There's a tribe of aspiring creative who thinks the mystery of making art is in the things used to make it. If they only had the right lens, the right brush, the right charcoal, the right computer, the right desk, the right camera, the right writing software — then they'd finally be able to make their art. Until they acquire the perfect implement, well then, of course their art would always be not quite what they wanted, and of course it wouldn't be really good yet. I know a lot of people in that tribe; it's vast. I'm calling it the Gearhead tribe, because photography seems inundated with that mentality. But it's by no means exclusive to that medium; there are Gearhead painters and Gearhead writers, and I'm sure there are probably Gearhead musicians, though I run into fewer of those.
You can recognize a Gearhead by the amount of art-making crap they own but never actually quite seem to get around to using more than once or twice. It's Gearheads who keep camera stores and art supply stores in business. Their natural territory is any art-related online forum, in which they can rate, review, evaluate, denigrate, and compare their gear. This will go on until either they finally feel as if they have a sufficient amount of gear, or the eventual heat death of our universe, whichever comes first.
That tribe drives me crazy: the teeth-gnashing, eyelid-twitching, death-glaring, temper-losing kind of crazy. There are a few things that make me crazier than encountering a Gearhead, but not many.
Why do they get to me so much? Because in their fascination and preoccupation with the implements of art, the Gearheads completely not only miss the entire point of making art — but they very rarely produce any art with their implements. They're the dilettantes, the Sunday painters, the Guys With Cameras. They're the people who produce nothing but excuses for why they haven't made anything, who show up empty-handed to their classes, and who constantly talk about which new tool they're going to buy.
The Gearheads are the natural enemies of my own creative tribe, the Mystics.
A Mystic teacher (and nearly all great teachers in the arts are Mystics) will drive a Gearhead nuts. All the Gearhead wants is a cookbook with recipes in it: if I just do X, then Y, I will get Z. But art doesn't work like that, so that's not how a Mystic teaches. A Mystic will say things like, 'It will just look right,' when the Gearhead is hoping to hear, 'Stand at 37° and 28 feet away from your subject, use a 70-200 at 3.5, with a shutter speed of 1/150 and an ISO of 400, with your white balance set to tungsten."
In one of my color theory classes, we were painting color wheels, a fairly basic exercise. After about an hour, I had about half of mine done, but the guy sitting next to me hadn't put any paint on the panel yet, and was still mixing paint on his palette. At the next break, he asked me, 'How do you know when you have the right color?"
I wondered if this was some trick question, and said slowly, "When it matches the example wheel up there?"
He said, "No; I mean, how do you know how much of each color to mix together to get those colors?"
My eye began to twitch. It had never occurred to me that someone might not know how to mix colors, much less need a recipe for it.
It might seem as if it's simply a difference in thinking styles: abstract vs. concrete and literal. And while that's definitely a contributing factor, the tribes' difference runs much deeper than that.
In a former life, I was in a writing program. One day in one of the writing workshops, the professor asked the class to describe their writing rituals. Some people talked about the music they listened to; others about favorite chairs, or times of day, or favorite places. But one student's ritual went like this:
Well first I have to get out my favorite pen, the one I got from Rome, or maybe it was Venice; yes, it was Venice because it's a handblown glass pen, made especially in the colors I liked; in blues and greens. And then I get out my favorite ink which I ordered from a little shop in Laguna where they know me because I'm such a good customer. But then I have to get out my special journal; it has leather binding and nice heavy paper and I can refill it with inserts that you get at Brentano's, but you could use other inserts from Aaron Brothers if you don't have time. Then I have to put on my special CD of music just for writing. Oh! I almost forgot my favorite tea! In my favorite mug…
After a few minutes of this, the professor cut her off, and said, "Alright. I'm going to break you guys of all this nonsense. Pack up your things." He led us all to the quad outside the student union and cafeteria — the busiest, noisiest place on campus — and he told us to sit down and write about the stupidity of relying on objects to make art, until the class was over. At the next class meeting, the professor ranted at length about how reliance on things was an cover for being afraid. He said, "Don't tell me you couldn't get your homework done because you didn't have the right pen or the right paper or couldn't focus. That's a lie. Tell me the truth: you were afraid to write."
As you might have guessed, that professor was a Mystic.
A couple of weeks ago, a friend who's taking a photography class with me asked if I thought his photos were okay — which is asking for free art direction. While I don't mind doing that in small doses occasionally, I get hit up for my opinion on creative work a lot. A LOT. Sometimes, giving some direction's the right thing to do — but usually, it isn't.
It's not usually the wrong thing to do because it's being asked to work for free (although, it IS and I am). It's because the more someone else leans on my opinion and direction, the less they trust in their own.
Here's what I told my friend (and now I'm telling you):
You asked if any of these were "okay," and that question needs a longer answer than I can fit in a text message.
Okay for what? Okay for whom? For the class assignment? For an experiment? For a shoot where you learned something?
Having looked at your work for a few years, now, one theme you keep coming back to is women-as-sexual-objects. If you continue that in a personal project for class, then these shots belong there. Even though it's going to be more work for you, it would probably be a good thing for you to do a personal project and really focus on trying to improve how you shoot women-as-objects.
It's good that you figured out you needed more light to make that shoot work, on your own. It's important that you self-correct as much as possible, so that you start to learn to trust your own judgment and your own eye, rather than relying so heavily on mine. It seems like your self-confidence has taken a hit somewhere along the way, and now you don't trust yourself to make good decisions. I'm not sure there's been one incident that got you into this state, but I can tell that right now, you're at a point that every artist/creative person hits on the path of developing their skills — a point where you can see where you want your work to go, but you look at your work, and recognize it's not there yet. Ira Glass calls it The Taste Gap:
All of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste. But there is this gap. For the first couple years you make stuff, it’s just not that good. It’s trying to be good, it has potential, but it’s not. But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, is still killer. And your taste is why your work disappoints you.
There's more, which someone set to a video, here:
No amount of my telling you which photos of yours I like or don't like, is going to get you over the hurdle of the gap. Only doing work — doing a LOT of work — gets you over it. (And trust me, he will assign you a lot of work.)
When you do your work, as you're doing it, ask yourself if it's good. Look in the frame; check your corners, look at the entire image. Is there too much stuff in there? Not enough? Where does your eye go? Look. Then look again. Then look a third time. Check your composition, your lighting; make sure you've managed to connect with your subject and engage them. Then hit the shutter. Then check all over again and hit the shutter all over again. Get to the point where you can do this in the same way that you write without having to constantly worry about whether or not you've used correct grammar and punctuation — which is going to take a bit. Try to remember that everyone goes through this, and yes, it does suck.
Now — do these shots work for the class assignment? These are shots of People Doing Things, rather than the assignment — which was a portrait of someone, with a table or chair being used in the shot. I suppose you could argue that the 'rocket' is a kind of chair, and you might get somewhere with that argument — except that there's very little sense of who the subjects are as people. For the most part, they're simply attractive women's bodies contorted, sometimes in interesting ways. I looked through all 18 shots, twice, and I'd have a difficult time picking any of those women out if I saw them on the street. What do I know about their personalities? Their emotions? Their mood? But, are they okay as shots for a personal project about women-as-sexual-objects? Now these have some possibilities as a starting point for that project.
Here's the thing — I could spend the entire seminar art-directing your work before you bring it into class, and then critiquing it a second time in class — but that's going to directly impact how quickly you close the gap. Relying on me to do it will actively stunt your artistic growth. If you have to sit down with your work and make decisions about what you're bringing to class, about what you could have done differently, then you're building up your confidence in your own work, and building your own sense of discernment. You're developing your eye. It's better in the long run for you and your work, if I wait to give you a detailed critique until we get into class. Also, then you can hear it in context with the other students' and instructor's critiques.
I know you want help presenting only your best work in the class, especially if you're comparing your work to the other students' work; and I know it probably seems like I'm being an asshole for not helping you in the way that you want. I know! I'm more than willing to go out shooting with you; to include you in shoots I set up of other people; to help you with holding lights when you're the one shooting; I'm open to brainstorming ideas for the assignments, for doing post-mortems on how class went — all that stuff, I'm totally game for, and happy to help with.
Which is probably the longest 'no' I've ever written, but it's useful advice, nonetheless.
The photo shoot I did a while back of my friend Brian proved just how capricious the photo gods are. Now, you wouldn't think it'd be difficult to take a shot of a man who eats fire and cracks jokes for a living, because he's used to having a camera pointed at him more than almost anyone else I know. And you might also assume that he can light things on fire like a pro, because, well, he is one. And if you know me at all, you might also know my superpower of lighting fires — even in a pouring rain, I can get a fire going. (I'm damn handy to take on camping trips.) The two of us should have put a pyromaniac to shame.
But noooo… that pesky science got in the way.
I'd originally wanted Brian to look as if he were drinking the fire from the Mason jar. Seems simple enough — pour fuel in heat-proof glass jar, light fuel, raise jar to mouth, press shutter, and call it a day. However, we rapidly discovered that if you only pour a little fuel inside a deep jar, it doesn't get enough oxygen to catch light and burn. Hey, what do you want from us? We're artists, not chemists.
So we added more fuel. Still not enough air.
Even more fuel. No love.
So MORE fuel is surely the answer, right?!
Eventually we'd added enough fuel to make Brian veto even trying to light it on fire, for fear the glass jar would explode when hot. Since 1 — he's the fire professional, and 2 — it was his face the jar was near, I allowed as how he might have a point.
After some thought, we came up with the idea of adding water to the fuel in the jar, in the hopes of bringing the fuel closer to the opening of the jar, and thus the air. This wasn't a bad idea, except for the water mixing with the fuel (lighter fluid, for the curious), which made it difficult to light. Wiser heads probably should've called it a night and left it alone, but now we had a grudge match against this fuel.
Brian came up with the idea of adding alcohol to our concoction, and that did the trick — a spectacular tower of flame erupted from the jar. Which looked awesome, but meant I had to scrap my original idea of having him drink fire from the jar, thanks to our chemistry experiment.
So instead, I settled for having him sit just holding the jar, and started praying to the photo gods that they'd reward our persistence (and stupidity) by giving me a shot.