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...