What battle are you choosing?

Our arts, our occupations, our marriages, our religion, we have not chosen, but society has chosen for us. We are parlour soldiers. We shun the rugged battle of fate, where strength is born.” – Emerson

A lot of life is preloaded.

My family, my socio-economic start, my race, my geography… I had no control over any of them and yet I live under them. When circumstances are favorable, I feel like I’ve won the lottery. When my back hurts or my internet goes out, I curse the gods.

The question I’m interested in is where do I take a stand regardless of my circumstances?

What do I care so much about that no thing will stop my commitment to it?

In the chatter about the “problems in our industry”, I’m believing that [Read more...]

The case for the committed part-timer

Our arts, our occupations, our marriages, our religion, we have not chosen, but society has chosen for us. We are parlour soldiers. We shun the rugged battle of fate, where strength is born.” – Emerson

Most every successful professional photographer I know is a part-timer.

… and if they aren’t, I say they might want to rethink their strategy.

Let me go one step further:
I don’t think the “part-timer” category is a meaningful distinction anymore. It feels more like the residue from a bygone era meant to cajole people into responsibilities they no longer need to keep.

We need a new way to understand the people (part-time or not) who are flourishing so more can find their way.

Mapping a path to success by logging more time doing the same old thing, however, is no longer helpful. To create something new requires at least as much attention as emulating what everyone else is doing. We need to either dump the pejorative label or embrace those who are doing it well.

Of course, the part-timer can come in many forms. Some of you [Read more...]

The genie in your bottle

That which each can do best, none but his Maker can teach him. Where is the master who could have taught Shakespeare? Where is the master who could have instructed Franklin, or Washington, or Bacon, or Newton? . . . Shakespeare will never be made by the study of Shakespeare. Do that which is assigned you, and you cannot hope too much or dare too much.” – Emerson

Who do you listen to?

I was in a conversation with Tim Sanders recently who was warning me (and those listening in) to be very thoughtful about the socialstream I choose.

Like kids in the junior high school yard, I’m tempted to think I’m un-effected by those I let in my consciousness. But those voices – good and bad – do effect me & I’d be wise to be intentional with who I grant access.

That said, when it comes to creativity, there’s a deeper voice I can neglect even more that has even greater ramifications. It’s my genie.

That voice in my soul that I need a lot of quiet to hear from. The greeks actually called her genius. We all have one. Very few of us, however, are brave enough to do what’s required to woo her out into the light.

I get it. It’s scary.

One thing I’m clear on though is those who do dare, accomplish the remarkable.

Emerson was right, Shakespeare will never be made by the study of Shakespeare. Same thing with Jeremy & Altf & Parker & Marcus. These crazy people are listening to something internal even while they’re inspired by a world external. I’m tempted to call them geniuses. But they’re not. They’re just regular joes courageous enough to listen their genie inside and do something about it.

I caught a lot of flack for putting the phrase “Fast Track” in the titles of my last two books mainly because critics were concerned that I was suggesting I had some short cut solution to becoming a competent professional creative. There isn’t and I wasn’t.

If you want results – to hear from your genie – you need to work harder at listening than you knew was possible. It’s a daily engagement… a habit, a discipline. The fruit of which can take you on a crazy road & make you feel crazy. But if you really want to find the fastest track to your authentic creative self, I’m convinced that making some dates with your genie is where it begins.

PS… For more insight on nurturing your genius, check out Elizabeth Gilbert’s legendary TED Talk.

Time to iterate

It seems to be in vogue these days to suggest that the photo industry has a problem that needs fixing. It doesn’t.

“If only we could limit access…”
“If only we could slow down talent acquisition…”
“If only we could go back to the good ol’ days…”

I don’t hear many people say things this overtly, but I do hear it underneath industry complaints. What I hear even more is that, somehow, it’s the new photographers fault that things have shifted. It isn’t.

Although it might feel good to try and find a scapegoat for challenging circumstances, I don’t think it’s very constructive… or creative.

In a recent conversation, Seth Godin noted that all you used to need to succeed as a pro photographer were (a) access to tools and (b) access to talent. He believed this was so because of his belief that where there is scarcity, there is value. Since neither tools nor talent are scarce any longer, success can feel elusive.

Let’s back up for a second and get some perspective…

Not too long ago, if you aspired to be a pro photographer, you’d have to invest a chunk of money on inconvenient and heavy camera gear (tools), not to mention a lifetime of commitment to the craft to become something special (talent).

Like the butcher, the baker and the candlestick maker before him, the photographer had the chance to create value because he could do things with his camera that others couldn’t. That is, what he had to offer (tools and talent) was in short supply and high demand.

Over time, a sort of ecosystem evolved around photography. You and I call that ecosystem “the photo industry” and it is part of a larger ecosystem called “commerce”.

What’s interesting about this ecosystem is how it evolves, with or without anyone’s participation. In that way, the changes we are all experiencing aren’t in any way personal. The tectonic shifts happen in every industry once in a while regardless of how any of us feel about it.

Notice how the evolutionary pattern of successful iterations is always the same:
• from film to digital
• from negatives to JPG to RAW
• from dark rooms to labs to manufacturing facilities
• from Paint to Photoshop to CS5.5
• from large format to medium format to 35mm to DSLR
• from self-taught to art school to worldwide online broadcasts offered for free

Why wouldn’t this also be true for the photographers themselves?

Ecosystems need to grow to live. Participants in that ecosystem need to iterate to survive.

Yet, so many photographers take the evolutionary process of the ecosystem personally. Like there’s a conspiracy “out there” trying to steal what “should” be ours. We think too highly of ourselves if we believe (unconscious or not) that we deserve to get paid for what we do with a camera. We don’t.

Evolutionary forces are always at work. Those who creatively adapt, win. Those who don’t, disappear.

As a business person within any trade (e.g., cake-baking, candle-making, photo-taking), I take it as my job to respond to the system resourcefully and not the other way around.

The most recent and obvious shift in the photo industry hit about a decade ago when everything went digital. The naysayers fought it for a bit but besides a small band of endangered analog enthusiasts, it has become clear that if one didn’t adapt to digital on a professional level, you ran the risk of extinction.

Where professional photographers have felt the implications of this reset the most has been with the influx of photographers. From the perspective of the ecosystem, this is of course great news: more people are being infected with the desire to take pictures!

From the perspective of the participant in the eco-system though, it could feel personal if it affects my ability to feed my kids. But, getting mad at evolution or trying to hold back the tide or hating on the new wave misses the mark. Why not try something new? Why not leverage our times and the direction of the ecosystem instead? I wonder if that might be even more resourceful.

The photo industry isn’t a problem that needs fixing. It’s an evolving resource that needs leveraging.

The instrumental fool

There is a time in every man’s education when he arrives at the conviction that envy is ignorance; that imitation is suicide” – Emerson

I’ve been pretty quiet lately. Spending more and more time in secret places considering how I’m investing my life personally and professionally… asking if I’m satisfied with the result.

Turns out I’m not.

As someone who has been hanging out a lot around photographers and other creatives committed to making a living from our various crafts, I’ve become really concerned about some of what I’ve witnessed… in myself and the world we’re making. And yet, I’ve been hesitant to share my take.

If that is true, the obvious question is why the silence? What am I afraid of? If I’m honest, I often feel mired by friction and obstacles, most of which flow from the internal conversation I have with myself about what’s possible. It’s as though I’m working very hard yet finding mud spattered all about and little distance traveled. Beyond metaphor though, what is this friction?

What is in the way of me aligning with my more true self?

The more I reflect on this, the more apparent it is that I have spent too many hours scared and lost in comparison, wondering not what I’m up to but how what I’ve done compares to those I admire or dislike. Up against the former, I usually don’t fair too well. The latter leave me feeling superficially pleased. Fools gold.

Enter Emerson. Turns out the old guy had something to say to me and was kind enough to write it down. After spending this past weekend illuminating my life by his humble but fierce sermon on the foolishness of playing it safe, I am left indicted.

Like all good convictions though, the hope of redemption – of grace – is always left in its wake.

My level of discontent with this life of worship to the idol of pleasing others has risen to a near unbearable level. An ironic discovery on a weekend where we celebrate freedom here in America. Freedom to what?

Enough.

Today, in this moment, I have a new resolve to get to work… and it begins by coming clean on a couple things.

It turns out these months of quiet and secret have not been in vain. They have been revealing. Humbling. And, oddly enough, hopeful. I’ve been surprised to realize the now obvious truth that if indeed my private conversations, creations, opinions, judgments and takes are worth anything, why not test them in the furnace of reality… with the external world?

I have become more clear as to what I believe I need to say, regardless of my critics thoughts on the matter… my own included. It’s time to let the ideas stand. To risk looking the fool. To let my internal conversations come out to play.

I also started to imagine the impact for all of us if this were more universal than just my existential waking up. Well beyond little me, what if ideas shared (your ideas, our ideas…), served our industry, our world like those of the court jester of old?

What if we took ourselves a little less seriously?

What if in fearlessly saying and standing behind the things we believe need to be said, we release others to do the same? If even to disagree and to hear something more important in response?

Would I be willing to be the instrumental fool to help move our collaborative conversation forward?

The relief in de-signifying my own contribution in light of the whole is a new kind of freedom for me. In that light, it seems my only possible failure would be to say nothing out loud. To keep it to myself in my private, safe and tiny existence.

So, when Amber over at Domino Project double-dogg-dared me (I know, it’s tough not to click), I found the timing too providential to pass up. Of course, the timing is inconvenient. It always is. But, if I don’t interrupt my life with important inconveniences, what’s the point?

For the next 30 days, I’ll be declaring a new manifesto that has been a long time coming. Regardless of whether you join me or not, you are invited to tune in for the conversation. My intent to give personal commentary to what I think is actually going on in the photo industry (and the creative professions beyond it) and offer some suggestions to find our way to a new day.

Feel free to hate on it, love on it or disregard it entirely. It’s just one guy’s take.

The only rule I have for myself is this: conformity is banished. Since he inspired it, my aim is to make Emerson proud. But I’m not doing it for him. He’s dead and wouldn’t appreciate it anyway. I’m doing this one for an audience of one guy’s soul: my own.

Need focus? Become a designer.

Dan Pink‘s invitation for all creative professionals to have a bias toward design has been ubiquitously answered.

From typeface to homes to furniture to websites to hospital rooms to bathtubs, both form and function are being considered at every turn. It seems like we’re in the golden age of design. Interface designers like the folks at Readability is one of my current favorites – for a quick primer, check out this video (and the post script at the very bottom)…

The ability to remove distraction to yield maximum focus is brilliant. It’s the same reason why I often use Omm when I’m writing. Since anything that’s scarce has more value, and since the ability to focus is so rare (mainly because of distraction), these kinds of well designed solutions are pure gifts.

All this got me thinking about design’s implications on mediums like photography.

When I think about the function of photography for example, I’ve always believed that the purpose of great images (especially of people) is to expedite the process of telling great stories. It’s why the cliché “a picture’s worth a thousand words” has such resonance. But what else? What if the image itself was more of a starting point – like a prop or a cue – to help get to an even bigger and better story… like great wine with a meal or a score to a movie… how might photography be designed to take a moment and make it even more functional and thus more powerful?

Annie Leibovitz‘s famous and iconic 1980 Rolling Stone cover of John Lennon with Yoko Ono, photographed five hours before his tragic murder is an example of what I’m describing. Of course, the image is impressive in and of itself. What makes it a launch pad for so much more though is the story that gets told from it. It’s as though the image itself was designed with form and function in mind… and as the drama unfolded, the value of the creation increased dramatically.

In a way, my example could be dismissed as unfair because a story told in retrospect is always easier to attribute meaning to it. But, I’m no less intrigued by the possibility of taking photographs with a designer’s biasto imagine and compose and capture a work that expands what’s possible with a photograph (function) in a form that causes the audience to pause (aesthetic).

To me, it’s a compelling argument that validates Pink’s suggestion that a core ingredient to raising the bar for all industries (including photography) is to reframe our work not just as image makers but also as designers.

- Dane

PS… If you want to see Readability in action, click the red chair on a couple of these articles – it really makes reading a treat…

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