The Visionary Image: Conceptual Development

Place two photographers side by side on the the very same scene or subject and they are likely to produce distinctly different images. Excluding the most obvious images easily gathered from accessible vistas, photographers have largely known this to be true. With any given scene of any scale, how we approach it and what we choose to most focus on is largely based on our mood and temperament of the day; our previous experience with such a subject; even the subliminal influence of other photographs and photographers may come into play.

Guy Tal and I wandered a Death Valley canyon following the close of our most recent Visionary Death Valley workshop. We stopped intermittently where we found interesting rock outcrops and healthy fruiting specimens of Coyote Melon (Cucurbita palmata) – these wild desert pumpkins can be intriguing subjects for photographers of our ilk. I have casually photographed Coyote Melon for many years; an artful black and white image of Coyote Melon was still elusive and resided only in my head. Required to make this image was a perfect confluence of my mental state, a good visual arrangement, and unfailing vision. I still had yet to find that while in the company of these gourds.

We were now just a few miles from road’s end where we would begin a walk into desert wilderness – this is our method of rest and recovery. But Guy spotted one more beautiful Coyote Melon specimen – we stopped to investigate. It was a large enough vine to provide working space for both of us. We each identified our objects of interest and and got to work.

_DSC0713I was immediately drawn to the delicate but elaborate etchings on one particular fruit – I honed in. Space and space exploration has been on my mind a lot lately. I spend many nights each year staring deeply into it and sleeping under it and NASA’s InSight Lander touched down on Mars just thirteen days after this photograph. I like to use space and time metaphors in my images and titles. The etchings reminded me of planetary surfaces similar to Jupiter or the Moon. This became the metaphor that I forced into my approach.

My very first frame is seen at left. It’s a solid documentary image but it’s not terribly creative or exciting. I’d be happy to have it published in a plant ID guide but I can’t call it “art”.  Over the next 17+ minutes (happily mired in a flow state), using two different lenses – including a soft-focus brass portrait lens – I exposed 46 frames in total, each with slight shifts in perspective and field of view, each working towards the image that I had now developed in my mind. I already knew how the print needed to look. The camera position moved exceedingly closer to the ground in order to force the perspective I sought. I wanted the gourd to be tucked behind some of the leaves – similar to the way a full moon rises into a bank of clouds. In fact, I had photographed this very thing a couple of weeks prior. The dramatic image I had made of a full moon rising was finding its way into this image of a simple gourd. But I was no longer photographing a gourd – I was photographing a Rising Coyote Moon.

Coyote Moon Rising

Creative photographers who find such ideas and discussions stimulating and inspiring should consider joining Guy and I for Visionary Death Valley.

You are visiting the blog of landscape photographer Michael E. Gordon. For additional photos and information, please visit his website or follow him on Facebook and Instagram.

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The Ten Commandments (for Outdoor Photographers)

I am part of two communities who exhibit behaviors on public lands that I am often angered by and find myself at odds with: climbers and outdoor photographers. I suspect that many have never experienced trailhead or public lands closures caused by improper/unethical/illegal use – I have.

Many climbers trample vegetation at the base of crags and boulders; they leave athletic tape, food wrappers, and the tape from rope ends wherever they fall. The rock and the climb take first priority; concern for vegetation, trampling, wildlife (including ants and all sorts of small vertebrates and invertebrates that we can’t even see), and wildlife habitat is secondary (or doesn’t matter). Sadly, this sort of behavior has now become commonplace in the outdoor photography community. In this Instagram-era, a staggering number of landscapes have now been subject to the onslaught of careless humans and an uncountable number of popular photography locations have been drastically altered by the photographers that use them. It’s wrong, disappointing, and has to end before photographers find themselves locked out of locations that they’ve commonly been able to enjoy. If you think this can’t happen, just have a chat with a member of the MTB (mountain biking) or OHV (Off-Highway Vehicle) communities for their angle.

A little more than a week ago I guided my sister, nephew, and brother-in-law through an Eastern Sierra camping/roadtrip. One of our first stops/camps was Alabama Hills below Mt. Whitney and the High Sierra crest. You Western film buffs and photographers know this place well. What you probably don’t know is that the Alabama Hills Stewardship Group has vastly improved the condition and quality of experience for visitors and photographers over the last dozen years by removing graffiti and rubbish; breaking down numerous fire rings; obliterating excess and illegal roads; and planting native vegetation to rehabilitate the abused. I’ve watched the Hills become cleaner and even more beautiful over the last twelve years. During this period digital photography has exploded – especially night sky and astrophotography – and ironically, I’ve watched its photographic ‘hot spots’ deteriorate at the very same time.

AHI took my sister and family to a lesser known arch in the Hills (but still popular with night photographers) and was dismayed by what we walked into: it looked obliterated by grazing cattle (there are no grazing cattle here). Although from different angles, perspectives, and focal lengths, a comparison of the two images will reveal missing, damaged, or dead plants. And I am dumbfounded by this. The other side of this arch does not look like this; it’s not the preferred angle for photographers. This is not from drought, fire, or cattle, and this is not a dense landscape – the shrubs could have been very easily avoided or worked around. Instead, the land before this arch has now become a micro-wasteland.

My sub-teenage nephew learned a few of the following commandments while we were in the field and I’m urging every photographer and non-photographer who uses public lands to please adopt and share these with other photographers, climbers, fishermen/fisherladies, etc. Humans are trashing virtually everything; lest we lose our access, please be the high-road user group that sets the examples others will desire to follow.

The Outdoor Photographers Ten Commandments

1. I don’t own this planet or this particular landscape. I’m a visitor here and my needs and wants are secondary to its primary inhabitants. I’m thankful that I get to share this space with them.

2. I will step around or over EVERY plant I encounter, no matter whether dead or alive.

3. If a plant, boulder, or other natural object is in my composition – no matter what – I will recompose instead of altering or damaging the landscape.

4. I will avoid herd mentality and behavior. I will do my very best to not travel in photographic packs, but when I do, I will be very mindful of my steps and actions as well as those of my fellow photographers.

5. I will not covet the photographs or locations of other photographers. I understand that popularity has led to the ecological decline of many ‘hot spots’ and that great photographs can be found just about anywhere.

6. If I specialize in night photography, I will make sure that I have adequate daylight preparation or proper nighttime illumination so as not trample or destroy ANY vegetation anywhere around me.

7. I will never take anything, leave anything, or alter anything in the pursuit of my photographs.

8. If I can’t make the image I desire without breaching these commandments, I will walk away empty handed.

9. I will educate my fellow photographers and students (if you teach/lead workshops) about the critical importance of field ethics.

10. In the existential scheme of things, me and my photographs don’t really matter. It’s never worth abusing plants or a landscape to make an insignificant photograph.

You are visiting the blog of landscape photographer Michael E. Gordon. For additional photos and information, please visit his website or follow him on Facebook and Instagram.

Get the Shot (or not)

MercurialI am rather particular about semantics and the manner in which I speak about my own art. You will never hear me define my photographs as “shots”, nor will you will ever hear me proudly declare how “I got the shot” while expressing the ideas or mechanics behind a photograph. Quite contrarily, a professional photographer known for his bold (and refuted) sales claims seems to really enjoy using both. A new generation of landscape/nature photographers has fallen under his influence and they also seem to love using these terms of conquest. The contemplative, perceptual, passive act of moving deliberately and slowly through a landscape in search of creation seems to have been superseded by epic-everything, moving quickly and far (extra points for defying death), and getting “the shot”. I have heard a number of stories from workshop students relating how they covered in previous workshops thousands of tiring miles in one week chasing epic weather and light over epic locations. My own workshops and personal photographic style run completely counter: One location, slow movement, connecting with the land, and a big emphasis on perception and vision. In other words, photographs exist everywhere and can be made at any time and under any conditions. You and your ability to see are your only limitations.

The limitations in your photography are in yourself, for what we see is what we are.” — Ernst Haas

A bigger issue with “the shot” is the implication that there is only one photograph to be made from any particular location (I have been asked by students and tour clients “where is the shot?”). By limiting yourself only to your preconceived ideas (or mine) and/or photographing what has already been photographed, you cheat yourself out of a world rife with images.

Make art, photographs, or images. War against the shot.

I’ll be presenting and teaching at the 12th Annual Moab Photo Symposium, May 1-3, 2015. Register now for this wonderful experience while seats last. 

You are visiting the blog of fine art landscape photographer Michael E. Gordon. For additional photos and information, please visit his official website. You can also find Michael on TwitterFacebook, and Google+.

Art Festivals: Alternative Exhibition Opportunities for the [Fine Art] Photographer

My spread at Art Under the Umbrellas. La Quinta, California

My spread at Art Under the Umbrellas. La Quinta, California

This article was written for photographers (and other artists) who seek exhibition and sales opportunities beyond the conventional art gallery model. If you are not a photographer/artist; if you would not consider yourself a “people person”; and/or you have no desire to meet, talk with, and sell directly to potential patrons of your work, this article is probably not for you. Some background in sales and customer service would generally be considered helpful in these environments.

This article is not intended as an exhaustive treatise on how to make, curate, print, finish, exhibit, and sell your work (there are links to good resources later in this article), although it does assume that its readers have had some previous experience with all of the above. I cannot recommend that you start applying to Art Festivals without having at least some of this experience – your bank account and pride may be harmed.

This article addresses only juried Art Festivals (or “Fine Art Festivals” or “art shows”); it does not discuss nor offer advice on showing your work in art & craft shows, craft shows, restaurants, coffee shops, or conventional art galleries. With art festivals, your work should be strong and well presented in order to make it past the jury and onto the festival grounds.

Some background….I have been showing my work in a handful of art festivals in southern California for approximately six years. Some artists travel “the circuit” and follow top-selling festivals around the U.S., often exhibiting in upward of 20-30 festivals per year. That’s not a pace or style I can handle, so I choose to exhibit in only a handful of festivals where I think my work fits best (and where I have had previous successes). I generally exhibit at a festival 1-2 times before ruling it out as not-the-best-market-for-my-work (some markets/venues may be a better fit for your work than others). As an example, if it’s a festival on or near the coast, my black and white desert landscape photography is not likely to perform near as well as colorful seascapes. Consider the location and market when choosing festivals and curating your work for them.

I enjoy showing in fine art festivals because hundreds if not thousands of eyes land on my work during 1-3 day shows. The venues are often quite beautiful and the weather is often radiant (show dates are always carefully chosen!). Good live music, beautiful weather, and superb art make sales very possible.

I greatly enjoy meeting and talking with potential patrons about my art. After the show closes, I often deliver directly to patron homes works they have purchased at the festival. My photographs are routinely placed in stunning showcase homes, and they are often hung alongside other beautiful works of non-photographic art or sculptures – seeing this makes this particular photographic artist rather proud.

What is an Art Festival or Fine Art Festival?
Art Festivals take place across the United States and abroad throughout most of the year. These are typically “pop-up” events which take place in parks, sporting venues, city streets, or anywhere that offers good weather and is conducive to hosting thousands of patrons and 100-200+ artists, and their displays, representing various media (oils/acrylics; watercolor; sculpture; photography; textiles; et al). These are festive and jovial events which typically offer many superb artists, live music, food/beverage, and a wonderful atmosphere conducive to studying, talking about, and selling art. While many festivals are free, I prefer to show my work in festivals with entrance fees (entrance fees discourage lookie-loo’s). Art festivals are often attended by patrons as a tradition; many return each year with distinct plans to purchase something to take home with them. If they have seen your work before and like it – and they return each year – you may eventually make a sale to a patron of tradition. Many patrons arrive with measurements and distinct ideas about the kind of color/form they want – they have a specific space to fill and they have come to buy something!

I show my work directly in markets where I think the fit is best – for example, exhibiting desert landscape photography in desert communities. Artists typically pay a low application fee, a moderate booth/space fee, and commissions on sales (all proceeds from some festivals go directly to charities) are sometimes non-existent and/or significantly lower than the traditional gallery model (typically 50% commission). You get to keep much more of your own money than in a traditional 50/50 split, but you also invest a lot more effort to get your work sold (and why wouldn’t you be interested in selling your work?).

Why would I show my work at Art Festivals? What’s wrong with conventional art galleries?
If you’re like many (most?) nature/landscape photographers, your submissions to brick and mortar galleries in recent years have likely resulted only in rejection notices. All of the galleries that once represented my work did not make it through America’s Great Recession. Further, for many artists, having gallery representation is often better for the Curriculum Vitae than it is for actual sales. Many galleries that exist today still struggle with sales and they typically only serve an elite market who potentially have no interest in or connection to nature and landscape photography.

It was once suggested to me that during an ordinary four week gallery exhibition, 80% or better of the total exhibition sales typically occurred during the opening reception (a few hours in one night). If you have recently attended an exhibition opening, you’d likely concur that only 200-300 persons (other artists and photographers?) turned out [for the wine & cheese?]. Have you ever walked into a gallery at 4:30pm on a Wednesday? I’ll bet that no one other than the sales rep or gallery owner was likely present. During any art festival, (permitting for typical ebb and flow in traffic) there is a fairly constant stream of bodies throughout the duration of the festival. Again, this typically amounts to hundreds if not thousands of eyes seeing your work during the entire show – that’s a lot of eyes in a short span of time.

Don’t art festivals require a lot of commitment and cost?
It’s assumed that you’re still reading this because you want to sell your work. Who else is better qualified to talk about and sell it than you? Starting out with art festivals is not unlike starting out with digital photography. You’ll have some large upfront costs (printing; finishing; establishing inventory; buying your booth/panels and all related exhibition materials [truck, cargo trailer; etc.]), a not-so-terrible learning curve, and then lots of refinement once you learn the festival ropes, your tools, and your goals. Once you’ve sunk your upfront costs, you’ll only be paying for festival application fees (a very minor expense), booth/space fees, and costs related to travel to and from the event.

Don’t some artists return home from festivals empty handed?
Not every artist makes a sale at every festival – you roll the dice and take your chances. You can lose hundreds of dollars on one festival and make thousands in profits on the very next – there is often little rhyme or reason. Just remember that you stand NO chance of sales if your work is not being seen. Festivals provide an innumerable number of eyes for your work. How well it actually sells depends upon the content and presentation and how well it is received by that particular festival audience on that day (and upon how engaging your discourse is with patrons!).

What’s wrong with “Craft Shows” or “Art & Craft Shows”?
Potentially nothing. However, most craft shows are not juried; there are typically no entrance fees; and you could find yourself sandwiched between a kettle corn booth, Popsicle stick art, and a crafty doily vendor only to be left wondering why you cannot sell a $50 print. Because I make and sell art, “craft shows” are not an avenue I desire to set my shop upon. You will determine what works best for you and your work.

How do I find Art Festivals?
You can likely already name a few art festivals that take place near you, but I’d recommend an exhaustive study so that you can hone in on the very best (or the very best market for you and your work). Google to find festivals near you or check out www.CraftMasterNews.com, www.ArtFairSourcebook.com, or www.SunshineArtist.com. I recommend that your first check out a show as a patron to get a feel for the venue and crowd. Take the time to talk with a few artists (only when they are not talking with potential buyers!) to see what knowledge they might be willing to offer you regarding the show. There is no right or wrong show; there is only your gut feeling and how that audience will respond to your work once you put it in front of them. You ultimately have to determine which shows are best for you in the context of your own art and abilities.

How much inventory will I need?
Typical booth sizes at most festivals are either 10×10’ or 12×12’. Artists can also buy double or larger booth spreads (which obviously increases your total booth fees). I recommend that you start small (one booth) and grow as needed. Unless you are selling doilies or kettle corn, you’ll probably require much less inventory than you think. I typically hang about 14-16 finished pieces of varying sizes in a 12×12’ booth and do not keep excess inventory on hand. I show a few large pieces and numerous medium-sized pieces – nothing small. You will be able to fit many more pieces into your booth if you choose to show smaller work in a more tightly packed space.

What about booth aesthetics/presentation?
Consider your presentation well and show only your best work and/or work that has previously performed well. I try to create an inviting environment that draws patrons in, attempting to create a gallery-like atmosphere instead of pawn-shop. In other words, a clean and tight presentation with no clutter, good breathing space on the walls, and a well-curated selection of art. Consider showing your work in themes/collections rather than a hodge-podge assortment of your Best Of.

Where do I learn about tents/canopies, walls/panels, and other related exhibition materials?
Most artists use tents/canopies from Flourish (I highly recommend the TrimLine Canopy!), Light-Dome, or some sort of EZ-Up style pop-up tent. If you will be doing shows in inclement weather and/or windy environments, I highly recommend you stick with a heavier-duty tent/canopy. The better your setup, the less catastrophic the outcome when a ravaging windstorm lands unexpectedly on the venue (check out this video!!).

ProPanels is the typical wall of choice. You can also find used tents and walls at often significant discounts on the Pro Panels Trading Post.

What other art festival education resources can you recommend?
Printmaking artist Maria Arango has written a wonderfully helpful guide for exhibiting artists (published 2007) entitled Art Festival Guide – The Artist’s Guide to Selling in Art Festivals. Whatever it is, if I excluded it in this article she likely has it covered in her book. I cannot recommend this book enough!

Bruce Baker offers helpful CD’s: “Your Slides and the Jury”, “Booth Design & Merchandising for Craft and Trade Shows”, and “Dynamic Sales and Customer Service Techniques”. I recommend that you buy the entire three CD set. If you are not a born marketer or salesperson, you will find Baker’s CD’s immensely helpful to selling your work.

The Life As An Itinerant Artist blog by Jim Parker offers helpful ideas from an artist that does a lot of shows.

I have not watched it, but this one hour and 45 minute YouTube video (How To Successfully Sell Pictures at Art Festivals and Fairs) from B&H Photo looks helpful.

The Art Show Photo Facebook page hosted by Larry Berman may be helpful to you.

I hope that this article was helpful! Please let me know if I’ve excluded anything of importance. I wish you the very best with exhibiting your own work in fine art festivals!

I’ll be exhibiting next at the Beverly Hills Art Show on May 16-17, 2015 (#201). Come on out and say hello!

You are visiting the blog of fine art landscape photographer Michael E. Gordon. For additional photos and information, please visit his official website. You can also find Michael on FacebookGoogle+, and  Twitter.

10,000 Hours

Bathing Beauties

Bathing Beauties

Young photographers often ask what they can do to “go pro”. They often want to know about tips, tricks, or shortcuts to achieving commercial and financial success through photography. Ironically, few are interested in knowing how to become better artists and image makers.

Allow me to immediately clarify that no matter how much effort you invest, your photographic success will never be guaranteed and it will most likely never be the result of shortcuts, clever maneuvering, or social media marketing strategies. I’d like to also mention that I am not aware of any current professional photographer who makes their entire living from print sales and image licensing. Those glamorous days of free-shooting globe-trotting photography died long ago with 35% investment returns, bloated real estate values, and freely flowing cash. As a professional photographer, what you can expect is inconsistent income; to be asked regularly for free use of your photographs; the requirement for multiple income streams from different channels; and more hours at the desk doing non-photographic stuff than you’d care to. If you believe that “going pro” means buying a full frame d-slr, going on great photographic vacations, and then sitting back and watching the income roll in from image licensing and print sales…. good luck with your career!

In his book, Outliers: The Story of Success, author Malcolm Gladwell contends that 10,000 hours of dedicated practice and commitment is required to achieve excellence in ones chosen craft/sport/art. There’s no shortage of disagreement regarding Gladwell’s “rule”, however this essay is not about whether 10,000 is the right number of hours. There are certainly exceptions to every rule, and gifted prodigies indeed exist (although in very tiny numbers). Looking at photography, it’s reasonable to suggest that it really only takes minutes to master the pushing of camera buttons and gaining accurate exposure via the real-time histogram. Operating a camera is a rather easy affair, but operating a good camera does not ensure good photography. We can account for the rest of those thousands of hours as time that is (or should be) spent seeing, building ones visual vocabulary, and becoming proficient artists, communicators, and image makers. I’d posit that fiddling with gear and software does not factor into these hours. Good photography is the result of good vision; the camera and software are mere tools.

Just how many hours is 10,000 photography hours? That’s two three-hour shoots per day (one in the morning, one in the afternoon= six hours total) every day for four and one-half years. I’ll round up and suggest that if you do not have at least five solid years of image making practice behind you and not more than a few dozen strong photographs to show for all your effort, forget your Facebook, Twitter, and G+ social media campaigns: Work first at being a better artist and photographer, and consider marketing it later once you’ve got a unique body of work and an organically grown audience that cannot get enough of it. You cannot now nor will you ever achieve a level rivaling Steve McCurry or Art Wolfe (two randomly chosen hard-working artists of excellence) through clever Search Engine Optimization or through lots of Facebook “friends”. Get offline and get shooting.

You are visiting the blog of fine art landscape photographer Michael E. Gordon. For additional photos and information, please visit his official website. You can also find Michael on TwitterFacebook, and Google+.

Announcing Visionary Photography Workshops

Guy Tal and I first met each other about ten years ago shortly after he’d left California for Utah. During the ensuing decade, we shared together many wonderful photography expeditions to extraordinary places and discussed at length our goals, philosophies, and hopes for nature and landscape photography as fine art. Despite our differences, we shared many commonalities and philosophies and began to plan our first workshop. In 2004, we hand-picked a select group of photographers for a free Grand Staircase-Escalante NM (Utah) workshop where we could test and vet our curriculum. It was a wonderful start with a great group of photographers, and we’ve since spent the last eight years teaching, guiding, and inspiring scores of photographers at all levels while continuously refining our philosophies and teaching methods. In 2011 we began hatching a refined Visionary concept, and in February 2012 offered our first (sold out) Visionary Photography Workshop in Death Valley National Park. It was a tremendous success, and it prompted us to consider additional offerings in new locations.
The success (or failure) of a photography workshops hinges on its leadership and planning. After eight years of teaching and guiding, we had heard the horror stories from our participants about bad workshops and bad leadership, and desired to never have our names associated with similar stories. Meticulous planning is part of every Visionary workshop. There is no “figuring it out” as we go along, no details are left uncoordinated, and we don’t use our workshops to build our own portfolios. We take great pride in the Visionary program we’ve put together, and we hope you’ll join us for a Visionary Photography Workshop in 2013.
You are visiting the blog of fine art landscape photographer Michael E. Gordon. For additional photos and information, please visit his official website.

Par Excellence

I have always been a competitive individual. In my earliest years, I dreamed of making the annals of baseball history. In my early adult life, as a guitar player of many years and co-writer in an original band, I loathed the idea of sounding only as good as other guitar players and writing average music. In later years, I chased challenging routes in rock climbing and mountaineering and aimed to have endless stamina and climb in good style. I haven’t yet discovered what drives my competitive nature, but being second always seemed like not winning to me. Call this character trait what you will, but I believe without a doubt that it has fueled my drive for photographic excellence. Whether anyone else believes in my excellence is irrelevant. My goal has never been to be a “better” photographer than others, but to instead always be continuously pushing my photographic boundaries and striving for excellence.

As we watch the 2012 Olympics and the world’s most incredible athletes dig their deepest and fight their hardest – and breaking numerous world records while doing so – we are reminded that there will never be any substitutes for vision, hard work, and dogged determination. Those “overnight” sensations you only recently learned about have been quietly training for years in the background, while others have managed to effectively use smart marketing and social media to immediately convince others of their excellence. Even if there were a metric by which your work could be judged, whether anyone else believes that you are the “best” at what you do is not the point, but the moment you lower your standard and settle for “good enough”, you deny your creativity and greatness.

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I’m not the most prolific blogger, I know, but this post marks #199 since this blog’s humble beginnings on September 20, 2006. 200 is no special number, but it’s a nice even number which took some time for this blog to reach. What should I discuss? I humbly request your topic suggestions for my 200th blog post.

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There are only two spots remaining in our November Visionary Death Valley workshop. Guy Tal and I invite you to join us for more in-depth discussions on excellence, creativity, style, and more during this exciting adventure.

You are visiting the blog of fine art landscape photographer Michael E. Gordon. For additional photos and information, please visit his official website. You can also find Michael on TwitterFacebook, and Google+.