Going Backwards

Recently, a good friend and fellow photographer told me it seemed my photography seemed to be getting worse lately. I respect what he says, and certainly as a lifelong photographer he has been around the block a few times. Admittedly, I reacted with a “whaddya mean?” question, which I think is valid. In what ways, specifically, do you see my quality not measuring up to my usual standards. It is important to be specific in order to learn and grow.

Whether or not his assessment is accurate is almost besides the point: do we, as artists, have a way to be objective about our own work? No, I think that’s impossible. Too much of our own emotions are tied to our craft. There’s even some profound psychological research about this. But I did find myself asking a rhetorical question to myself: are there times when growing and learning can feel like going backwards? The answer to this is absolutely YES!

I shared with my friend a relevant story to illustrate that growth as an artist is not a steady, straight line. When I was in 4th grade, I started learning to play the saxophone. I played all through high school, taking private lessons and getting good enough to compete as district. By my senior year, I really thought I was pretty good. As a freshman in college, I had a new instructor. He found that my embouchure was poor. I spent months relearning how to play. Once confronted with proper technique, it felt like I was going backwards for several months. My sound got worse, not better. My mouth hurt due to different muscles forming the proper embouchure for the first time. I really sucked (sorry, really bad pun). 

Yet after months of hard work my playing improved. I had an objectively better sound with better technique. What would have happened had I ignored my professor? I’m sure I would still have played, but the truth is that I would have hit the barrier that bad technique creates. One can compensate to a point for poor technical skills, but there is a point where compensating for ineptitudes won’t cut it. 

I see a direct parallel to photography. There are a lot of technical skills needed in the craft. To be really good as a photographer takes years and year of practice and learning. And as my former boss often quipped, “ya don’t know what ya don’t know!” Going backwards (in a sense) is a good thing if that means one is learning. It might mean relearning technique. It might mean the quality of output is objectively lower than before until the best practices are learned well. It also may be true that experimentation as a photographer means folks who previously liked your work simply do not like your new direction. We all have to own our style and not get too discouraged by naysayers.

Bottom line: while I do not see myself pursuing a full-time career in photography, my goal is to make it look so good that you would never know. But it may not always please everyone all the time–in fact, it never will, so just keep going forwards!

Masked Spring

I know we are all more than ready to put winter behind us. However, Chicagoans know a taste of spring can rapidly regress into more bone-chilling cold. Just ask what Chicagoans feel when they hear “cooler by the lake” in a weather forecast in April. This long winter was made profoundly more challenging due to COVID. Forced hibernation and isolation. Fatigue. And yes, a little fatter due to less than healthy eating. Indeed, we are ready for spring.

It might be called a masked spring. It’s hiding a bit. Even as snow melts and flowers emerge from the muddy ground, there is trepidation in our hope. Will we see another COVID spike? Will we face another round of gloomy isolation? Are we willing to live again?

Just like those first flowers pushing through the snow, there’s a risk of damage by poking up and out. Breaking through the cold, hard ground takes courage.

Yet I insist that we do live again. And I’m saying this to myself. Life is always a risky thing. It always was!

So I am coping. Are you? I get myself outdoors, even when there’s still ice on the roads. We recently hung out with friends for the first time in months. We are emerging a bit more each week. 

Now that Lent has started, I am praying my faith in Christ will take on new life and growth. Mixing a “faith fertilizer” requires trust and brokenness: I must must acknowledge my own weaknesses and fears. COVID winter has been difficult for sure. Yet when I think that I was in the ER on New Year’s Eve 2019 for anxiety, my inner spirit has been largely at peace despite all the difficulties of 2020. Even when at times I sensed a tinge of anxiousness in me, I just kept going. Through it all, God remains faithful.

And I still keep going. It’s why I still love photography. It is a catalyst to roam God’s creation to capture images of life. And I hope to keep doing that more and more.

So to make that more meaningful, I’ve started thinking about a small photo book project for this year. I’m hoping to recruit a few local friends who would be willing to spend some time with me and allow me to take their picture (portraits, candids, etc.). I want to hear the stories of how others have coped with COVID life (whether or not one has personally gone through the illness). 

Maybe you would want to take part? Would you share your story with me? Would you let me attempt to capture it in a few photos?


“The views and opinions expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position…”

As a photographer, I sometimes have fear about taking certain types of shots on the street. I hesitate if I think there might be controversy. It might be that the shot could be interesting or even important. My second-guessing is because a photograph might be seen as endorsement of the subject, especially if I post it on social media. 

On the surface, journalistic photography, or documentary / reportage photography, might be expected to be free from bias. However, it’s plain to see in our culture that journalism itself has fallen from grace. The broad recoil in the face of so-called “fake news” stems from the accusations of manipulation. (The use of the phrase “so-called” often means one is dubious of said claim…I will merely say it’s a hot-button issue, thus the “so-called” adjective to hedge my bets).

In modern photography, images can be digitally altered. That’s when the proper noun “Photoshop” becomes a verb: it is said a photo was “Photoshopped” if it was altered to fundamentally change to truth of an image. 

Even without Photoshop, extremely fast shutter speeds and modern digital sensors can be manipulated to capture a public figure in an unintended pose in between the milliseconds of a person’s movements. Back in the film days, the skill of the photographer was demonstrated in anticipating the proper moment to press the shutter; the integrity of the photograph was exactly because of its fidelity to the truth of the moment. Now, one can press and capture dozens of images in seconds. How many photos of Trump, Hillary, Biden, etc. are either showing them as the quintessential leader we desperately need, or as the villain we are to disdain? At 10 frames per second, one frame can portray madness; the other greatness. Which is the truth?

The integrity of the photograph was exactly because of its fidelity to the truth of the moment.

All that said, I am not a journalist photographer. I post whatever I feel appropriate. But what happens if I post a potentially controversial shot without commentary?

Am I endorsing what I captured? This is where social media has become our instantly-gratified culture’s Achilles’ heel. When one posts a picture on Facebook, Twitter etc., the subject and/or story is likely to be perceived as something the person agrees with. I could say I just documented what I saw. Yet in our divided nation many are looking for a fight. So this picture of a small band of Trump supporters in Kenosha might predispose a viewer to think I am in agreement with what’s taking place (I won’t say, so don’t ask!). The bias is on the part of the viewer, of course. But am I creating a situation that simply amplifies angst?

Take this second image: what if I sort of agree…at least at one level? How can critical thinking assist us in the context of media, whether mainstream or social? I did post this image on Facebook, and in some ways I resonate with it. But what does “rise up” mean? What about “love”? Our culture proudly redefines words without necessarily doing justice to their historical meanings. Today, our use of love as a word is laced with social expectations and sometimes used as a weapon when others do not abide by the new order. If some folks are swept away to make room for a new “enlightened” (and more often youth-oriented) regime, is that love? Well, see my point? A photo, just like a brief slogan, can be misunderstood. I might be totally wrong about the artist’s intent here. How can I know for sure?

I can at least say this much: today we live in a vitriolic society where ideologies are at war. Since I am not a paid photojournalist, I have to operate within a construct of prudence. I will take a shot in these situations, but I am extra careful to avoid endorsing a particular cause. The last thing I want do to is inadvertently slip into propaganda photography! That’s simply not why I pick up a camera.

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