creativity

Ben Sasso’s Creative Manifesto

Super enthusiastic photographer Ben Sasso has a list of things to kick-start your creativity, including this “Know Your Craft” gem:

Study the greats that came before you. Don’t just look at the greats, actually study them. What makes their work stand out among the rest? How do they use light in interesting ways? How do you feel when you look at their images and what’s making you feel that way? Know their work so you can know more about your own.

Sasso’s advice echoes a lot of the Creativity Racket™ out there (experiment, be yourself, be original, etc.), but it’s a nice reminder that we all have quibbles and quirks, and that’s okay.

His “it’s okay to take a second for yourself during a shoot” note is especially apt for those of us that get wound up or nervous during shoots.


Work With Your Hands

Northampton, Massachusetts

In middle school, my shop teacher was a grizzled old guy. Suspenders, beard, calloused hands – a stereotype if there ever was one. He told us to “make sure you keep things steady” while his hands shook. Neat guy.

One day he told us a story about taking a factory job as a younger man. Our teacher, the new employee, had to work 30 days in the plant without taking a day off. If he worked those 30 consecutive days, he got hired on as a full-time employee. If he missed even one day, he would be let go.

Well, he missed a day because he was violently ill. And of course he got let go from his new job. His lesson, if I remember it right, was that the real world was a tough place, and you had to work hard and pay your dues to make it.

I probably knew it earlier than seventh grade, but after hearing my shop teacher’s story, I figured out that maybe I didn’t want a blue collar job. I wanted to make things, yes, always. But not work in manufacturing – as my father had. It’s not that blue collar work was “below me.” I wasn’t “too good” for a factory job. It’s just that shop class never clicked, and hearing my teacher’s story made me worry about the prospects of working at a place like that. My future was going to be spent doing creative things with my mind.

Luckily, today we can “work with our hands” in other ways: digital projects, hobbies, crafting, writing, etc. It doesn’t have to be a full time job. The stakes are much lower.

At my previous job, there were a few college professors that spent their entire days in the abstract, teaching and reading and lecturing. When they got back home, they got their hands busy doing things like woodworking and car repair. I understood that need. It’s why I enjoy fixing things around the house when I can.

As humans, our best tools are our hands, and maybe tinkering tickles some ancient need we have as toolmakers.

It’s one of the reasons why I love making and pouring over physical things like photo books. Holding something physical, making artistic decisions about materials – I create things with my mind, and then get to hold them in my hands.

 


Power of Music

Listen to Music at Work

Amisha Padnani at the New York Times:

Some workers like to listen to music when they find themselves losing focus. They may also plug in their earbuds to escape an environment that’s too noisy — or too quiet — or to make a repetitive job feel more lively.

In biological terms, melodious sounds help encourage the release of dopamine in the reward area of the brain, as would eating a delicacy, looking at something appealing or smelling a pleasant aroma, said Dr. Amit Sood, a physician of integrative medicine with the Mayo Clinic.

And the more you know what you’re doing, the more you can listen to music.

So interesting.


Distracted Work Environment

Distraction Work Environment

A few years ago, distraction-free writing was all the rage: distraction-free apps, websites, tips and tricks. I even got into the game with classic Mac and Newton hardware.

Lately, I’m coming to realize that my brain needs a bit of distraction to get something done.

Right now, I’m typing out this blog post at the University of Michigan’s Duderstadt Center, a hub of activity for arts and engineering students. It’s constant traffic, constant noise, constant conversations. There’s great natural light, plenty of little work spaces, and a lovely view of the changing autumn colors outside. Plus wifi.

For me, it’s perfect.

I’ve learned that my brain needs a steady buzz of activity, whether that’s noise or music, to work productively. As long as something’s going on in the background, my busy brain can churn away on that while the creative side of me gets work done. It feels like it goes against all of those distraction-free tips, but for me, it works.

Since coming to the university, I’ve made it a point to get out of my office and explore some busy working stations – like the Duderstadt Center. Our student unions are great, because I can plug in headphones, hop on the wifi, and get to work. Every once in a while, I’ll pop up my head to see what’s going on, and then dive back in.

It’s why sites like Coffitivity are great for me. Noise is good, especially the background, like the buzzing hum that a coffee shop or a student union provides. Music is key, too. I feel like I don’t get anything productive done without some sort of music (jazz, zydeco, heavy metal – almost doesn’t matter). While editing photos, music is especially important. Working on post production while listening to an entire album is creative time well spent.

Environmental distractions are better than work distractions. Constant phone calls and emails bug me, but an espresso machine doesn’t. Background music is great, but someone playing the piano in the same room is a nuisance (as I just learned trying to get work done in the student lounge).

I’m not sure what to call this pro-distraction working philosophy, although research has shown that for some people it is a help. I guess I’m one of those people.


The Workshop

The Workshop - Albion, Michigan

This time last year, I was knee-deep in working on my documentary, Albion Anagama.

I learned a lot during the making of that film – about ceramics, and artistic process, and teamwork.

I also learned the value of a dedicated space to do creative work. In this instance, Ken built a fabulous studio on the outskirts of Albion, Michigan, complete with kilns and a garden and lots of space. He and his team had just about everything they needed to do work right there, from music to materials.

The idea of a dedicated work area appeals to me. In my recent house-hunting sojourns, it’s fun to see a basement workshop, or a dark room custom built for a film photographer. Even a simple office works.

At work, I find that taking my laptop and going somewhere fresh and new is a good kick in the butt to get work done. It’s not dedicated space, but it is a new space – and that helps me get some things accomplished.


Photo Improv

Ashley at Marshall Motors

During Artists In Jackson, my portrait strategy for each artist was a mix of planning and spontaneity.

Take Ashley here. My thinking going into our sessions was: pick a cool spot, a good time of day, and see what we make.

Others, like Andrew, I didn’t know the location at all, but as we explored the building we found a room with just my kind of light.

My trick is to find a location that has what Brooks Jensen calls a “density of opportunity.” Namely, head to a place I know reasonably well, with cool surroundings, that we can use to make photos. And typically, I try to find a time of day where light comes in at an angle, and I can have fun with shadows or golden hour.

Otherwise, I’m making it up as I go along. And that’s part of the fun, and the learning. Those variables feel comfortable.

That may be why I’m having such a hard time getting started on my next portrait project. This time, my thinking is to have everyone come to one location, with a structured light source, and shoot on a simple backdrop with simple surroundings. There’s no improv involved with the settings, lighting, etc. The only variable is the subject of the portrait – that’s where the chaos comes in.

With such a rigid structure, I feel like everything—the place, the time, the light—has to be perfect before I even get started making photographs. So I haven’t started.

Given enough time, that Not Starting turns into guilt (for not making) and worry (about never starting), and that’s where I sit right now.


Enough Is Enough

Enough is Enough

At first, I only checked Facebook once per week (based on a good recommendation).

Then, I quit my photo blog at Tumblr and opened up this one.

Soon, it seems, I’ll want to quit Instagram. That leaves Twitter and Flickr (which is barely “social”), and who knows what’ll happen with those two. Or any other social media platform that has us, as users and creatives, doing all the real work for them.

No, it’s all too much.

This is not a rage quit. It’s the product of a lot of small, quiet frustrations that leave me thinking I can spend my time doing other things.

It’s not a new revelation, and Lord knows I’m not the first to discover social media is a waste of time. But as I get older, and I have friends and family, and projects to do around the house, and little patience for the increasing amount of (mostly irrelevant) ads blinking in my face, the less appealing all these “What are you up to?” platforms become.

I still enjoy my quiet little corner of Twitter, with my Mac nerds and fellow photographers. And I still dig the work people post on Flickr. I’ve set up my social media accounts to show me mostly stuff and people I’m interested in. It’s just that more and more on those other platforms, advertising and “features” are intruding. To what benefit?

As Jörg Colberg writes, “If you’re happy with being a passenger and with having to change vehicles usually the moment you’ve become a bit comfortable, then stick with Silicon Valley’s boom-and-bust cycle. If that’s not what you want, going back to blogging is likely to give you a lot more agency.”

So here I am, with a relaunched blog, away from Tumblr.

Another problem is that marketers and brands have gotten a hold of these sites and used them for marketing. I think a lot of the marketing world is waking up to the realization that social media isn’t the be-all, end-all marketing channel for the modern consumer. If anything, people switch social media platforms to escape the ads and intrusiveness. I should know: I’m one of those people using social media to “engage” with customers and visitors – but I don’t do it with a clear conscience, because I hate seeing all that “engagement” crap, too.

It’s tough feeling like you can’t get your stuff out there to be seen without social media, and yet being uncomfortable with the idea of using social media at all. I’m a pretty private person, and I feel weird every time I try to promote something on Facebook, Twitter, etc. As a photographer, it’s a Catch 22.

I don’t have any answers right now. The trick is finding the mix that works, and that’s a work in progress.

 

 


Local Film, Local Photography

Support your local film photography vendor

Friday, during my lunchtime walk, I discovered a new camera store here in Ann Arbor, Michigan.

I walked in, and it had the usual suspects of a camera shop: new tripods, fancy bags and straps, a bunch of new Fuji and Nikon and Canon cameras sitting on shelves. And, a wall full of film.

Joy!

Because there are fewer and fewer places selling honest to goodness film these days, trying to snag a roll was random and difficult. If I didn’t want Kodak instant cameras or Fuji Superia, I was stuck using Amazon or B&H – especially for my favorites, Agfa Vista and Ilford HP5.

But CameraMall had those and more. Medium format film! Kodak Ektar! Weird Ilford film I had never heard of! My beloved Agfa! It was like a candy store. As a bonus, they also develop 35mm film.

It felt really, really good to plunk down the $10 for two rolls of film, knowing that I had a local place to shop from. They benefit (yay, camera stores!), I benefit, and somewhere down the line the photography industry benefits.

And really, the film costs the same in store as it does online, I get to geek out with the guy behind the counter, and it’s an excuse to get out of the office and go for a walk.

Find your local place, if you have one, and shop from their film selection (or memory cards, or tripods, or whatever). Order some prints. Check out their used gear section. I know ordering online is super handy, but the benefits of shopping local are numerous.

I’ll bet that after you do, like me, you’ll feel better about doing it.