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Being Creative When We've Forgotten How

Back in February, I gave a talk about creativity at the Kellar Mahaney Gallery. Here's that talk edited down to a 10 minute version.


Starting Somewhere. Beginning a New Project.

I've started a new photography project. I'm setting up the images as an allegory for entering the unknown. A friend asked me about how projects begin, so I thought I'd talk through this one as an example.

The idea for this project was sparked by a comment during a critique of my work. The reviewer was looking at a landscape image with a layered composition. The middle layer, containing a tree, was in focus, but the foreground and background were blurred. He said that it made him feel inside the image. A week later, I wondered: If an image can place a viewer inside, then what's the journey like that gets you inside, and then beyond? How does one enter and become familiar with the unknown? In that moment, the question became intensely intriguing. I can't tell you why other than it seemed to bring together several threads that had been in my head and in my life. It was an "ah ha!" moment.

I find that new projects tend to start this way, as a tangential thought that grows into an obsession. The critic's comment wasn't really related to the new project, but it was enough of a little shove to have me notice a new path.

It took two or three weeks after that before I took a picture. I was hesitant to start, because taking a picture might kill the idea. Having a project idea doesn't mean I actually have a project. It's just a hunch that may or may not work out. I was really exited about this particular hunch and I didn't want to start taking pictures just to find out that I couldn't pull it off.

I took pictures over two months and edited them down to a printed portfolio. There's a really wonderful moment after the first few prints when you realize that the project could actually work. In the past month, I've been using this portfolio as a proof of concept. I have a feeling that I'll be shooting for this project for another year or two. But, I've got enough to illustrate the concept and I needed some feedback. This is the first time I've intently sought this much reaction early on and it's been very helpful. I've had some long, intense conversations over these images. I'm grateful for comments like, "this image really makes me feel...", and "I really don't get what you're trying to do with these two." I'm getting a better grasp of which methods better fit the concept. Some of it is about editing and sequencing. Some of it is about trying out a different approach.

I'm going to let these conversations ferment for a bit, maybe for another week or two. And then, I should go and take more pictures.

Passing The Days

In the past several weeks, I:

Smelled spring flowers.
Worked on a new photo project about entering the unknown.
Went camping in the Smokey Mountains.
Saw stars in the sky.
Worked 60 and 70 hour weeks, got burnt out.
Sat on my butt and felt like I squandered my time.
Had a yard sale in 40° weather, just after a string of 80° days.
Walked in a creek with my fifteen month old daughter.
Lost sleep by judging a friend too soon.
Witnessed a new friend pull her life together.
Rode my bike to work.
Hugged my sister, whom I haven't seen in a year.
Saw someone cry from viewing one of my photographs.

FotoFest Meeting Place 2010 - part 2

I wrote part 1 about two months ago. Better late than never, here are some of the photographers I met at FotoFest. I appreciated their work, insight and worthwhile company. Check them out:

Jessica Auer

Megan Cump

Stephen Gross

Amanda James

Mark Malloy

Dana Miller

Carolyn Monastra

Whitney Vosburgh

FotoFest Meeting Place 2010 - part 1

Last week, I traveled to Houston, Texas to participate in the FotoFest Meeting Place portfolio review. I was assigned nineteen reviews over four days. Each review is a twenty minute one-on-one meeting with photo publishers, gallery owners and museum curators. I've talked to artists that work in other mediums and none of them knew of any similar events outside of photography. This was my first review event. After going, I'm still amazed that these types of gatherings exist.

The evening before the first day of reviews, I went to a welcome reception for the participants. I met a photographer that had recently participated Review LA, a well respected event in Los Angeles. He said that it went well, but he was nervous about FotoFest. I asked why, assuming that LA would have prepared him for what to expect here. Oh no, Fotofest is the "big one", he replied. Oh, I said. Oh my, said the voice in my head.

Weeks before, I was torn on what images to bring. What size should the prints be? How many? Should I bring newer work or older work? I asked fellow photographers. I asked a couple of art dealers. They all had different opinions. I ended up bringing images from two projects, "Where the Fairies Are" and "Little Pieces All Together". I brought more images than I would actually present, so I could do a final edit once I got there. I ended up showing about fifteen images from each series, printed at 12"x18". The prints were collected in a black folio box. I also brought three 22"x33" prints rolled in a tube.

The reviews take place in a hotel banquet room. The photographers wait outside until their session time and then all rush in together to find their reviewer among the forty-some tables in the room. I find my first reviewer, a gallery owner. We make introductions and I sit down. The room is loud with forty simultaneous conversations. The reviewer slowly flips through my images. She starts to make a comment, and I lean in to better hear what she's saying. This is really wonderful work, she says. I'll definitely be in touch. My shoulders relax a little and I smile.

Of course, not everyone was as enthusiastic. One reviewer slowly flipped through all my images, paused for several seconds and took a deep breath. He said, how do I put this.... this work you have, it is not art. Then it's my turn for the deep breath. OK, I've come here to learn. He articulately explained why and then suggested several ways to make the work better. I listened. He was one of the more critical reviewers, but he may have also been one of the most useful.

I had high expectations for Meeting Place and it turned out even better than I expected. The preparation, time and expenses were well worth it. It's hard to imagine a better way to get so much high quality feedback in a such a concentrated amount of time. After four days, I was exhausted. In between the reviews I chatted and shared work with the other photographers. In the evenings we went to some of the many FotoFest exhibits around town. Even without the reviews, meeting the other photographers and seeing the exhibits would have been worth the trip. I'll be saying more about that in the next post.

Snow Day - Images from the Grand Tetons

I'm excited to announce a new series of work, presented as a solo exhibition at Kellar Mahaney Gallery. All the images are from one day in the Grand Tetons. I previously wrote about that day here. Here's the info:

Andy Chen: Snow Day
Opening reception Feb 5, 5-9pm
exhibit continues through Mar 6
Kellar Mahaney Gallery, Zionsville, IN

Snow Day is a series of photographs taken among the Grand Tetons in Wyoming on an afternoon's walk to Taggart Lake.  We were nineteen days into a two-month wilderness road trip in October of 2008 and these photos capture the season's very first snow.

In the months prior, we converted a Chevy cargo van into a camper, outfitting it with a pop-up top, bed, stove, bathroom, backpacking gear and guitar. I brought along my camera and my wife Hannah (who was five months pregnant then) brought along a sense of adventure.

There isn't anything much better than fresh snow to pique my curiosity of transitions, mystery and wonder. We had hiked for several days before in wearing, drizzling rain.  We went to bed in anticipation and we woke up to a frosted landscape.  It was a snow day.

INVision Casserole: Opening Friday


INvision Casserole 2010 is here, with a reception this Friday. I'll be showing a few pieces from an ongoing project of portraits taken with my cell phone camera.

There'll be new work from nine photographers. Come on out and join us. I'll be bringing a breakfast casserole to add to the delicious offerings. We'll eat with our mouths and eyes and warm each other's hearts. How 'bout that!



Fairies Footage - part 2

A couple of videos of me describing "Stone Table" and "Moss". The opening reception is tonight at wUG LAKU's STUDIO & gARAGE. If you're near Indianapolis, there are some wonderful exhibits opening tonight for the First Friday Art Tour. Come on out for a great night around town.

View three more videos in Fairies Footage - part 1.

Fairies Footage

Earlier this week, Wug Laku and I discussed the Where The Fairies Are exhibit as Pete Brown took video.


Where the Fairies Are opening at Wug Laku's

"Where the Fairies Are" is opening as a gallery show! It would be my pleasure to have you join me at Wug Laku's Studio and Garage this Friday for the opening reception.

Where the Fairies Are
Opening reception Dec 4. 6-10pm
Wug Laku's Studio and Garage
Circle Center Industrial Complex
1125 Brookside Ave C7, Indianapolis, IN
Exhibit continues through December 23 January 23, 2010



Shows, Walks, Water

It's been awhile since the last post. I don't have an editor watching over my blog so that frees me to subject you to a rambling update.

The outdoor art festival season has finished for the year. There were a crazy few weeks, including a two week stretch where I participated in three art fairs and two gallery shows. Whew. Along the way, I was selected for a few awards, a nice surprise:

Best in Show - Penrod Arts Fair
Best of Show - Carmel International Arts Festival
Second Place - St. James Court Art Show 3rd St Section

With the art fairs waning, I got reacquainted with having free weekends. Let me tell you, it is so nice to have free weekends. Off to the woods we went. We had some nice overnights in the Hoosier National Forest and around Lake Michigan.


During one of the days at Lake Michigan, I took some casual shots that I didn't think would amount to much. But after I got home, something unexpected about them stood out. Ideas come like that sometimes. When I'm not even serious, something different is revealed that could lead to a significant direction.


Up next: I'm participating in two holiday shows, one tomorrow and another next Friday. I wanted to offer something geared towards gift giving, so I've been making small prints framed to 8x10". Until now, I haven't ever shown my work so small. But, now seeing the completed work - they're really fun. After years of making bigger and bigger prints, it's nice to have something little and intimate. You can hold it in the palm of your hands.

Also, I'm teaching a Digital Fine Art Printing Workshop next weekend. There are still openings available. You can find the details about the holiday shows and the printing workshop at my events page.

And last, but not least: My project, Where the Fairies Are will be exhibited next month at Wug Laku's Studio and Garage. Whoohoo! More details to come.

The Fairies Are Live

A Chance Meeting

A Chance Meeting - from Where The Fairies Are

My project Where The Fairies Are is now on the gallery section of the website. View it here.

I've been exploring themes of enchantment for a few years now, so you may guess that I'm really quite excited to present a collection of this work.

These photographs portray natural settings as more than what we expect them to be. They are a hope of things mystical and mysterious. If fairies existed, where would they be? They would be on the edge of a world that is breaking into ours. They would be among the miraculous that we take as mundane.

There will be opportunities to see pieces from this collection in the next couple of months. I'll keep you posted.


Perfect Lighting Is A Distraction

Gestures And Dreams

Gestures and Dreams - from Where the Fairies Are

I am a lazy photographer. People will view a dramatically lit image of mine and say, "Wow, how long did you have to wait for the light in that one?" I'd respond, "I don't know. Maybe two minutes." Even that may be an exaggeration. I pretty much don't wait for the light. Sorry, all you patient nature photographers. My apologies especially to the wildlife guys. They wait

I didn't use to be this way. The first year I took up photography as a hobby, I saw more sunrises than the rest of of my life combined. I would scout out a location before and then return in the dark just before dawn. I'd stand there eyes still bleary with sleep. I'd setup my camera and tripod, rub my hands to warm them and wait for the light to be just right.

Waiting for light goes something like: find and frame a subject, anticipate lighting and then wait until that light arrives. But not anymore. Why not? Let's consider the act of looking and a story of a street musician.

During morning rush hour, an anonymous violinist set up in a Washington DC subway station. He played for 43 minutes as 1097 people passed by. Of those 1097, 7 people stopped for about a minute to listen. The musician was world renowned violinist Joshua Bell, playing on a 3.5 million dollar violin. He played music that only three days earlier was played to a packed theater of $100 seats. You can read the full story here.

Most everyone, 99.4% of the people, walked by without pausing. Joshua Bell is one of the best classical musicians in the world. He was playing some of the finest pieces ever composed. What happened? The people in the subway station were on their way to somewhere else. They were distracted by a predetermined destination. They were waiting for the light and they missed Joshua Bell.

Guess what, there is always something interesting happening. Have you heard of the movie, Microcosmos? It's a gorgeous documentary showing insect life. Who knew there was so much wonder in grassy bits around me? I rarely think of it. In fact I miss out all the time.

With my typical subject matter, there is so much interesting around me that something nearby already has the "perfect" light, waiting for me to notice. If I'm in a state of mind to appreciate what's around me, then I just need to look. There's so much unplanned goodness that I have too much to photograph before I'm in a situation where I feel the need to plan for lighting.

Beyond the Decisive Moment


Moss - from the series Where the Fairies Are

A photograph captures a moment in time. It would seem to follow that a photographer would want to create images that depict a special moment, where the viewer can savor the nuances of that slice of time. Photojournalists are inspired by the "decisive moments" captured by Henri Cariter-Bresson. Landscape photographers retell the story of Ansel Adams capturing quickly passing light for his most popular image, Moonrise, Hernandes. Think of the artist waiting for just the right expression in a face, or seeking that magic sunrise hour on the side of a mountain.

There's a problem with this approach. The camera may be capturing a fleeting arrangement of light, but I don't want to draw your attention to a specific moment. I want the story. I want your mind to fill in what happened the days, months or years that could have led up to the image. And, when your eyes turn away I want you to know that the story continues.

We know this already, don't we? For the climax to be effective, we need the context of what happened before and how events may resolve after. Well, what if I don't want my photograph to even show the climax? What if I just want to give you a sense of the journey?

Step into the journey. The moments will come. I don't need to show a special moment to you, because they're there all along.


Where The Fairies Are

The Stone Table

I've been putting together a body of work exploring the notion of fairies. Not so much what they are, but why we may need them and what would it be like if we had it in mind to actually look. A couple of years ago, I wrote about the process of re-enchantment. I'll be posting some more entries on the topic and new images from this series. For now, let us let the story begin...

Where the Fairies Are

There is a wonder in the world around us, a wonder that has been neglected and obscured. In the bustle of our lives, we have let that sense of wonder decay. We have become strangers with the notion of enchantment. To discover something enchanting is to take in, in a way that changes the very representation of the thing.

These photographs portray natural settings as more than what we expect them to be. They are a hope of things mystical and mysterious. If fairies existed, where would they be? They would be on the edge of a world that is breaking into ours. They would be among the miraculous that we take as mundane.

Perhaps by imagining, we can bring into existence what is already there, waiting for us to become re-enchanted.

"Earth's crammed with heaven,
And every common bush afire with God,
But only he who sees takes off his shoes;
The rest sit round it and pluck blackberries"
- Elizabeth Barrett Browning