Thursday, October 3, 2019


If your goal is ART, avoid the cliché.
If your goal is MONEY, embrace the cliché.
                When I think back on all the photos I did not shoot I have some regrets, I should have shot more.  I should have shot the obvious ones, the first things I saw, the clichés.  I tried too hard and took a pass on the easy ones.  I thought of myself as an Artist with a capitol ‘A,’ too good, too smart, too advanced and way too cool to take the easy shots.  In my avoidance of the cliché, I inadvertently avoided a lot of money!  A unique, original or innovative approach to a subject may bring critical acclaim but a trite expression or idea brings money.  In my later years I learned to embrace the cliché, but for most of my professional life I’ve avoided clichés for fear of being labeled ‘unoriginal.’ 
                There were times when I was working commercially when the cliché was the goal.  When working with advertising clients I was often ‘forced’ to produce clichéd images.  I tried my best to convince my clients that we could accomplish their visual goals without resorting to cliché but most of the time I lost the argument.  Advertising clients are risk-adverse and are devout inside-the-box thinkers.  Within their own self-imposed zone of acceptability they were looking for ‘their version’ of an already-acceptable image.  So I gave it to them.  I had no problem facilitating their cliché-dreams because I was paid to do so.  It’s a job, I’m a hired gun, here’s your cliché, thanks for the check.  The only time I created cliché images on spec was occasionally in the 1980s and 1990s when I was earning the bulk of my income through the licensing of stock photos.  Inexpensive, already-produced stock photos fulfill the needs of no- to low-budget clients and their needs are most often for something they can ‘relate’ to, as in pre-approved, already seen clichés.  Stock photo clients, like the ad agencies and so many other commercial picture-users don’t really want to expend much energy ‘thinking’ about an image.  They use images that require little to no thought and convey their message quickly as one flips through magazine pages, barely paying attention.  (Nowadays, there’s less flipping of magazine pages and more ‘scrolling’ of websites.  Cliché, relatable, seen-it-before and simple imagery works best on tiny screens viewed by high-speed scrolling.)  The stock photography market demands clichés and you can make money at it if the client chooses your cliché from the thousands of similar clichés offered.  Yeah, they’re all basically the same so you’d better hope someone clicks on yours, otherwise you’re just another in a sea of sameness.
                When I transitioned away from commercial photography to fine-art in the early 2000s I thought I was done with clichés (not that I’d done that many).  As a fine artist I’d be following my own, anti-cliché aesthetic exclusively and avoiding hackneyed, commonplace and banal imagery altogether.  New, original and innovative was my goal.  I tried very hard to create new images, in a new way from things we already know.  To accomplish this I was constantly rejecting the familiar, exploring the unknown, trying to see ‘old things with new eyes,’ and continually narrowing and narrowing my ‘vision’ to find, or create, the unique things I’d not seen before.  This is not an easy task and requires a great deal of mental effort ---and it’s an effort that few artists, and even fewer viewers, care to undertake.
                There are clichés and forms of clichés everywhere and there’s some subjects that, essentially, are clichés no matter what.  A cliché is the result of two main factors, familiarity and comfort.  Everybody’s comfortable with the familiar.  Because everybody’s a photographer nowadays the ‘photography workshop’ business has exploded.  Now you can write a big check to spend a week with a bunch of photographers, just like yourself, all go to the same place, at the same time, and take the same picture.  Everybody in the workshop can get ‘their’ version of whatever cliché the workshop is about.  Go to Yosemite and find Ansel Adams’ tripod marks!  Go to Antarctica and photograph penguins that look like every other photo of penguins ever shot!  Guides will show you where to place your camera in Antelope Canyon, Monument Valley, The Palouse, Death Valley or any other pretty place on Earth.  Your resulting pictures will in no way be original but they’ll be your very own version of that picture you saw and everybody already liked!  And your images are critic-proof too because we’ve already seen that shit a thousand times and we like it.  A purveyor of clichés can be ‘creative’ and risk-free all at the same time!  You may feel good about winning a camera-club photo contest with your clichéd, hackneyed photo but you ain’t gettin’ a gallery show.
                Or, maybe you will.  Part of my motivation for writing this now is the rejection I got from a gallery earlier today.  It seems the gallery was seeking clichés and I stupidly submitted fine-art.  I’ve seen it so many times it’s laughable, I call it ‘the big, hairy-but rejection.’  It goes like this:  “…your work is amazing, but…,” “…really cool stuff, but…,” “…beautiful photography, but…”  Whatever comes after “but” means you’re not getting to show.  In this particular case I had a conversation with the gallerist who said she was seeking “…salable landscape imagery that’s a little different…”  OK, I’ve got that, I have a series of surreal landscape imagery that’s been exhibited often enough to have developed a positive sales history and I submitted it to the gallery.  My works were rejected in favor of, “…the downtown and surrounding area in order to sell… If you shoot some local stuff...I am really interested!!!!”  What she said and what she meant were two very different things.  The talk was about unique fine-art but the walk showed she really wanted ‘postcard art.’  The worst advice was, “…shoot some local stuff....I am really interested.”  Decoded that means make pictures you wouldn’t have otherwise (make her pictures) and maybe I’ll include it in my clichéd offerings of downtown pictures.”  That’s terrible advice and no artist should follow it.  If you do, all you’ll accomplish is shooting pictures you don’t like, on spec, for someone who’ll most likely reject your works anyway.  Unless it’s a commercial job and you’re guaranteed to get paid, don’t do that shit! 
                Just for fun I once entered an online photo competition with the subject matter of barns.  To me a barn is a cliché in and of itself.  You can hardly take a picture of a barn that’s not a cliché.  A barn is just a cliché-ready object.  I recall shooting the photo (and no, I don’t ‘capture’ ‘images,’ I shoot photos), in the middle of a green field was a red barn with a blue sky above it.  I raised the camera to my eye, looked through the lens and thought, well that’s a fuckin’ cliché, I shouldn’t shoot this.  But I did anyway while promising myself I’d never show it to anyone.  Then the photo competition came along and I thought I’ve got the cliché they’re looking for and entered.  And I won!  Great, now I was being rewarded for taking the stupidest, most ordinary, unimaginative picture ever!  All the photographs I work so hard to make original are for naught while the lamest, stupidest and most pedestrian of them all is held up as ‘award winning.’  The most astonishing thing were the comments:  “beautiful… amazing… fantastic… fabulous… wonderful.”  I thought, really, seriously? It’s a fucking barn!  I guess people just love things they’ve already seen before.  Oh well, the subject was the barn-cliché and I had the ‘best’ cliché.
                What I eventually learned after a lifetime of making photographs is that, as much as they say they appreciate innovation, people are really comfortable with what they already know about  ---clichés!  This includes the so-called fine-arts as well. 
                My advice to young artists working in any medium is to go ahead and shoot, paint or otherwise create the cliché.  Don’t actively work at it but do it when the cliché presents itself.  Make your own art and do the clichés too.  That way if your incredibly original fine-art fails to find an audience you’ll have something to fall back on. 

Friday, June 14, 2019


Here in 2019, while living in ‘American End Times,’ during the horrific and criminal Trump administration, I’ve seen many calls for ‘Activist Art’ to protest the inevitable Republican achievement of the destruction of the United States of America and end of Democracy as we knew it.

Yeah, right.  Like art is going to change anything.

Remember the Women’s March, AKA the ‘Pussy Hat’ protest of 2016?  How’d that work out?  Did you see any changes?  Nope.  Like ‘Artist-Activists’ they achieved nothing except feeling good about themselves and seeming like they’re ‘doing something.’  Sure, it showed a lot of unhappy people but little else.

If you’re an artist who thinks you can create artworks that will affect social change you’re wrong.  Sure, you’ll feel like you’ve contributed to the resistance but politicians don’t give a damn about your symbolic gestures.  Yes, there is some ‘protest art’ that has withstood the test of time and is recognized as indicative of the time in which it was created but that art didn’t cause any real changes and had no bearing or influence on anything significant at the time.   

‘Activist Art’ may impress your dim professor at Art School, or perhaps it’ll sway some Grant-giving committee because nobody receives free money merely to make pretty pictures but society-at-large doesn’t care.  It doesn’t even register with ‘art consumers.’  Your activist art may be absolutely fucking brilliant but it’s little more than a fart in a hurricane when it comes to any social influence. 

Art is metaphor, art is symbol, a lot of art isn’t obvious and requires some mental work from the viewer to interpret.  Do you really think that a dumbass Trump-supporter is going to comprehend the subtleties of your oh-so profound artistic protest?  No!  Hell no, no way!  The very people the ‘activist artist’ needs to influence are the stupidest among us.   Not only will they not get it, they’ll work hard not to.  These are the willfully ignorant, watchers of Fox News, flat-Earthers, climate-change deniers, the ‘poorly educated,’ and are generally fucking morons.  This isn’t hyperbole.  I’ll give you a profound, and deadly example:

Remember the World Trade Center bombing of 1993?  Probably not because it wasn’t a big enough terrorist act to get attention.  Nah, a little smoke coming out of the underground parking garage didn’t register in our collective consciousness.  But what about September 11, 2001?  You know, 9/11?  Everybody remembers that act of terrorism don’t they?  And why?  Because four airplanes were hijacked simultaneously and two of them were flown straight into the World Trade Center Towers.  Yeah!  Fully loaded, fully fueled passenger planes crashing directly into the two tallest buildings in the country finally got America’s collective attention!  The World Trade Center terrorists of 1993 were just as pissed-off as the 19 skyjackers of 9/11 but it took a huge, audacious act creating a scene reminiscent of a Godzilla movie to get Americans’ heads out of their lazy, consumerist asses long enough to get their attention.  Yup, that was America’s wake-up call.  Nothing subtle about it.

So if it takes big airplanes flown into office buildings to make Americans understand the need for social change do you actually think your art is going to make a damn bit of difference?


You might be applying some artificial significance to your work by positioning it as ‘activism’ but you’re not going to change society. 


Do you really want to affect society?  Do you really want to ‘make a difference?’  Here’s how:

                Get yourself elected to political office.
                Fight in the revolution.

Making ‘art for social change’ isn’t going to cut it.  Symbolic gestures do little. At the absolute bare minimum, go vote because nobody’s going to change their political views based on your artwork.

Tuesday, May 28, 2019

SEXY MACHINES (from the new book "Nobody Cares about your Stupid Pictures"

                Just when I thought I’d acquired every kind of camera I’d ever need, photography changed so fundamentally that my cameras became obsolete nearly overnight.  Suddenly the dozens of film cameras I owned metamorphosed into expensive metal paperweights and had to be replaced with digital cameras.  Although I was not an early adopter of the digital camera I bought one when it was becoming clear that film’s lifespan was becoming limited.  I really didn’t have a choice if I were to continue working as a professional photographer, the industry was going digital.
                My first digital camera was a little 3.3 megapixel Canon G1.  It was a little silver box and clearly un-sexy; I’ve got another old box of a camera in my collection, a 1948 Argus C3.  Back in the day the Argus C3 was nicknamed ‘the brick,’ my year 2000 Canon G1 is also a brick, a lightweight and even less sexy brick.  Both cameras are ugly, utilitarian devices but the half-century old Argus is slightly sexier! 
                What exactly is a ‘sexy’ camera?
             In my view, a ‘sexy’ machine is a device that’s well designed and engineered.  A sexy machine has some heft, some weight, because it’s made to last.  Sexy machines are complex with many gears and other mechanical parts that fit together and move smoothly.  Some examples of ‘sexy’ machines are: steam locomotives, mechanical clocks and watches, Ducati motorcycles, old typewriters, hand-operated printing presses, telescopes, record-players, analog synthesizers, the enlargers (which I no longer use) in my darkroom, and pretty much all old mechanical cameras, especially those from Germany.  Simply put, sexy machines are those with clever engineering and have a ‘solid’ feel to them.
                Digital cameras are decidedly not sexy!
             There’s very little going on mechanically inside a digital camera.  Although cameras still look like what we expect cameras to look like, they’ve become little more than processors with lenses. 
                Converting light into a silver-halide latent image on film was a very different process than converting light to ones and zeros that can only be expressed after processing with firmware.  All that camera-back space that used to be filled with film, motors and film transport gears is now taken up by batteries and processors, tiny computers that ‘do math.’  They’re little more than black boxes inside a larger black box shaped like what we expect a camera to look like.  Digital cameras are certainly amazing devices, but ‘sexy’ they’re not!
                Good industrial design is what makes cameras ‘sexy.’  There is something about the human interaction with a well-designed machine that’s natural, pleasant or even exciting which is wholly missing from interacting with strictly utilitarian devices. 
                Steampunk art is today’s ultimate expression of ‘sexy’ machinery.