Thank you, Wes! I think the adage “know thyself” is as good an answer as I can give, and although it may seem simple it is in fact one of the most difficult tasks that a person may tackle, if only for the fact that your self is (hopefully) not a fixed quantity. Things like introspection, mindfulness, breadth of interests, knowledge, self-confidence, etc. are all things that may evolve and transform over a lifetime. The true strength of any self-expressive art is that it forces you to recognize what about yourself is worth expressing, what you know or may still not know about yourself, and what you hope to accomplish. This has to come to a large degree from trial and error: from being willing to experiment and to fail a lot before discovering what works. As Edward Weston wrote, “don’t be repressed in your work.” Take it a step at a time: start with things that are obviously important to you, and learn as much as you can about them, and try everything you can think of to express them in photographs. Inevitably, with every step you take, the next one will become more evident.
Thank you, Madeleine, for both the interest and support! Perhaps before anything else, I’ll say this: don’t despair. I’ve gone through some dry spells that lasted quite a long time (even a couple of years in one case), and in hindsight I can clearly see big surges of creativity following such episodes. I don’t know if the things that work for me will work for others but when my own photography fails to satisfy, I allow myself to take breaks, to evolve my interest in other things (e.g., read books, discover new music, spend time outdoors without feeling compelled to photographs, etc.) I also find that writing streams of consciousness—just letting thoughts spill out in whatever order they arise, regardless of whether they make sense or whether I will ever share them with anyone else—and write them down, often helps restore my creative flow.
Thank you very much, Alister! I appreciate the kind words and your friendship over the years. I don’t think we’ll ever turn back the clock, but I don’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing. In the end, we are all individuals and can make our own choices, so perhaps the problem for creative people today is not so much competition but discipline and commitment to our own “why.” I maintain a limited social media presence for those things I like about it: communing with like-minded people, sharing my work with a broad audience, and being introduced to photographers I would have no other way of finding. Beyond that, the world of likes, influencers, and competition is pretty alien to me and distracts from my own motivations, which are primarily the emotional qualities of my outdoor experiences and my urge for creative expression. I think this admonition from Bertrand Russell sums up my general attitude: “One should respect public opinion insofar as is necessary to avoid starvation and keep out of prison, but anything that goes beyond this is voluntary submission to an unnecessary tyranny.”
Hi Guy! It’s Claudia from Torrey! Do you have a favorite philosopher, or one whose writings have influenced your creative process more than others?
Guy, One striking thing about the three images you put up for this is the contrast profile you have chosen for them. Can you provide some insight into the thought process you used to decide on that treatment as opposed to a potentially stronger level and the feel or emotional response you were looking to elicit from the viewer by using the level that you did?
Hello, my dear neighbor I generally have very few perennial favorites in anything, only favorites-of-the-moment. When it comes to philosophers the distinction is even harder since, as is the nature of people prone to deep thinking, they are complex and even those I generally agree with also often promote ideas that don’t make sense to me. Then again, that’s part of their value. When I read the work of a great philosopher, I don’t necessarily feel I have to adopt their point of view, but I do feel challenged to think on their level and to evaluate their rationale. So, don’t take this to mean that when I mention a name, I also agree with everything they had to say.
With that preamble, the philosophers I like most fall into two groups: those that have brilliant ideas and expressive powers (e.g., Seneca, Hume, Kant, Schopenhauer, Einstein, Russell), and philosophers who had the courage to live (in some cases, die) according to their philosophy (e.g., Socrates, Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Wittgenstein).
When it comes to ideas, my own philosophy is a big mash-up.
Composition seems an entire art form in and of itself. How do you avoid the forced spirituality of Miksang composition or the staleness of traditional rule of thirds framing? John Daido Loori succeeds in abstraction, while others’ attempts seem contrived, too much a forced attempt to make a nature photo into “art.” Where’s the balance? What’s the approach?
Like some many others at NPN, I can never thank you enough for your critiques and guidance back in the early days of NPN. You always gave so unselfishly of both you time and knowledge and both made such a huge difference in my photography. Thank you again!
My question - Will you and Colleen be doing any future Lens and Pens workshops and, if so, when might that happen again?
Hello, Guy. I’ve especially loved reading your reflections on the human experience, and basically how to live one’s best life possible. It’s been refreshing and illuminating to read about your thoughts and experiences as informed by neuroscience, evolution, positive psychology, mindfulness, etc. I often read your posts and think “I wish everyone in the world understood this.” My question: if you could pick 3-5 books as a “reading assignment” to help shape people’s perspective on life and to maximize human flourishing, what would they be?
That’s a great question, Chris. The short answer is that ultimately it comes down to discipline and confidence. I’m naturally averse to buzzwords, and even more so to anyone promoting a right/wrong approach to art. Perhaps in a sense this inoculates me to some of these effects. Some people promote the “celibacy” approach, which doesn’t fit with my own temperament, but I believe it’s possible for the same person to find value in different approaches at different times. Many of the most creative and daring artists we know today, including photographers, started off following some prescribed discipline before deciding to pursue other directions. I guess my advice is to be skeptical: try any idea that seems like it may have some merit to your way of thinking, and give it an honest try, but don’t be afraid to re-examine things constantly or to come up with your own ideas if they make more sense. This is what Rollo May referred to as creative courage.
Thank you very much for the kind words, Bill! I hope you are doing well.
Very likely, yes. We’ve done two of these workshops so far, and then got distracted by other things although we still bring it up on occasion and throw around ideas, so it’s more about the stars aligning than any other reasons.
Thank you for the wonderful compliment, Jared! This question comes up often and invariably I start rattling off a list of titles that just keeps growing (“oh, that one too… and also that one…”). I’ll give it a shot but you can bet the more I think about it, the longer the list will get so before doing it I’ll just say that just about any text on these topics will either be enlightening in its own right and/or lead you to more focused reading. With that disclaimer, here’s a good “starter pack”:
- Flow / Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi
- Art and Fear / Ted Orland and David Bayles (and Orland’s sequel: The View From The Studio Door)
- The Art Spirit (Robert Henri)
- Why Buddhism is True / Robert Wright (Note: the title is very unfortunate, it has nothing to do with the religious teachings of Buddhism)
- Letters to a Young Poet / Rainer Maria Rilke
Thanks, Rick! One of my personal passions is what I call in my classes “The Visual Language.” For me it started by reading about the concept of Equivalence, as first described by Alfred Stieglitz, and later elaborated by Minor White. White claimed that a photograph can be designed such that it can elicit “specific and known feelings” in the viewer, and I’ve been investigating this claim for years now, looking for correlates between visual cues (color, contrast, lines, shapes, etc.) and emotional responses. As you can imagine, it’s a big topic and spans multiple scientific fields, from evolutionary biology, through psychology, to neuroscience, etc.
In my classes I give examples of how to analyze scenes with an expressive intent. One method I like to use is to write a short journal entry about my experience, then highlight key terms and finding visual equivalents for them. For example: to communicate a slight chill, bias the white balance toward blue; to enhance the feeling of quiet, exclude elements known to make sounds, etc. So all these decisions are rooted in some understanding of their intended effect, with the hope that in time two things will happen: the choices will become more intuitive and less conscious, and that in reviewing my choices over time I can identify some commonalities I can relate to my own personality and sensibilities: the colors I favor, the general level of contrast I lean toward, etc. This gives me good feedback about how well my personality comes through in my work.
Thanks Guy for this AMA. The range and number of questions you have been asked here is testament to your reputation as a photographer, writer and thinker. My question links two of the previous questions (philosophy and advocacy for nature). Can the practice of attention (Simone Weil) in photography (and / or a photograph) convey goodness and wholeness / holism as well as beauty? And, if so, what does this practice look like to you?
Thank you very much, Anna! We don’t often acknowledge that attention is a very scarce resource and we only have so much of it to go around. It can be easily hijacked by so many distractions (especially in the internet age) that the decision to take charge and to make something the focus of attention is a true act of caring (or using Weil’s term, an act of generosity). It requires not only a conscious decision to pay attention but also actual effort to let go of distractions, which is not easy. When we choose to pay attention to beauty, especially as our culture has become so cynical, jaded, and even dismissive, of it, is also an act of defiance—an act of asserting your own priorities rather than being carried away by circumstances and negative thoughts into lesser states of mind. To not just notice beauty, but to deliberately set aside other things in its favor, enriches experience and focuses the mind, which often leads to creative epiphanies.
In practice, to me, it means being conscious of when my mind wanders to less desirable things, particularly the workings of the “default mode network,” which hijacks attention when we don’t focus it consciously and often leads to anxiety, rumination, and self-critical thinking. There are various ways to train yourself to notice when this happens. In my opinion the most effective is the practice of mindfulness meditation, even if for just a few minutes before or during engaging in creative work. I recommend it.
Good evening, Sensei. As you know, I’ve followed you for a while. And I do sometimes make jokes about you vs we mere mortals. But there was a time, in your earlier days on the internet, when you did much the same as the rest of us, commented in passing on the universe etc. And then…it changed. You seemed to take a turn for the more profound, more philosophical, to the style of your essays today. Seems to me this was pre-2015. Was there an event (or one of your epiphanies) or something specific that caused you to change direction that way? (Oh wait…let me guess: it was the better payscale of philosophy over photography, right? LOL)
I really appreciate the time you’re taking to answer these questions.
Do you have any definitive creative epiphanies that photography revealed to you? An ‘aha!’ moment where you discovered something distinct about your creative vision or yourself in general?
Thanks, Lori! The prince of Nigeria promised my philosophy check will be here any day now that I sent him all my banking information
Yes, I have gone through a personal crisis in early 2015 that changed my outlook on a few things, one of which being the degree of my willingness to be more open about some of the forces in my life. It’s a bit ironic that, having spent more than four decades gradually removing myself further and further from social pursuits I somehow ended up being a public figure. I’m still not exactly an open book, but I found that being more open about some of my inner world has been cathartic in some ways and it also resolved for me the paradox of considering myself a self-expressive artist while at the same time being very reserved about acknowledging the things I wished to express.
Thanks, TJ! The short answer is yes, but it’s also a matter of degree. Small epiphanies (new styles, subjects, etc.) are pretty common for me, and are a big part of what I enjoy in photography. For better or worse, I get bored quickly once I believe I got a good handle on something, and I always enjoy challenging myself. Bigger epiphanies are not as common (I guess that’s to be expected) but in hindsight I can point to some very profound ones: I live where I do, and the way that I do thanks to photography; I met my closest friends through photography; photography liberated me from a career I was not happy in; etc. Perhaps the most surprising is that by way of photography I have found a way to interact with people in deeper and more intimate ways than I would be comfortable doing in person.
In my early days, I aspired to learn and practice with the goal of making my photography better, but today I’m more interested in ways that photography can make me better. I don’t think that this is because photography in itself has this unique power, but that it offers a way to richer experiences, metaphors for living, means of expression, ongoing engagement with beauty and creativity. Photography can do all this, and be all this, but to make the most of it I think one has to pursue it with seriousness and dedication, and allow it to become a force in one’s life.
Like others have said, thank you for this AMA. I would like to know why you chose the 3 photos to start the AMA and if possible a critique of each one.