Stop being modest. It’s irritating.

18 01 2010

I’m a talker, I’ll admit it. But I’m also a listener, and I like to ask questions. Nosy ones, often, but there’s always a reason for the questions I ask. I promise.

When it comes to photographers, one question I like to ask is, “What are you best at and what are you weakest at?” And it’s very interesting to me that those I ask are very fast to point out their weaknesses–thoroughly. But when it comes to talking about what they’re good at, the conversation takes a weird turn. Because almost all of them insist that there’s nothing they’re good at.

What? No.

I’m not sure if it’s false modesty or true lack of self-confidence, but it’s untrue, in every case. Are we really that insecure as a whole? Or are we just afraid to put ourselves out there like that, so something can disagree with us? Maybe it’s a defense mechanism.

I’m betting it’s a little bit of both, and it’s time to change that. I hate listening to people put themselves down. Everyone is a critic, which means that at times we are the only ones on our side. Stand up for yourself. Stand behind your work. Stop putting yourself down. (If you put yourself down often enough, you will start to believe it.) It’s unhealthy, it’s dishonest, and it’s unpleasant for others to listen to.

Some time ago, I wrote, “Do what you do brazenly and unapologetically.” And that is where this becomes an interactive post.

I would like to hear from everyone who reads this blog entry. I want you to reply (publicly!) with at least one thing you do well. Don’t tell me you don’t do anything well, or I’ll know you’re lying. Be honest with yourself and grow a set.

Let’s hear it. What do you do well?

– CJ

big pup little girl

I am good at subject wrangling.

Dirty trucker hands

I am good at finding beauty in unexpected places. I'm damn good at photographing textures.





Everyone’s a Critic

2 01 2010

Critique is something near and dear to my heart. There’s nothing like an outside perspective on our work to understand where we are as artists, and how to get where we want to be.

I think, though, that there are misconceptions about what critique is and isn’t, or maybe what it should and shouldn’t be. For that reason, the word “critique” tends to strike fear in the hearts of vulnerable artists. I’d like to address a few points for your consideration.

Critique does not have to be brutal and abrasive to be effective. I really do not understand the mentality that a mean critique is somehow more effective. I feel just the opposite; an unnecessarily abrasive critique tends to instantly put the “critiquee” on the defensive, and the hurt feelings can prevent the critique from really being absorbed. It is possible to be just as honest and frank without ripping holes in the self-esteem.

Let’s say you went to your hairstylist asking for advice on how you could improve your look. Would you want the feedback to start with, “Well, your current hairstyle is ugly and makes you look like a troll?” Of course not. It’s not necessary.

Critiques that include the word “can’t” are rarely valuable. I hear this a lot. You can’t center your subjects. You can’t use high contrast. You can compose your shots like that. You can’t have that much DOF. Can’t, can’t, can’t. This is art, folks. There are very few things that can’t be done successfully. An effective critique will not tell you what you can’t do; it will help you identify your tendencies so that YOU can decide how you would like to address those issues. A good critique-giver will help you understand why certain things generally work, and leave it to you to decide what is right for you.

The best critiques take into account your personal taste and what you are trying to accomplish. Critiques based solely on the preferences of the critic will only tell you how to make that person happy. It’s much more valuable for you to get feedback on how to achieve the results YOU want. I may personally prefer muted color, but if you love saturated color, my job is to help you do saturated color well.

A truly effective critique should help you identify opportunities for improvement and direction in your entire body of work — not just nit-picking little things in individual images. At the end of the critique, you should have a very clear idea of what you want to achieve and how to achieve it. And a really good critique will also help you understand what you do well, so you walk away feeling positive and motivated. it is at least as important to understand your strengths as it is to understand your weaknesses.

Critique should never be accepted blindly. You’ve heard me say it before. Just because someone said it doesn’t make it so. It’s up to you to listen to what is said, consider the point of view of the critic, and decide if and how you will act on it. Only you can truly understand your sense of beauty and what you want your work to say. Apply what it makes sense to apply. You should never have to worry about offending the critic; the critic who demands gratitude and obedience is (generally) just plain old insecure.

Alone

I'll break the rules if I want to, thank you.





The Photographic Circle of Life

29 12 2009

A few years ago on a forum, I stumbled across a group of photographers who had hit a creative wall. They were feeling that their work had lost its meaning, and that their perspective was “boring”.

This was my response. I hope you’ll find it useful.

********************************

You’re all going through something that just about EVERY photographer goes through at some point. It’s the photographic circle of life, and it goes something like this:

You started out taking snapshots because it was fun. You got a little more serious about getting good photos, so you began trying to figure out how to make that happen. The more you learned, the more you found out you didn’t know, so you knuckled down and forced yourself to get technically proficient.

Once you got technically proficient, you realized that you had techniqued yourself right out of the reason you started the journey in the first place — because you were intuitively taking some creative and rewarding shots.

So the challenge becomes embracing your unique perspective and values, while allowing them to rest upon the technical foundation you’ve constructed.

It’s simple, but not easy.

The problem is that you’ve forgotten what it is you want your work to say. You can’t really find that by forcing yourself to take hundreds of pictures aimlessly. It may eventually accidentally happen over time, but doing the same shots over and over again and expecting different results is an exercise in frustration.

Dig around in your personality and life experience. Think about what makes you smile, what makes you sad, what makes you angry. Think about the greatest lessons you’ve learned thus far in your life. Think about regrets, or things you wish you had known sooner. Figure out what defines you as a person (without getting paralyzed by analysis) and photograph that. Use your values as your voice.

Consider the dreams you have when you go to sleep at night. What are they about? Do they make sense? How do they make you feel? Are they clear, or are they fuzzy, or just impressions? Can you “see” them? Are they literal, or totally random? What do they look like? Mull it over. Photograph that.

You’ve figured out how to be a photographer. Now you have to figure out what you want to say. It’s easier to learn the rules than it is to let go of them.

It takes time, but when you base your style on your sense of self, embracing both your strengths and your weaknesses, you’ll develop something that is deep, personal, and consistent.

Enjoy the journey and embrace a little frustration, because it keeps you evolving as a person and an artist. I believe it was Martha Graham who said, “No artist is ever satisfied at any time.” That’s the truth.

- CJ

scarf in snow

scarf falling down on the job





The Hauntingly Unfinished

14 12 2009

The mind is a wonderful thing.

I wish I could turn mine off.

At night when I lie awake in bed, my mind refuses to settle in under the covers and rest. It refuses to sleep, preferring to taunt me with the incomplete. The worst nights are the ones when my mind dwells on unmade images. Undocumented moments. Pieces of life that are over and done and already forgotten. They haunt me.

Maybe it’s a project that I started with a magnificent image or two, and a premise that really spoke to me. So many projects that appeal to me on a deep level, that speak to a certain aspect of my soul. There’s an intensely personal out-of-focus image designed to show the world through the eyes of someone who is nearly blind (myself). There are a few images of “stuff” left behind by people; tiny transient pieces of proof that their possessors existed. A fairly significant body of work created within a mile of my home which came to an abrupt halt for really no reason. Beauty in the mundane.

There are images of those around me whom I love and want to document right now, at this stage in their lives. And I want to document myself, as I am on the inside rather than snapshots of the outer me. I am too guarded an individual to express myself so intimately except in music.

Sleeping children who are still blissfully ignorant of the kinds of thoughts that keep me awake at night.

Looking at my list of unfinished projects makes me realize something unexpected: I am desperately driven to document things that make me emotional. I only want my view on the world to be seen and understood. I am not looking for attention; I’m looking for kindred spirits.

I want to believe that I will finish these projects. I really want to. It’s the perpetual false feeling of guilt that drives me. The guilt is driven by my need to accomplish. The need to accomplish is driven by a need to validate myself, which is in turn driven by a need to be understood.

I have to wonder if this perpetual guilt is what drives my portrait work? My need to document the soul and not just the face. Maybe my discontent is the greatest strength of my portrait work. I only want people to be honest and understood as I have never been.

While in some ways I prize this continual sense of incompleteness that drives me to press forward, I wish for the day when I can say, “This project is finished. Now onto the next.”

In the meantime, I will have to content myself with the challenge of documenting the deepest side of everyone I photograph. That seems a fair trade.

I still can’t sleep.

come to me





You Get What You Give

10 12 2009

Every time you photograph someone, you tell them, “You’re important enough to remember.” Make the most of it.

What if we, as portrait photographers, approached every session this way? How would it effect our interactions with our subjects, and therefore our work?

There is so much emphasis these days on getting “cool” shots, on trendy post-processing, on getting shots that sell. For the professionals and aspiring professionals, it’s easy to focus on building portfolios and bodies of work that will further our careers. While I’m not suggesting those things are bad, I sometimes feel like we’re missing the point most of the time. It’s good to step back and ask, “What is the subject getting out of this session?”

When you point your lens toward another person, you are telling them that they noteworthy; that of all the people in the world, they alone have your attention at this moment in time. You have the golden and rare opportunity to transform the simple act of photographing a person, into the forming of a human connection that didn’t exist before. If you’re photographing an experienced model, perhaps that doesn’t sound very important, however when you’re photographing someone like Bill, the experience can be profound.

Bill

Bill, the tavern regular

Bill is the sort of guy who nobody really notices, except maybe to feel sorry for. He’s the guy who sits quietly on his bar stool, and probably has a lot of great stories to share, but nobody asks. Bill was the reason I began photographing the regulars at this bar. When I asked to photograph him, I expected to have to talk him into it. Much to my surprise, Bill lit up like a Christmas tree and was very happy to sit for several frames. He told me all about himself, and we became friends instantly. It wasn’t photographer / subject, it was human / human. Although I love the resulting image, Bill never even asked to see it. The photograph was completely unimportant to him; the act of giving him my full attention was everything.

Challenge yourself to make all of your subjects feel as important as Bill. Be generous with yourself. Slow down. Learn something significant about each of your subjects, whether they’re two years old, or eighty-two years old. Make a connection. Remember always that you get what you give.





Serendipity

19 07 2009

(The following was written long-hand a few days ago.)

I have always believed in the power of coincidence. Serendipity. Whatever you choose to call it. I love chance. I love taking chances. Maybe I take too many, but I believe in leaving room for happy accidents, for the “meant to be.” I believe that sometimes we get what we need in ways we could never plan.

I’m on the island. I’m sitting by the sea wall in front of the cottage on a cool, cloudy day, waiting for another ship to pass. It will come in its own time, as yesterday came when I needed it, not before. Inspiration comes, not necessarily when it is needed, but when we’re ready to receive it.

I have not been inspired at the island this week. That’s not to say I haven’t enjoyed my time here; I have, tremendously. It just hasn’t been one of those visits where I’m pulled, pushed, and almost desperate to take camera in hand. Life has been that way for me lately. I have been so in the moment, every moment, that to document in gelatin has seemed irrelevant, maybe even irreverent. It’s natural. It’s part of the normal cycle of an artist’s life. Still, it’s not my favorite part.

Yesterday we had some unexpected visitors, which is part of cottage life. All are welcome, no appointment required. Most are family members, some immediate and some connected via the thinnest of threads, but family still. (Once you’ve been to the cottage, you simply become family, anyway.) Yesterday’s serendipity brought Sandy to the island, a distant cousin by marriage. I liked her instantly. Somehow during the course of the day, between sips of wine and dips in the river, she mentioned that she had previously been married to a jazz musician, and that they had had a loft in New York City in the 60′s. And I knew before she said it: she had been a friend and hostess to Eugene Smith, as well as Thelonious Monk, Alice Coltrane, and several other legends-in-progress. I know the story well; as a photographer and a musician, how could I not? The jam sessions, the genius unbalanced photographer, the photographs I have committed to memory. I’m afraid I didn’t hide my shock-and-awe very well. Perhaps just as surprising was her surprise that I should know the story. (I don’t just “know” the story. I’ve savored the story, envied the characters in it, probably romanticized it, and built myself into it. If you don’t know it, you can read about it here:





Deacon’s lesson

1 06 2009

For the past several months, I’ve been working on a project documenting all the regulars at the local tavern. It’s one of those places where the same people have been coming for decades, while the tavern has changed hands and names, and everyone knows each other. The younger crowd tends to take over at night, but the “old crusties”, as we affectionately refer to them, still rule the roost.

It’s been great fun and a great honor (even if at times a GREAT challenge!) photographing all my friends. I’ve only needed one more portrait in order to call the project complete: Deacon, who arrives in his motorized wheelchair nearly every day at 11am, as he has been for forty years. The project wouldn’t be complete without him, and I’ve been meaning to do it for several weeks now. Unfortunately, I waited too long. Deacon passed away last week after making what looked like a good recovery from a stroke. He is greatly missed, and there’s an empty bar stool where he should be.

I’ve missed shots before because I assumed there would be another chance, but this one stings more than the others. My way of honoring Deacon will be to learn the lesson he taught me, once and for all. No more putting off the important things and taking tomorrow for granted.

This is the photograph of Deacon that I never took. It’s a fitting end to “the regulars”.

You can see the project in its entirety at http://www.cherylnicolai.com in “the regulars” gallery.

deacon





Advice

27 05 2009

To kick off my new blog (which I really will try to keep updated as best I can) I thought it appropriate to use this article as an anchor.  I first wrote it several years ago, and it’s been floating around the internet (albeit with “photographer” changed to such things as “hairdresser” and “scrapbooker” quite often) ever since.

***************************

What Every Aspiring Photographer Should Know

These are my thoughts, nothing more and nothing less.

I get asked all the time, during workshops, in e-mails, in private messages, what words of wisdom I would give to a new and aspiring photographer. Here’s my answer.

- Style is a voice, not a prop or an action. If you can buy it, borrow it, download it, or steal it, it is not a style. Don’t look outward for your style; look inward.

- Know your stuff. Luck is a nice thing, but a terrifying thing to rely on. It’s like money; you only have it when you don’t need it.

- Never apologize for your own sense of beauty. Nobody can tell you what you should love. Do what you do brazenly and unapologetically. You cannot build your sense of aesthetics on a concensus.

- Say no. Say it often. It may be difficult, but you owe it to yourself and your clients. Turn down jobs that don’t fit you, say no to overbooking yourself. You are no good to anyone when you’re stressed and anxious.

- Learn to say “I’m a photographer” out loud with a straight face. If you can’t say it and believe it, you can’t expect anyone else to, either.

- You cannot specialize in everything.

- You don’t have to go into business just because people tell you you should! And you don’t have to be full time and making an executive income to be successful. If you decide you want to be in business, set your limits before you begin.

- Know your style before you hang out your shingle. If you don’t, your clients will dictate your style to you. That makes you nothing more than a picture taker. Changing your style later will force you to start all over again, and that’s tough.

- Accept critique, but don’t apply it blindly. Just because someone said it does not make it so. Critiques are opinions, nothing more. Consider the advice, consider the perspective of the advice giver, consider your style and what you want to convey in your work. Implement only what makes sense to implement. That doesn’t not make you ungrateful, it makes you independent.

- Leave room for yourself to grow and evolve. It may seem like a good idea to call your business “Precious Chubby Tootsies”….but what happens when you decide you love to photograph seniors? Or boudoir?

- Remember that if your work looks like everyone else’s, there’s no reason for a client to book you instead of someone else. Unless you’re cheaper. And nobody wants to be known as “the cheaper photographer”.

- Gimmicks and merchandise will come and go, but honest photography is never outdated.

- It’s easier to focus on buying that next piece of equipment than it is to accept that you should be able to create great work with what you’ve got. Buying stuff is a convenient and expensive distraction. You need a decent camera, a decent lens, and a light meter. Until you can use those tools consistently and masterfully, don’t spend another dime. Spend money on equipment ONLY when you’ve outgrown your current equipment and you’re being limited by it. There are no magic bullets.

- Learn that people photography is about people, not about photography. Great portraits are a side effect of a strong human connection.

- Never forget why you started taking pictures in the first place. Excellent technique is a great tool, but a terrible end product. The best thing your technique can do is not call attention to itself. Never let your technique upstage your subject.

- Never compare your journey with someone else’s. It’s a marathon with no finish line. Someone else may start out faster than you, may seem to progress more quickly than you, but every runner has his own pace. Your journey is your journey, not a competition. You will never “arrive”. No one ever does.

- Embrace frustration. It pushes you to learn and grow, broadens your horizons, and lights a fire under you when your work has gone cold. Nothing is more dangerous to an artist than complacency.

- CJ








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