More Than Wow.

In Pep Talks, Rants and Sermons, The Craft by David29 Comments

I used to be a magician.

An honest-to-God, I-do-this-for-a-living Magician. And a juggler too. And a comedian. But let’s talk about the magic part. I spent a lot of time by myself, learning how to hide coins and cards and make birds appear from nowhere. I had an illusion built that allowed me to cut myself in half on stage. At one point I opened my show by pulling a large, heavy, bowling ball from a thin briefcase. I could do some cool sh*t, man.

But it was all just an illusion. Well-practiced illusion that took a lot of time, effort, and sometimes money. And some people, usually the under-7 crowd, thought I was really cool. Because I could do cool stuff. Don’t even get me started on how I ended my show with a straitjacket escape or riding a six-foot unicycle while juggling flaming torches, or how I could steal a watch from someone’s wrist. Like I said: cool sh*t was done, and I was the doer.

I was not alone. Sometimes I went to magic shows and magic conventions where other doers of cool stuff gathered. Most of them did cooler stuff than I could dream of. Most of them knew it. They traded in secrets and had secret-sounding names like The Incredible Jimmy or the Mysterious Mike. Most of them knew more about the dark arts (the dork arts?) than they did about the deeper mysteries, like, you know, talking to girls. We traded not in wonder but in cheap parlour tricks. We got off on the very temporary, stunned, reactions of others. If you know me at all it shouldn’t surprise you to know I bored of this quickly and wondered if there wasn’t more to it.

And then one day I went to a Cirque du Soleil show and saw a guy fly. For real. And my heart leapt. There was no magic – I could see the thick wires above the stage, no effort made to conceal them. But there he was flying all the same. It was part of a story so compelling that the how was irrelevant. And there was no applause cue, no “look at what I can do.” Just wonder. It bypassed my head and went straight to my heart and I didn’t jump straight to “how did he do that” because how he did it wasn’t remotely relevant. The story mattered. The wonder mattered. It’s stayed with me – that feeling – longer than any magic trick I ever saw.

Photography, and probably almost any art, has its own cheap tricks. We rely on them when we miss the moment, the story isn’t compelling, the light’s not “popping”, or our composition doesn’t quite work. We polish our turds furiously in the hopes that they’ll look better with a little misdirection. And they do. But they get a “wow” and are immediately forgotten. We sharpen, we saturate, we HDR, we filter, we Photoshop Action the shit out of photographs that never had a chance because they never had a heart, a story, a vision. They are met with the kind of wonder reserved for those that don’t know it’s just an illusion, it’s brief, and it’s uninspired, and worse: it’s uninspiring.

We polish our turds furiously in the hopes that they’ll look better with a little misdirection. And they do. But they get a “wow” and are immediately forgotten.

I’m not writing this so much as criticism for others (though perhaps an observation) but as a reminder to myself to remain defiant about these cheap tricks (because I’ve had my share of them), to settle for nothing less than images that are honest and good because they connect in truly human ways, that tell stories and affect change, and embrace craft not gimmicks. This becomes more and more important because in the high-noise / low-signal times in which we create and share our photographs we will see a law of diminishing returns at work; it will take more and more saturation, more sharpness, more dynamic range and more flavour-of-the-day to get and keep the attention of others, until our senses are completely numb. I don’t believe these diminishing returns affect good storytelling, and honest humanity. We have hungered for them for centuries despite an endless supply.

It will take more and more saturation, more sharpness, more dynamic range and more flavour-of-the-day to get and keep the attention of others, until our senses are completely numb.

What it takes to get past this stage – and most of us go through it at least once if not cyclically – is a desire for more. For deeper images. And a willingness to see the flaws in our work, the laziness in our craft, and the compromise in our vision. This is not always where I am, but where I strive to be. This is the journey, not only of photographic vision but of craft and art, and the connections that those things make possible. And maybe not everyone wants that. Maybe not everyone is there yet – it’s taken me 30 years to get to this place. But there’s got to be something more than wow, more than “how’d he do it?”

*A note. This isn’t about HDR. Or saturation. Or Photoshop. It’s about the use of tools and gimmicks without a purpose, without a heart, and without the desire to give our art, and our audiences, a chance at something more. It’s about the desire to give them something more than the photographic equivalent of soda pop.

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Comments

  1. “We polish our turds furiously in the hopes that they’ll look better with a little misdirection. And they do. But they get a “wow” and are immediately forgotten.” — Love this. You can even gold-plate it, and when you scratch the surface … eww, what’s that smell? I don’t love the smell of a turd in the morning, not even my own! (homage to Apocalypse Now).

  2. “*A note. This isn’t about HDR. Or saturation. Or Photoshop. It’s about the use of tools and gimmicks without a purpose, without a heart, and without the desire to give our art, and our audiences, a chance at something more. It’s about the desire to give them something more than the photographic equivalent of soda pop.” Amen.

  3. I think you hit on the root of this in your article, but it went by so quickly it would be easy to miss. You spoke of the magicians that could connect with one another, but not the “deeper mysteries”. How true is that of photographers? How easy is it to connect with other photogs these days, and get feedback from them on your work? Compare that with how hard it is to connect with an audience. How many people even HAVE an audience outside of other photographers? Your mom doesn’t count. How often do we, as photographers, get feedback from someone that isn’t even LOOKING at our technique, that doesn’t appreciate the difficulty of obtaining the image, or the skill of the processing, and who looks just at the image, as an image, and as a viewer of an image not defined by the knowledge of how it was created?
    We build online presence composed of photographers. We craft communities and followers out of other photographers. That great. But those followers, that community, will ALWAYS be biased, in that they will notice the “technical”. You can’t not. It’s a habit, because we got to where we are by looking at the work of others.
    How much feedback does the industry get from people that aren’t neck-deep in it? Getting feedback about how well we build walls from those building the wall right alongside us is easy. We talk to them every day. The feedback we need isn’t from those in the trenches with us; it’s from the long-haired, naked hippe sitting alone in the field, who appreciates the sun just for it’s presence, and can comment on our work without knowing how it was done.

    1. Dave, I agree with you and I could take it even further: when one of our naked hippie friends sees our image and goes all ‘this is so dope, man!’, and ‘radical’ etc it is easy to smile politely and blow him off because the pic is not technically correct and ‘what would he know about photography anyway’, and yet the image IS magic. All I am seeing is the flaws from my head space, but if I looked from the heart space the story is there. It has taken me a while to realise this, and it wasn’t until several of my non-photog friends had said similar things about the same image that I began to shut the inner critic up and enjoy my image.

    2. David yes yes. This is the heart of it … what is the purpose of our work.
      Appreciate you teasing it out.

    3. Best comment/insight on one of the best essays I’ve seen for a long time.

  4. I know what you are saying, but there is so much “smoke and mirrors” in the entire art world today. Think about it. How many people graduate from “art schools?” Probably more in a couple years than all the artists in prior history. Can they all really be artists? I say no, but they can be a “clique” that support each other as so called artists and critics. They can be art jurors and curators, get jobs teaching in universities and fill the staffs of museums and own art galleries. “Modern Art” started out as a genuine movement, but in many ways has just become a con job, easily fooling the public into accepting anything, no matter how absurd.

    The maxim is “be true to yourself,” which is good, wholesome advice, but it’s still gonna’ be necessary to interact and work with lots of folks who set trends, and make decisions based on nothing more than intellectual concepts learned in school. Folks who mistake “different” for soul, “new” for vision.

    This often makes it hard for an individual to find their original, creative voice, never-the-less, the journey must be taken if one is to fulfill oneself in a not always easy to navigate landscape.

    Sorry for the soapbox, but these things are seldom discussed in the light of day! 😉

  5. ” nothing less than images that are honest and good ” – This is what I want. Compositing frustrates me to no end. I feel like I’ve been lied to. Burn, dodge, sharpen, gradients, saturation are ok in moderation. Remove cigarette buts, trash are all good. But when you start moving mountains and substituting skies, sun, moon, etc. that wasn’t/isn’t there you have crossed a line that deserves a warning label of “fantasy” or “fiction” or “composited”. When I see an image with spectacular skies I think wow! What a moment to have witnessed and seen. Then when I find out it is a mashup? I feel cheated. That “artist” didn’t see that. It didn’t happen. Just because they “envisioned” it doesn’t make it real. I want photographs to be real, to be honest. If not, label them such.

    1. I know & appreciate where you’re coming from but whole heartedly disagree. Your assumptions of what a photograph is or is not are & must remain irrelevant to the originating artist. Why would you feel cheated if a certain photo made you gasp, literally taking your breathe away? Isn’t that more important than it being “real”? And questioning reality opens up a completely different can of worms which I won’t expound on other than to quote Robert Anton Wilson, “Reality is always plural & mutable”.

      1. Author

        I’m not talking about reality at all, but about deeper human reaction than merely superficial first responses. Those have their own place and I wouldn’t feel cheated at all, except to wish for something more than just wow. Something deeper, something more. I’m not for a moment trying to say what a photograph is or is not, merely to suggest that they are capable of so much more than a momentary “aw, isn’t that nice?” There will be as many realities as there are people to observe them, but we know a dishonest storyteller when we see one. We know superficiality. And most importantly, we know when we’re moved to change, and that, I would argue, is what’s at stake. A change in the way we think, live, act, believe, feel. Art does that. Kitsch does not. But mostly I’m hoping photographers will want the most from their work, and that’s up to them to define, not me.

  6. As more and more of your background gets unveiled, it explains a lot about why I love your humour. Jimmy Lake. Cirque. Awesome experiences to come from (and yes, Cirque IS magic, even without misdirecting the eye…sigh). But, I digress.

    I guess it’s like the old days in theatre, when, if we wanted to really make the point about how bad something was, we’d comment about coming away humming the scenery. Because, at the end of the day, if I am distracted enough to notice how good the scenery changes are, or the lighting cues, it usually means the story failed to engage my mind and my heart.

    “Polishing our turds”. Indeed. Sometimes, I sit here, polishing away, until I realize that no matter how hard I polish, at the end of the day, it will just end up being shiny sh*t, with nothing more than a reflective surface, hiding a content that I don’t really wanna save. More and more in these kinds of discussions (and there are more of them happening in this world of image saturation), I am seeing a process of maturity taking place. None of us are getting any younger, and as we begin to take stock in all areas of our lives, photography cannot and should not escape that microscope. Just as we start being more selective of our friends, and our activities, just as we start wondering about leaving the world a better place than the one we entered…we have to be more selective about our photography, it ALSO has to have more meaning and more relevance to where we are now. However that translates in each of our respective worlds, it will happen. It’s not a bad thing, just a sign of being more thoughtful, less in a hurry. I’m okay with that. And I’m okay when you slap us upside the heads about it. Thanks!

  7. I completely agree with the sentiment here. Really well written as usual, David.

    That being said, *please* link to where we can see you riding a unicycle?

  8. Thanks again David. I hit a creative deadend more than six months ago now.

    I found my landscape images looked like every other landscape image out there. Not only that, they had no real story. I was shooting them to try and create a certain look. Again, I could achieve that technically and with Photoshop, but I felt empty. I hit a bit of a crisis point and I am not totally through it. At that time, I started watching a series that Jay Maisel did with Scott Kelby. Jay of course was his usual New York candid self and it was fascinating. He said a few things that stuck with me, one was this

    “Go out empty and let your images fill you up”.

    I never did that before, I would always go out with some sort of goal, very often I came back with nothing I liked or “more of the same”. I would then proceed to take “pretty good” images and push and pull them in Photoshop and make them look wow. Really, I was putting lipstick on the pig. The images were good, but nothing new. This had to change and as a result, I am in the process of making that change. Your article highlighted some of my own shortcomings, tough to acknowledge, but critical to embrace if I am to grow as a photographer.
    So, my solution is I have gone back to basics. I go out empty and get filled up by what I see. I am working hard a t looking deeper at everything and its working, slowly, but its working. I think it will change my photography path and that’s good. I met with an art curator last week to look at some of my new work and she said something which stuck, it was this..”Show me something that would not see if I walked down that street” That is a good place to start! Thanks for your insights into the creative and sometimes painful process of photography and change!

  9. I’ve bounced around a lot of genres of photography because, well, it’s fun to try different things. What resonates with me about this post is the same reason that I have, as my vision (hopefully) has matured, come back again and again to portraiture as my center of gravity: it is the place where artifice, and polishing, and effects, mean the least; where either you have captured the essence of a human, or simply not. I f not, try again, but there is no filter, no plugin, no action to create in post the essence of humanity that defines a great portrait.

  10. in a world increasingly dominated by surface appearances, I so hope you’re right, because it too often feels like an uphill struggle holding out for more

  11. This is your best blog (thoughtful, articulate, aspiring, insightful, edifying, …) to date. Gives real pause to slow down and contemplate the story with no abbreviations. How many people can read shorthand?

  12. This is so true. I did from time to time tried to put make-up on a mediocre image just for the sake of receiving appreciation. Deep inside of us though, we know it and if we care, it will leave a bad taste in our mouth. Always that desire to be accepted and appreciated by others as opposed to be first appreciated by ourselves and the people closer to us. Life if the appreciation of a stranger had more value. Thank you for that post. Also, all the comments above are so good and thoughtful.

  13. Good thoughts as usual… Wondered as I read your post if you are familiar with the work of Lisa Kristen. Rather an amazing humanitarian and talented photographer. Met her here at an art show recently and have had a look at her website which is beautifully crafted. A couple of her books followed me home from the art show…

  14. “Going out empty” is really great advice. Way too many articles on how every detail must be planned, on how one must brave the forces of nature, etc., seems to me spontneity is too often left out of the equation. As an old Zen story relates, if the teacup is full, no more can be added. Be empty and there is plenty of room for experieces and images to find and fill you.

  15. Your articles are always thought provoking.
    I think it’s important for people to be comfortable with their own style and their own vision and one person’s polished turd is another person’s work of art.
    We live in a time of extremes from the purist who wants to achieve absolutely everything in camera (usually on a huge 1900’s colloidion plate contraption) to the wiz that will transform a mundane shot into a fantastical scene with unicorns jumping over rainbows.
    I see too may sycophants on high-profile blogs saying how much they agree and all the right things yet I see so many of those people going back to what they did previously. It’s a shame but something I am getting more and more used to.
    People need to be true to themselves rather than feeling the need to conform to someone else’s viewpoint.
    I am in no way disagreeing with what you have said and in fact it resonates with me (ok call me sycophantic) but I think it’s time people take more responsibility for themselves and believe in their own vision.

  16. Thank you David and thanks to all comments. This post got my attention because it ask for reflection. Why I love photography? Even if I’ve never made a dime out of this passion in my life. Why getting an image can be so public in these times but also so intimate, personal and private.

    There’s nothing wrong with being a “magician photographer” as long as you realize that’s what you are and that’s what you want to be. Photography tricks and gimmicks are older than film and easier now in digital. How many photo-shopped images we see? How often do we find a true concept for a vision or just another fraud in that “tricked image”? Maybe some of both? Like in sarcasm? Got to keep in mind that in a free society it is not for any of us all to decide and define what is art or beauty, for it may be on the eye of the beholder.

    What you want to do with your photo gear? Its clear to me that David’s philosophy as a photographer is not only about technique and gear and commerce regardless of its importance, but about the “vision more than the wow”. I think that helps him to be a better teacher and helps me too to be a better student and learner.

    Photography as art is not only about “reality”. Your images want to convey reality without adulteration if you were looking as a photojournalist when you took the shot. But the images you take may be with the purpose of illustrating and sharing a concept or an idea as you look at things around, real or not so speaking. Like when you work in advertising. Or when you are just looking with your mind eye as an artist. Its difficult to find the technical “wow” for that photo pop that gets the instant attention to the eye. You need technical competence. Often the real hard thing is to keep that beholder’s eye in the image so you can express your purpose, your heart and your vision. David said it better in his blog: ” to settle for nothing less than images that are honest and good because they connect in truly human ways”.

    Lori Ryerson also said it in her comment: “None of us are getting any younger, and as we begin to take stock in all areas of our lives,… just as we start being more selective of our friends, and our activities, just as we start wondering about leaving the world a better place than the one we entered…we have to be more selective about our photography”. So true. (If you got to this point, forgive me for being so long…).

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  18. Interesting that you went from misdirection to direction. Both a magician and photographer have the same issue: getting someone’s eyes to follow a path.
    By the way, Cirque is fine unless you are chosen from the audience to go backstage, dress as a baby, and come onstage pushing a clown car. My son has been blackmailing me for years with that photo.

  19. I raised my head, looking up,
    and saw the cloudless sky.
    I thought of absolute space, free from limits,
    then experienced a freedom without center, without end.
    ~ Shabkar Tsogdruk Rangdrol

    We might go forth empty as a cloudless sky. No I. No me. No mine. Let the experience, not the photographing, fill us. Not with self, but with the purpose of seeing the world as it is, just so.

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