On Photography and the Creative Process

ignite.me, a blog devoted to “art and forward-thinking ideas,” has just posted an interview with me in which I talk about photography, Burning Man, and my own creative process. I also share some thoughts on the profession of journalism, the art of dialogue, and the difference between crafting words and making images.

How do you take a wild and outrageously beautiful experience and translate that to a two-dimensional image? Scott London has done just that in his photographs of the incandescent saturnalia known as Burning Man. The Ignite.me team had the opportunity to interview Scott to learn more about his creative process, his vision and the philosophy that drives his innovative spirit.

Read the full interview here: Artist Interview with Scott London.

(Photo by Karen Kuehn)

Snow Over West Virginia

Winter is not over yet, at least not for those in the Midwest and Northeast. I’m in West Virginia wrapping up a ten-day road trip. A winter storm has pummeled the region over the last 24 hours. The locals here are used to snow, but it’s clearly an event all the same, especially this late in the season. Here’s an image of the Oglebay area, high above Wheeling, all covered in white.

On the Oscar Trail

It’s not Cannes or Sundance, but over the last three decades the Santa Barbara International Film Festival has established itself as one of America’s leading movie fests. The event typically draws about 70,000 people and features some 200 screenings, along with an impressive line-up of tributes, award shows, and panels with industry insiders.

But the big story each year revolves around the celebrities—the beautiful people who come to town and, for a few days, transform the place into the epicenter of the entertainment world. Given Santa Barbara’s proximity and deep ties to Hollywood, as well as the festival’s serendipitous timing—right in the middle of awards season—it’s no surprise the event has become a crucial stop on the Oscar trail.

The festival announces its line-up of awards and tributes in early January, before the annual Oscar nominations are revealed. The organizers have proven to be surprisingly prescient in recent years, often booking appearances with actors, directors and others in the industry who go on to be nominated for Academy Awards. In 2009, for example, the festival welcomed more than two dozen Oscar nominees.

But the festival’s knack for predicting winners can be attributed in no small part to the Hollywood publicity machine. Today celebrities and industry insiders routinely go on “Oscar tours” to generate buzz for their latest films, often backed by million-dollar advertising budgets. For Academy Award-contenders, an appearance in Santa Barbara can not only generate valuable publicity but improve the odds of a big win at the Oscars.

But it’s movie aficionados who are the big winners at the Santa Barbara Film Festival. For what could be better in the end than eleven full days of screenings, panels with prominent writers, producers, and directors, and tributes to the best and brightest in the business?

It was my fifth year covering the festival. I’ve posted a photoessay here.

Burning Man 2012

The Man Goes Up in Flames at Burning Man 2012

I’m back from an enchanting week at Burning Man 2012. It was a year of wind and dust and even some rain, which made for some interesting photography but was physically quite challenging. I took almost 3,000 pictures over the course of 8 days.

This year I shot on assignment for Rolling Stone. You can view 25 of my images here: “Burning Man 2012: Magic Mushrooms, Nude Dancers, Wild Infernos and More.” You’ll find two additional sets as well: “More Scenes from Burning Man 2012,” and “Faces of Burning Man 2012.”

I’m now busy putting together my customary set of 100 photos from the event. I hope to have that up very soon. (See below.)

In the meantime, my photography has appeared in a number of recent publications:

  • The October issue of Outside Magazine features a lengthy piece about Burning Man titled, appropriately enough, “Hot Mess.” Written by Brad Wieners, the article includes images from photographers George Post, Steward Harvey, and myself.
  • The current issue of Gateway Magazine, the in-flight magazine of China’s largest airline, includes an 8-page spread featuring my work. A photograph of artist David Boyer’s installation “School of Blue Bottle Noses,” which I took in 2009, appears on the cover. You can view the full issue online here (my photos start on page 218).
  • The Santa Cruz newspaper Good Times ran a terrific cover story by Elizabeth Limbach recently with photos by Kyer Wiltshire and myself. The piece is called “Beyond Black Rock City” and is available here (the online version doesn’t have all of the images from the print edition, I’m sorry to say).
  • The South African magazine One Small Seed has a 7-page spread about Burning Man in its current issue with 10 of my photographs. You can view the story in PDF format here.
  • Popular Mechanics ran a feature back in May called “10 Wild Art Cars from Burning Man” using my images. What’s nice about this piece is that they assigned a writer to it who cobbled together interesting and detailed captions about how each art car was built.
  • I also have a spread in the current issue of Marie Claire Brazil, but I haven’t managed to get copies of it yet and it doesn’t appear to be available online.

UPDATE (September 11, 2012): My 2012 photos are now online — view the set here.

Note To a Young Photographer

I received a note from a young photographer. She said she’s considering returning to school to get a degree in photography. Did I have any advice for her? Here’s my reply:

[…]

I studied photography in college and learned some valuable things. But the best education is the one I gained in the field.

I’ve always had doubts about the value of photography school. My sense is that there are better—and cheaper—ways to learn and develop your craft. And today a photography degree no longer brings any guarantees or opens any special doors.

In fact, I’ve been saddened by the many requests I’ve received from photographers with degrees from expensive trade schools who want to intern with me. The time for an internship, it seems to me, is before you enroll in a degree program, not after.

The great Henri Cartier-Bresson once said that you have to take 10,000 images before you find yourself as a photographer. And Malcolm Gladwell, in his book Outliers, says the general consensus is it takes 10,000 hours—about 20 hours a week for 10 years—to develop true mastery in a given field.

Both of these observations hold true whether you’re in school earning a credential or out in the field making pictures. So why not skip the degree?

Most of what you can learn in college, you can also learn just as effectively through books, online courses, and weekend workshops. To say nothing of good mentors.

One more thing. Too many people who go to school think that graduating means they are done with their education. The degree gives them the illusion they know everything they need to know. But we can never stop learning, any more than we can reach the limit of our creative capacities. People who are self-taught seem to understand this intuitively.

My best advice to you is:

  1. Volunteer/intern with an established photographer that you like and respect (or simply ask to follow him or her around in the course of a day’s work)
  2. Start a clippings file (or folder on the computer) with work that inspires you and blows your mind and then try to recreate some of those images in your own style
  3. Share your work with other photographers and solicit constructive feedback (and always take “likes” and other forms of positive feedback on social networks like Facebook and Flickr with a grain of salt)
  4. Spend time every day shooting for no other purpose than to have fun and experiment