Thursday, December 27, 2012

New Year's Resolutions

When I was in my mid-twenties I worked on an ill-fated film project where a young man died. One of the things that I remember most about the experience was the shock I had as I watched the sun come up the next morning and the birds start singing...and realized that the world just keeps going. No matter what happens, the next morning the sun comes up and "the play" goes on.

Each year, in December, I do a year-end inventory - a review of what happened that year and ask myself - "did I get my money's worth" and "what would I like to accomplish in the next year?" The truth is, that second part is done on faith, because you never know how long you my question to you is "what are you going to do with the time you have?"

My New Year's resolutions for 2013 include: 

Meditation as a daily practice. This year I started meditating and it's been a profound experience. The first thing people ask me about meditation is "what do you do?" I want to reassure you, coming from someone who is very bad at quieting their mind, that it's not necessary to be perfect at meditation to still get a lot of value from it. I find it helps give me a little perspective on life. I start with counting my in and out breaths ("1, 2") and have worked up to 20 minutes with a faint bell each 5 minutes. Of course there's an app for it...I use the Insight Timer, which has a nice feature that lets you see others meditating around the world. 

Commit to engaging in your creative process on a daily basis. This is a hard one for many of us...but even if it's just spending a few minutes in a space you consider to be your "studio" you'll find that it connects you to your greater purpose...another method of having some perspective on life...noticing a trend?

Embrace change and instability as the essential element of life. It's taken me so long to even understand this one...but, in the past year, I've really grown to appreciate that much of our discomfort with change is our fear of it. Change is what you make of it and yes, having the attitude that change is not to be feared gives you a better perspective on life.

Finally, it's all about thankful that you woke up this is short...enjoy it! 

Happy New Year to you all!

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Ritual and Art-Making

Every year I make an image on Christmas Day. For many of those years we've been at the beach - there's a wonderful set of campgrounds running up the California Coast, we pick one and stay for a week. That's not to say that I abandon my family - I stay for the important stuff like opening presents and having breakfast - but then afterwards I find that I really love the experience of wandering around an empty town.

That's also why I love shooting LA on Sunday mornings - because the city is usually swept clean and sleeping. You can shoot while standing in the middle of Wilshire Blvd (usually jammed) and it almost feels like the buildings are breathing a sigh of relief. When you add the occasion of a holiday like Christmas, it makes it even better.

The beauty of a ritual is that it gives you a sense of continuity. You can make the work without having to worry about where it fits in your career as an artist - the ritual becomes the reason. Another part I like about this ritual is that it comes at the end of the year and reinforces my commitment to finding new ways to make images for another year.

Christmas is around the corner...start a new ritual. 

Thursday, December 13, 2012

The Road Less Traveled

One of the things I love is shooting in the rain. Part of what appeals to me, and why I realize my images look different when I do, is that usually people don't shoot in the rain. They don't want to get their cameras wet - they don't want to get wet themselves - so the majority of the images we see don't come from that experience. It's part an approach I think of as finding the "road less traveled" as a visual artist. 

There have been some very interesting approaches to this concept. The most obvious photographic one is choosing to shoot at night. One of my favorite images is a Michael Kenna shot of a Paris bridge at night. We're so used to seeing these things during the day, that just changing that single element creates a new visual palette. One of the things that really made Michael Kenna's work interesting is not only did he shoot at night - he made it look as if it were daytime. By using very long exposures he was able to flip our sense of where the light came from because, in actuality, during his exposures the light would be coming from multiple locations over time. His process compressed time into a single frame and he created a new visual aesthetic as we were able to see time, such as the ocean's movement over eight hours, compressed into a single image. 

Another example is Susan Barnett whose project Not In Your Face photographs the backs of people. We're so used to thinking that what's important about people photography is the face - right?  Instead, she chose to use the backs and in the process came up with a very interesting way to talk about people and their identities by removing our typical viewpoints. 

My challenge for you today is to take the path less traveled, in terms of how you approach image-making. If you feel like you're at a stumbling block trying to come up with something - consider writing it out. Literally write down the elements that you've been choosing and flip that script. Do you like shooting the zoo when it's full of people? Change one element and try shooting it completely empty. If you're still really new as an artist - then pick someone whose work you admire and do the same exercise with their work. 

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Social Media and Creativity

This weekend I decided to take a digital holiday - actually it was more of a social media holiday. I'd been consumed with, or perhaps by, my electronics and had a feeling it might not be the best thing for me. 

Checking my blog stats, email, FB, Instagram - constantly checking to see what connections the world was sending me - it seemed like an increasing tug at the corners of my brain. It was a good thing to go cold turkey - although in full disclosure I did use my cell phone camera. But other than that - no Internet use at all.  

What did I learn? Well...that I'd developed a nervous twitch - remember the Sirens call to Ulysses? My devices were calling to me during that day, however since nature abhors a vacuum I found myself turning to other activities instead. 

Studies are showing that social media can negatively impact your feelings of well being - but how does it impact your levels of creativity? BTW... I fully realize the irony of this post and just to go entirely "old school" I decided to write this one by hand (in it's original form) - apparently different parts of the brain are activated by the physical movement/use of the body and I wanted to see if there would be a difference. 

For whatever reason, that night I fell asleep early and the next morning I woke with my brain percolating ideas again...coincidence...not sure. During that "free" day, it was disconcerting to see how many times my restless brain tried to reach for my phone or how often I wanted to interrupt what I was doing to post a cool new image. Does this mean that social media is bad or harms creativity by breaking into your consciousness? I don't know, and strangely enough, I don't know if it's important. What is important, is an awareness of its impact and a willingness to experiment in going without. 

I don't believe in crying over change, that's not a good goal - change is inevitable and should be a fundamental part of life and our deepest nature. It's an odd quirk that we seem to both need and fear change at the same time. Anyway, it's a futile game to fight change - but that doesn't mean we can't evaluate how we work/use it in our lives. 

So, in an experiment with creativity I ask that you try a social media free day. Disconnect from the virtual world for a day and see what might find yourself, like me, the next morning - writing down ideas and seeing life from a little bit of a different perspective. Or, if social media isn't your gig, it may be something else. Find another habit or rut you've fallen it is, try stepping back a day and evaluating life on the other side.

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Compromise and Limitation

This weekend I read an interesting article about a young girl, with a disease that leaves her unable to feel pain. Unfortunately, this is not the same as being unable to be hurt...quite the opposite in fact. It turns out that the ability to feel pain plays an enormous part in our survival. It's ironic that we spend our lives trying to avoid pain and it turns out that it's an essential component of staying alive. Pain lets us know when we are damaging the container we live in. The article got me wondering if there's a creative equivalent to this idea.

By that I mean something that has this interesting duality - where the thing we avoid is really the path of our salvation. The only creative equivalent I could think of is the idea of limitation. We often think that we'd be so much more creative if only we had more... (fill in the blank). Yet is it through the use of boundaries that we find we can truly focus our energies in a way that allows us to go beyond what we might do with unlimited resources.

Our limitations often sharpen the edge of our reality - they force us to look at that which we want to avoid - in a way limitations allow us to really triumph - because, if used correctly, they narrow our field of possibilities and that allows us to really look at what's left. In a way, we do better with the compromises we make when faced with our limitations. In reducing the possibilities, we are often able to make more use of the material that's left. To see it without all of the external visual noise.

Exercise: Focus through Limitation

Here's a way to make this idea literal... cut a small window in a black piece of paper and hold it up to the world as a "viewer." Make sure that the paper is big enough so that there's at least 3-4 inches on each side of the window...we want to make sure that it's really isolating the view. Now try using this to reduce your "world view" in multiple situations - everything from landscapes to portraits. 

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Become Someone Else

Today I decided to become someone different. I left my car at home (big step for L.A.) transferred my purse and camera bag to a day pack, and walked to the nearest Metro. Strange thing is, this is actually going back to my roots. My parents were New Yorkers and didn't drive, so I spent my childhood years on public transit. I grew up watching the world go by while cooling my cheek on a bus window more times than I can count. Fast forward a few (ha!) decades and I'm back to where I started - trying to look cool and secretly watching people's reflections.

As we get older - or even as we get more proficient as artists - we work hard to make our lives more comfortable. With meticulous care we sand all the rough edges off our daily existence until we're cocooned in comfort...or at least in a prison of our own making.  In L.A. it's easy to avoid so much simply by staying in our A/C'd cars - we grumble at traffic - but it's nothing compared to sitting by the side of the road waiting for the bus. So it's important to not allow ourselves to lose touch with life outside our "walls."

Today's trip grew out of the new work I've been doing as a photo illustrator - I knew that a visit downtown was essential and I must say it was a great experience to spend the day in such a different, visually rich environment. My challenge to you is to find your own way to do the same. Get out of your routine, be someone else for a hour, an afternoon...a day and see where it takes you. 

To take your own daytrip in downtown L.A., take a Metro to the 7th Street exit. Get out towards Figeroa street and walk south to Hotel Figeroa. This is a great location full of Moroccan style with a touch of "old California." Afterwards, walk over to Grand Avenue for the public Central Library at 5th, then cross the street to check out the Biltmore'll recognize it from many films. At that point you're at Pershing Square and can take the Metro to Union Square. From've got Olivera Street, City Hall, Little get the idea.  Have fun.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Can Instagram Make You More Creative?

Like the title asks, can Instagram make you more creative? I don't mean that it comes up with the ideas for you, but with all these programs that supposedly "enhance" your images, it's important to understand that there are significant differences between ones like Histagram vs. ones like Instagram. That difference can become a useful tool.  

With Histagram the choices are being made for you - even if you put it on the less "random" setting, you're still using its muscle to create the strength of your image. Whereas with a program such as Instagram, you're taking a picture and applying various changes. The changes really just give you previews of potential pathways - but you're in charge. 

There used to be a great function in Photoshop called "Variations." You'd open up an image in its dialog box and you'd automatically be given a preview of the image with a wide range of color and contrast changes. It allowed you to previsualize what would happen if you added more warmth or cooled it down. It didn't go beyond that, but it was a great function and I missed it once it was gone. 

I think that's what I like about Instagram and plug-ins such as Alien Skin's Exposure software. They give you the ability to take your image and use it as a sketch, or a foundation, to see where you could go from there. That's what's fun about Instagram - it gives you that previsualization - it can show you a whole set of variations with visual approaches you might never have thought to make.

The above image is a really good example. I had a very specific idea (I seem to start with a lot of those) about what I wanted the image to look like. It wasn't until I was going to "test" it out on Instagram (to see if anyone thought it was a real location) and I was hitting the different filters, when all of a sudden I saw a great direction.  Instead of a deep heavy moody aesthetic that many of my images use - I saw a very low contrast, fairly warm and slightly textured approach. I had never thought of doing that before and loved it.

One of the things that people liked so much about film is that it truly gave you unexpected surprises - and that's something that's really less interesting about digital - you can bring it into Photoshop...but it's harder to have a "happy accident."

So I love any situation where I can get out of my head and look at something through someone else's eyes - and really that's what programs like Instagram are. They "filter" your image through someone else's aesthetic. Doing that gets you to a point where you might be open to choices that you have never made before. It's a bit like "It's A Wonderful Life" where he gets to see what his life would have been like - well in a way, you get to see what your image would have been like if it was taken by ten other people - and incorporate that.

These programs give you the ability to ask yourself a wide range of questions:

 Do I like that? Why? 
What is it about the contrast level? 
Do I like seeing in the shadows, or do I not want to see into the shadows? 
Do I want mid tones? 
What should happen in the highlights, should they be blown out? 
Should they have texture in them? 
What about the tone? Should I stay cold because that's what it was? 
Should I stay neutral to take away the subjectivity? 
Should it be warm because it has a more human touch to it?

Used as a tool, these programs give you the ability to figure out what you value and why - and by figuring those things out - I think you're on the road to becoming a more creative artist. 

p.s. To try variations in Instagram and save them to your Camera Roll - but not post them...switch your iPhone to Airplane mode (just remember to delete the "failed" shots from Instagram before you switch back. 

Thursday, November 8, 2012

You know you're a photographer when...

Between storms and elections - it's been a stressful few weeks - so this week I figured we could all use a bit of humor...


You know you're a photographer when: 

You save old shoeboxes just in case you might want to make a pinhole camera.

You have more than 10 photo apps on your phone.

You "fake" some of your Instagrams with your 5D.

At a party, you start talking geek with a friend and realize everyone else is totally bored.

Samy's on Fairfax is the mothership...or B&H for the east coast folks. 

You're seriously considering learning wet-plate.

You used to shoot with zoom lenses, now you mostly use a fixed/prime, and it's often wide-angle.

You've made a roadtrip to the Salton Sea.

You have a laptop, desktop, iPhone and maybe an iPad...and often are 
using at least 3 of them at the same time.

You have a tripod in your trunk...and you lust after a gitzo. 

You have out-dated film or (better yet) Polaroid in your fridge.

The smell of fixer makes you nostalgic.

You're sick of the photographer being the psycho in movies.

You keep looking for the perfect camera bag. This gets worse if you're a woman, 
because you also want to use it as a purse. 

You make a lot of u-turns. 

You cringe when you see a 5D in the hands of someone other 
than the photographer at a wedding. 

You've made your friends jump for a photo.

You've included your feet or shadow in a shot on purpose. 

You've got to figure out where the light reflecting on the wall is coming from. 

You once mistook a lighting strike for a really big strobe. 

Gradation filters used in movies & tv shows make you crazy. 

You think it would be cool if in the future they figured out how to take pictures through your eyes. 

You notice when something's 18% gray.

Your Lightroom catalog has almost no family photos, but tons of shots of 
that cool town you found in the desert. 

You've taken a detail shot of a plant. 

At twilight you often think "you can't get this on film."

You won't eat at places with ugly lighting.

You're addicted to making panoramics.

You keep shooting cloud pix...even though they never look as amazing later.

Your pet is sick of posing. So are your kids. So is your spouse.

Hope some of these made you smile...if so, congrats - you're a photographer!

Thursday, November 1, 2012

The Value of Encouragement

A few weeks ago I had lunch with one of my old college roomies - his name is Tim Barnes and he's an amazing artist - works primarily in animation. At one point he mentioned he really liked seeing my images on Facebook, and that no matter what the image was, it still had  a strong sense of me...for some reason this was really encouraging. 

I think it's because I've been trying to come up with a new way to make images as a visual artist. I want to move from taking images to making images - but I've been struggling with finding a voice for making this new method work aesthetically for me. His statement was really encouraging and gave me the confidence to realize that whatever I did - it would still be I could stop over-thinking the process.  I started focusing on what my imagery is really about - what kinds of visual storytelling I'm drawn to. Within a week, I found I had come up with a whole new set of images that I think are an interesting new direction for me. 

The new work didn't come out of was supported by the fact that I'd been doing a lot of exploring lately - doing tons of photoshop-imaging exercises - learning new techniques. The problem was they were all this kind of macho "Just Do It"- "Red Bull" type of stuff (guys doing manly stuff on a basketball court) and I didn't visually relate at all...but I was learning new methods of working...lots of new tools - I just didn't know what to do with them. 

So, armed with my new tools, there was something very valuable in that simple affirmation. It gave me the confidence to stop worrying and get on with it (...sounds suspiciously like "Just Do It"). Sometimes we just need someone to tell us that it's okay to be ourselves - to trust ourselves. Too often we tend to discount positive feedback and only focus on the negative. Usually we already know what the negative is, so focusing on that...I don't know if it helps. Having someone give you the freedom and encouragement to be yourself, to trust's not just empty words of praise. Coming from an honest viewpoint, it can really make a difference.  

p.s. My step daughter, Katie Osgood, did a great post on this type of experience as she discusses a workshop she took with someone she really admired as a visual artist. 

Thursday, October 25, 2012

What Are You Hungry For?

I returned to photograph my favorite field today - don't know why I love it so much...but I do. It's in the middle of two places that are kinda in the middle of nowhere themselves. Over the years I've gotten a lot of great images out of this field, but today I returned just because it makes me happy. There's the smell of it - across the road there's a cow pasture - but these are cows that get about 50 acres to roam, so it's not so bad - just a touch of cow. But the rest of the smell comes from the grasses and the land itself. 

I love the grasses and it was fun to shoot without worrying or thinking about meaning. There was no reason to take the big project I'm going to do when I'm done with them...don't know that anyone would ever buy them. They were taken just because I love the space...the openness of it...waiting for truckers to pass (most of whom will wave or smile as they go by). 

Right now, the trees still have their leaves...there's this amazing breeze that comes through...and this beautiful sound of the leaves rustling on the branches. I tiptoe my way past the "no trespassing" sign and walk down the service road, which is lined on both sides with wild raspberry brambles that have overgrown and are reaching out to close up the road if they get the chance. There's such a peacefulness here, the grasses have this subtle color, shape and texture. I love how the light shimmers through - it's cloudy today - supposed to rain tomorrow - so the plan is to come back and shoot in the rain. Shooting in the rain is interesting because most people won't, so your images look slightly different. 

There's something about returning to a place you find nourishing...and I can honestly say that, even though I recently sold an image I shot on this road - that's not why I come back to shoot. I return because this space is just a great place to play around in. This time of year the grass has grown up and there's cattails, culverts, bee hives, bugs, small snakes (and probably some big ones) and even little flowers coming up. It's not quite winter - just becoming fall - it was a hot, hot summer, so the grass really went crazy and you can tell the ground is so rich. There's this stand of trees on the road and behind them a field with a row of telephone poles that disappear into the distance. The row of trees are flat and form the two-dimensional plane they will eventually exist on (in the print) and peeking through them gives one a sense of openness and movement. 

If you can find a place that nourishes you and allows you to have a dialog with it, then you've found what I think most artists are looking for...maybe that's even what people are looking for when they buy art. Often, as teachers, we'll ask a student "what are you trying to do here, what are you trying to say?" Maybe the question should be "what hunger are you trying to feed, what need are you trying to meet?" I think art has to have a purpose and I suppose that would be the difference between pretty and beautiful. Pretty is decorative, but beauty really nourishes. It's more than just about looking - you can almost feel your eyes "feeding."  

So, on this day, I took pictures for no other reason than the pure joy of being in the space - just to say "I was here and this is what it looked like"...or "I was here and this is what nourished me."

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Asking The BIG Question...

An interesting exercise I recently tried had me tapping into my  stream of consciousness - I had to write down (or ask) 100 questions in a row.  It came from the book How To Think Like Leonardo Da Vinci. The book posits that one of Da Vinci's true gifts was his curiosity - that the basis for creativity is curiosity.  

It's strange but it occurred to me  that I've been doing this blog on creativity for many months now and have never asked a very simple question - what is creativity? Is it a single entity? Is it an actual thing that you make - as in you make stuff, therefore you must be creative? Interestingly enough, it reminds me of our origin myths - they are the story of a creation - so at least creation holds a hallowed space. But what is creativity? Maybe it isn't just an action verb - maybe creativity is a byproduct of curiosity.

There's this fatal neurological disease called Primary Progressive Aphasia (PPA) where the patient slowly loses their language capabilities. Within the disease, there is a small group who develop new creative skills in music and art. The individual becomes driven to create and wildly does so even after the ability to communicate with words has disappeared. Apparently there's a part of your brain that is a governor - it's the part that stops us from wearing our jammies to the job - well when this governor is laid of...the rest of the brain goes on a creating frenzy.

I digress ... back to my original thought, which is - what if creativity is merely a byproduct of something else? Isn't our curiosity where much of it all starts - that dreamy stare into space that starts the brain on the road to figuring out how to go to the moon? We're intuitively drawn to something and that's when the questions start. "What if I try this?" "What if I did it in blue?"

So, back to the exercise, they ask you to write down 100 questions and you've got to do them all at once because there are layers to your thought process and you need to get past the group at the top of your head. Somewhere towards the end you'll start to go somewhere new. I tried it and I must stay that #87 took a completely wild turn and I ended up with an extra 20-30 that I'm very interested in exploring.

What's really interesting about the exercise is the intense focus on asking questions - rather than finding solutions. I do know that it's important to focus on process as opposed to just results. The power in questions is that they can reframe how you look at a problem. Your questions come from your assumptions about how life works. The right question can flip the subject and open possibilities.

So...the challenge for today is to give it a try. Find somewhere you can sit undisturbed and start writing them down. It's okay to repeat things, that just gives you a sense of what you're focused on...go for it and see what happens!

Thursday, October 11, 2012

What's Haunting You?

This morning my husband had a great way of describing a common experience "I've got this unresolved problem at work and it's really haunting me."  I realized that I completely understood what he was talking about and it was a great way of describing a very common experience.  Another interesting way to think about it is "you're always meditating." Whatever's on your mind is what you're spending one of your most valuable resources on - your subconscious. It's a powerful tool that can help you become more creative if you stop clogging it with crap. People who accomplish a lot, do so by narrowing their focus to the areas they feel are important.  It takes a certain amount of self-confidence and self-esteem to defend that mental resource. 

So, I ask you, what's haunting you and how do you go about changing it? How do you make sure you're using that energy building your creative output as opposed to frittering it away on the worries that follow us around?

A good first step is becoming conscious of what's happening. By consciously realizing you're spending your time haunted by something other than creative issues, you move closer to changing that dynamic. 

Decide what you will be thinking about, what's going to be "haunting" you. There's an urgency to negative problems that probably has evolutionary roots, as in "Oh, look there's a bear coming, better deal with it." But too often we're ruminating on imagined consequences and travails...nothing that moves us forward. So "tell" your mind what you'd like to be meditating on. 

Think about looking for patterns of interest in your own life. As a kid I was obsessed with mythology and stories...all while being dragged to art museums by my art historian mother.  I was always interested in an alternative reality - under the life we think we know...there's this entire other world. I don't think we make art out of a vacuum - I think there are always threads in our early lives. I'm not sure how these early experiences and passions will play themselves out as visual images - but I'm pretty sure that focusing on them will set me on a path to make images that feel personal and relevant for me. 

So, consider these three recommendations as steps to set you on the path to becoming a more effective, creative and personal artist: 

1. Recognize the problem - we are always meditating - we are always being the question is  What do you want to spend that energy on?

2. Start to define your goals - I know it sounds boring and lacks the magic of pure creativity - but I don't actually think creativity is magic - it's more like slow cooking - you put in the ingredients - give it some time and magic happens when you allow the items to marinate, to evolve, which they will if you have faith in the process. The more you experience this magic, the more faith you'll have in it.

3. Going back. Mining your own experiences. What did you obsess about? What were your passions as a kid - those intense experiences that imprinted on your psyche? There's often a thread of authenticity in the experiences we have as kids - and "reviving" that intensity may put you back to that open child-like mindset.

Speaking of what's haunting me - you may be aware that Photography is one of the programs that could be cut due to budget deficits this year. In response our students in the LBCC Photo Program posted this video on the program and why it should be saved. Please feel free to repost.

Thursday, October 4, 2012

The Critique: Discussing and Thinking About Your Work

Back before the dawn of time, when I was in school, critiques were the "slash and burn" variety. Or, you could experience its ugly cousin the "death by a thousand suggestions." I've sat through crits where the instructor knocked the bad work to the floor and then walked on it for the rest of the class. Obviously this tended to incite a bit of anxiety. 

I've been to several of the festival review sessions that have become such good money makers. Some were useful, others were crushing. But overall,  I found that the 20 minute speed-dating method never worked for me. This past year I was fortunate enough to have two gallerists spend a few afternoons with me and really thoughtfully review my work. In this day and age, I completely realize what a gift it was to have that kind of attention - but I think "back in the day" that's how it was done on a regular basis. In both cases, I came away with significant insights that are still guiding the changes I've been making this past year.

I've also had very good experiences with critique groups. For several years I hosted one that met every six weeks at my home. The group started fairly strong...and eventually ended up being a core group of 4-6 people - which actually was a bit of a sweet spot in terms of really having intense time to discuss a body of work. In general, the visual aesthetics and goals of the individuals were fairly similar - I found this helps, having also been a member of a group which had a much different aesthetic...and it never really jelled for me.

Some suggestions for discussing and thinking about your work:

1. Give us some context for the work. Although I like work to grab me, it's also true that people want to do more than just buy an image. They want a sense of the world you're living in. Collectors want to know the background of the artist - who they are and why they're doing what they're doing. This also holds true for fellow artists - giving us a framework helps in terms of deciding what kind of feedback to give.

2. Try to emotionally distance yourself from the project. A good method is to put the work away for a few weeks/months and then come back to it with new eyes. 

3. Review it all at once. You've got to find a way to spread it all out. I found this extremely useful when I was editing my book on Val Verde. I went to the Pasadena library, which had these enormous tables and literally laid out the sequence. There were some changes later, but this is where I realized how I wanted to sequence the work.

4. Look for trends. After you've laid it all out, start seeing which pieces seem to fit with the group and which don't. Often it will be your favorite image that doesn't seem to fit with the group...figures, huh? But don't despair, perhaps it was meant to be in a different body of work.  Be ruthless with your edit. If there's a question...then you have your answer.

 5. Make multiple edits. Consider that you're just looking for maybe 30% of the images to survive the cut

6. If you're working with a group...try not to argue with their may not be relevant, it may not be something you want to change...but it's important to understand the impact the work has. This doesn't mean you have to agree - and you can always restate what you're trying to achieve. 

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Artist Statements and Writing About Your Work

Writing an artist statement can be the worst thing in the world or it can be an amazing way to really understand what it is you've been doing. In 2009 I started a blog called Impermanence where I posted a single image each day for a year.  I had a couple of different goals but the main one was to understand, at a deeper level, what digital photography was really about.  I was very familiar with film, I knew its voice and its language - but I didn't really have an intimate understanding of what digital could be about. I'd been teaching it for a while...but not using it personally. Setting up a process that allowed me to really have a deeper experience seemed like a good idea. 

The first year was just an image a day with no themes so there was no writing involved. The second year I decided to do longer projects and the plan was to write about them - but as I was doing the longer projects I found it really hard to think of anything to write about. In fact the strangest thing I've learned in my current blog is, it's much easier for me to write and then add images - rather than starting with images and then try to add words - and yet that's the point every artist arrives at when they realize  "okay, now I have to write an artist statement." 

I think one of the big problems was that quite often the work I was posting was very new - and frankly - at that point I don't think you even know what the work's about. You may be aware of the circumstances that lead to you do it, but you may not know what it's about. The idea of an artist statement is probably a more recent construct - earlier artists didn't have to deal with it as much - but probably that's because they were involved in work whose purpose and reason was much more obvious. 

The whole point of an artist statement is to give a context for the viewer as they look at the artwork. Quite often when I go to an exhibition I like to look at the work, then read the artist statement, then go back and look at the work again. I want to experience it first just cold, then I want to see what were they thinking, and then I want to go back and see if it changes what I see.  

It was interesting for me to think about this new work I'm doing. I've always loved images of beds, but for some reason it jumped from being something that I've taken on a regular basis...usually weirdly enough I've taken them when I'm by myself traveling...because I'm in the room, by myself and I've got a camera. This was the first time that I took something that was a very intimate thing and brought it into a public viewing platform. The first obvious name was Unmade - its current working title - but I've found the images can be a Rorschach test for people - they read into them what they will.

My first artist statement covered the obvious things - it wasn't until a few weeks later that I realized, in a much more interesting way, that over the course of this summer my life has taken some pretty big changes - the career path I thought I was on - may, or may not, still be there - and even what I thought I wanted may, or may not, still be true.  I thought about how from 5th through 10th grade I went to 5 different schools, lived in 4 cities and 2 countries. Each morning, when I had to face my new world there was this jolt where I'd realize I was a stranger in a strange land - so mornings have always been this kind of edgy experience for me. This summer, almost intuitively after I got the whole news about work, I started taking these photographs and I realized that they were also an image of my struggle each morning, coming to grips with reality - that space between where I'm just me - and where "Oh, I belong to the world."  

For me, the best artist statements give me a context in which to view the work - I don't want them to tell me what it is, or what to think when I look at it, but I do like the idea of being able to see into the artist's world about why this is important to them, why they spent time on it, why they want to put it up on the wall and why they feel it should have an outside audience.  Remember that making art is an entirely different process than choosing to exhibit art. Art must find its place in the world - and the process of writing an artist statement gives the artist a chance to understand what the work is about - and gives the audience a window into how art is created.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Reaching Out - The Importance of Community

Who are you going to for advice?

Do you often wish you had the same sense of community that you had in college? That wonderful ability to wander from studio to studio and discuss art...or just hang out?

The hardest part of being a working artist (or other independant creative) is the sense of isolation from the rest of the world. That feeling of being a "lone wolf" may not be the best thing to keep you moving forward in your career. I know with Facebook and other online social sites we can connect digitally, but I've found it's not the same as that in-person connection.

A few years ago, I started a photo-critique group which met every month or so at my home. The group started when I returned from Photo Lucida in Oregon and emailed every participant from the So Cal area. It was a very good experience, lasted for a good 3-4 years and brought me a much larger group of friends and colleagues. Like most organized activities, it languished when I got too busy to dedicate more time. But, while it was going, I found it a good nudge to make sure I kept making images. I also found the critiques extremely helpful when trying to edit my own work.

In New York there's The NY PhotoGroup Salon which meets the third Wednesday of every month and reviews the work of a rotating group of photographers. It started in one of the founding member's studios...apparently this was back in the day when the studio had a chef who made amazing food for the meetings...and now meets at the SoHo Photo Gallery. I heard about it through Bill Westheimer an inventive photographer I met years ago at Photo Lucida.

There was an interesting article in the NY Times that Dan Shepard (see post from 6.28.12) brought to my attention on Photo Collectives which discussed a variety of approaches, everything from groups that are fully enmeshed both financially and creatively, to those that work much more informally. The article stated that this has been a natural response on the part of photographers to give themselves a bigger voice in the world.

In my conversation with Dan he talked about creating a photo-collective and described his idea of the perfect collective. He felt the biggest issue is really the amount of pre-planning that's involved - since it's very important to discuss and plan out what the goals and vision of a group would be.  While it's great to have a group of people to share expenses with,  it seemed to him that the format also gives the possibility to have a bigger voice on topics they feel are important.  The big issue is really making sure you have a group of people who are committed to the collective, even when it's not their specific work that's being shown. It's not enough to just need to really be a part of it.

I'd like to start my critique group back up - but more than that, I'd like to find a group of like-minded individuals would be oriented to the business end of photography - really getting careers going. I'd want to be able to sit down and define our goals, be very hard-headed about our time and see if using the power of the group could work for me.

What kind of a community are you going to start?

Thursday, September 13, 2012

How To Be Creative Until You Die

Are there prime ages for creativity? I hope not...because I hate the thought of uncontrollable absolutes being out there (yes, I know the obvious one).  There are so many factors involved in creative output - a big one being the culture in which you live and ours tends to favor the young.  Being outside of the "chosen" set can be discouraging, but let's face it, it's better than the alternative.

My goal is to do more than just stay creative - I want to know how to actually reinvent my artwork continually throughout the rest of my life. The prevailing science seems to indicate that there are two main approaches to creativity - the "experimentalist" and the "conceptualist." So says a study called Age + Creativity by David W. Galeson. In the study, he looks at a wide range of creativity, from art to science, and concludes "my work suggests that it is the characteristics of the individual that determine the shape of the creative life cycle. This implies that our opportunities for creativity are not dictated by our professions, but are determined by our own choices and abilities."

Looking at these two very different approaches to creativity, which do you think you are? The experimentalist is constantly on the search, but never quite attaining that perfect work. The process becomes the important part. They usually have a lot of things going and find that the "goal" keeps moving forward - the more they know, they more that want to know and generally have a lifetime of exploring. This is in contrast with the conceptualist, for them it is the idea which becomes paramount. That flash of insight, which is often planned minutely, and then the process of production is almost an after thought. This type tends to have those big splashes...but after that...not so much. I'm not sure if we can choose which type we want to be - but hey, why not give it a shot? 

I think life-long creativity has certain elements: must be willing to take a risk, to be uncomfortable, to risk looking foolish or awkward or even (especially) stupid! Turning off that "voice" in your head usually helps. 

Change, which often rides with its friend Risk.  As we get older we get more established - we can end up using the same set of solutions. Some of that is self-preservation so we don't have to reinvent the wheel every day, but if we're not careful, our avoidance of change can stop our growth. On the other hand, it's not enough to gobble up the latest trends and move with them - find a balance that allows you to bring in the best of the new and blend it with the strengths you already have. 

Obsession. It's been my experience that, once I get serious about a goal, then solutions start to present themselves. It's not that the solutions weren't always there, but in the act of identifying the goal...we start to understand what we're looking for.

• Persistance...just sticking with the process even after failing more than a few times. This goes with a willingness to work hard, to push yourself.

Be An Outsider - beginner's mind if you will. Being a "newby" with just enough information to do something, but not so much that you start limiting yourself, is a great way to stay continuously creative.

Good luck...let me know how it goes...

Thursday, September 6, 2012

In Praise of Small Towns: Rediscovering Your Roots

Life in a small town

For the past week I've been visiting my hometown and it has enveloped my bruised grown-up self with a warm mix of community and nostalgia. It's a small town in northern California, the kind where ex-cheerleaders slowly go to seed over the decades and your friends think you're more brilliant than you really are. Where the slow lazy days of summer get you out of your car and onto a bike. Where strangers say hello as they pass by on the street and everyone gives up the right of way at an intersection...except for young guys in pickup trucks...but they're that way everywhere. Most days are highlighted with the pleasant surprise of running into friends or relatives and you often find a bag of home grown tomatoes on your doorstep from a neighbor.  Hard to believe? I totally agree...but it does exist and I'm being wooed by it. 

When I was growing up I couldn't wait to leave and get on with my life. Now I return two to three times a year on holidays, or when needed. As a kid I was oblivious to the incredible beauty of the surroundings. An agricultural center (rice and almonds), the fields put on a rhythmic and constant series of changing views. Over time, each visit home was also punctuated by pilgrimages to remembered sites. As the years went by the sites evolved and recording those changes became a more central interest in my creative life. 

What I love about L.A. is how much variety it has. On one street I can go through Japan, Korea, Mexico, El Salvador,'s a movable feast. I like being able to find the last letterpress printer, seeing great art whenever I want and the first run of that obscure foreign film. It's been my home for a long time and I love telling its stories. 

But small towns have indie bookstores, accessible music scenes, real bike paths and a sense of connection to the people around you that I find soothing to the soul. It's said "you can't go home again" but in many ways home itself moves forward to meet you as you continue on your own path. New faces inhabit most of my old haunts...but the former imprint does remain and so the experience becomes this interesting blend of the new and old - connecting to my younger (wilder) self without the intensity of the actual experience.

I fully understand that a big part of my gratitude at this homecoming comes from being somewhere other than the stage of my recent troubles...but what I've truly gotten from this experience is the reminder that there are many ways to live our lives...with many paths to happiness. It was very important to realize that my current life is not the only one - in a way it's much like my experience with creativity - learning to go beyond the idea of reality that my brain has mapped out becomes a pathway to peace and happiness.

Thursday, August 30, 2012

Creativity: Can Less Be More?

Once you have an idea, should you just tap that well until it runs dry? Will it increase the amount of ideas you have on a regular basis...what if you tried a very different approach? You might be surprised  that the idea of limiting creative output interests me. 

Years ago, I was fortunate enough to stumble upon the perfect (for me) photo project. It was Val Verde, a faded Montecito estate that was just starting a renewal process after years of slumber. I was given full run...completely unshackled by any restrictions - actually that's not totally true - they had a signature view of the stairs I was not to take...very "Garden of Eden."

The project was the culmination of all my interests at the time: beauty, architecture, how people live, old California. It became a very conscious choice on my part that I would limit how much I shot on each visit. A big part of this was a desire to work in a different method. I had just come out of a commercial career (foodie photog) and when I added my schooling on top of that - it felt like I'd spend two decades working as a hitman. Show up - get total coverage, and then get out... So I consciously chose to take a different approach with VV. Instead of coming in day one and covering the joint, I would limit my output to one box of Polaroid film (I was shooting 4x5 Polaroid negatives, which is 20 sheets). This would force me to slow down, take the place in, get to understand it, and myself, as we both evolved over time. I think it was a successful process - and it gave me a chance to grow in a different way as an artist. 

My lovely Val Verde project became a the time I felt I should honor their single restriction as part of the trust I'd been given. However, a few years ago the estate fell into bankruptcy and was sold multiple times. For all I know, that signature view is gone...and I wish I'd at least gotten it on film. Here are more of the images from the project. 

Creative Challenge: find a place, object person...a subject matter that you're drawn to, and then choose a time span. Maybe for 90 days you're going to take a single shot of it a day - this could be changed in so many ways, but the basic groupings are Time, Subject, Method of Capture or Output - this practice could be interesting in other genres as well - a writing assignment, drawing, poetry...anything, but the main idea is to allow yourself and the subject time to grow together. 

This post was inspired by an experience I had while reading Patti Smith's book Just Kids. I was struck by an idea (on a totally unrelated subject) and immediately afterwards I got this feeling "I should stop reading once I get my idea." Maybe I just like to savor great moments...

Thursday, August 23, 2012

How To Stay Creative in Tough Times

I've been in education for the past 15 years...and it's no secret that times are tough for the arts in education. Recently, that issue has struck much closer to home and I'm in the process of trying to figure it out. So many questions immediately came to my mind: how am I going to stay creative, what happens now,  and more importantly, how do I make sense of this experience - give it meaning?  I think we all  struggle with what happens in difficult times - economic or otherwise.  Here's a few things that I'm trying, which hopefully will help you stay creative through the curve balls life throws us.

The first one, oddly enough, has been gratitude. I feel grateful for everything I've gotten in the past, but I also feel grateful for the sense of connection I have to everyone around me. I'm not the only person that this is happening to . . . in many ways it's sort of the human condition. Filling yourself with a sense of gratitude tends to create a sense of solidness, which is what I find I really need right now.

Next, what to do with the feelings?  Well maybe try not avoiding them. The weird thing about creativity is that, while I don't think it's a fragile flower,  I do think it's a muscle and it's somehow connected to a sense of openness and a willingness to stay aware. So, not avoiding the feelings -  experiencing them, is part of staying present.  I'm realizing that it's okay. . . it's okay to feel not okay.

Finally, finding a way to make the experience meaningful has led me to ask, can I make art about the experience? That's my next goal for my growth as an artist - to find a way to be more personal about the stories I'm telling. It seems to me that telling a story about finding one's way in a difficult world is something that we all need.

I thought I'd finish up with some thoughtful and encouraging quotes - Winston Churchill was a real fighter, and in tough times that's what we I'm starting with him:

"If you're going through hell...keep going."

"A pessimist sees the difficulty in every opportunity; an optimist sees the opportunity in every difficulty."

"Success consists of going from failure to failure without loss of enthusiasm."
Winston Churchill

"The most common way people give up their power is by thinking they don't have any."

"Don't wait around for other people to be happy for you. Any happiness you get you've got to make yourself."
Alice Walker

"All changes, even the most longed for, have their melancholy; for what we leave behind us is a part of ourselves; we must die to one life before we can enter another."
Anatole France

"If we don't change, we don't grow. If we don't grow, we aren't really living."
Gail Sheehy

"Faith is taking the first step even when you don't see the whole staircase."
Martin Luther King, Jr.

"To conquer fear is the beginning of wisdom."
Bertrand Russell

"March on. Do not tarry. To go forward is to move toward perfection. March on, and fear not the thorns, or the sharp stones on life's path."
Khalil Gibran

"We are always in transition. If you can just relax with that, you'll have no problem."
Trungpa Rinpoche

"Nothing and no one is fixed. Whether the reality of change is a source of freedom for us or a source of horrific anxiety makes a significant difference."
Pema Chodron

I chose this week's image because The Blue Bird of Happiness was one of my favorite books as a kid.  Blue Bird flour is a prime ingredient in Navajo fry bread (which always makes me happy). Here's an article about it. 

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Money Does Not Equal Creativity

When you think about people's  early films...there's a certain zest to them at that point and I think part of the reason is it really is important to have to deal with compromises in creativity. When you have every resource available to you, it often means that all you do is follow your first path, the first thing you thought of and you lose the magic of discovery.

Here's a good example - I was in a Kamikaze show, which you can read about in this previous post - and I knew I really wanted to do something different, still tied to who I am and what I do, but with a different quality. I wasn't quite sure what that was, but I knew it was out there somewhere. I also knew I didn't want it to be about a traditional approach to photography, where you take the image and then you put it in a frame...I didn't want it to go there. 

I've always loved handmade papers and I think a good technique when working creatively is to drift towards the things that inspire you.  With paper, I love the tactile quality of it...especially handmade paper - I love the irregularity of it. I'm still amazed that we live like Pharaohs...think about how hard it was for the average person to be able to record their thoughts or create something on paper...anyway...I digress. 

As I said, I had this idea...I really wanted the image to almost come "through" the paper...I was thinking it should be very light and so I tried some great handmade paper that I'd had for ages, found an image and ran it through. Initially it wasn't impressive - but then I saw it back lit, with the light coming through it ... it was just astounding. "OMG this is what I'm going to do, I'm going to do these images and then I'm going to put them on light boxes." Then I thought "OMG, where am I going to get a bunch of light boxes? I called around to see if I could rent them easily - I didn't want to spend a ton of money. The show needed to be a creative endeavour, I didn't want it to be about "Oh, let's drop another grand." 

So...I kept working and eventually moved into a different kind of image. I've always loved the way a bed looks in the morning, before it gets made, where it has that imprint of what happened that night. Loved the abstract quality of it as's just sort of this shining thing. I thought, "okay great, I'll photograph that and just print it really light as if the light was coming through it." So I did a couple of those...and it just didn't move me either. Finally, taking some of my own advice, I thought well, what if instead of making it very light, I make it very dark, I just sink it into the paper instead of wanting it to lift out of the paper. I did the first print...and it was love instantaneously. 

I'm really happy with my new direction and you know, if I had unlimited funds...I would have just sent some of "daddy's money" over to make light boxes. That's why I think it's important to have restrictions. They make us more creative...they make us come up with more solutions. You don't find salvation through a new lens, computer...whatever, you find it in the everyday struggle to deal with the realities life sends us.

One of my happiest re-discoveries in this process was the paper shop McManus & Morgan Paper. It's located over by McArthur Park in LA.  Gary Wolin is the owner and here's a great video, Ink&Paper, about his business and the Aardvark Letterpress next door - which is the last letterpress printer in LA.

ink&paper from Ben Proudfoot on Vimeo.

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Pretending I'm in Paris

coffee, paris, meditation, imagination

In college I had a friend who used to say "I love sitting in the cafeteria, drinking coffee, pretending I'm in New York, and I love sitting in New York, drinking coffee, pretending I'm in Paris." My weekly ritual involves going to Porto's in the morning, drinking coffee and pretending I'm in Argentina - Porto's has a stronger latin vibe. 

There's no denying that there's this mystique about Paris, a hold-over from a Hemingway era - that was where you went to become an artist - to really break free and become something new. Even now, I wonder if I should be living somewhere else - what if I moved to San Francisco (as close to Paris as Cali gets)? Would life be better? Would my art career suddenly take wings? Would I break free from my pre-conceptions and become the totally new 2.0 version of me? 

Is there something wrong with pretending I'm somewhere else? I do it most of the time, because let's face it, Burbank isn't that exciting and for some reason L.A. lends itself to pretending to be somewhere else. The fact is I'm okay with living in L.A., but I don't really live in the "real" version of it. I'm always hunting for some romantic idealized "noir" past and I know I'm not alone. There's the Blade Runner version of a melting pot distopia, the Heat version of late night isolation and, my favorite, the Double Indemnity version of the valley with its hills, palms and Spanish Revival architecture. 

Does it matter where you live? My step-daughter moved to New York after graduation and it's truly the right place for her - she lives a lovely hipster life in Brooklyn and you can feel the energy she gets from her surroundings. But what about the rest of us that can't pull up stakes and move - how do we work our lives so that our environment feeds us? 

The french have a term terrior, which means "from the land." It's used to describe how a specific location can impart a characteristic to wine. It's a fairly ancient belief, that location, climate, and soil leave an imprint. So where we live really does make a difference - and maybe it's important to feel more grounded and think about how where you live leaves its mark on you. I'm still very moved by that older version of L.A. and that's what get's me up and out each week shooting and finding new ways to tell its stories. 

On the other hand, I'm still going to Porto's and imagine the broad boulevards of Buenos Aries are outside filled with beautiful, cosmopolitan Argentinians. 

Thursday, August 2, 2012

Finding Inspiration...Martin Lewis

Several months ago I received some very good news, that my "shoot for the moon" project had been first reaction...a bit of good ol'fashioned panic. Yes, it had been something I'd wanted to do for quite a while. Yes, I believe I do have the basic skills for it. But the real question remained, it was a big creative challenge, and how to you accomplish a creative challenge? How do you create something new (at least for you?).

As I've written in my About sidebar, the title for this blog came as a response from a friend to my question "what am I going to do", and her response was "just start with the first image." So often, that's the problem with tackling a new idea or finding a new direction. You can't take on the entire mountain, you've got to break it into small steps and can really only look just in front of you to the first guidepost.

For me, I'm still exploring how to get started with my project so I'm trying a very wide range of things. My first step is to move intuitively towards whatever I'm drawn to. If it's a location - I go there, if it's an artist - I get a bunch of books of their work and start reviewing them.  Now that we have Google, it's so easy to find artwork and I started doing searches on words that interested me and then saving images from those listings.

One of the interesting artists I came across is Martin Lewis. A great side note on googling that name is I got completely sidetracked into the Rat Pack...

Anyway, I completely fell in love with his sense of highlight and shadow and the way his images seem to tell a story about an individual even though it's within the context of a large city.  If you see similarities between his work and Edward Hopper - you're very insightful - they were friends and Hopper turned to Lewis for instruction on his etchings. I see a lot of similarities between the two artists. This image, Late Traveler, on the top left, really reminds me of the Hopper painting New York Movie (below). Something about the quality of light and the composition - once again that separation between the enclosed smaller space and the larger world.

I don't really know yet how, or if, these artists I'm researching will impact my larger project, but I do see their impact on a series I started with my vintage Tower camera (image below). I love the sense of isolation within the images and I'm drawing on Lewis' aesthetic of a warm tone, with a lot of expanded tonality and deep shadows.'s a start...