“There is no Eye in Cliche”
—Chuck Kimmerle, 2014
As many of you know, I recently completed a four-week stint as artist-in-residence in Joshua Tree National Park. It was a wonderful experience and, as in my three previous artist residencies, I think I am coming away a more refined and thoughtful photographer. That is, after all, the primary reason why I like to take advantage of these opportunities. Sure, the opportunity to make a handful of new, decent-quality photos is great, but I’m in photography for the long haul and am concerned more about the photographs I will make tomorrow than those I made yesterday. We are, as some have said, only as good as our next set of photographs.
Immersive opportunities such as artist residencies are also very good at inspiring thought and contemplation about issue relating to, at least in my case, the art of photography. And at each residency, the major issues occupying my thoughts and fears revolve around the word “cliché.” It is a dirty word, a vile word, and it signifies much of what is wrong with photography today. It is something I try to avoid like the plague (or like vegetables). But it takes effort. It takes consideration. And it takes sacrifice. Most of all, it takes commitment.
The approaches I take to try and avoid creating overly derivative, or cliché, work, especially when working in areas much photographed, is to not attempt to define that particular area (the opposite of what photo guides books encourage us to do). What do I mean by that? Simply that I don’t care if viewers can identify where a particular image was made as long as I, personally, find that scene meaningful and compelling. That frees me from having to include location-based, recognizable detail such as Zion’s Subway, Yellowstone’s Old Faithful, or Moonset over the Grand Tetons when I am in those particular parks. Instead, I allow myself to freely respond to whatever visual elements capture my interest, no matter how intimate or distant the scene, or how “generic” that scene may at first appear. After all, as an artist I am creating by and for myself. It is a liberating approach that opens up limitless possibilities and allows me to react with emotion and personal aesthetics, rather than limiting myself with preconceived expectations.
As an example, while visiting Zion National Park with my wife last week, we overheard a photo workshop participant say to a friend that he early found a scene which would have made a very nice image, but didn’t make an exposure because he realized it could have been made anywhere. In other words, he passed on a photo subject he found worthy because it did not scream “Zion.”
I felt sorry for him.
I am sure he came away with defining (and derivative) photos of scenes like The Temples and Towers of the Virgin, and of The Watchtower (hopefully not The Subway as that is off limits to photo workshops), but he passed on the scene he discovered himself, a scene which would have been a personal triumph over the mediocrity of usual.
We would all do more significant work if we would just open ourselves up to the limitless visual opportunities that the world provides, even in popular areas, rather than hobbling ourselves with preconceived expectations and derivative postcard-type images.
So the next time you find yourself in a popular area, such as a national park, make the effort, the commitment, the sacrifice, to avoid what is expected, what has already been done, and give credence to the different, the unexpected, and the personal. In other words, be free.
Doesn’t that sound like a helluva lot more fun?
One of the oft-repeated arguments made against considering landscape photography as fine-art is that it’s merely a practice in observation, as opposed to a creative invention. In other words, landscape photography is a spectator sport, we can only watch, and we all see the same thing only from slightly differing angles.
Of course, those of us working as landscape photographers know the fallacy of such an argument. While it is true we have little, if any, control over the physical placement of our chosen subject matter, we a great deal of freedom with how those elements are presented. More than enough freedom, in fact, to allow individual photographers to create photographs of a specific subject which, despite being created at the same time and same place, are nearly unrecognizable from each other.
Consider the following two photographs of a small stretch of snow fence. The first, created by photographer and friend Aleks Miesak was taken within minutes of my version, below. Do they look similar? Do they look as though we were mere helpless spectators? The answer to both is a definitive NO. Each shows a differing view and style and vision which is reflective of us, as individual artists.
The simple fact is that landscape photography is no more a simple spectator sport than either documentary or street photography or even painting, and leaves the photographer (the artist!) with an extremely wide range of creative possibilities. The innumerable decisions and valuations which must be made—viewpoint, exposure, light qualities, composition, justaposition, processing and presentation, etc—allow us, as individuals, to develop and maintain distinctly unique personal visions and styles and create significant and inventive work. Art.
Hi, folks. Just a quick not to announce my first (ever) print sale, going on through the month of August. It features four of my most recent images (shown below), which are among my favorites from 2014.
Each image is printed is 15″ wide on premium, fine-art matte paper and is signed and dated on the front. These are exactly the same fine-art prints as my regularly-priced prints, except that these are being sold without mats. Each print is only $125, including shipping (prints to Canada and Europe are slightly more expensive to offset increased shipping costs),a savings of 40% off my standard prices.
I sincerely appreciate your consideration. Thank you.
I am often asked by other photographers to look at their work. While I do not always have time to oblige (I get busier every year), I think it’s important that, as a photographer with a modicum of success, I try to give something back to the photographic community. I would be lying if I said that I thought I was the most qualified person to provide a critique, but I would be lying if I said I were the least qualified. Let’s just say that I feel, in all sincerity, that I AM qualified.
As many of you know, I penned a blog post entitled “Stop Worrying if Others like Your Work and Create, Dammit!” and I stand by that statement. YOU are the ultimate “decider” of the value and quality of your work. Not others. You alone. However, that is, in no way, meant to imply that a bit of outside perspective or insight cannot be useful. Consider the Old Masters, the greatest painters in history. Did they achieve their status alone, or did they have mentors and teachers? Hint: they had the latter.
Professional critiques (or ANY critique, for that matter) should never be a value assessment about “good”, or “not good.” Not ever! They should also never be an insistence or command. Instead, they should a conversation whose primary goal is helping photographers better understand and communicate their own visions and styles and intents, and to help hone their craft. The goal isn’t to tell someone how to do something better, but to provide the insights and tools to allow them to discover for themselves how they can “improve.” Also, and this not to be understated, providing reviews and critiques forces me think about photography and art, and to consider my own work and my own vision. They make me a stronger artist.
In other words critiques, when they are done correctly, are not about lecturing, they are about learning.
And that is why I will critique other people’s work.
Note: I wrote this as a response to Cole Thompson’s recent post entitled Why I Don’t Critique Other People’s Work. In it, he brought up some very valid points which are hard to disagree with, but I thought I would proffer up a slightly different take. We actually agree on the major points, so our stances are not as diametrically opposed as our respective titles make them appear. Instead, it’s more of a personal choice.
“The quality of light in a photograph is meaningless unless it helps to express something!”
Those of us who are landscape photographers are extremely sensitive to the quality of light upon our chosen subject matter. Our sensitivity is based, in large part, on the fact that we cannot control that light but rather must react to it, work within its confines, gleefully accepting the crumbs we are thrown.
But much of what we think of light, much of what we were taught, is wrong. We have been given bad advice. Misled. Bamboozled. We have been told that the “quality” of light is, above all else (above even subject matter), our primary consideration. We have been too strongly encouraged to use only the warm, quiet light near sunrise and sunset, and to ignore the “harsh” overhead light of the noon hours, or the flat, “featureless” light of overcast days. And our photography often suffers for it.
The ironic thing is . . . we don’t actually photograph the light, rather we photograph how that light illuminates our subject matter. It is that resulting interplay of shape and form, light and shadow which, when combined with our vision and purpose, gives significance and meaning to our work. Despite what some may tell us, one size does not fit all. The various factors are too numerous for such a simplistic way of thinking—subject, personal vision, purpose, mood, what we had for breakfast, attitude, how tired we are, etc, all combine with light to, as Mark Citret wrote, “express something.”
So don’t be afraid of noon light, don’t fear overcast days, and don’t think you have to avoid morning and evening light, either. There is no such thing as bad light, only bad advice.
BTW, I own’s Mark Citret’s book, Along the Way, and can say in all honesty that it’s as exceptional as his insight.
I had this great conversation last week with friend, talented photographer, and inspiring educator, Jean Miele. I first met Jean when I took his photo workshop in Sante Fe a number of years ago, and we have stayed in touch ever since. (He and my wife both graduated from the same exclusive NYC high school. Whatter the odds?)
During our conversation—I forget the exact topic but it was definitely related to photography and things we didn’t do as well as we hoped—Jean paused and earnestly said “I have to work on that.” Hearing that surprised me for a couple of reasons. First, he really is talented and knowledgeable and I assumed quasi-omnipotent. Second, he and I are both in our mid-50’s and are far from inexperienced. Third, it’s just not something I hear a lot . . . from anyone. Hell, even when I was teaching a college-level photography class I rarely heard that from my students (and lawd knows some of them needed a lot of work). Nowadays, it seems everyone just assumes they know it all or they pretend they do, which is the same thing. All too few will admit to wanting, or needing, to get better.
“I have to work on that.”
It was an impressive admission for someone so established. I was suitable impressed. As photographers, especially in this day and age of digital ease, it’s easy to be competent but, as it has always been, it’s difficult to be good. Even harder to be great. It takes work. A lifetime of work. And that means always admitting we aren’t perfect and always working to be perfect.
The trouble with thinking that we know everything is that we lose our incentive to create better work, or even good work. We rest on our laurels, content in our assumed perfection which we gleefully share with the world, often with more effort and zeal then we put into our creating our images. The Internet is full of examples. (I don’t want to name names, but Peter Lik comes to mind. Just sayin.)
For mere mortals, though, despite our age or experience level, we can only improve by admitting to ourselves that we don’t know everything. That we still have much to learn and much to do. We should tell ourselves that until the day we die. Our tomorrows should see us smarter than our todays, and our next photographs should be better and more insightful than those we took yesterday.
Photography is a journey, not a destination. So take a cue from Jean, and “work on that.”
If you would like to learn from Jean, something I highly recommend, he’s leading a workshop at Maine Media Workshops in August: check it out
A children’s riddle goes, “what weighs more, pound of feathers or a pound of lead?” The answer is obvious when guessed wrong and cruelly laughed at (thank you third grade classmates. Jerks.). That riddle, with slight alterations, is relevant to those of us in the arts: “what weighs more, a pound of acceptance or a pound of rejection?” (Of course, neither has mass thus cannot be weighed, but when getting rejected it does sorta feel like someone pounded you so, with a bit of stretch, it does work).
So, back to the question. I can tell you from experience that, in this case, the weight is not the same. The pound of rejection weighs more. A lot more. Acceptance—juried exhibit, magazine feature, contest, etc—is great, but rejection from those same opportunities is simply dreadful. I would estimate that one rejection is worth 2.75 acceptances. At least it’s that way for me, and I know I am not alone. As an example, I was accepted into a juried exhibit one day last year, and the very next day was rejected by another. So how do you think I felt? Bummed. Frustrated. It wasn’t that the rejection came after the acceptance, it was that its effect was more powerful.
Looking back it seems rather silly to have let the negative overpower the positive, but at the time it seemed a reasonable response. I mean, I know the subjectiveness of photography and how one person’s opinion (or ANYONE else’s opinion) is completely meaningless (I tell that to others all the time), but I also know that, as someone who takes his photography very seriously, it’s all too easy to overreact to rejection. My photographs are like my children, and we all know how parents become despondent when their tykes lives are ruined when they get rejected from the preschool on the good side of town (they get laughed at in third grade).
The trick for those of us working in a creative field isn’t to change our responses as much as it is to get through them. Mourn your rejections if you have to, but don’t get consumed by them. I guarantee that you’ll come out the other side a better and stronger artist for the experience. I know I have.
Photography has changed. New processes, which require little skill and knowledge, have made it easy for anyone to become a (mediocre) photographer and the streets are full of charlatans and over-hyped, over-loud and under-talented hacks. Things have gotten so bad that many of the gifted photographers have given up entirely and moved on to other things rather than be associated with this new breed of photographers picture takers. One leading photographer of note said about this very issue . . .
“photography, as a profession, has, of late years, greatly changed for the worse, and I think many of my hearers will agree with me. It is not now the best photographer, but the most shameless tout, that makes the most money.”
I, myself, have made similar claims and stand by those statements (I am pig-headed). However, the above is not referencing digital photography. It wasn’t even said about film photography. Hell, it wasn’t even said this century, or last. This quote was made by well-known photographer Henry Peach Robinson in the 1850’s about the growth of inexperienced and talentless “professional” photographers after the introduction of the wet plate (collodion) process usurped the more limited-use Daguerreotype. He and his contemporaries were worried, and justifiably so, about the bad reputation photography was getting.
A slightly different, but comparable, complaint was widely repeated by dry plate photographers when George Eastman introduced the first roll film camera in 1888, or thereabouts, and of course, in more recent times by film photographers against digital cameras. We have gone down this route before, and will do so again.
It has been almost 200 years since the first photograph was created (1827) and photography has gone through several major technological iterations— Daguerreotype, Calotype, wet plate, dry plate, film and now digital, among many other less processes, of course. (I like to remind some of the more self-righteous film photographers that their “traditional” process is at least four generations old . . . BAM!)
Knowledge of the history of photography, as well as the work of those who came before us, is important both for perspective and appreciation. Sadly, too few know much of photography (other than Saint Ansel) before 2000 when digital cameras started to become affordable. It’s not that the information isn’t out there, it’s that nobody bothers to look. Even many colleges who offer a photography program don’t address photography’s history other than some rudimentary mention in a generic art history class. So, we have to learn it ourselves. Two books I highly recommend on the subject:
(the links are provided for your expediency only, I don’t make anything from any purchases)
Both are excellent books written by authors with extensive knowledge of, and love for, photography. Newhall’s is more about the chronological evolution of photography (if you’re only going to read one, this should be it), and Szarkowski’s is more about, as he puts it, “a history of photographic pictures.”
You’ll thank me.
As for digital, I do abhor what it has done to photography, as an art, and the subsequent rise and success of so many who are incompetent, mediocre, and derivative. But at least I know, from the lessons of history, that photography will survive.
A couple weeks ago a fellow photographer liked one of my blog posts and linked to it from a within a Facebook group for film photographers. As most of you know, I shoot digitally, and I do so without excuse or apology. It’s my personal choice and I don’t care what anyone else thinks of it. But when I write, it is almost never about gear or process. This particular post was simply about general creativity and getting our collective heads out of our butts. I thought it was pretty good.
Well, as can often be the case in film-centric groups, a couple of the responses were less than enthusiastic (not all, though). Their gist? How dare someone post a link to a digital photographer! Never mind the content (which I am assuming was not even read before being commented upon) had nothing to do with either digital OR film. Or that I, as a photographer, have at least a small amount of skill and talent. Or, that I actually like encouraging and helping people to become better, more personal, photographers. All that mattered were my camera’s innards.
Here’s the main negative response: In that case, I don’t see what it has to do with this group. The digitalers have all the space in the world to discuss the wonders of digital photography. This group is reserved for analogue photography.
What a dumbass thing to say.
The experience frustrated me, a bit. Not for myself, mind you, but for those ignorant fools who still put process above pictures, and hardware above vision. By placing such gear-specific value judgments onto their work, and the work of others—rather than on artistic vision and message—they are stifling their own creative growth. Art is about intent, vision and the final product. That’s it. Process is irrelevant. In 50 years when people are appreciating our work, nobody is going to give a rats ass what camera was used. Unless, of course, you care more about gear than photographs because, in that case, in 50 nobody will have heard of you.
Look, I have a lot of friends who shoot film. Some even shoot <gasp!> color. We give each other crap for our respective choices, but that’s all in fun. Sibling rivalry. When it comes to our photographs, there is nothing but respect and admiration. Why? Because we have learned, in our respective journeys, that it’s all about the picture