Iteration Number Thirteen: A Galaxy Far, Far Away

Forty years ago today, something happened that would change the lives of millions and usher in a new type of moviemaking: Star Wars opened in theaters. While I didn't see it opening day, I did see it in the theater — dozens of times, in fact, throughout the summer of 1977. The first time I saw it, I was 9. It was a watershed moment because it was the first time my mom ever let me go to the movies by myself. She dropped me off at the Wescove Theater in West Covina, California and went shopping at the mall next door. I had my popcorn and my Coke and when the lights dimmed and that opening fanfare pinned me to the back of my seat, I was hooked (I still sometimes get goosebumps when I hear it). For the next two hours, I was no longer in a Southern California suburb. Like so many of my generation, I was swept off to Tatooine, speeding through hyperspace aboard the Millenium Falcon, and piloting an X-Wing to destroy the Death Star — good thing I spent so much time bullseyeing womp rats in my T-16 back home. Star Wars was the first movie I ever lost myself in so completely that I lost track of time.

The idea of losing ourselves in what we do is what many of us aspire to — to be so engaged with the act of making that time simply seems to stop. It's a state that psychologists refer to as "flow" and it feels like finding a unicorn. The first time I ever experienced flow in relation to making was during my sophomore year in high school in the darkroom my grandfather helped me build in the garage. On more nights than I can count or remember, I would go out after dinner and homework and not emerge until the following morning. Bathed in the amber glow of the safelights, one image after another fading up in the developer, time in darkroom relative to the outside world would stop. My friend David says flow happens "when the challenge meets your ability in a craft and the sparks begin to fly" and I don't disagree, though I may change "a craft" to "an effort" or "an activity." It's not just being creative where flow exists, though we sometimes want to believe that it is. That elusive flow state can be achieved while making, but it can also be achieved by exercising, by reading or by losing yourself in a galaxy far, far away.

As I approach my fiftieth year, I find that am making more of a concerted effort to enable flow states — or at least moments — throughout my own life, and not just when I'm making. The making has definitely become more purposeful, but so has the time away from the studio and the computer. Picasso is famously quoted as saying "Inspiration exists, but it has to find you working" and while I think he's right, I think his quote has been misinterpreted. It's the "working" bit that we stumble on. We assume that Picasso meant working on your preferred craft or your primary passion — and perhaps he did — but we all know that many of our most revelatory "aha!" moments happen when we ARE NOT working, but on a walk or in the shower or reading a book or making an omelette. Rather than working, I think inspiration has to find you present — receptive to the idea of something either radically new or only slightly different which will inform or in some cases completely change the path you're on.  Thinking, daydreaming, and planning are not only generative pursuits, some argue (there's even science to back it up) they are also extremely important forms of "working." 

It's also worth noting that where you create can have a profound impact on what you create. While I believe creativity loves obstacles, there are definitely limits and then the obstacles (rather than the making) become the focus. In my own life, I am grateful to have spaces that meet different needs, whether it's the forest just beyond our back yard I regularly walk to clear my head and recharge, to the space where I record On Taking Pictures and Process Driven, to the basement workshop where I paint and tinker. Each of these spaces serves a unique purpose that connects each of the otherwise disperate activities into what I am finally believing is not only a creative life but also a life well lived. I stopped painting in college because I thought being an artist meant that my work had to be hanging in galleries or at MoMA, and while for some that may be true, the life of an artist — or better yet, my artistic life — has little to do with where what I make ends up. What's important is that I am making, something a friend reminded me of recently when he said "you don't BE creative so much as you DO creative." The thinking is an important step, but to create is rooted in the action of doing. Creativity is the transformation of thought into thing.

What is your favorite creative space?
When was the last time you were in a flow state? What inspired it? 

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Although I love Instagram as a source of inspiration, I don't really use it, per se, as a tool to promote my own photography — not with any sort of strategy anyway. Nor have I really embraced the Stories functionality. Here's a terrific TIME article discussing how six photographers are using Stories for more than just showing what they had for lunch. 

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The Putter is a wonderful short film by Shaun Bloodworth about Cliff Denton, who is "literally a Putter-togetherer of scissors" for Ernest Wright & Son Limited, a company in the UK who still make their scissors by hand. It's an homage to the craft and care that some still take in producing a simple tool that has remained fundamentally the same for thousands of years.   

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Every year, students from a private school in East Hampton, Long Island called the Ross School spend three weeks traveling and documenting a foreign country. This year, they went to Morocco and as you'll see in this Washington Post article, the resulting photographs often capture a subtlety and nuance that belies their years. Wonderful stuff.

Iteration Number Twelve: Old Mills and Makers

Last weekend, we all flew up to New Hampshire to see Adrianne's sister graduate with her Master's degree. I'd been there once before, but we flew into Logan and spent most of our time in Boston. This time, we flew into Manchester, which is a tiny airport by comparison. It actually reminds me a little of Burbank — my favorite airport to fly in and out of when I go back to visit Southern California. We arrived pretty late and most of the airport was closed. Usually they are so chaotic with passengers arriving and departing but after midnight, everything is quiet — especially in these smaller, regional airports — and they feel strangely surreal, as if finally allowed to exhale from the busy day. The next morning, we all went to the ceremony, after which we had to drop Adrianne's niece off at a dance competition a few miles away. 

Once we dropped off Anya, it was time to grab some breakfast. As luck would have it, just up the street from the venue was a terrific little diner called Gormley's, which I cannot recommend enough (Craig makes a terrific Eggs Benedict). I love diners, from the decor to the food to the staff, and Gormley's is no exception. There's a little diner/coffee shop in Burbank called Frank's that I used to go to quite a bit, mostly for the chicken fried steak. Neighborhood diners and cafes like Frank's and Gormley's are a vanishing piece of Americana that need your support to survive. Also, if you want to get terrific street portraits, visit diners. They are often the social hub of the community and home to a wonderfully diverse cast of characters, like this terrific-looking fellow, taken at Frank's on my last trip to California.

Our server Joann asked if we were local. We told her we were up from DC and she asked if we liked art, which (as you might imagine) led down another rabbit hole. Long story slightly shorter, she said there were two places we had to visit before we left: Mill No. 5 and the Western Avenue Studios. Lowell, Massachusetts is an old mill town, and when the manufacturing dried up, several of the mills were converted to lofts and retail spaces in an effort to revitalize the town. Mill No. 5 is a textile mill built in 1873 that now features shops, restaurants, a farmers market, and an incredible independent movie theater called the Luna, which is currently running a David Lynch film festival as well as a pair of lectures deconstructing two of my favorite Beatles records: Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band and The White Album. Just up the road, Western Avenue Studios is another converted textile mill that is now home to more than 300 artists and craftspeople. On the first Saturday of every month, they open their studios to the public — three chances to guess what day we happened to be there.

One of the things that was apparent after visiting just a few artists is how much of a maker community this place is. There are painters, glass blowers, jewelers, sculptors, textile artists and woodworkers and the artists not only know one another, they actively promote and support each other. For example, several of the artists we talked to asked what we had seen so far and said to make sure we visited a woodworker named John Francis, who they told us was making a [insert product here] for them. As it happened, John was actually one of the first artists we visited, and yes, his work is stunning and he's only too happy to talk about his craft. Overall, the sense of community felt like a real-world version of the "you might also like" buttons you often find at the end of a blog post. 

Another artist we met is Nancy Tobey, an encaustic painter whose work dotted the walls of the corridors and both Adrianne and I loved straight away. The walls of Nancy's studio are covered in absolutely gorgeous pieces of art. I introduced myself and told her that I had been been researching encaustic for some time a potential addition/replacement to my current mixed-media process, but only if I can get similar results. She asked if I had samples of what I was trying to achieve and I showed her a few pieces from my portfolio. For the next twenty minutes or so, Nancy gave me an impromptu one-on-one workshop in encaustic process and techniques, confirming to me that what I was after (and more) was absolutely possible with encaustic. She also gave me tips on equipment and even a quick tutorial on making my own paint sticks. While she was taking me through various techniques, we talked a little about how she got into encaustic. She explained that for years, she worked with blown glass and that her foray into encaustic was relatively new. I stopped her there and asked her if she would be willing to be a guest on Process Driven to share her story. She happily agreed and added that she was actually going to be visiting in Silver Spring in June. I'm already looking forward to sitting down with her.

I left the Western Avenue Studios energized and inspired, not just by the art, but by also by the few brief conversations around making the work. Having these open studio days is a brilliant way to reduce the barrier between artist and viewer as well as art (Art?) and viewer. Seeing in-person where and how art is made validates and reinforces that art is a process, not just an end product and offers visitors — whether or not they are artists themselves — a greater recognition and appreciation of the time and effort that goes into making. Some of the locals call Lowell a "dead mill town" while others say it's a place to be avoided altogether. The fact that it borders Lawrence — a town Boston magazine once called "the most godforsaken place in Massachusetts" — doesn't help much. However, we found just the opposite to be true. While the mills themselves may be gone, creativity and the spirit of making seems as vibrant as ever. You just have to know where to look.

Do you currently belong to any creative/maker communities?

How might you develop a creative community where you live?

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I've been a fan of Dire Straits since a friend in high school gave me a copy of Love Over Gold. Since then, Mark Knopfler has been one of my favorite guitarists. I've seen Dire Straits live and he is a master at making the ridiculously complex look effortless. In this video from the documentary Soundbreaking, Mark talks about his process for learning the guitar and deep-dives into some of the craft behind his impeccable technique. 

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In September 1942, Marjory Collins, a photographer for the Office of War Information, documented the process of assembling an issue of The New York Times. It's a fascinating look at what was once a very messy, labor intensive process that happened every day in order to bring news to the masses. 

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As a kid growing up in the 70s and 80s, two things I love are video games and analog synths — I begged my mom for a Prophet 5 back in the day — so when something comes along that's a mashup of the two, I'm in. In this case, it's a reimagining of the music from Zelda called Switched On: A Link To The Past. performed on analog synths by musician Will Patterson. The cassette version is sold out, but you can still get the digital download. Bliss.

Iteration Number Eleven: Exactly Where I Need to be

I've hesitated sharing this because I didn't think it was relevant to making or art or creativity. But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that in many ways it underscores both what and why we make and it's one of the Big Questions that has come up time and time again on episodes of On Taking Pictures: Am I where I need to be?

Seven or eight years ago, I was driving up Archibald Avenue in Rancho Cucamonga, California. I was stopped at the light at Baseline and Archibald and an elderly man began walking from the left corner though the crosswalk in front of me. Just before he reached the curb, he stumbled and fell. At the same time, the light changed to green. I hesitated, watching him try to pick himself up. “Should I get out and help?” I thought to myself. Horns began blaring behind me. I panicked and slowly accelerated through the intersection, glancing into my rear view mirror as I drove away. For the next few days, I beat myself up for not getting out to help, for allowing the blaring horns or my own fear of “getting involved” get the better of me. Never again. I made a promise that I would never again ignore the opportunity to help someone, if it was within my ability. 

Fast forward to last week. I was working down in the studio and as I came upstairs, I heard a cat meowing. It sounded distressed. I walked from one end of the house to the other, trying to figure out where it was coming from and then it stopped. A few minutes later, it started again. “Meow! Meow!” it called out. I went out into the front yard, and again it stopped. As I walked back to the side door, the cries began again, except that this time, it wasn’t “meow” but “help.” I tried but still couldn't quite hear exactly where the sound was coming from. All of the large trees in the back yard make it sometimes difficult to pinpoint the location, since the sound gets bounced around so much. I made my way across the yard and heard the cries for help much more clearly. I also saw the source: on the deck of one of the houses behind us was an elderly woman on the ground, head slumped down and one arm half-cradling the frame of her walker. “Help. Help,” she cried out softly. I ran through the trees to the back fence and bounded over it into her back yard. As I reached her, it was obvious that she had fallen pretty hard. There was a golfball-sized knot on her forehead and blood was trailing down her temple. “Please help me,” she said. “I can’t move my legs.” I cleared away the branches and tools and gently helped her onto the seat of her walker. She told me that she had been doing some gardening and fell onto the concrete. “It’s happened before, but usually the neighbors hear me. I guess they aren’t home today,” she said. I helped her into her house and got her a cold compress and an ice pack. She asked how I heard her and I told her that my wife and I live in the just house behind theirs. “Oh,” she said. “my name is Mary. My husband built your back room.” Turns out, I had actually met her daughter and son-in-law last Thanksgiving and her son-in-law — who was also friends with the previous owners of our house — told us the story of our back room. I got Mary a glass of water and asked if anything felt broken. She assured me that she was fine, despite the knot on her forehead and the scrapes on her arms. We found her phone and she called her son and daughter. I wrote my name and number on a piece of paper and told her that I work from home most days and if she needed anything to call. Her son arrived a few minutes later. He was understandably upset, and perhaps a bit confused at seeing a strange man standing in his mother’s kitchen as he walked in. She explained what happened and, after briefly scolding her for doing something she shouldn’t be, he insisted that they go to the hospital. She said she didn’t need a hospital and that she’d done much worse before this. They both thanked me profusely and as they continued the discussion about whether or not they would be going to the hospital, I excused myself and made my way back home.

I think this experience has impacted me for two reasons. The first is as a reminder that I need to be attentive and available to others — to “get involved,” to engage, to connect, to continue to treat people like something other than a transaction. The second is that it speaks to one of the recurring existential questions that many of us keep asking ourselves: “Am I where I need to be?” You could also interpret that as "Am I doing what I need to be doing?" It’s a question I’ve asked myself countless times — for some of you that may mean geographically, for others that may mean emotionally, or even creatively. Regardless of how it applies to you, I have no doubt that in some way it does apply. It’s one of those universal questions that often feels unanswerable, especially when we are deep in the throes of questioning our own creativity. While my first response is to look for what it means, in the end, maybe it was just the Universe simply saying “Yes, Jeffery, you are exactly where you need to be. Now exhale, stop worrying about it and get back to work.” And so it is

Are you where you need to be?

What are the biggest challenges that get between you and making?

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If you love pencils, erasers and all manner of notebooks (and who doesn't?), CW Pencil Enterprise has you covered. In addition to a fabulous product catalog of both new and vintage pencils curated by founder and namesake Caroline Weaver, there's a terrific blog that features reviews, guest editorials and interviews with creatives. You can even purchase a mystery Pencil Box for the graphite lover in your life.

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Nikon may not have released a new camera to celebrate their 100th anniversary (releasing color variants of existing cameras and lenses is an epic fail), but they did make a super-cool time lapse of the Earth from the International Space Station. A new digital F would have been amazing, but I guess the movie will have to do.

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I recently sat down with my friend and terrific pinhole photographer Jon Wilkening for an episode of his podcast, The Creative Bar, to talk about creativity and why making stuff is so hard. I enjoy talking to Jon — he's one of those friends that regularly holds your feet to the fire, but always from a space of respect.

Iteration Number Ten: Death of a Cabbage

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. 

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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.

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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."

 

Iteration Number Nine: Better to be Doing

When I was little, nothing made me happier than drawing. My mom used to say that I could draw before I could talk, though I find that hard to believe given how I tend to ramble on. Art supply stores were better than any toy store to me growing up — pencils, marker pens, crayons and tempera paints were on every Christmas and birthday wish list. My mom — a wonderfully creative crafter — happily obliged and fueled my growing obsession, always encouraging me to pursue what she called "my gift." She loved to tell the story of how, after seeing the American Freedom Train with my dad in 1976, I came home and "drew it perfectly from memory." My stepmother also nurtured my budding creativity. A painter herself, she intruduced me to oils, watercolor and papier-mâché. For most of my formative years and into high school, I wanted to be a Disney animator. I couldn't tell you who the starting pitcher of the Dodgers was but I could rattle off the names of the Nine Old Men at a moment's notice. My high school art teacher, Mr. Andrew, submitted a portfolio of my work to Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, which earned me a Saturday scholorship illustration class with a real Disney animator. Throughout high school and into college, my singular focus was on art and then, without much warning or fanfare, it stopped. I made the realization that I would never be Pollock or de Kooning or Rauschenberg and that my work would never hang in galleries or museums and if that was the case, then what was the point. Why bother? I didn't pick up a brush for pleasure for 20 years. 

It took me those years to realize that it didn't matter where, or even if the things I make are displayed anywhere outside of my own home or studio. That's not the point. The point is that they exist and were made and released into the world. The point is to make — to conjure an intangible something from the ether of nothing and mold it, shape it, form it into a tangible something. The art is in the transformation. That's the point and it's something that I didn't realize when I put my brushes down. I thought my art was about me and that the value I placed on what I made — and subsequently on myself — was tied solely to what someone else would pay for it. As I'm writing this, a scene in The Right Stuff just popped into my head. It's the scene where the astronauts are getting their first look at the Mercury capsule — I mean, spacecraft — and they're asking where the window goes and what about the hatch with explosive bolts. The scientists tell them that this is the final version and there is neither a window nor a hatch with explosive bolts at which point Gordon Cooper says, "Do you boys know what makes this bird go up? Funding makes this bird go up." Gus Grissom chimes in with "That's right. No bucks, no Buck Rogers." If I couldn't be some sort of artistic Buck Rogers, paid handsomely for the inspiration from on high for which I was the only vessel, I didn't want to bother. Ah, youth.

When I did start to paint again, it was from a completely different place and, in fact, happened quite by accident. I was looking for ways to print my photographs on different substrates and I found a book called Digital Art Studio by Dorothy Simpson Krause. I began to explore some of the techniques presented in the book and even reached out to Ms. Krause with a few questions, which she was kind enough to answer. Over the next two years, I produced a new body of work that was unlike anything I'd ever done before. Every piece was an exploration of process — emulsion transfers, new types of mediums, different surfaces and substrates — and every piece went exactly where it needed to go, rather than where I thought it would or should go. I found happiness in the accidents. I built up surfaces, scraped and sanded them away, used bold colors and strong, graphic images and patterns without giving a thought to what I was "trying to say." I simply let the work be what it needed to be and immersed myself in the doing — driven by the process, you might say.

If you've listened to On Taking Pictures, you've heard me paraphrase the words of both Seth Godin and Stephen Pressfield many times on the subjects of resistance and doing, which I believe are inexorably linked. If you are unfamiliar with either of these names, I would recommend The War of Art, by Stephen Pressfield and while there are many great Seth Godin books, I might start with The Dip. In a nutshell, Pressfield's Resistance is the little voice that tries to convince you that what you do is worthless — that you are worthless. "Resistance is an impartial force of nature," Pressfield writes, "like gravity and the laws of thermodynamics. Resistance is clever. It knows if it personalizes its manifestations, it can deceive us and slip past our defenses. It’s like the software that enables direct-mail marketers to send us letter and e-mails addressed, “Dear Susie.” It’s bullshit. Resistance doesn’t know who we are and it doesn’t care." Silencing the voice of Resistance is one of the keys to shipping, which brings us to Seth Godin, who says — again, I'm paraphrasing — that the only things we have control over is when we start and when we ship. "If you're doing your art in a room by yourself, it's not art," Godin says. "It's not art until it changes someone else." I've asked several members of the museum community here in DC what makes art Art with a capital A? Overwhelmingly, the answer revolves around transformation, both of materials and of perception. Getting what you make into the world is the final step of what you can actually control. You can't control what people think — whether they like it, love it, hate it or ignore it is out of your hands. And the likes, hits, pokes or hearts don't mean shit. "Ship often," Seth Godin wrote. "Ship lousy stuff, but ship. Ship constantly. Skip meetings. Often. Skip them with impunity. Ship."

For me, shipping means letting go of the "with what" and just focusing instead on what. Like my friend Jeff Newton told me the other day on the phone, "it's always better to be doing than thinking about doing." Sure, I'm still on the fence about my next camera, but I'm tooling up and making in other areas. In the coming weeks and months, I'll be shipping and sharing several projects I've been working on for a while, such as my new book, Photography by the Letter, moving my Instagram Live painting sessions to YouTube, new episodes of Process Driven and some very exciting collaborations with other artists and photographers. 

 

Are you shipping? If so, I'd love to hear about it. If not, what's holding you back?

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Resource Magazine just released their list of 16 photography podcasts you should be listening to in 2017. Wouldn't you know it — On Taking Pictures is number five. Thanks guys!

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I admit, I sometimes still wax poetic about being a photojournalist, until I see the absolute horror that many of them have to document. Here's a fascinating NY Times article about Catherine Leroy, called The Greatest War Photographer You've Never Heard Of.

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Billy Weeks calls himself a "documentary still photographer." In this terrific TED Talk, he talks about how he got started and why he feels that "the still photograph is one of the strongest communication elements in the world."

 

Iteration Number Eight: Permission Seems to be the Hardest Word

I've been thinking a lot about words, lately — more than usual. I love words. Always have. Not just as language, but the words themselves. The way they sound when spoken, the way they look when written and what they mean or represent beyond the Merriam-Webster definition. For example, my grandfather never carried a wallet, he carried a billfold. You could argue that they are literally representative of the same thing, but the meaning or what they evoke — at least for me — can be significantly different. A pocketbook, not a purse. Dungarees rather than jeans. Or a Davenport, regardless of whether or not it actually is one. Words are labels, yes, but words are also symbols. My wife's past studies have led her to often point out that words are some of the most important symbols that humans use to connect and to create shared meaning. And she's right. For example, for some of you the word "exercise" is positive, a source of pleasure. It brings to mind running, time at the gym, biking, hiking, etc. For others, that same word may be a source of pain — something you have to do, rather than want to do or would prefer to avoid altogether.

What about the word "work"? What does work conjure up for you? If you're a full-time photographer, artist, or writer, it may be something you look forward to because for you work is creating, work is self-expression, work in inspiring. But what about the weekend maker who dreams of leaving his or her nine-to-five to create full-time. To them, work may be simply a task, a hurdle to overcome so that when the work day ends, the time to create begins. For others, work is simply what you do until you retire. Then you can enjoy yourself. I have a friend whose father used to tell him over and over growing up "if it was supposed to be fun, they wouldn't call it work." And do you know what? My friend gets zero joy from his job. He makes good money, but is always stressed and would never consider pursuing what he loves, whatever that might be. For him, like his father before him, work is what you do until you retire.

Not long ago, I was wandering around on YouTube, looking at different painting techniques — my chops are a little rusty and I was looking for some help getting the wheels turning again. I happened across a video by an artist named Bob Burridge. In the video, which he calls his "Bob Blast," Bob was demonstrating how he creates his abstract collages. The techniques he was demonstrating (Bob Blast 104, if you're curious) were already familiar to me, but the video wasn't really about the techniques. It was about giving yourself permission to play. Throughout the video, as Bob was happily painting away, adding bits of paper to his composition, he was reminding the viewer to just have fun — to play. "I'm just goofing around," he says at one point. One video became about a dozen and in each case, the techniques were secondary to the act of creative exploration — playing at making, without any sort of expectation about the outcome. As simple as it sounds, this was a revelatory afternoon for me. The idea of giving myself permission to play — as opposed to making "work" — was remarkably freeing. In fact, I was so inspired that I grabbed my iPhone and some printer paper and set up a makeshift paint station in the laundry room under a horrible fluorescent shop light. I opened Instagram, selected Live, hit the Start Live Video button and began to paint. 

About a dozen people tuned in to watch that first session — I've done several more since and will be making the move to YouTube soon — and 45 minutes later, I had two finished pieces on the paint spattered sheet of cardboard in front of me.  And just to clarify, I'm using the word "finished" here very loosely. Were they good? No. They're crap. But "good" wasn't the point. The point was to let go of the notions of good or finished or art or Art and just do, like when we were kids and just rode bikes. We didn't have a destination, we just did it because it was better than staying inside. That's exactly how I feel doing these live sessions — no destination and it's better than not painting, or writing, or photographing or playing the harmonica or whatever your "it" thing is. Just play. You don't really even need permission.

 

When was the last time you gave yourself permission to play?

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In 1976, he introduced the fine art world to color photography and in his new book, The Democratic Forest, photographer William Eggleston proves once again that there's beauty in banality.

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Photographer Aline Smithson first gained notoriety with a series of photographs of her mother that paid homage to “Whistler’s Mother.” In this interview with PDN, she talks about the importance of personal work as well as advice she gives to students. “I think we pull from the stew of childhood and life experiences," she says. "When I work with students I sometimes feel like a photo therapist, where I ask them all about their life from day one."

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Cinematographer John Mathieson, BSC talks to American Cinematographer about creating the raw look for Logan — what Mathieson calls “a diamond, but rough" — and how one particular scene in the film pays tribute to Prince.

Iteration Number Seven: Stay Behind the Barrier

This edition of Iterations was originally going to be about words, but at the moment, I'm pretty far down that rabbit hole and I think I need to root around a bit more before I come out the other side. Instead, let's talk about barriers — specifically the barriers that we put up around us that stand between making and shipping and not doing anything. The little voices that gnaw at us, making us wonder "what if I don't have the right camera? What if I don't have the right pencil? The right brush? The right notebook? The right website? The right hammer?" Guess what, gang, you have exactly the right camera, the right pencil, the right brush, the right notebook and most of the time, there is no right hammer. There's just a hammer. So pick that thing up and bust up those barriers because the barriers are a lie. What you (read: we) really have is fear. Fear that what you do with those tools will be shit, that it won't be liked, commented on or that it will be ignored completely. Spoiler: so what? Remember what Gary Busey calls fear? False Evidence Appearing Real. Did Picasso paint for likes? No. He painted because he had to, because it fed his soul. And I know this because he said "The purpose of art is washing the dust of daily life off our souls." Sure, he sold his art so he could eat (and drink). But he made his art so he could live.

I've been working on building out a new studio in my basement off and on since we moved in — more off than on, frankly — and some days thinking through all of the variables really kicks my ass. I'm trying to design work tables and a vertical easel and all sorts of tools to help make my art. The problem is, I'm spending more time thinking about the tools than I am making art. The tools — in this case, the tables and the easel — are my barriers. Sure, on one hand, these are real physical problems that need to be solved, but on the other, am I overthinkinking the whole thing? In an effort to get myself off the hamster wheel of overthinking, I've started doing Instagram Live paint sessions in the laundry room. No fancy work tables or easels, just a piece of cardboard under an awful fluorescent shop light and my iPhone to capture the process. I don't even use real substrates; I just use printer paper that I coat with gesso. But the beauty is, I make. It's practice. It's meditation. It's play, not work (which we'll talk about next time) and it feeds that desire to create something from nothing, even if that something is rubbish. I'm sure I'll figure out a solution for the tools, but in the meantime, my hands are in motion putting paint to surface. Make. Smile. Repeat.

 

What are some of your barriers and what are you doing to get to the other side?

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How did Claude Monet go from being denied credit and living off potatoes in 1868 to become the world’s most expensive living artist by selling a single canvas to a Japanese tycoon for 800,000 francs in 1922? Read this fascinating essay by Ross King to find out.

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Photojournalist Benjamin Rasmussen documents beauty pageants held by immigrant communities throughout the United States in this portfolio for Vogue. “It wasn’t about mainstream pageant culture,” Rasmussen says. “It was learning about and honoring the countries their parents came from, while making an American life for themselves.”

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The new video from Elliot Moss is a surreal journey through remote natural and urban landscapes captured by a drone illuminating the scenes with a single powerful spotlight. As operator Daniel Riley notes, "When it's up in the air and you flick on the light, it's almost like you've turned on an artificial sun."

Iteration Number Six: Objects in Motion

Most of you are probably familiar with Newton's first law of motion. For those who aren't, it basically states that an object at rest will stay at rest unless acted upon by an external force. The same is true for an object in motion. But while Newton applied this law to physical motion, it also applies to creative motion. It's basically what Picasso meant when he said, "inspiration exists, it just has to find you working." Chuck Close, on the other hand, doesn't wait for inspiration, insisting that "inspiration is for amateurs. I just get to work." I think he's saying the same thing as Picasso—and Newton for that matter—in that his work happens only when he's in motion, when he's engaged in the act of making. Now this may sound obvious, but the doing—not just the thinking about the doing—is often where we stumble. I know it's where I stumble. I have journals and notepads filled with sketches and ideas for projects—things that I should be DOING, not just thinking about doing. But for whatever reason, taking the leap from thinking to doing often requires an extraordinary amount of creative energy and sometimes I just can't seem to move the stone. I wax poetic about the creative process of others and yet so often my own process gets mired in analysis paralysis, fear or just simple procrastination, bringing a halt to whatever creative inertia I was attempting to jumpstart. The irony is that starting and stopping is really all we have control over. When we begin and when we ship. The rest is alchemy. So what's the answer? How do we (read: I) break this cycle of stagnation and move to act? The answer will be different for everyone. For some, it may mean adopting a schedule like "from 9am to 11am on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays I write [or paint or take photographs]." For others, it may mean enlisting an accountability buddy—someone who checks in with you periodically to make sure you're still on track and who kicks your ass if you're not. For me, I think it's both of these things—at least for a while—along with trying to play the part of someone more confident than I am. I don't mean "fake it till you make it"—I used to be much more confident than I have become in recent years—it's more like "fake it till you find it" and the "it" is the motion of doing.   

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For years, I've used Coffitivity as a way to break the silence of an empty studio while I work. Thanks to Boing Boing, Coffitivity has been at least temporarily been replaced by the sounds of cracking ice, howling wind and the low drone of the diesel engines of an Arctic icebreaker.

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John Berger's landmark 1972 BBC series Ways of Seeing is now on YouTube and will change the way you look at art.

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Lensculture has a terrific article on some of the photographic inspiration that cinematographer James Laxton pulled from for the recent Oscar winner for Best Picture, Moonlight.

Iteration Number Five: Apology Accepted

It's New Year's Day and I've been sitting here staring at the empty pages of a new notebook for about an hour and half, trying to resist the urge to wax poetic about the past year. I've sharpened and resharpened my pencils and I've filled, emptied and refilled my fountain pen. I even went so far as to text my friend Jon about it. His reply: "Then wax poetic. Be yourself." He sometimes has a wonderful economy with words that just gets to the heart of the matter. The thing is, I can't say that he's wrong. Waxing poetic is part of what I do — maybe even part of who I am. It's certainly a part of why at least some of you subscribed in the first place. 

However, in this edition, I'd like to resist the urge and instead take the opportunity to apologize for the complete and utter failure at getting issues of Iterations out with any degree of regularity over the past year. I really do sit down every other week or so with the intention of producing a new one, and every week or so I stare at the blank pages, trying to come up with something relevant or inspiring or at the very least interesting for you, the reader. But, as I sit here thinking about it, maybe that's exactly the problem. Perhaps instead of angsting over making it interesting for you (because really, how can I know what that would be?) I should instead just share what's going on with me and what I find interesting in the moment and perhaps that will inspire you to share what's going on with you. Stories, after all, are like fuel for me and I really would love to hear or read some of yours.  

When I first decided to do a newsletter, I described Iterations as "an occasional brain dump of thoughts, inspiration and ideas." However, the "brain dump" part quickly fell prey to what happens to so many of my projects and ideas: I end up killing it by trying to overly define it and make certain that it's a polished, structured, finished and fully realized piece of "content" (for the record, though I use it I really dislike that word). So, since we're only a few Iterations in and it's the start of a brand new year, I'd like to start again and jettison the whole idea of "complete" and just get back to connecting. 

While I don't yet have a clear roadmap for the year ahead, 2017 is looking like it will be filled with collaboration and a number of terrific creative challenges — some new and some so old that they feel new again. In the next edition, I'll give more detail on what's to come (spoiler: lots of analog) but will tell you now that 2017 will be a year of shipping and I can't wait to share it all with you.

WHAT'S ON YOUR 2017 ROAD MAP?

Iteration Number Four: Coming Home

Today is day two of my life as a homeowner. Technically, it's day three — we got the keys on Tuesday — but yesterday was the first day I actually woke up as a homeowner, so I'm calling it day two. I love this house. I haven't even moved in and I love this house. I love it as a place, as a symbol and as an object. As a place, it represents home, of course, but perhaps not only in the traditional sense of "this is my home." Beyond the back yard dense with decades-old oaks and pines, the mid-century modern decor and the basement workshops, it represents an end to a lifetime of feeling like I don't really belong anywhere. My parents divorced when I was four and my mom and I moved around a lot. In fact, I never went to the same school two years in a row until junior high — and even then, we moved again the summer before high school, so I was effectively starting over. College and the years after came and went along with the growing number of places I lived — or rather occupied. It wasn't until 2000 that I had an apartment for any length of time. And while I enjoyed the complex, I never felt like I belonged — not really— and the apartment never felt like home. Fast forward to a couple months ago — keep in mind, I'm blowing past leaving California, moving to the East Coast, falling in love and getting married, all in the span of about a year. My wife and I had been looking off and on at houses and one night, she was looking at Zillow and I think she may have even gasped. "Oh, my God," she said, "you have to see this. I think I found our house." We drove up to look at it that night and, as we walked up the driveway, one of the first things we noticed was a momma deer lying under one of the many trees in the back yard. She wasn't startled, nor did she get up and run away. On the contrary, she just — and I really don't know how else to put it — she just "welcomed us home." I'll save the rest for another story but, suffice to say, from the moment we walked around the house it felt as though we belonged here. We fell in love with it from the first walkthrough. With the exception of the lighting fixture in the entry and the wallpaper in both bathrooms, we literally would not change a thing. We learned that the couple who owned the house were the original owners. They had built the house themselves in 1956. He was an engineer and a woodworker and she was a painter. This was a house built by makers — with studios both on the main level and in the lower level. The evidence of their "makerness" is seen throughout the house, from the impeccable woodwork and decor to the presentation space on the lower level where new paintings were unveiled to family and friends.
I've wrestled with the notion of home for much of my life, and in recent years, I've also wrestled with my own creative output — especially as it relates to personal work and finding my voice. But in this place — steeped in the legacy of love and craft that runs so deeply through its bones — I feel as though a great existential weight has been lifted and I no longer have to eat up processor cycles searching for what it means to belong...to be home. I am home. I am grateful. And I'm ready to get to work.

Does the place where you make affect how or what you make? 

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I've been fascinated by crows since I was a kid. Recently, I came across this documentary on the intelligence of crows. One of the most fascinating (some researchers say "human like") traits is their ability to actually recognize faces and are able to even associate specific faces with danger. They are also able to pass knowledge to offspring as a form of social learning. 

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In 1966, artist Ed Ruscha photographed every building on the Sunset Strip in Southern California. He released the two and a half miles worth of photos as a book called, appropriately, Every Building on the Sunset Strip. The accordion-folded book unfurls for twenty seven feet. This short film about his work (charmingly narrated by Owen Wilson) is a terrific watch. 

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If you have an interest — any interest — chances are there's a convention of some sort dedicated to it. In his book Conventional Wisdom, photographer Arthur Drooker takes the viewer beyond Hall H and into a world of weekend mermaids, plushies, ventriloquists, fetishists, Santas, and even Abraham Lincoln cosplayers. "The wisdom I’ve gained from this project," Drooker writes, "has shown me that regardless of what they’re about, where they’re held or who attends them, all conventions satisfy a basic human urge: a longing for belonging."

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Select prints of some of my photographs are now available. I'm releasing them as "rolls" of twenty-four images at a time. Prints are open editions on 11x14 inch Baryta paper using archival inks. Visit the store for details. 

Iteration Number Three: Ch-Ch-Ch-Changes

Exactly one year ago today, after a five day road trip across the country, I woke up on the east coast to begin a new chapter of my life. I had gotten to perhaps the lowest period in my life, with the exception of the deaths of my parents. My world had become grey and full of ghosts—of both people and places—and I needed to make a massive change to get myself out of the grey. So I packed everything I owned into my car and drove east through the California desert and across Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, Oklahoma, Arkansas, Tennessee, Virginia and finally into Washington DC. The trip was my hero's journey, an offering to the fates to show I was serious about earning this new chance and this new chapter. Looking back, I wasn't prepared for how incredible this past year has been—not just compared to the dark in my life, but against the totality of my life. I was talking to a friend about it and he asked if I had ever played video games like Civilization or Age of Empires. I told him I had and he went on to explain that life was like the map in one of these types of games. It's all dark until you start to move and as you move further out into the dark—read: the unknown—more of the map is revealed to you. But it's only in the moving that you able to uncover possibility. What a perfect metaphor. I can't wait to see what else is out there in the dark, just waiting to be uncovered.

How has your life changed over the past year?

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Photographer Reka Nyari shoots incredibly sexy, stylized fashion but it's a simple set of black & white nudes that really set me back on my heels. The woman is beautiful and the ink reminds me of the incredible full-body yakuza tattoos, but the way it's shot—poses, lighting, composition and the super-contrasty black & white toning—is just sublime.

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I've been reading and watching quite a bit about Daido Moriyama lately. I've been a fan of his black & white work for years, but have just recently started to get into his color work. I'm fascinated by his process of exploring his neighborhood over and over again for decades, looking for changes, new details or previously unseen compositions. His latest book, Daido Tokyo is a terrific introduction into some of his color work made on the streets of Shinjuku.

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While thinking about how I'd like to tell stories with video, I've been looking at how others are using the medium. I don't want to be in them, per se, not seen anyway and I'm not sure I want them to be straight interviews. I love the intimacy of audio and having a crew of people—even a small crew—could be intimidating to people who aren't used to being in front of the camera. That, and if my attention occasionally shifts to checking focus, or making sure it's lit "just so," that takes me out of the conversation, and that's not an option. A few years ago, NPR did a terrific piece on Charles W. Cushman, an amateur photographer who began shooting Kodachrome in 1938 and continued for three decades. The way it was put together is just terrific—it manages to feel like video, but it's not. Instead, it's a cleverly produced slideshow that uses animation and voiceover to create an incredibly compelling portrait (no pun) of an unsung hero of early color photography.

Lately, one of my favorite sources of inspiration for the type of video I'd like to produce is Great Big Story. An offshoot of CNN, Great Big Story is available as an iOS app, an Android app and a website, all of which feature bite-sized stories across four categories: Human Condition, Frontiers, Planet Earth and Flavors. Stories are only around three minutes, but I can't think of one that didn't educate, entertain or otherwise hold my attention from beginning to end.

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I'm going to be making prints of some of my photographs available on my website. I'll be releasing them as "rolls" of twenty-four images at a time. I'm still not sure whether I'll add subsequent rolls, or remove the current roll when I've assembled enough images for the next one. Prints will be open editions on 11x14 inch paper and should be available within the next week or so at http://jefferysaddoris.com.

Iteration Number Two: A Willingness for Reinvention

As it happens, "mostly weekly" is open to interpretation. I'll be honest with you, writing a newsletter is harder than I thought. I want it to be a balance between what's going on with me and what I think might be interesting to you. This is probably the third or fourth iteration of this issue (see what I did there?) and I'm still not sure it's any good. Maybe that's the point. It doesn't have to be good, it just needs to be interesting and honest. Maybe I'll tackle "good vs. interesting" next time. Onward!

A Willingness for Reinvention

One of the questions that has become more and more difficult for me to answer is "So, what do you do?" Most of the time, I have to really stop and think about it and often the answer will vary depending on who I'm talking to — graphic designer, podcast host, writer, artist and photographer are all valid depending on the day of the week or how deep I am into a given project. I don't think I'm alone in this — in fact, far from it. For more and more people that I talk to (not just "creatives"), the idea of a single revenue stream or even a single pursuit is becoming a rarity. Being open to change is no longer merely an option — for many of us, it's a necessity. Recently, I've been culling through some of the older content on Faded & Blurred and I came across something I had written about the late Hillman Curtis. Hillman often described himself as "a filmmaker, an author and a new media designer." While I was an Art Director at Universal Studios, Hillman was one of my design heroes. It was 2001 and Flash was well on its way to being everywhere on the web and I loved it. Flash made things possible on the web that no other platform at the time would allow. As a side note, I was actually hired as a contractor at Universal building the Flash-based sites for Universal Theme parks. When I was hired permanently as an Art Director, one of the largest projects that I designed was a unified look and feel for the Universalstudios.com homepage and the major business units — all in Flash.

There was a fantastic conference for Flash developers called Flash Forward, and my then-boss allowed me and a colleague to fly up to San Francisco for it. All of the top developers at the time were there, including Brendan DawesJoshua Davis and Hillman Curtis, who was the main reason I wanted to go. So, I'm standing in line at the bookstore to buy a copy of Hillman's book Making the Invisible Visible and who should walk by, but the man himself. I introduced myself to him and told him how inspired I was by his work. He thanked me and we talked for about 10 minutes about process and inspiration. I asked him how he made the leap from musician to Flash developer and he said that for him, it really came down to curiosity and finding different ways to tell stories. As he shook my hand before he left, he said "You've always got to be willing to ask questions and learn something new," which I've never forgotten and think I've subconsciously tried to live by, even before meeting Hillman.

Since college, I've been a prop master, a milliner, a salesman, a barista, a coder, a Photoshop instructor, a graphic/new media designer, an art director, a podcast host and probably a few other things I can't remember. I also paint, write and take pictures. Here's the thing: each and every one of those things has contributed to or informed or somehow inspired the work that I do right now and all of it centers around a willingness for reinvention fueled by a hunger for curiosity. Experience happens in real time and while there may be shortcuts, they often come with a cost. Knowing the answers isn't nearly as important as being open to the questions. Rilke, in Letters to a Young Poet, said it better than I ever could: “Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books that are now written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.”

How do you answer the question "what do you do?" Has your answer changed over time and is it currently what you want it to be?

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In the latest episode of Process Driven, I had the pleasure of having a conversation with wildlife photographer Nick Brandt to discuss his latest body of work, Inherit the Dust. It's a fascinating conversation around a body of work Nick calls "an elegy to a vanishing world."

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While I've heard the name for years, I really wasn't familiar with the life and work of Noam Chomsky until I watched the terrific documentary A Requiem for the American Dream on Netflix (trailer here). In fact, I may never have heard of the documentary had it not been that I follow Mark Wagner on Instagram. Mark is a fantastic artist who uses US currency as his medium and did all of the motion graphics work for the film.

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Hyper-Reality by Keiichi Matsuda is a theoretical look at what happens beyond VR. I can't decide whether I'm fascinated or terrified. It's sort of like a mescaline-induced version of that scene in Minority Report where Tom Cruise's character is walking through the mall and all of the ads are talking directly to him. "Welcome back, John Anderton" indeed.

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One of the great joys of growing up in Southern California was riding my bike everywhere, especially during the summer. More often than I can recall, I would get on my bike after breakfast and just ride — with no particular destination. Just ride. It's something that I still do and it's just as freeing as it was when I was a kid. Skateboard culture was just taking off and while I had one, I always preferred my bike. Here's a terrific photo essay by Jessica Fulford-Dobson about girls in Afghanistan who are forbidden to ride bikes, so they ride skateboards (skateboarding has become the number one sport for women). It's pretty awesome to see these little Afghan girls in traditional dress with helmets and pads, whizzing around a skate park in Kabul.

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I would imagine that at least a few of you are going through some things that you may not think you're prepared for. Hell, I feel that way most of the time. One of my favorite sources of internal inspiration is the philosopher Alan Watts who said, among many other things: "The only way to make sense out of change is to plunge into it, move with it, and join the dance."

Iteration Number One: The Possibility of Process

Hello there and welcome to the very first edition of Iterations, my mostly weekly brain dump of thoughts, inspiration and ideas. I'm not exactly sure what this is going to look like as we move along, but I would like it to be a conversation — which means I want to hear from you. So please feel free to respond, interact and above all else, tell me what is and isn't working. I want this to be interesting for both of us, okay? Here we go.

The Possibility of Process

I've wrestled with the terms Art and Artist for much of my adult life, both in terms of how I relate to the work of others and how I see myself and define my own work. My parents divorced when I was four and while my mother always encouraged my creativity, whether that meant drawing, painting, or abandoning a degree in marine biology to pursue scenic and costume design, my father didn't see the value — any value — in pursuing a creative life. Drawing and painting as a child was one thing, but deciding that I wanted to "be an artist" was something else entirely. "Artists are a dime a dozen," he would routinely tell me. "You need something stable, with benefits," was another favorite. My father worked for the railroad, as did his brothers, his father and most of his friends. In fact, I was the first in four generations of Saddoris men not to work for the Southern or Union Pacific, something which my father simply couldn't understand. I have to believe it was coming from a space of wanting the best for me, but he was relentless in his criticisms of me, and most of the time, cruel in how he expressed them. My mother was as supportive as he was critical, always encouraging me to follow my passion and quick to praise any creative achievement no matter how small.

Recent conversations about the boundaries and definitions of art — both big and small "a" — have made me realize that the voices of my parents are still very much a part of how I see myself at different stages of my creative process. For example, when I'm creating — painting mostly, though occasionally when I'm taking pictures as well — I hear my mom's voice encouraging me to pursue the happiness that comes when my hands are in motion making something. But if and when I share the thing that I've made, and it doesn't sell, doesn't get liked, doesn't matter to anyone as "art," that's when my father's words re-open a wound that has never really healed. I sometimes even have to fight through those words to start a new piece because for me, both the definitions and the ideologies of art and artist are very personal. I think that's one of he reasons I identify so much with process. Process contains infinite possibility, independent of the reality of response and opinion. So I keep making — slowly, purposefully — trying to hold on the little voice urging me on, guiding me along the path of creativity.

Are you comfortable calling yourself an artist and what you make art? What drives you forward or holds you back as you pursue a creative life?

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For the past couple weeks or so, I've been listening to old Yes albums while I work. I haven't listened to them with any regularity for years, but on a whim I booted up Relayer from 1974 and was once again hooked — superb musicianship supported by Jon's ethereal vocals have become the current soundtrack to my days of writing and painting. I've created a Spotify playlist of some of my favorites from Relayer, Tales From Topographic Oceans and Going for the One.

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Is your work telling a specific story or is it part of a larger narrative? In a terrific two-part essay, Ingrid Sundberg offers insights into the differences between the two and why many of us use one term when we really mean the other.

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Robert Rauschenberg has been an enormous influence on my work, both aesthetically and in terms of the process of making it. In this piece, Greg Allen shares the fascinating story of one of Rauschenberg's combines called "Short Circuit" from 1955, which once contained a hidden flag painting by Jasper Johns that was stolen in 1965. Years later, the flag was brought to a gallery for authentication but was never seen again. Neither Rauschenberg nor Johns ever acknowledged publicly that the painting was missing, despite the fact that the piece now contains a reproduction of the original Johns painting by Elaine Sturtevant.

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Archillect is an AI curation algorithm that posts images every 10 minutes to Twitter — and the images it (she) selects are terrific. While they don't appear to be random, I have yet to notice any discernible pattern. According to the site, "Archillect [archive + intellect] is a synthetic intelligence (or artificial intelligence, depending on the point of view) made to find and share inspiring visuals over social media channels."

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If you love conversations about creativity, check out my podcast Process Driven. In it, I sit down with photographers, artists, musicians and more for in-depth conversations about what drives them.

I'll be back in a week or so with more interesting tidbits and maybe even a story or two but before I go, I'd like to remind you of something Matisse said about creativity. It's simple, but powerful. He said, "Creativity takes courage." Now, go out and be courageous.

Iteration Zero

Hello there and welcome to the very first installment (we could even call it a public beta, hence the "Issue 0") of ITERATIONS, my mostly weekly brain dump of thoughts, inspiration and ideas. I'm not exactly sure what it's going to look like, but I think what appears below will give you an idea — an anecdote, one or two items that I may have some commentary on and a few links to help get your creative juices flowing. Regardless, I hope you'll give it a shot and maybe stay a while and see where it goes.

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For years, it seems that my personal work has been created in a series of fits and starts — a staccato melody of inspiration that ends as abruptly as it begins. In 2008, I picked up a brush for the first time in a decade and over the next year or so created a small body of work, partially inspired by the propaganda of the 1940s. When my mom died in 2009, I stopped creating personal work altogether until 2013 when I began a short series of paintings inspired by the ideas of espionage and covert operations — more narrative than the previous series, but similar in tone. There were a few experiments in more abstract styles in between, but certainly nothing you would call prolific. Much of the work that I began in 2008 was based on exploring new processes and trying to figure out my own digital/analog workflow, with the help of artists like Dorothy Simpson Krause and Bonny Lhotka whose work with printing on a variety of non-traditional substrates has proved invaluable.

A month or so ago, I began sketching out some ideas for a new body of work — something more than just a few pieces — and in many ways a continuation of my previous work. This time, the inspiration is not so much the process behind the work, but the imagery that will be contained within it. I've been collecting vintage ephemera — old Russian passports, foreign currency, stock certificates and all manner of official stamps and seals. I'm not sure whether now living in DC is a part of it, though I can't imagine that it hasn't crept into my creative subconscious somehow. Privacy, surveillance, power and corruption are themes that have fascinated me for years and living so close to the eye of the storm where these issues are fought for and against is fuel for the type of imagery I find myself wanting to continue to explore. I'm excited to see where it goes and to be able to share it with you.

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Instagram has grown from a favorite of hipsters and foodies into a fantastic platform for creative discovery. It's no longer just for photography either. In addition to photographers, I follow artists, designers and musicians and I am consistently amazed at not only the incredibly inspiring work, but also the creativity with which that work is being shared.

Jason M. Peterson is a brilliant architectural photographer based in Chicago whose images capture his city and the cities he visits from astonishing perspectives.

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  • One of my new favorite podcasts interviewed one of my all-time favorite book designers. Check out Chip Kidd on Longform.
  • Twenty-two year old Russian designer Artem Troinoi has created a hypothetical redesign of The New York Times and the results are simply brilliant.
  • If you're a fan of film scores, you'll love this conversation called "Art of the Score" between Carter Burwell, Alex Baldwin, Ethan Coen, Joel Coen and neuroscientist Aniruddh Patel.
  • I have sort of an obsession with notebooks, so getting a glimpse into the notebooks of some of the top designers in the world nearly made my head explode. Reading their thoughts of what makes a notebook great is icing on the cake.
  • Pixar's 22 Rules to Phenomenal Storytelling are probably more geared towards writing fiction, but there are some great points in there for creating all sorts of narratives, especially number eight: "Finish your story, let go even if it's not perfect. In an ideal world you have both, but move on. Do better next time."

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That's it for this preview edition of ITERATIONS. If you'd like to subscribe, use the button below. If newsletters aren't your thing, you can follow me on Twitter or Instagram or you can listen to my podcasts, Process Driven and On Taking Pictures. Thanks for reading.