This image was meant to be exactly what it is, but it wasn’t meant to be what I tried to force it to be. I set out to create a new photo series all about death. I had personal reasons for doing that, but that story is for another day, maybe months from now or maybe years (or maybe never). I wanted to break down the barrier between the living and the dead. I wanted to confront what scares us most about death and in doing so, become better acquainted with my own mortality.
Alongside an idea is always a technique, or in other words, the physical manifestation of that idea. How was I going to portray death? What would the series look like? How would it come across?
At the time that I began the series, I was in a transitory period as an artist. What I didn’t realize was that it was just the beginning of a two-year struggle to find my new voice and vision. Back then, I thought I knew exactly what I needed to do to take my art to the next level.
High budget productions, ornate sets, and models.
So I started building a new series on paper, writing about it and casting models. I rented a few abandoned locations and decided to give myself a one year timeline to finish this new body of work.
As I went on, it became clear to me that something wasn’t right. I liked the images, spent thousands of dollars making them, and on some level, was proud of myself for creating in ways that were a bit foreign to me.
But on the other side..the IN-side, I knew it wasn’t right. It can be very difficult to admit, after so much money has been invested, that something isn’t working. But that is the conclusion I eventually drew after 1.5 years of working on this series.
The problem wasn’t with the series, but with the way I was creating it. I realized I stubbornly tried on different ways of creating, hoping in the process to find my new style and vision. The truth of the situation was that I was relying on visuals and techniques that I thought would make my art better, not that I actually wanted to utilize.
It also turns out that I needed that whole year and a half to reconnect with myself. I had a very scary, very honest talk, alone in my garage, about what this series should actually look like. And when I reassessed, I learned that I needed to go back to basics. That the simple, inexpensive techniques that have always served me well would serve me well again. That I didn’t have to change everything about my creation process to do something groundbreaking.
But, that’s for another time. For now, I want to share the story of this image with you.
I contacted my friend Kyna to do a photo shoot. She was 6 months pregnant at the time. It felt like harmony as I pursued a series about death and she was about to bring life into the world. I crafted an image around her, deciding to play up the themes of life and death.
In a really scary moment, I decided to ask her a question that I hoped wouldn’t offend. I asked her if we might create art using her father’s ashes. He passed away a few years ago and I thought, with new life and old, that we could create something really meaningful.
Here’s the thing about being a totally out-there, weird artist: you attract like-minded people. She didn’t flinch at the idea, but instead welcomed it openly.
I booked a location, drove 3+ hours away to find it, and then took a 1 hour truck ride on the most treacherous road to get to the house. It was off-roading to the extreme. But finally, we got within a mile and hiked the rest of the way.
I spent the day before gathering ashes. I went around to some local campsites and asked if I could clean out the fire pits, which the park managers happily agreed to let me do (that way they didn’t have to do it!) and I took those ashes with me to our location. They were HEAVY, which was unexpected, but we somehow managed to hike with them up to the house.
I scattered the whole room that I chose to shoot in with ashes, and then set up tall black candles around the space. In addition I set up a light outside the window to create streaks of light, and kicked up dust to create a hazy effect in the room. I also bought an old bassinet for the background.
When it was time to shoot I asked our helpers to leave so that we could have privacy. It was time for her father’s ashes. It was years working to heal through his passing, and this was one more step in that process. She had the box next to her, and I asked her to take some ashes and wipe them across her eyes. She did, and it worked, but we needed more. Eventually holding the pose and getting the fabric to stay up was too much to keep together, so she asked me to spread the ashes.
I felt such an interesting feeling of connection and disconnection in that moment. Connected, because I was permitted such a sacred rite. Disconnected, because I could feel the bone pieces in the ashes as I wiped them across her eyes and I recognized what I was doing in its component parts; that something can carry memories, and therefore be alive in one way, but be entirely inanimate, too.
We finished the photo shoot and packed up as best we could. Hiking down the mountain, I remember feeling such awe for her and the amount of vulnerability to do a photo shoot such as this one.
She thanked me for creating something so personal to her, but for me, it was universal.
We all touch death. We all touch life. In that, we are all connected. She gave me a gift that day that I will never forget, and it was the gift of facing death (and life) in a way that most people don’t get to. To hold the remnants of a person in my hand and to be entrusted to create art out of it. To be told, through willing participation, that my vision is worthy of creation.
That is the gift that this image gives me. And to my dear friend, whose baby girl is nearly a year old now, I thank profusely for participating in and helping to create this story.
Though this image won’t live it’s life as part of the series I intended for it, I’m learning that sometimes the things we create have a way of settling into exactly the place they were meant to be.
Photographed in January 2018 on a Sony A7RII + 24mm lens.
If you know anything about me, you know that I am not all about spending a ton of money to create images. There is a time and place for it, but as a sustainable practice, it’s just not in the cards for me. And if I had to guess, it’s not in the cards for a lot of people.
One of those things that can get pricey is shooting underwater. It doesn’t have to be – I actually use a couple of inexpensive underwater options. For example, I opt for a comparably inexpensive camera for my underwater work (Sony RX100 III) which requires a smaller underwater housing because it’s a smaller camera. It works great and I love the setup. There are also bags for DLSRs, but that’s a risk you’re taking.
A few years back I started creating underwater images…without being in water. I love the practice. It always challenges me to think outside of the box. It challenges my editing skills. And it challenges my sensibilities about posing.
I had an absolute blast filming this White Wall Wednesday. I shot in one of my favorite shooting locations: an underpass. It was loud and weird and I hope you love the video. But guess what – for next week’s White Wall Wednesday, I’m doing a longer editing tutorial for this image!
What ways do you find to 1) Shoot around your budget, and 2) Create outside of the box?
The creative process. Is it usually the same for you each time you create, or is it different? Maybe even drastically different? Do you know what to expect or is it a surprise?
I work from routine best, so my shoots usually go to plan, or at least follow very similar steps. Here are most common steps for my shooting process, as you’ll see from start to finish in this in-depth video:
1. Brainstorm 2. Sketch 3. Write 4. Costume/Props 5. Set the camera 6. Test shot 7. Shoot 8. Cull images 9. Edit image 10. Share!
When I started writing that I didn’t know it would fit neatly in to a 10-step process, but there we have it. Creature of habit over here. I love comfort and stability in my creativity. I thrive in a controlled environment.
I often wish I was different so that I could embody more of a traditional artist spirit. For example possessing any of the following traits would be kind of great: wanderlust, spontaneity, or fits of inspiration.
Well, that third one does happen sometimes. But in general, I am predictable and even-keeled. That doesn’t mean that I don’t surprise myself, that I am not wildly inspired, or that I don’t enjoy a big adventure. Simply, that I don’t thrive under those conditions all the time. I love to work with a list, an itinerary, and a closely monitored clock.
I actually attribute these characteristics in myself to success. Because of my frighteningly equal split of Type A and Type B personalities, I can focus, understand my tasks, and get work done efficiently. But, because I am naturally creative, I have lofty dreams, big ambitions, and a wild imagination. They work in really good unison and harmony to create steadfast creativity.
The before image.
Steadfast creativity. What is it?
It is the knowledge that creativity will always be there.
It means not relying on inspiration to strike like lightning.
It’s cultivating what inspires you to draw upon that any time.
I don’t like uncertainty. But I especially don’t like it when it comes to my imagination. I want to know that it is a muscle I have worked so much that it remembers what to do in a pinch.
I think that is why I’ve taken such a step by step approach to photography. It helps me to understand my job, which frees up my mind to focus on more creative tasks. If I’m confused by my process, I can’t focus on my creativity. Plain and simple.
So, that’s my creative process! What is yours? How do you work best?
Although the name of this post is a literal representation of what our video shows today (because I’m an early bird and I am constantly early to everything, including the sunrise)…it is also a metaphorical nod at what I really want to dig into.
And I don’t just mean physically. In this new video we take a look at how I work 100% alone when I go out on shoots. That means using myself as a model while thinking about everything a photographer must consider: light quality/direction, background, lens choice, angle, wardrobe, props, pose, exposure settings, etc.
But the video covers that pretty well. Let’s talk about the other end of working alone.
You work alone. I work alone. At some point, we find ourselves utterly alone.
Even if not literally – maybe you work in an office with people or have a loving partner or friends – but eventually, you will find yourself with a dream that only you has, and you won’t know how to achieve it. Your friends will think you’re a little nuts, the internet won’t give you any great answers, and you’re left alone.
That is the darkness I’m talking about. The want-it-so-bad-but-can’t-find-help kind of darkness. What to do? I think I’ve made a game out of working alone, or at least that’s how it feels. I’ve done it for so long and in so many ways.
“We have to continually be jumping off cliffs
and developing our wings on the way down.” – Kurt Vonnegut
I’ve put together a list of what I’ve learned from being a professional loner.
1. Your mistakes will not break you.
The first time I wrote to galleries I was 22 years old. I put 100 gallery emails, after a ton of research, in the TO line of my email. Not the BCC line…And I hit send. It was a terrible move, the kind that many less optimistic people would give up at after receiving some very harsh emails back, such as I did.
Here’s the point in my telling you this. Nothing really matters. If you mess up trying to walk through one door, the world doesn’t close all other doors. I messed up a lot. I did stupid things like that mass email. I made prints and dented and scratched them. I misprinted. I broke frames in transit. I didn’t insure my pieces and they got damaged. I didn’t know how to talk to galleries. I wrote unprofessional emails. And despite making a TERRIBLE impression on a LOT of people, I still managed a career.
Please, please, I’m begging you: stop believing that one mistake will lead to your downfall. In my experience, the easiest way to fail at your goal is to stop trying because you made a mistake, not because of the mistake itself.
2. No one knows anything.
People look like they know a lot. People want you to think they know a lot. And some people do. About their industry, about their journey, but not about yours.
You know how we’re all adults pretending to be grown up but we’re not really grown up, we’re just pretending? What’s that? You don’t know what I’m talking about, and you really are a grown up and an adult at the same time? Well then, I misjudged you. But for the vast majority of us, we’re guessing. We’re playing this game where we look like adults and so we try to do things that make us adults, but really we’re children inside navigating a giant and scary world.
Don’t count on anyone to guide you. Don’t count on anyone to know your path. Just guess at it, like we do everything else.
Let’s get that straight right from the get-go. Yes, some people have been successful. Maybe even in what you’re looking to do. Yes, some people make a lot of money. Maybe even in what you’re looking to do. But if you try to pursue the same avenue they did, it won’t work. The more creative your endeavor, the more solidly you can expect that to be true.
Let’s take my journey as a fine art photographer. My dream was to exhibit in galleries. I asked around and couldn’t find any consistent advice.
“Make a ton of prints at once and then try to sell those over a few years,” one person told me. “Make prints as they are ordered and don’t waste your money,” another person said. “Number your prints out of 200” versus “number your prints out of 5″…and so on.
And yet, it worked out.
3. Could you please commit to being weird already?!
The most successful people (and I’m using successful not only to mean monetarily, but also through innovation and creativity) are people who did things differently. They thought differently, created differently, and dreamed differently.
You are an artist. You are already different – other, unusual, outside – so you know what it means to think differently. If someone said to you, “Your art is the same as everyone else’s art,” you would take that as an insult. But if someone said, “Your business is the same as everyone else’s business,” you might feel relief that you’re doing it “right”.
Something is broken in how we work. Artists should embrace the unknown in every aspect of what they do.
4. Stop searching the internet. Search your brain instead.
This will sound harsh, but think about it before you judge me:
How often do you reach for the closest search engine when you have a question, be it the never ending wait, what is that actor’s name?! to how do I become a professional artist?!, or some variation thereof?
Classes, workshops, mentors, Google searches, emails to professionals…it never stops.
What if you gave yourself a challenge that for one month you had to make every decision based on really and truly thinking it through with no outside aid, not even running it past a friend, coupled with a little help from your guts – your intuition?
Could you get through a month like that? I don’t think I know many people who are willing to make big decisions, especially about their creativity and business, without looking up something comparable.
I think this is severely hurting our ability to take risks and be confident in ourselves. We are so constantly looking for validation in our choices that it has become part of our habitual process. This needs to stop.
5. Failure to Fail.
I believe that because we are so unwilling to fail at so many things, we have developed an ironic failure to fail. Call it F to F syndrome. It happens when we are so afraid of messing up that we a) do nothing at all, or b) look for an exact roadmap until we start becoming someone else.
The shoe doesn’t fit. Stagnation does not become us. And the only way out is to make time to fail, and recognize that we will also, most likely, find the time to succeed.
I am most proud of my willingness to fail.
I fail at photo shoots about once ever 2 weeks or more. I fail at business attempts a few times a week. I receive rejection emails, I am told no often. I hear silence most of the time when I send an email out into the void.
Sometimes I end up covered in molasses half naked in the woods with no one around to help me and a picture that looks like crap.
You know, normal stuff.
And despite that…
No, becauseof that…
I feel that I am more successful than I have ever been, and certainly more so than I ever expected.
Listen, a lot goes into success. It isn’t just trying hard and trying often, trusting yourself and making mistakes. It is about producing great work. It is about developing a great work ethic. It is about learning and education – yes, take those workshops, put in those hours. But don’t let it be a crutch. Be great in your own right, not in someone else’s.
Today for White Wall Wednesday I celebrate this unique, personal, fulfilling and difficult journey we are all on. Today is another day. A day to say:
Screw this, I’m making choices for myself and by myself. My failures will not end me and my successes will buoy me.
How will you proudly push
forward in your own darkness?
In the wake of the Sony Alpha Female grants being announced, a lot of people have written either to me or generally online about rejection. There are a lot of people hurting right now. It seemed like a good time to talk about rejection and share some of my experiences with it.
Here are my top 5 lessons about rejection, and some of my story.
I’ve had a long life of rejection. We all have. That’s life.
It started for me in school at a young age. I wasn’t a good traditional learner. I failed a lot of classes. I got bad grades. I tried harder than absolutely anyone I knew, and I still couldn’t keep up. I learned very young that I was going to fail a lot.
I couldn’t get into great (or even very good) colleges, I couldn’t pass tests, and (get this…) I even got a doctor note in college saying I didn’t have to take any tests because my memory was so bad. Seriously, that happened!
And then I became an artist, so I never got rejected again! NOT.
That’s when I really learned what rejection was, because suddenly it wasn’t coming from people and places I had to interact with, it was coming from places I desperately wanted to fit into but didn’t.
1. Let’s BIG PICTURE this deal.
First recognize that we are all in different phases: of our life, our maturity, our art, our self-discovery, our circumstances…everything. We are different ages, have been creating for different amounts of time, etc. I started submitting to contests and galleries and publications when I had been shooting for only 3 months. I was 22. I got rejection early on, and it ATE AWAY AT ME. I couldn’t sleep, would often cry or pout about it, and I felt like I couldn’t function. But you know what? I was a baby in my career! I had literally picked up a camera only 3 months prior!
Now that I’ve been submitting to things like this for 9.5 years, I’ve gotten better. Let me share how.
I realized that the big picture matters. If I don’t win something now, I recognize that another opportunity will come, another time that is more ripe for me. Another day, another year, another moment. This is just a drop in the hat. Let it pass like it should, without bother, but with acknowledgment.
2. Contests are SUBJECTIVE.
You may be in a very dark hole figuring out all of the reasons why you weren’t selected. Let me say this: you may never figure that out. And there may be no good reason. In this particular contest there were over 6,000 submissions. Judges in most contests have a ton of entries to go through. And from an insider perspective, a lot of them start to look the same. That is no fault of yours. It isn’t really a fault at all. It is just the nature of contests. You can only answer the same questions in so many ways.
But more to the point, the judges are real, live human beings. And based on who the judges are, certain entries will get more weight and others won’t. That is the nature of a contest. Someone has to judge it, and that person has to use their own sensibilities in the judging process.
You won’t match well with every juror. You won’t catch the eye of every person no matter how much you should.
Here is a great example. I judged a contest once with a brilliant person. We sat down to judge, and every time a fine art image would pop up, (and definitely anything remotely in my style), this person would dismiss it without really looking for the merit in it. It was frustrating, but also founded. This person was a judge, and if they didn’t like something, that was up to them no matter how “unfair” it may seem.
Just today I saw a contest I wanted to submit to, but lo and behold, that person was the judge for the contest! Needless to say, I passed. I know my work isn’t a fit for that juror.
I’ve had my work rejected from UMPTEEN (official term) contests. And there are times where I just cannot believe it. I am shocked. I was certain I’d get in. The only thing it can be chalked up to is a disagreement of taste.
One of my best friends taught me this saying in latin:
“De gustibus non est disputandum,”
“In matters of taste there can be no dispute.”
That sums it up perfectly.
3. Learn from your peers.
There are ways to get better at submitting to contests. There are so many reasons why an entry is dismissed from a contest. The most common one is the one I mentioned in #2. Taste cannot be predicted, and there is always a human juror at the other end. But then there’s real learning to be done. Ask yourself these questions:
What did the winners do that I didn’t, if anything?
Was my submission in alignment with the company or organization I submitted to?
Was my submission professional in terms of writing style, grammar, formatting?
Were my images unique and would they stand out of a crowd? Were they polished and professional?
Was my video in focus and did I present myself in an authentic way?
And of course, there are tons more questions you could ask. Most beneficially, you could get a focus group together and share submissions. Give feedback and get feedback about what they like and don’t like.
At the end of that process, if you still feel like you can’t figure out what went wrong (which I admit many, many will not be able to get a clear grasp), refer back to #2 again. It all goes back to that. And somehow, I find that really reassuring, if not infuriating. It’s the nature of the beast.
4. Put yourself in their shoes.
Imagine YOU are judging a contest. Imagine you have to look at 1,000 entries in one week. Aside from your brain going numb from the number of applications you have to read thoroughly, what else would you consider?
Did they follow the rules? If not, it’s probably out immediately.
Does this person stand out in some way? If not, it’s probably out.
Does this person present an opportunity to make you/your organization look interesting?
Is this person in alignment with your values?
What is this person’s probability for future success?
And then, honing in on a winner:
What message is this person sending?
Does their imagery represent something new or exciting?
I can honestly say that my work doesn’t tick all those boxes for everyone, and not even for most people. I can recognize that some (probably a lot) of my work is, in some way, generic and overdone. I can recognize that my brand doesn’t work well with a lot of other brands. I know that my message doesn’t always click with people. I understand that my work is polarizing, and it really doesn’t connect with people.
It is important that anyone submitting to contests recognize this about their work. That is NOT to say that your work isn’t unique, beautiful, interesting, worthy. It is to say that not every juror can choose every submission, so they have to choose what works best with their mission.
Put yourself in their position. It becomes easier to understand the difficulty of the selection process when you consider all of those criteria. How would you choose?
5. The hard part is over.
Submitting your work to anything is the hard part in and of itself. Except now, you have an extensive application already prepared for submission to other contests. So, after you’ve put the time in to critique your submission, get your booty in motion and get out there! Learn how to constantly revise and edit your images and writing, but most importantly, your message. Learn how to adapt YOURSELF to the contest at hand. Be smart about your submissions, but also be bold.
I recommend taking the hard work you’ve put in and the new skills you’ve learned by submitting it to other contests/grants/etc.
A similar position I was in: When I had my first exhibition I printed tons of images and then none of them sold. So, I had 15 prints sitting in my house and they had no where to go. I could have stopped exhibiting, but instead I submitted those prints to tons of shows that year and got to hang them in an additional 12 shows in 2010. That experience, quite literally, launched my career as a fine art photographer.
So take your hard won application materials and put them to work for you.
I want to mention, in an attempt to curb the emails I’m getting, that I didn’t get to judge the Sony Alpha Female contest until the very, very, very end. I was sent the final 15 contestants and still, my vote in that final round was counted against everyone else who was voting in the final round. It is extremely likely I won’t be able to tell you why you weren’t chosen because I wasn’t judging the vast majority of the entries.
I am opening up FIVE spaces to have
your entries critiqued in a group session.
I’ll do my best to share aspects of your submission that could have been beefed up so that in the future you’ll have a better chance of making it in.
Leave a comment below and let me know if you’d like your Sony Alpha Female application critiqued, and I’ll choose 5 people at random to join in.
I wish I could open it up further, but alas, time is short as I submit my own work to a myriad of different contests! 😀
With kindness and a push of inspiration to get yourself out there,