Aug 22 2014

Five Things Photography Has Given Me

1970 Mary at Corona Fina 750 Five Things Photography Has Given MeMary, 1971 – This is my friend from school, Mary Doyle, at Corona Del Mar in California. I created this image with one of my favorite cameras from my youth, a mini-Speed Graphic with a 220 roll back. 

1. A wonderful childhood. Beginning at age 14 and for the next several years, photography became my life and I spent every moment either photographing, working in my darkroom or reading about photography.

I have such wonderful memories of those long days working in the darkroom, experimenting and the thrill of discovery.

1971 Two Hippies Final 4 12 2009 550 Five Things Photography Has Given MeTwo Hippies, 1970 – This was created at my high school, Loara in Anaheim, CA.  This was created at the height of the hippy movement, which along with the drug scene was very much alive at my high school.

2. Balance.  I chose not to pursue a career in photography for fear I would lose my passion for it, and instead went into business. Unfortunately, due to the demands of family and job I did not pick up the camera for the next 30 years.

My business life was all about numbers, logic and rational decision making, and with no creative outlets my life became lopsided. It was not until I returned to photography in 2004 that I realized how out of balance my life had become.

Photography and the creative process helped bring balance back into my life.

1970 Indian Statue Final 7 26.2006 550 Five Things Photography Has Given MeWooden Indian, 1971 – I worked at Disneyland and this image was created on Main Street. This statue is still standing there today and every time I see it, it conjures up great memories of my youth, photography and working at Disneyland. Ironically I now work in downtown Fort Collins, the downtown that inspired Disney’s Main Street.

3. The Ability to see. Photography has helped me to see beauty in the ordinary and find uniqueness in the common. That makes every location, exotic or not, exciting.

1970 Shoes Final 4 30 2005 550 Five Things Photography Has Given Me
Old Shoes, 1971 – This is a shoe locker at my High School.  I had just moved to Anaheim from Rochester, NY and being new, my eyes were fresh and saw everything for the first time. It was a very productive two years because of the encouragement of a dear friend and mentor, John Holland.

4. Vision. Through photography I found my Vision, or my unique way of seeing the world. What I see through my Vision is much different than what I see with my eyes.

My Vision is what fuels my creative process.

1970 Gull and Moon Final 9 28 2010 750 Five Things Photography Has Given MeGull and Moon, 1971 – This was created in two parts: the seagull was shot during the day in my high school parking lot and the moon was an infrared night shot.  These two images were sandwiched in the enlarger and printed.  My negatives from those days were lost and this image was recovered from a single print I found. This is my favorite image from my youth.

5. Confidence. Finding my Vision and learning to follow it taught me that I didn’t need another persons approval to feel good about my work or myself as an artist.

I’ve learned that if I love my work, that is enough.

1971 Headlamp Final 4 14 2009 750 Five Things Photography Has Given MeHeadlamp, 1970 – This old truck sat in a field across from my High School in Anaheim. I consider this my Edward Weston period, a time when I was mesmerized with his work and tried to copy it.

 

I thought about adding a sixth item: Purpose.  But as I thought about it, I realized that photography is not my purpose in life.

Rather, photography makes my life better and that helps me to fulfill my real purpose in life.

Cole

P.S.  The images in this post were created when I was 14-17 years old.  These images are like a time machine, transporting me back to those wonderful days when I was young and always had a camera around my neck.

1971 Clay Figure Final 4 12 2009 550 Five Things Photography Has Given MeClay Figure, 1971 – Student projects at my high school.
 
1970 Artist Final 8 11 2005 550 Five Things Photography Has Given MeArtist, 1970 – This portrait artist worked at the Disneyland Hotel shops.
 
1971 Old Building Final 4 12 2009 550 Five Things Photography Has Given MeOld Building, 1971 – An old farm shed in Anaheim.
 
1968 Egg in Glass Final 10 6 2005 550 Five Things Photography Has Given MeEgg in Glass, 1968 – I was 14 and I had purchased a used Pony 828 camera. I removed the lens mount so that I could focus more closely, and using a ground glass on the film plane, composed this image. I tell people that this was my first “fine art” photograph!
 
1971 Spraying Water and Bird Final 4 12 2009 750 Five Things Photography Has Given MeSpraying Water and Bird, 1971 – This was photographed at 1000 steps in Laguna Beach, CA. Many, many fond memories were made here.

Jun 14 2014

Visualize versus Previsualize

2004 11 1 Skeleton Final 4 24 2009 750 Visualize versus Previsualize

I have been thinking about two words lately: visualize and previsualize.  What do they mean and how are they different?

I’ve used both words to describe my creative process and yet I’m not really sure if I’m visualizing or previsualizing?

So I looked them up in the dictionary:

Visualize: form a mental image of; imagine.

Previsualize: The word you’ve entered isn’t in the dictionary.

Hmmmm…so previsualize is not a “real” word?

I then turned to the ultimate authority of the universe (Wikipedia) to see what I could learn about previsualization.  Here is what I found:

Visualization is a central topic in Ansel Adams‘ writings about photography, where he defines it as “the ability to anticipate a finished image before making the exposure”. 

The term previsualization has been attributed to Minor White who divided visualization into previsualization, referring to visualization while studying the subject; and postvisualization, referring to remembering the visualized image at printing time.

However, White himself said that he learned the idea, which he called a “psychological concept” from Ansel Adams and Edward Weston.

According to Adams and White, visualization and previsualization are the same and this process takes place before the exposure.

2005 5 20 Rushing Waters Final 5 28 2005 750 Visualize versus Previsualize

This has been my experience, that visualization takes place before the exposure. When I’m looking at the subject I can literally see the final image in my “mind’s eye.”

This Vision typically comes quickly and definitively and it guides me during the shot and the processing, helping me transform the captured image into to that visualized image. There is no question as to what the final image will look like, it is burned into my memory.

2010 9 17 Monotlith No 10 Final 9 26 2010 750 Visualize versus Previsualize

Inspiration may come after the exposure and during processing, but that would not be visualization according to Adams or previsualization according to White’s thinking.

I’m grateful for the inspiration whenever it may come, but I do find it most useful when it comes before the exposure.

What has your experience been with visualization or previsualization?

Cole

 


May 9 2014

How I Found My Vision

2006 5 20 The Angel Gabriel Final 10 15 2007 750 How I Found My VisionThe Angel Gabriel

 

Why do I focus on Vision so much? It’s because I believe that Vision is what makes an image great. It’s what makes the difference between a technically perfect image and one with feeling. It’s what makes your images unique.

Great images do not come about because of equipment and processes, but rather from Vision that drives these tools to do wonderful things. What good are great technical skills if you don’t have an idea worthy of them?  

If I had to choose between the best equipment in the world and no Vision or having a Kodak Brownie and my Vision…

Brownie How I Found My Vision

I’d take the Brownie.

A lot of people ask: “How do I go about finding my Vision?” I’m not sure I can answer that for everyone, but here is how I discovered mine:

 

The Wake-Up Call

Several years ago I was attending Review Santa Fe where over the course of a day my work was evaluated by a number of gallery owners, curators, publishers and “experts” in the field. 

Review Santa Fe How I Found My Vision

During the last review of a very long day, the reviewer quickly looked at my work, brusquely pushed it back to me and said “It looks like your trying to copy Ansel Adams.”  I replied that I was, because I loved his work! He then said something that would change my life:

“Ansel’s already done Ansel and you’re not going to do him any better.  What can you create that shows your unique vision?”

Those words really stung, but over the next two years the message did sink in: Was it my life’s ambition to be known as the world’s best Ansel Adams imitator? Had I no higher aspirations than that?

I desperately wanted to know if I had a Vision, but there was a huge problem: what exactly was Vision and how did I develop it?  

What is Vision1 How I Found My Vision

I researched Vision but I couldn’t relate to the definitions and explanations that I found. Was it a look, a style or a technique? Was it something you were born with or something you developed?

And then there was the nagging doubt: what if I didn’t have a Vision? I feared that it was something you either “had” or you “didn’t have”  and perhaps I did not?

And how was I to go about finding my Vision?

With so many unanswered questions and with no idea on how to proceed, I simply forged ahead with what made sense to me.  Here is what I did:

Sort Your Portfolio

I took 100 of my best images, printed them out and then divided them into two groups: the ones I REALLY loved…and all the rest. I decided that the ones that went in the “loved” pile had to be images that “I” loved, and not just ones that I was attached to because they had received a lot praise, won awards or sold the best. And if I loved an image and nobody else did, I still picked it. 

Make the Commitment

I committed that from that point on, I would only pursue those kinds of images, the ones that I really loved. Too often I had been sidetracked when I chose to pursue images simply because others liked them.

Practice Photographic Celibacy

I started practicing Photographic Celibacy and stopped looking at other photographer’s work. I reasoned that to find my Vision, I had to stop immersing myself in the Vision and images of others.

I used to spend hours and hours looking at other photographer’s work and would find myself copying their style or even their specific images. I knew that I couldn’t wipe the blackboard of my mind clean of those images, but I could certainly stop focusing on their Vision and instead focus on mine.

When I looked at a scene I didn’t want to see it through another photographer’s eyes, I wanted to see it through mine!

Simplify Your Processes

I embarked on a mission to simplify my photography.  In the past I had focused on the technical and now I was going to focus on the creative. I disposed of everything that was not necessary: extra equipment, gadgets, plug-ins, programs, processes and all of those toys we technophiles love. I went back to the basics which simplified my photography, gave me more time and it reminded me that I wanted to put more focus on my creative abilities.

Ignore Other’s Advice

I ignored the advice that well intentioned friends and experts gave me. So much of this advice had never felt right for me and I was torn between following their recommendations or my own intuition. In the end I decided that only by pleasing myself could I create my best work, and that no matter how expert someone was, they were not an expert about my Vision or what I wanted.

Change Your Mindset

I worked to change my mindset from photographer to artist. I had always thought of myself as a photographer who documented, but I could see that this role was limiting and the truth was that I wanted to be an artist that created.  

To help me make this mental shift I started calling myself an artist (I felt like such a fraud at first)  figuring that I must play the part to become the part. I also stopped using certain words and phrases, for example instead of saying “take a picture” I would say “create an image.”  

That may seem like small and inconsequential thing, but it helped to continually remind me that I wanted to be an artist who created, and not a photographer who documented.

Question Your Motives

I questioned my motives and honestly answered some hard question such as: why am I creating? Who am I trying to please? What do I want from my photography? How do I define success?

It seemed to me that Vision was something honest and that if I were going to find my Vision, I had to be honest about the reasons I was pursuing it.

Stop Comparing

I stopped comparing my work to other photographers. I noticed that when I compared, it led to doubts about my abilities and it left me deflated. All I could see were their strengths and my weaknesses, which was an unfair comparison.  

I decided that if my goal was to produce the best work that I could, then it did not matter what others were doing. I had to remind myself that this was not a race or a contest, I was not competing against others…I was competing with myself.

Stop Caring What Others Think

I made a conscious decision to stop caring what others thought of my work. I recognized that in trying to please others, I was left feeling insecure and empty.

At the end of the day, it was just me, my work and what I thought of it. As long as I cared what others thought, I was a slave and could never be free.

Get Inspired

I re-read Ayn Rand’s novel “The Fountainhead” which I had first read at age 17. It has been one of the most influential books of my life because it gave me hope that I could become truly independent, that I could think for myself and define my own future. I know this book can cause strong reactions in people, both for good and ill, but it was a tremendous help in finding my Vision. 

 

I really was proceeding blindly, but I believed that if I listened to my own desires, pursued what I loved and eliminated all other voices, I would learn something about my Vision.

I did this for two years and there were many times that I became discouraged and didn’t feel like I was making any progress. I didn’t really know what I expected to happen, perhaps I thought I’d have a revelatory experience where my Vision would suddenly appear in a moment of inspiration!

But that didn’t happen.

And then one day it just occurred to me: I understood…I understood what my Vision was. 

It came in an anticlimatical and quiet moment of understanding, and after all of that worrying and angst…it now seemed so incredibly simple. Vision was not something I needed to acquire or develop, it had been there all along and all that I needed to do was to “discover” it.

Vision was simply the sum total of my life experiences that caused me to see the world in a unique way. When I looked at a scene and imagined it a certain way…that was my vision.

2008 5 10 Auschwitz No 14 Final 2 1 2009 750 How I Found My Vision

My Vision had always been there but over the years it had been buried by layers of “junk.” Each layer obscured my vision until it was lost and I doubted my creative abilities.  Some of those layers were valuing other’s opinions over my own, fear of failing, imitating others and creating for recognition.

Each time I created for external rewards, each time I put accolades before personal satisfaction, each time I cared what others would think…I buried my natural creativity under another layer until it was buried and forgotten.

Interestingly I came to conclude that Vision had little to do with photography or art and had more to do with being a well-adjusted, confident and independent human being. Once I had the confidence to pursue my art on my terms, and define success for myself, I was free to pursue my Vision without fear of rejection or need for acceptance.

Something else I learned about Vision: it is not a look or a style. It is not focusing on one subject or genre and following your Vision will not make your work look all the same. Vision gives you the freedom to pursue any subject, create in any style and do anything that you want.


2007 7 24 Swimming Towards the Light Final 6 30 2009 750 How I Found My Vision

But finding my Vision was not the end of the journey, because now I had to follow it which was equally as hard. I am still tempted to create for recognition, to care what others think and to want to be acknowledged. It takes constant discipline to stay centered, to remember why I’m creating and to follow my definition of success.

If you could have known me before I found my Vision, you would have found a technician that doubted his creative abilities, a photographer who felt that it was wrong to “manipulate” the image, a person who sought the generally accepted definition of success: money, fame and accolades, and you would have found an insecure person who needed others to like his images in order to feel good about his work.

Thankfully, that person is gone.

While my initial search was for my Vision, what I really found was myself which allowed my natural Vision to flourish once again.  

Cole

 

 


Apr 12 2014

Vision First, Skills Second

Last weekend my wife and I stopped at a garage sale that was hosted by three very old ladies who were selling some very old things (both the ladies and their items were “vintage”).

Amongst their knick knacks I spotted a leather camera bag with a post-it note that said “make offer.” I didn’t need a bag but decided to look inside.

What I saw inside made my heart flutter! It was an old 1950’s Kodak Pony camera, identical to one that I had owned as a boy.

 Vision First, Skills Second 

I went over to the three women and asked “who should I make an offer to?” and the two pointed to the one in the middle. I had no idea how much the camera was worth, but I wanted it and so I said “will you take $20?” 

Call 911! I thought the woman was going to have a heart attack right then and there, it was clear that she would’ve taken much less for it. But the truth is I would’ve paid a lot more because it brought back a particular childhood memory:

I was 14 years old and I had purchased a used camera just like this from Casey’s camera in Rochester, New York. I quickly put it to use on a still life that I had assembled on my mothers prized dining room table, using two eggs and a goblet.

1968 Egg in Glass Vision First, Skills Second 

I knew what I wanted the image to look like, but there was a problem because the camera wouldn’t focus close enough. So I disassembled the lens and removed the focusing stop so that the camera would now focus very close, but how would I focus it?  It was never intended to focus like this and so I took a piece of ground glass, put it on the film plane and manually focused it like a view camera. I then loaded the film back into the camera and created this image. 

I jokingly tell people that “Egg in Glass” was my first fine art image, and as I have reflected on this experience from some 45 years ago, I’ve come to appreciate what this image represents to me.

It is important because I had exhibited a simple Vision and then sought the technical skills I needed to pull it off. As I look back on my photographic life, that’s how a great many of my images have come about: I had the Vision first and then developed the second.

Let me give another example:

2004 11 1 Skeleton Final 4 24 2009 750 Vision First, Skills Second 

This is “Skeleton” and this is exactly how I found these bones.

Well, not exactly, here’s how the camera saw the scene:

2004 11 1 Skeleton BEFORE WEB 750 Vision First, Skills Second 

When I stood over those bones that autumn day, I didn’t see the image the way my camera saw it, but rather the way that my Vision saw it.  I knew exactly how I wanted this image to look: I wanted those bones to really stand out against dark leaves.

But the problem was that I didn’t know how I was going to do this, I had just converted to digital and I didn’t know how to use PhotoShop. So I just jumped in and starting trying things, and in the process I learned how to dodge and burn with a tablet. The Vision came first and the skills were developed as needed.

Here’s another image where I had to develop the skills on the run:

2004 12 20 Old Car Interior Final 2 27 2006 750 Vision First, Skills Second 

This is “Old Car Interior.”  When I stuck my head in the back window of that car and looked at that wonderful old dash, I knew how I wanted it to look.  But again I was faced with a technical challenge that I had no experience with: the interior was very dark and flat while the exterior was very bright and contrasty.

The dynamic range in this image would have been a challenge with film, but it was impossible with digital. I didn’t know how to go about fixing this and so I just tried something.

Here’s the original shot:

2004 12 20 Old Car Interior BEFORE small Vision First, Skills Second

I exposed one image for the interior and one for the exterior.  I then processed each one separately, cut out the window from the exterior shot and pasted it into the interior image.

Might there be better ways to have created this image?  Probably, but all I care about is that it worked and I was able to create the image that I had imagined.

A final example:

Windmill in Moonlight AFTER Vision First, Skills Second

This is “Windmill in Moonlight” and this is how everyone knows this image.

But this is how the camera recorded this night scene:

Windmill in Moonlight BEFORE Vision First, Skills Second

When I saw this scene on that cold winter night in Nebraska, I was inspired and excited with its potential! But when I saw the RAW image, I had doubts that I could manipulate it to match my Vision. I made several attempts and failed,  but I didn’t give up because I so believed that this could be a great image.

I know that my philosophy of “Vision first, skills second” runs contrary to common wisdom. There are many who believe that skills must come before the vision can be executed.

I respectfully disagree.  Everything in my photographic life (both the good and the bad) has reinforced my belief in Vision first.

When skills comes first, then images are limited by what you can do. But when Vision  comes first, then you are only limited by your imagination and determination.

Cole

P.S. I researched the price on that Pony 828 camera and you can buy them all day long on eBay for $10. That old lady got a great deal…but so did I!


Dec 27 2013

Wow, How Did You Do That? (or why technique is not the key to a great image)

Lone Man No. 20 Before and After Wow, How Did You Do That? (or why technique is not the key to a great image)

 

When I show people my “before and after” images, their reaction tends to be: Wow, how did you do that?

This also tends to be my first reaction when I see an image that I love. Recently a friend showed me his latest creation that was both beautiful and unique, and I wanted to ask him: Benoit, how did you do that?

But I didn’t ask him.

Why not?

Because the miracle of the image was not the technique he used, but the imagination that created the image. Anyone can learn a technique, but not everyone will learn to find and follow their vision.  

If I had asked and he had told me his technique…then what? Copy what he had already imagined and created?  There is no joy in copying and yet I see technique after technique become the fad of the season and be copied to death.

I also see many who operate under the false belief that technique must be mastered before Vision can be executed. I emphatically reject that theory!

I believe that a great image starts with Vision and then you work hard to develop the required technique. Remember the old saying “necessity is the mother of invention?” It’s true! Once you have a vision of what you want, then you’ll be energized and driven, and you’ll learn whatever is needed to create the image.

However when I see people focusing on technique first, I find they usually never get around to putting that same energy into finding their Vision, and as a result their work is technically perfect and masterfully imitative. Technique alone misses the mark.

So instead of focusing on Photoshop and its hundreds of features or following the latest fad technique, put most of your time and energy into your Vision.  I promise you that this approach will yield better images and much more satisfying results.

Technique is not the key to a great image.  Vision is.

 


Dec 14 2013

Vision Magazine Interview on The Ghosts of Auschwitz-Birkenau

VISION Issue 006 Vision Magazine Interview on The Ghosts of Auschwitz Birkenau

 

Are you familiar with the new publication Vision? It’s produced by friends of mine: Joel Tjintjelaar, Sharon Tenenbaum, Armand Djicks and Daniel Portal.

What I love about this beautifully simple magazine is that it focuses on Vision rather than equipment, processes and techniques. Here’s a great quote from their website:

“You are an artist before you are a photographer”

Because we share such similar views on vision, they asked to speak with me about the vision that created “The Ghosts of Auschwitz-Birkenau.” The interview is in the December 2013 issue.

Vision is a relevant and important publication for those who seek to improve their creative abilities.  Vision is free and you can subscribe here: http://visionexplorers.com/magazine/

 

You can view and enlarge the individual pages of the article below, or you can View the Entire Article Here

 

VISION Issue 006 1 Vision Magazine Interview on The Ghosts of Auschwitz Birkenau

VISION Issue 006 2 Vision Magazine Interview on The Ghosts of Auschwitz Birkenau VISION Issue 006 3 Vision Magazine Interview on The Ghosts of Auschwitz Birkenau VISION Issue 006 4 Vision Magazine Interview on The Ghosts of Auschwitz Birkenau VISION Issue 006 5 Vision Magazine Interview on The Ghosts of Auschwitz Birkenau VISION Issue 006 6 Vision Magazine Interview on The Ghosts of Auschwitz Birkenau VISION Issue 006 7 Vision Magazine Interview on The Ghosts of Auschwitz Birkenau VISION Issue 006 8 Vision Magazine Interview on The Ghosts of Auschwitz Birkenau VISION Issue 006 9 Vision Magazine Interview on The Ghosts of Auschwitz Birkenau VISION Issue 006 10 Vision Magazine Interview on The Ghosts of Auschwitz Birkenau VISION Issue 006 11 Vision Magazine Interview on The Ghosts of Auschwitz Birkenau VISION Issue 006 12 Vision Magazine Interview on The Ghosts of Auschwitz Birkenau VISION Issue 006 13 Vision Magazine Interview on The Ghosts of Auschwitz Birkenau VISION Issue 006 14 Vision Magazine Interview on The Ghosts of Auschwitz Birkenau VISION Issue 006 15 Vision Magazine Interview on The Ghosts of Auschwitz Birkenau

 


Mar 24 2013

Never Ask Others About Your Work

2013 1 19 Ancient Stones 12 750 Never Ask Others About Your Work

Ancient Stones No. 12

~

“Ancient Stones” is a portfolio that I started last year when I visited Joshua Tree for the first time in 20 years. This trip  brought back many great memories because it was the site of one of my earliest dates with my wife Dyan. We camped amongst the boulders, sunned ourselves on the rocks and listened non-stop to U2’s “Joshua Tree” album. What wonderful times those were!

Ancient Stones No. 12 above is the latest image in the series and I love it! But why do I love it? Is it because it evokes wonderful memories or do I love it because it’s a good image? Evaluating your own work is very difficult, especially when it’s tied to to things like memories, praise and the opinions of others.

Recently I’ve been corresponding with several photographers on the topic of finding your own vision. I explain that one of the first steps I took was to divide my work into two piles; work that I REALLY loved and everything else. By isolating the work that I really loved, I would then try to understand what those images had in common and pursue that “vision.”

It sounds like a simple exercise, but it wasn’t for me. I actually had difficulty in separating what I thought about my work from what others thought. I noticed that if a lot of people liked one of my images, it started to affect how I felt about that image also. If one of my images won a competition, I took that as evidence that it must be a good image and that affected my opinion of it. I became so addicted to “positive feedback” that I began seeking it by producing work that I thought others would like, and in time I lost sight of what I loved.  

Upon realizing this, I committed that I would never again produce images simply because others liked them and I adopted a new policy: Never Ask Others About Your Work.

To isolate myself from other’s opinions I stopped asking my friends if they liked my work. I stopped asking my mentor what what she thought of my images. I no longer approached the experts to ask their opinions and I no longer attended portfolio reviews for input. I purposely removed the clutter of other voices and focused only on what I thought.

So what happened? I once again began to understand what I loved and focused only on that, which turned out to be a key ingredient to finding my vision. I became more confident in my work and I was certainly more satisfied. Now the measure of my work and success was internal rather than external.  

There was another important reason why I stopped asking others about my work; no one knows more about my vision than I do. Their advice, though generally good and well intentioned, was not coming from my point of view or vision. Increasingly I found that my vision and their advice was in conflict, and I realized that I had grown to the point where I was ready to decide for myself what my work needed.

Those of you who are familiar with my practice of “Photographic Celibacy” might recognize a reoccurring theme in my decision to “Never Ask Others About Your Work.” In both cases I am attempting to understand myself and my vision, and to pursue it without being influenced by others. In both cases I am isolating myself from the thoughts, opinions and images of others.  

This idea of never asking others about your work, was echoed and reinforced by one of my favorite books, The Fountainhead by Ayn Rand. The main character is Howard Roark, an architect who is an uncompromising individualist, who defines success by being true to self and creating work that he loves. His designs are unique and he rejects the traditional designs and opinions of the experts.

However his friend and fellow architect, Peter Keating, has an opposite view of  success: he seeks the approval and admiration of others.  In one of my favorite scenes, Peter asks Roark what he thinks of his latest design and this is Roark’s response:

“If you want my advice, Peter,” he said at last, “you’ve made a mistake already. By asking me, by asking anyone. Never ask people, not about your work. Don’t you know what you want? How can you stand it, not to know?”

There is strength and power in knowing what you want. Finding your vision and pursuing it is a wonderful feeling that gives conviction to your work. Like Photographic Celibacy, “Never Ask Others About Your Work” may seem to run contrary to common wisdom, but I have found it to be instrumental in helping me to know what I really love and keeping me focused on my vision.

 

 

 


Mar 15 2013

Five Great Locations for Great Images

If I were to ask you to list five great locations for creating great images, what would you list? Here’s my list that might be typical:

  1. Yosemite
  2. Iceland
  3. Big Sur
  4. Japan
  5. The African Plains

These beautiful locations would almost guarantee a great image! Think of the great work done here: Yosemite and the iconic images of Ansel Adams. When I think of Iceland will I forever see the incredible iceberg images of Camile Seaman in my head. Or how about the work of Edward Weston in the Big Sur area or Michael Kenna’s incredible minimalistic work from Japan. And Africa…could anything be more definitive than the work of Nick Brandt?

But do you know what would happen if I were to visit these locations, say Yosemite for example?  I’d be looking for the spots where Ansel created those famous images so that I could recreate them for myself. And while I might be able to create a pretty nice image, it would neither be original or be as good as Ansel’s.  Remember, Ansel has already done Ansel and I’m not going to do him better!

And so it begs the question; do I need to photograph at places such as Yosemite, Big Sur or Africa in order to create great images?  Can’t great images also be found in ordinary places?  

Yes they can.  I believe that ordinary places have just as many image opportunities as the exotic places we all dream of visiting.  So let me suggest another list of locations where you can  create great images:

  1. Your neighbor’s yard
  2. Your bedroom
  3. A greenhouse
  4. A hotel
  5. In your car

They don’t sound very exciting when compared to that first list, so let’s take a look at why I’ve chosen these ordinary and even mundane locations. First, they are very accessible: no passport needed, no time off from work and no travel expenses.

But there’s another more important advantage: Ansel and Seaman and Weston and Kenna and Brandt have not photographed there and so you don’t have their images floating around in your head. You are free to see these locations in a fresh and unique way, and you are free to be the first to create great images there!

Here are some examples of my images from those very “ordinary” locations:

 

2004 12 20 Old Car Interior Final 2 27 2006 750 Five Great Locations for Great Images

My neighbor’s yard.

2008 6 15 Ceiling Lamp Mourning Dove Ranch Colorado Final 7 29 2009 750 Five Great Locations for Great Images

My bedroom.

2005 2 25 Flaming Dahlia Final 8 8 2007 750 Five Great Locations for Great Images

A greenhouse.

2007 7 24 Swimming Towards the Light Final 6 30 2009 750 Five Great Locations for Great Images

A hotel.

2005 7 17 Windsurfing Final 3 23 2007 750 Five Great Locations for Great Images

In my car.

~

Great images do not need great locations…or perhaps better said; great images can come from everyday and ordinary great locations!

Yes, I have traveled to many exciting locations around the world and and I’ve created images there that I’m proud of, but I’m just as proud of my images from these “ordinary” locations. 

Here are a few more examples of images from ordinary locations:

 

2010 9 17 Dew on Feather Final 9 27 2010 750 Five Great Locations for Great Images

At my feet.

2008 7 24 Linnie No 2 Final 8 12 2008 750 Five Great Locations for Great Images

A friend.

2007 7 24 Peas in a Pod Final 8 11 2007 750 Five Great Locations for Great Images

Something my daughter made.

2007 5 25 Skull on Stove Final 7 16 2007 750 Five Great Locations for Great Images

At a flea market.

2012 4 13 Smile No 15 Final 4 14 2012 750 Five Great Locations for Great Images

Before my son’s senior prom.

2007 5 10 Poudre River Spillway Final 5 25 2007 750 Five Great Locations for Great Images

The river in my town.

2007 2 8 Two Trees in Lifting Fog Final 12 25 2008 750 Five Great Locations for Great Images

On the way to work.

2006 12 21 Two Trees in Snow Final 12 29 2006 750 Five Great Locations for Great Images

My backyard.

2006 11 13 Last Leaves Final 12 15 2006 750 Five Great Locations for Great Images

At a local tree nursery.

2006 10 28 Sunflower No 4 Final 2 5 2008 750 Five Great Locations for Great Images

On the side of the road.

2004 12 27 Socks Final 6 18 2008 750 Five Great Locations for Great Images

At a family get together.

2006 3 1 Urban Starfish Final 9 4 2007 750 Five Great Locations for Great Images

Along the railroad tracks.

2005 10 2 Plate of Leaves Final 4 20 2007 750 Five Great Locations for Great Images

At my kitchen table.

2004 12 11 Wiggles Roaring Final 10 4 2005 750 Five Great Locations for Great Images

In my office.

2004 11 1 Skeleton Final 4 24 2009 750 Five Great Locations for Great Images

Along the river.

~

The “key” to a great image is not location, but your vision and your ability to see differently than those who have gone before you.

It’s a hard thing to do, but it is the key.


Dec 3 2012

The THREE Stories Behind the Image

Story Number One:

I was 16 years old and living in Anaheim California. I had this idea for an image, a gull flying against a clouded moon, but I couldn’t find a way to create the image with a single shot. So I decided to combine two images, not as a double exposure captured in-camera, but by combining two images in the darkroom. Composites are easily done in today’s digital world, but they were not easily done back in 1970. Back in the “old days” I would sandwich the two negatives together in the enlarger and project them as a single image.

The first image was taken at night in the local K-Mart parking lot. I took a series of shots with clouds floating past the moon. I had this idea (vision) in my head of what the final image would look like and so I placed the moon and clouds on the right and left room for the sea gull on the left. The shot of the sea gull was taken later during the daytime in my high school parking lot, I shot a series of gulls looking straight up. Working from memory of where I had placed the moon and cloud in the frame, I positioned the gull on the left.

After I processed the negatives, I had to find two images that would work together, not just in terms of composition but also exposure. Getting a good print with this method is a challenge since you have two negatives that may have different printing needs, but you must print them together as one.

I named the image “Gull and Moon” and while I loved the composition, I was never able to get the blacks that I envisioned, the print was very muddy.

Story Number Two: 

I was new to Loara High School and had joined the Yearbook staff as a photographer. The new yearbook advisor was John Holland the photography teacher, he became and remained a friend and mentor until last year when he passed away. What was so very different about John was that he encouraged us to create fine art images for the yearbook, not just pictures of the football players, cheerleaders and cheesecake shots. This was fun (!) and we had a wonderful time creating artistic images for the yearbook including my “Gull and Moon” which was prominently featured.

Unfortunately neither John nor any of us really stopped to consider why people purchased yearbooks. It was not for fine art images but for the pictures of the football players, cheerleaders and cheesecake shots! When the yearbooks arrived and were being handed out there was a near riot as the football players angrily confronted the yearbook staff. I was a junior (and small for my age) and I remember slowly slinking out through the back of the crowd and hiding in the photography room. I made myself scarce for several days.

Story Number Three:

After high school and for 30 years after, I focused on family and career and neglected my photography. During those years we moved several times and with each move I threw out more and more old things, including much of my photography. When I returned to photography around 2004 I wanted to feature some of my earlier work on my website and I began searching for anything that might have survived.

Most of my negatives were gone and only a few prints survived, in fact only 13 remained from all those years of work. Most of these images survived only because a single print was still around, and this was the case with “Gull and Moon.” I found a single 8 x 10, poorly printed and curled up print. This has always been a special image to me and I so set about the task of restoring it.

I scanned the image and worked on it in Photoshop. I was pleasantly surprised because not only was I able to restore the image, but I was able to bring it into compliance with my original vision, something I was never able to do in the darkroom!  Just tonight I was comparing the original to the restored version and it reminded me of why I love digital.

If you are interested, you can see those 13 restored images from my early years here:  http://colethompsonphotography.com/1970s.htm

Recounting the story behind this image reminded me of the many lessons that I learned from this experience. 

  1. Vision is the most important ingredient of a great image.
  2. Yearbooks are for documentary work, not fine art photography. 
  3. Focus on the creative early on, it’s more important than the technical which can be learned quite easily.
  4. Don’t throw things away when you are young, you’ll regret it later. 
  5. If you have an image that you cannot get just right, keep working on it.

 

 


Oct 20 2012

I Am a Digital Photographer, Photographing in Color

Many people assume that I’m working in film and others are surprised to learn that I photograph in color. Let me explain.

All of the work you see on my website (with the exception of the 1970’s portfolio) was created digitally. I switched to digital in 2004 after working 35 years in the darkroom. And I’ll be honest, while I have fond memories of those darkroom days, I do not miss them and I would not go back.

Why? Because my work is better since I began using digital.

I’ve often heard the assumption that digital is suitable for color but not for black and white.  That has not been my experience.  I’ll use whatever tools give me the results I’m looking for and I have absolutely no allegiance to the process; film is not sacred, digital is not sacred, old processes are not sacred…the only thing that is sacred to me is the image.

Perhaps more surprising to some is that I shoot all of my images in color. I’ve written that I shoot in B&W mode and so you might wonder how can that be? Shooting in B&W mode allows me to see the camera’s preview image in black and white, but I save my files in RAW which means they are really in color.

Confusing? When you shoot in RAW all of those settings such as B&W mode, sharpness, saturation, toning, color balance…are not recorded in the image. RAW means just that, it’s a raw capture without any of those tweaks and the image is recorded in color.

This is a wonderful thing!  This combination of B&W mode and RAW allows me to preview the image in black and white but process from the color image. Why do that? Because I don’t want my camera or software to decide how my images should look in black and white, the black and white processing is what makes my images “mine!”

Sometimes I’ll show people the “before” color photograph to illustrate how my vision and processing has changed the image.

Skeleton Before and After 1024x355 I Am a Digital Photographer, Photographing in Color

Dunes of Nude 43 Before and After 1024x357 I Am a Digital Photographer, Photographing in Color

Lone Man No. 20 Before and After 1024x358 I Am a Digital Photographer, Photographing in Color

Harbinger No 1 Before and After 1024x355 I Am a Digital Photographer, Photographing in Color

My vision drives my processing and I’ll happily use whatever tools and processes best helps me do that.