Healthy Competition?

transits 32, photograph

“When we are in competition with ourselves, and match our todays against our yesterdays, we derive encouragement from past misfortunes and blemishes. Moreover, the competition with ourselves leaves unimpaired our benevolence toward our fellow men.”

Eric Hoffer

There are many opportunities in the art world to become embroiled in competition: juried shows, camera clubs, publication submissions, etc. It’s challenging to heed the excellent advice of Hoffer to compete only with ourselves. I do like the consequence he points out, that of minimizing any ill feelings toward others!

Competition in art seems so arbitrary – how can one compare a photograph (or painting) of a landscape against a figurative piece? Or between two pieces with very different styles? What qualities of the pieces are being compared and contrasted? I don’t envy jurors of these events – it’s a necessary task, but one incredibly hard to do well, I think.

Even competing with oneself is a challenge. How does one measure improvement? Often there are too many variables at play – if we created the same type of work over and over, we might be able to compare results, but I’m constantly changing what and how I create the work. Progress, if even identifiable,  surely occurs on a non-linear trajectory.

This year I’ve decided to engage in more events in which my work will be judged by others. I’ve had some success so far, and some rejections. I am a competitive person by nature, so am working on keeping that tendency in check.

This will be my last posting for a short while – this weekend I am off to Photoalliance, a portfolio review in San Francisco. There I will be confronted with lots of feedback from curators, gallery owners, artists and publishers. I will be looking for direction, networking and inspiration. Hopefully I will keep any competitive urges at bay…

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What’s the Difference?

gesture, photograph

“The work was important because it was good, not because it was different.”

– Ted Orland

I just finished reading Ted Orland’s excellent book, The View from the Studio Door, and particularly enjoyed his discussion of artist communities and how challenging it is to create such a thing in today’s world. The quote above is in the context of how the value of artwork long ago was that it represented and supported the community it came from and was, therefore, good. Today art making is much more disconnected from the community we live in and figuring out how good it is requires a whole different set of criteria.

One of the more popular criteria seems to be if it is different. We are inundated with so many images today, exponentially more than people were a hundred years ago, that it had become harder to do something new and different. So I suppose there is some value in being different, if only because it is so much harder to do so now and the artist had to at least put some effort into achieving that. But there is a tendency to rely too heavily on this single quality as the primary criteria for whether work is good.

I see a lot of work that seems to me to come from a place of just wanting to be different, to shock the viewer with its newness. There is an immediate impact upon seeing such work and grabbing one’s attention is not a bad thing in itself. But there needs to be more, there needs to be a reason to return to the work time and again.

While I haven’t really figured out for myself what qualities in my work will make it compelling to myself and others, I know that difference isn’t what I should focus on. I do try to do things that I haven’t done before (so I don’t get bored) but, if someone else has done similar work, so be it. Mine won’t be exactly the same and there’s just too much work out there to avoid some overlap anyway.

So my search for good hasn’t settled on different

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Remembrance of Things Past

into the light, photograph

“The best part is: I’m never finished! There are always new angles, new shadows, new lights…”

– Paula Bachtiger Kling

One thing I love about photography is that the same image can be reworked in so many different ways.

For several years now I have been photographing the female figure, typically in motion. That work has evolved over time and, while each “generation” involves new photographs, often they really represent a new style or interpretation. I can go back and apply that style to older photographs, either shots I’ve already printed or shots that only work now, given whatever my new style is. The photographs are the raw material, awaiting the shape and form I give them, which can change over time.

Not only am I looking for new photographs to make, but I’m always considering new ways to interpret older work. I think this deepens my relationship with the work, because I spend so much time over the years with the same images, revisiting them to see if new life can be breathed into them.

So often as artists we work on a piece, finish it and never really think about it again – we’re eager to move on to the next piece. With my photography I am able to reacquaint myself with previous work, to remember what I liked or didn’t like about it and try to improve upon it. Reunions like this always teach us something of value.

How much time do you spend with past work? What do you gain from it?

How Do You Find the Time?

flourish, photograph

“If I don’t practice for one day, I know it; if I don’t practice for two days, the critics know it; if I don’t practice for three days, the audience knows it.”

– Ignace Paderewski

Do you find that as an artist you need to limber up – you know, flex your creative muscles before undertaking any serious work? Or do you dive right in? Is there a specific ritual that gets you warmed up?

What happens to your work if you can’t do it for awhile? Does it feel like you have regressed or can you pick up where you left off? Has this ability changed as you have progressed in your own art career?

As a photographer, there are some constraints about when I can practice my art. It’s hard to do at night, for example (though there are some things one can do then). Add to that that I run a small business full time and have family duties and I find that my time to do photography usually comes in short randomly spaced bursts of time. I might have a couple of hours here and another hour there. Rarely is it even as much as a full day.

So I have to dive in and make the most of that time when it appears. I’m sure my work would be better if I could do it more regularly. One thing I miss about painting is that it was a little easier to do, since it all occurred in my studio and I could do it whenever I had a little time. There was less dependency on the external world being in a certain condition – perhaps that’s one reason I was drawn to do abstract painting (even less external dependency).

I have recently been trying to create more discipline in my photography by focusing on projects that are self-assigned. When I have a deadline, even a self-imposed one, I find I plan a little more and make more time.

What strategies do you use to get yourself to create more time in your schedule to make art? Maybe I can steal one or two…

What Did You See?


“The person viewing your work has no idea what the scene really looked like, nor do they care…”

– Mike Svob

It certainly is true that no one who was not there with you really knows what you saw and, even if they were there, we all know that each of us sees differently. Given the same  put, most of us would come up with at least a slightly different output.

But do our viewers care what the scene looked like? Often we want them to. We try to depict as faithfully as possible what we saw so others can share it too. We want them to share our experience of it. There is a genre of art the might accomplish this, work that is representational in nature that invites the viewer to stand next to us and see what we saw.

I hope my viewers don’t really care what the scene looked like. I hope they care what it caused me to think or feel. That’s what I want  to share, not the scene itself.

I hope  my viewers want to take a different journey with me, not back to the place I was, but to the place I went afterwards. To the place populated by my reactions, interpretations and impressions of the original scene.

Caring about what the scene really looked like means caring less about the work of art that it inspired. Focusing on the scene can be a distraction from the art. It is the art which is my offering, the thing I wish to share with you.

Before the Moment Passes


“A hundredth of a second here, a hundredth of a second there — even if you put them end to end, they still only add up to one, two, perhaps three seconds, snatched from eternity.”

Robert Doisneau – Weekend Guardian (London, 4 April 1992)

An arresting thought – over a lifetime a photographer is lucky to take two or three hundred really fine pictures, Considering that each one represents the merest fraction of a second, a life’s work in truth captures just a few seconds of eternity. Even if you add together all the photographers who have created good work, only an infinitesimal fraction of time has been recorded in these works.

What of the rest of time? Was it not worthy of recording? Or was it simply that no one was there with a camera, or they didn’t recognize the significance of the moment? It’s likely that the best photographic opportunities slip by unnoticed.

The lesson here is to pay attention! It’s one of the traits most artists possess – an obsession with paying attention to what’s around them, to small details, to everyday things observed from a new angle, to looking more closely or from further away, to fleeting light, to juxtaposition.

You only have the ability to capture a very few moments in time – choose them carefully!

Just for a Moment


Transits 3 Untitiled

“A still photograph is called a still photograph because the picture doesn’t move, not because the objects in the picture are not in motion. The photographer’s mission, should he decide to accept it, is to capture motion with stillness.”

– Vincent Versace

Photography (and art in general) is such a contrary activity. We try to depict three dimensions in two, motion in stillness, the passing of time in a moment. Perhaps someday all these limitations will go away and we’ll be able to use holographic technology to recreate reality almost as we experience it.

Will this spell the end of art? Does art exist partly because the artist has to figure out a way to make his/her point within the confines of the constraints of the medium? I don’t know.

When photography was first developed in the 19th century some thought it meant painting was no longer necessary. In reality, since now there was a way to capture reality more literally it freed painting to move into more expressive directions. And photography itself quickly moved past it’s own literal tendencies.

I suspect holographic artists of the future will find ways to use that medium to do some very interesting, artistic things. In the meantime, I’m happy to keep capturing motion with stillness.

(This photo is part of a new series of figurative work I am working on. The effects are all done in camera by photographing figures in motion with special lenses.)