Paying Attention to What Has Your Attention

“If you don’t pay appropriate attention to what has your attention, it will take more of your attention than it deserves.”

David AllenGetting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity

I love the quote above from David Allen, the productivity guru most well known for Getting Things Done or the ‘GTD System’. It’s so right, on so many levels. Ignore the things that you should be doing and they will demand your attention, even if only to stop you from sleeping because you’re thinking about those issues as you try to nod off.

It was this David Allen quote that I was mindful of when I was away in Martha’s Vineyard a week or so ago but really in a very different way.  I do find it difficult to photograph if I’m not fully present and this can take some time to get to if there’s all kinds of other stuff unrelated to the scene in front of me that I’m thinking about.  Fortunately I have no problem quieting everything else to focus on what’s in front of me, although it can take 15 – 20 mins and a couple of hundred frames to get into the zone.

What I am aware of though, is that I can be so intently focused on the scene that I have framed that I frequently ignore the moments when my intuition tells me there’s a great photograph to be had. This could be paying attention to some stuff that I would consider to be a little weird – such as the image of the shells and seaweed above – and would normally walk by, simply reframing from the position that I’m already in or could involve a bit of a wander to get to a place where the light is doing interesting things.

How clear what the photograph is also varies – it can be crystal clear or could take a bit of work to get there. The work usually typically involves simplifying the image so that it has just the elements critical for whatever caught my eye, whether it was interesting light, a vivid color or something odd happening such as how the waves came together in the image below.

I feel that some of my better photographs have been in response to listening to my intuition and so, as is the case in many aspects of life, paying attention to what has your attention is equally applicable to photography and is a work in progress for me.

Beach Rope

Although I do my best to make sure that I am up and out shooting on mornings when I’m likely to get ‘good light’ there are those days that I just don’t get it right.  This morning was a good example of that.  I had been expecting to add to my collection of photos of rocks at the waters edge but as it got lighter, or rather as it didn’t get much lighter I realized that the weather forecast of partial cloud cover must have been for somewhere else!  In reality there’s no such thing as bad light, only light that’s not appropriate for your subject.  With the even light that comes with cloudy mornings I turned my attention to the beach – patterns in the sand and anything else  could find.  I’m not sure what the story is behind this rope – how long has it been part of the beach scene?, where did it come from?, will it be uncovered the next time I visit? – but it was a willing subject on a day when I thought I was going to have to go home without making a frame.

Sunrise on Glacial Erractics

One of the beaches that we went to when I first moved to Boston’s south shore is littered with large rocks.   They are an odd sight on an otherwise normal shoreline and were certainly something of a curiosity for me, having never seen anything like them before.  They are  glacial erratics, rocks that are out of place in terms of size and shape for the other rocks found in that area and that were transported as part of a glacier.  I’m quite taken with these as subjects for my photos, which means I’ll return frequently until I’ve had my fill.  It could be quite a while.

On this particular morning I had been trying out some wider views.  I walked away to see whether I could get an image of a single rock and as I walked back down the beach I saw the image shown above.

Musical Metaphors: Creating a New Portfolio

I think that the joys and frustrations that we experience as photographers are common to many of the creative arts, whether they are the visual arts, literature or music.  Having said that, it is remarkable how many photographers have a background in music.  Ansel Adams had intended on becoming a concert pianist before photography interceded.  He must have been drawing on this background when he said that ‘The Negative is the score, The Print is the performance’.  I’ve heard or read this quote a number of times and when I came across it most recently I wondered how far this musical metaphor could be pushed.

If we stay with Ansel for a moment, he also said that 12 masterpieces in a year would be a good crop.  This would be similar to a rock band or recording artist coming up with a new album in a year.  Of course to get to that new album the band may have tried out a few new songs with the audience on their last tour (similar to how we get feedback on comments by posting on Flickr, Blogs or other websites) before secluding themselves in a recording studio to come up with the final album.

The process of recording the album would then start by weeding out the songs that have been written with the album in mind that are either weak or that don’t fit well with the other keepers.  This is very much akin to the process that one might go through to develop a strong new portfolio.  To do that we review collections of our images to ensure that the images all support the portfolio theme and are of equal quality.

Our fictional band aren’t in the studio alone, they are working with a producer.  The role of the producer can vary, but at best the producer is the there to make sure that the band come up with the best album that the band is capable of producing.  For many of us this role is played by a mentor, but could also be from feedback we get from gallery owners or show juries.

The ability to come up with songs of any worth at all is underscored by commitment to practice.  It’s expected that musicians will practice everyday for a few hours, whether it’s scales, riffs or a whole new song.  So how do you practice your photography?  We should work with our cameras until we understand every function inside and out, so that we can change any function of the camera without taking our eye from the viewfinder.  This only comes through regular use – daily practice.  So get all your gear out and play with it!

A number of issues have been limiting my ability to get out and photograph – principal among these has been the fact that the weather has been shocking recently.  While this can result in very dramatic light it can also mean no obvious sunrises, grey skies and flat light.  My response to this has been to find subjects around the house that I can work on.  I’ve started making a series of photographs of things that I find when I’m at the beach – ‘Beach Artifacts’.  The image here is the first of these, a pair of starfish that had washed up after the recent storms that passed through the area.