For a long time, I did not call myself a feminist. I thought that looking at things with an unnecessarily gendered perspective was unlikely to fix a problem stemming from doing just that.
Obviously there was some ignorance there.
But these last few years brought so many of the inequalities in our society into an undeniable focus. Whether we’re looking at race or sexual orientation or gender, as a culture we seem to want to put almost everyone into the very big box labeled “other” and I don’t think we need to spend more than a minute or two looking at the news or at Facebook to see the danger of this.
I love this image by Horst P Horst. It was made for Vogue magazine in 1939 when fashion photography was still new and was closer to its roots in artistic portraiture. The shadows and shapes of body are just exquisite. There is no environment in this image, so we’re left looking at this abstracted moment of dressing (or undressing) and that is all of the story we get to see. It’s beautiful and I bet it helped sell a lot of corsets.
I do wonder how much we should celebrate the beauty of the body. We are a big mess of experiences and opinions and ideas and values and relationships… but we are also bodies. Bodies that are beautiful and amazing and sometimes really complicated. And I think those should be celebrated, along with everything else that we are. So I took some inspiration from Horst and his corset, and created this image – my homage to the body, and the mind, and the half of the world that is too often disregarded – “Knowledge: Bound and Unbound”.
When I look at pieces like this and the work of photographers from fifty or a hundred years ago, I see both that “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice”1 and that we keep making the same mistakes over and over again. We have come far, but I wonder how much farther we could have gotten if we valued fully half of the population for something more than youth and beauty. If we empowered women, and everybody, to be fully engaged in science and government and culture. If we could get rid of that silly idea that, based on some unimportant biological quirk like genitalia or skin color, that someone else is less than. How much farther could we be?
Prints available here
1. Martin Luther King, Jr. 1967 speech to the Southern Christian Leadership Conference
It was always my dream to live a life with no regrets. Not in the #YOLO sense, but, well, I do believe we only live once. I think the best way to honor that is to always do what I believe is right. This way, no matter how it turns out, there’s no regrets.
That’s the theory anyway.
It’s a good theory, as far as it goes. There’s two problems with it that I’ve found: (1) sometimes it’s damn hard understanding what “right is and (2) having the will to do it.
This video is a nice reminder, as we face choices day in and day out about how we want to live our lives that, generally, regret is the feeling we get when we make the “safe” choice. The image above, “Apathetic Disillusionment”, is about the feeling of making the safe choice – the mire that comes with it.
If the video isn’t enough, let me also add the words of American poet Ogden Nash with “Portrait of the Artist as a Prematurely Old Man”
It is common knowledge to every schoolboy and even every Bachelor of Arts, That all sin is divided into two parts. One kind of sin is called a sin of commission, and that is very important, And it is what you are doing when you are doing something you ortant, And the other kind of sin is just the opposite and is called a sin of omission and is equally bad in the eyes of all right-thinking people, from Billy Sunday to Buddha, And it consists of not having done something you shuddha. I might as well give you my opinion of these two kinds of sin as long as, in a way, against each other we are pitting them, And that is, don't bother your head about the sins of commission because however sinful, they must at least be fun or else you wouldn't be committing them. It is the sin of omission, the second kind of sin, That lays eggs under your skin. The way you really get painfully bitten Is by the insurance you haven't taken out and the checks you haven't added up the stubs of and the appointments you haven't kept and the bills you haven't paid and the letters you haven't written. Also, about sins of omission there is one particularly painful lack of beauty, Namely, it isn't as though it had been a riotous red-letter day or night every time you neglected to do your duty; You didn't get a wicked forbidden thrill Every time you let a policy lapse or forget to pay a bill; You didn't slap the lads in the tavern on the back and loudly cry Whee, Let's all fail to write just one more letter before we go home, and this round of unwritten letters is on me. No, you never get any fun Out of things you haven't done, But they are the things that I do not like to be amid, Because the suitable things you didn't do give you a lot more trouble than the unsuitable things you did. The moral is that it is probably better not to sin at all, but if some kind of sin you must be pursuing, Well, remember to do it by doing rather than by not doing.
In so many areas of life, the Internet has upended the way things are done. It has changed the way we consume media, consume news, exchange information, and share our cultures with an entire world. It’s no surprise that it has changed the way artists work and communicate with each other and our audiences. People have gone from buying art in New York galleries to having an infinite gallery accessible from their couch.
I think this is fantastic.
But one of the big questions as an artist is how to find the people that want to buy your art and support you. One of the big questions as an art collector is how to find artists whose work you love. Now a Swiss duo has taken inspiration from dating apps like Tindr to create a platform where you can swipe right on the art you love.
I hope I got that right – I don’t really know how those things work.
Anyway – wydr is a new platform where you can browse through paintings and find the ones you love and buy them. All in one convenient little app! Here is what they have to say:
Why does it have to be so difficult to be original and to find affordable but still unique art for our homes? Most people are tired of generic posters from furniture stores and the intimidating way that you are treated in classic galleries with only little money in your pockets. At the same time artists have problems with getting exposure for their work. The question art lovers and artists are confronted with is why does it need to be so hard to find each other? The answer is wydr – the open art-trading platform, and your easy access to the art world.
I’ve looked through some of the work on the site, not all – there’s a lot to go through, and some of it is really good. Some of it is… not to my taste. But that’s great, because I’m sure it will appeal to someone out there.
So if you like to collect art, in this case paintings, I would recommend giving wydr a try. They don’t sell photography at this time, so if you want to buy that, you’ll just need to send me an email 😉
This quote came up in my Facebook feed the other day and it struck me how true, and also how disguised, it is. Most people don’t take out the “good camera” any more than they take out the good china – we all use our smartphones to document the little moments that we go through with friends and family. Those pictures just live there on our phones and maybe get uploaded to Facebook. In theory, they live in the cloud forever, but someday Facebook will vanish (just like
Friendster LiveJournal MySpace did) and what happens then?
It’s really important that all those memories are not, as Roy Batty says, “lost… like tears in rain,” but exist in the world. They should always exist and be able to be passed on so we leave a legacy behind that is more than just digital noise. For the really important moments I can’t recommend having a professional photographer and great, archival products any more highly (but may be a little biased about that). But for those every day moments that live on your smartphone, I have two recommendations for you:
1. Mpix Tap-to-Print App: From Mpix (the photo printing lab we recommend), this app lets you go through the photos kept on your phone and easily order them in small print sizes. You can collage them or scrapbook them or put them in a box that gets forgotten about and five years later when you move you find it in your closet and open it and wow! you used to do some crazy things or whatever.
2. Groovebook: I saw this product on Shark Tank and thought it was a great idea for people who take a lot of photos. What’s easier than just getting a book every month with the photos from your phone? For the prolific iPhoneographer this is great because you can just line them up on a shelf and you have a walk though your history sitting right there.
Whatever solution (these or any other) you choose, I hope you will make your memories physical so that once they are irretrievably lost in the constant feed of digital information, we can all pick up something real and remember.
P.S. This video!
As a boudoir photographer, and speaking for pretty much all of us, something we hear pretty often is “I’ll schedule a session when,” which is usually followed by something like “I lose ten pounds.” Of course, we never hear back from that person. I bet that sometimes it’s a face-saving brush-off, sure, but there are plenty of women who mean it. Who definitely plan to come in “when.”
Brené Brown mentions that shame, for women, is often tied to body image. That’s understandable – most marketing is built on the premise that only those who are young and attractive, with perfect bodies and flawless skin, are important. It’s not too often an ad includes anyone over size 6 (which most of America is) or over 40 (where most of the disposable income is). And on top of that social climate, the political climate is hardly better, with the radical notion of equal pay still being, you know, radical!
Everyone feels that shame, though. I wrote that writing about why I photograph as I do is one of the hardest things. Getting vulnerable enough with myself (and all of you) to really lay bare the soul of my work was so hard and took months. But every woman I photograph has no problem, and neither do I, writing out the long list of what we dislike about ourselves. Sometimes it’s ten pounds (or more), or breasts too small or too big or too saggy, and the same thing with bottoms. For some of us it’s our unruly curly hair, and for others it’s boring straight hair. The only constant in all of this is that everyone does it.
So we put things off until “someday, when….”
Of course, someday rarely arrives, does it? We have the best intentions, we make resolutions, we buy gym memberships, we know how to eat better and exercise, but something comes up. It just ends up easier to buy a pizza than it is to cook. Running gets put off when there’s work to be done, and that ten pounds I need to lose just sits there mocking me. Well, a lot more than ten in my case, but no matter. The problem is: “someday” never comes, because life gets in the way.
I think of John Green’s The Fault In Our Stars, a book which makes me cry, every time, and not the pretty kind of crying. It reminds me how few chances we have for somedays. I feel a lot of the time like I waste them. I’m busy rather than productive. I try to numb all the uncertainty away with television or food or whatever, and that just numbs everything. But, god that uncertainty! The risk – who knows if we took a chance what would happen. If we sit in front of a camera with those ten pounds, won’t we just see how horrible we are? How badly we match against the image in our heads of perfect? All those lies we carry around…
I have a client and friend. I have photographed her a lot. I photographed her wedding, boudoir pictures, three times nudes. She has numerous prints, hanging on her walls, of her looking amazing. But when she comes in, she doesn’t trust it. She sits there and talks about how she needs to lose ten pounds and get back to the gym. And she’s crazy. She’s beautiful. But she’s carrying around the same track in her head with the same message of shame. The only difference is that she does get in front of the camera which is a step in the right direction.
I’m working on it, too. After senior pictures, I’ve had wedding pictures, and whatever cell phone pictures were taken at Christmas. That’s it. I hate looking at myself in pictures – it’s one reason I got behind the camera. So yeah, the idea of standing, as you are, having your picture taken in your underwear, or in nothing… that is a lot of vulnerability.
The good news is that you are enough now. You are beautiful. There is no “ideal” for you to live up to. There is just you, probably already surrounded by people who love you and who don’t believe you need to change. Someday can be today.
So here’s my promise to you: if you make “someday” today, we will make beautiful art together. But if you see the images and you aren’t thrilled, we will do it again in six months. And if you’re not thrilled then, we’ll do it again. We’ll do it until we get it right. We’ll do it until you are thrilled to see yourself in pictures.
Ah, the new year. January opens so full of snow and cold, and that’s pretty terrible, but also so full of promise. We start all over with a new set of 365 days (366 this year), resolutions about how to spend them, and maybe even some plans on how to do that.
As a photographer, and I’m sure in any other field, I see so many articles on “How To Be A Better Photographer In 2016” or “10 Tips To Improve Your Photography in 2016” or “Make 2016 Your Best Year Ever.” I mean, these sorts of articles play all year long, but there does seem to be a big rush of them in January, right?
I don’t know if it’s the “American Dream”, or the “on-demand culture,” or “millenial entitlement” that drives this internet publishing frenzy (and real publishing in books like Fast Track Photographer and The $100 Startup), but something is. I’ll leave that to the social scientists figure out.
And you know what, I read those articles. I read those books. I would love to have a four hour work week (hell, even workday!). Somehow, and maybe this is just me, it never seems to work out quite like they say it will.
In The Gifts of Imperfection, shame and vulnerability researcher Brené Brown writes about an experience giving a talk to a room full of business people. Before going on stage the event coordinator tells her “You’re not going to talk about the things that get in the way [of being joyful, e.g. shame]. You’re going to talk about the how-to part. People want how-to. … People want to be comfortable and joyful. That’s all. Keep it comfortable and joyful.”
Now, I don’t know about you, but I know for me, there has never been a time where getting to joy, or getting to success, has ever been comfortable. It’s usually a period of excruciating emotional agony followed by a firm commitment to never do that again. A commitment I don’t usually keep.
Brené Brown ends that story writing:
We don’t want to be uncomfortable. We want a quick and dirty “how-to” for happiness…. Don’t get me wrong, I’d love to skip over the hard stuff, but it just doesn’t work. We don’t change, we don’t grow, and we don’t move forward without the work. If we really want to live a joyful, connected, and meaningful life, we must talk about things that get in the way.
That sounds pretty true to me. For life and every part of living we do. We have to do the hard work, and no tip like “use back button focus” is going to make much of a difference. But, as I ask my therapist every time I see her, “Okay, great. Now how do I do that?” Here’s my answer.
Some people really like lists. I like lists. I love being able to check something off and say “done!” In that spirit, here’s my advice on how to become a better photographer. Or writer. Or graphic designer. Or friend, or spouse, or parent. Whatever.
How to Be a Better (Whatever) in Five Steps
- Study the work of people you admire. There are thousands of years of history and there is no point and no glory in reinventing the wheel. Learning from the experience of other people is the best time-saver ever.
- Put what you’ve learned into practice. As much as I would like to say that it’s possible to become really good without ever actually doing anything, it just isn’t. Sometimes I have to remind myself to stop watching videos and actually make portraits, because that’s where the real improvement happens. In doing.
- Study the work you just did. It’s hard to look at your own work or your own behavior and ask “what can I do better?” Nobody wants to think they do things less than perfectly. But we do. We’re human, and imperfect, and expecting more than that is just a little bit crazy. (And it took months of therapy for me to accept that!)
- Identify specific changes and improvements you want to make. We all want to get better (at least, I hope so). But we can’t get better if that is our goal. We need to look specifically at small behaviors and try to improve them one by one. There’s no shortcut. But lots of little changes = big change.
- Repeat. Forever. Every time this cycle comes around, you’re going to learn new things about what you admire. You’re going to find new insights into your own practice. You’re going to find new things to work on. And when you compare yourself the you of the day before, the week before, they year before, you’ll be able to see how far you’ve come in your process of becoming a better… everything.
You might think , when it comes to writing, the easiest thing in the world would be to write about yourself. I mean, you live with yourself all the time. You are literally in your own head 100% of the time.
But it isn’t.
It’s one of the hardest things to write about.
I couldn’t count how many times I watched Simon Sinek’s TEDx talk – How Great Leaders Inspire Action. I read his book, Start With Why. I wrote dozens of pages of notes and drafts, only to tear them up in frustration. Or, rather, I pressed delete a lot since I did it digitally, but you get the point. I’m a literate person. I’m a self-aware person. There are tons of websites telling you how to write this stupid three paragraph blurb, these stupid three paragraphs that most people get wrong.
An “About” page isn’t about me. No one cares if I have three cats and play the ukulele (badly). No one cares if my favorite food is chinese food. No one really cares what got me into photography. A website has seconds to capture attention, and what really matters to you is what am I trying to say with photography. What I really value.
Simon Sinek is 100% right in saying that people connect based on what they value, what they believe. As an artist, I want people to be connected to my work in a meaningful way. I want them to say this is what I believe, too.
So I had to figure that out.
Have you ever needed to get down to figure out the value you hold most dear? It’s a hard thing to find. We all can say we value things like loyalty and honesty. Some of us value creativity. Some of us value reason. But getting past that first level, past the level with easy names… it’s a tough process. Each time I peeled back one layer, I thought “aha! this is it, this is the thing I value.” A little more digging and it was clear I still had a ways to go.
Layer by layer, slowly peeling back who I am and everything I have experienced. Everything I believe. Everything I desire. Everything I hate. Searching for that common element. The one that can’t be reduced anymore. The one that explains everything else.
The hard part, as an artist, is always feeling like the work I was doing was always a little off the mark. I knew when I picked up the camera, I liked some things. I didn’t like other things. But I didn’t really know why. So my work was unfocused. A bit drab. A bit lacking.
I think the master photographers have understood their why. I think they knew every time they picked up a camera what they were trying to say to the world. What they were trying to say about the world, and about themselves. This is why their work has continued to be relevant, sometimes a hundred years after the exposure was made.
I think most photographers are content to make pretty pictures, and never really understand why they do it. They’re happy to have a picture in a family’s home that people are pleased by. Maybe that’s enough for them.
But I wanted more.
And I did the hard work. I fell down a lot along the way. But I got there. I have a “why”. I have an “About”. And every time I click that shutter, I can explain the purpose behind it. And I feel great about that.