In the Western world, America in particular, the notion of self-sufficiency has been idealized to a potentially unhealthy degree. We have countless examples of “self-made men” who overcame adversity and fought their way to wealth and influence. Professionals who work 50+ hour weeks—often sacrificing physical and mental health, personal leisure, social life and family—are lauded as hard workers committed to their careers. People who silently endure immense suffering are revered for their strength and perseverance in made-for-TV movies. The market for self-help books has been booming since the 1970’s.
None of these things are inherently bad. But their emphasis has made our culture sick. Loneliness, depression and suicide rates are reporting at an all-time high. Although we live in relative abundance and security compared to much of the world, our model of individualism has significantly reduced our quality of life. Despite the vast potential for virtual connection via the world wide web and social media, many are experiencing real life in isolation. We have traded the benefits of community thriving for a romanticized caricature from a dime-store cowboy novel. We’ve become convinced that all we need is ourselves and some good old-fashioned grit.
The postmodern church has not been immune to these ills, even with a rich history of community going back to ancient Israel. We’ve become pretty good at using buzz words, pretending to be in community without really going all-in. Our church buildings have names like “fellowship hall” and our volunteer committees have names like “hospitality team.” Unfortunately, many times these efforts amount to little more than providing donuts and coffee for people to grab as they rush in before service starts, or a quick handshake during a worship invitation. When the service is over, many of us go home and live our separate lives until next Sunday.
Again, it’s not that fellowship halls, hospitality teams, donuts, and handshakes are bad things. But they are incomplete. They are lacking the wholeness we see exemplified in God’s desire for the nation of Israel, or the early church as recorded in the book of Acts (ex: Acts 2:42-47). Just as predators in the animal kingdom try to isolate potential prey from the heard to increase the chances of a kill, the Enemy knows that isolation weakens both the individual and the body. Our modern myths of self-reliance are hindering us from experiencing Heaven on Earth. We are missing out on the richness of life in God’s Kingdom which He has called us to usher in, here and now, together as His body of co-laborers.
Orthodoxy recognizes God as a triune being, a community of Father, Son and Spirit. From the very beginning of our creation account God reveals Himself as inherently relational. Genesis depicts God in the act of creating saying, “Let Us make man in Our image…” (Genesis 1:26, emphasis added). Humanity’s need for relationship is immediately recognized (“It is not good for man to be alone.”) and fulfilled through Eve, a suitable co-laborer for Adam (Genesis 2:18-25).
In Exodus we see, laid out in excruciating detail, a list of guidelines given to help Israel navigate the conflicts that arise in community life (Exodus 20-23). Later, Jesus sums up that entire code of law with two simple, relational commands: love God and love your neighbor (Matthew 22:34-40). When Jesus began His ministry of reclaiming and establishing God’s Kingdom on Earth, one of His first actions was to build a community. He called the disciples together and began teaching and living life with them. Scripture is replete with themes of relationship, community and covenant.
God’s Kingdom is based on community relationship. Community is not possible without humility, vulnerability, a degree of transparency and accountability. It may feel like we are dying many small deaths as we rip ourselves out of conformity to the patterns of our modern world. It will be uncomfortable as we lean into vulnerability, allowing others to see who we are beneath the surface. It will get messy as we navigate the challenges and uncertainty of life together in community as God’s family.
Lest we swing the pendulum too far in the opposite direction, it is worth noting that, when implemented appropriately, boundaries are also a healthy part of communal living. Although vulnerability and transparency are necessary in a thriving community, they come with their own limitations. Researcher and author Brené Brown makes this important distinction:
“Oversharing is not vulnerability. In fact, it often results in disconnection, distrust, and disengagement.”
— Brené Brown
Vulnerability without boundaries is unhealthy. There are personal matters that are appropriate to share with a spouse or an accountability partner but should not be casually mentioned to a stranger as you shake hands over donuts in the foyer or fellowship hall. Some personal struggles might be appropriate to share with a small, closely knit home group but not with the whole church body (or on social media, for that matter!).
As the images accompanying this article playfully portray, there are things we can (and probably should) do on our own. A degree of independence is certainly healthy. However, there comes a point for all of us where we meet the limits of our physical ability, skill set, cultural perspective, spiritual maturity, etc. As I looked at the next number painted on the asphalt, spot number 5, I knew I had run out of limbs to continue this picture series on my own. Similarly, there are times in life when we need to rely on others in the larger church body to come alongside us and lend a hand. There should be no shame tied to needing and asking for help. We were not created to be alone. We need to do life in community.
Finally, as we begin to shed the Western notion of going it alone, don’t make the mistake of thinking about community only in terms of receiving. Receiving can be a great act of humility, and a great blessing. But giving, sacrificial giving, is also at the heart of Jesus. Live a life rooted in deep love for God and your neighbor. Take care of each other and be proactive instead of just reactive, always looking for opportunities to be ministers of reconciliation.
When we look at Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s vision of the Beloved Community, or Jean Vanier’s L’Arche communities we can see that God’s Kingdom is indeed established, and being established, on Earth. These are not merely lofty ideals or Utopian fantasies, but pictures of what it really looks like when Jesus is at the center of all that we do. Cultivating community with Christ at the center doesn’t guarantee perfection. It will still involve navigating conflict and pain, just as in family life. But it will also lead to flourishing, a richness and fullness that can only be experienced when we fulfill our roles as image bearers and ministers of reconciliation in God’s family.
I have been teaching in a public high school for eight years as of this writing. I’ve also worked with youth in various capacities for over fifteen years. I have two children of my own. One of the hardest aspects of working with other people’s children is the huge spectrum of life circumstances, culture, parenting styles, values, and family dynamics that each child carries with them. These things color a child’s perceptions of relationship, self worth and personal expectation.
“My teacher doesn’t like me!”
This is a common phrase I’ve heard come from many teenagers. I’ll concede that there probably are teachers and adult mentors out there who are broken, immature, burned out, or have some chip on their shoulder that causes them to personally express dislike for a student. However, I do not think it is quite the rampant epidemic that many frustrated teenagers might have you believe.
Too many times I’ve heard “[insert teacher name] doesn’t like me” and, knowing the teacher, I thought, “that can’t be possible!” Most teachers are selfless advocates and champions for their students. More often than not, I think it is an issue of perception or misaligned expectation. I can understand how a student who is not used to structure and discipline might mistake it as being picked on or disliked.
This is the part where I apologize for the flagrant title of my article. I don’t actually believe there are any valid reasons for a teacher to express to a child that they don’t like them. But I’m speaking in response to the narrative many students are carrying around in their heads.
A Culprit? My Hypothesis
Experience has taught me that inappropriate behavior patterns can often be traced back to parenting habits. I try not to use generalities, but most repeat discipline issues with my students eventually lead to a parent phone call. Conversations with parents are quite revealing. I’ve heard everything from “how dare you suggest that my child did something wrong” to “yeah, they do that at home too, so good luck.” No wonder the kid has trouble with discipline.
Please don’t get me wrong; I am not saying that all children who struggle with inappropriate behaviors are the result of bad parenting. There are so many variables that factor into a child’s behavior. I’m merely recognizing a pattern that can be helped with awareness and intervention. Children who are not consistently disciplined at home will have trouble adapting to discipline in school, sports, extracurricular activities, the workplace, and society in general.
The Role of Discipline
Discipline is a hard thing to do as a parent, and as a teacher. We love our children. It can be quite unpleasant to have to play the role of disciplinarian. But it is so extremely important to their cognitive and social development to establish clear boundaries and behavior expectations. Discipline is not a dirty word.
Discipline is just a system of training. It is a system by which you help someone understand a code of expected behavior. Too many people associate the word discipline with the word punishment. Although clear consequences are a necessary part of a program of discipline, it should not be the first or only step. There are preventative practices that can be implemented avoid most instances of punishment in the first place.
Setting Clear Expectations
The most important aspect of discipline is clearly establishing desired behaviors. It’s not fair for a child to be punished when they don’t know or understand what they’ve done wrong. This leads to confusion, strain on relationship (“my teacher always picks on me”), and, in extreme cases, negative self perception (“I can’t do anything right”).
As children get older, it becomes more necessary to help them understand the reasoning behind your expectations. They need to know that you’re not throwing arbitrary rules at them. While obedience is the desired result, you’re not likely going to be successful with it if your only rational is “because I said so!” Children should understand, as appropriate for their age, why you are setting boundaries.
For example, you might need to explain to a three year old that the reason you don’t want them touching the stove is because it is hot and it will hurt them badly. A teenager might need help understanding that the reason you are limiting their social media use is because studies show how it can, in excess, trigger addictive behaviors and foster unhealthy social norms.
Defining specific, fair and realistic consequences
Simply stated, the punishment (when necessary) should fit the crime. When possible, consequences should not be spontaneously doled out on the spot. They should never be given out of anger. Discipline only works if it’s consistent and fair. Consequences should be reasonable and, as part of a program of discipline, clearly established long before correction is necessary (proactive, not reactive).
There may be times when we are surprised by negative behaviors we did not expect and, therefore, have no established consequences. Again, avoid on-the-spot consequences when possible. Take a breath. Sending a child to “time out” is sometimes just as necessary for the adult to cool down as it is for the child. Stress response is a real thing. Once adrenaline starts surging through your veins and you feel that fight or flight response about to burst forth, it can take your body up to an hour to return to a pre-stress state. It’s important to understand when this is happening in your child, too. Don’t expect them to suddenly respond rationally when you’ve triggered their stress response system (on top of their already raging hormones!).
Finally, if you want your child to respect you and your system of discipline, you should never threaten consequences you aren’t willing to uphold. For example, “If you do that again, I’m canceling Christmas this year!” Some children push the limits more than others. When they do inevitably exceed the boundaries you’ve set, and then learn that the threatened consequences aren’t real, they will not likely be deterred by future consequences. You’ll have lost all credibility because of your empty threats.
The last major component of systematic discipline is consistency. I think it was Fred Jones who said “pay now, or pay later.” In other words, you will reap what you sow. When a child’s willpower outlasts yours, they learn to wait you out and have their way. When you uphold your expectations and consequences consistently, they learn that it’s easier to just fall in line. You have to be consistent, even when it is inconvenient or exhausting for you.
People make jokes about defiant children throwing temper tantrums in Wal-Mart (and the parents who yell at them—the adult version of a temper tantrum). If you want your children to behave at the supermarket, at school, in church, etc., then you must consistently apply your discipline system at home when nobody else is around. Expecting your children to suddenly listen to you in public when you don’t apply the same expectations and consequences at home is unreasonable.
Modeling desired behaviors is also a key part of consistency. For example, the students in my classroom are not allowed to chew gum (because it inevitably ends up on the floors, under desks, chairs, etc.). I set clear expectations at the start of the school year, outline reasonable consequences for offenses after a short grace period, and model the same behavior I expect (I switched to mints to address my post-coffee breath). It would be perceived as unfair and hypocritical of me to deny them gum and then stand there in front of them chomping away on a stick of Wrigley’s.
Modeling becomes increasingly important as children get older, more self-sufficient, and more capable of reason. Not allowing a five year old to touch the stove is reasonable. It is also reasonable for the five year old to see you using the stove to cook dinner. There’s no hypocrisy there because it is for their own protection until they can learn to use a stove safely. If, on the other hand, you tell your teenager they cannot have their device out at the dinner table, but you have a fork in one hand and your iPhone in the other, you can probably expect to have a difficult time enforcing your rule or cultivating a relationship of respect with your teenager.
Your Teacher Doesn’t Dislike You
It is not a teacher’s job to raise other people’s children in 55 minute daily sessions. What teachers do should be a continuation, an extension, of what happens at home. Teachers have topical knowledge and skill sets that help them play a huge role in preparing children to be happy, contributing members of society. Unfortunately, many teachers end up with the disproportionate task of teaching other people’s children what is and is not appropriate social behavior. For children who are not used to structure and boundaries at home, this can be a shock to the system.
Instead of letting a child carry the burden of a false narrative (“my teacher doesn’t like me”), parents, teachers, coaches, and other adults in a child’s life all need to work together to provide a safe environment with consistent structure and healthy boundaries.
As I prepare for the celebration of my daughter’s fifth birthday, I find myself examining the nature of, and motivation behind, gift-giving. I’ll be honest, imagining the new piles of toys I’ll be hauling home after a holiday or birthday party—many of which will sit around unused and cluttering my house once their immediate novelty has worn off—makes me a little overwhelmed.
On a more philosophical level, I’ve spent much time thinking about the nature of the gifts we give our children. My questions explore the values communicated to children, and how we are fostering our relationships with our children. Here are a few of the questions that continue to check and guide me as a parent:
- Is this gift really for my child, or is it for me?
- Am I teaching my child to value material possessions?
- Am I setting a precedent I won’t want or be able to maintain long-term?
- Is this gift attempting to compensate for something lacking in our relationship?
1) Is this gift really for my child, or is it for me?
I think many parents (and grandparents!) are guilty of giving gifts that are subconsciously motivated by the joy we get watching the child’s reaction to opening the gift. It feels good to make someone happy by giving them what they want. This isn’t malicious, but it is not exactly selfless, either. The initial burst of excitement and gratitude is joyful to watch. Then, it turns into apathy weeks later as the toy is forgotten about, takes permanent residence in the bottom of the toy box, and is never given another thought (until you try to take it to Goodwill, then it suddenly becomes the most important thing in the world again!).
Are we willing to forego instant gratification for the benefit of our children? I’m not saying you should only give practical gifts like socks and underwear. Nor am saying we can’t enjoy giving our children gifts that make them happy. Gift-giving should certainly be a joyful thing. I’m only saying we should give some honest thought into what we are (or aren’t) giving our children. Think about what habits you might be forming. Succumbing to the temptation of giving your child gifts that you know will score you points might be rather empty for both of you in the long run.
2) Am I teaching my child to value material possessions?
This is a tough one, and will vary radically based on each person’s values. We all know, on some philosophical level, that possessions don’t make us happy. Yet we covet them anyway. Giving a child everything he or she wants could potentially set into motion an insatiable and perpetual habit of wanting and consuming. These habits, carried into adulthood, have the potential to make for an empty and unhappy life.
I value experiences and relationships over material things. I also value tools and implements that are used for creating rather than just consuming. I hope this is something I pass onto my daughter because it will make her happiness less dependent on money as an adult. Children learn to compare and assign different values to material things based on the behavior of adults. I want to make sure I’m not teaching my child to want things solely for their perceived monetary worth or symbol of status. We all know that most kids are perfectly happy with an over-sized cardboard box or a couple of sticks to bang together! Never underestimate the power of crayons and paper.
3) Am I setting a precedent I won’t want or be able to maintain long-term?
This isn’t so much about a single gift as it is about patterns of gift-giving. If your goal is to get that overwhelming joyous instant reaction from your kid every time you give a gift then you’re setting yourself, and your child, up for eventual disappointment. What happens if the economy takes a dive again and the money isn’t there? Is your child still going to expect a big production? They will if you’ve conditioned them to. There are other ways of making these celebratory events special. In general, I don’t think all of the focus should be on the gift. It should be about time spent together; something that money cannot buy, and economic depression cannot deny. There’s nothing wrong with making traditions. There’s also nothing wrong with shaking things up once in awhile to avoid routine and expectation.
4) Is this gift attempting to compensate for something lacking in our relationship?
You should never give a child a gift to compensate for your absence or lack of attention. Guilt should never be a gift-giving motivation. I believe one of the best gifts a parent can give a child is time. It’s so important to make time in your daily routine to do something meaningful with your child. I realize there are a lot of dynamics at play here, and I don’t mean to shame anyone. I recognize that spending time together is especially hard for divorced families and families where one parent is the sole breadwinner. If it can’t be a daily thing, make it weekly and stick to it. Don’t underestimate the power in something as simple as turning off the radio on car rides and initiating conversation. You’ve got to start young, though. You can’t expect a teenager to suddenly open up to you if you’ve never asked them to as a child.
My daughter and I go for a walk almost every day. It’s a simple thing, but if it gets skipped just one day, I quickly find out how important it is to her. We have great conversations and learn more about each other each day. When we get home from school and work she doesn’t rush into her room and pick up toys. She asks if we can go on our walk. There is no gift better than investing in time together.
Here are some lessons I’ve learned as a parent that I try to let guide my interaction with my daughter.
Make children a part of gift-giving to others:
Make sure your kids experience gift GIVING and not just the expectation of always receiving. My wife and I couldn’t get a babysitter for Valentine’s Day last year, so we made it a family event. I told my daughter we were going to take mommy out for a special dinner and that it was our secret and her face just lit up. When we pulled up to the restaurant, she was so excited for my wife to see what our surprise was. I may not have had a romantic dinner alone with my wife that year, but it was a special family moment.
Give gifts that will involve time spent together:
Kids really want to be with you. They want to know you and to be known. If you let them in you may find they’re happy doing just about anything. My daughter knows that photography is a huge part of my life and so one day I asked her if she wanted to go take pictures with me. She had a blast and has since asked many times when we would do it again. So, for Christmas this year I bought her her first camera. It’s okay if photography doesn’t become a passion for her the way it is for me. It’s the time spent together doing something meaningful that makes it important. The gift of the camera wasn’t so much about the camera as it was the prospect of us continuing to do this together.
Give the gift of experiences:
Not every gift has to be a physical object. My daughter’s great grandmother on my wife’s side has been amazing about this. A couple years ago she offered, instead of a traditional physical gift, to pay for a semester of dance lessons. It was a gift that lasted a whole season and continues to be a part of my daughter’s identity. This year we were gifted a membership to the children’s museum. We’ve been three times as a family and my daughter absolutely loves it. It’s a gift that comes with learning experiences and great memories of time spent together. This is a hard thing to ask for, and not all relatives will be receptive because they probably won’t get the instant gratification of seeing your child enjoy the gift. But I can honestly say in reflecting on my own life, I remember being told “no” about things like joining the basketball team, playing the saxophone at school and other experiential opportunities much more than any single toy I received.
Once in a while, go small:
Don’t want to set that monumental precedent? Don’t make a big deal out of every little holiday. I don’t want my child expecting candy or presents just because it’s Easter. Sometimes a special night of playing games or going out to eat is gift enough. There’s no present to physically open, but you can more than make up for it with quality time together. Your kid will go to bed happy and fulfilled, and when he or she wakes up in the morning they likely have plenty of possessions to keep them occupied and won’t miss the lack of another toy.
We should make sure we know our children well. Really knowing your kid is an amazing gift in and of itself. It means you’ve put in quality time. That has an impact on their emotional and developmental well-being more than any gift in the world can. Sitting down and playing a board game as a family once a week is going to have a much larger impact on your child’s emotional well being than the latest and greatest tech gadget. Our children want to know us, to be known by us, and to be with us. Everything else is just gravy.
In January 2017 I made the decision to move my blog. It made sense to shorten the URL and fully integrate it into my fine art photography website. Daily Vision has been around since before I even became a photographer, and has slowly morphed along with my life to reflect my photography pursuit. I don’t want to kill Daily Vision completely, so I might keep it alive for some other purpose.
For now, visit www.johnnykerr.com/blog and bookmark or subscribe there to make sure you continue seeing future posts. If Daily Vision is kept alive, it will most likely become more of a philosophical outlet for me to process life and the things it teaches me. If this interests you then hang around here, too. Thanks for watching!
In my previous post I attempted to convince you that a simple, well-designed composition is more elegant than primitive. In this post I will use one of my own photographs as a case study to examine the complexity and infinite potential in what some may consider to be a simple or even obvious composition. I’ll be referring to my image, The End and discussing how I processed the scene to arrive at my final composition. I made this image on the Southern shore of Lake Erie near Cleveland, Ohio in the summer of 2015.
Working The Scene
First of all, it’s worth noting that there were five of these decaying concrete piers spaced out about ten yards from each other along the beach. I walked the beach and selected this one for it’s particular characteristics: length, degree of decay, amount of debris in the surrounding water, etc.
At first you might think, “He put the pier in the middle, an obvious choice.” Fair enough. I do love symmetry. But I hope to show you that there’s a lot more happening here than simply centering the structure in the middle of the frame.
The more you simplify an image, the more important each element becomes and the more the relationships between each element are emphasized. When considering the immensity of detail and texture present in the decaying concrete, I knew that capturing it along with the textures of the stormy clouds and every detail of every ripple in the water would be too chaotic for my taste. I knew right away that this image needed to be captured with a slow shutter speed to help clean it up. Long exposure photography is all the rage right now but I have no interest in trends or gimmicks. I use long exposures intentionally to abstract, simplify and create space. Thus, my first composition decision was made.
Now, I just needed to organize the rest of the scene. Here are some questions that ran through my mind:
- Do I hint at a foreground and show the details of the sandy beach, or just let the pier float in the infinite, ethereal mist?
- How much of the pier should I show? How far into the image do I want to draw the viewer?
- What elevation should I set my tripod to? A high camera angle elongates the pier and shows less perspective distortion while a lower angle foreshortens the pier, changing the proportions of the near and far ends and exaggerating the converging lines.
- What focal length should I use? This also affects perspective distortion and near/far proportional relationships.
- Where do I place the horizon in the frame? How much sky should be present? How much space needs to be between the horizon and the end of the pier to avoid crowding it?
- What things might stand out as a natural focal point? I kind of like the one remaining unbroken concrete slab, but I need to investigate whether it is a point of interest or a potential distraction.
- What other nonessential elements need to be obscured?
Each of these questions affected how I worked the scene to arrive at the final image above. The potential answers to each of these questions create an infinite number of possibilities. It’s not that my answers were the “correct” ones, just that they helped me to clarify the statement I wanted to make with this subject. Another photographer (or even the same photographer in a different frame of mind) could have answered them differently and produced a drastically different but equally successful image.
Exploring Visual Relationships
To illustrate how some of these questions were answered, I’m going to share a couple alternate frames I made while working the scene. These two frames don’t represent the whole of my investigation. Some questions are easily visualized and answered. Others require experimentation, sometimes making a test image to critique and troubleshoot from. The more I practice observation and composition the fewer frames I need to make to get to “the one.”
I’ve desaturated these test images for easy comparison to the original, but for the most part they’re unprocessed.
In the first study I was exploring how the scene might be simplified by excluding the unbroken slab that is shown on the left side of the pier in the final image. I excluded the foreground completely and included more sky. The small branches coming out of the right side of the pier play a larger role (but are too close to the bottom of the frame) and the converging lines are less prominent. There is less play between the proportions of the near and far end of the pier. Ultimately, I did not think the pier had enough presence in the frame.
In this frame I moved the camera back and increased my focal length. You might observe how lens compression changes the proportions between this and the previous image; the same length of pier is shown, but it takes up more space in the composition and shows less of the background. You’ll notice the branches are still there and the slab still excluded. The near end of the pier looks a little larger, enhancing the converging lines. The pier now has more presence, however, I still didn’t feel like the image was dynamic enough.
The Final Solution
Here’s the final image again:
I decided that showing more of the pier created more depth and stability in the scene. I used a wider focal length to exaggerate the proportions between the near and far end of the pier, creating more variety and stronger visual pull. Hinting at the sand in the foreground anchors the image so that the connection between water and land is established. Showing just a hint of the shore avoids adding too much extra detail and complicating the scene (there was also a large bush in the right foreground that I didn’t want in the frame). The diagonal slab provides a focal point and creates subtle lateral movement, interrupting the symmetry so that your eye doesn’t just sit in the middle. The branches are minimized and demand less attention, but still play a role in the image; my eye makes a brief connection between the slab on the left and the branches on the right as it travels down the pier, helping to counterbalance the visual weight of the slab. I decided that less sky was needed because the horizon line is already a strong element and once the pier pushes your eye there it need not go much further/higher. Just enough space is left between the horizon and the edge of the frame to avoid crowding it and ruining the sense of space.
Looking deeper than the obvious symmetry there are a series of complex and subtle factors that work together to arrive at a simple, elegant composition. I aspire to produce images that are elegant and timeless, that communicate something about myself and reveal new relationships and beauty in the world around me. Ultimately, though, art is subjective. Perhaps you connected more with one of the above study images than with the final–that’s okay. It’s not a math class, and there’s not just one correct answer. The final image a photographer presents has the potential to communicate much more than what’s on the surface if you can take the time to look deeper. There’s a story there, something the photographer wanted to communicate or share with you. You might learn something about yourself in the process, too. Be not deceived by simplicity. You might be surprised at how much it can reveal to you.
Although I wouldn’t label all of my work as minimalist, it is heavily informed by many of the same principles. Perhaps this comes from my background in graphic design. I appreciate the elegance of minimalism in the same way an engineer would appreciate the simplicity and efficiency of a well-designed machine with no redundant or extraneous parts. However, minimalism seems to be a style that many people don’t get. Some may view it as purely esoteric, but I also wonder if people mistake simplicity for lack, failing to see just how much artistry actually goes into a concise composition solution. Minimalist art is not the same as abstract art, but they do have areas of overlap. Since I’ve previously written much on the subject of abstraction, I’ll try to avoid repeating similar concepts. This post is the first of a two-part series that I hope will offer some insight into the craftsmanship and creativity that goes into paring down a composition of all nonessential components, particularly within the medium of photography. I hope to convince you of the elegance of a reductionist approach to composition, and that achieving simplicity takes much more finesse than you might expect.
The Art of Exclusion
It has been said that photography is an art of exclusion. I don’t typically relate to broad generalizations, but I wholeheartedly concur with this assessment of the medium. I’m hard pressed think of any other visual art form that so consistently presents reality as an obstacle to the artist; as a problem to be solved.
This dilemma might be easier to explain with a quick analogy: If a painter is working on a scene with an old barn on a grassy field and doesn’t like the look of the highway bridge in the background, he simply doesn’t paint it into the scene. A photographer approaching the same scene has to be a little more innovative because her camera is going to capture whatever she allows in front of it. To exclude unwanted elements in the composition requires good problem solving skills and a solid understanding of the different techniques photographers use to organize a scene: focal length, depth-of-field, motion blur, proximity, angle of view, etc. Unfortunately, even with the skilled implementation of the above techniques, photographers are sometimes forced to compromise our desired or ideal composition to keep unwanted elements out of the shot. [I’m well aware that many modern photographers are incorporating newer technologies of digital manipulation and multi-image composites as additional ways of solving such problems, but that is a whole different discussion]
My image Orpheus is a simple composition in that there are few visual elements. However, the suggested relationship between the two primary subjects (the figure and the moon) does a lot to tell a story and create movement within the empty spaces. The diagonal lines in the architecture cross and complement the implied diagonal line where your eye travels back and forth between the figure to the moon, creating a subtle tension (see Fig. 1 below for clarity). The empty space (sky) is needed to balance out the intricate details in the relief sculptures of the building’s façade so that the viewer is not overwhelmed with detail and the intent of the image remains clear. Taller portions of the same building, along with modern skyscrapers behind it, were hidden from view by moving closer to the base of the building so that they disappeared behind the horizon of the front wall (see Fig. 2 below for example).
The Art of Organization and Arrangement
Photographers are tasked with sorting out the various details that are physically present in a scene and trying to create order from chaos. We use our instincts along with the elements of art and the principles of design as guides to achieve organization. We look for potential relationships between each element in the frame and try to bring out contrasts or harmonies, to create tension or resolution to varying degrees. That is the art of it. The photographer isolates and emphasizes a subject through exclusion and organization to draw your attention to a specific characteristic or relationship. I think that these unspoken choices—the process of simplification and refinement—is largely under-appreciated by the average viewer when considering the final image. Many take for granted the fact that, while cameras are indeed capable of capturing reality, a skilled photographer is doing so much more than simply documenting what is there. He is, in a sense, creating his own reality. In the same way that withholding specific details can distort truth, the image a photographer presents is not necessarily a representation of reality. Photographer Richard Avedon said it best:
“All photographs are accurate. None of them is the truth.”
Above is a deconstruction of Orpheus which illustrates how my mind was organizing the scene when I composed this image. I assessed the visual weight of different components by breaking things up into chunks of positive and negative space (as seen by the black and white overlays), as well as dominant and sub dominant scene elements (outlined in green). The red lines demonstrate the movement and tension created by the actual and implied lines in the image. What isn’t shown in this deconstruction of my final image are all the potentially distracting scenic elements that were excluded to simplify the composition into such a concise design. Examine the image below:
Notice the smokestack, third and fourth stories of the theatre, and the surrounding modern buildings in the area where I was shooting. To my eye these things would have only complicated my image, so they were excluded by carefully choosing my point of view. The subject is circled in green so you can see where I was working. I couldn’t move the buildings, or the moon, but I could move myself in relationship to them, therefore altering their relationship to each other.
Next time you look at a photograph, consider the different components that are in the scene. Study the relationships or contrasts suggested between those components. If the photographer included them they may have an important role in the image and you should spend some time exploring what that may be. Analyze them as clues to what the artist is communicating to you. Pay attention to which elements the photographer emphasizes through proportion, scale, focus, leading line, contrast, etc. Don’t take for granted the possibility that perhaps just outside the frame existed some physical reality that the photographer excluded to clarify her message and enhance the aesthetic experience. Remember you are not necessarily viewing reality, but a carefully constructed creative expression of real things. Consider that even if you were to visit the exact location where the photographer made the image, it would not necessarily have the same visual impact as the finished photograph. Don’t be deceived by simplicity. Rather, appreciate the elegance of it.
One question I have frequently been asked is, “How do you come up with names for your pictures?” For this post I thought I’d put up a few of my abstract photographs along with a quick description of how I came up with the title. If you have ever wondered about a specific image, feel free to leave me a comment on my Facebook page and maybe I’ll put together another post.
Tessellation is one of the titles I’ve been asked about most frequently. I think most people who ask just aren’t familiar with the term. Basically, a tessellation is a two-dimensional drawing of a seamless repeating pattern (see below for examples). When I first saw this building with it’s series of cube-like forms and repeating lines, I thought right away of M.C. Escher’s illustrations (example). While my use of the word tessellation as a title for this photograph may not hold up to scrutiny because it is not made up of perfectly repeating shapes, I titled it so anyway because my composition was so strongly inspired by the concept.
After creating and reflecting on the image I had toyed with other Orwellian “big brother” concepts for the title. The featureless, anonymous facade of this structure combined with the strong lines and contrasting tones looks a little intimidating. It reminds me of Russian propaganda poster art. In the end I stuck with Tessellation as the title because I was not trying to send any political message with this piece and, while I’m fine with people interpreting it in that way on their own, it wasn’t part of my inspiration so I wanted to stay true to that in my title.
Warp brings to light a bit of my nerdy side. This building is often lovingly referred to as the “data card building” in Phoenix so I wanted to stay away from the obvious, preexisting metaphor and make my own vision of it. I grew up watching Star Trek with my dad, so, naturally, this building brought to mind images of star trails stretching out before the Starship Enterprise as it entered warp speed.
Circumspect is a play on words but it also has a bit of meaning for me, personally. The prefix “circum” is obviously represented in the round windows and semi-circular, concave facade of the architecture. The word circumspect is also a good word to describe aspects of my personality. I am not a big risk-taker in general but I am willing to assume risk when I have carefully considered the situation and determined the potential outcome to be worthy. For example, in order to make this image I might have trespassed a little. This area of the building was surrounded by an 8 foot high fence. I found a gate that was locked. I circled the building again and this time the gate was propped open by a rock while a nurse was taking a smoke break. I entered cautiously, figuring that I would just ask forgiveness if it came down to it. I was born in this building 34 years ago and I really wanted to get the shot I had in mind, so I went for it. A few janitors and nurses on break passed me by while I was shooting and nobody said anything so my trespass couldn’t have been too serious! I’ve been kicked off of more properties while making photographs in Phoenix than I can count. I’m typically a law-abiding citizen that doesn’t go looking for trouble, but when I have a vision in my mind for a photograph there’s a drive that makes me willing to do whatever I have to do to get that image. At least this time I wasn’t called a terrorist (but that’s another story!).
What’s in a name?
Depending on who you talk to, you’ll hear various philosophies about whether a work of art should have a title. One view is that it can give you a deeper insight into the artist’s message or reason for creating that piece, while another view adamantly claims that the imagery should speak for itself (i.e., “a picture is worth a thousand words”) and that the title only taints the viewer’s experience. Then there’s me, floating around somewhere between those two extremes.
I am not typically very creative in naming photographs that deal with literal subject matter because I don’t want to come across as pretentious or trying too hard to inject some esoteric meaning into, for example, a landscape scene. In those cases, naming my photograph is a matter of pragmatism; it needs to have some way of being identified if, for example, someone is contacting me to purchase a print. I wouldn’t care whether or not those images had titles next to them on a gallery wall.
I do, however, particularly enjoy naming my more abstract photographs. For me it is an enjoyable part of the creative process. Since the subject matter is not depicted in a literal way, the title I give it is often descriptive of the metaphor that I saw in my mind’s eye when composing the image. Sometimes my titles offer a play on words to invoke a bit of humor. Sometimes I am more ambiguous, giving a word that would cause the viewer to consider a certain characteristic of the subject, or to pull out a more philosophical exploration of an idea based on that word’s implied connection with the photograph. Sometimes the names are more personal and won’t likely mean the same thing to another viewer at all.
My titles aren’t meant to control the viewer’s interpretation. The fact that I have so many people share alternate interpretations of how they perceive my abstract photographs proves that my titles don’t take away from their viewing experience. It just becomes another conversation between the creator and the viewer, which is fantastic.
In the last couple of years my propensity towards abstraction has become more prevalent in much of my photography. After hearing me use the word abstract to describe some of my work, people often ask me just what abstract means. They recognize it as art jargon, and may have a vague notion of what the term means, but can’t quite grasp a solid command of the vocabulary to use it with confidence. Some aren’t quite comfortable viewing abstract art, either. I’ve observed how some people react positively to the mysterious nature of abstract art, while others are uncomfortable with visual stimuli that they can’t easily place into literal context or relate to a tangible experience.
I want to offer some thoughts that might help to enlighten anyone who is interested in extending their artistic vocabulary. Most of my examples will be photography-based because that’s my primary medium. The goal here is not to change your taste in art, but to open you up to new ways of appreciating beauty. All forms of art—from literature to visual and performance art, and the many sub-genres within each—have the potential to edify the viewer if he or she is receptive. By learning, at the very least, to appreciate various and diverse forms of art, you open yourself up to new ways of experiencing beauty. You don’t necessarily need to invest in a piece, take it home and hang it on your own wall in order to benefit from it. I’m often surprised when visiting art galleries just how frequently I am impacted by works of art that are outside of my typical taste. Taking the time to view a work of art adds something to me, even if it’s not a piece I would want to buy and take home. You just have to be open-minded, take some time, and put forth the effort to process what you’re seeing, hearing, reading, feeling, etc. You might be surprised at what it has to teach you.
So, what does abstract mean? First of all, abstract art is non-representational (see example below). It embodies a departure from reality, by varying degrees, which obscures the contextual clues a viewer would typically use to draw inferences and connections from. This could be as simple as removing color from a photograph. Humans see the world in vivid color so removing that particular stimulus from a piece of art is one small degree of departure from reality as we know it. Photographing an object from an unusual or extremely close-up point-of-view would be a further departure from reality because the viewer’s notions of proportion, environmental context, and perception of the whole are distorted to emphasize a specific characteristic of that object. One of my favorite photography techniques to achieve abstraction is long exposure. It distorts reality by allowing us to see many moments consolidated into one image, presenting visualizations of blurred movement that are physically impossible for the eye to perceive in reality.
With abstract art you may not always know what exactly you are looking at because it is not meant to be a literal representation of the physical world. That’s okay. It is more about the artist’s expression of an inner experience, or the exploration of a concept that might not be easily investigated within the constraints of reality. Depending on the artist, this expression could be the result of a calculated and intentional visual communication, or it might be an uninhibited subconscious expression that flowed naturally and took form spontaneously. Sometimes an artist may not be making a definite statement at all. Maybe she just felt like making something beautiful. Or, she might be inviting you to contemplate along with her; an invitation to see the world differently, to reflect, and to possibly gain some personal revelation in the process. To appreciate abstract art you may need to free yourself from the notion that you are supposed to get something specific out of it. Stop letting art textbooks and museum docents (no disrespect intended) do your thinking for you. Be free to find your own meaning. If you look up at a cloud and see a teddy bear, but your neighbor sees a chair on fire, neither of you has to concede to the other’s interpretation. Just enjoy the experience for what it’s worth to you and allow others the same.
I would liken abstract visual art to poetry in literature. Many people find poetry difficult to process because it is often full of metaphor and esoteric language that isn’t as apparent in, for example, literary fiction. When reading fiction it is easy for the average reader to form a mental picture of characters and places, and to follow a chronological storyline without trying too hard, even if they miss the underlying themes and allegory. Poetry is often less rooted in time, place and chronology and requires more mental focus (at least to those not already adept through practice) to process and derive meaning from. But it also opens you to a new way of seeing, experiencing, and understanding. Poetry (and even fantasy or science fiction) has the ability to transcend preconceived notions that might limit our perception by removing the subject from reality or using metaphor to derive conceptual connections that might not have otherwise been seen in a literal context. Sometimes reality is just too distracting. Abstraction can help to facilitate deeper philosophical investigation.
Children are actually very good at creating abstract metaphors. When my three-year-old daughter tells me that my photograph of an ASU dorm building (Triangularity, pictured below) looks like a snake, I don’t need to tell her that it’s actually a building, or that I saw something different in it. I just affirm her unique interpretation and enjoy that glimpse into her beautiful mind. Unfortunately, rather than experiencing this same encouragement, many children are gradually steered away from seeing the world through metaphor by well-meaning parents and educators. They are taught to take the world more literally at the expense of their imagination. I suspect this is why so many high schoolers struggle with processing poetry; as children they had their ability to interpret metaphor beat out of them by the very system that is trying to get them to appreciate it as young adults. Pragmatism certainly has its utility in our world but I don’t believe it has to cost us our imagination.
One of my favorite things about abstract art is the infinite possibility for interpretation; it is purely subjective. Each individual is going to project their own feelings, experiences, values, and personality into the viewing experience as they attempt to process what they are seeing. I love it when I share one of my abstract photographs in which I see a specific metaphor (sometimes suggested in my title), only to have someone else come back and share something totally different as described by their mind’s eye. What a wonderful experience to share with another person. Hopefully this article has encouraged you to give abstract art forms a fair shot; to reclaim and exercise your imagination, and to find beauty in the seemingly impractical or absurd.
I’ve never been one to make New Year’s resolutions. By nature I am very introspective and analytical so when I discover a need for transformation in my life, I immediately begin revising my habits toward that end. I don’t wait for a specific mark in time to begin, and I usually don’t advertise it. Still, with everyone discussing personal improvement goals at this time of year, I can’t help but reflect on my experiences to see what lessons 2015 taught me. First, I thought it would be in good spirit to recognize two positive changes that came out of 2015.
I had a rough year at my job in the 2014-2015 school year. I was experiencing burnout and could feel stress taking its toll on me as negative feelings of anger, resentment and discontent crept in. These feelings affected my interaction with people, shortening my temper and causing me to withdraw in my relationships. At first glance, the situation seemed paradoxical; a catch-22, if you will. On one hand, I knew I was burned out because my job demanded so much time and focus that I wasn’t making time for activities that are fulfilling and enjoyable. On the other, I felt guilty about making the time to do those things as if I was somehow taking away from potential work time. I was falling victim to the American work ethic which seems to suggest that if you aren’t killing yourself you aren’t working hard enough. In reality I know this is absurd. Your best work is done when your mental, physical and spiritual health are tended to. Besides, life is too short to make it all about work.
I made the decision to find a way to incorporate a consistent routine of leisure activity. I knew that it needed to be a meaningful, fulfilling activity, not just sitting around at home watching Netflix. Two solutions emerged: make more art, and get out to see more art. So, I began making more time in the evenings and on weekends to focus on my photography. I created more images last year than in any year previous. I also saw my work begin to emerge with stronger focus because of this intentional concentration. Soon after my efforts were rewarded when my work began to get attention: I had several opportunities to exhibit my work, I won several awards, and my work was published for the first time, twice in one year. The real reward, however, was in the fulfilling act of creating.
My second solution was to get out and see more art. I did this by setting aside one night a month to go gallery hopping in downtown Phoenix, something I stopped doing about ten years ago for some unknown reason. I chose the third Friday of the month because most of the galleries are open but the atmosphere is less carnivalesque than the first Friday scene. I called an acquaintance who I had not been in contact with for a few years, but who I knew enjoyed art, and I invited him along with me. We now have a standing engagement each month. Not only did I get out to see more art, but a new friendship was kindled and our time spent together has been equally as gratifying as the regular exposure to new art. So those are my two gains; two positive changes made in 2015 that led to overall better mental and spiritual health.
2015 also taught me a lesson. I learned that I need to be careful with expectation. Not just my own expectations, but how the expectations of others covertly shape my own. This lesson came primarily in reflecting on my first solo photography exhibition in October 2015. It was a wonderful experience, full of excitement and energy. However, when it was all over I felt an overwhelming emptiness. I struggled to figure out what was causing this and eventually identified it as disappointment. It crept in slowly throughout the month, unknown to me. In the beginning I was just excited to share my art with people. I had no other expectations. But each time someone brought up the exhibit in conversation, their first question was often “Did you sell anything yet?” After answering “No” so many times I began to feel like I had somehow failed. I don’t begrudge the people who asked because I know there was nothing malicious in their intent. They were just excited for me and trying to make conversation, which I appreciate. Anyhow, the show closed and I had not sold any pieces. I found myself disappointed to not have met a goal that I never even made for myself. It’s silly, really. Thankfully I was eventually able to identify this and free myself from it. I move forward with a new awareness of how expectation can taint experience if not carefully managed.
As I enter into 2016 I expect nothing but the inevitable passing of time. I am mindful that I have a choice in how I spend this passing time, and I want to continue being proactive about making time for things that are fulfilling. I would say “Happy New Year” but that feels empty and insincere to me. Instead, I’ll say: Be well. Be happy.
Every now and then I am surprised to find myself learning a lesson that I thought I had previously learned. As a teacher I often find it necessary to review previously-taught material with my students that may have been taken for granted, or even forgotten as they focused on learning new lessons. I suppose it would be silly to assume that life is any different. I’ve had a turbulent month, emotionally speaking, because I needed to re-learn a valuable lesson.
This month’s remediation revolved around the destructive nature of expectation. I have allowed myself to become disappointed, let down, even questioning my self-worth as a result of my own self-imposed expectations. On one hand, I’m a romantic. I believe in the extraordinary, that amazing things can happen. I believe that there is something indescribably special about human beings interacting in an authentic way. I assume the best about people when I first meet them and I give them the benefit-of-the-doubt. I stand by these and hope that I never become so jaded or cynical that I operate differently.
However, I recognize that I need to find a better balance in my life. There is a subtle but critical difference between believing amazing things can happen, and expecting amazing things will happen. There is a significant difference between being open to a genuine connection with new people you meet, and expecting a genuine connection between every new person you meet. In both examples the former keeps you receptive and positive while the latter breeds major potential for disappointment when things don’t work out according to said expectations.
This month I allowed expectations to become too big a part of my perception. As a result, the fullness of joy I could have been experiencing was largely eclipsed by disappointment. The last four weeks have brought some amazing opportunities and experiences my way and I have enjoyed them but I recognize that I also had some very emotionally turbulent moments due to my expectations. The resulting emotional rollercoaster was, in hindsight, rather unnecessary if I had not allowed expectation to trump my perception.
Lesson re-learned. Here’s to lifelong learning and continually seeking a more harmonious balance.