Craft Matters

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.

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.

Keyhole Canyon: Into the Abyss

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Keyhole Canyon, Zion National Park

This is Keyhole Canyon, the photo taken from a sandstone ledge about 30 feet above the pine trees. The dark abyss is the slot canyon, a relatively short beginners-level slot popular with budding canyoneers. But in the late stormy afternoon of September 14, 2015, seven lives perished in the canyon, overtaken (with no way out) by a massive torrent of rain, mud and debris. The flash flood engulfed the canyon, its instant fury consuming and pushing bodies, later recovered, miles downstream.

I’ve come here to pay respect. My feelings are complicated. The basin immediately above Keyhole is a sanctuary to me, a pastel palette of sandstone swirls, sculpted stoneworks, and mystical patterns, masterworks of water, wind, and time. I’ve made many photographs here, important ones. It is a cherished chapel of solitude within the grand church of Zion.

The human story is one of tragedy, poor judgement, and egregious leadership. The sadness I feel is mixed with a certain disbelief that anyone would’ve led such a risky venture, putting friends in danger, when the weather forebode such calamity. Yet, as the local news pointed out, a group of three passed the seven at the first rappel, narrowly escaping the danger themselves. Good judgement appears to waver in the minds of time-strapped adventurists.

I’ve seen what the flood waters of Zion can do. I’ve stood a half mile across from the Temple of Sinawava when a dryfall turned raging funnel drenched me in pelting spray. The same storm swelled the Virgin River so high and fast, it rolled massive boulders under its soupy surface, the noise like a passing freight train, the ground rumbling beneath my feet. I could only bow in awe of such a display.

Inevitably, in this culture of salivating lawyers and their administrative prey, inquiries will be made and, in all likelihood, new regulations inked. To this, I say hooey. What is wild and dangerous should remain so with one large hand-scribbled (in blood) sign at the entrance: “You may die here friend. Proceed at your own risk”. I guess Edward Abbey is finally rubbing off on me.

From my ledge, I proceed around and down to the mouth of Keyhole peering down the 30 foot rappel into the cold dark pool of water that greets an initial and irreversible descent. After a memorial silence, I hike up a tributary creek bed, the signs of recent high waters subtly present but largely non-descript. Peaceful silence reigns in the soft waning light of dusk punctuated by footsteps and the distant floating calls of song birds.

This land I move through in quiet contemplation is the long view. Paid attention to, it teaches what you need to know. Here, there is no “I”. Only what is. And what is, is unattached, indifferent, essential. It is absolute. In beauty and fury.

And, for those unwilling to pay attention, it is often consequence. Tragic absolute consequence.

The Constitution Upheld

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White House Rainbow

From the honorable Justice Anthony Kennedy:

The nature of injustice is that we may not always see it in our own times. The generations that wrote and ratified the Bill of Rights and the Fourteenth Amendment did not presume to know the extent of freedom in all of its dimensions, and so they entrusted to future generations a charter protecting the right of all persons to enjoy liberty as we learn its meaning.

It’s a landmark day. Marriage equality for all.

To the pea-brained politicians and individuals who lack the empathy to embrace their fellow human beings in all their unique, random, and particular glory, take your bigotry and shove it.

Hearing and Feeling Photographs

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A post to a Photography group on LinkedIn highlighted this enjoyable NY Times article on the career and philosphy of a master black and white printer, Chuck Kelton.

Naturally, if nauseatingly so, some comments gravitated to comparisons of traditional and digital photography (and printing). While I have strong opinions about the unique expressiveness of certain analog papers and processes, I’m equally opinionated about the tired staleness of the debate. It needs to stop. Education that facilities understanding the unique nature of each medium would be far more valuable to the culture of photography than debating perceived superiority. My comment to the discussion follows:

As photographers, we convey our experience and understanding of a scene. The deeper the understanding (through experience, familiarity, empathy and craft), the greater the potential for expression. Extraordinary images communicate an awareness beyond the 2D dimensional construct of the image (or print). They lift the veil and shine light (if briefly) into our shared humanities.

For the photographers/commenters still stuck in the digital/analog morass, I suggest rethinking the debate into a celebration of the inherent advantages (aesthetics) of each medium as tools of expression. On the surface they appear the same when, in fact, they are substantially different. This is a good thing! It’s the philosophy you bring to the chosen or preferred process that ultimately defines the nature and expressiveness of your work. Does anything else matter?

Mr. Kelton’s choice to remain committed to traditional silver prints represents an intimate understanding of the expressive nature of the medium he works in. There is nothing in digital printing that can effectively emulate the expressive characteristic of the well printed silver gelatin print. It’s a question of the material itself, its aesthetic and the process used to create it. It speaks uniquely. As it should.

I believe the key point made in the article, worth contemplating, relative to your own photographic development, is this:

“It’s really in that last 10 percent where the magnificence of the object lies.”

That philosophy, engrained into your own work, will transform it.

Douchebaggery

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Meme

I’m not one for dipping into the Internet meme toolbox to make a point. But, occasionally, you read something that begs for it.

The romance and nostalgia associated with film doesn’t justify its continued use, even for the black and white photographer working in the traditional wet darkroom.

This statement belongs to Fred. Fred isn’t this guy’s real name. His real name doesn’t matter. But that statement qualifies Fred for douchebag status.

Let me explain.

Last week Fred was hiking The Narrows in Zion National Park. Two of my friends and I were, also. One friend had his digital medium format system in tow and, while photographing, was approached by Fred. The subsequent discussion, which I saw but couldn’t hear, was related to me. It was a largely one-way discussion about gear that often occurs between photographers, and has about as much merit as a circle jerk. Fred, not having his system with him, made sure my friend understood his equipment was equally good, if not better.

The experience of Fred in the Narrows and the “my equipment is bigger than yours” exchange probably would’ve floated into distant memory, except we all spied Fred again at dinner. There was no exchange, but seeing him prompted some Internet searching, and we found his website with the aforementioned quote.

And, Fred goes on:

The technical hoops one must jump through to scan and process the image alone are reason enough to abandon the medium, and the color shifts and casts are an additional headache. The recent quality improvements in medium format digital capture conclude the argument.

This argument, which amounts to “film was hard, digital is so much better (and easier)”, is something of a classic philosophical position defensively adopted by “fine art” photographers who transitioned to digital. I’ll admit there was a period where the question of veracity in digital photography made me feel defensive of the portion of my work that was digital as well.

But I’m over that. And so are a lot of others, thank goodness. So why pick on poor old Fred?

Fred’s assertion that his points “conclude the argument” concerning digital vs. film is egregiously narrow-minded and arrogant. And, for me, unacceptable. If you have a true appreciation for the medium of photography and its potential as an artistic pursuit, then these 5 ideas should ring truer than Fred’s position.

  1. The argument concerning the superiority of digital vs. film is dead. In fact, we’d all be better off if it’d never existed in the first place. If you want to talk about film and digital’s characteristic differences, please do. Because they are different. Fundamentally so. One is analog. One is digital. Duh. And the choice to use one vs. the other (or both) is a personal one that should align to your goals as a photographer.
  2. Photographers who continue to work in the traditional wet darkroom do so for love of medium, the aesthetic characteristics of the product created, and the inherent processes the medium requires. Some people simply love to work in a tactile environment in a traditional, craft-based way. More power to them.
  3. The assumption of digital superiority, in technical terms, may have merit, but romance and nostalgia are powerful forces that align well with people who commit to an artistic pursuit for its own sake and not the popular trends of the culture. Throw in some rebelliousness and out-of-bounds thinking and you’re beginning to characterize some of the greatest artists we’ve ever known.
  4. Analog prints (both color and black and white) created in the hands of master printers have aesthetic characteristics both unique and incredibly beautiful. For certain styles, these prints still rival and can exceed the aesthetics of the highest end papers and processes currently available digitally. Why? Mastery of medium aligned to one’s vision will generally exceed technical, product, even aesthetic superiority.
  5. Much of digital photography and printmaking today is its own unique medium that should be pursued, mastered, and appreciated for its own inherent qualities and capabilities. My digital work is often quite different from the work I pursue with film. I enjoy the different options and aesthetics associated with the strengths of the medium.

I’d like to think all my statements are both reasonable and inclusive. Fred’s statements take the form of defensive posturing. They, sadly, fit the character of the person we briefly encountered in Zion. I’m not sure Fred understands that quality and aesthetic are two distinctly separate ideas. People with commitment to a particular creative medium (aesthetic) should be celebrated, not refuted for superiority’s (quality’s) sake.

Maybe next year I’ll come across Fred again in the Narrows. And you can bet the conversation will not be about whose camera is bigger.

Conflicting Topographies

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Conflicting Topographies over Nevada

It’s probably not surprising, when flying, I like the window seat. Flying, for me, is a little dose of transcendence. At 30,000 feet, perspective runs visually broad and contemplatively deep. Patterns that might strike me while walking along the beach or across a sloping plate of sandstone replicate themselves in swaths of mountain range, river valley and plain. The visual connection is an affirmation of the synergistic relationship of all things, whether big or small, that make up our planet.

In the photo here, taken high above the desert northwest of Las Vegas, linear roads and boundaries cut through the natural patterns of Earth, exemplifying the often conflicting nature of our efforts to “progress” human life. I generally hold to Darwinian beliefs and nothing in this image feels particularly Darwinian to me in terms of the ultimate success (survival) of our species. Instead of conflict, our future needs harmony. The human topographies we evolve going forward must better align and respect the topography of Earth. At 30,000 feet, the visual argument for such a paradigm shift seems obvious.

The Goodness Baked In

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Garbage Cleaned up in Zion National Park

This morning, after a particularly productive photography session, I spent 20 minutes picking up trash strewn aside a pull out on the upper east side of Zion National Park. I assembled the items together on a my truck bed, took the photo here, then a detailed inventory. Here’s what was discernible:

  • Two Bud Light Bottles (fairly fresh)
  • The top third of a broken 7-Up bottle (not so fresh)
  • A bottle cap for a Sprite
  • A bottle cap for a Beck’s Special Dark
  • A Motts Medleys wrapper
  • Three Trident chewing gum wrappers
  • Zig Zag paper packaging
  • A Welch’s Fruit Chews wrapper
  • A Regions bank receipt for a $40 withdrawal with a remaining balance of $318.00
  • A Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles sticker (intact)
  • A Planters Peanuts wrapper (not so intact)
  • Toast Chee Crackers wrapper with the tagline “Goodness Baked In”
  • An empty sheet of what looked to be children’s stickers
  • A DumDums sucker wrapper
  • A 9/13/14 receipt for $100 to Whitney Cowan to rent Apt #1 w/o storage from Aug 1-31 with a $810 balance due
  • A dryer sheet (thinking this was Whitney’s too but that’s just a guess)
  • A burger wrapper from Iceberg Drive-in which I’ve never heard of, but apparently has been in business since 1960
  • The wrapper for Nice! Purified Water. It was Nice! of them to keep the plastic bottle (to be recycled, no doubt)
  • The “non-tare” tare strip off a PowerBar goo pack
  • 13 cigarette butts, mostly Marlboro but I did note one Chinese labeled brand
  • Non-discernible items were numerous clear wrappers for candy, straws, something that cost $1.59 and a number of pieces of broken glass

And what I didn’t pick up was a minimum of 20 separate droppings of toilet paper in varying degrees of stickiness and decay. Ironically, the evening before, I’d met a back country ranger whose duties include cleaning up human waste (i.e. shit) out of the Narrows. Even deadly flash-flooding apparently isn’t enough to flush out people’s creative pooping places within the Narrows. Hint. They like to get very high. And, no, that’s not a Zion pun.

I went to the perversely entertaining trouble to itemize all that trash so I could write this post with a simple conclusion.

Fuck you litter bugs!

Try taking a class on human decency and get some goodness baked into you.