Looking for the Secret Decoder Ring

I very much enjoy seeing how other artists work, the spaces that they work in and to delve deeper into the process behind the things that they create. At the same time I’m looking and listening for cues that explain what they’ve just created. The secret decoder ring that answers the question ‘what does it mean’?

I’ve had little to no academic training in art – I will exempt the photography workshops and classes that I’ve taken from ‘formal academic training’ – and so understanding what the art world is all about is something of a mystery. Art history, like history in general, is something that I thought to be dry and dull and not worth a second look.

However I keep hacking away and occasionally will have break throughs, or at least will find an answer that is spoon fed to me. This is exactly what happened in my research of the work of Wynn Bullock. If you dig hard enough you can find discussion of the four major principals that governed his work:

1. Space-Time – seeing the true quality of things are recognizing their relationship and interrelatedness with other events
2. Opposites are one – you can’t have ‘up’ without ‘down’, ‘rough’ without ‘smooth’, ‘joy’ without ‘sorrow’
3. Reality and Existence – the known and the unknown
4. Ordering and things ordered coexist yet have independent significance – Ordering represents activities of the senses and the mind. ‘Things ordered’ are those things that result in the stimuli that we respond to.

if you then look at the work with these principals as a guide you can start to understand what he was driving at and judge for yourself did he hit the mark or not.

Artist’s Communities vs Mastermind Groups

I continue to ruminate on the idea of artist’s communities and in particular what does it take to build and sustain an effective group. I was surprised to find relatviely little written on this topic until I asked, and answered for myself, the following questions:

  • What do you get out of it?
  • What do you contribute to the group?
  • What is the optimal size of such a group?

How would you answer these questions?

For me this kind of group would provide both support and accountability. It would provide me with access to experience that I currently don’t have, to feedback about current directions that I’m heading in and provide me with the impetus to keep going.

In addition to being generally supportive of others in the group I would imagine that in such a group everyone has overlapping skills but expertise in specific areas. Each member could as requested teach and share their unique expertise with the rest of the group to help all move forward.

I always feel as though if you are at dinner with a group of more than 6 you really only interact with your nearest neighbors anyway, ~ 5 others, so this is the right number for a dinner party for me and it feels about the right size to me for one of these artists groups.  Small enough to be able to really know the other people in the group.

After unpacking this for myself I realized that what I was describing was what is now commonly referred to as a ‘mastermind group’, something that most people trace back to Napoleon Hill’s book ‘Think and Grow Rich’. I read this book 15 years ago and had a quick skim through it again when I was writing this. The language is archaic, making it hard work to get through.

Hill was of course focused on how you can accumulate money and the mastermind group was a tool that would let you develop and vet your plans with a team of people that complemented your skills. Not quite what I had in mind. I was thinking more along the lines of ‘to help you develop mastery and achieve your goals‘.

Getter Better All The Time . . . Couldn’t Get Much Worse

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I’ve been thinking about learning in the last couple of weeks and have become increasing comfortable with the notion that 20% of our efforts give 80% of the results, or knowing 20% of something can get you 80% of the way there. For many people this is good enough, with the disproportionate amount of effort it takes to go the last 20% of the way not worth the effort it takes.

For the longest time I wanted to take better photographs without really a notion of what better really meant. Even now I’m not sure what better really means but I’ve settled on it being sufficiently skilled that I can conceive of an image and realise that in the final image. I’ve started to realize that for me this is a little bit like looking for the end of a rainbow. What I’ve found is that the more skilled that I become, the more that the technical stuff falls away allowing me to spend time on the artistic piece, the further and harder I push. What was difficult becomes easy and uninteresting. The new challenge is the thing that stretches and tests your abilities both technically and artistically. Failure, frustration and disappointment remain part of your everyday existence. Perhaps those failures become more spectacular as your skills develop and you try and push to bigger things. But failure remains a constant, intermingled with some successes and it’s those successes that make it all worthwhile.

So how to get better when better remains an unachievable goal. There are of course stages to this growth. Arguably imitation is the foundation of all that we do. We look at those artists that are making the kind of work that we’re interesting in and ask the question how do they do it. We work the technical side of things and figure out how they did what it was that attracted us and make servicable copies of the work of the masters. Great examples of this are the multitude of photographers that make the pilgrimage to Yosemite each year to make their own copy of Ansel Adams great photographs. That’s pretty cool – execute one of these photographs immaculately and you’ve got a pretty nice looking photograph that your friends and family will most certainly coo over.

I would argue that the next phase is to build a familiarity with the things that appeal to you. This covers the gambit of design sensibilities, aesthetic qualities in everyday life – furniture, tools that you use everyday – computers kitchen gear, dishwear, cutlery etc. as well as becoming encyclopedic in your familiarity with the medium that you work in – landscape photography, portrature, etc. and perhaps digging depper to sub specialties such as water in the landscape.

The final and perhaps hardest step then is to combine the technical and the artistic to create something that is truely your own.

I’m going to unpack my thoughts around getting better over the next few weeks. Comments appreciated as always. Thoughts on the 80/20 rule in relation to skill development? I’d love to hear them.

Happy Accidents & Other Surprises


Were getting to the time of year when people review the year just gone and plan for the year ahead. I guess I’m doing the same, although I will leave the ‘my 12 best images’ post to others.

It’s interesting to look back over the last year and see what images I consider to be my best how these compare to last years work and how they relate to one another. I started the year with the intention of making a set of color images of the coast on clear mornings. This idea began to evolve during the course of the year as I made a number of images during foggy conditions, trying to make the most of my time photographing. Even with a clear plan of what you want to achieve, being flexible enough to respond to the situations you find yourself in, can lead you in directions you hadn’t expected. Perhaps for you, as has been the case for me, these photographs will be standouts and serve as jumping off points for new projects.

Camera Profiles & Picture Styles

I feel like I must be the last person on the planet to have stumbled upon the utility of picture styles as they seemed to be called by Canon or Camera profiles as you might find them in the Lightroom Develop module. Do you use them as part of your raw file workflow?

Up to this point the first few steps following import of a photo into Lightroom have been to apply the lens profile, add a small amount of sharpening, crop & straighten if needed, set overall brighteness and adjust contrast. Then I’m over in photoshop for more adjustments.

I did play with picture styles a very long time ago and decided that they weren’t doing much for me. Since then I’ve studiously ignored them. When I have some time I will often click around prices of software just to see what things do. That’s what I was doing when I clicked through the various picture styles that are available beyond ‘Adobe’ that I had been using.

Adobe

Faithful

Neutral

Portrait

Standard

Of the 4 additional picture styles I feel like Landscape, used for the image at the top, gives me the best base to build from for this particular image. Still some work to do on this image but less than I would have had to do. Well worth a look.

Friday Inspiration: Robert Glenn Ketchum

Robert Glenn Ketchum has been described by American Photo magazine as ‘the most influential photographer you’ve never hear of‘.

Ketchum has used his photography to champion environmental awareness much like his friend and mentor Eliot Porter had done. He has worked to shine a spotlight on areas as diverse as the Hudson River Valley, California’s Big Sur coast, Alaska’s Tongass rainforest, Ohio’s Cuyahoga River Valley and, most recently, to Bristol Bay in southwest Alaska. His work in Bristol Bay is in opposition to the proposed Pebble Mine which given it’s location would likely have a dramatic impact on the salmon fisheries in that area.

Beyond his environmental activism, Ketchum continues to explore the possibilities of the digital darkroom. Watch him describe some of his digital creations below.

Interview of Robert Glenn Ketchum from Robert Glenn Ketchum on Vimeo.

There Are Images Everywhere – The Art of Seeing

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There are images everywhere. No really there are.

Regardless of whether you live in an area that people would travel to because of it’s natural beauty, or whether you live in an area that people feel they need to leave to experience natural beauty there are images to be made. The skill that we need to learn is to see them. This is something that takes practice. Freeman Patterson’s book ‘Photography and the Art of Seeing‘ is a great place to start. A new edition just came out – it’s exceptional and should find a home on every photographer’s shelf.

Learning to see the possibilities around you means carrying a camera around with you and using it every day. For me there are days when that’s not an issue at all and then those other days when I’m running to stay in one place, not so easy. But I keep trying.

I’m finding with the iPhone that I enjoy the exploration of image after taking it, at least as much as taking it in the first place. The image above was taken while I was waiting for my son to be released from school the other day. I played with it in photoforge and phototoaster.

Contrast Masks: An Initial Foray

The more I photograph the more I become aware of what I want to achieve with a particular photograph. Often when a photograph fails to wow me it’s not because I didn’t get the composition right but rather it is because it doesn’t leap of the page in the way that I think it should. My big struggle has been that I couldn’t quite put my finger on what the problem is it not sharp enough, not saturated enough not enough contrast. What?

I’ve never been much of a student of history but I do enjoy understanding how other people work and what tools they use. Watching the Christopher Burkett video I posted recently there was the mention of his use of contrast masks and the impact these have on his images. So why not give that a go?

Using ‘The Google’ I found this tutorial on the use of digital contrast masks on the luminous landscape website. Just following the tutorial as described I was able to take the image from last week from this:

to this:

Which with some final tweaks becomes this:


What do you think? Seems like an improvement to me.

If something’s worth doing it’s worth doing to excess. I’ve subsequently tried this technique out on 20 or so images with varying degrees of success. The contrast mask, not too surprisingly, reduces contrast which may not be the appropriate fix for all of my images. I’m starting to have a sense of where this technique will work for my photographs, generally for images that I take within 10 – 15 mins of sunrise and will try this out before I do any heavy lifting in photoshop. Try it out for yourself and let me know how things turn out.

iPhone Lomography – My Current Workflow

As I’ve mentioned before here, I’m having a blast working with the camera on my iPhone, largely pushing into territory I had previously thought was not for me. One of the presets that gives an effect that I like is ‘Lomo’ in the app Phototoaster. Not being a student of history it took me a while to realise that ‘Lomo’ actually refers to a camera, the Lomo LC-A, that has somewhat of a cult following. Characteristic photos from the Lomo LC-A have effects caused by light leaks, strong vignettes and rich, saturated colors. Often lomographers will shoot with slide film and cross-process to give strong color shifts. Take a dip into the Lomography photostream here.

While I mull over the purchase of an LC-A+ I’m going to continue playing with my iPhone. Read on to see how easy it is with the iPhone.

I am typically using Camera+ rather than the camera app that comes with the iPhone. Here is the image as shot. Lots of problems with this, my biggest criticism is that I should have been closer to crop out the sky and the trailer. You can zoom with Camera+ but be aware that it is a digital zoom – in effect you’re just using less of the sensor. If I have to crop I’d prefer to do it in software after the fact. I’ll admit that I think cropping is not a big deal particularly with my DLSR but is an issue with the small files that come from the iPhone, so try to get it right in ‘iPhone’ as it were.

The first step is to bring the file into PhotoForge and do some preliminary editing. Photoforge is a great app with lots of capabilities, curves, sharpening, cropping, textures, frames and effects and is one that I highly recommend. One of the neat things is that Photoforge has layers so you can work in a layer based manner if that is something that you’re used to. I generally am not using layers but I’m also just doing very simple edits. I will generally look at the levels panel and tweak there if I think the image needs it. In this case it didn’t a levels adjustment and so I moved on to add a bit of contrast using the curves function. I didn’t like any of the other tweaks that I might usually add and so I saved the file back to the photolibrary and jumped into Phototoaster.

I’m almost exclusively using Phototoaster now to add the Lomo effect. There is a Lomo effect in PhotoForge but it feels a bit washed out for my taste. I cropped the image to a square to remove the distractions and applied the Lomo effect which can be found …

I like the square but also wanted to see what else I could do. Here I didn’t lock the crop to a particular ratio and came up with this crop that I particularly liked and as before then added the Lomo effect.

Paying Attention to What Has Your Attention

“If you don’t pay appropriate attention to what has your attention, it will take more of your attention than it deserves.”

David AllenGetting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity

I love the quote above from David Allen, the productivity guru most well known for Getting Things Done or the ‘GTD System’. It’s so right, on so many levels. Ignore the things that you should be doing and they will demand your attention, even if only to stop you from sleeping because you’re thinking about those issues as you try to nod off.

It was this David Allen quote that I was mindful of when I was away in Martha’s Vineyard a week or so ago but really in a very different way.  I do find it difficult to photograph if I’m not fully present and this can take some time to get to if there’s all kinds of other stuff unrelated to the scene in front of me that I’m thinking about.  Fortunately I have no problem quieting everything else to focus on what’s in front of me, although it can take 15 – 20 mins and a couple of hundred frames to get into the zone.

What I am aware of though, is that I can be so intently focused on the scene that I have framed that I frequently ignore the moments when my intuition tells me there’s a great photograph to be had. This could be paying attention to some stuff that I would consider to be a little weird – such as the image of the shells and seaweed above – and would normally walk by, simply reframing from the position that I’m already in or could involve a bit of a wander to get to a place where the light is doing interesting things.

How clear what the photograph is also varies – it can be crystal clear or could take a bit of work to get there. The work usually typically involves simplifying the image so that it has just the elements critical for whatever caught my eye, whether it was interesting light, a vivid color or something odd happening such as how the waves came together in the image below.

I feel that some of my better photographs have been in response to listening to my intuition and so, as is the case in many aspects of life, paying attention to what has your attention is equally applicable to photography and is a work in progress for me.