Ten Years of Blogging

The first photo I posted on my blog June 9th 2011.

Between the previous post and this one, I could celebrate ten years of blogging. It’s been ten years full of fun and unforgettable exchanges between me and the blogger community—between you and me.

Over the years I have developed an outlet for thoughts about photography and more specifically creativity, which has been of enormous value for me—and hopefully for those who have followed me over the years, you included. I have learned and read about creativity to be able to write more comprehensively about the subject. Thus, these ten years have been a personal travel into enlightenment for myself.

Nevertheless, what has given me the greatest pleasure is the contacts, connections and new friendships I have developed with people from all over the world. Of course, that is what social media is all about—or out to be about. It’s been eye-opening and delightful to meet with people with different backgrounds, cultures and thoughts compare to where I come from. With you. To debate, disagree, reflect or learn from or with each other has been vastly expanding, both on a personal and on a cognitive level. Moreover, I have even met with fellow bloggers in person and cultivated new, personal friendship with people I would never have met if not for the blogging community.

My blogging has definitely developed over the years. Starting out ten years ago, I had no idea what I embarked upon. The first blog posts were not necessarily very refined or cohesive, but slowly I have found my style and signature as I have gained a better understand of blogging and what I want to write about. I threw myself in it with great enthusiasm. However, as with all things in life, the energy somewhat and slowly changed. I the beginning it was all about likes and getting responses, almost for any price, nowadays I am more concerned with the dialogue and expressing my heart’s content.

Naturally, blogging flows like waves on the sea. Sometimes, the vigour is high and aflame, at other times mellower and maybe even somewhat indifferent. It’s simply not possible to keep the passion burning bright and intense at all times. Nevertheless and looking back, I have immensely enjoyed being part of the blogging community.

In my first blog post from June 9th 2011, I wrote: “It is easier than ever to take photographs—or make photographs—at least when we speak in terms of technical achievements. At the same time, more technical options and possibilities have opened up for new approaches to the photographic expression. But despite the technical revolution in photography, the bottom line hasn’t changed. As photographers we still need to speak to our viewers, we still have to engage them with our pictures; we still need to express our innermost self to make the photographs interesting for others and we still need to be able to tell our story by a visual language – as has always been the case.”

That hasn’t changed. And it’s also true for blogging. As a blogger, I hope to be able to speak to you and other followers and be able to engage you in a continuing dialogue. Maybe for another ten years… Thus, paraphrasing my first blog post, maybe we can walk the new road that has opened up together. I would very much enjoy that.

Last Month’s Instagram

Once a month I will display one of my photos captured and/or processed with Instagram over the last month. It’s a way for me to show photography that usually is quite different from my regular work. The pictures are displayed without any comments, hoping they will stand on their own. But I still very much appreciate any comments you may have. For more photos; visit www.instagram.com/ottovonmunchow/

Photographically Seeing

Jenny Pastore i sitt hjem

For a photographer seeing is where it all starts. If you don’t see anything that interests you, you won’t be able to take any interesting photos. Obviously. However, there is a big difference between seeing in general and seeing with the intention of taking a photograph. In many ways we have to unlearn the regular way of seeing. If you “only” see like you do when you walk down the street without a camera or when you are socializing with your friends or whatever you do when you are not photographing, you will miss out on the interesting and captivating photos.

For many people—photographers and viewers alike—a photograph is simply a record of what was in front of the camera. There is really no thought given to interpretation, or the fact that the camera sees quite differently than human beings do. You want to capture a nice moments with you friends? You raise the camera or the cell phone, and capture a photo without much more thought to it. But for those of us who pursue photography as a creative, artistic and/or personal expressive endeavour, we learn to see like the camera, we learn to recognize what has a potential to become a captivating photo and we learn that the scene in front of the camera is only a starting point for the photographic journey.

It’s easy to look at things. We do it constantly without giving it much thought. It gets us through the day. But how often do you stop to really see what you are looking at? By this I mean seeing something in depth, looking at it long enough and intently enough that you are not only seeing that it’s there, but you actually study it and learn something about it.

Most of the time, that is not how we see. Our mind is simply not set up to spend a lot of time contemplating about things we see. To be able to survive—and this has been developed over the course of human existence—our eyes constantly scan the scenery and interpret on the fly whatever is. We want to detect anything dangerous as quickly as possible, we want to be able to get things done without having to process the smallest of visual clues. In this process of learning to see, already as babies we start to categorize things. When you see a book for the first time, you spend time figuring out what it is. You study it intently and in depth. But then when you see the book for the fifth, the tenth or the fiftieth time, you slowly start to recognize what it is without having to put you full attention to it. After a while your mind makes a mental picture, characterizes it and labels it “BOOK”. You no longer see a book when you encounter one although your unconscious mind has recorded it. Consciously you may vaguely register the book, or you may not at all. Our mind objectifies everything to make it easier for us to understand and evaluate what we see. If you do see a book, you don’t see it as a unique book, but as the object “BOOK”.

This is one reason why learning to see with the intention to photograph requires experience. By nature we are only geared to see objects, this is what we been trained to do since we were born. A baby learns to see mommy, daddy and other things of importance as he or she grows. Cameras on the other hand capture light. Of course the human eye registers light too, but when the baby grows up it doesn’t really see mommy or anything else as a set of light levels. However, that’s exactly how the camera “sees”. Because a camera records only light, the photographer has to learn to see light, and understand how light brings out or destroys the lines, forms, tonality, colours, dimensionality and all other aspects of a scene.

Seeing with the intention to take photographs comes with learning and experience. When I teach workshops a lot of attention goes to seeing and translate what you see with you eyes into something the camera can transform into a captivating photo. As with any other skill, in the end, the more you do it the better you become. Practise makes perfect. And when you learn to see as the camera you will also start to register interesting subjects to be photographed more often and more clearly. Remember my post Seeing before Seeing, in which I asked what triggers you to push the button? The fact is that the better you become in seeing as a photographer, the more clear you will become about what has a potential as a photograph, the more often something will trigger you to photograph, which again will lead you to take better and more captivating photos.

A Double Edged Sword

Selvportrett

Don’t we all have to admit it; that we as photographers or creative persons of some form—at least to some extent—all crave for recognition, one way or another, whether we are professionals or pure amateurs? But don’t we all also know that recognition is a double edged sword? On one hand, yes, it’s nice to get recognized for the work we do, for our effort, but the flip side of the coin is when recognition becomes the driving force for our creativity. Then we stand to lose it, the uniqueness of our vision and expression.

What one day may lead to recognition is ignoring what makes us crave it. That’s the only way we can create from our heart. Without heart and without ourselves invested in our creative work, it only becomes an act of deceit and thus has no artistic or creative value.

What do we actually take for recognition? Money? Fame? Both—when talking about creativity—are black holes that easily destroy us and the uniqueness that sets us apart as artists. Being true to our inner artist may, if we are lucky, result in work that sells or gain recognition—but often not. If money determinates what is good art, neither Paul Gaugain nor Vincent van Gogh were artists worth our attention. But despite lack of recognition, fame and money in their time, they kept doing what they felt they were meant to do. Their creativity flourished and had to be expressed, it wasn’t depending upon recognition.

Only by doing what comes from inside of us, without second thoughts to money or fame, may we be true artists, be true to ourselves. It doesn’t matter if we are professionals or amateurs. Still the professional is often caught up in the money-game since after all he or she is making a living out of a creative field. Thus for them it’s even more important to protect their own integrity and their inner artist.

Often enough I may have to make my editors happy by doing what they want me to do, but still I try to bring my own vision into the equation. Sometimes it won’t work, but then I can always fall back on my own personal projects in which I only answer to myself. And even if amateurs don’t create for money, they can still fall into the trap of recognition and fame. We all want it—in one way or another, no?

As Julia Cameron writes in her book The Artist’s Way: «I must learn that as an artist my credibility lies with me, God, and my work. In other words, if I have a poem to write, I need to write that poem—whether it will sell or not. I need to create what wants to be created.»

The same goes for photographers. Our vision needs to be expressed, whether the pictures sell or not, whether they will bring us fame or not. The joy is really to feel how our vision—our true creativity—becomes reality, becomes expressed. That is the biggest fulfilment, the ultimate satisfaction. The creative process in itself is what makes it exciting. Let’s not confuse it with money or fame. Let’s not slip into the black whole of vanity.

May 17th

An unusual post from me. It’s the national day of Norway. May 17th 1814 the country was liberated from almost 300 years under Danish ruling. Well, the fact was that Denmark was on the wrong side of the Napoleonic Wars—and lost Norway to Sweden in 1814. Sweden was on the winning side of the wars. Despite celebrating the establishment of the Norwegian constitution in May 17th 1814, the country still wasn’t free. Only in June 1905 did Norway get its true independence.

I am not really much of a patriot—rather an internationalist—but I feel fortunate and privileged to live in a country with a functional democracy, or at least as much as possible in any country, and not the least in country with free healthcare and education, and even with social care mostly being accepted from all political parties, albeit at various levels. Norway has a high degree of equality although the distribution of wealth has gone more in favor of the rich over the last 50 years—as in the world generally.

Incubation Time

Last week I spoke with a photographer. She told me she had lost inspiration and hadn’t photographed for a long while—despite her love for photography. The frustration was radiating out of every word she spoke. She so wanted to find a way back to her muses.

Of course, I had no wonder cure for her ailment. I certainly couldn’t bring back the muses just like that. Nobody would, included herself. Nevertheless, I told her that any photographer, anyone doing creative work, experiences times of lapses when nothing seems to move forward, but rather the creative life comes to a standstill.

Creativity works in a flux. Sometimes we are on top of everything and creativity seems to ooze out of every pore. At other times, the head feels embalmed in cotton or some thick substance that keeps every creative thought out of reach.

It’s just the natural order of things.

The more we experience this lapse of creativity—and the regaining of it again after some time—the more we can accept the condition without panicking. In addition, what is just as important to realize, is that those dry spells are not only part of a natural flux, but in fact part of the creative process itself.

We may feel uninspired, but our subconscious is still working for us. It’s the natural way of replenishing our creative well. As photographers, and as any artist, we need to realize that we have to maintain a balance between what we take out of the well and the need to replenishing it. Sometimes we experience dry spells because we have drawn heavily on the creative well, even over-tapped it. It’s like overfishing a pond, it leaves us with diminished resources. We fish in vain, for the creative ideas we require. Our work dries up, we lose inspiration, and we wonder why, “just when it was going so well”.

Creativity needs replenishing. Sometimes because we have overfished the pond. Other times because we need the small fry to grow big before we want to catch it. The latter corresponds to a variation of replenishing: Creativity needs incubation time.

We do so by letting it all go, and letting the subconscious work its own mysterious ways. Suddenly it’s all back again, fresh and eager to express itself again. We can even help the process. By doing something totally different. Going for a walk. Visiting a gallery. Cooking. Go paragliding. You name it. Even sleep. Haven’t we all experienced, struggling with some Gordian knot, going to bed without having resolved the problem, only to wake up next morning—eureka—having found the solution.

It’s like on an overcast and raining day. It might feel disheartening and dark, but if you think about it, you know that the sun will eventually shine upon you again. It just needs some incubation time to burn the clouds away.

Last Month’s Instagram

Once a month I will display one of my photos captured and/or processed with Instagram over the last month. It’s a way for me to show photography that usually is quite different from my regular work. The pictures are displayed without any comments, hoping they will stand on their own. But I still very much appreciate any comments you may have. For more photos; visit www.instagram.com/ottovonmunchow/

No Easy Way Around

I often get questions about photographic voice and how to create a signature style—not the least since I regularly teach a workshop called “Your Photographic Voice”. However, there is no easy answer to the question, simply because there isn’t a quick and simple solution to finding this unique way of expressing oneself, not as a photographer nor in any other art form.

The not so helpful answer is; it takes time to develop your own signature. Moreover, it’s not something you can sit down and figure out or construct. As a photographer, you need to find the signature style, rather than create it. Or let it find you. Nevertheless, there are things you can do to allow yourself the freedom to grow into your practice and find your way. Once you fully accept this freedom, originality follows almost inevitably.

So keep in mind, the way in which all artists discover their individuality takes time. In fact, you develop your voice through your whole career or life span as a photographer. It’s in constant development, and the longer you have been nurturing your art, the more distinctive your voice grows to be. If you are concerned with developing originality, first of all don’t think about been original. This is something I have addressed before. If you try to be original, the result will rather be contrived. Instead, don’t think about being original, but allow yourself the freedom to experiment, exploring as many different mediums, subject matters, and approaches as possible.

It is only through the process and practice that a photographer develop true originality, as he or she slides subconsciously into repetitive patterns that build upon one another and over time form natural habits. Originality is the accumulation of a series of these subconscious processes, that when seen as a whole are a representation of the originality inherent in each individual. Not two people are the same, and thus no two people’s work is the same. When one photographer—or artist—makes work that appears similar to another’s, it either isn’t as similar as it may appear, or someone isn’t being true to their own individuality.

To be true to your own individuality, you need to pursue your passions. It’s through passionate work you develop your voice. Passion is simply the foundation of any successful, personal expression. As such, I think that is the strongest advice to take to heart—literarily. Photograph what you are passionate about. Find themes and subject matters you really care about, not only photographically but personally.

Then make photographing these subjects personal, that is to say photograph what you know. Photograph close to home, physically or figuratively. For instance, photograph your family or photograph your friends. Many a renowned photograph has made a name for him- or herself by photographing their personal relationships, among others Sally Mann, Nan Goldin or Larry Clark, to mention a few.

What makes your photography stand out—over time—is showing the rest of us how your world looks like photographed. Tell us your story—in your photos. When you share your personal life, you share your life experience and your heartfelt revelations. Just remember, when I write personal, I don’t mean private. Nobody wants to pry into your private life, but sharing your personal experiences will make us curious and capture us. Through a personal approach, your photography will be able to touch others and make them learn more about life, in general.

The late photographer, Diane Arbus, once wrote: “The more personal you make it, the more universal it becomes”.

A final thought about how to pursue a personal, photographic voice or encourage this budding individuality is to take in as much art as possible, from as many different approaches as possible. And I don’t talk only about photography now, although if you are particularly interested in nature photography, for instance, open up yourself to other photographic approaches as well. If your only reference material is nature photography, it is easy to see how the work you make might quickly become a reworking of other nature photographs. When absorbing a vast array of different approaches to making, alas not only photographic approaches, some will filter their way into your work, distilled through the prism of your personality. So give yourself as much inspiration as possible, from as many varying sources as possible. Even seek out work that you dislike. It will refine your own signature.

A Devilish Ride

I continue my ride down memory lane. This time literally. You may have noticed that the last couple of blog posts, I have been writing and showing images from past experiences. Two reasons for this: First of all, I have been re-organizing my analogue photo archive, and then we have this travel ban imposed on all of us, so if nothing else, I can at least travel back in time.

This time, I will take you to Bolivia and a mindboggling bike ride I did quite a few years ago. The ride took me down what used to be the main road between the capital La Paz and Las Yungas, the lowlands north in the country, the spring of the Amazon. Today a new road has replaced it, but back then the Inter-American Development Bank designated the old trade route to be the world’s most dangerous. Every year, around 100 people lost their lives on this important but life-threatening trade route.

The bike ride was organized by a local tour agency and the group was brought to La Cumbra pass at 4700 metres or just under 15500 feet. Ahead of us was a 65 kilometres (40 miles) winding road down 3600 metres (11800 feet) of altitude difference.

The first part went along the new road already under construction, paved and just pure fun. The biggest danger was dogs chasing the bikes—not something you want to hit at a speed of, at the most, 90 kilometres per hour (56 miles per hour).

About halfway down, we enter the old road, caved out along a steep mountainside. Many places the dirt road cut straight into the vertical rock wall. Several hundred meters of free fall to one side made it a trembling experience. In some places, the dirt road is actually narrower than some of the trucks, which used to use it. Most accidents along the death road happened due to truck drivers who had to hurry to earn enough for a living.

While we had sun the first part of the ride, when we enter the old road, fog came in from the mountains.

After a while, I could see absolutely nothing. The fog was like wet cotton. The last remnant of sight, the torrential rain took away. I knew the abyss was there, just a metre or so to the left of where I now raced down a bumpy and muddy dirt road by bike. 300 metres straight down.

As we descended into the valley, the temperature rose. After a few hours we were met by the steaming jungle. As we came out of a narrow gorge and the valley opened up, the fog and rain eased, and soon the sun would be shining from an open sky again. The last kilometres would be pure victory ride.

Learning by Doing

Sometimes the only way to learn is the hard way. You make a mistake that you will never do again. While the last week has seen further strengthening of lockdown here where I have been grounded for the last year or so (hopefully the last spell before things start to get better), I have spent time organizing my analogue archive—those stories and images that I never got around to properly store after they were shot.

One such story was from a travel to Japan and about sumo wrestlers. This is back in time, way before digital cameras were even thought of. Obviously, the story was captured on film. However, it never made it into a published story. I screwed up.

I had been in Japan already for some weeks, trying without much success to get access to a gym where the sumo wrestlers train. I had been attending a tournament but was not able to access their training grounds. Then someone, now years later I can quite recall whom and how, tipped me about a gym where the big fellows trained every morning. It was in the outskirts of Tokyo.

So, I just turned up at the break of dawn. And there they were, already into their morning routine. I had no appointment, but just started photographing. It was still dark inside the gym; with the only light provide being daylight streaming through the doors and windows. Aka, harsh contrast and difficult shooting conditions.

While I was in Japan, the big Japanese film manufacturer released a new slide film with, back then, the exhilarating speed of 1600 ISO being able push to 3200. Remember at the time a slide film with 200 ISO was at the high end—before this new film. I had just bought some rolls to test it out, and I thought it would be perfect for this dark gym.

First mistake! Never do important work with equipment you have not tried out beforehand, whether a camera, a new lens or, as in this case, a new film. I pushed the film to 3200 ISO. Unfortunately, I didn’t get the rolls developed while still in Japan. When I got back home and got the rolls developed, all the images where too dark. Somehow, the lab hadn’t gotten it right, I believe because they had never developed this film before.

The second mistake, which wasn’t doing things worse, really, since the films were screwed anyway, but would have been, if not for the underexposed and/or underdeveloped rolls. I didn’t move close enough. I felt I was intruding, most of all because I had not made arrangements beforehand, and couldn’t communicate with anyway at the gym. It was a little intimidating being in a place where nobody understood, and I wasn’t sure they wanted me to be around in the first place.

As I was photographing the sumo wrestlers’ morning training, albeit not knowing nothing would come out of it, a crowd started to gather outside the gym. I slowly gathered it was me, that I was the attraction. Nobody out in this suburb of Tokyo were used to a gaijin—a foreigner. That sure put extra pressure on me, and maybe part of why I failed so miserably.

At least, I got back from the whole experience with a lovely memory. As I was packing down my equipment, believing I had done a scoop and would get the biggest story ever published in a major magazine, a young Japanese man from the crowd approach me and asked in poor English if I would like to come along and have breakfast with him and his family at his home. Of course, I couldn’t turn down the invitation—and wouldn’t want to—and had this lovely breakfast with him, his wife and their only child. We couldn’t say much to each other, but used the international sign language.

Today that would be quite unusual, to be invited home to a total strange in the middle a big city. At least I got away with something.

The images here are an attempt to recover some of the images, by scanning and processing them. Took quite some time…