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Saturday, April 14, 2007


I'm just back from a trip to visit friends for a week—if the postings here have seemed a tad sporadic lately, that's the reason. While we were gone, Lulu went to stay at a kennel called Guardian Farm in Johnson Creek, Wisconsin, which is about midway between Milwaukee and the capital, Madison. The farm isn't far from the highway, but to get to it you have to get off the highway and tweedle around quite a bit, turning, twisting, moseying through old Johnson Creek (pop. 2,100) and looping under railroad trestles, finally crossing over the freeway again before doubling back to the farm, which is set in a valley between rolling hills. At one point I had to flag down a passing tractor to ask for directions, without realizing that the driver would have to climb down out of the cab to talk to me, an action I would personally have put into the category of "exercise," if it were me. (He looked to be about eighty, too.) Fortunately no other vehicles came along while we had the road blocked.

The experience was a bit traumatic for Lulu, I think. If she doesn't exactly live a pampered life with us, at least she's highly appreciated; but she was originally a foundling, a stray rescued from a perilous life scrounging what food she could find in a vast public park in Chicago, so she has memories of a much less secure existence. One can only guess what she thought of suddenly finding herself in a transformed situation again—this time confined to a small indoor/outdoor run with several dozen other dogs nearby. As a pack animal she's non-dominant, so she gets cowed and submissive around lots of dogs, and the attendant said she was submissive almost to the point of being fearful with the keepers. Lulu?

A few of the temporary denizens of Guardian Farm, Johnson Creek, Wisconsin

But the dogs boarding at Guardian seemed healthy and happy. You can't tell from this picture—this was the lineup sending her off as we took her out to the car—but every dog in this picture was barking enthusiastically and wagging its tail. It was a pleasant, almost amusing sight, those dozen or so tails all waving back and forth.

I meant to do a lot of photography on this vacation, but the spirit never quite caught. Not counting duplicates, I ended up taking only a dozen pictures—none of them more than an afterthought. I really am finding myself in a creative doldrums lately, and I don't really know why. I even took a portrait of my cousin's cat, and when I shoot cats (not that there's anything wrong with that), it's a clear indicator of malaise. I suspect it might be that, with a camera that records colors, I just naturally see—and photograph—colors, which would be fine except that color just doesn't happen to be what whets or satisfies my own particular creative appetite. But maybe that's not even it. I don't know. I'm going to have to work through this, though, one way or another.




Blogger Richard Ripley said...

HI Mike:

Here's to you working through the creative doldrums. When I get in a slump, I take walks and let life flow over me. It helps sometimes but not always. Anyway, whatever it takes, maybe a bowl of oatmeal every morning for a week?


10:11 AM  
Blogger Player said...

Mike, not sure if this will cheer you up, but your photography has "Mike Johnston" stamped all over it. To have developed your own style is something to be greatly appreciated. Just think, anything you point your camera at is the stuff of art.

11:39 AM  
Blogger Max said...

Mmmm, I just feel that my pictures are so "touristic" lately. Feeling producing more shots is an effort. But now I look back to such efforts and new framing or fresh perceptions show up. May be even the cat pics could metamorphose into something else than the original boredom. Is recycling a sin? Well, probably yes, but some of these look really good now.wbg

2:47 PM  
Blogger m. said...

You can take two basic approaches to overcoming a creative block like this. You can try to ignore it for a while and recharge yourself, or you can try to work your way out of it.

By ignoring it, I mean don't think about photography for a while. Think of it as a vacation. Let your subconscious worry about your photography in the background. In a week or so you'll feel fresher.

The idea behind working your way out of it is just to have fun without putting any pressure on yourself. Go out and make bad art. Shoot with a Holga/Diana/Lensbaby for a while. Shoot with a pinhole camera. Take hand-held portraits with 30-second exposures. Shoot purposely unfocused pictures. Shoot while swinging the camera around. Shoot Purposely Boring Postcards. Go out and imitate Walker Evans all day. Go out and imitate some photographer you don't like. You may not take anything worth keeping, but you'll hopefully have fun and you might get a spark of something that will help get you out of your doldrums.

2:57 PM  
Blogger E said...

i find that i have to get into color mode or black and white mode. i still shoot film and i am never able to shoot color and black and white at the same time (at least well). i think it has to do with getting you eye used to certain moments.

3:43 PM  
Blogger Mitch Alland said...

It seems to me that, unless you are exceptionally excited by, or interested in, the environment you're in, it's very difficult to find something inspiring or even interesting to shoot. This thought relates to my belief that there are two ways of shooting: trying to make "interesting pictures" or "shooting projects". The latter approach generates the most pictures; the former is much more subject to photographers cramp. And the ultimate photographer's cramp is not being able to find a new project that interests one.


3:45 PM  
Blogger Allen George said...

Hey! No knocking oatmeal - I love the stuff :)

3:58 PM  
Blogger Nimnar said...


Thanks for your superb blog. As a new photographer/enthusiast I've grown tired of the ubiquitous tech oriented photo sites. It does seem great photoblogs like yours are rare.

I find your book recommendations uplifting. All the best, Nimnar

8:02 PM  
Blogger dyathink said...

I read once about a student who told his photography instructor that he was depressed and didn't know what to shoot. The instructor said "shoot what you feel". I have been in a terrible funk lately and finally today, as the last ray of miserable gray light had almost faded to charcoal, i had the answer, shoot the stuff i felt was smothering me, make every single photo tell my story. I went back to digital basics and dug the D200 out of the closet, dusted it off, slammed a 50mm lens f1.4 lens on the thing and burst out of the front door with a vengeance. I knew exactly what and how i wanted to shoot and suddenly the subjects, compositions and lighting presented themselves as if they had all been waiting for me to come to my senses. I never made it past the front gate. Everywhere i looked there was something that pissed me off ;) Not only did i finally tap into a creative vein but i ID'd a project that will keep me busy for awhile.

There's lots of good advice coming your way in this thread. I think times of malaise, contemplation, reading, looking at the work of others, shooting cats, all that has a reason and purpose..and when it's time to start working again, your muse won't let you down..'she's' just waiting for you to find your way back to'll come out of this and shoot better then ever. I like the photo, by the way.

11:34 PM  
Blogger Mick Ryan said...

I was an early digital adopter. The Canon D30 digital slr (not to be confused with the 30D), was Canon’s first foray into affordable digital SLRs with a 3 megapixel sensor. It cost as much as a 5D today but I was lucky that I was working in advertising at the time and had money to spend.

I had been a keen photographer for quite a few years but had let it slip as being married and having a child meant no time for devloping and printing my own work. As I spent a lot of time in Photoshop and had a good ink jet printer digital seemed to be the way to go. The digital SLR looked like it was going to be the answer to my prayers.

I happened to be in San Francisco when the D30 was supposed to be launched and thought I could buy it cheap, sales tax in the USA being a fraction of Irish VAT. However the launch was delayed by quite a few months and all I was able to get was a look at a trade show (litereally ‘a look’ as it was in a glass case and no one was allowed to touch it). To my surprise I found my first question was “Can you shoot in B&W?” The sales rep immediately asked me if I was planning on saving memory space by doing so but I explained that it was not about memory space but when I shot film I mentally adjusted to thinking in B&W when I loaded a roll of B&W film into my camera and that I shot differently when I was thinking in B&W versus colour. Naturally the salesman neither had any interest nor understanding of what I was talking about.

But digital photography became a double edged sword when I first went digital. It reignited my interestest in photography as it was convenient and I was once again shooting regularly. On the other hand I was not shooting as well as I had before and now most of my work was in colour. I had a serious problem adjusting to shooting in B&W on a colour camera. In fact for quite a while most of my work was colour.

I’ve gotten over that and I’m back to being a predominently B&W photograper. Unfortunately I’m not 100% sure what helped. It may not be one single thing but more an accumulation of various changes in the way I worked. And the quality of my photogrpahy has increase in leaps and bounds because of it. The first factor is definitely buying the Canon 5D. Going back to a full frame sensor gave me the feeling of shooting on film again. I could never get my head round the the 1.6x crop adjustments for focal lengths of lenses. (OK, now I’m not advocating that every B&W photographer has to switch to a FF sensor nor am I ‘dissing’ APS-C size sensors, it’s just one of those things that worked for ME, so please don’t flame me). Secondly I switched to RAW rather than JPG format and read Bruce Frazer’s book on Photoshop RAW. It was an eye opener and really made me think of the RAW file as a negative that was only a starting place rather than a near finished picture. I also refined my Photoshop skills and rather than using more design based tools like I had been (using adjustment layers to get more or less contrast saturation etc), I went back to the darkroom and started masking and dodging and burning using curves to produce the effects I wanted. I was once again back to the pre visualisation stage I used when shooting on B&W film. It took a long time (D30, 10D, 20D, 5D) but once again I feel like I can mentally adjust to shooting for B&W even though I am using a colour sensor.

Unfortunately I doubt this will help you very much Mike but maybe there’s grain of something in there for you.

12:03 AM  
Blogger Paul Kierstead said...

Wallpaper is a quite interesting photograph. Perhaps you were not quite as stymied as you think.

It would also be interesting shot more .. formally (hard to describe), with everything very square, etc., sort of that large-format look (perhaps shoot it with LF...). Of course, I am just blathering here as the scene has a real catch (it would be interesting to explore) and in this case the colour really does add something.

7:58 AM  
Blogger Geoff said...

Mike -- think about setting up a completely B&W workflow based on RAW. Now, not every camera/software combo can do this, and I'm not sure what you're shooting with, but with my equipment and software, I can set things up so that, if I choose to, I'll never see pictures from a particular shoot in color if I don't want to. Coming from shooting primarily b&w film, this is huge. Here's an example (your mileage may vary like said according to your equip. and software):

On the Canon 5D I can set the color picture style, which only affects the JPEG the camera would take if I had it set up to (I almost never shoot JPEG, when I do it's in conjunction with a RAW), to black and white. That way, when I'm chimping, even if I'm shooting just RAW w/o a JPEG, I'll only see b&w on the LCD. OK, that's step one.

When I get home, I'll dump the RAW files (I know they're in color, bear with me) to my hard drive and point Phase One Capture One at the folder. But, before doing this, I'll set C1 up so the default profile for the 5D is a black and white profile. A few ship with C1 I think and there are others available from various places. I use the JFI Colorlabs ones that emulate specific emulsions (I'm currently favoring their HP5 profile).

Now when I process the RAWs, I'm only looking at black and white and they'll import as TIFFs into Photoshop in black and white. Again, I can tag all of the files in a particular folder with the JFI HP5 profile, so I'll only even see them in b&w. If I accidentally hit that folder with another RAW converter application, yeah then I'll see them in color, but I just try to avoid that.

There are many variations on this approach, from shooting a black and white low-res JPEG with every RAW and doing your selects that way, then changing, e.g., your Adobe Camera RAW default settings to a black and white look that you like all the way to the brute force method of (on the Mac anyway) setting your display to grayscale! That's right, Apple put in a nifty feature for those with impaired vision that will set the display to black and white for everything (it's in System Preferences --> Universal Access --> Display: Use grayscale (it's a checkbox). Not the most flexible solution, but if you absolutely don't want to see your downloaded RAWs in color, this is one way to do it. I'm sure there are many others as well. Hope this helps.

9:12 AM  
Blogger eolake said...

I coined a new phrase: "as exciting as watching the wallpaper grow."

But actually I like the wallpaper picture a lot.

2:51 PM  
Blogger Albano Garcia said...

I like the wallpaper shot! Fortunately I don't have your problem since I only shoot color, and I don't need to seek for color as a subject matter, it just happens to be there in reality...
I have a twin shot too:

3:37 PM  

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