There we were on Shell Beach in Southern California’s “Jewel” – La Jolla. If you consider shorts, t-shirt and flip flops ideal attire, then the mid-August weather was just perfect. The sweet morning light was just beginning to show herself to those of us eager enough to be awake, which on this morning included myself and seven photography workshop participants who were joining me for one of my California workshops. Shell Beach seemed like an ideal location to take seven passionate photographers for a sunrise – it’s small and intimate, yet contains many elements that can be arranged well for a diverse style of seeing photographic compositions. It’s only as wide as a football field, yet both sides lead upward to steep cliffs that stretch out toward the sea, undercut with partial caves on the sides and a scattering of rocks throughout the beach, with a couple large rocks just offshore where pelicans and cormorants linger about. Having photographed this spot many times before, I knew good compositional arrangements could be made, but of course, it is also quite easy to include too much or too little and fall short of success as well. So, an ideal setting to place students – a place where they can make it work, or not, and then discuss the why’s and why not’s as to what is working and what is not working in real time.
Less than an hour into our shoot, everyone was quite enthralled and working toward making photographs. I had been bouncing from one participant to the next, spending a few minutes at a time with each, when I approached Mark at the far end of the beach. Mark, a semi-retired entrepreneur who had now turned his extra curricular energy towards photography, was well on his way to a nice portfolio of strong landscape work after a short couple of years. As I approached him, he was breaking down his tripod, as if just finishing up a shot. “Let me see what you’re up to?” I asked, gesturing toward the camera. He showed me the last few frames he had made and I was stunned, “These are great!” I announced. “I love the composition – how these two rocks are balanced and lead your eye inward to this 3rd rock which is the focal point.” I explained what was working and why, and why the image resonated with me the way it did. Then, I went on to explain what would make it better, and more dynamic. “If you were to wait until a larger wave came into this area of the frame, it would give further separation between these rocks, strengthening the entire image. Get back in there and recompose it, and stick with it – this is now the only composition here that matters for you.”
It was then that I realized that all seven of the workshop participants had the same tendency that morning – to go from one compositional arrangement to the next to the next, without ever delving deeply into any of them. Whether it was working well or resonating with them, or not, they all tended to make a few frames and move on. Now, that’s cool if the composition isn’t working, but in many of the cases, including the example with Mark, they would be on to something strong and compelling, and in some cases knew it, but then still only explored the composition at surface level, without committing deeper to it. I told Mark, and soon after all the others, “When we are out photographing, we are running around with a little rock. We are banging our little rock all over the surface of things until we find a spark. That spark is what we are looking for – it’s when things are lining up and resonating with us. It’s inspiration. Our goal is to find that spark, and then baby that thing and make a fire. Have you ever made a fire in nature using only a spark? It is not easy. It requires careful attention and effort. You have to have all your elements prepped and waiting and then carefully and attentively turn that spark into fire. Once you’ve committed your efforts and have turned a spark into a fire, then your fire can be felt by others – they will feel it’s warmth, and can be comforted by it. This is the same with the photographs. You seek out these sparks of inspiration where these external elements align with something inner and personal, and then you’ve got to commit to making a fire. When we come to this beach, your goal is not to make 10 sparks – it is to make 1 fire!” All seven of the photographers were making sparks, but not realizing that a deeper commitment was necessary, that they had yet to make fire. This, I realized then, is one of the primary differences between successful image makers and unsuccessful image makers, this willingness and understanding to go deeper once the spark is made. After 20 more minutes of committing to the composition with the rocks, Mark had successfully made a stronger image and had reached that point where he could say to himself, “There is nothing more I can do to strengthen this photograph.” He had made fire.
Reflecting back on this past year of teaching workshops in my home of Maui; as well as in San Francisco, La Jolla, and Acadia National Park in Maine; I can look back and see that I have learned much from teaching. Well, it would be more accurate to state – many things that I knew have been strongly reinforced. I have minimized most of what I talk about down to the core of what I believe to be important in the making of expressive and evocative photographs. By emphasizing these technical aspects and creative perspectives and expressing and discussing them with others, they have in-turn been moved to the forefront of my attention. This has resulted in some changes along my photographic path, as well as some enlightening realizations both in my photography and my day-to-day life.
I will give you a few examples, using a few points that I always try to make when working with early-on-the-path photographers:
•Don’t Make Photography a Means to an End
•What Do I Want to Communicate and Express?
•Editing – Quality over Quantity
Don’t make photography a means to an end. Really, this translates to anything and could be restated to say – don’t make life a means to an end. Speaking photographically, I always feel this is important to express. There needs to be a real love and passion behind the work, otherwise the endurance to carry-on (happily) likely won’t be there. If going out to make bitchin’ photographs is your primary goal and focus, you are using photography as a means to an end and it will result in frustration. Why? Because, most of the time we go out and don’t make successful photographs! To this day, I am unsuccessful much more than I am successful in capturing and creating evocative and compelling photographs – therefore I’d be frustrated most of the time if that were my main objective. You have to love the process. That’s why I have related what I do photographically to the fisherman. We both go out to a spot that we love and want to spend some time. We bring all our gear and stuff to fiddle around with. In the end, we hope to catch a fish/make a photograph, but if we don’t – it’s still sweet to be there. If we do, then it’s even sweeter! This is making photographs without making it a means to an end. This is much more rewarding and conducive for a joyous path. After repeatedly discussing and expressing this to workshop participants, I began to see it’s relevance spill over to other areas of my life. If I exhibited my work for a day and wouldn’t sell anything, I noticed I had the tendency to get down in the dumps. I realized that I needed to bring my same advice to my own experiences and follow it, given I thought it were so important to discuss with everyone I worked with. I realized that I needed to stop making exhibiting simply a means to an end, and enjoy the process. Since bringing a greater awareness to this, I have not allowed myself to get so down about slow sale days.
What do I want to communicate? What do I want to express? These are important questions that every photographer must begin to ask if they ever want to make more personal and expressive work, and it’s something I bring to the attention of everyone I work with. Again, in doing so, it made me look much deeper into what my personal aims are, and what I was looking to communicate with my photographs. It forced me to delve deeper into the question, and ultimately the answer, and become more aware of my message. In turn, I have narrowed my vision and have focused much more clearly on what feelings I want to evoke in viewers with a new series of work tentatively titled “Space and Solitude” (to be released in January 2014). The knowledge was there, but it was only after discussing and teaching it to others did it force me to delve deeper, resulting in a change of course.
Editing. I discuss the importance of editing on a number of levels, but at its most basic – the photographer is only as good as their presented work. Therefore, if we look at a body of work by a photographer and we both agree to say “He/she is a great photographer”, then really what we are saying is that “He/she is a great editor”. Why? Because again, photographers are unsuccessful much more than they are successful, so the keen eye of a strict editor is necessary. If edited strongly, then the result is a strong photographic collection. If not edited tightly, then the result might be watered down and not as strong. You can find many examples of this in the world – watered down collections. Unfortunately, many (most?) photographers seem to think more is better. I always tell those I work with who have yet to build a collection of work, “It is much better to have 25 strong images and show no more. People will look at the 25 images and say, ‘he/she is a strong photographer.’ If you show 100 images – 25 strong images and 75 mediocre ones, then they will see you as a mediocre photographer who got lucky once in awhile. The power of a strong edit is the secret to being a good photographer.” Like the other points above, after discussing this over and over, I started to look at my own collection more closely. I remember earlier on my photographic path having a goal to make 50 dynamic gallery-worthy images. Then it was 100. By 2013, my collection had swelled to 225+ images(!), and I realized that I was guilty of what so many others are – adding adding adding, while never taking away. I was not editing out weaker images (and there’s always weaker images), and my collection was growing in number, but weakening at the same time. And worse yet, I found with the greater number of images available in my collection, the more difficulty collectors and prospective buyers had finding “the one” that really resonated with them, another downfall to having too much work. After months of realizing action was needed, I finally was able to simplify and minimize a decades worth of work that was divided into 9 portfolios and 225+ images, down to 4 portfolios and 100 images. A grueling task but a necessary one, and one that reminds me that every couple years, it’s probably a good idea to clean house and cut some of the fat from the collection – this way the collection grows more strongly as opposed to growing simply in numbers.
I had some uncertainties initially about offering workshops but things aligned, the timing was good and I moved into it, curious to determine whether or not this path was one for me. I have been pleasantly surprised to discover that I enjoy the process and interpersonal dynamic with participants, and that I get back as much as I give out. Realizations continue to become more clear – that the photographic path is quite similar for all of us and that we are simply at different spots along the journey – the journey that has no ending; that the lessons learned in photography parallel and highlight those that need to be learned in life; that the path of photography can guide our lives to greater fulfillment and joy; that sharing knowledge and freely giving results in an openness that leaves one able to truly receive.
You see, first there’s a spark. With careful attention and effort, you turn that spark into fire. Once you’ve turned a spark into fire, then your fire can be felt by others – they will feel it’s warmth, and can be comforted by it. This is the same with…