Thursday, June 28, 2012

Dan Shepherd - Art, Science and Business

A few weeks ago I attended several openings at Bergamot Station in Santa Monica - one of which was Dan Shepherd's Blinded by Science exhibition at dnj Gallery. I'd met Dan at several previous events and was interested in his story of insight and change on this project. Dan's got a perfect background for this blog, starting from a small high school environment where students were encouraged to try everything, then moving on to multiple degrees in Japanese and Conservation. 

He discovered his love of art while living in Japan in the 80's. This was when he got to stand in front of big paintings (Rothko, Picasso), tuning everything else out, and just intensely experience them. I'd like to thank Dan for being my first interview - we had an enjoyable afternoon talking about everything from that moment of inspiration, to art and business. This post is a very condensed version of our conversation and I hope it will give some good insights into your own creative experience. 

AM: How did you get into photography? 

I'm relatively new to photography. I'd always done art on the side and, in 2006, I was living in New York and making very small drawings that I was interested in changing the scale of. I envisioned photographing these drawings and enlarging them through a microscope - I wanted them large in scale, with texture - not just a flat photograph - almost a "Franz Kline" feeling of the gestural stroke. 

I decided to get a "real" DSLR and then, because I'm always interested in learning everything I can about a new tool, I enrolled at the International Center for Photography and started taking classes. New York is such a photogenic city and now I was able to walk around and take the images I had always previously seen as paintings. Walking around with my camera, taking photographs, I really felt in control. I could take what I wanted and because it was digital, I could see it right away, much like the experience of drawing. I started to see the camera as a paint brush - I understood what was happening inside of it and wanted to turn those photons into something. I also wanted to leave room for something that couldn't be planned for, serendipity, if you will.

That tension between control and the unexpected is what I'm looking for. My initial work drew from my love of abstract art, that aesthetic I already had as an artist. As I learned more about the camera, I explored using movement and light to draw onto the sensor. That was the start of my Battle of Brooklyn project, drawing with a pinpoint of light at a very specific time of day. This series was where I really moved from "taking" to "making" images.

AM: Tell me about how you made this more recent artistic jump in your work. How did you go from thinking about gardens as your work (as a conservationist) to making them your artistic fodder? 

A big part of it is I wanted the tree to be fodder, but I just hadn't been able to do it. I had perhaps a subconscious intention. I liked plants, knew a lot about them, knew we needed I found them very important to me personally...but they hadn't been important to me artistically. They hadn't given me that feeling I got from standing in front of paintings, or the feeling I got from the process of drawing and painting. 

I had just come from an exhibition of Abstract Expressionist paintings and was walking through Central Park. I knew what kind of art inspired me, I knew that I liked being in the park and that I felt very grounded in how to use my camera. As I looked up, there was blue, green, yellow - my brain was on a million other things - but looking up, seeing how the sky looked - I took a shot. I still have that shot and within the first three attempts, I got an image that's up in the gallery now (see the image directly below this paragraph). It all came together by happenstance, that experience of being structured but still leaving space for something unplanned to happen. My next step was to see if it was repeatable (which it was), because if I can't repeat something, it doesn't mean anything. 

AM: One of the concepts you've discussed is the idea of "failing fast." What does this mean? 

I give the advice of "fail, and fail quickly" often. It's the only time you really learn something. When you're trying a new venture, in business or art, you want to start doing it as quick as you can. Just try it, it may not work (and that's totally cool), but hopefully, you're the type of person who will learn something from that experience and try again. If all else fails, "try, try again" is really true for someone like me. If I want success, then I have to fail quickly while I still have the resources to try again. Of course, failing sucks, because it sucks to lose, but I'd rather have failed than get to the end of my life without having really won anything - so it works both ways. Plus, there are lots of ways to define losing - it's not enought to be successful at something if you don't enjoy it - then that's losing too.

AM: For you, how does business and art mix? Can you use what you learned in business in your career as an artist? 

Much of what I learned in business actually works in art as well. Project management stuff, laying out goals, figuring out if they're achievable or definable. Of course you want to avoid defining them too much - to leave room for serendipity - but just enough to get you off the ground. When I meet successful artists, who are still working, they're very organized and it helps to be professional when working with galleries or clients - to deliver when you say you're going to. You've got to be organized if you want to make a living at anything. 

Another thing you learn in the business world, is that people don't fund projects - they fund people. It's not enough to have the coolest project in the world, you've got to be able to convey it to others - people are impressed by the person. I recently took a grant writing workshop with photo-journalist Donald Weber, who always has multiple projects going at the same time. When he comes up with a new idea, he sits down and writes 300 words about it, telling its story. He's got these all together so when he runs into someone who asks what he's doing, he's got ammo.

It's one thing to have ideas and quite another to have them written down on paper - because now you have at least four sentences in your head that you can say about your idea. If you can't articulate your ideas in a clear, concise way to make them understood by others, it becomes difficult to get the outside world (whether it's funding or a gallery) on board. This is part of why I do the Open Show, to give people a platform to talk about their work. If you don't practice taking about it, you'll never get good at it. 

If you're writing a proposal, tell a story, talk about a problem and tell people about your vision - talk critically about it. You're telling a story about why this is a problem or why it's important and (towards the end) what you're going to do about it. Even if you just want to make pretty pictures of blue swirls...okay...why? What's your vision? There's a certain amount of salesmanship to art and it helps to develop that ability to tell us why what you're doing is important and meaningful. 

Dan currently splits his time between the visual arts and working for conservation organizations. He has a Masters in Environmental Science from Columbia University and an International Diploma in Plant Conservation from the Royal Botanic Garden, Kew, England, as well as a BA in Japanese from the University of Oregon. To see more of his work online, please visit:  Blinded by Science is currently on view at dnj Gallery, Bergamot Station, Santa Monica, CA, June 9 - July 21st, 2012. For more information:  All images © Dan Shepherd. 

Once again, thank you Dan for participating in this process.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Finding your way

Do you believe in a book's ability to change your life? That moment when you're reading and you literally feel a shift in your understanding of the world, or better yet, yourself? For me, the first book that really did that was Viktor Frankl's Man's Search for Meaning with his revelation that even in the midst of hell, he had one freedom left - to decide how he was going to respond to the experience (a vast simplification here on my part). 

path, creativity, mental block, creative block, mental mapping

Another book that I read a few years ago, similarly changed my understanding of how we think. The book was Deep Survival: Who Lives, Who Dies, and Why by Laurence Gonzales. One of those moments happened when I read about an experiment done by a group of Harvard psychologists.  They took two groups of people and showed them a video of basketball players passing the ball. One group was given the directive "tell me what you see" while the second group was asked to "count the number of passes."

What neither group realized was that, in the middle of the video, a person in a gorilla costume would walk through the action, visible for about five seconds. Afterwards they asked the participants if they noticed anything odd. The "tell me what you see" group remarked on the gorilla, which was normal enough - but over half of the other group never noticed the gorilla. What the psychologists found was that the open ended order "tell me what you see" created a sense of curiosity about the environment and allowed the viewers to take in unexpected experiences. This differed from the "count the passes" directive which created a closed system, restricting the viewers to a specific task. 

The author likened it to a magic trick, where you are asked to watch the doing so, you create a mental map of the world and ignore anything that might be outside of that expectation. It was a rather extreme illustration of the idea that we see what we expect to see. This probably explains why we usually feel so energized when we travel, or are out of our own environment - we have no idea what to expect, so we're totally open to whatever's going to happen.  

The biggest block to finding new directions is just getting out of the box you're in - but the question is, now can you get out of something you've stopped being aware of? How do you climb a new mountain when you're not sure which valley you're in? As artists, if we start with a fairly strong mental map of the art world and what is (and isn't) art, doesn't this limit what we can attempt or what we feel comfortable putting into the dialog?

So, it seems that the trick is to find a way to stay curious and open. To put aside the directives we may have about the kind of work we need to be making...and just tell the world "what we see."

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Intuition and Creativity

intuition, creativity, age, photography, vintage, subconscious,
This year I'm concentrating on growing as an artist and a big part of that has been figuring out how to get out of my own box. Recently, I've been reading a book about using intuition - it was recommended by a friend, artist Linda Parnell, who's one of the most unusual and creative artists I know.

The book (Practical Intuition by Laura Day) posits intuition as a sixth sense - intuition isn't magical, it's the process of opening up to what you're actually feeling - and then using your experience to evaluate and inform those feelings. It is the process of becoming more sensitive to your environment and thoughts you might otherwise have been unaware of.

In many ways I feel I already use it in teaching, since part of being a teacher is responding to, or asking questions about, the intuitive feelings you get from a student or their work. Some areas are almost too painful to touch, and I will often ask a question on the edge of an issue to give the student a safe space in which to enter into the dialog, or ignore it. Other intuitive feelings fall in the category of insight and are merely a benefit of having the clarity to see another's issue without being distracted by ownership of it. It's always easier to see from the outside. 

What I find interesting about the author's approach to intuition is the idea that it starts by asking a question, and then you use that question to inform what you need to notice in the world around you. This feels logical because when you've chosen to become aware or sensitized to something, you will see it everywhere. So, intention seems be to a big part of intuition.

This past week I worked on an exercise that asks you to take a moment, relax deeply and bring a visual image into your mind. The next step is to allow the image to make up a story about itself and follow it through the narrative until you feel it's ended. Afterwards you examine the beginning and end images, thinking about the changes between the two, and what qualities seem to exist in those changes. I started with an image of a shining city semi-submerged in a vast lake or ocean. Through the narrative that evolved, I saw the image as part of a millennia  cycle of waters advancing and receding, with the city's inhabitants doing a "sleeping beauty" cycle as well.  It didn't feel scary, more like one of those "circle of life" type stories.

When I was done with the exercise, I decided to start putting these ideas into action and create an image based on this vision. So, the above image is called "The Waters Rise" and shows the start of the cycle as the waves softly move into the forest.

What are your thoughts about creativity? Where do ideas come from? Do you trust your process? Do you use intuition?

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Vintage Cameras - a new voice

photography, vintage cameras, the bridge, chico, river
I love working with vintage cameras and buy them when I can. What's cool about them is that each one has their own voice. In an age of digital cameras - even with Hipstamatic - it's still really nice to find something very uncontrollable that has a quality built over years - the true essence of a unique voice. The above image was taken with this 120 Tower camera that I found in a local vintage shop for $28. The Tower was made by Sears in the 50's and 60's.

I'm starting a new series and am trying to find its voice. Vintage cameras allow for an interesting lack of control, which I appreciate for its "zen" of image-making mentality. Plus, let's face it, they're so cool. What I really love, is that nobody takes me seriously when I'm working with this, so I can pretty much go anywhere and shoot.

Buying vintage is fairly easy, remember that they were made for the general public and it's still just basically a dark box with (maybe) a lens.

1. Shutter: this is the first item I check to see if there's any point in continuing. Sure you can fix shutters, but I want to take images...not repair cameras. I like to open the back of the camera because it's easier to see how the shutter's working when you hold it up to the light. This process can vary by type.

• To open one of the older box cameras - on the side there's a metal winder for advancing film, you need to pull this out before the back will slide off. There may be a few "latches" that you just undo. Once the back is off, then just click the shutter as you look through the back of the camera. I look for the cameras that have a tab I can switch from "I" to "T" which lets me do long exposures at night.

• To open the newer roll cameras (like the Tower) there is usually some kind of rotating switch on the back or bottom of the camera, just turn and you should be able to pull the back off. With the newer cameras need you to "cock" the shutter by rotating the film advance knob. The upside and downside of this type is you can't do multiple exposures. My Tower had a timer function, but if you look closely you'll see it's broken (the missing gray button on the right side).

2. Format: now that the back is off, you'll usually see a label that lists what size film it takes. I've decided that I'm sticking with what I can find at a good camera store (yea Freestyle) and I like a larger format negative for image quality. Of course this is a bit ironic when you consider I often leave the dust on the lens. 120 film is inexpensive and they still make it in many speeds. It's been around since the early 1900's and is a roll format that's backed with paper - which has markings for 16, 12 and 8 shot cameras (rectangular or square). You'll find a lot of 620 cameras, it's the same film, just on slightly smaller reels, so if you're really devoted, you can reload 120 onto a 620 reel.

3. The Lens: first advice is DON'T clean the lens until after you've shot a test roll. That lovely atmosphere in the top shot...dust from half a century of hanging around. Since it's dust on the lens it acts as a diffusion filter, if you find the effect too fogging, try cleaning it in stages. All I know is I found this out the hard way. Otherwise, it's great if your lens has some type of focusing mechanism and even better if it's got aperture controls. On the primitive versions it's a tab you pull out that has a series of various sized holes that go in front of the lens. Simple, yes, but remember you can't do half-stops (crescent-shaped images).

4. Folding Cameras: folding cameras are the ones that have bellows. The older ones were considered "pocket cameras" which says something about pockets back then.  The fun trick is figuring out how to open them...there's a "button" you push, it's under the surface material and it's usually on one of the flat sides. This will pop open the front, then gently pull it down and pull the lens out on the track. Many of these have leaks in the bellows, but you can usually tell by looking at them if they're in good shape. Some people bring flashlights, I just hold it up to the light with the back open. The back usually opens with a slider on the rounded ends.

5. Viewfinder: odds are that you'll barely be able to see through these. Sometimes it's a real lens, but in the box cameras it's just a very dirty magnifying piece of glass. Don't worry about it, they're not very accurate anyway. Remember the image is flipped.

That's the basics of how to get started with vintage cameras. You can find them online, at yard sales, flea name it. Occasionally you're going to find someone who thinks they're worth much more than they are. Just because they're old, doesn't mean they should be expensive. Most of mine have been under $40. For film processing, I've been doing mine manually...but there are plenty of places which can process and even scan if you want that extra step. Several that do mail order are The Icon, Richard Photo Lab and A&I in Hollywood.

Bottom line though - remember, it's not the camera that makes it an interesting image - it's the partnership in how it translates your voice and vision.