Do they really want to read about this?
What if they don’t like it?
It is something that I would like to discuss, and I feel that it is important in the artistic community.
But if they read it, won’t they figure out that I’m really a hack and not a confident photographer?
They might start to look at my photographs differently knowing how I view them.
So what if they do, it is my photography, it is a part of me.
OK, fine…I’ll write about my own insecurities with the hopes of making others feel better about their own.
But what if……
Insecurity: (noun) uncertainty or anxiety about oneself; lack of confidence.
Welcome back to another installment of my Behind the Camera Series which is a monthly feature here and a platform that I use to answer questions that come up during the previous month or just to talk about things that are on my mind. This month, I am going to dive right into a topic that I have been thinking about covering for some time now. It is a very personal topic for me, and one that I have had reservations about since the first moment of consideration. However, I feel that it is a good topic and one that will not only help you understand me a little better, but also understand other photographers, and in all reality, other artists and creatives out there. If I had to identify when this topic started to bounce around in my head, I would have to say it was while watching videos by Sean Tucker on Youtube maybe a year or so ago. He hasn’t really talked specifically about this topic, but it is a theme that I have picked up on with many of his videos where he gets philosophical and it has hit home. The theme that I have been picking up on has been that of the insecurities that he, as well as other photographers face. When he would touch on that subject from time to time I would find my head nodding and agreeing with the things that he has said. It made me feel like I wasn’t the only one that had this problem, and I wanted to pay it forward and share some of my thoughts on the topic here in my blog.
If you think about it, art is one of those outlets that is so very vulnerable to insecurity setting in. No matter what kind of art you are doing, it all starts with a thought, an idea, a concept. You then work through those thoughts and concepts until you have a plan of execution. From there you make more choices about how to present your work, and then ultimately, you decide on whether or not to showcase your work. There are so many steps involved that all require choices from the artist, and since the whole thing started from a blank canvas, any or all of those choices might be wrong…or they might be right. I think that it safe to say that all artists make the best choices that they can when the time comes to decide, but there is always that little voice in our heads that questions those choices…because we know the alternatives which were available to each of those choices.
That puts the artist, or the creator of the art in a very unique position when compared to those who are just viewing the work. Consider this for a moment, when you, the audience, looks at or hears a piece of work; that is all you know of it. You don’t know the choices that went into whatever you are currently engaged with, only the outcome and the final presentation. You are left with a simple choice…you either like it, or you don’t. There is no stress, only a reaction. From the artists’ point of view, we will look at a piece much differently, and we will question every step of the way from the blank canvas of the concept through the creative process, to the final outcome and presentation. We can’t just see the final outcome for what it is, we are left seeing all of the choices that were not made and left to wonder if that final product could have been better.
As artists, I think that we fall into three camps. The first camp is the group that does their art for validation. They create for the audience, they are the crowd pleasers. There are several rock bands that come to mind which have had a very large evolution in their style from when they were playing clubs, to when they were getting air time on the radio. These are the groups that are labeled “sell outs” because they lost their edge when they made a name for themselves. They built on that one song that got them the air time, and that is the direction that they go. Is this bad?…I’m not to judge. I just see this as showmanship, and playing to the audience. That is a creative choice that they have made to achieve their goals. There are photographers like that which I have seen for years. These are the ones that get a terrific response from a single type of image and will shelve all other types of photography and focus on just that one genre or subject. They get very…very good at capturing those images and make a name for themselves with a certain type of image. Again, I am not here to judge those choices, I am just making an observation. In all of the cases I am thinking about, the choices have worked out well for the artists.
The next camp is the one that I think I fall into most readily, and this is the camp that wants others to see and experience their work, they enjoy the positive responses, but regardless of the responses they continue on a path of creating the things that they enjoy. Since I feel I fall into this group, I’ll just pick on myself because I know myself the best and I don’t have to make assumptions. I put all of my work out there for folks to digest, and by “all of my work,” I am talking about that roughly 10% of my images that I deem worthy of being keepers in the first place. The other 90% never makes it past the cleaning out of my recycle bin on the computer. I am constantly evolving and trying new things with my photography. I do have my style that apparently is recognizable without seeing my name attached to it. It is applied to landscapes, both grand and intimate; as well as decay subjects, rural scenes, fine art captures, and even minimalist images. I’ve even dabble with portraits of people from time to time. I’ve done night photography, daytime photography, and sunrises and sunsets. In short, I shoot what interests me at the moment. All of the images that I feel are true to my vision I will share here in the blog and on social media. The responses I get are nice, but they don’t really influence what I shoot, or how. In fact, there are times I will mention to Toni that it will be a slow day on social media because I am posting an image that won’t get a lot of attention. Other days, I know that I am going to break the internet with an image. I’m right roughly 25% of the time as I have no idea how my photographs will actually be received. Regardless, I keep creating the images that I like, and I do it for me.
The last of the three camps is one that my wife falls into with her Pastels and my daughter falls into with her drawing. I think that this camp is by far the largest community out there that we will never see. For this group, the insecurities far outweigh the need for approval for their art. This is probably the most pure form of art because the creation of it is for a single purpose…the enjoyment of the process by the artist. They are not there to entertain, or to get feedback. They are just expressing themselves in the best way that they can. We don’t know much about these artists unless we have them in our own lives, or possibly are them. This is a true loss for the art community because all art is good, even if you don’t personally enjoy that particular piece. Is it insecurities that play into the reluctance to share one’s art, or is just not having a need for any feedback because they are actually the most confident of all artists?
With that last thought in mind, I decided to go upstairs and ask Toni directly what her thoughts were on the topic. She said that it wasn’t so much that she was reluctant to hear responses, but that she just didn’t think that her art was worth sharing. I’ve seen the pictures that she creates, and considering the minimal time that she has worked on learning the craft, they are quite good and I think they are worth sharing and appreciating. But her creations are not mine to share. I have talked to Sierra several times about this since she tries to be active on Instagram but doesn’t know what to post. I’ve told her that she could post her drawings which are very good. She hasn’t wanted to because she just didn’t want to put herself out there in that fashion. I respect that, but her drawings are very good from any perspective and I am sure that others would enjoy them as well. Again, it is her art and her choice.
Obviously, when we start talking about insecurities there are a lot of facets to this topic and the more you dig, there are more and more reasons that you can find why artists are insecure about putting their work out there to be enjoyed and appreciated. This is why I wanted to delve into this topic so much. If I’m lucky, I will give artists a voice who might not have one, and help build a little confidence where it is needed. Again, I feel that all art is good, even if I don’t particularly like it. Art is just a thought that has been given a physical form and therefore given legitimacy in the world.
It is hard to talk about this topic in a broad reaching scope, so I am going to bring it down to photographers and specifically my photography for the most part. I’ve mentioned a couple of times already that the photographs that you see from me all start as a thought, a rough idea if you will. I have a lot of thoughts, and I get a lot of suggestions from others when it comes to what I want to create with the camera. From this very instant I start to make choices, not knowing how things will turn out at the very end. I am always concerned that I am making the wrong choices when it comes to the direction that a thought goes in. That wrong choice could be one that results in an image that I am not happy with, or one that is not well received. I try to always create the image that I like first and foremost, and can only hope that others might like it too.
In the photograph above, you can see that this is a very different style of image than I am “known for.” It is one that I have had a want to create for a while without knowing exactly how I was going to do it. It was just a rough idea. When I was out in Downtown Greensboro one morning, I saw an opportunity to possibly create the image that I had in mind. I had pictured something that was very industrial looking, monochrome, but in color, with repeating patterns and depth from shadows. It was just a rough idea that I didn’t know if it would work or not. I thought that it had merit and continued to look for the subject to make it work. While on top of a parking garage scanning the cityscape I found the building that would very possibly work. I tried my typical compositions on it to start with which I didn’t like too much (but wondered if others might), and finally ended up doing a very tight isolation of just a section of the building which had the very specific shapes and shadows that interested me the most. As you know, this process of getting the image is very involved and took a lot of decision making to arrive at the final capture. This particular composition was what really appealed to me and excited me. By the time that I got home, I had pretty much decided how I wanted to process the image to present it. I worked through each stage of the processing wondering if the choices that I was making would make the image that I had in mind. Some of the choices that I had decided early on got changed through the process because I decided that something else looked better. When I was done with the image, I went back and changed a few things back to the original concept, and made other changes that were not even considered previously. All of these little choices were being applied to an image that I wasn’t even sure would be well received since it was so far and away different from my normal types of photography.
When I finally reached that point where I was satisfied with it, I stepped back and looked at the image. In my eyes it was perfect and I had made the right choices along the way. In fact, it was an early favorite of the year for me because it was the fleshing out of that fuzzy concept that I had come up with a long time before. I had given my idea form, and a life of its own. I could now share that idea with others and share a piece of myself.
I was excited about it until I started to write the blog which is the first step in the sharing process. When it came time to insert the image, I had built it up in my mind so much that when I finally dropped it on the page, it somehow started to lack impact. Had I made the wrong choices along the way? Was this not as good as I thought it was? Maybe if I had changed this detail, or that detail? As I normally do, I went with my gut and left the image as it was and continued the blog. I had no idea how this was going to be received, but I decided that I was still proud of it and it was the embodiment of my thought. Once I published the blog, I made the decision on whether or not this was going to go in my gallery as a portfolio item. This is always another choice that has to be made because not all of my images should be in my portfolio. This should be the best of the best, and that grading system is very subjective. In fact, that grading system is different based on my mood and mindset at the time. It did make it into my portfolio as my initial response to this image had been very positive. The doubts that I had about it now, were based on the possible reactions that it might get, and that didn’t matter as much to me.
Up until now, the choices that I have been making have been largely with my own reactions in mind as the image and the website are all based on my choices. It was the next step that was the hardest, and is always the hardest. This is where I start the sharing process on social media. This is where I open myself up for opinions and reactions in a very public forum. I made the decision long ago that if the image was good enough to put in my blog, it was good enough to share on social media because for it to make it into the blog I had to be proud of it on some level. However, it is a whole different animal putting an image out there for anyone to see and be able to react to it.
The final stage comes some time later as I post each image to various groups in the order in which they were added to my catalog. The decision here is what groups do the images appeal to as they are all specific in their content. Will the image be well received or not. If it isn’t, does that mean that I have made a wrong decision at some point along the way? Is the response of the masses the gospel when it comes to the quality and content of my work? How much weight do I give the comments and reactions? In the case of this image, to this day I still love it and think it is one of my most significant images of the year (although that tally is about to be counted). However, the response for this one was lukewarm at best. It never really got much traction among those that follow my work. Is it because it isn’t a good image, or is it because my audience has been cultivated based on my regular genres of imagery like the landscapes and decay photographs? I may never know, but that is where the insecurities come in. Even though I know that this is a good image based on my perspective, there will always be a part of me that wonders if I am wrong.
If I’m wrong, am I really wrong?
Here is another example that I think is worth discussing here. It is another one of those concepts that I had long ago of the moon reflecting on the ocean. Obviously, I don’t go to the coast that often, but there have been several times I’ve seen the moon full over the ocean and wanted to capture an image of it. For one reason or another the execution failed to live up to my vision. The closest I came was one time on the Southern tip of Topsail Island during a family vacation. I had my rough concept and when I arrived at the Southern tip of the island that morning, I saw the moon surrounded by a light haze in the sky with a brilliant reflection on the water below. The line of the coast brought me right into the image. It was just what I had been looking for. I worked on getting the shot set up and made many choices about how I wanted to compose and expose this image. I captured many different variations and ultimately picked my favorite of them when we got home. I had done a rough edit on it and decided that I didn’t really like it. It was still my concept and I liked the concept, just the execution fell short for what I wanted to show. I moved on to other images, but when Toni came in and wanted to see the moon pictures I showed her what I had. She fell in love with image that was partially processed and pretty much made me promise to put it in the blog. It was against my better judgement to do that, but she has been right on more than one occasion when it comes to the images that will get a good response from my audience.
I made the decision to put this one out there, but I was actually quite embarrassed by it if I’m being honest. I still am, but here we go again. It made it into the blog, which meant that it was going to make it into my social media posts as well. I was putting myself out there just knowing that I was going to get a different reaction than I was hoping for. I was very apprehensive about doing this, but I did it for Toni because she felt so strongly about it. Well, wouldn’t you know it, she was right on this one. This image broke the internet in my initial posting as well as the follow up postings to the groups at a later time. The response was overwhelmingly positive and it seemed that everyone loved this image.
I still don’t see what all the fuss is about. There are so many things wrong with this image and it just isn’t true to my vision. Am I right about it, or is the audience right about it? Are my own insecurities playing in too much with this image, or is it just a pretty image that was created in spite of my own choices? I have second guessed this image many times over the last year and change, but still can’t muster the love for it that I would want to have. I stand by my original thought of trashing it, but I can’t deny that it has been a real crowd pleaser. It is the exact opposite of what happened with my previous architectural isolation. These are the times that I start to really question my own art which feeds into my insecurities. It would seem that what is up is actually down, and what is right is actually left. Who’s opinions do I trust?
Our own worst critics….
I think that the biggest factor in an artist’s own insecurities is that because we are responsible for every creative choice, we see any deficiencies and missed opportunities when we look at the final image. That sets us apart from the audience when it comes to a reaction to the image. This image is one of the best examples of an image that love to hate. Yes, that is what I said. Every time I look at this image I am flooded with “if only I had…..” thoughts. It was an image that was originally destined for just the blog and social media. I didn’t think that it would go any further than that. My choices leading up to this image were based on a very fast paced chain of events and I didn’t have the time needed to really flesh out the concept quite like I wanted to. I had been on the Blue Ridge Parkway as Hurricane Matthew was clearing out of the state. As that journey was coming to an end, I stopped at the often photographed Laurel Knob overlook which had some of the best clouds that I had seen over the mountains. I looked for the shot that would capture the scene and decided on one that included the old dead tree which everyone likes to photograph. I worked fast, and there were a lot of people moving about while I was there which made things even more difficult. I made some very quick decisions on the composition, and didn’t even bother with filters before making two exposures. They were very difficult because of the difference in the shadows and highlights, not to mention the really heavy winds. In fact, I wasn’t sure that they would turn out at all because of how dark the tree was in the exposure. When I got home I looked at the two images and chose the best of the two to try and process. As I went though the process in Lightroom, the image was much better than I expected it to be. The colors were rich, and I was able to do quite a bit with it.
However, as I was getting this image to look the way I saw it at the time, I was realizing that the pixels were being stretched much too far and I was creating a lot of noise in the image as well as some really bad chromatic aberrations. These problems didn’t really affect a web image, but would look horrible in a print of any size. I became less enchanted with the image as I went which caused me to look at the other negatives of the image. I had framed it much too close to the branches which caused the image to look very crowded. There wasn’t enough emphasis on the background which was full of detail and I was wanting more of that in the scene. The use of some filters would have done wonders for the exposure, and I couldn’t get over the gnarled mess at the top of the tree that I could have organized a bit better with a different angle. I was all set to abandon this image even though I had just spent a very long time in the editing process just to get it to the point that I didn’t like it. That was when Toni came in and told me how much she loved the image. I had shot it with her in mind so that kind of forced my hand to try and rescue it.
I started on the process of reducing the noise and trying to smooth out the chromatic problems through the image. I finally got it to where it was tolerable, but not great. I let her see it once again and she told me that she wanted to have a print made of this image and framed to go in the living room. OK, that opened up an new can of worms because I wasn’t processing this one with a print in mind, but now I was going to have to go that extra mile on it and get it ready for a 13×19″ print. I did, and the results were decent. I still saw all of the little problems that I could have avoided at the time of capture, and wondered if I had made the right decisions during the editing phase. My insecurities were bouncing off of the walls with this one.
When I posted it to social media I had a great response to it, considering my relatively small audience at the time. I still cringed looking at it though. I had taken the print to the framer and had discussed the framing options shortly after printing it. He was impressed with the image and told me how much he liked it. Of course, that is just good business on his part and I took the reviews with a grain of salt because I knew that this image was just terrible deep down. A couple of weeks later when he was done framing it, he called me up and was so excited I could hear it in his voice. He told me how good it had come out and that I needed to get down there quick and see it.
I’ll admit, this one looked really good framed the way that we had it done. I was excited to get it home to Toni to show her. Before I left the framer though, he told me that he had only done this one other time with an artist that he worked with, but he wanted to purchase a print. Now this is a guy who’s business is framing all kinds of art. He looks at art all day long and for him to want a print of this picture, that really shocked me. When I told him how much a print cost, he looked shocked and I was expecting the same response that I get from almost everyone that it was just too much money. I think at the time, I was charging $50 for a print of this size. His response was the exact opposite though. He said that I should be charging much more and insisted on paying me $80 for a signed print. I had a print in his hands the very next day.
The story doesn’t end there though. After picking up the framed picture I went back to the office and placed it in one of the chairs until time to go home. I did this with my framed prints that were getting ready for clients just for that extra bit of exposure. One of the other officers came by my office and stopped in his tracks and looked at the picture. He asked if it was one of mine and I said that it was. We talked about it for a bit, and a few days later he came back and said that he had discussed it with his wife and that they wanted a print of it. In less than a month, I had made three prints from this image…the same image that I was not thrilled with. I still wasn’t happy with it, but there was no denying that there was a certain visual impact to the image that outweighed the technical problems with it.
This image still hangs proudly in our new living room right at the door. I still have very mixed emotions with it when I see it, but there is no doubting that it makes for a very pretty picture hanging on the wall. It is still that image that I love to hate because up until recently, it was my best selling print. Were my insecurities warranted with this image? I don’t know. I like it, and I don’t like it, so I am very confused with it still to this day, some four years after its creation. I’m not sure if I will ever come to terms with this particular image.
I see options, you see a simple image
When we look at an image, we only have the information in front of us to process. As a viewer, we decide if we like the image or if we don’t. I envy that position and wish that I had that luxury when looking at an image of mine. When I look at an image, I see things that I wish could have been changed, and things that I might consider for future attempts. I see what is, what was, and what might be in the future. The actual final image gets lost in the mix and I bring with it all of the compromises that I had to make during the creation of the image. A compromise is just that. It is a blending of options and hopes to arrive at a workable scenario.
In the case of this image of the 66 Diner in Walkertown, I had driven by there that morning and had seen the puddle reflecting the brilliant colors of the neon lights. It captured my attention and I started to formulate a plan based on choices. It would have been so much better had there not been vehicles parked around it, and when I started the front of the diner was completely clear of vehicles. Sadly, by the time I had the camera built and a composition in mind, the White Dodge pulled in and blocked my view. I knew that they were going to be there for a while because they sat down to eat. I had to make a composition with that truck in the shot. It was well lit which made it a very visible part of the scene unlike the other truck to the right which was in the shadows. The compromise that I had to make here was to include both trucks as framing elements but they were late model trucks and didn’t really fit with the feeling of the scene. Also, in order to get the reflection right, I had to position down low to the ground which caused the sign for the diner to be be cut by the roof line which I wanted to avoid. The guys that had come in from the Dodge had also sat at the table by the corner window and were now part of my image. They were in motion, so I had to make fast exposures in low light to keep them from blurring. I had all of these problems when creating the image and when I look at it, even today, I see all of those compromises that had to be made which were not part of my initial vision. The end result turned out good in spite of itself and I do like the image as a whole. But because I knew every part that went into the image, I constantly think “what if?” when I look at it. I see the image for what it could have been, and for what it almost was before that truck pulled in to the parking space. When the audience sees it, they are seeing the parts that drew me to the scene to start with. That reflection is awesome, the colors are amazing and the mood is just what I was after. The audience will likely never consider the compromises that I had to make in order to get this image and they don’t know what my original vision was of this scene.
This is the part that is hard for the artist to really take into account. When we share our art, we are baring our souls, and feel like it is all out there for all to see. We are being judged, not our art. Since it is us on display, it is all of our choices and the compromises that we had to make to get the image which are being evaluated. As artists, we need to step back and realize that the only thing being evaluated is the actual finished product, the rest of the equation is immaterial and is good for only a background story. That is easier said than done though, and to this day, when I upload an image to my website to start the process I feel like I just walked into Central Park while being filmed by every news channel and then stripping naked. I just wait for the finger points and the giggles to begin.
How do we deal with the insecurities?
I wish that I could sit here and tell you that there was a magic formula that would take away your insecurities, or even mine for that matter. There isn’t an easy answer for this. I think that every day an artist has to wake up and convince themselves once again that their art is unique and is worth while. I think that it is a daily battle, and I think with everything that is created, we must come to terms with the fact that some people will like it, and some won’t. There will be times when you don’t like your own work, and that is ok too. It doesn’t always mean that others won’t appreciate it. I think that as artists, we must make our decisions with our heads in the right place. That simply means create for the sake of creating and to make us happy. Art is our voice, and the voice can never be heard unless something is being said. It is up to you whether you speak in a whisper or if you yell it from the rooftops. Maybe you choose to be like Toni and just talk to yourself and create for your own satisfaction. Maybe you want to be like that rock band that starts singing mainstream music because you got a taste of national radio attention. There is nothing at all wrong with any of it as art is a personal choice and what you do with it is just as personal of a choice. At the end of the day, most of what you create will eventually be forgotten, but there might be that one thing that resonates for generations to come. If you let your insecurities dictate your art, you may never create that one special thing which inspires others to come out of their shell and let their own voice be heard.
Thank you for joining me for this installment of Behind the Camera. I hope you enjoyed it, but I am pretty sure that nobody read the whole thing. I probably didn’t write this well enough to get my point across anyway. The pictures I chose probably distracted from the message I was trying to deliver. There is a good chance that any positive responses that I get from this will be folks taking pity on me and commenting to make me feel better. Maybe now they will see through my charade and realize that I am a complete hack as a photographer. I will never know for sure, but I am proud of what I have created here and I think that it is something that needs to be said many times over because there are so many wonderful artists out there that have no idea how good they are and are reluctant to share their creations with others. I know this because I have met several through my workshops which fall into this category.