weston on the beach in Santa Monica, Calif., altered the course of Ms. Bernhard’s life. He became her mentor, and she studied with him for years. Seeing his pictures for the first time, she said, was a revelation. “It was lightning in the darkness,” she said. “Here before me was indisputable evidence of what I had thought possible — an intensely vital artist whose medium was photography.”

To have Edward Weston as a mentor… wow. Ruth reciprocated the generosity later in her life mentoring a number of people I’ve met and some I know personally. They all speak affectionately of her. If I can one day mentor, and affect people in a similar way, I’ll be truly grateful.

Endings and Beginnings

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Hello 2017.

Could it get any more cliché to welcome you as a new beginning?

Well, for once, this cliché isn’t some resolution-filled false promise I’d break in two weeks. That’s right. With 2017, this shit gets real.

Two weeks ago my life in the cog of the corporate employment wheel ended. What’s next is a big TBD, a process I plan to openly share here on this blog and hopefully elsewhere.

I’d like to take this moment to thank my life of the past 20+ years. Some of it was particularly amazing: 10 years at Apple during the Steve Jobs reign, 16+ years a father to a blossoming daughter, learning a beloved craft in analog photography, gaining some new life-long friends, watching the San Jose Sharks finally make the Stanley Cup. And, most importantly, building a career that eventually enabled me to leave it. That’s some ironic gratitidue. Thanks corporate employment, from the bottom of my heart, for enabling me to leave you. I’m not sure I would’ve had the courage otherwise.

Now, some of those years, as Life often dictates, weren’t particularly swell. A divorce, some years just-showing up at work, remote elderly care obligations and the loss of my nuclear family. Plus a few less than ideal coping mechnisms, most notably, a developed acumen for appreciating fine wine and spirits. I ignored the fact that, after two drinks, you lose the ability to appreciate. Some hobbies may be better left unexplored.

But here I am, writing this post in a little rented apartment just outside Zion National Park in the town of Springdale, Utah. I’m in the company of my greatest muse. The weather has been cold and cloudy, filled with flat light, less than ideal for good photography. Somehow, that’s appropriate. This is self-inventory time. Time to review what’s worked, what hasn’t and what, going forward, fits the mantra in a never-ending quest to become more of who I am and aspire to be.

This is the path less taken, a new beginning that, on many levels, terrifies me. Which means, it’s exactly where I’m supposed to be.

Sheeple

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Sheeple at the Bridge: Zion National Park

“The reward for conformity is that everyone likes you but yourself.” – Rita Mae Brown

Sunset, Canyon Junction, Zion National Park. On any given weekend, Spring, Summer, or Fall, photographers gather before dusk on the bridge facing south towards the iconic sandstone monolith, The Watchman. Below, the Virgin River carves a gentle curve amidst cottonwoods draped over her banks. These photographers are here hoping to capture a specific moment; a dynamic sunset over the Watchman complemented by the leading line of the river. It is a photograph that sits in the postcard display of every gift shop within 25 miles of the park.

Welcome to the Sheeple. The culture of compositional conformity and copycatting that plagues popular photography.

The Sheeple are not just newbies, tourists, point and shooters, or self-proclaimed iPhone-ographers. They include passionate amateurs, workshop groups, even seasoned professionals, mostly men, planted on that bridge, tripod legs entwined, trying to nail “that” shot.

To be fair, we all are Sheeple at some point in our journeys. Whether new to photography, or anything really, we learn through degrees of inspiration and emulation. There is usually a standard, a level of someone else’s accomplishment, that we initially aspire to. And, in popular landscape photography, the images often aspired to are known compositions of familiar beautiful places that can now, thanks largely to the Internet, be easily interpreted or guided to. And this hunting down and capturing of these already captured images is what many photographers do. It has become routine.

“So what?” you say. What’s wrong with people taking similar photographs? They’re having fun. They aren’t hurting anyone.

I, respectfully, beg to differ.

The ubiquity of photographic technology, amplified in the digital age, is a long standing blessing and curse. Unlike, say, dance or sculpture, one’s entry into photography is a relatively quick and easy path. Buy a camera, go to a pretty place, snap the shutter, you have a pretty picture. That cycle can go on pretty much unabated. More pretty places, more pretty pictures. But, eventually, you arrive at a style in your photography that, disappointingly, looks similar to everyone else. You have, perhaps unwittingly, taken a too easy path to visual cliché. And that path puts you on a bridge with 50 other photographers, attempting to capture an image that, if reflected upon, offers little that is new or compelling.

Sheeple at the Bridge: Zion National Park

So, to the question, who do the Sheeple really hurt? They hurt themselves.

Emulating styles or copycatting popular images may earn you Facebook or Instagram likes, maybe even some actual print sales. But it will not, over time, result in a genuine sense of accomplishment. In other words, it’s not going to make you happy. It will not fulfill you. Instead, it accomplishes just the opposite. It slowly robs you of creative integrity and an accompanying sense of self-worth. It denies you the opportunity for personal growth. Many of the photographers caught in this cycle, eventually lose interest and quit.

True growth in photographic ability necessitates, demands even, growth in yourself. The aspiration to be better, to deepen your knowledge, your craft, requires a personal commitment to move beyond the Sheeple. It means making an honest evaluation of your work and asking the question, “Does it reflect unique perspective?” Does it reflect what I love? Does it convey a depth of intimate understanding and insight? If you’re caught in the Sheeple, an honest answer will invariably be “no”.

The fork in the road represented by the “no” is a gift. The realization is the very opportunity to shed the Sheeple mentality and enter a new path of photographic growth. To the wholly committed, your practice and approach starts a new phase. Accepting and becoming more attune to yourself empowers you to become more intimately attune to subject matter. And vice versa. The relationship is reciprocal. You begin to explore, discover and work with greater intention and mindfulness. The subject matter, and your relationship to it, informs, deepens, and expands your photography. You practice with the knowledge you will make lots of not particulary good photographs in order to occasionally make great photographs. And, yes, eventually, great photographs will come.

This, I believe, is the essential path one must follow to achieve mastery.  To find the artist within.

It is a path, while stuck in the Sheeple, one can never know.

Whimsical Clouds

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Whimsical Clouds near Kanab, Utah

One lazy fall day, on a road trip to Page, Arizona, I spied a distant sheet of curious clouds drifting my direction. I eased into a pullout, retrieved my camera gear and waited. What had caught my eye, a series of thin clouds with long streaking tails, was changing quickly, the tails swirling into each other in an almost whimsical fashion. I made and quickly rejected a number of exposures as the clouds slipped by overhead. Only after they had moved past me did I find a composition I felt conveyed their playful dancing nature.

White River Falls

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White River Falls - Oregon

It’s always fun to rediscover forgotten images. Especially ones you really like! I spent the first two days of 2016 tidying up a rather bloated Adobe Lightroom image library. In doing so, I rediscovered images I’d made of White River Falls in the winter of 2014.

White River Falls is an Oregon State Park which showcases the wild and scenic White River highlighted by a series of falls, one that plunges 90 feet, through a basalt lava basin. At the base of the falls, a hydropower plant that supplied the area with electricity between 1910 and 1960, lies in graffiti-rich ruins.

Since the park is only open Spring to Fall, I guess I was technically trespassing though there were no signs discouraging my entrance through an unlocked gate. It had been extremely cold that week and, having seen photos of the park, I suspected I might find an exceptionally icy landscape. I’d arrived late in the afternoon and initially explored the hydro plant ruins. Next I found some interesting ice patterns in an eddy below the falls but could not coax a composition out of the chaos. Before I knew it, evening was coming and it was getting very cold.

A smidgen disappointed, I set to climb back out of the canyon. Pausing at a makeshift viewpoint in the trail, I saw the falls had taken on a more mystical feel in winter’s evening light. A thin veil of dusk-lit clouds adding a luminous soft box effect to the scene. What I had disregarded as a mediocre, even cliché, photo a couple hours earlier, was now full of possibility. The low light required a longer exposure (~5 seconds) rendering the water a milky white, helping to both contrast and compliment the structured ice and rock textures framing the river’s path within the composition.

What a joyful little rediscovery to start the new year.

Reverence

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Stone Concretions: Zion National Park

Somewhere in Zion. Eight stone concretions. Natural forms born of ancient dunes. A magic blend of iron oxide and quartz sand grains forged by water, compression, and time. Harder in composition, the stones resist weathering and are slowly revealed out of their host sandstone.

To discover a clean unobstructed grouping like these is rare. And, for me, reverential. Like experiencing a great work of art, whether painted, sculpted, written or performed, deep emotions surface. Those emotions can evoke contemplation, elevation, even transformation.

Zion, as a whole, exists on an elevated plain of experience. For people discovering the park for the first time, the canyons, the spires, even the cobalt blue skies evoke awe and inspiration. But within nature’s grand domain here, there are smaller, more nuanced nooks to experience and learn from. They require broader exploration, a slowing down, careful attention, intuition, even luck.

My evolution as a photographer has turned into a mission to celebrate these subtler subjects. I strive through composition, and ultimately, the photographic print, to convey found subject matter in a significant, meaningful way. My goal is simple yet challenging; to promote awareness and, ultimately, reverence for the less obvious in the world.

If I can inspire people to appreciate the magic of eight stone concretions, then maybe I can help cultivate a greater sense of openness and empathy in the world outside Zion.

It’s what, I believe, Art is meant to do.

Gifted vs. Talented: A Philosophical Question

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Zion National Park: 2015 Plein Air Invitational Poster

Last week featured the Plein Air Invitational here at Zion National Park. In past years, I’ve largely ignored the proceedings choosing to focus, instead, on my photography as the week is usually punctuated by fall color. But, the featured artist’s image on the literature (accompanying this post) caught my attention. The painting of Johnson Mountain, by Colorado artist, Michelle Condrat, is composed as if standing right outside my front door. That familiarity prompted me to attend Michelle’s painting demonstration which led to an experience that really drives the focus of this post.

Arriving early, I caught the tail end of a Portland based painter’s, James McGrew’s, demonstration. His impressionistic painting of fall trees and the tall spires above the West Temple Basin were exceptional and I lingered, both enjoying and wincing at a variety of onlooker’s comments and questions. But Jeff’s measured responses resonated with me. I felt a certain kinship in his explanations and the approach I strive for in my own photography.

At one point, a rather gregarious older gentlemen asked, “So, when did you know you had the gift?” Jeff’s face (and probably mine) contorted briefly and then he regained his composure, smiled, and said to the effect, “Well, I’m not sure it is so much a gift. It’s actually taken a lot of time and work to be able to do what I’m doing here today.”

I couldn’t agree more. There seems to be two tracks of thought when assessing the talents of artists. It’s either a gift (usually inferred as God given) or a cultivated talent. In the past, I might’ve ignored the “gifted” perspective but now I find its pervasiveness problematic. To be “gifted” implies a special acumen has been bestowed to you, an absolute feature of your self. It suggests a certain divination, that, somehow, you are uniquely special. And it implies some people are gifted while others aren’t.

I reject this. Twenty plus years of experience informs me differently.

I now believe, fervently, we all are born with innate talent. The real challenge of life is in figuring out what our innate talents are and then orchestrating our lives to nurture, grow, and realize those talents. Often, individual talents will fly in the face of cultural norms or expectations, and, sadly, they’re too often squelched. What’s more, many talents may appear completely mundane when, in fact, they are essential to a healthy society.

How many innately talented moms, cooks, teachers, coordinators, machinists and, yes, artists have the fulfillment of their lives cut short by burying those talents in the roles, expectations and responsibilities a rigid society puts upon them? How many education insitutions actually strive to discover innate talent versus teaching to conformity and achievement goals?

So much human talent is, simply, wasted, destined to evaporate like virga on a hot desert plain.

Modern social and neurological sciences have become keenly interested in talent and its relationship to well being and success in life. The key? Time. It takes time to discover your talents. It takes nurturing. And the time needed begins in childhood. Children need time to daydream, to play, to explore, to be bored. To learn how to be with themselves. To have actual human interactions with other kids, not immersion or distraction in digital devices. They, and we, need to interact, intimately.

As an only child adopted by older parents, I now realize I was given the gift of time in childhood. I was allowed, forced even, to explore my home, my neighborhood, my environment. There are distinct memories where my self-awareness, my understanding of my presence in the world, were profound, mystic like in clarity. Fully engaged and present, I felt my life belonged to something greater and sensed I had some unique part to play in it. That, to me, is the discovery of self in a positively human vein, the realization that you are unique and may have something (a talent) to offer the world.

Now, as a remote parent to a teenage daughter living in a digital world, I struggle with the challenge of helping her understand the necessity of time, the need to gift it to yourself, to create the breathing room to really discover who you are, what you love, what you might become.

Imagine a world where talent, its discovery and development, is a resource valued as much as water or energy.

That would be time well spent.