advice to an art student – part 1

I received a great email the other day. A college student wrote to tell me:

“You are a huge inspiration to me as a photographer. I wanted you know know that you really helped me develop as an artist and see the world in a different way.”

I love getting emails like this. It’s great to learn that your art is not just appreciated, but is actually inspiring another artist to create. She went on to ask for some advice about how I make my style of art, so I thought I’d share what I wrote back:

My style of photography is about changing my perspective. We are used to seeing the world in a specific way — there’s a flower, there’s a tree — that it becomes habit, rote. We process our preconceived idea of nature, instead of actually experiencing it. So I start by trying to alter that perception, to stop reacting to the world by reflex, and force myself to perceive things are they are: not a tree or a leaf or a flower, but a collection of textures, shapes, lines. This can take time — your eyes are so used to just passing information on to the brain, they get lazy and forget how to see. You need to slowly coax your eyes to relax, to hold onto what they are seeing, and to remember how to enjoy the process of sight.

Often it’s just about literally changing your perspective: getting very close, getting down on the ground, flipping things upside-down. Then I try to turn off my default reaction to the subject: don’t photograph “the leaf”, photograph the curve of its stem; don’t photograph “a tree”, photograph the texture of the bark. Sometimes its about changing how I approach things: don’t think like a photographer, trying to “capture reality”, think like a painter or a sculptor. How would they use their tools interpret the scene? What would they focus on, what would they ignore?

A large part of the process is about taking time. Lots of time! I will often spend a week or more photographing a single leaf, shooting hundreds of photos, really looking at it again and again and again. You know how when you say a word over and over it starts to lose its meaning, and just becomes a collection of sounds? The more you look at one thing, the less your brain tries to instantly categorize and understand it, and the more you become able to simply perceive it as it is.

Continued in part 2…

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