Caveat Emptor


Photography contests, fed by our desire for attention and validation, have sprung up like dandelions over the past few years. Not only do they act as marketing materials for the hosts, but can be lucrative fundraisers for them. Some bring in many hundreds, if not thousands, of photographers at an average of about $30 for three images. Not too shabby.

But it is not all one-sided. We, as photographers, get something in return. If our work happens to get accepted, we get encouragement and inspiration to continue. We also get an entry for our artist resume and possible inclusion into a brick-and-mortar exhibit (just be careful of extra fees such as from The Center for Fine Art Photography). While these alone will not make our career, they can play a part in future successes. For instance, my modicum of success in contests helped populate my artist vitae which, in turn, helped me to get a series of month-long, national park artist residencies.

Even if we lose, we can learn. Were the accepted images technically superior, or more visually intriguing than ours? Were they more thought out or conceptually deeper?

Or, were they simply more in line with the juror’s interests and agenda?

That last one is huge and is, IMHO, the primary reason our work is not accepted. And it is, in large part, our own fault. We don’t do our research.

Take, for example, Dodho Magazine’s 2017 photographer of the year contest which was just announced. They include eight world-class jurors. But what can we learn of them? Some quick research reveals three are heavily involved with documentary or photojournalistic images, three with more conceptual image making, and only one who is interested in images of nature, but even then with a very not-traditional approach. The final juror is from the magazine but, since the magazine chose the other jurors, we can deduce his preference. The bottom line is that none of them, not a single one, seems to show an active interest in traditional landscapes. So, how do you think those landscape images will fair? Not good. Sure, a couple might slip through the cracks, but it won’t be many. But, I think I can safely assume that a very large percentage of entries, thus entry fees, will be from those images.

Please don’t get me wrong, I like Dodho Magazine. They showcase some amazing talent and even featured my work a few years ago. This is not about them being wrong (they are not), but about photographers being smart.

Few of us have money we can just toss in the garbage, but that is often what we do. And the contest hosts count on it. We enter contests or juried exhibits without a clue as to who the juror is, or their predilections for photographs. We assume all photographs will be judged equally on their technical and artistic merit. So, we blindly enter and most of us lose, even with great entries.

We need to be smart. Perform our due diligence. Research. Look at the host and their past selections, look at the juror(s) interests or work. Put Google to use. Don’t just throw your money away.

But, if you feel that you must throw your money away, I gladly take donations.

Caveat Emptor

Photography Workshop, Glacier National Park Aug 13-18, 2017

Do you like photographing water falls? How about creeping fog thousands of feet below you, or cloud encrusted mountain peaks thousands of feet above?


Join me and the ever-popular John Barclay this August, 2017 in spectacular Glacier National Park. It will be a week filled with photographing, editing, learning, camaraderie, and discussions. It will be a week about you. And without you, it will just be a week.

For more information, please visit:


During my first year of college after getting out of the Army (a less than creative entity), I took a philosophy class and really struggled. I failed my first two tests, miserably, got a D on the midterm and then, to my surprise, an A on the final. When grades came out, I got an A for the class. When I asked the professor why after such a miserable start (I assumed that he had made a mistake), he said that my early lack of understanding was moot. In the end, all that mattered was that I got it.

Of all my college classes, photography and otherwise, it was the most useful thing I learned. I wish I could remember the professors name so I could thank him properly for that gift.

I bring this up because, for this academic year, the local college asked if I would take over the photo program as budget cuts meant they were unable to hire a proper, full-time, tenure-track MFA recipient. I took the job as I like teaching photography, and I hoped it would help inspire me in different ways.

But I forgot about grading.


I hate grading.

I really, really hate it.

Traditional grading is an archaic and overly expedient method of evaluation. Not only that, it’s demeaning to students as they not only have to please the instructor, but they have to compete with their classmates to be atop the curve. Education should not be a competition. This is made even worse when we factor in the evaluation of artistic creativity. I mean, can creativity be objectively and fairly assessed into one of five presets grades. I don’t think so. But, it has to be done.

My first and only responsibility is to the students. I don’t give a rat’s ass about grading curves or the reputation of the school. I want the students to learn. To come away not only better photographers, but with more open minds. To be better people. I do my best to make that happen and, if I actually do my job right, nothing would make me happier than to be able to give all the students A’s.

Even if that means I get an F.



Selling Out


Yesterday I attended a meeting of local artists and arts organizations as part of a state-wide initiative to help better serve the greater arts community. During this meeting, on attendee stated how artists need to learn to be better business people and to stop making art that people are not buying. We need to pander to the consumer. Compromise. In other words, if we want to sell our art, we have to sell out.

Wait. What?

The very core of any true artist is a desire, a need, a compulsion, to create. Not for others, not because of any external obligation, but because of something innate, something internal, something intrinsic to our souls. We create because we must, and because we have something deeply personal to say, yet don’t know any better way sharing.

Sure, the desire for popularity and print sales is alluring. Worse yet, it’s easy. The world is full of beautiful places, and beautiful places are made for beautiful pictures. And beautiful pictures sell. What could be easier?

And what could be more boring?

Photography, as with any artistic pursuit, should be about the experience, about the discovery, and about revealing a subjective truth. It should be personal. In a manner of speaking, it should be an open and unabashed self-portrait.

Even if it doesn’t sell.


The Risk of Guarantees

The recent issue involving the killing of a beloved lion during a $55,000 African safari “hunt” has all but consumed social media for the past week. For the record, I am not against hunting. I used to be a hunter. I think it fulfills some sort of primal instinct within many of us. However, this was not a hunt, it was shopping. A purchase. A guarantee (nobody pays that much money for a chance). It was done with the expressed intent of coming home with an ego-enhancing trophy to be proudly displayed on the wall with the requisite bragging and bravado.

Sound familiar?

Photography has become about trophy hunts. We want guarantees. All too few seem willing to explore, or to take a chance, or to discover. Instead, we want to be taken by the hand and led to our prey: the Moulton barn against the Tetons, cars in Cuba (enough already), noon time slot canyons, midnight milky way, sunrise arches, and sunset mountains.

Why? For the guarantee of a pretty picture to impress our Internet friends. No other reason.

Those of you who read my blog know that this is a common theme. Mindless photography. My pet peeve. When I am asked how someone can improve their photography, my answer is always the same, avoid clichés. Avoid guarantees. Take chances. Be creative. Be different (not for the sake of being different, but for the sake of not being the same).

I encourage you, I implore you, to let go of the dependence on guarantees and to explore.Take chances. Find your voice. Be free.

But most of all, I encourage you to not be so blind by guarantees that you miss the obvious (like a tracking collar, maybe?).

Of Outties and Innies

I have a couple friends in town who are a photojournalists. Newspaper photographers. As many of you know, I spent more than 15 years doing that same job. My friends are good at it. Very good. I wasn’t. Not that I was horrible, mind you, but I lacked the requisite passion to be anything more than average. Adequate.

So, why was that?

Well, at least for me, being a photojournalist (and subsequently a university photographer) meant I was documenting other people’s lives. I was not part of the plot. I was on the outside looking in. A mere spectator peeking through the insulating and protective window of a lens. Relationships with my subjects were, for the most part, fleeting. I got the required photographs and moved on to the next assignment. There and gone. Quick click, thank you Dick!

Don’t get me wrong, I have the utmost respect for photojournalists and documentarians. Many have a deep and sincere passion for it and thrive within its limitations and possibilities. They play a crucial role in enlightening our understanding of the world in a way that words could never convey. For them, being on the outside is good. But for me, it simply wasn’t a good fit.

Landscape photography (my brand of it, anyway) is different. I do not feel like a spectator, outsider, or an intruder. I feel welcome and relaxed, and the relationships I develop with my subject matter are long-term and affectionate. I feel as though I am a part of the scene and part of the plot. An integral part, and my presence is not only accepted, it is crucial. I belong. It is that acceptance, that connection, which fuels my passion and, if I may be so bold, elevates my photography beyond the average.

The time I spent in photojournalism was an amazing experience. I covered a couple Super Bowls, an All-Star Baseball game, World Series, Stanley Cup, an airliner crash (less than five miles from my home in Pittsburgh), a major flood, many minor floods, many dozens of accidents, fires, shootings, chases, breaks, sprains and scratches. I made hundreds of portraits, found hundreds of feature photos, and even helped rescue a collapsed firefighter and a dog who almost drowned. Mostly, though, I just covered life. From the outside.

Photojournalism may not have been my calling, but it created a pretty sturdy foundation for finding my passion.

I hope you are fortunate enough to find yours.

Parting is Such Sweet Sorrow

The Moab Photo Symposium ended a few days ago (if you were not there, it sucks to be you!) and it was an amazing experience. I truly enjoy presenting to, and talking with, participants who are striving to bring meaning and depth to their work. I get as much inspiration from their journey as I hope they get from mine.

As importantly for me, was the chance to hang out with the other presenters. I all too rarely get a chance to “talk shop” with other photographers who share my basic photographic philosophies. Landscape photography can be a lonely pursuit, especially when working in less-visited areas, so it’s nice to be reminded that we are not alone in the proverbial wilderness.

150428_Morning Glory Natural Bridge_UtahMorning Glory Natural Bridge, Negro Bill Canyon, Utah

A highlight for me was getting to hang out for a couple of afternoons with someone I consider a true, modern master of photography, Charles Cramer. We explored a couple of canyons as potential workshop locations and had a great time doing it (at least I did). Bucket list item . . . check! I only hope my puppy dog eyes of adoration and longing stares didn’t freak him out too much  🙂

Presenting alongside Charlie, as well as Guy Tal, Colleen Miniuk-Sperry, Jeff Foote and the symposium god, Bruce Hucko, was a humbling, inspiring, and invigorating experience.

However, as will all things good (and most things bad) it had to come to an end. In the case of the symposium, it was quite an interesting end. When Bruce announced the conclusion of events, a couple dozen of the participants spontaneously began, without prodding or begging, to stack chairs, fold tables, and collect trash off the floors. It was a wonderful sight and proof positive of the family-type atmosphere Bruce has nurtured over the dozen, or so, years of the Moab Photo Symposium. Within half an hour, we had the three main rooms cleared and swept and the front doors locked. Even a vendor pitched in to help with floor sweeping. I mean, where else does that happen?

While it is good be home, it is also bitter sweet. Already I miss the camaraderie and discussions about photography, as an art. But, the photo-do and honey-do lists are long (they got longer while I was away) and neither includes writing a blog post.

So, with sweet sorry I must leave. But, before then I encourage you to consider attending this even next year. The location is spectacular, the atmosphere inspiring, and the micro-brew beer and plentiful snacks are free.

Moab Photo Symposium


On Second Thought

Half a dozen years ago, I was driving home after a commissioned photo shoot in rural North Dakota when, many miles in front of me, I noticed a long line if distant and compelling clouds. They were moving fairly quickly from left to right so, if I wanted the peak of the clouds above the roadway, which I did, I had to move fast. I stopped (duh!), jumped out of the car and quickly set up the tripod and camera (which is why it is important to intimately know your gear) and, waiting a few seconds for an important cloud shadow to move further down the road, made this exposure. I knew I had something special.

080613 RoadCloudInitial cropped version of “Road to Eternity”

While I remember, clearly, what I was I was thinking when the shutter snapped, my motivations for processing and cropping are lost forever. What I do know is that I removed the top 40% of the frame. What I do not know is why.

I became reacquainted with this photograph while making image selections for a magazine submission (fingers crossed!). I have always liked it, but over the years it had lost some of its appeal. When I saw it in the files last week, I realized why. The crop. The crop was drastic and, while it served to emphasize the juxtaposition of the lyrical, textured clouds and the straight-edged road, it failed to include enough atmosphere. I call this image “Road to Eternity” or, alternatively, “Road to Infinity”, depending on my mood. However, the initial crop removed the bulk of the negative space, and with it the illusion (reality?) of “eternity” or “infinity.” The long, horizontal shape became more about the flatness and emptiness of the surrounding plains rather than the straight, seemingly endless, roadway receding into the clouds.

080613 RoadToEternity_NorthDakotaNewly uncropped version of “Road to Eternity”

So, I took another crack at it. This time I left the frame uncropped and gave a bit more presence to the foreground roadway. Now, with the added space at the top of the frame, it says “eternity” or “infinity”, depending on my mood, of course. It is a much more powerful and vast image and, I think, one which compels the viewer to think of things much greater than us.

I encourage everyone to revisit older images. Use your refined vision and improved techniques to present older work in a stronger light. Never be afraid to say you were wrong. It’s just one way we can prove that we are better than we were. And that is a very good thing.

My Privilege

130606_FourPolesNoWire_LaramieCountyWYFour Poles, Laramie County, Wyoming

I don’t think it’s much of a secret that I am speaking at the 2015 Moab Photography Symposium this spring (April 30 – May 3). Lawd knows I’ve mentioned it enough over the past few weeks both in social media and on my website (and once to a lady standing in line at the grocery store). This is a big deal for me. Not because I am a speaker, I have given lots of talks and enjoy large audiences, but rather because I will be presenting alongside esteemed photographers whom I consider friends—Michael Gordon, Guy Tal, Colleen Miniuk-Sperry—and someone I consider a true modern master, Charles Cramer. I have never met Charles face-to-face, but owe him a huge debt of gratitude. Many years ago he reviewed some of my work, a small portfolio of northern plains images. The 30 short minutes we spent talking on the phone, my first ever professional review, was intensely educational and inspirational and had a profound effect on my photography. I owe him a great deal.

And now I am presenting alongside him. That is insanely cool.

But there’s more. I had know of, and truly respected, the work of Guy Tal and Michael Gordon long before I ever met them. They are both as approachable and wonderful as their work (which is a good thing as butthole photographers make it hard to appreciated their work). It will be an honor to be on stage with them.

I don’t yet personally know Colleen (although she flirts with me all the time online) or Bruce Hucko, master of the symposium and the poor guy who had to endure my pathetic sobbing as I begged to participate in the symposium, but am sure we will become good friends.

It is always an honor to be asked to speak to a group of photographers, but this event will be even more special as I will be among fellow landscape photographers whom I have admired and respected for years.