The photo bug bites. And it feels soooooo good.

As a follow up to the previous post, I’d just like to thank you again for listening, and providing such quality blog-therapy. I’d also like to share that the photo bug has bitten, big time. I went out on snowshoes in the aftermath of #snOMG this morning, and while I didn’t get very far, I did have some serious fun taking some shots of the boys in the yard (below).

It’s hard to put into words what a relief it is when a passion you’ve been burying, neglecting, ignoring, subsuming for years comes bubbling back up. So, if you’re burying anything that you really love, I hope you can find a way to do it.

Now, I can think of worse things than sitting in bed writing a plan as I will be doing this afternoon. But, I’d rather be out taking photos.

Peace. Spaight

Photography hopes, dreams, and phoning it in

Or, the long-buried story of my epic photo school failure.

I never thought I’d be writing about phoning it in; you know, the act of making a half-hearted attempt at something. Normally, half-hearted is not a word in my personal vocabulary. This week, on something important (to me), I phoned it in, and I feel like crap about it. So, forgive me for what’s sure to be a very “soft” post, but, I need some catharsis, a little piece of mental salvation. Today, this little piece of the web is a journal; if you don’t want to read it, I understand. It’s one of those personal posts, that, like this one about losing Gomer and a future one about miscarriage, had to be written eventually. I’ll try to at least have a sense of humor about it, isn’t that from whence the best catharsis comes?

Back in around 1997 or 1998, several lifetimes ago, seemingly (yes, I am THAT old), I took a photography workshop in Oaxaca, Mexico, with the amazing documentary photographer Mary Ellen Mark through Maine Workshops. I won an award for a photo of some Mexican Punks, and went to New York to receive it. Mary Ellen, whom I admired greatly (still do), liked my work and encouraged me to apply to the International Center of Photography in New York. They have an amazing documentary photojournalism program that at the time, accepted about 10 students from around the world each year. I applied, and I got accepted, and I quit my job at Minneapolis agency Carmichael Lynch, took a flying leap, and went to New York in fall, 1999.

And while living in New York was an amazing experience, my time at ICP was (still is) one of the greatest disappointments of my life. It started out strong; I had a great eye for “the moment”, everyone said. But technically, I sucked. I am really terrible with anything but natural outdoor lighting, and my printing skills were even worse. The director and teacher of the program, Joan Liftin, whom I greatly respected (still do), left mid-year, which really threw me off-kilter. I came home to Wisconsin for a break (met a guy) and lost focus, to say the least. When I went back to New York, my photos got more and more depressing. In January, we had a workshop with Mike Yamashita from National Geographic in which we had to go shoot Central Park in a snowstorm; I couldn’t muster anything more than a pathetic photograph of an empty slide. Mind you, I was in my early-30s and could almost hear the sound of my eggs dying. My final student exhibition was, laughably, a close up of myself and a close up of my bed, both taken with a plastic Holga toy camera, and a shot of my aging father walking into the ocean (the last of which, a gallery tried to purchase for an insanely low price, and I refused to sell.) I might as well have exhibited three large photographs of my navel.

Now, I’d been dreaming of being a photographer for about a decade already at that point, in spite of my burgeoning success in the *highly glamorous* business of advertising. So, needless to say, the glorious ball of flaming failure that I experienced in New York was a bit hard to handle. Never mind the fact that I didn’t actually want to achieve a lifestyle in which I’d earn $250 if I miraculously ever got a photograph on the cover of the New York Times, and I’d pay ten times that monthly for a tiny studio apartment. The point was, I’m not used to sucking, and failing, and I don’t much like it (who does?)

Fast forward a decade. I move back to Wisconsin, get a job, buy a house, meet a guy, get married, honeymoon in Paris, use one of my few remaining eggs to have a kid, get a different job, and another, then land, twice and for all, at Jigsaw. As far as photography goes, it doesn’t have much of a part in my life, although before New York it was a huge personal passion. Sadly, I haven’t taken a lot of good photos of my son. And, though we have been married for six years, my husband has never seen my photographs that got me into ICP or that I took while I was there. Boom! Passion buried.

Now we’re at the “phoning it in” part of this post. The lesson here is: kids, don’t phone it in. Ever. Jigsaw, you see, has a monthly photo contest on our blog, with some amazingly talented photographers. I decided I should start participating. But instead of actually doing that, participating, finding it again, taking some new photos for the contest, I just pulled an old photo from my blog and phoned it in (emailed it in, actually). And I’m extremely disappointed in myself. If I had put my heart into it, like the others did, and still not done well, that would be much more admirable than the fact that I couldn’t get over the disappointments of the past and find the passion.

So, I’m committing here publicly that over the course of the coming months, I will do my best to pour my heart and soul into photographs again and find it. I might still suck, but at least I’ll be trying. And that, I can live with. Fortunately, I have an incredibly inspiring group of people to learn from.

Have you ever let yourself down? How did you let yourself back up? Ever buried a passion? How did you find it again?

Thanks for listening.


Socially shared photos should not suck

So here are three easy ways to make your photos rock.

Thinking about photos that people share through social media and how “professional” they should be, spurred by some photos that I saw someone tweeting from a conference last week that were not of a quality where I, personally, would have used them with my name attached. Believe me, I get that socially shared photos are sometimes better if they are “raw” and “authentic” and all that. But that doesn’t mean it’s OK for them to be total crap. If someone takes the time and cares enough to click your link, they should be rewarded with some eye candy, not walk away disappointed.

What does a brand strategist know about photography? Actually I studied with documentary photographer Mary Ellen Mark at a workshop in Mexico and then on her recommendation attended the International Center of Photography for a year, completing their documentary photography program. So I do know a few things I can share. Hell, I paid tens of thousands of dollars in tuition to get these tips, but for you, no charge ;-) These are things that anyone can easily do to create great results.
Why shoot from across the room or across the street if you can get closer and more intimate with your subject? Long lenses have a time and a place (say, if you’re shooting polar bears), but if you can get physically closer, throw the telephoto back in the bag and engage. You are going to get a stronger connection, sense the moment better and avoid a bunch of distracting junk around the edge of your frame. While you are at it, pay attention to all of the edges of your frame. You might argue you can crop the junk out later, but I say that’s lame. The photo will be way more powerful if you just take it well in the first place.
The first time Mary Ellen watched me shoot, she said “You are obviously an athletic person. Why aren’t you moving?” That simple advice rocked my photographic world. When we’re little, more often than not we are taught to take a snapshot standing up with the subject dead ahead in the center of the frame. Later, no one tells us that this is incredibly boring. Crouch down. Reach up. Move around your subject to the left and the right. Lay on the ground or stand on your head if you want to. It will give your photos a lot more energy.
While you are moving so vigorously around your subject, keep in mind that photos are not little rectangles. They have more than width and length; the great ones actually show depth. Pay attention to that depth, and find lines that you can use to create it.

These are not meant to be “rules” and obviously there are always exceptions. It’s also more relevant to certain applications – like stuff you’re tweeting or putting on flickr for a client brand or your brand, versus your personal photos on Facebook. They are just a few things you might want to try to bring your photos to life and help make them more “sharable.”

My next challenge is to work on taking better photos with my iPhone like this guy, Andy. Any tips for that? What do you think? What have you found that works for you?

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