The Art of Humility

Should pride creep up and whisper in your ear under the pretense of friendship, give it the hand!

Should pride creep up and whisper in your ear under the pretense of friendship, give it the hand!

*Disclaimer: This post will be particularly personal.  Think of it as a piece where I further explore my thoughts and journey as I delve into the world of professional photography, and a new career. It's an exciting, but scary, mode of existence.  Lastly, although somewhat journal-like, I do think that as one considers this post, minus some of the details, you also may be challenged in your endeavors.  I'd love to hear from you.

I mentioned in a previous post that a friend and I were discussing my photographic ventures and he asked, "What is it you are trying to do?" I was unclear at the time, all I knew is that I loved photography and wanted to do something with it.  As time has moved on a bit, it's narrowing down with a clear emphasis on photographic instruction.  Having been a teacher at a local high school for almost twenty years, we teachers were always prompted, for good or bad, to pursue professional development.  The need for professional growth, pursuing further excellence in your field, and creating a more successful business model probably goes without saying.  So I decided recently to take a workshop myself from a well known street photography theoretician, and photographer, Eric Kim.  What follows is my account of the adventure, it's initial impact on me, and what it means for me as I move along.  Before proceeding, let me make it clear that this is not a review of the workshop!  If you must know, a quick synopsis is as follows: It was great, it was challenging, and I learned a lot.  But now, on to my failures and successes...

I'll start in the middle of the story... truly, I felt like I wanted to throw in the towel for professional photography.  The reasons are manifold, if they can be called reasons, but I know that down deep they circle around self-pity, impatience, and doubt.  All of these are opposed to true humility, and thus, they are opposed to betterment and personal, well-being.  In older terms, holiness. 

When pride comes, then comes disgrace,
but with humility comes wisdom.
— King Solomon

Let me explain, now, from the beginning.  I took the workshop for two main reasons.  The first was to be challenged photographically, and learn from a thoughtful person, so that very plainly, I can be a better photographer...there's a lot of room to grow.  Secondly, it was to see how Eric ran his workshop and glean from the experience some ideas for my workshops and photographic instruction.  Mind you, these were my goals: the very reason for signing up.  And when I got 'em, I didn't like it.  Be careful what you ask for, right?!  Have you ever been there?  Forgive the confession-booth feel of this, but it really is petty.  It may be a bit cliché, but without falling off the thingy, we can't try try again...or something like that.

Creepin' on Broadway and 9th

Creepin' on Broadway and 9th

As to the first desire: I wanted to be stretched photographically.  As part of the way the workshop is run, we shoot with a partner for quite a while, and then we meet back up with Eric for some one-on-two personal time.  So we hooked back up at 4:30 at a great coffee shop, exhausted from lots of walking and shooting.  My partner was the neatest young man, named Victor.  I'm so very grateful to have had time with him and look forward to more.  Workshops are a great place to meet others and build relationships within a discipline.  Anyhow, back to the coffee shop.  Eric came in as his energetic self, pumped to be there.  That man knows how to loosen you up real good with some bone crushing squeezes on the traps...say bye to tension!  "How's it going?  Let me see what you got!" Eric says.  Victor goes first.  His awesome use of flash is beyond my experience and envy and inadequacy starts to creep in.  Was I paired with Bruce Gilden or what?!  "I wanna do that," I say to myself. He ended up sharing with me some ideas about the use of flash, for which I am grateful.

Brutha Kim and my new friend, Victor

Brutha Kim and my new friend, Victor

Continuing, Eric is encouraging and offering constructive critique to Victor.  My turn, I'm up.  I can't pull the trigger and let him peep my unedited images on the SD card, so "Here are some on my phone."  I can tell he's trying to be of some comfort while being specific about what would make EVERY IMAGE I HAD better.  This is what a good teacher does, I know this, but in my prideful heart I despised correction, like a fool.  I wasn't angry, rather saddened.  It was a self-inflicted and unnecessary sorrow.  What I came to discover, no real epiphany, is that, had I heard Eric speaking to another person in the same way, I would only see him as being a great instructor.  But when we receive criticism, and he even forewarned us of this on his workshop page, I heard something else.  What I perceived was the long, and potentially rough, road ahead full of difficulty and obstacle.  But why not rather see the few steps of progress that had been made that day?  It's like when I was a waiter and only remembered the one terrible tip I got that night, as opposed to the overall bank roll I made.  Perspective is supposed to be in my bag of tricks as a photographer, right?  I forgot that for a time. Steeeriike one!

After some more image review with Eric, we went out for some specific photo instruction according to what he thought would suit us.  Without the details, it was an assignment that knocked me on my rear.  The reason for this is that it showed me, at least for this kind of image, that I'm much too squeamish as of now.  And worse, it was a squeamishness that was probably borne out of an elevated sense of self, not one based on my thoughts of others, for example.  What's the worst that could happen?  Maybe somebody tells me to not take a picture of them?  Moving on, Victor and I were lucky enough to practice with Eric and build some strength.  It was at dinner, with the great workshop crew, that I was stewing on my failure in the lesson, but again, this is the worst kind of pride.  Did I get an image or two that are on their way to being successful? Yes.  Did I learn a technique that I had not expressly thought of before?  Yes.  Do I have, Lord willing, many years to implement and modify it?  Yes.  That's a win, win, win, but at the time a lack of humility was of no benefit for extinguishing the fiery darts of the enemy.  Quite the contrary, really.  Strike two!

We had a great dinner for those that could stick around for it.  I got to speaking with Fred, who rocks!  He sensed some disappointment in my words, and maybe even my tone.  He had recently read a book that he thought was very inspiring.  He began to recount to me one of the most salient points, as he saw it.  Namely, to persevere.  Work on your passion regularly, maybe in small increments, but keep chiseling away.  Sage advice and I needed to hear it, especially in the odd state I was in amid all the smiles and rejoicing. Then came the kicker.  He said, "I mean, don't quit your day job or anything.  Just work on it in the evenings and maybe something will pan out in times ahead." Oops.  I already quit my day job.  It's not regret I speak of now, but as many might be able to relate to, when there's such a pressure other than the pursuit of beauty, bearing on your art...well...it's not quite as free as you'd like.  Strike three?  It felt like it, but I wasn't out yet.  It was late, there was another day of the workshop, and I had a ton of editing to do.  The boss wanted us to pare our images down from whatever all the way to five or so.  No time for enduring pity just yet. 

There is nothing noble in being superior to your fellow man; true nobility is being superior to your former self.
— Ernest Hemingway

Upon coming home, I received great encouragement from my better 7/8ths.  She strengthened me where I needed strengthening and corrected where I needed that too.  I felt pretty good about getting my 900-something images down to 22.  The next morning, Eric and some other attendees helped me further get it down to three.  It was said many times, you gotta "kill your babies."  It's a gruesome phrase, but I get the point.  We feel special things about our treasured images, but unless it's great, it has to go.  I need to learn this.  I need to obey this. 

I was energized after the morning session on the second day.  I had some good grabs from Saturday, and had a goal set for the day.  A couple of goals actually.  Victor and I shot around and emboldened each other.  The second shooting session helped me fill some gaps in my chosen project(s).  More than that, I received instruction and tough love.  Below are some of the takeaways.  Some are photographic in nature, some are business oriented. Some were explicit in the workshop, some only implied, and some were discovered on the streets of LA.  I'm sure there are a great many lessons to be learned on those streets.

  • Takeaway 1: Only the best for galleries.  People don't have gobs of time to look through images.  And those who you'd really like to see your images for professional reasons, like publishers or editors, receive tons of images already.  Plus, images in our culture are cheap.  They are everywhere, and there's many good ones out there.  Purging is very challenging since we are attached to our images.  We remember the smell of the street when we snapped it, the mood we were in, and the people we were with.  This all plays in to our fondness for them, but not the viewer.  How could it?  Maybe it's stubbornness, but I feel that, for example, to paint a picture of a city (in images) it would take more than the customary 12-15 frames.  Wish me luck!
  • Takeaway 2: Be serious about projects.  This ties in nicely with the first takeaway, because projects are more narrowly circumscribed than the many pictures that you may just happen to like.  It gives focus to shooting, challenges the eye while walking the streets, and as a bonus, can tell a coherent story in fewer images than a broader concept, like Long Beach.
  • Takeaway 3: Get closer.  I truly feel I've grown a lot in the ability to approach people and engage with them as I do street portraiture.  Still have some work in directing them.  I always feel like I'm taking too much of their time and bounce before I've nailed something I love.  That'll change with practice.  But the personalized lesson Eric gave prompted a strong desire to get closer.  Folks entering the frame at close range with an anchor, as he calls it, in the back...ooohhh, sweet!  But it's nerve wracking and difficult at first, so ask me if I've been strong if we talk ;-)
  • Takeaway 4: Shoot the people you love. I know, that sounds weird!  But the idea being to shoot images, in a street-like fashion practicing good technique, capturing life as it unfolds.  It was wisely pointed out, in essence, that the cobbler's kids should have shoes too.  Not only is it gonna be great artistic exercise, but this way there's a street or documentary vibe to the family pics way down the road.
  • Takeaway 5: Life is colorful.  My yet-to-be-purged street galleries are all black and white.  I still love it, so much so that it's hard to do anything other, but this LA workshop was irresistibly vivid.  In all honesty, images that were too busy and cluttered in monochrome, showed better in color.  I feel it's a matter of color blocks in the images creating categories that otherwise would not be there.  Thus, the visual data is organized by hues...pretty cool! By the way, put Takeaways 3 and 5 together, plus a grip of expertise, and you get Alex Webb who I'm glad to have heard of through the workshop...Amazing!
  • Takeaway 6: The beauty of humility.  This is obvious at this point, and really good wisdom for any area of life.  Have a strong philosophy, "be opinionated" as Eric stated, but none of us know it all, and all of us have lots of room for growth.  Maybe I can help you here, and you can definitely aid me there.  Not all the body members are hands, not all are feet, some are arms and others toes.  Just imagine if your belly had to scratch itself when it got itchy!

A special thanks to Eric, Victor, and the rest of the crew that were supportive and refining.  Hopefully our conversation can continue!

Compliments of Victor

Compliments of Victor