First up: "Live fast and die quicker." As Americans we seem to think that living brutal, jam packed 18 hour days is a smart, productive and reasonable way to live. But as my friend the cardiologist says, "The faster you live the quicker you die." And the irrational desire to do everything in your life in a rush also serves to kill your creativity. Example: You learn 50 things about lighting this week and intend to learn 50 newer things about lighting next week. This presumes that knowledge is some sort of commodity that can be put in your mental bank to be called on when needed. But the reality is that knowledge must be integrated and adjusted in your brain if you want to use it successfully. Each step in learning must build on a base of knowledge that has to be experimented with, tried, assimilated and personalized before it becomes worthwhile. You could drink an entire bottle of Vodka in one sitting but you might not admire the productivity gains that would ensue.
I've looked back over the last twenty five years and tried to understand how I learned what I know now. This is the process that comes into focus as I adjust the "way back" machine and distill how I grasped knowledge from the thousands of random facts that I tried to grab like a glutton at an all you-can-eat Mexican food buffet: I learned an intellectual concept like "depth of field" from one of the Time/Life book, The Camera. I looked at the pictures that were given as examples and I thought I really got it. Then I would go out with my camera and practice by shooting everything for weeks with my 50mm lens set at f2. I would photograph my girlfriend and her friends and the salt shaker on the restaurant table and the lone, surviving flower in the pot on my back porch at this aperture like it was a sacred thing. And then I would stand in the darkroom for hours rolling film and clanking around with developing tanks. Then I would print the images that I thought looked coolest (Usually my girlfriend in her underwear or something else prurient). I'd come to the conclusion that my lens wasn't spectacular at f2 and I would come to understand that maybe f2.8 or f4 would be enough depth of field to keep the important body parts sharp while also keeping the eyes sharp and putting all the non essentials out of focus. Several weeks of daily shooting, film development and printing would be enough to give me a certain mastery of that one technique.
Then I'd go back and read some more and realize that the effect I had been perfecting might be better served by the use of a longer lens. So I would go back and spend another couple of weeks shooting the half naked girlfriend until I mastered that technique. And so it would continue. At the same time I was learning about light and lighting but I also took that in one step at a time, working on it until I had achieved a certain mastery.
In a year or two I finally got the hang of: shooting with good exposure. Using the right focal length and aperture. Developing Tri-x to get the right tonal balance and grain structure. Printing on graded, fiber based paper. And the learning was built on trial and error and what my swimming coach would call, "time in the water." That is the great secret. Not trying to swim as fast as you can until your heart bursts or your muscles cramp but spending time getting to know the water. Getting comfortable in the water.
Now I look on the web and everyone is begging to have all the secrets to photography right away. But they are missing the biggest secret. That it is the time you spend learning one step at a time and integrating it into your technique that matters most. It's time in the water. Or time making trials and errors that leads you to the kind of understanding of any craft that you get with your gut and your heart and not just with your head. You have to live your craft. It's not enough just to "understand" it.
But the real question is: "What's your hurry?" For the professionals who are reading this column the answer might be revenue but I would respond that trying to push the curve on learning stuff is just like trying to force someone to love you. Never works. Love grows over time. Love grows with respect. Love grows comfortably. It's the same way with a craft that you love. So, whether valid or not, professionals might feel they have some excuse.
But what can be said for people for whom photography is a hobby? Is it more important to have an endless, shallow progression of short affairs or to fall in love and take your time growing the romance? Too much metaphor? Maybe not. Most of the people I know who are incredible photographers are incredible because photography is a true love, not just an obstacle course to plow through. And the love doesn't come from bragging rights of having mastered the style of the day but in having refined the style of a lifetime. And that's the real key.
So what if you can memorize David Hill's style, David LaChappelle's style and Platon's style and haphazardly regurgitate them on command? It doesn't move the game forward for anyone and the endless mimicry will only leave you feeling shallow and unfulfilled. The move forward comes when you master technique because it unlocks a look that makes your own style possible. The game moves forward when technique becomes subordinate to the subject. The game moves forward when you show work that evolved from your personal and unique response to the object in front of your eyes.
Many newcomers to the craft have the mistaken point of view that copying the work of the people they admire in the field is part of some learning curve that will inform and instruct them in a good way. But do you see this in literature? Do you see groups of English majors copying Milton's poem "Paradise Lost" in order to become better poets? Are art students tracing Picasso paintings in order to become better painters? Do dancers put diagrams on the floor in order to follow in the exact footsteps of the master dancers? No. It's silly. If you copy the masters the most you can expect to become is a poor, diluted copy of your emulated idol. And that serves no one well.
The beauty of our humanity is our diverse and individual nature. Technique should exist to be of service to our diversity, not to squelch it. Learning should be the process of integrating knowledge and technique in a way that builds mastery. It's counterproductive to see your part in learning as being the absorbing "saw dust" for someone else's "brain dump vomit".
So how do you do learn for life? The first step is to slow down and absorb knowledge at an optimum rate. Don't be a binge drinker of facts and step-by-step learning. Be a sipper, a taster.
I often leave the house with one old film camera, equipped with one lens and one roll of film. I spend an afternoon walking around with the camera on a tripod looking for the kind of shots that will make that one lens sing. If I do this enough I come to know the lens. I come to trust it. Then I go out with a different lens and go thru the same process. On Saturday, after my chores and obligations I went for a walk around Austin's Lady Bird Lake with an old Mamiya 645 camera and a 210mm f4 lens. I took one roll of 220 film which gave me 30 potential images. No screen on the back. No Polaroid test film. I slowed down and carefully chose my shots. The tripod helped me concentrate on framing. The central area meter got me in the ballpark but needed to be interpreted and tweaked with the experience of 20 years of shooting transparency film.
I shot one frame for every scene I thought had promise. On Monday I'll take that film to the lab and when it comes back I'll study each frame to see what I got right and what I got wrong and that will slowly seep into the correct part of the photography brain and become sorted as good knowledge base for future shoots.
Today (Sunday) I went out with the lens that is the Yin to the 210mm's Yang, the 45mm. I walked through a different part of town and stopped here and there to line up a shot and work on composition. I spent two hours out shooting and I learned some important things about composing with a 45mm lens on a 645 camera but I didn't actually take any shots. I didn't see anything that looked just right.
And that brings up my next point: Sometimes just going out and looking, really looking at stuff is more important than "bagging trophies". When you feel like you've got to come back with something you burn film, you burn energy and you burn your future discrimination. You start to settle for "interesting" instead of "exactly the way I wanted to see this." And that will kill your eye and your art. It's okay to go out loaded and come back without having fired a shot. It's a way of saying that the art exists for the art not for the sake of goals and quotas. And really, would you want it any other way?
My favorite story about this is one my friend Wyatt McSpadden told me about his project to shoot BBQ joints all over Texas for his book, Texas BBQ. The book was a personal project and he told me that the difference between doing it as personal work and doing it as an assignment was huge. He once drove four hours to a BBQ joint in Texas that someone had raved about. He was anxious to get a great shot but when he got there nothing about the scene resonated with him. Nothing tickled his person vision. Nothing excited him. He told me that had it been an assignment he would have fallen back on his bag of lighting tricks or he would have put on a "trick" lens or something to salvage a shot. Since he was working on his own dime he had his own permission to look at the place, reject it as a photo subject and to drive away. Which he did. He wasn't willing to waste his creative force on a shot that didn't reflect his point of view. His style. His way.
And if you look at the images in his book each one is a masterpiece. Not just "pretty good" or "good enough". Each one is jewel like in its objective measure and not one is a piece of colored glass. You only become an artist at this level by having the courage to reject "second" quality seeing. Or as every book on negotiation tells us, you only have power when you are able and willing to say, "no!" and stick to your guns. Only then do you have the leverage you need to win your negotiation or become true to your own vision.
Wow. That was a rant! But I'm not done yet.....
I have one more heartfelt piece of advice for anyone shooting digital cameras to make portraits for art as opposed to portraits on commission (although I believe the advice is relevant for commercial shooters as well.....) and that is to turn off the review function when you are shooting in earnest. Oh my God, that seems so counterintuitive. But here's why.
If you use the little screen on the back of your D3 or your Canon 1DS mkXXX you will self limit your own creativity. You will be shooting, worrying about the number of RAW frames you have left, and wanting that immediate feedback and you will get to the point where you see a frame that looks "perfect" to you in the moment. You'll show it to everyone in your entourage and everyone will agree that it is the "perfect" frame. And you will stop shooting and go on to the next photographic opportunity. But creativity is never so simple and so quantifiable. In a sense this truncated reaction to your art is like castrating your muse. You'll never know how good it would have been if you had let the shoot run its natural course. You may have been minutes from the crescendo, seconds from orgasm only to have looked at the little authoritarian screen and called the game before the goal.
I'll make the analogy with shooting portraits and seduction but it's the same in any kind of iterative photographic art. When you begin the portrait process there is a lot of exploration and experimentation that is conceptually a lot like flirting. Then there is a long and involved collaborative exchange that is like foreplay and then the fine art portrait session enters a brief period where all the frames seem like magic. The images are superb. The constant shifting and experimenting is exhausted and yet you and your subject still dance around looking for some pose or expression you might have missed. Finally you both realize that the energy has been dissipated. You smoke the metaphoric cigarette and go your own ways. But the secret of this photographic intersection is that without instant feedback you feel compelled to push the boundaries, to explore new ways, to push further. If you constantly shot Polaroid tests or slavishly looked at the screen you might be tempted to stop at the "flirtation" or the "foreplay" and have missed the magic of the photoshoot.
In these situations the feedback gives you just enough information to kill your further initiative and to render you ultimately unfulfilled. It's enough to use the screen and the histogram at the very beginning of the shoot in order to make sure the lights are set correctly and the exposure works but any more than that and it becomes both a crutch for the weak and a diabolical mechanism bent on pushing you to a premature ending for all involved.
The "not knowing" interjects a level of uncertainty in the mix. The uncertainty is part of the essential faith in creation that gives your muse room to operate and gives your mind more incentive to explore and expand. Turn off the screen and turn on the potential to go beyond what you currently recognize as being "good enough" and venture into realm where you go beyond your own expectations (which provide a concrete limit) and into the realm of the possible, flecked with chance, which provides the fresh air and faith in intuition that breath life into photography.
Final Part of the long Sunday Rant. To consider yourself an professional artist you have to also become a professional appreciator of photography. It's not enough to know what the top ten "hot shooters" of your generation produce. In order to get the "inside joke" or the "true enlightenment" you really have to know what all happened before you decided to take an interest in photography. Really interested in portraiture? Well, Platon and Peter Yang are pretty good but you might as well go mining in the same shafts they did and get inspired by the giants that inspired them. People like Richard Avedon, Irving Penn, Edward Steichen, and Alfred Steiglitz. Knowing only the guys who shoot for Maxim is like knowing what's on sale at Wal-Mart. If that's the only place you shop then you might think that plaid, poly slacks are high fashion and that Chinese dress shoes rock your world but your truncated view may be very self-limiting.
Sadly, an education on the web seems to be like shopping at Wal-Mart. The top information shown on a search is the information demanded by the masses. The more esoteric the information is the less frequently the great unwashed bring it to the fore in the great crucible of networked knowledge. Grab an actual, printed, history of photography book and dive in. I pretty much guarantee that you'll be blown away by the fact that many of the styles and interesting points of view that you admire today have their genesis in the work of masters from history. And you may be additionally amazed by the fact that even without the benefit of digital cameras and massive infusions of Photoshop the actual originators of photographic taste and invention actually made superior images specifically because they had not been diluted by endless emulation and theft.
But don't be too impressed because most of the best early work stole directly from the masters of portrait painting that came before them. I've never seen a more compelling portrait than the face of the angel in Leonardo Da Vinci's painting, The Madonna on the Rocks. And perhaps I never will. But it's advantageous to know the source of much modern fashion imagery because I tend to learn so much more profoundly from first hand sources.......
The second book is out. The week is good.
One more thought: About the economy. I believe the market has bottomed and is returning to health not based on anything that Mr. Obama and his crew have done but because the generations in the ages of 18 to 40 were brought up on TV and video games, don't have the patience to read long and complicated stuff, have ADHD and have lost their collective patience with the idea of the recession. A younger person I talked to today summed it up. She said that back in January all of her friends were eating at home, saving money and worried about the economy. About two weeks ago they got bored with all that and went back to the way their lives were pre-AIG. They realized that they still had their jobs, the same income, etc. and they didn't give a frick about retirement because it was so far in the future. There you have it. The recession has been called because the people who count (the spenders) are bored with it.
It's about time. I was getting antsy.