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 www.issurvivor.com/) 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.

Tuesday, October 09, 2007

2007 Wonderland Trail Hike

Last night I finished adding photos of my September hike around Mt Rainier to my web site. Short on closeups and no people, but not bad for grab shots on a 90-mile foot trip.

Luckily rain didn't reach me because I got to the dry side of the mountain the first day, and dodged it, although there was lots of fog and cloud on day two, but still nothing like the predicted 12 hours of rain. Or two following days of gradual clearing. No, not bad for the first day, having started after lunch.

Someone going the way opposite to me had three days of fog and cloudy weather, and some real rain, I got off well. The only real problem for me was my own stupidity, which is a constant companion.

I misread the sign that indicated where I was to get off the trail and take to the highway, avoiding the only impassable part of the trail (still not fixed after last fall's ripping rain and flooding).

So a mile on I got to the washed-out part and decided to take a chance on sliding down 60 feet onto rocks rather than backtracking. It wasn't that bad. Been through worse things at St Helens and hiking off-trail around Mt Adams. And really quiet. Almost anything is better than walking six miles along a highway.

It was an hour or so after missing the turnoff when I got to a place where last year's flooding had cut the trail into bits. The stream had diced it over and over again.

I was standing on a fallen tree mulling which way to go, and then I just began tipping over backward. Nothing to grab, I just went back suddenly, falling over, starting from about three feet up, with my feet on this horizontal tree trunk.

As I fell my feet slipped off the tree and hit the ground first, then my behind, then the pack on my back. The pack stood out like a big hump and acted like a lever. It whipped my head around like the tassel at the end of a whip, toward the ground. My accelerated head hit the ground with a loud thump. Yeah, a loud thump. Loud enough to scare me.

I hit soft sand, my head beside a smooth river rock the size of a watermelon, and I wasn't dead. Or paralyzed with a broken neck, to lie there along a closed section of trail and die in cold rain after sunset. OK by me.

I did have a headache for about an hour, but that was about it. A pretty good deal overall.

I got up, collected my things and brushed off, then started hiking again. For a while I wondered what it would be like to have a brain hemorrhage and have my skull fill with blood, but not feeling much worse than usual I just kept going.

Things worked out. That was day one of eight, and the rest were good. High point, about 7500 feet. Coldest night, about 25 degrees. Most memorable feeling, joy. The weather stayed nice until a few days after I got home, but since then it's been raining. Winter came in mid-September and now it seems to be here for the duration, and the word is that we'll have a wet and stormy winter. Oya, life these days.

See photo slideshow.

I still have some St Helens shots from July to work on, but that gives me something to do with the rest of my life. WooHoo!

Friday, October 05, 2007

RE: It's the Sheepskin, Stupid

Today Mike Johnston of "The Online Photographer", a wildly popular photography blog, posted "It's the Sheepskin, Stupid." He says, in part.
To this day, virtually every job I come across in the photography field that I'd be a good match for lists an MFA degree as a minimum requirement. The irony is that with the depth of my experience and knowledge in the field, I could probably teach at most photography MFA programs. But not being an MFA myself, I can't actually get a job teaching anybody.
There were 25 comments at the time I read it, and here is what I replied:

For better or worse, one has to deal with this as with many other things. That's just the way they are, but not necessarily fun, or right, or the way they will remain. What you have commented on is the result of a culture of scarcity.

In the case of positions in various institutions dealing with art, there is necessarily an elite, who get ensconced and then brick up the doorway into a narrow slit, partly because they need to (not enough demand and therefore very few opportunities on the inside) and because they want to (if it was hell for me to get here, then by damn I won't let just anyone in -- they have to suffer too, just like I did, and should be just like me, because I am obviously a superior being or I wouldn't have gotten here).

Much in the software world used to be like this, and still is in stuffy backwaters, but things are changing there, and in many other aspects of life. With new technologies and global markets we have new opportunities, and this, as we can see by the presence of "The Online Photographer", various forums and online magazines, image publication sites and online galleries, is being felt in the photography world as well.

If one wants to work in a museum with terrazzo floors, marble columns and hushed silences, then there will always be the prerequisite of acceptance by the priesthood. Too bad. Humans are like that. I decided long ago that anyone who didn't have the good sense to hire me was someone I wouldn't want to work with anyway.

Paul Graham, the web startup funder, has a good essay on similar topics in his world. Here are some of his thoughts on degrees and opportunities:
In a big, straight pipe...the force of being measured by one's performance will propagate back through the whole system. Performance is always the ultimate test, but there are so many kinks in the plumbing now that most people are insulated from it most of the time.

So you end up with a world in which high school students think they need to get good grades to get into elite colleges, and college students think they need to get good grades to impress employers, within which the employees waste most of their time in political battles....

Imagine if that sequence became a big, straight pipe. Then the effects of being measured by performance would propagate all the way back to high school, flushing out all the arbitrary stuff people are measured by now. That is the future....

What students do in their classes will change too. Instead of trying to get good grades to impress future employers, students will try to learn things. We're talking about some pretty dramatic changes here.
Mike Johnston and his readers perform. That's OK by me. We can wave politely at the faces behind the glass in the fortresses as we pass by.

(See Paul Graham's essay "The Future of Web Startups"
and Mike Johnston's post "It's the Sheepskin, Stupid".)

Thursday, October 04, 2007

This is pay, sort of...

In a Spanish proverb, "God says, 'Choose what you will and pay for it.'" And things generally work that way. Pay isn't always good, or a benefit, but when we think of work we think of money coming in, and generally see it as a benefit. I work. I get paid. Money. I have salary, insurance benefits, vacation time, and sick leave. Not all money, exactly, but still pay. It's all pay. All coming in. To me. It's good.

Normally we don't include medical and dental insurance, vacation time or sick leave in our thinking of "pay". But consider taking a job that doesn't offer any of these, if you can. Then think of an identical job that does offer them all and tell me which one you'd actually take.

Exactly. Because one pays more. No doubt about which hook to bite. Glad we got that out of the way.

Don't complain when you start seeing your two weeks off show up on your income tax statement as it will one day. I once worked at a place where you were entitled, after one year, to one week off without pay. You could wander off for a week and rest up, and they wouldn't replace you while you were gone. If you could afford to be gone. That was your vacation time. Being down there right at ground level puts things into perspective. No fooling.

Besides the basics some people get stock options, a company car, bonuses, and some non-monetary things like prizes or other material goods, framed certificates, or praise such as being named employee of the (fill-in-the-blank).

So that about wraps it up then, eh?

Nope, and you knew it didn't.

Even if you've never had "a job" you know better. Work is what someone else tells you to do. You have a boss. Usually several. In most places I've worked, we might have 50 people in the office, and five or six levels of supervisors. Talk about your wonderful life there.

"Supervisor" literally means one who views from above. "Overseer" is a direct synonym. Supervisors came into their own in 19th-century factories where the supervisor was actually a person who sat in a high chair and watched everyone work. Made sure that they worked. Oversaw the workers. You could tell that they were workers because they didn't speak, had their heads down, and kept their hands moving. Anyone who spoke, or looked up, or slowed down got clipped by the supervisor.

Which is a little like being told you're unprofessional because you haven't chosen to wear a suit to work. Professionals being the ones wearing the antique, expensive, and painful clothes. Like supervisors wear. Professional supervisors.

Being a supervisor hurts because it's so hard, and so godlike. A supervisor has to be all-knowing, and that is very difficult. Someone who evaluates the work of everyone else has to be all-knowing and infallible, and the wearing of painful clothing shrivels into absolute insignificance other than as a way of making it obvious who's boss. It's a way of intimidating others by proving that nothing, not even a noose around your neck all day, can intrude upon your consciousness, even a tiny bit.

And we all need a boss. Because if we didn't have bosses we wouldn't have people telling us what to do and how and when and how hard and how long. We would run wild in the streets, or maybe nap all day. Because we are not professionals and we do not have all-seeing knowledge and we are lazy and cannot possibly control ourselves.

The boss is not like that, wild in the streets and fun, but no one has ever been able to explain just why it is that the boss does not need supervision by another boss who is supervised by an infinite chain leading right up to, through, and infinitely beyond God. No one has ever explained why it's not supervisors all the way up. They just stop somewhere, and its them versus us. And we are seen as interchangeable and expendable parts and they are not, so limited in their numbers as they are. And to get us to do anything at all they have in one hand a stick, and in the other hand a carrot or a donut or maybe a dime.

Sticks have lately been deprecated in a public relations sort of way, so we hear a lot more about carrots, even from dictators. They've all got the PR religion now. It's always the "Democratic Republic" of somewhere and never Generalissimo Bob's Evil Hell Hole and Rotting Torture Cesspool, even if that's what it is.

And this attitude has infected business and the world of work.

They (the chain of bosses) have decided that a salary (including a few side benefits) is an unavoidable and necessary evil, but only a minimum. If you, Mr/Ms Expendable, want to make it on the job you have to show some flash and be able to snag a bonus. If you do you earn more but also avoid sinking into the bottom ten percent. You know, the ones who just get fired every year to keep the basement nice and clean, and because it's fun to fire people. Whoops! Looks like there's still a stick around after all.

But mostly it's reward time. Some kind of reward. Incentive pay. Gold stars to display at evaluation time. Real pay. Stuff you can use to keep your job.

And oddly enough, rewards don't work. They aren't real pay after all. We'll get to real pay next time, but right now let's talk about the kind of pay that rots your teeth and makes you hate your life and think longingly of how good that smooth, round, cold gun barrel would feel sliding in between your lips as your finger tightens on the trigger.

Hey, how crazy am I? Everyone knows that goosing someone with performance-based pay gets the juices flowing and turns a warehouse stuffed full of slackers into a lean, mean fighting machine. 'Cep'n 'taint so, love. 'Taint so.
To the best of my knowledge, no controlled scientific study has ever found a long-term enhancement of the quality of work as a result of any incentive system. In fact, numerous studies have confirmed that performance on tasks, particularly complex tasks, is generally lower when people are promised a reward for doing them, or for doing them well. As a rule, the more prominent or enticing the reward, the more destructive its effects. (Alfie Kohn, Education Week, September 17, 2003)
He has a good web site (www.alfiekohn.org/) and he's been at it a long time. His book "Punished by Rewards" is also good.

Kohn has found that
  1. Rewards punish. It turns out that rewards and punishment are two sides of the same coin, and that both are naked attempts at manipulation. Rewards don't usually hurt quite as much, though they can be just as humiliating as punishment can be.

  2. Rewards disrupt relationships. Rewards create winners and losers (usually one winner and a roomful of happy losers). Rewards foster enmity. Rewards discourage those who do well but not exactly quite well enough, according to some standard or other, which may be arbitrary. Rewards create pettiness. Rewards encourage people to work separately and not as a team. After all, why in hell should I help you when you're just going to screw me by winning?

    Some say that none of us alone is as stupid as all of us together, but unless you're the boss, or wearing a suit today, none of us alone is as smart as all of us. Can't be. So rewards make the business more stupid. And less competitive. (Irony alert!)

  3. Rewards ignore root causes. Got someone who's not quite doing well enough lately? Whack him with a stick, or if you're feeling really ornery, dangle a shiny trinket in front of his nose.

    Don't ask if his mother died, his kid is now a crack addict, or his wife just ran off with the babysitter. That shiny, twirling thingy will do the trick. And if it doesn't you can always fire his sorry ass. Who cares if he's done a great job for the past 10 years and knows the business better than you ever will?

    Rewards are blunt instruments, do not analyze causes or other messy things, and are simpleminded, and that's what we want, right?

  4. Rewards discourage taking risks. No one wants to screw up the possibility of getting that reward.

    So people will wait to hear what the ground rules are. They will want to be told what to do. And exactly no one will do something completely unexpected. You know, the kind of thing that could move their company into the next century like, oh, 50 years ahead of everyone else.

    Short-term goals, that's the ticket. And with a reward system in place, every activity becomes only another obstacle. There are no longer any opportunities, only hurdles to kick out of the way while you shove your way to the front.

  5. Rewards kill enthusiasm, even for things that people would do just for the fun of it.

    One group of children, told that they had to play with chalk before they could get to the felt markers began to hate drawing with chalk. The other group, told the opposite, began to hate felt markers. Children told nothing at all go nuts having fun with either one, or both at once.

    Any activity seen as a means to a reward becomes distasteful, strange as it sounds. Researchers keep finding this result over and over again, no matter how hard they try to find that rewards work.

    Rewards come to be seen as controlling, and everyone hates being controlled. People feel threatened, watched, constantly judged. As though they're forced to work only to meet deadlines, to be ordered around, and to be competitive toward others when really they want the opposite.

So
The best amount of competition in your company is none at all...competition itself -- which simply means requiring one person or group to fail in order that another can succeed -- is inherently counterproductive. Similarly, I’m not offering a 'soft' argument against competition, basing my objection solely on its destructiveness to us as human beings. I'm saying that competition also makes no sense from the perspective of the bottom line. It holds people back from doing their best. (Alfie Kohn www.alfiekohn.org/managing/nocontest.htm)

Yikes.

Money and goods are only one form of pay. Call it "official" or "external" pay. This is a baseline, a minimum-level compensation that comes with a job. Money is compensation for giving up part of your life and doing what you don't especially want to, what isn't inherently meaningful to you, or for doing things that aren't intrinsically rewarding, or for what is too hard or too frustrating to bother with otherwise.
When people are asked what's most important to them, financial concerns show up well behind such factors as interesting work or good people to work with. For example, in a large survey conducted by the Families and Work Institute, "salary/wage" ranked 16th on a list of 20 reasons for taking a job. (Alfie Kohn www.alfiekohn.org/teaching/edweek/meritpay.htm)
But there is another form of pay. Call it "unofficial" or "internal" pay. We'll look at this next time. This kind of pay is what you get for doing what is worthwhile. To you. As a real person. And not as an office machine.