The holidays offer a fantastic time to work on photography skills as there is so much to see, from winter landscapes to Santa in the mall to glimmering photos of Christmas trees.
I belong to a photo club that establishes a monthly theme to help spur creativity all year ‘round, and December’s theme is “anything holiday.” Since my fellow photographers tend to capture pretty traditional holiday photos, each year I like to work hard to come up with something a bit more unique.
I ask myself, “What is a creative take on the holiday theme?” and see where my mind takes me.
It started with the photo in the header of this story, titled “We Three Kings.” It was shot at dusk in the parking lot where I used to live. The concrete and brick wall paired with the dried pine needles against the colorful ornaments struck the right sort of modern look I’d visualized.
So the next year, I had to up my game. Since I had made those ornaments look so pretty, it was time to clear a corner in the studio and gently apply a hammer.
I’m often asked how I got that photo and I say “I had a lot of fun, and it was a lot of mess to clean up.” The cheapie ornaments I bought didn’t smash as much as splinter, sending tinted glass shards skittering across the floor. It was far longer to cleanup than to set up, but smashing those ornaments was a fantastic holiday stress reliever. (Some friends have told me seeing these broken ornaments increases their stress)
This photo was well received and was hung as part of a gallery show at a local library here in the San Francisco Bay Area.
The next year I felt I had said all that I wanted to say about ornaments, and I had to think a bit harder about how to show the holidays in a different way.
Since I love to photograph ordinary objects to show the beauty in the mundane, I turned to my baking drawer and pulled out some cookie cutters.
This photo was taken to satisfy a Flickr group’s theme of “photos by candlelight.” The yellow glow from the flame lit up the copper colored metal of the cookie cutter and produced a very satisfying warm orange glow.
In that same shoot, I also did one in black and white, still using the candle flame. This has more of a German expressionist feel to it. Or a police lineup.
Whereas the star is a warm glow of home, the black and white is more stark. Exploring that dark side of the holiday imagery is a lot of fun.
Last year I decided to go a bit more traditional. With the help of a theme of “stick” from my photoclub to get the gears turning in my creative mind, I looked to my spice shelf and pulled out the cinnamon sticks. I found some glitter ornaments in the box of holiday stuff and had my background.
It took a while to organize the cinnamon sticks in an interesting way, and as I was shooting, I was not sure I’d produced anything interesting. Then going back through the photos, I found this one to be intriguing and now I love it and feel like it perfectly captures the holidays in a new way.
As both an artist and a career business professional, I embrace both and switch back and forth in my brain, depending on the situation. One pays the bills, the other pays my soul.
I am currently on a business trip for a fairly important meeting and at these events it is customary to have a group photograph taken by a professional photographer.
To that end, yesterday we were told to gather in the lobby for this year’s group photo. We were told we were going outside where it was a bit cold, so the photographer was going to arrange us inside then we’d head outside for the shots in front of a lovely green space.
Immediately the carping began “Why are we going outside, it’s cold out there!?” The photographer’s answer, “Because it’s very pretty outside and will make for a much nicer photo.”
“Can’t we just do it in here?” The photographer’s answer “Yes, but we want a really good photo and the lobby isn’t very nice.”
Then the photographer began to evaluate the shot and arrange us by height, clothing color, and other aesthetics he wanted to see.
Herding about 20 bossy people is no small task, but this photographer is an old hand and firmly took command.
“You in the blue shirt, would you switch places with this person in the charcoal jacket?” and so we’d switch around, moving forward and back as he studied the pose.
More than once I heard a comment along the lines of “Artists, sheesh! Just take the picture!”
Or “Why all this fuss, let’s get on with it!”
Or “This is an awful lot of trouble for a picture, can’t we just use a cellphone and be done with it?”
With this, my hackles began to rise. You see, a business professional is what I do, an artist is what I am. To hear this kind of careless talk is not unexpected, but fully disheartening. I took it personally.
Maybe people don’t see photographers as “real artists” or maybe because the photographer is employed by our institution and not hired from outside he is subject to coworker’s careless talk, but I found the comments rather tactless.
What stings me the most is when the word “artist” is said in an unkind and sarcastic way. As if being an artist is somehow bad.
It is not the first time I’ve run across this in my work setting, only the most recent.
I have been at my creative work for a long time, and I’ve long since grown past any discomfort or sheepishness I have in calling myself an artist. In other words, I own it and I’m well beyond trying to defend it. It just is.
However, I somehow have not gotten past people going “pfft, sure” when I describe myself that way.
I think there is a perception that an artist is a hippy-dippy, flowing skirt, wacky hair, free spirited, out of touch soul. And why not? But in my experience a working artist is also a nuts and bolts, down to earth, hardworking soul with enormous amounts of self-discipline, organization, and drive.
In this instance, I get that people don’t like having their photo taken, but if a photo is taken, people certainly want it to look nice. Good work takes work.
People love to consume art, but for some reason underestimate the work it takes to produce quality art. A few minutes in the Choosing Beggars sub-Reddit offers a few sobering examples.
I do sometimes feel like there are two of me walking around in a one-human unit, and that’s okay. My business side brings some discipline to my art and my artist side brings some creativity to my business work.
So while I grimaced a bit and noted the careless and arguably rude undertone in the use of the word artist, I chose to move past it (under the guise of “pick your battles”), moved where the photographer told me to stand without comment, and thanked him when we were done.
What Cutting Mats for my Photos Taught Me About Creativity
While writing is and will always be my first love, it is not my only creative outlet. I am also an avid photographer (I dabble a little with painting too). I have been doing photography for a much shorter time than I have been writing and while I’ve had some success in photography, I am still learning.
I love being at different levels of mastery for each of my creative outlets. They feed off of each other and help me stay motivated overall as an artist.
Recently, I was getting ready for an event where all photographers were to bring a portfolio of ten photographs to be shown and critiqued by a group of professional photographers who, for some reason, let me hang out with them.
This is a formal, annual event and is something I take very seriously. I had carefully curated ten good prints of my photos and needed to cut mat boards to perfectly frame each of the ten photos.
Now, I could have taken the photos to a framing shop and had them cut the mats for me, but my photography mentor is a stickler that a photographer should know how to cut their own mats and do so with a ruler and a blade, no need to use a mat cutting device.
A fifty-year professional photographer, she is very quick and efficient, zip, zip, bam a perfectly measured, perfectly cut mat.
My mat cutting is more like, zip, curse word, zoop, why god why, zap, damn! Did you know that paper has a grain, like wood? And your very sharp blade, if not well-tended, can slip into the grain and wander well off of your carefully measured and drawn pencil line?
Yeah. I’m not so good at cutting mats, but I am getting better.
This year I tried a different approach. One that I hoped would result in less shedding of tears, fewer pieces of ripped up mat board on the floor, and a happier me.
Instead of trying to go faster, to push quickly to complete the essential cuts in the board, I went slower. Much slower, using both deep breathing and intent. I kept my eye on the pencil line and my hand firmly on the blade, I watched the slow progress as I cut, making micro adjustments as needed. I didn’t let up on the pressure to the blade until I hit the end of the pencil line, and stayed focused on finishing each mat and not thinking about how many more I had left to do, just on making the one in front of me the best it could be.
The result? Instead of using up 2 to 3 pieces of mat board to get one good matted photo, I ended up spoiling only three boards total over ten photos.
This is significant.
Which caused me to think about what lessons I could apply from this experiment to the rest of my creative work.
Here’s what I learned:
1. In any creative work, errors will be made. There is a one-hundred percent chance you will make errors if you are doing creative work. Own that and learn to love the serendipity now.
Mistakes are what Bob Ross used to call “happy accidents.” It’s not whether or not you will make a mistake, you will, it’s how you recover from it that makes all the difference.
Fear of making mistakes, or giving up once a mistake is made is the number one obstacle I see limiting my fellow creatives.
2. Don’t let mistakes keep you from creating new work. How are you ever going to get any better if you don’t dive in, make mistakes, and learn what not to do next time?
Doing the work and continuing to create is how you start to make fewer mistakes.
3. Keep the end in mind but don’t make it your only focus. Finishing your project matters, but not at the expense of quality in the progress needed to get there.
Don’t get cocky, don’t take shortcuts, and stay focused at all stages as they each need different attention and they all matter in the finished product. People can tell when an artist takes a shortcut. It shows in the final product and is the difference between good and great work.
4. Know your tools and know your medium. Being in the flow is so cool and when that creativity flows through you like an electric charge, there can be no better feeling. And there can be no quicker way to kill your flow than having to fiddle with your tools or finding the medium you work in doesn’t respond the way you thought.
Take a little time to experiment, play around a bit before you get serious in order to see what your tools and medium can do before jumping in there with ambitious plans.
5. Be willing to change your approach if something isn’t working. You may see another artist do something (in person, via YouTube, etc.) and wonder why you can’t make it work that way. You might try and try, following the exact instructions and still not get there.
What I am saying is: Don’t give up too soon, but don’t be afraid to make changes in your approach to see if it helps.
6. Stay centered. It’s easy as an artistic type to go off on fun flights of fancy. To get in your head thinking “look at me being an artist!” and “where should I post photos of this thing when I’m done?” All of that takes you away from the work in front of you.
Allow yourself that fun dream time after you are done. While in the act of creating, stay in the now and stay purpose-driven in your work.
I know we are all writers here on Medium, so this may not seem like a story about cutting mat boards is for you, but rest assured, this applies to all creative endeavors, no matter the medium or the Medium (see what I did there?) you work in.
“I’m good enough, I’m smart enough, and doggone it, people like me” — Stuart Smally
For those of us of a certain age, we remember the Stuart Smally pseudo-self -help skits by Al Franken on Saturday Night Live.
The catchphrase became an oft quoted in regular conversation, both joking and more than a bit serious.
In reality, there are an awful lot of resources out there that tell us about self-talk, about taking a strong stance, about giving ourselves positive affirmation phrases to bolster our courage and bring us to great heights.
Good words are all well and good, but do they actually work?
Here’s the thing, all the pretty words in the world are not a replacement for the discipline needed to actually take that first step.
Mohammad Ali told himself and the world that he was the greatest fighter that ever lived, then he went out there in the ring and proved it.
He did that not because of his hype words, but by putting in the training work well before the fight. The kind of work that’s less pretty words and all the more necessary.
What I’m saying is: The road less traveled doesn’t get traveled until you strap on your boots and walk it.
Self-care and self-discipline matter a whole lot more to your success than the perfect laser cut vinyl words stickered to your wall.
Live, laugh, love is all well and good, but you have to live by taking care of yourself, drinking enough water and for god’s sake eat a salad now and again.
You have to laugh, even when you are in such a dark place that laugher feels hollow. Sometimes it takes work to find anything funny, but once it’s there, the laugher soars.
And love, a lovely romantic notion but real true love takes hard work, which is, unto itself, cotton candy words. We all talk about “how hard” it is to make a marriage work, but you have to commit yourself to actually doing the work, to sticking around when everything in your brain says to run, to firmly holding that trash can while the love of your life barfs their brains out three days before the wedding.
Okay, that last one may be just a bit too personally specific.
How about this one:
Huh, really? Pretty sure that is impossible. There will ALWAYS be someone more than happy believe the bad stuff about you, even if you were the best person that ever lived.
Shouldn’t it be more like “Live in such a way that if someone spoke badly of you, it might make you sad for a little while, and then maybe you get a little drunk or eat french fries about it. Then you either hold on to that pain for a lifetime or you talk to your therapist about it and find a way to move on.”
I know talking about “doing the work” isn’t crazy cool, fun, and sexy. It doesn’t look cute on a shirt with butterflies and shooting stars. But that is how you get where you want to go, and by that I mean real, tangible results take effort.
Which is not to say you shouldn’t have some fighting words in your pocket to inspire when it is go time. I’m trying to say that catchy words are fine, but they don’t get the work done, so don’t get so lost in the memes, wallpaper or the “inspirations” aisle at the craft store that you forget to focus.
I mean, if you want to chant a phrase to get you fired up, get you off the couch and augment your inner motivation, then by all means!
I myself love to watch YouTube videos of tribal Maori doing a Haka dance. The strength and passion gets me fired UP to go out there and kick some butt.
I am not Maori so I try not to appropriate anyone’s culture, but I admit sometimes in the bathroom before a big presentation, I’ll stick my tongue out to my reflection in the mirror and make my best Haka face. AAAAGH!
Then I go out there and do the work. I stand tall and get it done. If I succeed or I fail, it wasn’t because of my affirmation phrases or my faces, but because I put in the time, dug deep, and did the work.
“And I urge you to please notice when you are happy, and exclaim or murmur or think at some point, ‘If this isn’t nice, I don’t know what is.’”
― Kurt Vonnegut Jr., from the book A Man Without a Country
Last night I ran across these bon mots from the author Kurt Vonnegut. This is not the first time I’ve seen the quote, it’s fairly well known, but for some reason this quote had a little more resonance than usual.
Miles of text have been written by people like me about their feelings on this quote and on Vonnegut himself. To be fully candid, I am not a devotee of Vonnegut only because I haven’t actually read any of his books.
I know, I know. Who didn’t get Slaughterhouse Five in High School? Me along with all my fellow students in the Albuquerque Public Schools. Saaaaalute.
My beloved is a fan of Vonnegut’s work, and has read most or all of his published writing. Let’s be honest, he had a better public education than I did. But let’s set that aside for now.
Vonnegut seems to be quite quotable. I mean who can ignore this brilliance of words like this:
I tell you, we are here on Earth to fart around, and don’t let anybody tell you different.”
― Kurt Vonnegut, A Man Without a Country
Can’t argue with that. But back to the quote at the top, about taking the effort to notice those moments where the prevailing winds are happy.
That sentiment is a little bit different from prevalent mindset to be found online and in the media. There is a real drive to getting mad about just about anything and staying mad about it. About taking the maximum offense as often as possible. About grinding out misery. I guess perpetuating the agony keeps the eyeballs coming back, and eyeballs = ad revenue.
I really do get it.
But I just can’t thrive with that anymore. In the real world, not online, beautiful things happen every day. Happy moments exist and it’s not only good to notice them, it may be a matter of survival.
For example: There is a quirky scrub jay that inhabits my yard. I put out a bowl of peanuts and the bird picks through them like the pickiest toddler in the history of food, tossing aside the items that don’t meet exacting standards. It’s a funny moment of joy when I scold an unscoldable bird to “just take that one and stop being so picky!” The scrub jay never listens.
There’s the unscoldable rascal!
Today at work I did a nice thing for a coworker that really wasn’t that difficult, was right in my wheelhouse for the work I’ve spent a career doing, and helped my coworker out of a jam. They were so surprised and delighted I felt like I’d performed magic.
This morning I woke up next to the most wonderful man in the world. Tonight, I get to come home from work and hug him again.
See? If all of that is not nice, then I don’t know what is.
Feels good just to notice. Makes me want to keep noticing. Makes me want to pause a little when my own outrage seems to take the lead in my response to anything I read or hear or see.
Maybe I’m running too hard, reading too fast, reacting too soon.
Maybe I need to fart around a little more.
Maybe I can just remember it’s never as bad as it seems. Nor is it as good as it can be. But everything is always just a little bit better than I give it credit for. Leaning more toward the side of doing okay rather than not.