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+.

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Mars Resemblance to the Mojave Desert

©2012 NASA

©Michael E. Gordon

©

As soon as the first images from the Mars rover Curiosity were beamed back to earth  on August 6, comparisons to the Mojave Desert immediately began flying:

Curiosity and the Mojave Desert of Mars

Curiosity Surveys a Martian Mojave Desert

Mars Landscape Looks Similar To California’s Mojave Desert

These revelations were no surprise to NASA scientists, the U.S. Military, and others who have observed and used for decades the Mojave Desert’s similarities to other landscapes. Although I have yet to set foot on the moon or Mars, I’ve often found myself in such similarly desolate and austere locales throughout the California desert.

When I first viewed the black and white image from Curiosity – seen here at top left – I swore that I had previously seen and photographed this landscape with my own eyes. That is, not in a broad “looks-like-the-Mojave” kind of way, but right down the to the same terrain and distant land forms. I knew I had “been to Mars” before Curiosity, so I went archive digging and turned up at least one eerie similarity (seen below the NASA photo). The only evident dissimilarity of these landscapes is created by water: Given a little rain, I can visualize Martian valleys full of blooming lupine and creosote.

I’ve included one additional photo at bottom left. Mars? Mojave? How much difference there really is will likely come to be known in the weeks and months ahead.

Thanks for reading the 200th post of this blog!

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+.

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+.

The Heart of the Matter

Creosote Dreams

Great photographs transcend place and time. Celebrated American photographer Minor White well understood this concept when he wrote about photographing “things for what else they are.” While there are numerous variations of this quote attributed to White, the message is definitive: Powerful and timeless images occur when the photographer reveals something about his subject that we cannot or might not see with our own eyes. This concept underscores why a photograph like Edward Weston’s Pepper No. 30 is regarded as one of photography’s masterpieces. Although it literally is, critics, curators, and viewers concur that this is no simple portrait of a bell pepper. Similar is Weston’s portrait of a toilet. But is it merely a toilet?

Photographing things “for what else they are” has become a fundamental aspect of my work. After spending a sufficient number of years chasing locations and light, I essentially grew tired of the formula and my subsequent results. It was too easy and creatively unfulfilling: Pick a scenic location, point the camera reasonably well, and hope for sweet light and clouds to transform it into something more meaningful. Yet I would repeatedly return home and develop my film only to realize that the photographs I’d made did not live up to or even remotely equal the experience of simply being there. Location-based photography leaves most everything to chance – find an awesome landscape, scramble for a foreground anchor, and pray for clouds and light – but little for your viewers to ponder and contemplate. One eventually yearns for more when the most common refrain regarding your photographs is “oh, that’s pretty”.

Have a poke around some of the web’s most popular photo-sharing forums to see how well you can differentiate one photographer from the next, or if you can differentiate one Icelandic or Patagonian landscape from another. In his ‘Letting Go of the Camera’, Brooks Jensen suggests that “[a] great deal of what passes as fine art photography today is not based on vision, talent or craft; it is based simply on access.”

I’ve had life-long love for the geology, plants, and animals that make up the grander landscapes about which I am passionate. I have studied academically all of these subjects and at one time even fancied a profession in wildlife biology or geology (someone once mistakenly told me that photographers were better paid). I’m enthralled by geological processes, interrelations of plants and animals, and the way they have all adapted to each other (and to other forces), so it’s no accident that I spend a lot studying and photographing the smaller and deeper details. Most everyone already knows how beautiful and extraordinary our planet is. I feel no artistic compulsion to reinforce the obvious, so I’ve focused my work on sharing the unusual and fascinating aspects of my world. Not everyone can or will share my love for my subjects and photographs, and I’m perfectly okay with that. This is precisely what defines ones work as personal and unique.

Photographers that are sensitive to the environments and subjects which they photograph create images that offer opportunities for insight and contemplation, and great photographs should always tell us something about their maker. When the photograph is about location, we often learn more about geography and the quality of light and clouds than we do about the photographer. Make your photographs about you. Show us something about your subjects that we might not perceive with our own eyes.

Guy Tal and I invite you to join us for inspirational and in-depth discussions on style, creativity, and other philosophies during our Nov 2012 Visionary Death Valley workshop. Only a few seats currently remain…

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+.

Death Valley Haboob – February 13, 2012

Guy Tal, Steve, and our friend Raven watch the haboob overtake Death Valley

This post should have been made three months ago in the wake of this extraordinary event, but because I had too much on my agenda and it was reported elsewhere, I blew it off (sorry!). Yet every time I flip through my collection and see or share these photographs, I realize just how unique and extraordinary an event it was and that I should have shared this back in February. Without further delay…

On Monday, February 13, 2012, Guy Tal and I met in Stovepipe Wells, along with our friend, Steve, so that we could complete our final preparations for our Visionary Death Valley photography workshop and spend a few days enjoying the immense beauty of Death Valley National Park. We met at the General Store in Stovepipe Wells and sat at one of the picnic tables eating lunch, catching up, and shooting the breeze. Essentially, we were

Death Valley, gone

doing nothing in one of the best places on earth to do nothing, when I glanced north up the immense valley of Death – at 140 miles long, there are few that rival its depth and length – and observed a wall of dust heading our way. Because I was looking at it head-on, it was hard to get a sense of how tall it was and how fast it was moving. We grabbed cameras, and continued to watch and wait. It continued to grow in size, and our excited anticipation built as we could see that it was now only a few horizontal miles away from us. It was as wide as is the Valley, and we estimated its height to be roughly half-mile – it was scary-looking. The winds began to build, ravens displayed nervous energy, and sand began to fly about. We had only a few moments of snapshots, and in no time flat we were inside the giant sand-blaster. The landscape completely disappeared, and unbeknownst to us, we were in the midst of a rare Death Valley Haboob (haboob is Arabic for “strong wind”). More common to the Sahara and other arid regions of the world, haboobs are intense dust storms that are carried by atmospheric gravity currents, and somewhat resemble a wave rolling onshore. In July 2011, the Phoenix area was hit by a massive and well-documented haboob.

Running upslope toward Towne Pass…

The only way a haboob can be enjoyed is behind a protective barrier, so we piled into our vehicles and headed off toward Emigrant Canyon and Tucki Mountain. I was in the lead as we drove west on Highway 190 toward Towne Pass. I looked to my left (south) and saw the haboob racing us uphill toward Towne Pass; based on our own speed, I estimated it at 60mph (yikes!). We eventually exited the pavement and headed off towards Telephone Canyon – wherever it was in the soup!  An hour or two later, it oddly began to rain on Tucki Mountain, the gentle rain taking with it the sand, dust, and evidence of the massive haboob that overtook Death Valley only a few hours prior.

Toyota’s eat dust

What a wild day in Death Valley! You’ll find a few more good photos and report at the KCET SoCal Wanderer blog  and good photos/report by Margaret Summers on her blog. I hope you were lucky enough to be in Phoenix or Death Valley when these haboobs struck – what an amazing atmospheric event to behold!

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+.

On Assignment: Technology in Desert Photography

Even though I enjoy and greatly appreciate technology, a number of friends and others over the years have often referred to me as a Luddite. I resisted the change from analog to digital audio (I bought into CD’s years after everyone else and still prefer the warmth and quality of good analog audio); I resisted the change from analog to digital photography (I still prefer film and a view camera); and I resisted iPhones until their 3rd version, when owning one became a very obvious way to increase my productivity on many fronts (Status Updates from the field are not relevant to productivity ;)). The iPhone and other bits of technology became very relevant and important recently when about three weeks ago I went on assignment into the California Desert for The Wilderness Society (TWS).

Unless you live in the western United States, you’re likely unaware that the U.S. Department of Energy has fast-tracked twenty-four solar energy development projects on desert public lands throughout six southwestern states. Here in California, four Solar Energy Zones (SEZ) have been proposed, with the majority of the acreage occupying pristine California desert landscapes. It goes without saying that these are controversial and contentious proposals, and the conservation community has recommended that the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) not designate two of the proposed solar zones in California (Pisgah and Iron Mountain) because of conflicts with wildlife habitat and nearby National Parks. Accordingly, TWS hired me to illustrate the diverse and undisturbed plant communities, wildlife habitat, and overall beauty found in these proposed SEZ’s. Because these SEZ’s are only in the proposal stage, no ground has been broken; there are no boundary lines or stakes on the ground; and no fences or other guides to indicate the exact boundaries of these huge proposed SEZ’s (the proposed Pisgah SEZ is 23,950 acres; the proposed Iron Mountain SEZ is 106,522 acres). So how does a photographer determine where to stand and point the camera when working with such a large and remote “job-site”?

I used all of the following technologies to research, scout, and photograph for this assignment: Google Earth (using provided KMZ files to indicate the SEZ’s); Ephemeris (I use an old desktop application; many prefer The Photographer’s Ephemeris); satellite images with SEZ overlays (provided by the U.S. D.O.E.); my iPhone; the iPhone compass app; the SunSeeker iPhone app; a paper San Bernardino County Map (provided by Automobile Club of Southern California; they make the best county maps and show roads that other maps do not); the WWW for various research and imagery while in the field; and finally, good old visual reckoning while in the field (does not break; does not require signal; requires no batteries). There is some overlap in these tools and I could have done away with one or two, but I used what was fastest and most convenient to me.

I had a one-week deadline. I did my research the afternoon and evening I received the assignment, and left the very next morning. In three days in the field, I covered nearly 600 miles of driving, a number of miles of hiking, and netted thirty-nine photographs for The Wilderness Society’s campaign. They’re soon to publish an extensive Solar Energy report which will use my photographs to hopefully to eliminate the Pisgah and Iron Mountain SEZ proposals.

I spent three days wandering alone these vast and primordial Mojave Desert landscapes. I was often overcome with grief and sadness when I could see before me the acreage that DOE proposes for these SEZ’s. These are huge and undisturbed landscapes where even during the most bearable season (Oct-Mar) you are more likely to see coyote, tortoise, or raven than a human.

No DOE employee nor Interior Secretary Ken Salazar has ever had encounters with tortoise, bighorn sheep, and coyote like I have. No DOE employee nor Interior Secretary Ken Salazar has ever scaled the Mojave Desert’s steep mountains to watch the new sun throw its blaze across these majestic and untarnished landscapes. And No DOE employee nor Interior Secretary Ken Salazar has ever had a physical or emotional investment in this desert or in California’s heritage. What right have they to designate these zones as wastelands fit only for thousands of square acres of solar panels?

You are visiting the blog of fine art landscape photographer Michael E. Gordon. For additional photos and information, please visit his official website.

Photographic Point of View

Anyone can do the craft. Only the individual has the unique personality to build a point of view. Al Weber

My good friend and extraordinary photographer and writer Guy Tal recently interviewed me on his blog. Mine is the second installment of interviews Guy is conducting with photographers he considers “creative and innovative” (he’ll also need to interview himself in a future installment). Guy’s questions are unlike the typical ones you’ll find in interviews with photographers; they’re thoughtful and in-depth, and I had to dig deep for my replies.

The most important question Guy asked pertained to my treatment of my images as “expressive art rather than purely a medium for capturing natural beauty“. Before I proceed any further, I’d like to have you reread the quote at the beginning of this entry. Indeed, anyone can do the craft – more so today than ever before. Even amateur photo hobbyists now own 16-18mp D-SLR’s purchased from Costco or Sam’s Club, and if they point them reasonably well, they, too, can produce “professional quality” photographs. But simply owning a high resolution D-SLR and Lightroom 3 makes you no more a photographic artist than me describing myself a writer for owning an expensive keyboard and a WordPress blog. No matter how technically stunning your work – and despite rationalizing that it’s “your unique take” – you can’t own your photographs when they are composed of common subjects and grand views captured similarly by others from the same viewpoints and perhaps with better gear and possibly even under better light. Alternative or derivative? Indeed, but unique it will not and cannot be. The trap of becoming involved in the landscape photographer’s “circuit” – whereby a number of photographers shuttle around North America photographing mature subjects during their peak seasons (hopefully with “epic” light) – is that you’re not likely creating images for yourself or for your audience. You’re instead likely involved in the photographer’s rat race of one-upmanship: “I can do it better”.

I’d like to share a secret: buyers of photographs don’t care about location-based photography (photo-stock excluded) nor do they care about how close you came to dying or how you lost a camera and lens while producing the photograph. Buyers buy because a) they are too moved by your photograph to not buy it b) they have a direct connection to the subject or particular elements within it. It doesn’t matter that you have the very finest Moulton Barn photo of the thousands that are out there (millions?), and it doesn’t matter if you’ve captured the most epic light ever over Coyote Buttes. If your audience has no connection to these places, you simply cannot sell them a print no matter how hard you try.

Instead of trying to separate yourself from the photographic herd only by way of technical excellence (which, by the way, does not matter to buyers), consider building a point of view to share with the world. You’ll first need to develop this, of course. Everyone is quite aware that nature and natural landscapes are beautiful, so sharing the beauty of nature and landscape is not sharing your point of view; it merely affirms what is already celebrated. Dig deep into your collection of photographs; find common threads through the work which you can claim as your photographic voice and yours alone; and continue to develop photographs and themes that reinforce your unique point of view. You do have one, and the world is interested in it (if this were not the case, every nature/landscape photographer post-Ansel Adams would be a complete failure).

I am far from being the first (and last) landscape photographer to shoot the places I do and using the tools that I do. I am not the first to photograph the Mojave Desert, Joshua trees, or the Sierra Nevada, but I am the first to present my point of view of these subjects and places. It is the only way I know how to work, and it is the only work that I believe is worth doing. I don’t need to run about North America photographing its most photographically mature subjects, and I have little reason to outdo other photographers. I work in my own arena. I care only about making photographs of subjects I love and can portray in a way that I can say is uniquely mine. When I do this most effectively, compelling photographs emerge. Epic light and icons be damned – I can even sell prints of busted vehicles.

Stop paying attention to what other photographers are doing. Photograph anything you want. Do it with your voice and your point of view. If you can do this with love and conviction, success will be yours.

PS: I am judging Guy Tal’s Ten Weeks of Creativity contest this week, and I want to see your unique point of view! Guy’s got great prizes lined up for each weekly winner – enter your photographs now.

You are visiting the blog of fine art landscape photographer Michael E. Gordon. For additional photos and information, please visit his official website.