The town of Cortez in Florida is one of the last remaining fishing villages left on the East coast of the United States. We come here to a dockside restaurant call Star Fish Market to have some fish and enjoy scenery and village atmosphere. It’s also a magnet for seabirds that feed off the scraps from the fishing boats. Right now the restaurant is in summer shutdown which lasts a few weeks. Hopefully the fishermen are still working or these birds will have to find another place to get their scraps.
Yesterday I got up early to look for some epic shots of the sunrise. Probably because I had an agenda it didn’t work out. I had a location in mind but the weather didn’t cooperate and no matter where I walked I couldn’t find a good composition. I walked back to the parking lot a little defeated and noticed a flock of White Ibis feeding in the shallow waters of Sarasota Bay in front of the car. So I just sat down on the ground to relax and watch them as they worked the shore. I guess the lesson is to keep an open mind because you never know what you’ll see. I think sometimes with photography its better to let the world come to me rather than marching out to find something in my head. Beside it was a much more enjoyable experience just sitting here watching these cool fellas in the morning.
I don’t know why I don’t come down here more often. That didn’t sound right, almost like a clumsy pick up line. What I meant to say, …oh never-mind, you know what I meant. But anyway, this is one of those locations in Sarasota where it’s impossible to take a bad photo. I could pretty much hold the camera up and press the shutter and I’m going to end up with something good. At least that’s what I tell myself, your result may vary. So even if you think this is a nice shot, keep in mind it was easy. Not easy as in a pickup line, but you know what I mean.
About a year ago I joined The Arcanum. Since that time I have been on a journey towards artistic mastery. I’m going to do my best to relate my experiences over the last year. This post is a little long but I’ve tried to distill the aspects of The Arcanum that have had the most impact on my photography and me as a person. In reality it’s a story of a personal journey that I’m on and perhaps as you read this you can relate to it in your own way.
What is The Arcanum?
Trying to write a sentence describing The Arcanum is a challenge. I wanted to start this paragraph with something like, “The Arcanum is an on-line Academy”, …or “The Arcanum is a school of artistic mastery”, but in each case it falls a little short of the mark. The premise of The Arcanum is the brainchild of photographer and entrepreneur Trey Ratcliff along with Peter Giordano and Curtis Simmons. As best I can describe it is to say it’s an opportunity to do something really amazing. I know that sounds vague so let’s try and get to the root of it, at least as far as my own experience goes.
The basic premise is that it’s a school of artistic mastery based on a master apprentice relationship. Long story short, you apply, are considered, get accepted and then begin a journey of artistic mastery. In reality there are a many more dimensions. For instance the selection of a master is a two way street. You play just as much a role in the selection of your master as does the master in selecting you. And before I go too far, let me describe what a master is. A “master” is someone who has demonstrated mastery in a particular field and has a gift or talent for teaching others. In my own personal worldview the term “master” conveys a certain amount of honor on that person and in order for it to work it requires a requisite amount of humility on the part of the apprentice. This forms the basis of a trust bond that becomes a crucible for self-transformation.
I think it’s fair to say The Arcanum is best known for photography, that’s how it started out, but in reality it’s a platform that can be applied to other endeavors, which it now does. I suspect it could also be applied to things beyond artistic pursuits, but I digress.
When I started in The Arcanum I already considered myself an advanced photographer, meaning that I knew about F-stops, shutter speed, focal length and basic composition. In fact I had already started a photography business selling and licensing prints and images. So this is where the story gets a little personal. Remember what I said about humility? Despite the need to have an open mind, I had some preconceptions about what I needed to learn and what I had to do to get better. Hindsight is 20/20 and in retrospect that was a mistake. What I thought I knew was a little incomplete which, if not addressed would have held me back from my goal. What was my goal? It was and still is to become a fine art photographer and produce images that have a certain aesthetic quality.
When I joined The Arcanum I became a member of a cohort, a group of people assigned to a master (more on that later). Individually we each work on projects and complete challenges and which culminates in a moment of truth when the master critiques our work. If you are not used to having your photos critiqued the experience can be a little daunting. It involves vulnerability and a bit of surrender to whatever comes next. My early critiques where hard for me because the composition, tones and details of my images were not to the liking of my master, at least not as much as I expected. Even so I did pass the test but felt slightly wounded. I thought some of my images were good and should’ve been received better. That sent me into a little bit of a funk for about a month or so as I privately seethed at my master for being so inconsiderate. Looking back, I have to chuckle to myself. Of course he was absolutely right, I just wasn’t prepared to accept it. I think a quality of a good master / teacher / mentor is the ability to point out areas of improvement even when the person might not want to hear it. It takes experience and a certain amount of backbone.
I continued with the challenges and assignments, only now I had the fresh memory of the things the master had pointed out. For the sake of this article I’ll mention one, although there were more. My images were consistently over saturated, which if you are not familiar with the term, means the colors were too bright. There’s nothing wrong with bright colors if used correctly, just that it didn’t work with my images. Also, it’s a scientific fact that the cones in our eyes become stressed from bright light and look for relief in less saturated areas. Going forward I started pulling back on saturation a little and continued submitting my images for review. The method is basically summed up as; lather, rinse, repeat.
The cohort and the culture of feedback
This is where the cohort comes in. Most of the interaction I have in The Arcanum is with fellow apprentices. The cohort is a safe place to receive feedback on my work. My fellow apprentices are in the same boat, they are striving to get better and there is an expectation that everyone will do their best to provide honest constructive feedback. Everyone has different tastes and talents, so if I have a specific goal for an image, I can say so and the feedback from my fellow apprentices becomes more focused. Now this is where the magic starts to happen. As I get feedback, as I practice creating images, my images begin to change. Not all at once, but in perceptible increments.
However, I still wasn’t convinced; I believed my images were already good, yet I went along with the suggestions and applied the changes anyway. And then a funny thing happened on the way to the forum, I started to appreciate the changes. Fast forward a few months and I noticed my tastes were beginning to change as well. Through practice and reflection, I was beginning to acquire something I had been missing all along, an eye for detail, composition and visual story telling. Keep in mind, not only was I receiving feedback on my images; I was offering it to fellow apprentices. Its one thing to receive it, but an entirely different matter when you must formulate constructive thoughts in a vocabulary you’re not accustomed to. This is one of the most important things I learned in the first year of The Arcanum; visual literacy. At first it was an awkward experience for me. But the more feedback I offered, the better I became at being able to do it; not just discussing other people’s images but gaining enough courage and detachment to begin looking at my own images with a critical eye. This is a very important life lesson for me as I continue on my path towards fine art.
Finding my vision
There is another side effect of this process of feedback and improvement, finding your vision. The bold confidence and abandon that came through in my earlier work was shaken, I was less certain, more cautious, almost tentative. I didn’t know it at the time but I was in the process of breaking through to a new level.
If you climb a cliff for the first time you may be all vim and vigor at the bottom. As you climb higher you might look down and become aware of your height and suddenly you become self-conscious and your next step becomes trickier. But if you practice rock climbing everyday, soon your movements will become measured and deliberate whether you are on the bottom or two hundred feet off the ground.
Through the process of critiques as well as giving and receiving feedback, I began to feel comfortable with my own vision. Now for the first time in my life I could communicate it with words, and because I practice at it daily it grows stronger. Rinse, lather, repeat. The more I participated in the process, the more I gain confidence in my photography in a way that can weather the thoughts and opinions of others. I am learning to hold true to what is important to me in a way that is open to change and involves self-reflection. Hmmm, no one ever taught me that in school. To be honest I am still evolving and learning and I hope it will always be so. However finding my vision and the ability to follow it is another of the big takeaways I get from The Arcanum.
The Arcanum is setup with a lot of interaction, facilitated through hangouts where we talk, chat and get to know each other. Having graduated from one cohort, I am now in a second more advanced cohort. It is my experience that each cohort develops a fiercely strong sense of camaraderie and community. It’s amazing to witness and even more amazing to be a part of. Add to that, from time to time we get together in person. We’ll meet up at some event, a photowalk, a trip sponsored by a master, and the bonds become even stronger. What occurred is that I gradually realized I was part of a community; a global community of like minded people who want nothing more than to go take pictures. And did I mention humor? This doesn’t have to be all serious business, and so we often just goof around and banter back and forth with silly nonsense. There also tends to be a lot of humor in cohorts, not a day passes when someone or something shared just cracks me up.
The people I’ve met and continue to meet and interact with just blows my mind. Since joining The Arcanum I have developed quality friendships with people I would never have met otherwise. We share in the ups and downs of our creative lives and believe me its not all ups. We’re all human and when we invest ourselves in an art form we at times find ourselves riding an emotional roller coaster. When I hit the dips the folks in the cohort are there to listen and oddly enough, understand. When I hit the highs it’s high-fives all around. What ends up happening is we each participate in each other’s creative journey. And then more of our lives begin to spill into the cohort and before I know it I have new sisters and brothers, entrusted with a part of me that’s akin to family. That is an amazing thing. Art is a human expression, an expression of our souls, and so when we create art with others the level of interaction is truly breathtaking. I for one consider myself fortunate to be a part of my cohort.
I know this is a rather long post but I’ve been ruminating on this for a while now. This is a post that has been waiting to be written. Before I wrote it I wanted to be sure I understood well enough the journey I was on and the role that The Arcanum played. Now, after having been apart of The Arcanum for over a year I feel I have seen and experienced enough to share a bit of that with you. I’m not associated with The Arcanum in anyway other than as an apprentice. I’m not trying to recruit apprentices or anything like that. The Arcanum is not for everyone and some reading this may have different experiences or opinions. I find that I get out of The Arcanum in proportional to what I put in. For me, artistic expression through photography is a real lifelong passion and so it’s a no-brainer that I invest myself into this. In truth, I really don’t have the time for The Arcanum; I’m too busy in my normal day-to-day challenges. But I do it anyway because of what it means to me and what I’ve gained in return. This is my story of reciprocity.
I’m sure by now you get that for me The Arcanum a life changing experience and an exciting community to be a member of. There are amazing people involved and to be able to rub shoulders with them is pretty cool. I’ve already mentioned the founders and as well there are other stars of the industry you would surely recognize. But for me what is perhaps even more exciting is the talent among the apprentices. I see on a daily basis talent so amazing that I often ask myself why I’m even in the same group. These artists are people from other professions including doctors, authors, hair stylists, business owners and moms raising kids. As well there are a good number of professional photographers that are also apprentices. In fact, some of the masters are apprentices also.
I am astounded at the depth of experience around me. The level of the work being produced in The Arcanum is beyond belief, and some of these people have little or no social media profile, so chances are you don’t even know they exist. Their work should be hanging in museums around the world, its that good.
I think what I’m saying is that all of this has a tendency to rub off on me. It motivates me to keep pushing myself beyond my comfort level, to expand my concept of who I am and what I can do. If you ask me that’s the key to growth, as a creative and as a human being.
Lately I’ve taken to being a little more creative with my post processing. I’ve done so in the past but now it seems I’m following that inclination a little more frequently. In photography there are perhaps a couple of schools of thought, straight shooters who seek to preserve a moment in as realistic a manner as possible. This is an important part of preserving artifacts of our world and society, which is appreciated by many of us including future generations. And then there is pictorialism, which is concerned with creating images about feelings and uses a wide variety of tools to convey a vision. You can read more about here in this L’Oeil article by Andy Romanoff.
As I see it there is a pattern here that photography has with other endeavors. There are usually two schools of thought in just about everything we do. Classical and Jazz, clinical and holistic, …the list goes on. It’s how we are built.
This speaks to the concept of duality. Simply put, duality is an idea that all things are comprised of two contrasting sides, polar compliments, yin and yang. Together they comprise a whole, greater than the sum of the parts. To be greater than the sum of the parts is like saying one plus one equals three. This is not logical nor reasonable, yet I think there is an intrinsic truth that we all might recognize. Think of a family, together the mother, father, children, aunts and uncles form something greater than the individuals alone. And so this is the case with photography, straight shooters and pictorialist all swimming around in the same ocean, each with an effect on the other. Which side we lean towards is a matter of preference.
Lately I’m leaning towards the pictorialism. I’m also a straight shooter, however more and more I’ll go to lengths when shooting and in post processing to manipulate images to convey a vision in my mind. The result is a combination of what was there when I snapped the shutter button and an idea I have in my head. I am now beginning to synthesize the duality of scene and idea so they become something greater that the sum of the two. I believe this might be more akin to music composition, painting or even sculpting. I take something from my environment and fashion it in an interpretation way. The result is reflective of the world as well as feelings and images I have in my mind.
Seeing with my mind’s eye
As a practicing pictorialist I get to be creative. Emphasis on the words “I get to be”. Believe it or not, I didn’t realize that I was allowed to be creative. No one was standing over me with a gun and I didn’t sign a straight shooters contract when I bought my camera, but for one reason or another I somehow felt bound by the rules of the straight shooters club. Oddly, I never even realized it until now. I’m not denigrating straight shooters, I’m one of them and you may be too. We would never have photos of sports or wildlife or National Geographic without straight shooters. One is not better than the other.
Lets face it, most of us live in a complicated stressful world and we do our best to get by. Between the demands of paying the bills and figuring out what to have for dinner there may not be a lot of creativity going on. We do what we have to do to get by. However we are dualistic by nature and along with the day to day, we are also creative. Only most of us don’t know it because we are preoccupied with only one side of life. However, if we are fortunate enough to discover our own creativity, if we honor and nourish it, if we encourage it, it will grow. I’m understating this to keep on track, but this is a really important thing.
We need more play-time
Remember recess in grade school? If I think back, I might have done something like run from the monkey bars to the oak tree; only I (and my classmates) pretended to be in the Olympics. We saw the stadium, we could hear the crowd, we felt the excitement and we ran until we crossed the finish line and the stands went CRAZY!!! And then the bell rang and we went back to class. Of course we were talking about it until the teacher scolded us to be quiet. That was fun because it was play and we lost track of time.
I think it’s important to have fun, to lose track of time and play again. Lately I’m giving myself a bit of permission to play so that my imagination has a greater role in the outcome of my photography. On the one hand I look for compositions. That can be serious business, fully engaging the disciplines and rules I’ve learned about the craft. On the other hand, I’m allowing myself to imagine the way I wish the scene looked. If I didn’t consciously allow myself that latitude I wouldn’t even consider anything other than the scene in front of me when I take the shot.
If you’re a hardcore straight shooter, you’re probably thinking I’ve left the reservation and perhaps might be one sandwich short of a picnic basket. I’m okay with that. But just to be clear, I can separate the “real world” with my imaginary world very well. I do it everyday and am well practiced because I’ve done it most of my life, …possibly to my own detriment. Well bubba, the fat lady just sung. I’m opting out; I choose to be a pictorialist. But to be perfectly honest, I’m doing it for me. Not because I’m self-absorbed, rather because I believe it makes me a better person all around. More than the sum of my parts.
So there you have it, I have made a conscious decision to follow my creative tendencies because, …well its fun. Nothing wrong with a little fun, eh? And its the kind of fun that naturally integrates some of the dualities in my life. And that, my friends, has subtle yet profound influence on who I am as a person and how I live my life. At least that’s my story and I’m sticking to it.