Until They Start to Care

Ann Arbor, Michigan

People don’t take the time to read, says Steven Pressfield, via Dave Trott:

Nor does anybody care about your one-act play, your Facebook page or your new sesame chicken joint at Canal and Tchoupitoulas. It isn’t that people are mean or cruel.They’re just busy. When you understand that nobody wants to read your shit, your mind becomes powerfully concentrated.

Think about that. All the hard work we put into creative projects, or blog entries, or advertising campaigns – nobody really cares. They have better things to do.

Until they do start to care. But that’s only a fraction.

I try to bring this viewpoint to my job. We fret over the little things, and we polish the text to a buffed shine. Luckily, Ann Arbor (a true college town) is more literate than most cities. Still, at the root, nobody cares.

So give them a reason to.

Or: set your expectations accordingly. If no one cares what you do, doesn’t that give you some freedom to do what you want to do?

My Appearance on JTV

Something a little different today.

I was on my local JTV broadcast of The Bart Hawley Show on Friday, talking about my portrait project Artists In Jackson.

Bart (and his wife Karen) were nice enough to have me on the show. So much of what they do at JTV is community boosting that my project made a lot of sense.

“Famous” in my hometown is good enough for me.

Fail In Private


Failing In Public

Here’s the thing about failed projects:

It’s fine to start something, and give up after you begin – midway, almost done, whatever. Sometimes things don’t work out.

I’ve done that quite a few times. A new project will pop into my head, and I’ll start on it, but then I give up. Lack of interest, lack of time, whatever.

The trouble starts when you share a project you haven’t thought through to completion. You make a big announcement, “Hey! I’m doing a thing!” You share the thing. Everyone’s excited.

And then? Crickets.

People that follow your work are left in the lurch. Nothing more comes of your big project after that first big thing, or the announcement. Do that a few times, and people start to question your credibility.

Maybe it’s better to fail in private. Then you’re only disappointing yourself.

Paid Stuff and Fun Stuff

Paid Stuff vs Free Stuff

Working on personal projects is something I still try to do, it’s very important to me. I also believe it plays an important part in developing your own style, staying creatively motivated, exploring new ideas and learning new things…I try hard to produce personal projects fairly regularly, even when I’m busy with actual work. I try to produce and post something usually once or twice a week.

GIF artist Al Boardman talks about personal projects in a way a lot of artists do: It’s important to do the fun stuff and the paid stuff.

The paid stuff keeps the lights on, but the personal stuff keeps you, you.

And it’s usually the personal work that makes people sit up, take notice, and ask if you’re for hire.

On Discomfort

On Discomfort

Will I ever get over the awkwardness of asking people to take portraits, or for their help in starting a documentary project?

Probably not, which is why I try to do it often.

It’s kind of weird, to go up to someone, or send someone a note, and ask to make their portrait. How well do they know you? How well do they know your work? Do they know you at all?

I like to think it’s flattering to ask someone to take their portrait. It kind of says that I think the person is interesting enough to inquire. It also says that I want to spend a bit of time with the person – to get to know them better.

But I’m also a guy, and sometimes it feels like the bad guy stereotypes come through when I ask someone to join me in making photos.

For documentaries, it’s really weird, because here’s someone who does a cool thing but doesn’t know who I am, or what I’ve done. That was the case with my Albion Anagama documentary. I learned after the project was done that Ken and Anne had no idea what to expect. Thankfully, they were pleasantly surprised with the outcome.

But what if they weren’t?

That’s the risk of making something: you don’t know what the participant will think. You only hope that they’ll be pleased enough to continue a relationship and work with you again.

Getting over the hump of asking in the first place? I have no idea how to solve it. I’m going to keep trying, though, no matter how much discomfort it causes me.

Just Another Asshole

Just Another Asshole

A year or two ago, I thought about doing a book called “So You Bought a Fancy Camera.” It would be for friends who had just bought a DSLR or mirrorless camera and needed to get started with the basics.

Instead, I spent my time making another book (and another after that), covering something other than how-to material, and I feel like that was time better spent.

Who needs another asshole talking about focal length?

On Switching Gears

Switching Gears

Here’s what I used to do with my free time:

I’d take an old Macintosh, either from eBay or an e-waste drive, plug it in, fire it up, and fix whatever was wrong.

I’d add RAM, or install a new PRAM battery. I’d clean out the vents and get the gunk off the keyboard. Make sure the mouse worked. Install the latest version of the operating system. Try out a different hard drive.

This went on for three or four years. Take a random Friday night, put on The Verve Pipe’s Villains, grab a six pack, and tinker. And then I’d write about it.

I loved it.

And then I walked away.

In its place, I picked up a new hobby, and slowly let the former one slip into the past, like Saturday morning cartoons or homecoming dances.

This happens to lots of us. Often, several times during our lives. Maybe we outgrow our hobbies after a while, or situations change in life. We get married, start families, switch jobs. Our priorities change.

I used to feel bad about leaving my Mac hobby behind. I still love tinkering, and I still play with my old PowerMac and Newtons.

But just like I left behind playing Magic: The Gathering, and staying up late trying to beat Super Mario Bros. 3, I switched gears.

It’s okay to try on new things, and leave old things behind. Maybe photography won’t be “my thing” forever, and that’s fine, too.

There are plenty of hobbies out there.

On Audiences


On Audiences

When I finished my Artists In Jackson portrait project, I wrote a lengthy piece on some lessons I learned from the work. Part of that, “Thinking About Your Audience,” was a reflection on how I think about who’s going to care about what I make:

If you’re well-connected and well-known, this may not be such an issue for you. Your art may already have an audience. But if you’re a first-timer like me, this audience stuff matters. I didn’t want to make something and have it flop.

In other words, who do I hope sees this?

Now, that doesn’t affect the actual portraits I make. Those are all mine, with no thought on what’s “marketable.” Style, subject, composition – that’s all me.

But when I bundle all these things together, I do think about who will be interested. When I’m done, who do I send this to first?

Part of me feels like a “sellout” for thinking that way. After all, should it matter who sees what I make? Who cares if it’s “marketable?”

For one: me. And for two: Many of my projects have a community focus. If I’m highlighting local artists, say, or people with fun hobbies, then I want to make sure those people are recognized by their communities, big or small.

I get some benefit out of that, sure. But so do the people I showcase. “Here,” the project says, “look at these folks who are just like you and do something interesting.”

For the portrait project, my audience was both my hometown and the artistic community within Jackson. For my Albion Anagama documentary, the audience was the Albion community and the ceramics community, plus alumni from Albion College.

Yes, the stuff I make matters to me, first and foremost.

In second place is the audience.

On Projects


On Projects

Give me a month, and a new idea, and I’ll make a project out of it.

Quitting coffee for a month? Done that. Quitting alcohol for a month? Done that (in January). Doing Lent, even though I’m not Catholic? Done that. Drive cross country a few times? Check!

I’ve done the workout thing, the running thing, the daily photo project thing, the portrait project thing, tried the vegetarian thing, a few documentary things.

A lot of my inspiration comes from Benjamin Franklin, who challenged himself with all kinds of fun personal projects. And because the idea of learning new things and applying what I’ve learned is immensely gratifying.

By pushing up against your limits, even if those are just perceived limits, can help you figure out more about yourself.

Can you quit meat/coffee/alcohol? What does that mean for the rest of your life? Does it makes things better, overall, or worse? What did you learn by doing that? Etc.

Here lately, I’ve had a few more personal projects in mind:

  • Make only black and white photos for the summer
  • Take up running again
  • Lose five pounds

The good part is, these are all small things to try. If I fail, I’m not losing anything (except, perhaps, a bit of fitness).

But if I succeed, maybe it will make life a tiny bit better.

On Daily Blogging

Turn On the Bright Light

CJ Chilvers, (of @alesserphotographer) through Seth Godin, writes about the benefits of the daily blog post. That appeals to me.

I used to maintain an (almost) daily blog about a subject I was passionate about. It did well, and was a lot of fun for that period of my life.

For this stage, I’m focusing my blogging efforts on photography. I try to share a photo (or two) every day, and a longer, more thoughtful series on Wednesday evenings.

What can I say? I like routines.

Sometimes that breaks down on weekends, and on holidays, or when I leave for vacation. But for the most part: a photo a day.

What if I didn’t just share a photo, but also shared…something else? Some bit of insight, how-to, or project every single day? Could I do it?

Chilvers’ insistence on the daily blogging stuff appeals to me. I like to write. I like to share. And I like little projects and personal challenges. Plus, I’ve been looking for a project to start on the first day of summer this year.

Maybe this is it.