As always, I’m working on some fantastic new material for Ground Glass. I’ve been sidelined by some crazy sort of illness for awhile, but things will be up and running again soon.
In the meantime, Jenika McDavitt is having a sale today and tomorrow (May 24, 25) on her fantastic ebook How to Build an Absolutely Irresistible Photography Website. Normally $159, it’s only $119 right now.
If you’re thinking about creating a new site and want to dig into the key business and brand considerations, this guide is chock full of great advice and exercises to keep you on target. It also comes with an interview from yours truly, as I deconstruct what went into the redesign of my own website for 5 West Studios. Great stuff!
I spend a lot of time stuck in my own head. I imagine most of us do. After all, where else are you gonna go? But here’s the real problem in all of it: most of the voices in our heads aren’t even our own. As we look around and try to figure out what works, what doesn’t, and where we’re supposed to go with it, we borrow and borrow and borrow, until we’re stuck with a cluttered jumble of ideas so dense we just can’t sift through it.
Here’s a simple little get-out-of-jail-free card I keep in the back of my brain when I really just can’t get free.
Good exists. Great does not.
There is a very real definition for good. You just need to look at everything that’s being done in whatever field you’re in and pick a spot on the curve right around the upper middle. It’s not that hard to figure out. The iPhone was great. The iPhone 5 is good. Good is the decoded version of great. Or to put it another way, it’s great without the innovation. If you want to make something good, just look, identify, and replicate. Then wash, rinse, and repeat.
Great, on the other hand, never exists. Great is ahead of the curve. It’s always new and different. Great requires stepping out on a ledge. So if you’re finding yourself stuck in a corner, full of doubt, shackled by all those voices telling you what’s good and right and proper, remember, that this feeling of insecurity is part and parcel to the act of pushing to be your best.
At the end of Working Girl (yes…we’re going back to the 80′s), there’s a story of an 18-wheeler stuck in a tunnel. None of the emergency crew can figure out how to dislodge the truck – it’s jammed in too tight – until a little boy comes along and asks “Why not just let some air out of the tires?”
Greatness doesn’t need brilliance. It doesn’t need brain power or talent or exceptional skill. It is, of course, aided by these things. But before any of that, great comes in a much simpler package. The voices you hear are the voices of yesterday telling what you need to do to solve your problems. But if you’re stuck in second gear, you need to turn it around and go the other way. Instead of identifying solutions, be like the little boy looking at the truck, and focus on finding the problem you need to solve.
My father is a smart guy. A research scientist, a mathematician, and a professor. He was the best in his class in high school. Then college. Then in his PhD program. Sometimes, I forget how much brain power is up there. You see a man toiling away on his computer trying to decide whether an instant coupon saving $5 at Walgreens is better than $5.50 at Rite Aid, and it’s shockingly easy to forget. But I know it’s true. My brother isn’t a slouch, either. He was a tack-sharp, Silicon Valley programmer, before essentially retiring at forty. My sister is pulmonologist who graduated from Stanford.
I, on the other hand, was not at the top of my class. I did not go to Stanford. And retirement sounds about as realistic to me as san bathing in the North Pole.
In my family, achievement is measured by two things: intellect and money. Which is odd, because intellect isn’t achieved and money is at best a byproduct of an achievement. But these were the gold standards of my youth. And no matter how far I’ve gone, no matter how long it’s been, I still can’t quite leave home. You put me in a room with my whole family in my childhood home, and the effect on my esteem is stultifying. It’s like being 16 all over again, except with a lot less hair.
I grew up thinking it was was all about how clever I could be. How well I could show my chops, how much better I could be than everyone else. I rarely was. But I had a moment or two. I was great with multiplication tables. I wasn’t bad at chemistry.
The thing is, when you measure yourself by any type of yardstick – it doesn’t matter what – all you can really do is spend your time trying to prove yourself. And that’s just more time lost trying to be yourself. There was no way to make myself smarter, so I could only hope that I could somehow show I was smarter than I really was.
HOW TO CREATE A SOUL-SUCKING BUSINESS
And that’s what I took into my first business. Then my next. And the next. Greeted each time by some success, but even more failure. Which is no real surprise, because whenever I looked inside, there wasn’t much there other than a pile of aspirations wrapped around a big, black void of insecurity. That’s what happens when you spend your timing looking for validation.
The problem is people don’t hire you to be what you think is good. They hire you to be what they think is good. That means you have a choice. You can chase the dragon and keep on guessing what everyone wants. Or you can lead the way, and provide what people really want. Fulfillment comes when you focus on other people’s needs, but provide your own solution. Insecurity comes when you focus on your needs, but provide other people’s solutions.
And that’s exactly what I spent my life doing. Creating the product I thought people wanted me to so I could quell my own insecurities to feel like I was successful. It’s the difference between being good and looking good.
Being good is living on your terms. Looking good is everyone else’s.
Being good is solving problems. Looking good is avoiding them.
Being good needs no one else in the world to see it. Looking good needs everyone else to see it.
Being good is them following you. Looking good is you following them. And I’ll tell you, if you want a following, no one will follow those who chase them.
What happens when you spend your time proving you’re good is you get clients of every stripe. Showing you can do it all is the surest way to doom yourself to having to do it all.
MY WORST DAY
I know exactly when I hit rock bottom. It was a horrible mismatch from the start. After years of trying to be everything to everyone and taking any business under the sun, it all came to a boil one fine summer day several years back. I knew I shouldn’t have taken the job, but when you’re used to one bad match after another, sucking it up just becomes a way of life.
This one was different, though. I felt it in my gut.
“Do not do it.”
I didn’t listen. I took the job, and the day was an assault. A barrage of constant and unending doubt, because that’s what happens when you don’t properly earn people’s trust and you take work you shouldn’t.
“Do you think that’s the best angle to shoot me?”
“Don’t you think we should stand here, instead?”
“Can’t we do something that looks fun?”
“I have an even better idea…”
When it rains, it pours. And it was cats and dogs all day, right up until I found myself taking pictures of a bridal party dancing the roger rabbit in the middle of New York City.
Not that there’s anything wrong with that.
But there was, because that isn’t me. It was me showing my ass for not having the resolve to say no ahead of time and help the couple find someone better suited to serve them. I’ve had harder wedding days. But I’ve never felt more valueless.
My tank had hit empty.
And all because I just wanted to be a smart guy, like my dad or my brother or my sister.
HOW TO STAY ALIVE
Here’s how real life works. There is no good. There is no bad. There are business realities. There are social realities. Things societies approve of. Don’t approve of. But forget truth. These things shift and slide, ducking in and out of anything you could ever tie down.
If you want to find true north, you won’t find it looking outward.
Don’t focus on what looks good. Don’t even focus on creativity. True creativity is about letting go. When your mind tries too hard to do anything, it stalls out. Try walking on the edge of a sidewalk. Easy. Now try walking on the edge of a cliff. No different in principle. Very different in reality.
Paradoxically, trying to be good means not trying to be good.
Instead, just listen. Listen to your body. Listen to the universe. Clear out the thousand voices in your head. Settle into the signals inside. See what they’re feeling. See what they see. Because good is the truth in the moment. Your truth in the moment. It will ebb, it will flow, but it’s always there, all around you, and you can’t keep it on tap. Just let it pour and drink as you need it.
A good picture isn’t what happened. It’s what you felt about what happened. Your connection to the outside world is the only way to find spontaneity. If you want pictures no one saw coming, don’t let your head and your ego hijack the scene. Get your body involved.
Instead of doing the thing you know will work, make yourself uncomfortable. Shoot from a different spot. Shoot with a different lens. Force yourself to figure things out. That will call upon your skill and your vision, and it will fully commit you to the present.
Embrace the uncertainty. Look at what’s in front of you. Move a little. See how the angle changes the light, the features, the background. Look more. Watch the picture form. Say yes. Don’t look at all the reasons a picture won’t work. Find all the ways it can. Because it always can. No is just a safety mechanism that keeps you from taking a risk. But it’s also a safety mechanism that keeps you from finding reward.
If you look inward, I offer no guarantee you will not fail. I offer no guarantee anything will work at all, in fact. The world is all too mercurial for that type of security to ever exist. But that’s just the point. There’s never any type of security that really exists no matter what you do.
But when you fail on your own terms, you can fail with pride and dignity. You’re not wounded. You’re empowered. You’re not lost. You become determined.
It will keep you in it.
And, as it turns out, that’s about the only thing I could ever say really is true.
Not that if you’re in it, you’ll win it. But if you’re in it, you won’t need to.
Brilliant images tend to leave you with that odd mix of inspiration and humility we know as awe. At once, you see photography’s potential and your own limitations. But what’s remarkable is that whatever the reaction, it so frequently comes down to the same one thing. Whether it’s an unexpected moment, unorthodox exposure, a novel composition, or light like you’ve never seen before, more times than not, it’s not that you couldn’t have taken the shot. It’s that you wouldn’t have.
This is photography’s great challenge: How do you shoot something you wouldn’t think to take?
It’s curious that in a world so focused on the how-to, it’s really the why that gets the attention. Because great photography, though possessed of surprise, is built on clarity of intention. It’s as if you stepped into another person’s head and borrowed their eyeballs. But how do you find that with your own?
While it may be daunting – there are as many ways as there are people – the initial footsteps are often deceptively simple. Here are three ways to get on the path to confounding your enemies and amazing your friends.
1. FIND AN OBSESSION
The great thing about obsessions is they tend to be unique unto themselves. It’s the nature of the beast. While the motives may be similar, the results vary dramatically. Obsessions are things of peculiar extremes that almost always take you into uncharted territory. But the beauty is that just about everyone has something they can obsess over. Better yet, that something need not be much, because it’s not the object of your obsession, so much as the lengths to which a person is driven that defines the work. The more extreme you get, the more revealing the work becomes.
On Kawara has painted text on a solid background every day since January 4, 1966, giving him a place at the MOMA. Imogen Cunningham is famous for his flowers. And taking a picture of the same tree every day has landed Mark Hirsch multiple features. People love obsessions, because they so clearly show a passion and explore a point of interest.
When you boil it all down, it’s a pretty simple process. Find something you like. Stick with it. The rest will take care of itself, and much the way a photograph’s meaning changes to a person over time, an activity that you doggedly chase will grow with you, too.
2. ASK YOURSELF “SO WHAT?”
It doesn’t get easier than that, does it? But not many of us do. It’s just one of those painful questions people don’t like. But the human mind has infinite capacity for justification, and you can know outsiders are not going to care what our justifications are, so ask yourself mercilessly. Chase down each image you take with this one question, and you will force yourself to take a perspective.
And don’t ask just once. If you have a good answer after asking yourself once, you probably didn’t try hard enough. Every good image should be able to withstand multiple levels of skepticism. In the face of “So what?” answers like “Because of the composition,” or “Because of it’s good timing,” fall by the wayside. And forget about answers like “It’s cool.” These are not human reasons. Every picture is based on some technique. But it’s always a technique that serves a human objective.
Think of “So what?” as a purifying force that burns through technique in a crucible of inquisition, leaving you with pure substance. If all you have at the end of it are a scant few crumbly ashes, you’ll know you didn’t push hard enough.
3. LOOK TO THE PAST
No, knowing the history of photography is not necessary to produce great photographs. But it sure will improve your odds. And why the hell would anyone not want to? The world has, oh, I don’t know, what? 4 billion photographers, now? Most of them know little of the past. As in, that’s a free ride down the road to distinction. Know your stuff and you cut the market by 90%. And how many good people really say “Well, I learned all of the history, and it was useless.”
Maybe it’s true that the past is absorbed in the work of the present, but the present is one big mash-up of the past for a reason, and it’s probably no coincidence that when you read about the greats, it’s not uncommon to hear about their encyclopedic knowledge. Plus, how do you even decipher a mash-up without knowing the core ingredients? It’s like a chef trying to make a new tomato sauce by mixing a bunch of store-bought jars of the red stuff.
The past is the easiest way to dissect the present. Plus it’s an easy place to get simple, time-tested ideas to riff on for your own mash-ups. Even if nothing is ever original, combinations of things most certainly are. The past is how you build a repository of ideas and thought to mix, mince, blend, and mash together. Not to mention understanding the fundamentals gives you exactly the type of understanding that can withstand the onslaught of doubters who will be thinking ”So what?”
You can live to own. Or you can own what you live. That’s the choice.
It’s the choice to decide to stare down the future and say this is mine or to look at the present and only want for more. It’s the choice to wish or the choice to dream. It’s a decision we make every morning when we get up and every night when we lie down. And it is the easiest decision you’ll ever have to make, and the hardest thing you’ll ever have to do. And it will be hard. But it’s the most glorious type of hard you’ll ever find.
Too often, we see it all backwards. We see passion and self as things to be found. As if there were someone inside of us, waiting under the surface to crawl into the light after you peeled all the layers away.
I think it’s the other way around. The layers are the life. They are us. We are what we do. We can afford to give up and discard nothing. No moment, no second, no part of who we are. There’s no super-secret, special self waiting in the wings. And there’s not some boring, mundane self who lives your everyday life. We make our way along, sometimes getting it right, sometimes missing the mark, always with that lingering decision to do or not to do.
HOW PASSION WORKS
It’s not passion, then, that leads to need. It’s need that leads to passion. Or to put it a better way, if you’re waiting for passion to fall on you like a ton of bricks as an intervention of the divine, it’s just not going to happen. You can spend your time chasing fun, but you can only develop passion. It comes when you wrench yourself out of bed and commit to getting every little thing out of all you’ve got.
Passion is born out of curiosity, it becomes interest, and it grows into dreams. But that only happens when we allow ourselves to pursue it fully. People who don’t get things done don’t find their passion. Doing creates challenges. It finds solutions. It offers insight. But most importantly, in all of that, it creates a cycle of care that attaches our present to our future. We start to look to tomorrow when can live in today. It comes when our beliefs in the things we do become so important, they bind themselves to all of our activities. That’s what it’s all about.
MAKE IT PERSONAL
And this is why it’s so important to make things personal. Whether it be your projects by night or your business by day. Let each thing you do mean something to you. Because curiosity and interest are things only found in the heart. Logic and explanation are not the source of care. They undermine interest. If you do something for its own sake, you find its value. If you do it because you are paid, its value is income. Tom Sawyer had it right when he let the other kids paint the fence.
Dollars and bottom-lines, more often than not, destroy passion, because they feed on the logic of need. And logic will tell us that the best way to satisfy a need is always in the most direct, efficient way possible. Except life is not logic.
For this reason, the lure of money is antithetical to doing. Because when we think of money as a lure, we are, more times than not, thinking of easy money – something rooted in the logic of efficiency. Hard money is something wholly different. It’s an activity rooted in character and the idea of continuous pursuit and effort. But easy money is about doing little for lots for no particular purpose other than to not have to do anything at all. This puts it at ends with passion and dreams, because these are activities that come out of doing for itself.
TAKING THE PICTURES
In the simplest terms, I would suggest taking some pictures for yourself. Anything. Everything. I believe in the power of personal projects. I believe in the power of a point of view. If you’ve been away from taking anything for yourself, how do you know what personal is to you in the present?
Find something. Pursue it for a little bit. Sift through the pictures, and dwell on them. Print them out. Print them fast and cheap to remove barriers and move quickly. Let the process pull you into the situation. Sort through them to see what feels right together. Put them in order. Lay them all out. Let them seep into your conscious and let a picture of yourself emerge.
Keep at this. Let this form into its own thing. Don’t stop, just because you know it will work. Don’t stop, because the most exciting part is through. Move on. Go into the part that’s slow and tedious. And watch it transform, as it will, from a hard and sterile process to something rich and meaningful. Watch how your pictures keep changing. Watch how the ideas come to you.
Then ask again, “Who am I?”
Now go back to what you take for others. See how it’s different, and see how it’s similar. And ask why it’s similar and why it’s different. Then ask what you can bring from what you’ve learned about yourself into your work. How can you make the images you create for work mean more to you?. Because meaning more to you isn’t an act of ego. It’s evidence of a deeper connection you’ve found with your subject. Find it. Make it part of what you create for others. And let that grow.
Then rework that as part of your portfolio. Bring it into your words, take it into your business, and just like your personal work, don’t stop when things are fun. Push through that same slow, tedious climb, until you get to the top, and see how your business grows. See how you grow.
Because at the end of it all, it really comes down to getting off your ass and getting something done. To not worry about what will and will not pan out. To stop thinking about what’s really you and to go find out. You can find that in business, you can find it in leisure. You can find it everywhere, all the time. But you’ll only find it when you ease off on the pedal and stop listening to the voice that tells you not to do whatever you do until every sign in the universe points the same way. By then, it’s too late. Proven always starts as unproven. And those who go somewhere start with the unproven. It’s that simple. Now get moving.
I was going to write this big ol’ post about selling without selling today, but then I stumbled across this video from Zen Garage in the morning, and I thought “Screw it. This is better.”
In this video, Marina Abramovic is giving a minute of time to each stranger who sits in front of her. This is taking place at her MoMa retrospective. She had an intense relationship with Ulay (the man in the Converses) in the 70′s, not having seen him since. She didn’t know he was coming.
It’s a snowy day out here in Brooklyn, and this seemed like perfect material for a day indoors. Such a heart warming reminder about what matters. Her eyes say it all. Each of us leaves a mark on each person we come across, and nothing is more important than what we mean to one another.
Time flies by in the blink of an eye, and at some point, being able to look back is everything. It’s easy to get lost in making a living. But as Maya Angelou said, it’s just not the same as building a life. How lucky we are that we get to do this thing we do as photographers. We get to help people see that life.
I’m going to let you in on a secret. I’ve always wanted to go to WPPI. I’ve always wanted to have a week to roam Vegas in an unending drunken stupor. You know, because what happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas (Unless you blog about it. Or Instagram it. Or tweet it. Or Facebook it). Or, maybe, because what happens at WPPI stays at WPPI.
But, and here’s really the thing of it, beyond the notion of some nice parties with some great people, I have no idea why I’m supposed to go. I’m sure part of it is just me. I never took that much of an interest, and that’s hardly their fault. But the central question to me has always been, “What exactly does happen that doesn’t stay there?” You’ve gotta take home something.
When I have thought about WPPI, what’s come to mind has been less than positive. There are some legitimate marquis names, to be sure. But what I think of is rock stars. And lots of fill light (it’s a means, not an end). And sells and industry. And fill light. Did I mention fill light? I think of lots of “How to,” but not a lot of “How comes.” But, more than anything, I think of nothing. Not a derogatory nothing. Just a nothing, nothing. As in what the hell does WPPI stand for? And I don’t mean Wedding and Portrait Photographers International. But that’s pretty opaque in and of itself.
Enter Jason Groupp, WPPI’s new director. He was gracious enough to host a meeting with us – the speakers and participants of the Musea Gathering (there’s an anti-WPPI if ever there was one) looking for feedback. If you don’t know Jason, he’s a guy who’s been around the block, so he knows a thing or two about the wedding industry. And I’m really hopeful that he can take it somewhere. Kudos to him for reaching out. But what a task to undertake.
As for me, I wanted to be useful. I wanted to be more than a freeloader gorging myself on pizza, beer, and diet Pepsi in Jason’s digs. I really did. But I just didn’t have much to say. All I could do was stare at that big blank emptiness in my head, wondering what it would be like to spend a full week under a bottomless flow of inebriation.
Not to undermine the value of that. Great for networking. You know – tastes great, but not so filling. Certainly not a mission statement. From this outsider’s perspective, WPPI feels like an event that’s overloaded and overburdened. It’s nothing to anyone and everything to everyone. However you want to slice it. When I think of WPPI, all I really think of is WPPI. Not creativity, but tricks of the trade. Industry. An outdated notion of a time when where there were real photographers and consumer photographers. And we were the latter.
And, you know, in some ways, that model is still there. But it’s hanging by a thread, and it’s ready to be cut. People are crossing over, and it’s going both ways. There’s talent to be found, and there’s desire to be had. This is one hell of a time, after all. You put it together, you throw it down, you post it up, and maybe, just maybe, if you’ve got the stuff, you can make it happen. And that you can be anyone. My question is how can WPPI help people make it happen? It’s time to take a stance.
Photography is one of those activities, where you’re as good as you allow yourself be. So many of the barriers are mental. Most of the technique just isn’t that hard. But the openness – the willingness to see, to look, to learn – that’s as hard as anything you’ll find. To try, to dare, to live fearlessly? In a consumer-driven market, that’s harder than most things you’ll find. Lasting inspiration is crucial. Waking up to challenge each day is essential. Our job should be an activity of the mind and heart. Art should. Business should. What shouldn’t?
And, I suppose, that’s really it right there. I want to know what WPPI will do for my mind and my heart. How will it help me see more? Feel more? Push harder? Because the real division in photography isn’t between what people shoot any longer. It’s how well we shoot. Are we photographers at weddings or wedding photographers? And shouldn’t we hope to be able to say there is no distinction between the two? That’s a future I’m interested in.
I know that I’m hardly the voice of the industry. And like any company, there are bills to pay, things to do, and needs to address. But WPPI is about the event. Its history is rooted in an existence as a privately owned organization that is about the conference. And there are really only two types of conferences.
There are yesterday’s conferences. Conventions of people who get together to get away to have a few drinks to escape their job, loosen their ties, and find a few tricks to make it through another year, as they press hands with the same, tired vendors. And there are tomorrow’s conferences. Gatherings about people looking for different ways to solve, new ways to think, and waiting to crack their eyes open.
And it’s a funny thing about the second type of event. You may have a few drinks. You may go to a few parties. But when you’re there, you’re there for you. So even if you find yourself in a stupor, it’s never the reason you’re there.
Whew! This has been a hell of a few weeks! Getting ready for the Musea Gathering and watching it unfold was…it was amazing. It was an amazing experience. And I hate the word amazing (even though I can’t stop myself from using it. All. The. Time.). But it was.
It was amazing seeing everyone there. It was amazing seeing everyone’s enthusiasm for their craft and for their businesses. It was amazing seeing Michael Howard’s vision unfold – something I know he has poured his heart and soul into. It is damned hard trying to figure it all out and put something like this together. Just like it is trying to figure out how to run a business. Or move your life forward. Or do anything well, really. So if you don’t follow Musea, be sure to follow it.
I was afraid I didn’t have enough to fill 8 hours. I now realize, I was actually trying to cram three days of material into 8 hours. Nothing feels better than sharing what you’ve learned and what you believe. Wish I could keep going with it. And I will. In these pages. So many things to come this year. Hang on, because we’re just getting started here.
As I ran out on the last day, I stepped onto the street, I looked out into the tree-lined Manhattan skyline, each branch ascending further into the air, and a wave of calm cradled my body.
As long as we see ourselves as an industry, as businesses and not creators, as sellers and not communicators, as brands and not people, we are lost. This might be the age of big names and big people and big personalities, but we are not that. Shooting and talking and branding should be tools of liberation, not containment. They can only serve to create something lasting, durable, and sturdy, when they come from a point of resonance as humans. We are those branches. Ascending. Pushing. Striving. Looking for light, looking for sun, waiting for the spring. As human beings.
Seth Godin talked about permission this morning in his newsletter. That we already have permission to do whatever we need to do. We don’t need to ask. And looking through 10 seasons running a business, 10 seasons shooting, breaking it all down, and putting it back together, being at the Gathering, compiling all of this material, and spending a few days around some inspirational individuals living and striving and pushing to make things happen – I couldn’t concur more. Fuck permission. This was just the reminder I needed to remember that nourishment is the space to breathe, the confidence to live, some air in your lungs, some food in your stomach, and a whole lot of love for what you have. Yeah, it’s been an amazing few weeks.
There are still some seats available at next week’s Musea Gathering. Don’t miss out! This is going to be a fantastic event, and I’m doing everything I can to make sure that the time is going to be packed with all sorts of goodness! Learn more here.
Revered and reviled, Valentine’s day is a day of surprise, obligation, dread, and happiness. As a narrative, it’s a fulcrum around which our lives revolve. The date stays the same. We change. The hearts we draw for our parents. The cards and candies we get from our peers. The rejection. The acceptance. The early dates. The later dates. Before we’re married. After we’re married. And so it goes, an unending arc traversing our lives.
And so goes the lifespan of the image. Some break orbit and step out of time, remembered for their significance, in part for their achievement and in part because history preserves the context, an amber encasing a moment in time.
More commonly, though, we see the image and its derivatives weather and wither. At first they challenge, then they intrigue. They move from insightful to stylish to popular to common to staid until it all simply fades. The look stays the same. But we change. We begin by feeling the function. We finish by seeing the form, until the meaning is lost, and society has moved on. Which is all to say that we can take the same picture every single day, but we won’t capture the same meaning each time.
Hopefully, as creators, by that time it all changes, we move on, as well.