Monthly Archives: April 2014

Why I Never Ask If People Like My Work

White Trees, Series 2, No. 4

White Trees, Series 2, No. 4

I hardly ever ask for anyone’s opinion of my work.  In fact, with rare exception, I make it a point specifically not to do so.  Why do I do this?

Simple.  If you ask someone whether they like your work or not, there’s usually two possible outcomes.  The first is that they don’t really like your work, but they’re too polite to say so.  You then put them in the uncomfortable position of either coming up with a polite way to say they don’t like it, or lying to you and saying they do like it in order to spare your feelings.  The second possible outcome is that they really do like your work and tell you so.  If this happens, though, you’ll never be sure if maybe they really don’t like your work, but they’re lying just to be polite.  Asking the question therefore largely is a lose-lose proposition, since you likely never can be sure if you’re getting an honest opinion.  In fact, the only way to “win” this game is if someone straight-up tells you they dislike your work, because at least then you can be sure you’re getting the truth.

The only feedback that’s really worth anything is unsolicited feedback.  If someone tells you they like your work, without being under any obligation to do so, then you probably can trust that it’s true.  And that’s why I rarely ask anyone if they like my work.


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Photography, not iPhoneography

Triptych, Flow No. 3

Triptych, Flow No. 3

The image in this post was captured with an iPhone.  If that makes you yawn, I don’t blame you.  Not so long ago, using a smartphone to produce a fine art photograph was something of a novelty, and images made in this manner had a bit of a “wow” factor.  Now, smartphones are so ubiquitous that juried exhibitions of nothing but images captured with mobile devices are commonplace.  There’s certainly nothing particularly noteworthy about using smartphones for fine art photography anymore.

What is noteworthy, though, is how infrequently smartphones are used for “straight” fine art photography.  Most fine art photographs captured with smartphones that I come across look like they have been highly digitally processed.  The goal seems to be to create images having certain “looks” – vintage, painterly, selectively focused, over- or under-saturated, whatever the case may be.  These kinds of photographs have been called “iPhoneography,” and while sometimes the results can be worthwhile, the whole thing seems to rely on digital gimmickry to get to the end result.  Few people seem to be pointing their smartphones to make straight captures of their subjects in the way that, say, Edward Weston or Henri Cartier-Bresson pointed their film cameras to make straight captures of their subjects.  It’s as if no one believes or take seriously the possibility of creating works with a smartphone that can stand on their own, without the aid of some kind of digital processing crutch.

That’s a shame.  Smartphones are perfectly capable of producing fine captures, worthy of being made into fine photographs.  Sure, smartphones have their limitations.  The pixel count on my iPhone is dwarfed by that of my Canon 5D Mark ii, its fixed lens limits the kinds of subjects I can capture, and the 8-bit jpgs it captures limits how much the digital file can be worked over.

Still, the files are robust enough to produce a good print.  Don’t believe me?  Check out this image by one of my favorite photographers, Cole Thompson.  He was able to print it to 15 inches wide – I’ve seen it in person, and it looks great!  Still don’t believe me?  I’ve had several images captured with my iPhone exhibited in juried exhibitions of straight photography.  I didn’t disclose that they were captured with an iPhone (nothing sneaky or underhanded, mind you, the capture mode was irrelevant to the exhibitions), and the image quality was good enough that they fit right in.

Plus, smartphones bring certain advantages to the table that other cameras don’t.  There’s the obvious fact that they are with you all the time.  There’s the further fact that as small, handheld devices, you can really move them around to get angles and points of view that you might not make the effort for with larger cameras.  Both of these attributes were key in producing the image in this post, since I came across this subject at a place where I never would have had my big camera, and I was able to wave my iPhone around a lot to get some interesting perspectives.

My process in making the image, though, was the same as if I had used my Canon 5D Mark ii to get the captures.  No fancy filters or effects.  I knew what I wanted the final image to look like even before I started capturing the subject, and my workflow was the same as it would have been for any other black and white print.  That’s why when I use my iPhone’s camera, I think of it as “photography,” not “iPhoneography.”

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You’re Only as Good as Your Worst Image

Black Trees Series 2, No. 3

Black Trees, Series 2, No. 3

There, I said it.  You’re only as good as your worst image.

But you already knew that, I promise.  If you’ve ever followed an artist’s work – be it a photographer, a musician, a filmmaker, whatever – then I’m sure you’ve created a mental ranking of their greatest hits and greatest flops, at least as you would call them.  I know you’ve done that, because I do it too.  We all do it.  It’s human nature.  And it’s only logical to do so.  Nobody’s output – be it an artist, an athlete, a  professional – can be perfectly consistent all of the time.  We all have our high points and low points in everything we do, and that includes our work, be it artistic or otherwise.  We wouldn’t be human if it were any different.

So given this situation, how is an artist’s body of work perceived by others?  Some people might look at the best examples and form their opinion based on that.  Some people might, but not very many, I suspect.  My guess is that opinions are more swayed by the worst examples.  Maybe I’m being pessimistic, or maybe I’m just too cynical, but I don’t think that’s the case.  I’m no expert in psychology, but I’m pretty sure that negative reinforcement is a powerful motivator on how people form their opinions.  If your audience comes across a poor example of your work, it tends to stick with them.

This could all be seen as being very demotivating.  After all, why would anyone put any of their work into the world if there’s a risk it could be badly received and reflect poorly on them?

I don’t think it has to be understood this way, though.  The reason I’m bringing up this point in this blog post is to stress the importance of self-editing.

I believe those that create or perform – again, be they artists, athletes, professionals, or whatever – tend to see the best aspects of their output, and be blind to the flaws.  I know I do.  When I create an image, I know how I want it to look and what I want it to communicate.  I have a vision for it, that I try to translate into the final product by way of craft.  Craft involves building the image up a piece at a time – through arranging the composition, placing tonalities, controlling contrast, etc.  When individual elements of the piece start working, I start seeing my vision realized, bits and pieces at a time, and it’s exciting.

And yet, there’s a tension.  Things don’t always come together in the end.  Sometimes, even if individual parts of the image look like they’re working, the image as a whole is not.  When this happens, it’s easy to see only what’s working in the piece – what you like about it – and ignore the flaws (but the composition is so cool!  the range of tones is just awesome!).  Resist this tendency!  This is when you have to self-edit, to be your own worst critic.

For me, this usually takes the form of a small, nagging voice telling me that something about the image just isn’t working.  It’s a quiet voice, in danger of being drowned out by the much louder voices telling me everything I like about the image, and it’s pretty easy to ignore.  Ignore it at your peril, though.  This is the voice that keeps you from putting work into the world that you really know shouldn’t be there.  When you self-edit, you cull weak images from your body of work, and those that make it through will have reached a minimum standard of quality.  As a result, some pieces in your portfolio may become standouts, and others not, but all will have merit, and your body of work as a whole will have consistency and value.

One final point.  Art cannot be quantified, and tastes are subjective.  What I’ve said here should not be misunderstood as advocating that there is an objective yardstick by which art is to be measured.  When you put work into the world, people will like it, or people won’t, and usually that has nothing to do with you or the work itself.  All I’m saying is that when you put work into the world, make sure that it reflects the best of what it can be by your own personal standard.  Self-edit yourself ruthlessly, then stand behind your work and be proud of it.

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