When I was in college, I carried half a head of purple cabbage around in a Ziplock bag in my backpack for two weeks. Do you have any idea what happens to a head of cabbage after two weeks of going from a cool refrigerator to all day in a balmy backpack? It wasn’t pretty. Nor was it by choice.
The cabbage was the subject of an assignment in one of my 2D design classes. The project consisted of cutting the cabbage in half then rendering it in sixteen different ways, each one using a different medium, such as graphite, pen & ink, gouache, etc. The purpose of the assignment was twofold: first, it was an exploration into the physicality of different materials — what they were and weren’t capable of in terms of color, texture and detail. Also, since not everyone was familiar with all of the various mediums, there was a difference in both comfort level and aptitude, especially for those who had never used one medium or another. The other purpose was more esoteric in that it forced us to gauge how different materials allowed us to “see” the subject. For example, I found that my graphite and pen & ink iterations were much more literal and precise than when I was working with watercolor or oil pastel — which were far more unintentionally expressionistic — not because the materials weren’t capable of resolving realistic details, but my rather limited experience with them prohibited me from achieving it. The materials forced me to see or at least render the subject in a different way. Creative choices were made based on my ability with materials as well as interpreting what I was seeing through the filter of what those materials were capable of in my hands. There was also the decomposition factor — after the first week, the cabbage began to break down, building a layer of abstraction into both color and form — not to mention the smell. By the end, the whole project resembled frames from some sort of surrealist time-lapse. Death of a Cabbage, perhaps? Dali would be proud.
Although this was one of my least favorite projects at the time — not to mention putting me off cabbage for nearly three decades — in retrospect, it was one of the most valuable. It challenged me to go deeper with tools that were unfamiliar to me at the time which, in turn, allowed me to produce work that was different than what came before it. Creativity loves obstacles and learning to use a variety of tools with more purpose and confidence opens up more possibilities for creating different types of work — maybe even better work. When the tools get out of the way and we are no longer struggling with how, we can concentrate more on what and why. As I mentioned in the last Iteration, I created an entirely new body of work almost as a byproduct of exploring new techniques and processes for printing photographs. Sometimes leaving what’s familiar and getting out of our comfort zones can be difficult, however, exploring new tools or materials can lead to new ways of seeing and expressing what we see. As my professor (the one who came up with the cabbage project) used to tell us, “that’s all making art is — the ability to see.”
There’s a story that’s become somewhat of an urban legend in photography that centers around a piece of advice given by iconic shooter Jay Maisel to one of his workshop students. The story goes that Jay was reviewing this particular student’s portfolio and, at one point, the student asks, “How do I take more interesting photos?” Without missing a beat, Jay fired back, “Become a more interesting person.” Now, on the surface that may sound a little surly — and “very Jay” according to people who know him — but it’s actually profoundly good advice. Jay’s point, which he’s talked about in various interviews, is to allow yourself to be influenced or affected by the unfamiliar. If you’re a painter, listen to music or go see an opera. If you’re a photographer, go to museums and galleries and look at paintings or sculpture. Let some things that may be a bit out of your comfort zone, perhaps even a bit obscure, get under your creative skin and see what bubbles up.
This same advice holds true for using different types of tools, materials and even subject matter. Many of the photographers I talk to have a particular area they specialize in as well as a specific set of tools, e.g., a favorite camera or a go-to lens. And while there is certainly value in practicing and refining your skill with a particular toolkit, there is a different kind of value in exchanging the familiar with something that puts you creatively off balance, especially if your current work has you feeling stale or uninspired.
Do you ever challenge yourself by going beyond your comfort zone either technically or creatively? If so, how has exploring the unfamiliar impacted either your workflow or the work you produce?
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If you were a kid growing up in the late 1970s or early 1980s, especially in Southern California, chances are you had a skateboard. And if you didn’t, I bet you knew someone who did. Photographer J. Grant Brittain was deep in the scene, photographing skaters like Tony Hawk and Rodney Mullen for magazines like Transworld and The Skateboard Mag. Recently, Huck magazine ran a terrific piece on Brittain and how his photography helped document the rise and evolution of skate culture.
A new Netflix documentary series called Five Came Back takes a look at the propaganda and the rise of Hitler’s Germany during WWII, through the eyes of five extraordinary filmmakers: Frank Capra, John Ford, John Huston, George Stevens and William Wyler. Their stories are told by five modern masters of cinema: Francis Ford Coppola, Guillermo Del Toro, Steven Spielberg, Paul Greengrass and Lawrence Kasdan.
The Prostitutes and the Priest is a gut-wrenching story on Lens Culture about Father Hermann Klein-Hipass, a priest who has taken it upon himself to help the women and girls in Namibia who are forced to sell their bodies to survive. “Condemned to the lowest rungs of society,” writes project creator Christian Bobst, “these women are insulted, despised and rejected by their own people. Even charity organizations and NGOs consider them lost causes because many of them also turn to alcohol and thievery.”