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Not Struck By Lightning, Just Busy Doing the Work

September 2, 2012
Now That's Some Striking Lightning, Calgary

Now That’s Some Striking Lightning, Calgary

As the saying goes, time flies like an arrow and fruit flies like a banana. It’s been around 6 weeks since my last post. Given that I’ve been making so much new work this year, and really immersing myself in photographic creativity and collaboration, I did think I might get a little more written. But no… I wasn’t hit by lightning or anything else that would offer a suitable medical excuse, I’ve just been very busy and let my blog and other social media posting sit quiet for awhile. Well, I’m sure everyone is getting along just fine in spite of it. 🙂

One of the big reasons I’ve been busy is that I’ve gone back to the “day job” career, on a part-time but significant basis. I took a big break from my first career over the past year and focused intensely on my photography, but now I’ll be working on some IT projects again several days per week. This will have both upsides and downsides for the photography work; perhaps I’ll have more to say about this in the future — the effort to balance making a living with being a working & developing artist.

But setting the day job aside, the other reason I’ve been spending time offline is that I tackled my Arizona photographs from the recent TEOE project field work — after all, there’s an exhibit to get ready! Of ~26,000 frames shot that I still need to go through (referred to in my last post on recent major projects), some ~6,500 were from Arizona and therefore subject to immediate attention. I did a quick rough cut and chopped them down to ~3,500 by deleting frames where focus, exposure or other technical concerns were unacceptable, where my failing Pentax 645D shutter had spoiled the attempt, or where the compositions fell flat when looked at in review. Yeah… still 3,500 frames left. That’s a lot, even though it represents only perhaps 1,000 distinct compositions since I do shoot a lot of multiple exposures for HDR (a digital exposure blending technique) and focus stacking (another digital technique to increase depth of field). So it took me a couple of weeks of steady editing to make the initial cull, followed by pulling out perhaps 200 compositions that were at least a little interesting in the context of creating exhibit prints for our TEOE shows to come.

As time consuming as that was, it was relatively straight forward compared to what came next. Mulling through the “interesting” compositions that I’d extracted from the shoot, I found it more difficult than I expected to take the selection to the next level. At first this confused me, and I even got a bit angry at myself. I mean, it’s not like I’m a new-comer to this photography thing. Why should I be struggling even a little bit to get my exhibit images selected? I took a short breather and then plunged back into the work; I felt I couldn’t let my team down, and they were busily making their own selections. And I knew there are real external deadlines involved. Finally… as of this past Friday, I now have 43 candidates selected & developed to the point where I can make the cut down to a strong set of 20 that will be printed for the shows in Phoenix and Calgary. Whew! That’s a major relief… 🙂

I’ve also had enough time to sort out some of the reasons why it took me so much effort, basically all of my free time during the month of August, to get to this point. One factor was simple — physical & creative exhaustion. As noted in my last post, I went through a period of about 10 weeks on photography overload. I was racking up thousands of kilometers of travel, shooting thousands of frames, experiencing all kinds of incredible new places & things, and getting very little sleep. While I was in the flow, I was jacked up on the sheer rush of everything that was going on. When I came out the other end, I think I simply ran out of gas, physically and mentally. I didn’t see it coming, but I had to have some time just to recover from the intensity of the experience. A rush is great fun while it’s going on, but as I was reminded, it’s usually followed by some kind of crash.

A second factor was the incredible fun times had with a range of people. From the group on my Spring Tour at Aurum Lodge, to the crew that went to Iceland together, to the TEOE team with whom I spent virtually every waking moment for 3+ weeks, it was a pretty wild ride. In a way, it was so energizing, hilarious, and rich that the experience of making the work overshadowed the work itself. When I started reviewing photos (sitting by myself in my basement office, day after day), I still had all kinds of immediate memories and experiences rattling around in my brain from the good times with other people, making the images — yet I knew that no viewer at our TEOE exhibits would ever know or care about the back-story. The only thing that would matter was whether the final images stood on their own and made any kind of connection with viewers. I realized I needed to compartmentalize my own feelings about the travel & shooting experiences. I needed a more objective selection of images that would make a strong exhibit… but this was initially hard to do while everything was still so fresh in my mind. My good friend and colleague Darwin Wiggett has told me of how it’s sometimes useful to him to wait for a few months before he starts to seriously develop the results of a personal shoot; he feels it can be important to get some distance from the immediate, emotional & subjective experience that went into the photography, before making the actual finished works. I’ve heard him say this a few times, but now I think I really get what he means at a gut level.

Unfortunately, I was on a timeline and didn’t have the luxury of putting the work aside for 6 months or so, until I could come back to it with a more objective and reflective approach to putting the show materials together. So I needed a thread I could pull on to help me bull through the exercise. And I found it by doing a little free experimentation with the ~200 compositions I’d identified as at least somewhat interesting. I worked with a few, just putting my expectations aside and trying not to be analytical. Also not grousing to myself about all the things I’d hoped to get but didn’t, or the ways in which what I got could have been done better “if only I had …”. I just let the images be themselves and tried to see what directions some finished works could potentially go. I knew from the beginning I intended to do the whole exhibit as black and white images, and so I started working on some examples from a monochrome stylistic point of view… concentrating only on how I wanted them to look. Soon I started feeling the emergence of some themes in the subject matter as well, and so I pulled the threads more tightly together around those and meshed the results with the visual styling.

Before long I was back into a positive flow, feeling the creativity and energy again about how a body of work could come together. I wasn’t really thinking about the experiences in the immediate past any more; though those memories will be with me for a very long time they’re actually separate now from my viewpoint on making a body of work to show. I also recognized that even though I’d had to fight through challenges like muddy thinking from lack of sleep, dead & dying gear, expectations that weren’t met by locations or conditions, or my own personal failure to connect at some scenes — even through all of that, I’d managed to make a collection of work that I’m really pleased with. It’s even surprising me in some respects… I didn’t see myself coming up with some of this, and it’s particularly rewarding to realize I’m still actively and creatively growing. Whew — some life in the old carcass, yet! 🙂

Having just gone through this work brings to mind a quote from celebrated portraitist and print-maker Chuck Close that I read quite some time earlier on the site A Photo Editor:

Inspiration is for amateurs; the rest of us just show up and get to work. If you wait around for the clouds to part and a bolt of lightning to strike you in the brain, you are not going to make an awful lot of work. All the best ideas come out of the process; they come out of the work itself.

Yeah, that makes more sense to me now, too. Just get down to it and do the work… that’s how the real professionals roll. And that’s another sense in which I’ve not been hit by lightning, I’ve just been busy doing the work. I don’t know — I mean, I have hopes but I don’t really know — how the TEOE project exhibits will turn out later this year and early next year. But I’m excited to finish doing the work and then find out!

Duck When You See the Flash, Calgary

Duck When You See the Flash, Calgary

Side note — all this talk about work. Well, true, I’ve been working an awful lot for several months now. But all work and no play makes Royce a dullard in so many ways. 🙂 So I have done a few small things, just for fun. One of them was to stand outside in my back yard, late on a Sunday night a couple of weekends ago, after my wife Deb insistently called me upstairs from where I’d been banging away at the image catalog in my basement office. (I do try to listen to her, she knows a thing or two!) I’d been completely oblivious to the outside world, but on getting out the back door I saw an incredible light show going on in the sky. At least a couple of massive storm cells were colliding directly over the city, and the towering clouds and non-stop blasts of lightning & rolling thunder were like nothing I’ve seen for several years. Wow! How had I not been aware this was going on? I guess we were in a pocket that was relatively calm at ground level — not even a raindrop until much later — while other parts of the city were being trashed with golf-ball sized hail and heavy rain. Anyway, for us it was an eerily refreshing hour of just watching natural forces go crazy across the sky. Incredible.

After watching for a long time, just being completely absorbed in the display, I finally thought maybe I should grab the camera. 🙂 I brought out a tripod and my Pentax 645D — my second one, that is, since my first one is still with Pentax Japan having the shutter assembly replaced following its failure during the Arizona shoot. I set up and did some quick experiments. I wanted to balance the capture of enough light to see the details in the incredible cloud formations, while not blowing the exposure out completely under the relentless surges of light from the lightning that was arcing ceaselessly all around. I made a few exposures in the back yard where lightning high up within the clouds was illuminating the towering formations without the actual lightning bolts themselves ever being visible. Then I went into the front yard and pointed the camera in a direction where the lightning bolts were visible in a fast & furious series of blasts. I needed no special timing or technique to capture them. The display was so rapid and continuous I only needed to open the camera shutter for shot after shot to catch different arcing patterns of light in between the trees that line our block.

And no, I didn’t get hit by this lightning either.

Look for news soon about the times and locations for our coming TEOE Arizona / Alberta Photography Exchange 2012 exhibits. We’ll be showing in multiple locations in both Phoenix and Calgary.

Have there been times when the inspirational lightning wasn’t hitting you, but you just got down to work anyway and in the end realized the results were great? Feel free to comment…

5 Comments leave one →
  1. David (I live in Edmonton) permalink
    September 2, 2012 20:03

    Question: once the TEOE exhibit is completed, and for those not lucky enough to be in Calgary during the exhibition, will a collection of the art be posted somewhere?

    Just asking.

    • September 2, 2012 20:37

      Our ultimate goal is to find a long-term exhibit partner in the Calgary area so that the project can be shown somewhere more or less year-round. (We may do a project annually, assuming everything goes well with this one.) Shows outside the Calgary area are being considered, too. But regardless, certainly we also hope to have the collection posted online sometime after the primary exhibits of the prints are done. And perhaps we’ll do a book as well. My own work will go into my regular personal online galleries at some point, and the same no doubt will be true for my 3 partners. Lots of possible outlets for the work these days… 🙂

  2. September 4, 2012 10:11

    Like Darwin, I find a cooling off period does wonders. When out on a personal shoot (which most of my are), I’ll come home and usually process a few key images and then give the rest of the images a break until the feelings and connection with place are no longer influencing how I see things.

    As you pointed out, it’s not always possible to work that way, so you just have to show up and do the work. Letting go of expectations and thoughts helps too.

    • September 6, 2012 13:52

      Thanks for that input, Roberta. I think expectation management is a key to success at many things in life! 🙂 We’re so often our own worst enemy… there’s some kind of needed zen-like balance in seeking creative development without over-extending into the territory of blind striving in a direction that the art doesn’t want to go.

  3. September 6, 2012 14:14

    And apropos of the idea of a cooling off period, here’s another quote I just saw on A Photo Editor, this one by Karen Halverson: “Editing one’s work is challenging. I think it helps to let the work sit for a while until after the first fervent rush.” See the rest of the quote at the link: http://www.aphotoeditor.com/2012/09/04/let-the-work-sit-for-a-while/ And follow the further link to the interview with Halverson from which the quote was extracted; she has some other things to say…

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