Art Without Guilt

Most people I know, including myself, work a lot.

And the odd equation is, working more does not lead to leisure time. Ironically, the yield seems to be just the opposite: more things to do. Tasks are breeding microorganisms if left unchecked.

Sometimes we justify this behavior with the dream of retirement. This promise manifests differently among generations. Those before me believed that you work hard first, then retire. But the fly in the ointment are those pesky health issues that come with old age.

The generation behind me thinks more about integrating leisure time into their daily routines. Tomorrow is not guaranteed, so let's live a little while we can. Of the two perspectives, I prefer the Millennial view.

First, I can't imagine retiring and moving to Florida. I'd be bored out of my skull. So my goal as a photographer and writer is to create now, and let the future take care of itself.

"Well, that's reckless," you may be thinking.

It's not like I don't have a plan. I've got a business, I've bought some real estate, and there's money in the bank. The rest of it I will figure out. To be honest, I've had lots of practice at that... like every month.

The art needs to happen now. Step one, move away from the computer. Step two, pick up a camera. Step three, go somewhere, anywhere. Step four, look at the world around me.

It's not hard. What's stopping us? I sometimes think that we work too much because we're afraid of the future. We want to be secure.

But long hours of tedious toil guarantees nothing. Eight years ago, when I was laid off from my full time job, I didn't know where the next month's mortgage check was going to come from. Today, I still don't know. Yet, every month for those eight years I've paid on time. 

And during those months, I've created thousands of images, explored the world around me, written more words than I can count, and watched my boys grow into young men. Yes, I was there for that. It's a show you don't want to miss.

My secret? When I feel a twinge of guilt while stepping away from the ToDo list, I acknowledge it, then I take another step, and another, and another, until it goes away. And it will.

Unwarranted guilt and fear are temporary emotions when we pursue what we know to be important. 

So, I'm taking part of my retirement today. I want to make something beautiful, breath fresh air, and exercise my body.

Then I'll get back to work.


It's Not Your Fault (But You Didn't Help Either)

Over the last couple week's I've been watching 13 Reasons Why on Netflix. It's a tragic tale of a high school student who takes her own life after a series of insensitive, and sometimes criminal, acts by those around her. 

Anyone who has kids will most likely be saddened and disturbed by this drama. When I was a teenager I saw some pretty mean stuff, but nothing that compares to what the students at Liberty High inflict on one another.

Two of the themes that snake their way through the episodes are that of accountably and blame. "Was it your behavior that pushed her over the edge?" 
"I don't think so. Others did far worse things."
"Did you help her when presented the opportunity?"
"Well, maybe not."

The issues presented in 13 Reasons Why crystalize my most difficult moral dilemma: Is it good enough just not to be at fault? 

At this moment, I'm not talking about global issues. I can barely get my head around the interactions that I encounter in my daily life, both personal and professional.

Most of the problems experienced by those around me are not of my doing. Yet, some of them end up at my doorstep. And I've decided, as often as I have the energy to do so, that regardless if I'm the cause or not, I'm involved. And I should try to help.

13 Reasons Why is good filmmaking. I can recommend it based on technique alone. After all, we focus on photography and storytelling here, right?

But those reasons would only be partial truths. What I really want to say is that we need to pay closer attention to one another and try to imagine what the other person is experiencing. And when we can, expend some energy on them even when it's not our problem.

You see, I've finally realized that technical skill alone will never make me a great artist, or even a good friend. There's more to it than that. There always has been.


Beyond the Specs

Sometimes I think that the true artists in photography are the designers and engineers who create our cameras.

I've been working with two new additions lately: the Olympus PEN-F and Pentax KP. As part of my self-education about them, I've been reading reviews and user reports to help me better understand each device.

In general, I think many reviews miss the point.

Comparisons often focus on a few key specifications such as sensor size, high ISO rating, megapixels, frame rate, focusing speed, and a few words about usability. If these cameras were cars, we'd hear about horsepower, tire size, transmission gears, and something about the seats.

But cars aren't promoted that way. And neither should cameras.

The journey that I've been on with the Pentax KP has been filled with delights and surprises. There are so many thoughtful nuances in its bones. I would love to have dinner with the engineers just to hear about their thinking process during the design phase. I would buy the beer.

There are so many little things that I appreciate, like a green reset button that takes your settings back to square one, the ability to choose the image characteristics for program mode, and the creative library of digital filters that I can apply long after the shot has been captured. 

I've spent hours with this camera learning about the gems that I never read in a review.

Then I picked up the Olympus PEN-F, and I was transported to a completely different place. It had nothing to do with megapixels or ISO. But it had everything to do with how this camera can be used to create an image that looks completely different than the one captured by the guy standing next to me. It's a magical paint brush for photographers.

And beyond that, how this camera makes me feel as an artist when it's hanging around my neck. I  believe that I can create something beautiful at any moment. The PEN-F borders on the metaphysical.

As I read forum comments and stock reviews, I feel like there's a lack of appreciation for the designers and engineers who create these devices. I wish that I could be so talented to make a Pentax KP or Olympus PEN-F.

But I can't. So I will happily settle with using them to paint the moments of my life, as artistically and beautifully as possible.. and enjoy every fraction of a second along the way.



The Creative Light

Regardless if you have a great life or one full of challenges, it's part of a greater whole.

Changes in our family, friends, community, state, and country affect both our heads and our hearts. Some mornings a cup a coffee is an unparalleled joy, while others it's required just to take the first steps into the day.

Most of this I cannot control. I was not ready for my father to pass, I do not like Americans fighting each other, and I certainly don't want foreign powers interfering in our affairs. 

Common sense says that if you cannot change the situation, adjust your reaction to it. This has been my guiding light, and photography is part of it. If I attempt to create something beautiful in the face of ugliness, then I have made the world a better place.

Think about it. If we responded in part to self-interest, hate, and the random acts of nature with a beautiful photograph, a caring note, or inspiring song, who wins: darkness or light?

The numbers are on the side of light. If you look at the news, there's a relatively small band of miscreants creating havoc for society at large. I think a conservative estimate would be that light outweighs dark 4 to 1. How many troublemakers do you personally know?

Things go south when we give in to our emotions and let ourselves temporarily cross the line to the other side. But what if that wasn't our response? What if, instead, we made a photograph that emoted beauty, then shared it? Yes, I know that we're not going to fix the world by making pretty pictures and writing songs. But we certainly will make it more liveable.

Art heals both the artist and the patron.

Reach for your camera, manuscript, piano. The things you create will balance your life, and someone else's as well.




The Relentless Pursuit of Insanity

Our obsession with lens sharpness is a photography tradition that dates back to my earliest days. 

Whether you pick up an old issue of Popular Photography from the 1970s or peruse today's online forums, you'll read photographers debating the clarity of one optic versus another.

As we evolve as artists, we know that there are other aspects of an image that are just as important, if not more. Color, gradation, composition, exposure, and yes, emotional impact are elements that should not be overlooked. And we're fine acknowledging those, that is, once the sharpness question has been answered, and we're secure with the quality of our lens.

I'm thinking about this as I prepare a review for the new Pentax KP DSLR with its host of premium AL lenses. You know, the ones with the pretty metallic red trim. I spent a big part of the day yesterday trying to determine if they were indeed worth their price tag. And what criterion was I using to judge them? Yes, sharpness.

High magnification, pixel peeping sharpness.

This put me on the rails to insanity. As I tweaked menu settings, aperture, stabilization, and focus accuracy - not only for the Pentax, but for the comparison cameras as well - I found myself lost in the tiniest corners of the frame, wired on coffee, with nose pressed up against the computer screen trying to focus my watery eyes at 11:30 pm with my only company being a pair of fighting cats somewhere behind by backyard fence.

"Stop it!," I yelled at them, then closed the door behind me and returned to the work table.

My laptop only had 6 percent of its battery remaining.

"Time to go to bed," I thought.

The next morning, I decided to look at the test images as I would a normal photograph. Not at 400 percent magnification, but as a full screen image on my laptop. 

They were beautiful. All of them. I adjust the tones a bit as I normally would, and they responded like a thirsty plant soaking in a cup of water.

I don't know what gets in to us sometimes. Why are photographers so plagued by technical obsession? The image could be boring as hell, but if that street sign in the distant background has legible type, we're somehow OK.

I went back to my notes. Lens sharpness: Good. Case closed.

I then posted a few of the shots online. They are interesting. I'm getting some nice comments.

And not one word about sharpness.