Unraveling an Identity

I’ve started thinking about identity. What is it? How does it work? Is my identity me?

I’ve come to a conclusion as I’ve pondered the idea of “identity”… My identity is not me. My identity is something external to me. It’s everything I’ve picked up to define myself along the way. The views through others eyes and the shortcuts I use to describe myself. Where I spend my time and energy. What I create. All that is wrapped up in my identity. But it is not me.

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I’ve come up with an analogy, explaining identity as a sweater, worn over the core of who we are. It is knit throughout our life by influential people in our lives and, eventually, by our selves. The sweater is started by our parents, who give it their best. As we get older teachers take on the task, and our friends join in too. There are threads of culture woven through, along with our interests, professions and important relationships. Our strengths and our weaknesses get in there, maybe out of proportion in places.

At some point in our lives, we might realize that we are wearing a sweater that no longer fits. For whatever reason, the identity that has grown up with us has become too big or too small, too long or too short. So we have to unravel, and reknit it for ourselves. We realize that we can adjust and shape it to better fit. Maybe we can even remove it altogether, but I think that must be much harder to do.

There are times in our unraveling, when it goes beautifully. Everything just comes apart easily and you can start to patch things together in a new way. I think this happened for me in Italy, as I rediscovered art and my creative side. After a couple of years of work I emerged with a new patch of my identity sweater, beautiful and colorful. These last couple of years I’ve worked to carefully knit the new and old patches together, finding a fit that works.

But there are other times in our reshaping, when you have multiple strands going at the same time – some unraveling, some knitting back up – and you get a knot. A snarly knot that doesn’t want to budge. All you can do is take some time to pick at it, work it loose. Figure out which strand goes where and how to integrate it.

I think that’s where I am right now, I’m working at a knot. Earlier this year I had multiple strands flying and all was going well. Then almost without me noticing, things started to get snarled up. The knot is a little too tight, and the only thing I can do is be careful and patient, wiggling it loose. Everything is at a standstill, until this knot is undone.

Somewhere on the other side of this knot is something new, I can feel it. A new patch to overlay and integrate with the rest of my identity sweater. But I have to work at this knot first. I’ll let you know when I’m done…

Alone on the Hill

The wonderful thing about mobile photography is that it is, well, mobile. It’s with me anywhere I go. With a little downtime, I can create. Anywhere, anytime.

Exploring my sister’s back yard, a spot of bright color caught my eye. In the berm leading up the mountainside away from her yard, there was one lone poppy blooming. I climbed the steep hill and balanced precariously, trying to capture the flower while the breeze shifted it this way and that. After finally capturing a good image — nicely framed, in focus, without my shadow in it — I sat down in the Colorado sunshine and proceeded to mess it up, transforming it into something new. Something that expresses more than the original photograph. Something that gets to the essence of the poppy, instead of the poppy itself.

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Later I was passing the image around the table, sharing with my family. It’s an interesting thing to share in person rather than on the internet. On the internet, people can quietly ignore something they don’t like. You only really hear from those who DO like it. So seeing someone view my work in person as it was passed around the table, I could tell if they liked it or not. I got the unfiltered responses.

I discovered that not everyone likes the new direction my work is taking. I discovered they were surprised by the abstract nature of the art I enjoy creating. I discovered that these changes, which seem obvious and natural to me, are not obvious or even explicable to those who are dearest to me.

It does make sense… They haven’t been around me on a regular basis for a long time. They didn’t see me in the museums of Europe, discovering my attraction to colorful abstract art. They didn’t see me falling in love with Vasily Kandinsky, Mark Rothko or Paul Delaunay. They haven’t seen my playing around with paints and trying to capture the emotion of pure color and movement on a canvas. All they saw was the photographs. And now all they see is this dramatic transition of the art I share, because I’ve finally found the medium that combines my love of photography and abstraction in one place.

Yeah, I can see how that would be surprising.

Another thing that I discovered, as I found out they don’t all like this new direction of my work, is that I don’t care. I love what I am creating now. I am confident and comfortable with it as my own personal expression. I am comfortable with the idea that others won’t like it. Some don’t like it because it’s perceived as easy: “All you do is push buttons in software, and that’s just wrong.” Some don’t like it because they prefer the more literal interpretation of a photograph, and don’t think it needs to be transformed in any way. They liked my old style better.

That’s ok, because I don’t create for anyone else, I create for me. Some people will connect with it, some people won’t. That’s just the way art works. I don’t have to be hemmed in by anyone else’s rules and opinions.

And one final discovery out of all of this… it doesn’t mean they love me or I love them any less. My work is an expression of me, but it is not me.

That’s just as important to realize, I think.

Exploring with a Camera: Process of Elimination (2nd Edition)

Welcome to October’s Exploring with a Camera! This month I am sharing a “second edition” post, repeating the topic Process of Elimination that I first wrote a little over a year ago. I had already planned on doing a second edition post this month, since I just returned from England on Monday and knew I wouldn’t have time to prepare a new topic. But I hadn’t decided what topic I wanted to repeat yet.

I come back to this specific topic for a couple of reasons. I’m rereading Photographically Speaking to prepare for my workshop with David duChemin next weekend, and came across this quote:

The way we express ourselves first depends on our having intent. No author throws random words on the page in hopes that they will somehow make sense. Yet we photographers do it all the time. We make photographs wtihout fully engaging in the process, without being mindful of our intent for that one image. But if you identify that intent, it narrows your gaze and helps you choose the best lens, the best shutter speed or aperture, or suggests you shoot from a different, better perspective. Intent matters. It is the prime mover. Without it, we are engaging in little more than accidentally exposing light to film or a sensor.

Using the Process of Elimination to create a more interesting image in Yorkshire.

In the A Sense of Place workshops I taught the last two weekends, we talked about intent. We talked about knowing what you want to say, in order to create stronger images that tell a story. For me, the Process of Elimination is a big part of creating photographs that express what I want to say. I think this is a fundamental concept that all of us should revisit from time to time, so here we go!

Some situational context: When I first wrote this we were still in the process of settling into our home after our move back from Italy.


For the next couple of weeks we are going to focus on the Process of Elimination. Funnily enough, this topic idea came to me several weeks ago, well before our container from Italy arrived last weekend. For the last few days, we have been pursuing a physical process of elimination in our home. We have so much stuff, now that our Italian belongings have been delivered. Trying to figure out what to keep and what to eliminate has been overwhelming at times, but the end result of elimination is always so much better. I can breathe and focus.

There is a great parallel with photography here! I started noticing in the last few months that many of my images and compositions are based on eliminating the elements that shouldn’t be in the image, as much as deciding what should be there. This is one reason I struggle a bit with composition in painting. With a painting, I get to add whatever I want to the composition, which is not how I normally operate. In my photography, much of the image is formed as I take away elements that don’t belong in the picture. The choice of what to take away will depend on what I am trying to convey with my image. What caught my eye? What is of interest here?

Let’s look at some ways to pursue the process of elimination…


Framing

For this exercise, I am going to distinguish framing from cropping. Framing is how you frame the composition in the camera at the time of taking the photo, as compared to cropping which is done in post-processing. Framing is the best way to work through the process of elimination, because you can take multiple shots. You can study angles and changes to what is in your frame real time, making adjustments as you go.

The lead in image I took in Carbondale, Colorado is a good example. The focus is on the bike, and the color/texture of the wall behind it. Blue and white bike, textured blue wall. Those are the elements that caught my eye in this scene. Before getting to that shot, however, I started with this one:

Blah, isn’t it? Bike is in the center, and there is nothing that grabs you about the image. The shadows from the tree just out of the frame on the left are strong and distracting. I consider this a “warm-up” shot, helping me to work toward what I wanted to convey. First step, capture the bike and the wall. Then, use this to help me see where I want to go. For the final image at the top of the post, I worked to eliminate the strong shadows and focus just on the bike and the wall. Magic!

Here is another scene from Colorado, this time Old Colorado City, where I used the process of elimination. This is never how I would present the scene, I took this to set the stage for what comes next.

The contrasting bright colors of the purple flowers and the blue architectural detail caught my eye. This shows the scene I was working with. As framed above, I would get the color, but would the image would not be interesting. So I work to eliminate. I find an angle that focuses on the contrast between the purple and the blue.

Better, but there are still too many distracting elements. The pole and signs as you look down the wall and street on the right are distracting. The water spout in the bottom right is a distraction also. The white details from the door frame in the upper left aren’t helping anything. So, focus in further, change the angle slightly and…

We’ve got all purple and blue contrast, a pleasing composition that keeps the focus on what I saw and wanted to convey, and nothing to distract.

Let’s look at one more framing example. On my last trip to Florence, Italy, I came upon this scene walking the backstreets. Shown below is the angle I originally saw it from.

Look at that fantastic bike, being used as a store display. If you can see the bike in all of the distractions, that is. Between the street signs, graffiti, store door and shaft of sunlight you might not even notice the cool bike. So I moved, I changed my angle on the scene to the other side of the street.

Better. Quite a few distracting elements were gone, but then the new element of the door in the background was added. How to use it became the issue – crop it out or keep it wholly in the frame? What about the entry on the right, and what is that yellow thing, a handle of some cart? This image is still too busy. It was time to try again, really thinking about what I wanted to focus on. It was the bike that caught my eye, and the fact that it was being used as part of the store display. So, changing angles again, and focusing in on the store display aspect, I created one of my all time favorite photos…

Isn’t that a huge difference? From random snapshot to interesting piece of art, by the process of elimination.


Cropping

Let’s face it, we don’t always get the best possible framing in the camera. We may be moving too quickly to study the scene, or might not notice a distracting element. Cropping in post-processing is a fantastic tool for the process of elimination.

There are times where cropping completely saves the image. Consider this example, from Pavia, Italy. I was intrigued by this vintage Fiat on the street, but I didn’t stop to study it. One click and I moved on.

It might be interesting to show my friends the cool Fiat I saw in Italy, but it is nothing exciting. I would never show this here on the blog. I had to focus in on the interesting parts… the vintage license plate, the cobblestone street, and the cool reflection of the Italian architecture.

And there it is! An image that says “Classic Italian Transport” and not “I was wandering around in Italy and I randomly snapped this photo.” The process of elimination worked for me here.

This image from Germany is one I’ve shared before of how dramatic cropping can save a shot. I loved the architecture and the vineyard on the hill behind the building:

There was just too much building and not enough interest, however. Where are you supposed to look? Cropping to focus in on the architectural detail but keep the vineyard behind yields this image:

So much more interesting. Now you know where to look! You can see the details of the bottle-glass window, the timber framing, and the painting under the eaves along with the context of the vineyard behind. A great image to show the classic German architecture of the Rhine River Valley.

Now, cropping dramatically has its consequences. You can lose significant resolution in the image. The final cropped image will not be able to be printed as large as it could have been. You might be surprised, however, just how much cropping an image from a modern digital camera can withstand before you have problems with printing resolution. Since I’m primarily sharing online, I don’t have to worry about it too much, but it’s good to keep in mind.

It is interesting to note that both of these cropping examples are from 2009, very early during my Italian assignment. As I took more photos and improved in my photography, I’ve gotten so much better at seeing and framing my images at the time of capture. All of the examples in the framing section are from the last few months. The practice of cropping in my post-processing over the last two years has helped me learn the process of elimination at the time of framing that I use today.

To be honest, I still crop most of my photos just a tiny bit. While I do most of my framing at the time of capture, what I see through the viewfinder and what the camera sensor captures is slightly different. Distractions may creep in there on the edges. That’s ok with me, I know I will pull the photo in my editing software anyway to make any final adjustments. Cropping is just one of those final adjustments.


Cleaning

One last, rarely-used tool in the process of elimination is cleaning. Cleaning is where I use the clone-stamp tool in Photoshop Elements [update: or spot removal tool in Lightroom] to copy over a distracting element with pixels from another area in the image. I consider cleaning a last resort, because it takes a lot of time and it will not always work. I get the best image at the time of capture with as little distraction as possible, and I know if the distractions can be cropped or cleaned later.

In this example from Burano, I was going for the line of colorful houses and already envisioned some fun processing for color. No matter how I framed it though, I couldn’t get the line of houses where I wanted without that last bit of pole on the right in the image.

Clone-stamp to the rescue! I removed the pole by copying other parts of the pavement onto the area with the pole. Can you see any evidence of it? Not so much at this resolution. You will also notice a slight crop, which removed some of the pole too, making my job easier.

Much better, I think. The focus is on the blue house, and the pole is no longer there to distract on the right.

I captured this great building from the top of the tourist bus, in Barcelona. I liked the repetition of the shapes, light and shadow of the windows. I was at a good angle to building, being high up on the bus, but I couldn’t move from my seat to eliminate the streetlight in the image.

Because of the repetitive nature of the light and shadows, it was easy to clone the shapes and shadows of the balcony and remove the distracting streetlight. This final image was also straightened and then cropped for composition, which also helped to remove some of the streetlight. With a conversion to black and white, it’s all about the repeating pattern now.

It’s important to note that every image cannot be saved this way. Cleaning only works if you have the “raw material” elsewhere in the image to copy over the distracting element. That is not always the case. This is a technique to learn and practice, so that you have a better feel what can and can’t be fixed later in your post-processing.

Keep in mind, cleaning takes a lot of time. It is much quicker to capture a distraction-free image than to clean it in post-processing. If you love the post-processing part of digital photography, that may be fine for you. That’s not where I prefer to spend my time.


The Process Works

I hope these examples help you to see how the process of elimination works to create interesting images. Often a great image is hiding inside a so-so image, if you can remove the distracting elements. There was something in the scene that captured your eye to begin with, so focusing in while eliminating other elements will help you tell your story.

Keep these ideas in mind as you practice the process of elimination:

  • Think about what you are trying to convey in your photograph. What was it about the scene that caught your eye or made you want to point your camera at it? What story do you want to tell? That is what you need to focus on. Eliminate all elements that distract from your intended message.
  • Move yourself to change your perspective. Will the distractions be eliminated if you move higher? Lower? Left? Right?
  • Zoom in, with your feet or your lens, to focus on the subject. Or, zoom out to keep the context in the image. If you can’t decide, go back to Step 1. When you are clear on what you want to convey in the image, the decision of subject/context is easier.
  • Watch and wait if needed. Sometimes the distractions are mobile, and if you wait to click you can create a stronger image.
  • Crop in post-processing. This is a great tool to eliminate unwanted distractions and learn more about how framing your image makes a difference.
  • Clean out distracting elements in post-processing. It may be possible to remove a small distraction in post-processing by “cleaning.”

Now, it’s your turn! Share your images using the Process of Elimination, and if you can, also share an image that shows the “before” situation. That will help us see how you eliminated the distractions to create a stronger image.

I’m trying something new this month and instead of using a link tool, you can share a link to images using the process of elimination in the comments here. This way, there is no time limit and you can come back and share later if you have a great example.

Thanks so much for your participation in Exploring with a Camera!

I’m Off!

Today’s the day! I’m travelling to the UK. I’m off to find out what’s behind the red door of adventure. I’m eager to get back across the Atlantic. This is my first international travel since returning from Italy over a year ago, and I wonder what new things I will discover?

I’ll be blogging from the road, so you’ll get updates here and there about my experiences.

In the meantime, I have a few Kat Eye things to share…

  • I am excited to be the “Flickr Photo of the Month” for masteringphoto.com with my photograph “Scwinn Approved.” You can see it here.
  • Visit Grow Soul Beautiful, a lovely new site dedicated to the mind+body connection of yoga and photography, for a chance to win a space in the upcoming October/November Find Your Eye course series. Also Sherry Galey, one of my participants in the summer course series, wrote a lovely (and unsolicited) post on her experience with the Find Your Eye e-course. I hope you will follow Sherry’s advice and join us for this next journey!
  • This month’s Photo-Heart Connection will be from England. I wonder how that will affect my connection? Join me October 1 through 7 with your Photo-Heart Connection too.

I think that’s it! You’ll next hear from me on the other side. Yay!

Burst of Flavor

We continue to investigate Repetition in Exploring with a Camera this week. I was trying to decide what image to share when I realized I had the perfect repetition image staring me in the face! I have this image from a Venice market stall matted, framed and sitting in my dining room, ready to drop off to an exhibition. This image is all about repetition – with repeating shape, subject and color.

If you’re around Eugene, Oregon, you’ll be able to see this “Burst of Flavor” in the Taste and Flavor: Spicy exhibition at the David Joyce Gallery in Lane Community College from August 29 through January 1.

If not, you can enjoy it here along with some wonderful images featuring repetition from our participants. Visit them below, and link your exploration of repetition in too. We’d love to see how you repeat yourself!