Wednesday, November 26, 2008

The Right Time

Ready for a picture?


Directing is one of over a hundred jobs that photographers must do in order to end up with a decent image. I was going to make a list of all of them (oh, how I love to make lists) but the other things, I got to thinking, weren't all that important.

Sure, there's focusing, framing, exposure settings, and stuff like that, but none of that is relevant if the director is AWOL or merely phones it in. Without directing, the image is empty. Vacant. Worthless. Worthless images might as well be out of focus, poorly framed, and underexposed, because none of that matters. A business plan, advertising, sales, promotions, reputation, developing a style, set-building, stylist, or the hundred other things a photographer needs to do.

Even if the planned photograph has no people in it, directing is critical. SOMEONE needs to have a vision, and some kind of a plan for getting to that vision, before a photographic image can ever expect to have purpose, therefore function, therefore worth, therefore commercial or artistic value.

A truckload of the latest lenses will not make up for one's lack of directing ability.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

The How and the Why

(This post is a follow-up to the previous post, titled "Why Before the How")

I can hear most of you already...

"But how to take pictures is more important than the why."

No, it's not.

What's really amazing is how quickly the how-to is learned once a photograph's purpose has been established.

But let's take your argument, that you need to learn how to take pictures before going out to take them. I will ask you, which picture are you going out to take? Shall you take enough classes to cover every photographic situation possible? That class would last 1.3 billion years. Even if you were to take that large a class load, I doubt that your eyesight would hold up well enough to take pictures once you've learned all there is. And how much would you remember, say, after the first ten thousand classes?

Another question: Should you also go ahead and learn how to build a dog house, just in the off chance that you might want to have a dog sometime? Let's throw in some quantum physics, too. And some carburetor repair training, just in case.


I am reminded of my high school trig teacher, who told us right up front, on the first day of school, that, "A very few of you are ever going to need to know how to solve more than a couple of trig problems in your lifetime, and most of you will never ever need this knowledge. Besides that, when the time comes for you to need how to solve a trig problem, you will have most likely long forgotten how. So, let's all just save ourselves a lot of time and headache and skip trig. Instead I'm going to tell you stories from the military. It'll be fun, and I guarantee what you learn will be more helpful than trig."

He was right.

"By the way," he continued, "The top brass around here expects me to give you trig exams on a regular basis, and I have agreed to their terms in advance, so I have to do it. The answers will all be found in the back of the book. You may use your book during the test."

He went on to point out that this, too, was as it should be. "It's not important to memorize answers. More'n likely, you'll forget, anyway, so it's more important to know where to find an answer or who to ask. You walk around trying to hold every answer to everything in the world, and something's going to break."

He told us to practice our darts, though, because when final exam day came, he was going to bring a dartboard. I didn't believe him, though. I studied my rear end off all year. I knew it had to be a trick. I'd catch him once in a while when a tiny smirk would pop up or a twinkle would come to his eye. I'd be ready. I'd be the only one ready.

Sure enough, final day comes, in he walks empty-handed. He stops midway to his desk (which he always sat on but never behind) and stares at us with a blank look. He snaps his finger and says, "Dang. Forgot my dartboard."

Ha! I thought. I knew it! Yeah, baby bring on the test. Bring it ON!

"Tell you what," he said calmly, "I'll call roll, and you tell me what kind of grade you want for the semester." And he did. And that's what we got.

After it was done, he plotted the grades on the chalkboard behind his desk. They perfectly fit onto a bell curve. One girl asked for an F.
After class, I asked her, "Why did you ask for an F?"
"Oh," she said, "I always get F's in math. What did you ask for?"
"I asked for a B," I said.
"But you always get A's, and you're the only one who ever did any studying the whole semester - I asked around. Why'd you ask for just a B?"
"I don't know," I said, and I didn't.

I still don't.

This blog is about photography, and this story applies to photography just as well as military stories do in trig class.
Or in life.

The Why Before the How

Stop. Put your foot on top of your camera case. Don't take your camera out until you've answered this question:

Why am I about to take this picture?

The how of photography is well covered. Everyone wants to know how. They can't get enough of the how. Even when they know how, they want more. The why gets very little press. I'll bet there are 10,000 articles published on how-to for every article there is on why. Why? Beats me. Probably because the how is easy to write about.

Photographers spend oodles of time and gobs of money trying to get a sharper and sharper image. Blurry is bad. I understand that. What I don't understand is why they will go to the Nth degree for image sharpness, while the purpose of their pending photograph remains as some blurry notion. That blows my mind, because it weakens the photograph's potential.

The why should be as sharp as the lens. The reason for creating an image should be as clearly defined as the pixels on a 12-meg camera.

Get your mind sharp, and try to keep the why to seven words or less. At the very least, try to avoid going off on some vague tangent that ends up referring both to the plight of the Native American Indian and how your daddy never really understood you.

Now, you may remove your foot.

Photographer's Main Function

Let's get our priorities straight. For a photographer, what's job one?

Let me be direct. It's directing.

Sure, all that other stuff is important, and there are a thousand of them, but take a clue from the movie industry. There's a reason that the director's name is up front and in big letters. There's a reason the photographer's name is in the back, in small letters, lost among key grips, boom operators, and caterers.

The director's the one with the vision. That vision is what makes the picture. Sure, he has help. The writer helps. The actors help. The photographer helps. Everyone helps, but the director makes or breaks the picture.

I know photographers who have spent decades tweaking their craft, tweaking shadow densities, sharpening focus, gaining better control over contrast, and all that stuff (but mostly buying more expensive equipment). But they spend very little time sharpening their directorial skills.

A director is required even when there are no people in the photograph because there must be a clear vision of what's about to happen or what's happening now, and someone must know where to take it and why.

Most photographers have people as their subjects. Ordinary people. Self-conscious people. The portrait photographer's main job is not to make these ordinary people into something they are not - that should be left to great directors and experienced actors, to end up with any kind of a decent picture at all. We shouldn't expect amateur people to be great actors. When the average person gets in front of a professional camera, they typically change from who they are, into something behind a mask. It's a protective device.

For the most part, the photographer's main job is to return the subjects to their true selves and remove the fakeness that accompanies the mask, the fear, the self-consciousness, and lowered confidence.

A photographer's main job is to find the truth and bring it to the surface.
Only truth is beauty.


Help someone improve a photograph, and you have a better photograph.

Help someone become a better photographer, and you create a stream of better photographs.

That's why my focus will be on the latter. (Pardon the pun.)

Monday, November 24, 2008

What is Fine Art?

One time, I asked a university professor, whom I'd been led to believe had been teaching fine art for some years. I went to the campus to help him jury a show and hang the entries. I was on the county board of the National Endowment for the Arts at the time (NEA). While we worked, I picked his brains. Here is part of that conversation:

Fred Hinegardner: "So, they tell me that you teach Fine Arts."
Professor: "Yep."
Fred: "How long have you been teaching Fine Arts?"
Professor: "I guess it's been about 25 years, now. Yeah. 25 years."
Fred: "So, what is Fine Arts? I hear that phrase all the time in photography circles. I guess you're the man to ask."
Professor: "Hmmmm. Can't really say, I guess."
Fred, persistent Fred: "But if you can't, who can?"
Professor: "Can you bring me some more hangers? And drill some more holes in in the mortar, right here, and here, and here, and right here."

Twenty minutes after the exhibit was all hung, I watched him award Best of Show to a Polaroid snapshot, underexposed, vandalized by a ballpoint pen and letter opener, and nailed to a partially burned piece of lumber with four bent and rusty nails. The subject matter was nondescript and unidentifiable. There wasn't any facet of the photographic art, craft, or industry that he didn't scream underperformance. This piece of "Fine Art" arrived while we were still hanging the show, two full hours after the entry deadline had expired. I could still smell smoke as he handed in his entry.
His entry beat out my entry, a subliminal, allegorical, and metaphorical piece that I'd worked two and a half years on. It was perfect in every aspect of photography. It was framed and matted with no nails. It was a 20 x 24. I'd spent $260 on lab and framing.
After the awards, I asked the professor again, "So is there any kind of help you can give me on what Fine Art is? I gave you an entire day of free labor."
The professor shrugged his shoulders and said, "No, not really."

What is Art?

So, I asked an artist, and not any artist, but one of the best. He isn't keen on quotes, but he still answered my question. Here's the gist of the interview:

Fred Hinegardner: "What is art?"
Artist (whom I know at least one critic having been quoted as saying that he's one of the greatest artists alive. He was compared to Picasso, but I happen to know he is not a misogynist like Pablo. He has not been responsible for the deaths of four or more women. And personally, I believe he's a better artist than the egocentric Spaniard. I discussed this particular artist one time with another famous artist and ceramicist who, during the conversation, was currently using a Picasso original for an ash tray. I like that kind of stuff. His attitude about Picasso was the same as mine.): "I can't define art."
Fred: "But you're an artist. One of the best."
Artist (one of the best): "Whatever."
Fred: "If you won't define art, who will?"
Artist: "Art can't be defined."

Well, I went to Webster's Dictionary. They weren't as modest - they had a clear definition. Who can argue with Webster's?

Art - the conscious use of skill and creative imagination, especially in the production of aesthetic objects and the works so produced.

Artistic - showing imaginative skill in arrangement or execution, as in artistic photography.

Artsy, Arty - showily or pretentiously artistic, as in arty lighting and artsy photography.

Artless - Natural, free from artificiality. Free from guile or craft.

I think it's interesting that many sources make a simple distinction between man and nature, where man is considered artificial and nature is considered natural. They contrast art and nature. They consider them to be mutually exclusive.

I'm reminded of a print competition where I sat in on the judging of one of my images. It was shot outdoors with a a 500mm lens mounted to a Hasselblad. There was no artificial lighting. I didn't even use reflectors. One judge tried to destroy the image by saying, "There's too much artificial light in this photo. We all know that nature has only one light source. This image has, to my count, four light sources. The maker had ruined what could have been a very nice and natural scene by introducing light from too many directions. After the judging, I examined my print more closely. There were indeed four light sources, from four different directions. But I didn't cause any of them. Oh, well.

What is a Portrait?

Might as well get this definition out of the way. About 15 years ago, I asked Arnold Newman a question. This is how the conversation went:

Fred Hinegardner: "What is a portrait?"
Arnold Newman: "I don't know."

(This part of the conversation is verbatim. The remainder of the conversation is to the best of my recollection.)

Fred: "But you've been doing portraits for decades."
Arnold: "Tell me about it."
Fred: "If anyone knows what a portrait is, it would have to be you. I mean, YOU are The Authority."
Arnold: "Sorry, that's the best I can do."

I was shocked at first. Then disappointed. Then angry. But the more I thought about it, the happier I got. And the more my respect for Mr. Newman grew.

Definitions make things smaller. Definitions limit. Definitions put things in tiny boxes, categories, manila folders, and file cabinets.
Every time you define God, you make Him smaller. Calling Him "Him" makes Him less than Everything. Naming Him God subtracts everything one can start thinking of that is not God. Visualizing Him as seven feet tall keeps Him from being eight feet tall, or nine, or a thousand, or of infinite size.
Limiting a portrait to someone's likeness eliminates much about the person. Limiting a portrait to someone's face eliminates anything there is to say about their hands, for example. Cropping an artist's hands out of her portrait is, in my opinion, paramount to sacrilege. What would a portrait of Pelé be without his gnarled feet? Why would it be more important to show the nose of Pablo Casals instead of his cello? It wouldn't. Karsh proved it. When he photographed Casals, he only showed the top and one side of Pablo's head - from the back, no less. Nothing showed but a bald scalp and one ear that leaned over the upper end of his cello. It became famous. Now, having Casals already famous and having Karsh already famous didn't hurt its chances of ending up in a museum. One day a man saw the portrait hanging there in the museum. Another guy was already standing there in front of it.
"Nice portrait, huh!" the new guy said.
"Shhhh!" the first man said, jerking his hand up for silence.
"What, what?" the guy in the back whispered.
The first guy whispered back, "I'm listening to the music."
I've seen Pablo Casals nose. Karsh did a good job with it.

What someone's face looks like has nothing to do with who many people are. Yeah, there are shallow people who have nothing beneath their looks, and the only reason they are known, the only reason for their portraits to be made, is because of their looks. Record the likeness of Jessica Simpson if it'll make you happy, but then run. Run away as fast as you can. Ask her no questions. Do not engage her in a conversation.

For the purposes of this blog, and my own mental health, let me distinguish between two words: portrait, and likeness.

Creativity Tips

This post will be ongoing. As time permits, I will add tips, suggestions, and exercises that will improve one's ability to be creative. I have 120 of them so far. The goal here is not just to be different - different has nothing to do with creativity. Different has nothing to do with originality. Different has no correlation with better. Different is merely different.
Nothing wrong with different. Nothing wrong with being different. Nothing wrong with making a goal out of being different. Just realize that a goal like that is adolescent. It's nothing more than a rejection of what is and the way things are, and as such, it is a negative mind set, not a positive one. Teenagers choose this attitude when trying to prepare themselves for leaving the nest. If they don't know yet who they are or what they want to do or become, but want an improvement over what they've seen, their frustration will lead them to negativity: "I don't know what I want, but I know I don't want this."
Photographers, at some early stage, will do the same thing, especially when spurred on by friends who say, "Ooh, that's different," and they say it as if it were a compliment. They receive further encouragement when critics and competition judges are bored and jaded. They ache for something new to critique, and so they reward pictures that are different, even if they are worse because of the effort to find something different. Sort of like women's fashion shows. No one would ever wear that crap flopping down the runway, but everyone goes ga-ga anyway.
As photographers pass through the adolescent period of their career, heading toward maturity, their style will evolve beyond the mere appearance of their photographs, as teens will mature beyond concerns that are only skin deep, such as hair and clothes. Mature styles are more natural, less affected, and less superficial.
Trying to be different is, at best, merely an exercise, practice, homework. It should never be our ultimate goal. Trying to be different is what makes us feel shame and embarrassment when we go back and look at our yearbook pictures.

Creativity tip #1
Break habits. The number one enemy of creativity is habitual thinking. Habits are ruts. Ruts are like coffins in the ground, only longer. Really long. Sometimes a lifetime long. Nothing wrong with being in a coffin, mind you, but I think you should be dead first.
People who live by habits alone are in a zone - a comfort zone. Comfort zones dull the senses. Dullness is the opposite of being alive and vibrant. Dulled senses cause us occasionally to sit up straight, look around, and say out loud, "What the heck happened to this year? It's just flown by." If you don't want to live, then please, lie down in your coffin and stop confusing others about your condition.
Habitual thinking causes habitual behavior. Habitual behavior is invisible. To see it, you must become aware of what you're doing. Whatever you start to do in the very next minute, don't. Do something else instead. When you first get up in the morning, change the order of getting ready. Modify the sequence. Put the other shoe on first. Put one sock on, then everything else, and put the other sock on at the very last. These are exercises for the mind in preparation for breaking habits in preparation for using other parts of the brain, in preparation for learning to become creative.

Creativity tip #2
Change your internal dialog. Internal dialog is also called self-talk. It's that inner voice that goes on and on and on and on and on and on and on. It goes on all the time, every second of every minute of every day of every year of your life. The things it talks about are repeated over and over. Same thing. Same thing. Same thing. Same thing.
It repeats so often that you no longer hear it. You are no longer aware of it. That internal dialog repetition is what maintains your world. It provides continuity in your life and keeps things balanced and sane. It creates a comfort zone for you, making your world more predictable. It also keeps things the same. What you think about all day long and repeat to yourself over and over and over and over is your number one habit. Creativity cannot occur in your mind until this self-talk changes. Change cannot occur until you substitute something different for your self-talk. Change the subject. It doesn't have to be some great idea at first - heck, it could be baseball scores. The intent is to break the continuity of your internal dialog so that the change will become noticeable. This awareness puts you back into conscious contact with your internal dialog.
Once you've become aware of your self-talk again, you can begin breaking the habitual conversation. At first you'll have to talk over it to make it shut up long enough to change the subject. You may have to shout. This stage is best practiced when you're alone.

Time for Definitions
create - to bring into existence, to invest with a new form, to bring about through a course of action, to produce through imaginative skill.
creative - marked by the ability to create, having the quality of something created rather than imitated, imaginative.
original - relating to the beginning or start of something. Not imitative, secondary, or derivative. New, inventive. The first of something.

Some people treat creativity and originality as synonyms. To do so is a travesty, because that negates the distinction and therefore the benefit of the other word.
Here's the difference: whoever invented the first stained glass window was original. Whoever invented Little Bo Peep was original. Whoever used Little Bo Peep in a stained glass design was creative. Whoever copied that design was derivative, imitative, and a lazy, thoughtless cad.
Elvis, in some ways, was original. Whoever invented velvet had an original idea. Whoever first painted Elvis on black velvet was creative. This points to my next point: creative ideas are not always good ideas. In fact, most creativity dies an early death, and thankfully so. Earlier in this post, I stated that different isn't necessarily better. Well, creative ain't either.

Creativity tip #3
This is an exercise to designed to prepare the mind for creativity by breaking some habits. We typically wear only 20% of the clothes in our closet 80% of the time. 80% of our closet space is taken up by clothes we seldom, if ever, wear. Whatever you reach for tomorrow morning, leave it there. Go down to the far end and find something to wear that you almost never wear. This isn't an exercise to be different - it's to help break you out of a rut.

Creativity tip #4
Make up a new word. Make it up. Invent a word that describes how your wife spreads jelly on a piece of toast. The word might take off or it might not. Doesn't matter. This isn't a search for a way to become famous; it's only an exercise to help develop a creative mind. My lovely wife and I created a new use for the word "porch." We didn't invent the word. What we did wasn't original. The word already existed. As a noun. We converted it to an active verb. We needed a word to describe the many things we did on the porch, things that helped us evolve as humans. Porching involves way more than sitting in a rocker on the porch. It helped us develop a higher level of relaxation, a greater appreciation of birds, trees, and other parts of nature. It raised our levels concentration, meditation, and reason. We learned to see, hear, and smell. Root beer floats tasted better. Porching helped us evolve to the point that the porch was no longer necessarily a part of the equation. Porching became a state of mind.

Creativity tip #5
Throw something away. Go to your closet. Pick something. Throw it away. This does two things: it makes room for something new, and it's an exercise for the mind, because eventually, with practice, you'll be able to throw old thoughts away...thought that prevent you from thinking new ones.

Creativity tip #6
Give something away. No, this isn't the same as above. And it serves a different purpose. What you probably did for tip #5 was to pitch a pair of old nasty sneakers that no self-respecting homeless person would even be caught dead wearing. Go to your closet. This time pick out something you place some value on. Go give it to someone. Personally hand it to them. Here's the secret: More than likely, knowing that you'll be face t
o face with them, you'll polish up the item a bit, give it a little cleanup, dry cleaning, ironing, or a new washing. This process gives you practice on what to do before you start giving away ideas. See, what I'm doing right now is giving away ideas. I'm no longer being possessive. Part of my self-assigned task of losing my self-importance. But before I give an idea away, I need to polish it up a bit. Make it shine. Clear it up. It gives my mind clarity. This blog must be win-win. So, when you give something to someone, make sure it's presentable. It will prepare your mind to give away thoughts. Clarity of mind is good for creativity.

Creativity tip #7
Sell something. This is an extension of tip #6, only better. It's one thing to give something away. Totally something else to expect to get paid for it. By way of analogy, tip #5 would have us throw away some leftover pie that's been in the fridge too long. Moldy pie is a perfect pie to throw away. In the trash, no ceremony, no big whoop. Tip #6 would have us giving a pie to a neighbor, for example. But first, we'd make sure of its freshness. We'd wrap it carefully, and maybe a bit decoratively. When you take it over, you can apologize for the edge being a little too brown. Tip #7 would have us baking a new pie for the school bake sale. It must be perfect. No one will pay money for a burned crust, amateurish design, or boiled-over filling.

How are we doing so far? The next tip has to do with creating a new recipe. Please be awake for this one. I don't want anyone getting hurt.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Choosing the Right Path

All paths lead nowhere.
I chose photography because,
for me, it was a path with heart.
I could sing on the way home every night.

When I was young, we had a neighbor who worked at a job he hated. Worked there for forty years. Couldn't wait to retire. Three months after he retired, he died.
That stayed with me. An entire career of misery - for what? Let's see... 40 hours a week, times 50 weeks, times 40 years, equals 80,000 hours. That's torture.
I decided to pick something I could enjoy. Just in case.

I had a boss in the newspaper business. Got up every morning at four a.m. Couldn't wait to get to work. Loved it. Did it for forty-five years. Forced to retire at 65. Died three days later. That stayed with me, too. He WAS his work, which for him, was play. Not being allowed to play, I think, is what killed him.

You choose your life, or life will choose for you.

You can make yourself happy or you can make yourself miserable. The amount of work is the same.
(Carlos Castaneda, quoting don Juan Matus, Yaqui shaman)

Do what you love, or love what you do - the result will be the same.

Friday, November 21, 2008

The Why of the Blog

I'm saying photography has no hips to make my first point about photography - people try to make it into something it is not. Not such a bad error, except that it leads people away from photography's vast and virtually untapped potential.

Photography has no hips, but it does have something that lies outside of normal human awareness. It people
were aware, it would dominate the conversations among photographers. It would be the focus of photography books, classes, seminars, workshops, and conventions. It would rise in front of every aspiring photographer as a beacon, a guiding light, a goal.

For some - those of you who've achieved all the normal goals and now wonder, as Peggy Lee used to wonder, "Is that all there is?" - let me warn you (yes, warn you) that there is indeed more. And you may be sorry you asked.

If this interests you, follow my blog. Call your friends. They may remember me. I am about to start revealing some of the secrets that I took with me to the wilderness. I will also start sharing some of the lessons I learned during my year of solitude.

Hello, I'm ba-aaaack. Bwuuuh-huh-huh-huh.

Will there be photographs in this blog, or just a bunch of words?

Answer: Yes, there will be photographs. I will tell you now that this blog will be more about the photographer than the photograph. I have always placed the photographer above the photograph. Whenever photographers are told how to take better pictures (which is all the time) they invariably become, to some degree, derivative. When my priority is on the photographer instead of the photograph, the work become more original. Original always trumps derivative. Thinking of Elvis impersonators should drive this point home.
Also, there's the not-so-little matter of blindfolds. I think it would be a good idea to remove them before pictures can be seen. By that, I mean comprehended. There's a huge difference between looking and understanding. So, first things first. I think the sequence I have lined out will be the best order of business.

Question: Will you be any nicer than you used to be? Just a little? Please?

Answer: Hey, I'm already as sweet as a speckled pup.