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.