Stephen Mayes – Liveblog from Flash Forward

 

Stephen Mayes, Managing Director of VII Photo and one of my favorite photo thinkers, is presenting a lecture titled, “Restructuring the Photographic Process,” during the Flash Forward Festival today, June 3, at noon EST.

If you’d like to see what he has to say but can’t join us in Boston, please check in here, where I’ll liveblog his talk and any subsequent discussion.

[liveblog]

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What travel is isn’t what you expect

I met Matt Austin, a talented young documentary-art photographer, this October at the Flash Forward Festival in Toronto. Shortly after, we struck up an email conversation, largely in response to my posts about traveling this summer, which I was flattered to find had resonated with Matt’s own recent travels.

Below are excerpts from our discussion, as well as a series of Matt’s travel images. He will be debuting a book of new work from this trip during his solo show at Johalla Projects in Chicago on March 4. You can see photos from my travels here.

Matt and I would love to know if any of this resonates with you and what you have or haven’t learned from being on the road.


Matt

I decided last July that I was going to go on a long trip by myself around the country, leaving straight from an artist residency. I wasn’t content with things in Chicago and wanted to practice the concept of self-respect, acting on the idea that I deserve to do what I want to do with my life.

I was pretty interested in the idea of scaring the shit out of myself as a means of learning. So I decided to camp alone in a tent most of the way, though I’d never camped before. I also decided to act on my whims, buying a guitar from a pawn shop in St. Paul, MN, though never considering myself a musician. And, too, shaved my head with a beard trimmer in a hotel bathroom. Consciously taking action without any commentary is a powerful thing.

MIKI

I love the idea of learning by “scaring the shit” out of yourself. I wonder if your idea of “scary” changed during your trip. Did you initially think you’d do things that were literally scary (like bungee jumping) but ended up doing things that made you feel kind of vulnerable (like learning guitar)? I ask because one of the scariest things I did during my travels was to take my photography more seriously, and putting that up for the world to see was terrifying at times.

MATT

I think the concept of fear originated in the idea of being unfamiliar with most of the situations I was in and having no one but myself to rely on; but you’re absolutely right about that shifting. Before leaving, when I would consider what may scare me about camping or driving long distances in my unreliable car, I was mainly thinking about bears and storms and car accidents. But when I was actually in those situations, it tended to be unpredictable people that scared me the most.

Purchasing the guitar mainly came from dealing with how lonely the trip could get. I started my trip by leaving from the ACRE artist residency, an amazing intellectual community, so it didn’t take long for me to feel lonely by comparison. I’ve also never been interested in the typical tourist experience, so I thought giving myself certain tasks like buying a guitar would allow me to ask locals about where to do that and come up with an unpredictable sequence of interactions. What were some of your methods of dealing with the loneliness of solitary travels? Or did you not find yourself experiencing that kind of loneliness?

MIKI

It’s interesting that you ask about loneliness, because the fact is I spent very little time alone during my travels. I admire you for pushing yourself to do so many things you weren’t already comfortable or familiar with. Some part of me thought that’s what my “sabbatical” would be like, but as usual my planning/connecting/organizing gene took over and I ended up, as my dad said recently, “the busiest unemployed person” he knows.

I’m glad you brought this up because I haven’t really examined why my trip ended up that way. The easy answer is that, once you suddenly have a large chunk of unstructured time, it seems like everyone has somewhere you absolutely have to stop by. The most obvious answer to me is that I am just one of those people; seeing friends and family face-to-face is something I crave and thrive on, so given lots of free time, that’s automatically where I put my effort.

But I have to admit that it was also the easier thing for me to do, the less scary thing. I am a chronic over-planner, so even waiting until I was in Istanbul to buy my ticket to Berlin was flying by the seat of my pants. I guess maybe this trip was only a first step toward being more comfortable on my own without a road map.

As for things that I did learn (or was reminded) … First off, I’m a pretty good traveler. I know how to pack light, I’m organized, and I’m comfortable on all kinds of public transportation — even if I have to look like a stupid American and ask someone four times in English how to get somewhere.

Second, I LIKE HAVING A HOME. I knew this going in, so this trip was kind of a test. Not only was I leaving a job, but also an apartment and city behind. I slept on couches and in spare rooms or tents for four months straight — and it got really, really old. The idea of being on the road for months has a romantic appeal, but I realized that I enjoy travel more when I have a stable headquarters to strike out from. Does that make sense to you? Did you have trouble letting go of a “plan” and just wandering?

The most important thing I learned was: There is no substitute for seeing people in their natural environment. This was driven home most poignantly by my good friend in Berlin, who went to a relatively remote college (that I never visited) and has lived abroad for the last six years. I literally hadn’t seen her for more than a day or two at a time, not over a holiday, in eight years. Seeing a friend for 10 days straight, living their own life instead of stressed out by travel, holidays, and family, and especially seeing them in the midst of the city and friends they feel best fit them: It’s like getting to know them all over again.

MATT

It’s interesting how our approaches to travel are almost completely opposite, yet result in the similar opinion of “I am a pretty good traveler.” You could say that I’m a chronic under-planner or maybe even addicted to the concept of being “unprepared.” I used to print out directions places, but I consciously decided to stop four years ago. I prefer to get directions from local waiters or gas station cashiers. I will never use a GPS, not for experiences like this; you can hold me to that.

As far as dedication to a home, I’m not sure I have much. Over time, I have learned to love Chicago’s centralized location, which provides a good driving position to anywhere in the country. But I’m not so attached to the concept of a permanent home. When I am home, I sleep on a futon mattress on my bedroom floor that was donated to me by a friend. I had a few blankets on the floor before that. I made a dresser in my closet that is actually just a suitcase I drilled to the wall. Unscrewing those screws would be the most work I’d have to do if I decided to move, and I kind of like that. To answer your question more clearly: Letting go of any kind of plan is one of my favorite things to do.

Your writing on your blog about the difficulties of producing something while on the road really stuck with me. For example: “[T]he whole point of this traveling thing was to help me see a bunch of people and get inspired and figure out what makes me really happy and write about it all. But here’s the thing I’ve realized over the last few weeks: Having no home and no routine actually makes it damn hard to do something like writing that requires concerted creative effort. Well, shit.”

I couldn’t agree with this more! I tried writing every day of my trip and I think I lost my consistency around day 12 or 13 in Seattle. First, there was the guilt that came with not completing my goal. But then when I would find time to write again, it felt weird. I felt like I was sacrificing having new and natural experiences to pause and write about ones that had already happened.

Maybe I’m wrong, but I feel like I have a similar outlook to yours in terms of how I would like to affect people: by using myself as an example to pursue what you enjoy doing, even if it’s scary and not going to be easy. I think the candor of your blog really illuminates the growth that comes from creative vulnerability. “This doesn’t have to be one of those blogs where I have all the answers. In fact, it can’t be. I’m not an expert here. I’ve never done this before. But hopefully through my experience people can learn a little about their own,” you wrote.

I find myself expressing similar values in my artwork and in my teaching. I often remind my students of two things in our lives that will never end, ever: 1) I don’t know, and 2) I’m still learning.

San Francisco Photo Scene – WPO Festival

These are my notes from my favorite presentation at the three-day WPO Festival in San Francisco, titled “The San Francisco Photo Scene,” 11/19/2010. I learned a lot about opportunities to get involved with galleries and organizations in San Francisco from this panel. I hope you will too 🙂

I’ve listened to so many panels at so many photo events, and I often take notes (like those below) — which I never seem to have time to clean up and share with other people. So this time I decided to just publish them as I took them, so I had no excuse not to share them (and thus I hope you’ll forgive their lack of polish).

Meg Shiffler – Gallery Director, San Francisco Arts Commission

Gallery at City Hall: Especially features work by local photojournalists

Once a year SFAC collaborates with Arts Alliance at City Hall: Generally becomes an open call for exhibitions

Examples of past exhibitions: China Today – Mark Leong; Victor J. BlueOur World; Sean McFarland – Polaroids

Right now: Christina Seely – Lux

The List: How the Arts Commission publicizes new opportunities for artists (photographers and other, not just from San Francisco)

Hamburger Eyes: Photography that’s very immediate, very raw, used to be mostly analogue, publish a journal, curate exhibitions, Photo Epicenter (community printing lab)

RayKo Photo Center: Gallery for exhibitions, sometimes have open calls, very approachable, digital labs, studio space, store

Chuck Mobley – Curator, San Francisco Camerawork

First Exposures: Work with underserved local communities. If you’re interested in teaching and getting involved with community.

Internship Program: Always have from 10-15 interns every semester

Members’ critiques, portfolio reviews, group members’ exhibitions, annual publication, artists’ lectures, book release parties

Often get called by curators around the country when they need a specific kind of artists, especially from SF, so they created a resource page

Tues. Nov. 30: Richard Misrach: Destroy This Memory Lecture and book signing- PLEASE RSVP

SFMoMA Blog

FotoFest in Huston, PhotoLucida in Portland: SF photo people often attend; great opportunity to meet people from all over the world

Camerawork main space: Often open for guest curation, especially in the summer. For example: Kickstarter campaign to create catalog for Suggestions of a Life Being Lived

Thom Sempere – Director, PhotoAlliance

PhotoAlliance: Support organization for photo community. Don’t have any members and don’t have any permanent space. Philosophy came out of Bay Area photographic history…Friends of Photography, when folded few years ago, there was a gap in the SF community and within a year PhotoAlliance was formed.

Monthly lecture series: Nine years, over 150 photographers. Start each lecture with an emerging artist (about 15 minutes)

Also host field workshops, exhibitions, portfolio reviews (always second weekend of March)

FotoVision: Bay Area nonprofit, run by Melanie and Ken Light, emphasis on documentary photography and storytelling. Workshops, lectures, blog, book reviews, store.

RJ Muna – Photographer & owner, LeftSpace

“[Photographers in SF] seem to share our knowledge, interests. We have a better sense of community than most places in the country and the world. We have something special, and you should revel in it.”

“We are so used to technology, and a sense of the future (being at the tip of Silicon Valley), we sometimes can’t see it. When you look at the history of photography, so much of the recent evolution has been based in technology that has come out of the Bay Area: Adobe, Apple. They started from a sense of curiosity that is unique here.”

Discussion

Meg: Keep your eyes out for calls to artists. Even if you don’t get in the show and you’re rejected, do it over and over again. Don’t assume if you don’t make it one year, you won’t make it another year. Find out how a specific curator wants to be contacted. If it’s not on their website, the best person to call is their assistant. Know about the curator, past shows, the space. Think of it as applying for a job; you have to DO YOUR RESEARCH. We’re curated out for two years [at SFAC] and then moving the next year, so I think really long term. I might decide to work with an artist and not put their work up for five years.

Thom: Curators frequently pass work along to other curators. If you send work to curators once a year, you probably won’t hear anything the first year, second time they might vaguely remember you, third time they take a look at your work, and the fourth time they might want to work with you.

Meg: If you send an email, it should be no more than five sentences: 1) I’m interested in introducing you to my work. 2, 3, 4) Show that you know who the curator/gallery are. 5) Here’s my website, please take a look. I won’t necessarily respond but I will usually click the link. Six months later, if you have a new body of work, send another email (with only three lines!)

Chuck: Think from the point of view of a curator; the worst thing for them is to NOT KNOW about a local artist, so you’re actually doing them a favor. Curators also get called a lot to make nominations or to be on juries, so it’s good for them to know something about you. The roll of the curator at a nonprofit is a public service. These places exist for you and because of you, so don’t be intimidated meeting with them. At Camerawork we have an open-door policy; if you make an appointment, I’ll try to line up 10-15 minutes at least to meet with you. We also take submissions from anyone, not just people from the Bay Area.

Meg: WHAT NOT TO DO: 1) Don’t show up with your portfolio without an appointment. 2) Don’t send a million JPGs. 3) Don’t ask for a free critique of your work. If you want a critique, go to a review; that’s not my job.

Thom: Be sure to build your own community of people who you respect and who you can get genuine feedback from, not just portfolio reviews, etc. I don’t know of a single job I’ve ever gotten not from word of mouth.

Questions

Q: Do you have suggestions for students, how to get involved in the community if you don’t have a portfolio yet? A: Go be an intern, or volunteer at Camerawork, or talk to people at Rayko or Hamburger Eyes about how you can help out. Also learn some admin skills like contracts, registration, cataloging. Ever Gold Gallery was started by local students a few years ago.

Q: Also check out PhotoCentral in Hayward.

Q: Do you need to move to NYC or LA to have a successful career? A: (Meg) A gallerist is never going to ship something they can get in their own backyard. When I work with international artists, I’ll print the work myself and they can pay to have it shipped to them. (RJ) The number one thing that will get you on a gallery wall is having GREAT WORK. (Chuck) There are great communities all over, not just the major cities. (Meg) Watch for definitions on the calls for artists’. We do one every year that’s only local artists. (Thom) Doesn’t matter where you’re from, but you should be from SOMEWHERE. (Meg) If you’re submitting to a show and only have five images, don’t try to show the breadth of your work, show one cohesive BODY OF WORK.

Learning to listen to the stories my photos tell

I realized recently that, although I’ve been an editor in the photography industry for years, I know very little about editing photos.

Now that I’m taking my photography more seriously, and learning to tell stories with my own images, I’ve discovered (not surprisingly) that editing requires a whole new skill set — one that is very visual and emotional, which can be hard for someone who is as verbal and cerebral as I am.

My boyfriend, Peter, and I talk frequently about creativity (he’s a talented photographer and editor), and now that I have some decent images to work with, we’ve been discussing photo editing.

Because I’ve worked at publications about images themselves, I’ve never needed to use images to help tell a story. Now, since most of my photos are captured moments from my travels, I get to construct my own little narratives with them — or see what stories emerge organically from them.

I’ve gone back and forth between different edits for a month now. This one I’m posting is mostly Peter’s, but we’ve gone through and discussed it image-by-image together.

I’m curious what you think of it. Not whether it’s good, necessarily, but how it makes you feel. What it says to you. What story it tells. Now that I’m learning to see unconscious or unintended connections in my own images, I’m curious what other see there, too.

I’m bad at doing things I’m not already good at

Ok, so that title is a bit of a Catch 22, but I bet you all know what I mean. Every year past childhood it becomes more difficult to get out of our comfort zone and try something new. At least I hope I’m not the only one who feels that way…

For me, my discomfort with trying new things goes way back. I didn’t learn to swim or ride a bike until I was in middle school in part because I was scared of doing things wrong. I refused to keep going to soccer in elementary school and I quit high school track right before our first meet because I was scared of performing badly.

As part of my work this year to honor my inner child, I’m trying to do more things I’m bad at (or at least don’t excel at). More specifically, I’m trying to get over my fear of doing something wrong or badly. I’m trying to let myself do things because I enjoy them, because they help me express myself, because they are a challenge and we learn more from our mistakes than from anything. That means not doing things with the end goal of creating something “good” that other people approve of.

Of course this quickly comes to bear on my photography. I’m constantly around photographers (some of my favorite people in the world) and inevitably they ask if I shoot, if I’m a photographer too. For years I’ve been saying, “I take photographs, but I’m not a photographer.”

I know that sounds like a dodge. In fact, I got called out for it on Facebook last week by a couple good friends, which precipitated this post.

What I meant was: I have so much respect for photographers and know so many of them who are putting everything they have into making images that have a real impact on people. I make photos every once in a while — in my mind those are two vastly different things. And especially in this marketplace, the last thing photographers need is one more dilettante cutting into their pie.

Having gotten that off my chest, I also admit that I’m scared. As I’ve said before, thinking of myself as a creative, let alone an “artist,” has always been daunting. I’m only starting to get comfortable with the idea as it applies to my writing, something I’ve always been good at, always loved, and have had years of education and experience in.

But photography? Photography is none of those things for me. I took a couple classes in high school and a photojournalism class in college that impacted me deeply, but mostly because it made me realize how insanely hard it is to get something honest out of someone when you’re holding a big black box in front of your face. Add to that the fact that I’m lucky enough to call many of the most talented photographers I know friends, and the idea of admitting that I want to be a better photographer is downright terrifying.

Most new photographers think what they’re doing is pretty good, even if they know it’s not “great.” And honestly, that’s how it should be when you’re just starting out. But I KNOW I’m not that good. And I’m not fishing for compliments here, seriously.

I’ve spent years looking at images, pulling them apart, explaining their pros and cons. I capture a few nice elements sometimes, but by and large my stuff is mediocre. And that’s ok. I’m just starting. Even great photographers say they’re lucky to make one good photo a day. But god, it’s just so hard for me to share things publicly that are mediocre.

So why am I putting myself through this? Part of it is in the name of making myself vulnerable during this sabbatical I’m taking. Part of it is that I really do like taking pictures, especially when I’m traveling and want to share what I’m seeing. Part of it is the allure of getting better at something. Part of it is the simple thrill of being able to point to something and say, “See, I made that!”

But here’s the real reason I keep working at this photography thing — it helps me understand all my friends who are photographers so much better. While working at American Photo Magazine and the RESOLVE Blog, I must have interviewed hundreds of photographers. My questions were usually about creativity and family and funding, but rarely about technique or the art itself. I felt I couldn’t relate on that plane, so I didn’t try.

Now I have so many questions. I understand in such a tangible way what it means to get access, to approach someone for a portrait, to capture a true moment. I struggle to move past making photos that are simply pretty, or well composed, or explanatory. I’m trying to kill my inner overthinker and learn to make images that are reactions, that capture an honest emotion. It’s so much harder than I ever imagined.

But in the difficulty, I find a whole new world to ask my many photographer friends for help with. And, the thing that really compelled me to write this post: Peter convinced me that I might be able to help in return.

He says this “virgin” time, when you are just learning to see, finding your vision, facing your fears, is something that many artists wish they could revisit. Since I’m coming at photography from a greater base of knowledge and understanding than most new photographers, maybe I’ll be able to lend some insights into this process.

Failing all of that, taking my photography seriously and sharing it publicly will inevitably allow me to understand and relate more to the photographers I know. By the end of this sabbatical, I hope to have figured out my next career move, which most likely will involve helping photographers in some way. I know now that I can never do that fully until I have tried to make art with a camera.

All images © Miki Johnson. Taken in Istanbul and Berlin, June 2010, with a Contax 2T.

Collaborate Creatively ::with:: Taylor Davidson

Blogger and photographer Taylor Davidson at Cafe du Monde in New Orleans.

Blogger and photographer Taylor Davidson at Cafe du Monde in New Orleans.

I spent a long weekend in New Orleans, Louisiana, a few weeks ago for Jazz Fest and to explore the city — my first time for both. Below is a short, rough, “fast and dirty” slideshow I put together with Mr. Taylor Davidson (left) one afternoon, me recording audio clips while he took photos.

As I’ve been thinking about the next few months, when I’ll be traveling full-time, I knew that I would want to connect with photographers and other creatives in the cities I visited and do quick collaborative projects. This helps me explore several things I’m interested in during this little sabbatical I’m on: How photographers are doing their work, how I personally work creatively, and how the collaborative process can be made more efficient and satisfying.

Taylor Davidson was an obvious choice for my first experiment. He recently moved to NOLA, so he knows enough to be my tour guide, but hasn’t lost that sense of wonder with everything the city has to offer. We had met a few times before and I always found him enthusiastic, tuned in, and whip smart. Plus, as someone who is exploring photography but has a background in business and is a talented blogger, I figured his interests would align well with my own — which they did 🙂

We started out with a conversation at Cafe du Monde (honestly kind of a tourist trap in the French Quarter, but I hadn’t gotten my beignet and cafe au lait fix yet). As the powdered sugar blew all over our laps and equipment, we talked about the difficulty of staying focused when you work for yourself, my ideas for my upcoming journey, and all the small details that make NOLA special.

Beignets and cafe au lait at Cafe du Monde in New Orleans.

Beignets and cafe au lait at Cafe du Monde in New Orleans.

When I brought up the idea of a quick collaboration while Taylor showed me the parts of the city I hadn’t seen yet, he was immediately game (another thing I like about him). One of my concerns was (and still is) that I simply won’t have time while I’m on the move to do the editing required to put together polished multimedia pieces. I love recording sound, and putting it together with photos, but trying to record interviews and edit them down and coordinate with images — that’s just not an option right now.

So, accepting and embracing our limitations, here’s what we came up with: We’d walk around, talk, and Taylor would take photos of interesting things that characterized the areas we were in, while I took 10-second sound clips. I simply put the clips together when I got home, sent the sound file to Taylor with a list of where the sounds came from (I kept track in my iPhone notes while we were walking), and he added an image for each clip. It was his decision to throw it up on SlideShare instead of Vimeo, etc., and I like it, since you can easily go back to a specific image.

Since I’m also interested in exploring the collaborative process, I wanted to have a little debrief session with Taylor to publish with our project. Again in the interest of time and ease, we decided that he would send me a question by email, I would answer it and send him one back. He would answer and respond with a question, etc. The result is below.

Taylor Davidson: I’ve done many collaborations with photographers where we were in the same places, going through the same experiences, looking for the same things: pictures. But collaborating like this was different because, even though we were in the same place, we were looking for (seeing and hearing) different things to capture. And different things struck us, caught our eyes and ears. Are you surprised by what I saw and what you heard?

Miki Johnson: I remembered you taking many of the photos you ended up including, but not all. It was good to see new angles of things I had missed or observed differently. One big difference between the photos and sound is that often there are pictures of a landscape or building but the sound is of people. Do you think this is distracting? I kind of think it works for this, but if we had wanted to coordinate better, would there be an easy way for us to make sure you had a visual of everyone I recorded, and vice versa?

TD: We might see buildings or landscapes first, but we hear people first, right?  I don’t find it distracting; in fact, I like hearing the audio of moments I had forgotten, snippets of conversation I missed, sounds that I hadn’t picked up. Would more coordination make it better? We talked a lot throughout the day about embracing constraints, the joy of the unedited image and experience, the love for finding the unexpected. What would happen if we each tried to catch a sound or an image for what we thought the other person was hearing or seeing? Should the final product reflect the intersection of what moved each of us independently, or a larger set of everything that either of us caught?

MJ: Good point, Taylor. I think that if this were a big, polished final project we were working on, coordination would be more important. But since one of our goals was to cut down on editing time and to allow us to continue to enjoy the experience of seeing the city without overwhelming us with production considerations, having us each focus on our own experience works well. Do you think that initial intent should be made clear to the audience before they view the piece? Is it important they understand how we made it and what our intention was, or should even a simple, quick piece like this speak for itself?

TD: I agree. Setting expectations up-front about making this simple, easy, and largely unedited allowed me to just experience the day without harping about the final result. There is a great power in just being able to see, hear, and experience without larger considerations. I hope you felt the same way, and I hope the final product reflects that; in fact, I hope the intent comes through as one views the piece. I would want anybody viewing this to get that feel just by viewing and listening to the final product, rather than presetting one’s expectations.

SO WHAT DO YOU THINK? DOES THIS PIECE WORK TO CONVEY WHAT WE WERE EXPERIENCING? IS IT HARD TO ABSORB BECAUSE IT’S UNPOLISHED? WHAT CAN I DO DIFFERENTLY NEXT TIME?