Wednesday, October 10, 2007

RE: How to Succeed as a Photographer

RE: "How to Succeed as a Photographer" by Mike Johnston, at The Online Photographer.

First I read this post, and then I read Bob Lewis's weekly IT-related column (at and then I saw some similarities. True, these two seem unrelated, but that's the fun part. Bob was writing about his recent vacation, and relating it to his IT experience. Mike was writing about people, and relating their questions to his experience in photography. But both write about the intersection of technics, creativity, and business.

From Bob Lewis's main points, as they may relate to developing a photographic style:

1 - "Experts experience a different world."

What you see in a photograph is what you see, but may not tell much about where the final image came from. The vision of a world-class photographer comes from who that person is, what that person has been through, and that person's effort over years if not decades. You (and I) might produce an occasional faint copy of a style but can't do it consistently because we just don't live in the right world. It's someone else's world, and we will always be outside of someone else's world.

2 - "What you like and what you should ask for aren't always the same."

"You don't always get what you want but sometimes you get what you need." We've all heard variations of this. Still, it's hard to both know what we need and to ask for it. Maybe the problem is the asking. Maybe it has too narrow a focus. Maybe it's just too needy. An artist should never think too small, or be too limited, nor should anyone, really. What you want and what gives you real joy can be delightfully at odds, and an artist really needs to be open to the possibilities of the unexpected.

3 - "You can't optimize for everything."

The more you optimize for one dimension, the less optimal your results in all other dimensions. In other words, if you try too hard you'll get something that looks the part. This is especially true if trying to mimic someone else's style, or trying to look like a "professional." If you're really good you'll be unique, and you'll also automatically be optimal for exactly that condition. Relax. Let it happen.

4 - "The outside view tells you little about the inside view."

This is similar to the first point, but still a little different. You could call this "mastery of technique." "First there is a mountain, then there is no mountain, then there is."

When you try too hard, you're focused on the wrong things. The vision comes from who you are and also how well you can handle your tools. If you don't know which end of the hammer does the work you're going to have problems. The hammer is a strange and heavy object with odd curves and inscrutable sharp edges, and it is mute. It takes effort to learn its capabilities.

Likewise, if you know which end of the hammer does the work but you still can't pilot it then you will continue to explore many dead ends. If you are motivated you will look for clues and try emulating an expert carpenter. Eventually, at the point you become proficient a new world opens, and everything you see becomes nail-like. You are an expert yourself.

When you know the hammer so well that you forget it's in your hand, forget what it is, then you are a master. There is no longer a hammer or nails, or a nailer. It is now all process. You and the hammer and the nail and the job are not separate entities but part of a collaborative process, and the concern is no longer with nails and hammering things together with them but about creation.

5 - "Sometimes, what you get is better than what you'd planned."

And being able to recognize this is the core of creativity. "Bad artists copy. Great artists steal." Pablo Picasso didn't mean that a great artist steals from other artists. He wasn't talking about crime, not burglary or robbery. He didn't reference material things.

First you try to color within the lines. Later you learn to draw your own lines and color within them, and later still you ignore the idea of lines. Beginning artists always learn by copying. They have to learn how to do art. The process is one of working from outside in until the artist becomes art.

The fundamental idea of stealing is of making something your own, not of taking from someone else. Crime is a crude, material reflection of something beautiful and profound.

Artists steal. They discover and reform. They take tiny parts of life and remake them again and again until these bits are completely owned, completely a part of the artist. That is the difference between a bad artist and a great artist.

An artist can and will steal from himself, or from a chance encounter with the unexpected, from the sudden flicker of a bird's shadow, from a stray flavor tasted only once, from a stray word, a child's gesture, the rasp of grandmother's ancient voice.

What happens, every instant of every day, is all inspiration. And all unplanned no matter how hard you try to put it into a box. The professional artist, and even more so the great artist, takes ownership by giving the inspiration an unmistakable signature, and setting it free.

Hey, you believe in God? You think God has it all worked out? Maybe so, but do you think God is boring and predictable and you have God figured out? Heh. God is smarter than you, and more fun. And whether or not "God" is a concept close to your thinking (not actually to mine) this world is smarter and wilder than all of us put together. Stay loose. Experience the holy fire. Let it burn your butt whenever it wants to.


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