Competitive Art? I’m Not Really a Fan.

I’m not a competitive person at all, never have been really. I played organized sports back when I was in school, but to be completely honest, I liked the training processes more than the competition itself. Of all the sports I participated in back in the day, individual type activities like track and field best suited my personality.

Since then, my pursuits have been oriented to those more individual type endeavours. I’ve been fortunate to have enjoyed a long career of backcountry skiing, mountain biking, climbing and trail running, and to this day I get far more out of a day when I can just go out and have fun and not feel like I need to measure myself against others.

I also typically take my trusty camera along with me to the backcountry. Beyond the obvious photo opportunity reasons, it tends to slow me down, forces me to look more closely at my surroundings and keeps me completely tied to the present. Most importantly though, it’s my creative outlet of choice.

I’ve always considered photography a form of art, but in the past several years I think I’ve come to appreciate photography as an art form. Instead of simply looking at a photograph for only the visual aspects, I try to imagine why a photographer paused to take a photo in the first place. Why did they feel the need to capture it? Was it something truly personal or just something to make money?  Maybe what’s in the frame is less important than what’s NOT in the frame, and what could that something be?

Because I strongly believe that art is truly a creative reflection of the artists themselves, I’ve never really been fond of art “competitions”, but then again, I’m not competitive. Art is 100% subjective at its core, so how can there really be a universal measure of what is good or bad, right or wrong? Some of the most iconic photographs ever taken have not adhered to the rule of thirds, had balanced light, had perfect bokeh, etc., yet they’ve managed to capture an immeasurable or esoteric quality that rendered them universally appealing. How do you measure that? Of course this very subject is covered extensively in one of my favourite books titled “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance” by Robert Pirsig.  

We are all unique individuals with our own unique experiences and perspectives in life. Similarly, we are also unique in our way of interpreting art. There is no right or wrong, good or bad, winner or loser, only individual interpretation.

When I really stop and think about it, art is the most basic form of self-expression and maybe even a creative manifestation of the photographer’s entire life. Art is art. Wouldn’t it be nicer for everyone if there were a little less competition and a lot more simple appreciation of it?

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Liberating Crabs

One of my favourite books of all time is Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert Pirsig. If you haven’t read it, it’s a fantastic book about the metaphysics of quality. I think what resonates most with me is Mr. Pirsig’s discussion of how people learn and why some people excel and some will struggle with conventional education methods. Reflecting on my own education (formal and “life” education), I clearly see how and why I do better at some things and struggle with others.

I’m definitely an experiential learner. Instead of someone just telling me something is fact and accepting it as such, I prefer chasing things down random paths to see where it’ll take me. Maybe that’s my curious nature, but I personally feel like I need to do that so I’ll have a complete understanding of the situation. I even refuse to use that driving app thing (Siri?) because I need to look at a real map and feel like I have a relational connection to where I am. I may take a wrong street every now and again, but that also helps me learn for future reference.

An artist friend of mine turned me on to another great book called The War of Art by Steven Pressfield. The book is a discussion of how our society doesn’t nurture creative thinking, but instead migrates toward conformity. In one example, he equates the creative process to crabs in a bucket. If you put a bunch of crabs in a bucket, it’s more than likely one or two could easily get out. However, before they can liberate themselves, the others will inevitably pull the non-conformists back in. Same with creatives. If someone thinks outside the norms, maybe doesn’t adhere to the Rule of Thirds in a photograph for instance, it makes the majority all twitchy and they will do their best to drag them back into conformity. This says more about the insecurities of those pulling the creatives back in than it does about the creatives themselves, right?

I follow a couple of photographers on YouTube and noticed they’ll sometimes set up their tripod in a crowded place and start shooting. I have to admit the thought of that makes my skin crawl. All I can see are those armchair experts (crabs) coming over to give their two cents on composition, lighting or whatever.

I’m pretty confident overall with my skill and vision, but there again, I need my clear, unfettered space to think through things in my own way, wander around aimlessly when necessary, make mistakes and grow my understanding of things without the distraction of crabs trying to pull me back in the bucket. I already think my creative time and space is extremely limited so having that time altered tends to make me less than happy.

Yesterday saw some impressive storm clouds building to the west so I decided to go out to shoot a couple of compositions I’d spotted over the past couple of weeks. This was unfortunately near a well-used hiking and biking trail. Before I could talk myself out of it though, I loaded up my camera backpack, jumped on my mountain bike and headed over to the mountain parks adjacent to my house.

Naturally, at the very place I wanted to set up, I noticed a few trail runners, mountain bikers and hikers in the area. I hesitated for a second, thinking I’d come back another time, but got to setting up my tripod and went about my business of composing the shot I wanted. Fortunately, nobody stopped for anything longer than to reiterate what a beautiful day it was. I have to admit, once I got going in my thought processes, I didn’t even notice any additional people who may have come by.

I admittedly made a couple of silly mistakes using some new gear I’d just acquired, but I stayed the course while sorting out the whys and why nots of what was happening and eventually got what I wanted. With that said, the next time out I’m confident I’ll be better for learning the way I do best, even in a crab bucket.

Climb high. Ski fast. Pedal far. Live simply.