My Photographic Process

Some tips and tricks for making better photographs.

Here’s a photo I posted on Facebook (by way of Instagram):

Haviland Pond

Lots of friends “liked” it and a few commented. One comment in particular stuck in my mind:

How do you capture light as you do? No, don’t answer. I’m content believing you have some magic.

The magic, if there be any, consists in the miracle of consciousness and attentiveness. I approach a composition as a little meditation, full of gratitude and reverence for the moment, and I am rarely let down. I love that other people enjoy my work and think I have a special talent, but I believe that making beautiful pictures and movies is a learnable skill. Anyone with the will—and access to a few essentials—can cultivate a style all their own and a powerful body of work. In this spirit, I share some of the techniques and approaches that work for me.

Choose your subject matter

Mount Norwottuck, as seen from Mount Pollux

The subject matter I’m most interested in is the light. Indeed, it is the fundamental ingredient in photography. I like the way sunlight plays on natural environments, and in some cases the human-made structures that occupy them. I especially love the quality of light and shadow that the sun makes in the early morning and late afternoon. I rarely use a flash. I love dramatic clouds.

I live in a bucolic area, so I have access to a lot of natural beauty. You may live in a city or a desert or somewhere else, and that is fine. The sun doesn’t discriminate. Figure out a subject that resonates with you, and continue to photograph it at different times, in different seasons, and from different angles. Back in art school I heard this referred to as “thematic development.” Eventually your oeuvre will emerge.

I don’t often publish photos of people. Partly this is out of respect—I don’t particularly like for people to publish photos of me unless I’ve approved them. I do take a lot of portraits for my private collection. Mostly, it’s that I’m more interested in studying and photographing landscapes, which predated humans, and will probably outlive us.

If your situation is such that getting out into the wild isn’t practical, you could make an interesting series of photos of nothing but things lying around your basement or kitchen, or of origami sculptures you’ve made. Or clouds. Play around, and be creative.

Scout a good location

Pond in the woods

Once again, this relates to attentiveness. In the course of my daily travels I encounter dozens of spots that I look forward to photographing. Sometimes I’ll leave early or stay late, and allow myself a little extra time to explore. Other times, I’ll make a mental note to return to a particular spot at a different time. Obviously, if you’re scouting a particular scene and you see a double rainbow, a thick bank of fog, a moose, or a tree about to fall, drop whatever you are doing and take that picture now.

Oftentimes I see a scene and mull it over in my mind a while before I actually get out on foot (or bicycle) to capture it. How is the subject situated? Cows on a hillside might make a nice picture, but will they be back-lit later in the afternoon (i.e., with golden highlights across their backs)? If so, that might make for a better composition, so I’ll plan to come back later, or on another day. Similarly, a perfect mountain photo might be made even more perfect if taken on a day when the sky is filled with clouds.

Study interesting compositions

Barn interior

Photography can be a lot like juggling. There are so many things to think about and keep in balance in a single moment. It’s a little overwhelming at first. But keep practicing and it will become second nature. Think about exposure (the overall amount of light in a scene), contrast (the relationship between the light and the dark), saturation (the intensity of color), focus, texture, conceptual juxtaposition (e.g., natural vs. human-made), and compositional balance. This last one is subjective, but there are some rules of thumb that can help.

Mt. Tom. Rule of Thirds illustration.

One such rule is the so-called “Rule of thirds.” It’s one of those esoteric principles like the Fibonacci sequence (on which the golden rectangle is patterned) that occurs in nature, and resonates with us on a subconscious level. The idea is that you divide your picture plane (whether it be a rectangle or a square) into imaginary vertical and horizontal thirds. The four resulting points where the dividing lines intersect are where the most compositional excitement occurs. It’s a rule that can be broken, of course, but it does provide an anchor for locking in on a great composition. Sometimes I will move forward or backwards until some combination of elements in the viewfinder align with these points and lines.

If a composition has a horizon line, I usually try to keep it as horizontal as possible. If the angle is off by a little, an app might help to fix the photo after it’s taken.

Know your equipment

Icicles

Most of the time I use an iPhone 6 Plus, and a combination of a few apps. I have a “real” camera (an Olympus OM-D E-M5 Mark II—crazy naming scheme) that I use when I want to control depth of field, experiment with different lenses, zoom in on subjects, or make a long night-time exposure. But the advantages of the iPhone camera are obvious: I can take a picture, do a little editing, and post it on the web without going through the rigamarole of getting to a computer, connecting cables, managing files, etc. The computer workflow is great for a certain kind of work, but it’s not my main workflow for everyday posting. The adage “the best camera is the one you have with you” is so true. Fortunately, the iPhone camera is a pretty good camera to “happen to have with me” most of the time.

If you don’t have a great camera, fear not. A lot can be done with whatever you’ve got. Even a homemade pinhole camera can make some amazing photos.

Edit

This might sound strange, but I usually take anywhere from three to around a dozen shots for every one that I publish. I like to try different angles and exposures until one seems “just right.” Needless to say, I turn off the feature in apps like Dropbox and Flickr that offer to upload all of the photos I take.

forestdale

My secret weapon is the Pro HDR X app. It takes two exposures in succession—one metered on the highlights and the other on the shadows—and overlays them. The catch is that to use this app successfully you have to stand shock-still for a second while the app takes the two exposures. With this app, I have no qualms about taking pictures looking directly into the sun.

I also like to use the Aviary app for general post-processing, like cropping, straightening the horizon, sharpening, blurring, color-balancing, etc.

I initially capture images in full color, but sometimes a composition will benefit from being converted to black and white. My favorite tool for doing this is the Vint B&W app. Of all the apps I’ve tried, this one offers the best tonal sensitivity. Its photos most closely approximate the look of real black and white film photos taken through an amber or red glass filter.

I’m not a big fan of using retro “filters” on most of my shots, but I make exceptions on a case-by-case basis. Often the Pro HDR app will deliver exactly the look I want, right out of that app. If you happen to use a less-capable camera, then a filter might enhance your shots. Follow your gut.

Publish the work

Ludlow as seen from the bridge to Indian Orchard

Right now I like Instagram. At first I had mixed feelings about being limited to the square format, but I’ve grown to like it. The square is a great canvas in its own right, but it works particularly well on today’s mobile web, where you’re never sure how people will be viewing your photos (phone, tablet, or computer).

Often I mirror my Instagram pictures to Facebook, where they receive more feedback than they do on Instagram itself. Sure, Facebook can sometimes be a sea of unedited thought, sensationalism, commercialism, and privacy violation. But it’s possible for the cream to rise to the top and become a signal among the noise. A thoughtfully illustrated post by a real person with purity of intention will easily hold its own against a typical click-bait article. If I manage to add a bright spot to someone’s day with one of my pictures, then I will have succeeded. For some reason I’m not compelled to post every day or even every week. There needs to be some digestion time—I just post whenever it feels right.

Flickr is another service I use, but only half-heartedly these days. Back when I first joined (2007) the interface was a lot more functional and less cumbersome. But as of this writing, both the iPhone app and the desktop website feel a little heavy-handed in their emphasis of the slick user interface at the expense of easy access to the photos and community features. That slickness quickly falls apart as soon as you try to use your browser’s back button, or scroll to the bottom of a page. As Jeremy Keith succinctly put it, “Infinite scroll. A footer. Choose one.

But Instagram has a flow that feels light, simple, and unfettered, so that platform is where I’m publishing most of my photos now.

Video is another matter. All the aforementioned services—Instagram, Facebook, and Flickr—compress and degrade video quality to an extreme degree (if I can even get video to load on Flickr). Vimeo, on the other hand, does web video right. YouTube offers pretty good encoding quality, but there is little control over what shows up after your video plays. I’ll write more about video in the future.

I could of course post all of my photos here on my own website. But it wouldn’t be as much fun without the social features and the attentive audiences offered by one of the social networks.

Above all, enjoy the process of taking pictures and sharing them. Thanks for reading.

A Tree for All Seasons

A fond farewell to my old friend, the oak tree.

This is the last photograph I will ever publish of this old oak tree, and the lovely meadow over which it presides. I’m not bored with the subject; who could ever tire of looking at clouds like these? No, the reason I will never photograph this place again is that it is slated to become a Walmart store.

I was devastated when I learned the news. I have come to revere this old tree as one would an elderly person sitting on a park bench, seemingly marginalized and passed over by a fast-paced world, but exuding a quiet confidence that tells a thousand stories.

This is not an indictment of Walmart. Despite criticisms that one could (and many do) levy against the giant, Walmart is a business. It is doing exactly what it is supposed to do; exactly what we the people tell it to do. Nor is it an indictment of the host city. Holyoke, one of the poorest cities in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, would benefit (at least in the short term) from the jobs and the tax revenue. This is more of an indictment of a modern society that values convenience over open space and natural beauty. And in this sense, it is an indictment of myself. I have shopped at Walmart before, and at some point I probably will yet again. Every dollar I spend is a vote for the kind of world I want to live in. In my own small way, I will have helped to kill this tree.

I generally prefer to support independent local retailers over “big box” stores. Sure, the service at a small business might take longer and cost a little bit more, and the selection of products may be limited. But the overall quality of the shopping experience feels more human, as does the sense of shared connection with our community and respect for our environment. But is it enough to support our local retailers? Or do we need to more closely examine the impact of satisfying all our commercial desires? At some point way back in the Twentieth Century, Walmart started out as the quintessential local retailer with one store: Sam Walton’s Five and Dime. And now, scaled up by orders of magnitude, look what “shopping local” hath wrought.

I am under no illusion that I’ll be able to stop the relentless forward march of the bulldozer. Our modern, convenience-addicted society demands more goods, lower prices, and stores that are closer to us. Never mind that we already have everything we need: the Holyoke Mall, a CVS pharmacy, a Kmart, a Bed Bath & Beyond, a Petco, a Barnes & Noble, and a Stop & Shop grocery store are all located within a mile of this soon-to-be Walmart. Competition is the name of the game here. My hope is that Walmart and its developer will see a little bit of the same magic that I see in my friend the oak tree, and will find a way to spare it. Can you imagine parking lots peppered with old-growth shade trees? I can.

To be perfectly honest, my photos of this meadow are somewhat fictional. What you don’t see—what I prefer to exclude with my camera’s lens—is the yucky stuff: the “no trespassing” sign at the field’s border, the impenetrable brush, and the doubtless thousands of mosquitoes and ticks that it harbors. The surrounding neighborhoods are nothing special either: some modest ranch houses on small lots; a few downtrodden apartment complexes; a handful of businesses; a fire station. And hidden beyond the precipice at the far end of the field is yet another shopping center. The whole place is sort of an oxymoron: a busy road in the middle of a pseudo-industrial limbo that used to be farmland.

But I find such oxymorons intriguing, and I have learned to train my camera on them at every opportunity, building a repertoire of images of a fleeting world I’d love to hang on to.

When the world exasperates me (as it often does), I like to invoke the wisdom of others to guide and inspire me. There is one thought in particular that has been resonating with me lately, in all sorts of situations:

You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.

—Richard Buckminster Fuller

What, then, will be the new model that I build? Will I relocate next to a cemetery, an ocean, or even further out into the sticks where no one would possibly want to plop a big box store? Will I simply acquiesce, accepting thoughtless commercial expansion as an unavoidable by-product of a cancerous capitalism? Or will I intensify my efforts to photograph the dwindling natural beauty that I find in unlikely places, creating an illusionary cut-and-pasted paradise that represents “the way we could have been”? I’m liking this latter approach.

It is with much gratitude and great respect that I have had the privilege of photographing this particular meadow over the years. Now I will move on and find another willing subject. Farewell, my friend the tree. I will see you in the cosmos.

Autumn in New England

One of my favorite things about the place where I live: the awe-inspiring colors of foliage and sky

There is so much to be thankful for. This time of year, one of the things I am most thankful for is New England, the place where I live. The colors of the foliage and the sky are awe-inspiring. They make me want to paint.

I took this photo of Easthampton, Massachusetts from the Log Cabin, a banquet hall atop Mt. Tom, in neighboring Holyoke, Massachusetts.

Farewell to Summer

A photograph I took of a favorite old tree in a favorite meadow in a favorite town in Massachusetts

One of the things I love the most about living in New England is the drama of the passing seasons. Each one has its own distinctive feel and intensity. For many years fall has been my favorite, but I love the others as well. This past summer has been particularly sweet in terms of temperature, weather, personal discovery, and accomplishment.

Shown above is a picture I took this past summer, of a favorite old tree in a favorite meadow in Holyoke, Massachusetts. I’m just getting started on a painting of it.

But summer is gone, and fall is gearing up to unleash its fiery glory upon us. I can’t wait for blustery skies full of sculpted clouds, red, orange, and yellow leaves crunching under foot, cooler temperatures, longer shadows, mosquito-free hikes, jackets, hats, and scarves, pumpkins, apples, chilly bicycle and motorcycle rides, earlier, longer nights, cozy cafés, and a couple of extra blankets. Fall is almost here.

Bringing It All Back Home

In September of 2012 I moved out of the One Cottage Street art studio space that I had rented since 2004.

Big changes are afoot in my creative life: it is both the end of an era and the beginning of a new one. In September of 2012 I moved out of the One Cottage Street art studio space that I had rented for eight years—since 2004. I’ve set up a new workspace in my apartment, and little by little I’m getting adjusted to it. A few different factors motivated my decision:

  1. I’m trying to save money for an eventual house (with an on-site studio or barn).
  2. I want to be closer (both proximally and metaphorically) to my work.
  3. It will be nice to have all of my tools under the same roof. No more running to the studio during a snowstorm to get my drill/driver for a home project, and vice versa.
  4. In the near-term, I’m interested in exploring the influence that a darker, cozier, cave of a space will have upon my work. I’m also a little intimidated by this, but I reckon that bravely facing this challenge will improve the artist, if not the art. I’ve worked in basements before. This is a step up, so it shouldn’t be a problem.

I require a ton of quiet and solitude in order to focus my creative energy and recharge my emotional battery. In earlier phases of my life when such solitude was not easy to come by, having a remote studio apart from my living space was critical to my creative well-being. But now my apartment provides all of the solitude—and almost all of the space—that I need.

Over the years, I had produced satisfying bodies of work in my old One Cottage Street space. Not long after I’d set up shop there, I made a series of paintings entitled Place To Bee (envisioning a day in the life of a bee) that I exhibited at Northampton’s Woodstar Café (circa 2004). Eventually all of the paintings from that series found their way into private collections. Later, I made three big paintings for Northampton’s Bueno Y Sano restaurant. I made several more paintings that I installed in the Bueno Y Sano restaurant in Burlington, Vermont. And I produced a number of paintings that are now on semi-permanent display at Rao’s Café in Amherst, Massachusetts.

Turning over a new leaf

No doubt about it, my day job has demanded a lot of my energy over the past dozen years. While I love the profession, and the connections and opportunities that the Web facilitates, web design is a different window onto the world than the one made of paint. While I have tried to keep up a regular painting practice, there have been phases when my interest has flagged, and I wasn’t making adequate time to go to the studio. During those times, the studio was a costly storage space (and hockey equipment drying room). I needed to scale back; to downsize; to reevaluate my priorities. And I needed to get rid of a lot of the junk that I had accumulated over the years—junk that was literally getting in my way, and figuratively weighing me down.

I’ve spent the summer preparing the way: getting rid of nonessentials, cataloging (and in some cases, destroying) old work, photographing, sketching out the new space, and moving stuff. Now the work is right here, and there are no obstacles—apart from the mental ones—to keep me from engaging with it. I have just the right amount of equipment, and enough paint and supplies to last a couple of years. I’m no longer hoarding wood scraps for the bases of sculptures I’ll never make.

I will grieve the loss of the my old One Cottage Street space, and will always remember it fondly. But I’m also excited about my new “lean and mean” home studio space and the new era it represents. I look forward to sharing the work that comes forth from this arrangement. It will be different. But I am thrilled about it. Stay tuned.

Blanketed

A portrait of a New England farmhouse under a blanket of snow.

Snow in October is rare in Western Massachusetts. A foot of snow this early is unimaginable, but it is what we have received. Freshly-fallen snow is beautiful and peaceful, but it can also be destructive. Tree carnage is everywhere. And where there is tree carnage, there are downed power lines and power outages. A website reports that 2.3 million homes and businesses throughout New England are without power.

I have often wondered why we in the United States don’t bury our power lines underground. In addition to aesthetic concerns, elevated lines seem so vulnerable. Experience confirms this: every year some combination of tornado, hurricane, and frozen precipitation causes widespread power outages. My friend Jean-Pierre—who is from Switzerland—says that the Swiss bury their utilities, and that in his memory they rarely if ever had power outages. I assume that the reason we don’t follow this example is cost. But if you factor in the cost of lost productivity associated with repeated power outages, and the dangers of potential electrocution by downed power lines, undergrounding starts to seem more attractive. Further, if such a widespread outage had occurred during a brutally cold snap, hypothermia could have become an issue.

For now I will focus on the beautiful aspects of the snow. I will slow down and appreciate all of the things I take for granted that are made possible by electricity: freshly ground coffee beans, hot water to make coffee with, a hot meal, and a hot shower. The ability to do laundry, work on the computer, and charge my phone.

I took this photo in 2010, not far from where I live. It was night time, so I put the camera on a tripod, and left the shutter open for around fifteen seconds to capture enough light. It was snowing when I took the picture, but the flakes were moving quickly enough that they did not appear in the long exposure. Here’s to more snow, but maybe not until December.

Two Trees

Two maple trees at Mt. Pollux in South Amherst, Massachusetts.

You would be hard-pressed to convince me that there is anything more gloriously beautiful than autumn in New England. Each of the seasons has its own particular beauty, but October—my favorite month—ushers in a perfect convergence of climate, emotion, and color.

The heat of summer tapers off and is replaced with a cooler ambient temperature. Gardeners lay their gardens to rest, and people and animals alike batten down the hatches in preparation for the winter to come. Dramatic, blustery clouds and azure skies set a pensive mood. Golden afternoon light illuminates resplendent, fiery colors that the region’s trees produce. All of this is draped over a stunningly-gorgeous landscape and an all too fleeting American Gothic architectural style. By mid-month, invigorating breezes will whip up the leaves that will have fallen. Crisp, sweet smells of composting leaves will waft about. And by the end of the month the show will be over.

One of the places that I most love to visit during this season is Mount Pollux, located in South Amherst, Massachusetts. Formerly an apple orchard, Mt. Pollux is a little knob just north of Mt. Norwottuck, the highest mountain in the Holyoke Range. It is a very romantic, dreamy, energetic place. I wouldn’t be surprised if it sits atop an intersection of some of the earth’s ley lines. Many weddings have taken place here. Doubtless many young romantics have wooed each other on its flanks. Many hands have been held, many picnics have been consumed, and many kites have been flown. I brought my Dad here when he visited many moons ago, and we ceremoniously remembered our departed loved one.

One of the unique features of Mt. Pollux is that from the top, on a clear day, you are treated to a nearly unobstructed, 360-degree view of the surrounding land, which includes the Connecticut River Valley (a.k.a. the Pioneer Valley) and mountains as far away as New York, Vermont, and New Hampshire. You can’t see Connecticut to the south, because the majestic Holyoke Range stands in the way. And you can’t see Rhode Island because it’s just so darn small.

Another unique feature of Mt. Pollux is its centerpiece: the two maple trees at the top. I have been told that some students from nearby Hampshire College refer to the place simply as Two Trees, which makes perfect sense.

Calling it Mt. Pollux makes sense too, as the trees embody an energy of “two-ness.” Recursively underscoring this theme, there is also a Mt. Castor in the area, but it is harder to find.

In Roman mythology, Castor and Pollux were the Gemini (twin) brothers. As astronomy buffs will tell you, the constellation Gemini comprises the twin stars Castor and Pollux. (Incidentally, my aforementioned brother Trevor was born under the astrological sign of Gemini.)

In the myth, the twins shared the same mother but had different fathers (immortal Zeus and mortal Tyndareus), which meant that Pollux was immortal and Castor was mortal. When Castor was killed, Pollux asked Zeus to let him share his own immortality with his twin to keep them together and they were transformed into the Gemini constellation. The pair were regarded as the patrons of sailors, to whom they appeared as St. Elmo’s fire.

One thing I like about these two trees is that they seem to tell a story. They are not classically “perfect” maple specimens. They are unusual and asymmetrical. They are a little bit messy, not unlike life itself. The tree on the left sports a protrusion that reaches out to cover a corresponding chunk that is missing from the tree on the right. Both of the trees lean away from each other, but they seem to be relating. Is the one on the left reaching out to help one on the right, which has been injured in an ancient lightning strike or ice storm? Or is it more of an antagonistic gesture, as might befit a bickering old couple? Is it presumptuous to anthropomorphize them thusly?

If you have a chance, visit Mt. Pollux and decide for yourself! In the meantime, please enjoy this photograph.

San Francisco and the Marin Headlands

Photos of my adventures in the San Francisco Bay area.

In August of 2010 I traveled to San Francisco, California for the first time to attend a professional conference called UX Week. I fell in love with the area. Everywhere I turned was a visual feast that appealed to my inner aspiring photographer. Every aspect of the place—the climate, the fog, the architecture, the topography, the flora, the Mediterranean quality of light, and the cultural vibe—felt intriguingly and refreshingly foreign from anything I had ever experienced before, even in my dreams. Luckily, I had an opportunity to return to the area for a week in August of 2011. Following are a few of my favorite shots from both visits.

En route, somewhere over the Midwest

View from a plane

This story would not be complete without a photo taken from the plane. This one was taken some 38,000 feet above Michigan. As uncomfortable, expensive, potentially unhealthy, and inconvenient as the air travel can be, there is something about it that I love, and that I feel is necessary to drive home the scale of the country, its mountains, and the distance between the coasts.

It is still mesmerizing to me that I can fly out of Boston, see the Atlantic Ocean, and in less time than I spend at work on a typical day, see the Pacific on the other coast, as I descend into San Francisco. I always book a window seat, because I love to look down and get a feel for the topographical character of the various parts of the country. Every region has its own signature landmarks, crop circles, bodies of water, canyons, and other formations. And at night (if you have the fortune of returning on an overnight flight as I did), you can see different types of grids that cities and towns are built upon, etched in lights below.

Trolley leaving Powell & Market

San Francisco Trolley

Ever since I was a child I have always been fascinated with trains. So rugged and free, yet so orderly. Needless to say, San Francisco’s trolleys were one of the things I was most looking forward to seeing. After my flight, I took BART from SFO to the Powell Street Station (near where I spent the week, at Hotel Palomar). I had been up from the underground station no more than two minutes when I was blown away by this sight. I was instantly transformed into a kid again, full of wide-eyed amazement. Oh, the possibilities of things!

Steep hills in this city

Steep San Francisco hills

Neither the moderate Piedmont plateau of Atlanta, Georgia (where I was born and spent the first half of my life) nor the rolling hills and fertile valleys of Western Massachusetts that I now call home could have prepared me for the topographical surprise and delight that I would discover in San Francisco. There are a couple of flat areas in the city (that I am certain the local bicyclists have discovered), but most of San Francisco—at least the part that I saw—simply undulates.

It is one of the true great romantic cities of the world. Apparently it’s very motorcycle-friendly too, which I would not have expected of a place that is fairly seismically active.

Crossing the Golden Gate Bridge

Crossing the Golden Gate Bridge

I love bridges almost as much as I love trains! Before my conference began, a couple of dear old friends now living in the Bay Area picked me up at my hotel and drove me across the Golden Gate Bridge to the Marin Headlands, where we enjoyed a simply perfect day lunching in Sausalito, playing on Rodeo Beach, walking among the tall California redwood trees at Muir Woods, and taking in some breathtaking sights from the bluffs above the San Francisco Bay, just north of the city.

Rodeo Beach

Rodeo Beach

Giant rocks and steep cliffs held together with succulent vegetation are hallmarks of Rodeo Beach (apparently pronounced “roh-DAY-oh”). This photograph was taken in August 2011 (on my second visit), and was a typically blustery, foggy day (unlike last year’s visit which was unseasonably clear and warmer). What a magical place it is. Seriously—as the song says—when you go, be sure to wear a flower in your hair!

Celebrating a Decade Online

My website—tracemeek.com—has been online since February 7, 2001.

Big Boy figurine

While reviewing and organizing some old digital files and accounts recently, I was both startled and overjoyed when I stumbled across a reminder that this website—tracemeek.com—had been online for over a decade. Since February 7, 2001, to be exact.

And then a twinge of sadness crept over me. Ten years seemed like an auspicious anniversary to have let slip by with such little fanfare. Where have I been? What have I been doing? How did I get this far? So I thought I would make amends by writing a little about this site’s history, and by recommitting to its future development. This also serves as the inaugural long-form essay in my second decade online, and coincides with the launch of a brand new website.

My formative years on the Web

Back in the late 1990s when I first went online, I was a recent college graduate and artist working in an art-related manufacturing industry. I saw the Web as an opportunity to promote my art work to a wider audience than I had previously known. Being a do-it-yourselfer, I set about learning how to build my own online art portfolio.

I quickly outgrew iTools (Apple’s WYSIWYG webpage creation tool at the time), yet the prospect of hand coding a site using a text editor (SimpleText) was still a little daunting. A coworker with friends in the web design industry told me that she had heard good things about Macromedia (now Adobe) Dreamweaver. So I bought the software and built my first real site by trial and error, reading everything I could about web design along the way, and loving every minute of it.

By today’s standards the code under the hood of my first site was disastrous, but I was online, Baby, and there was no looking back.

Rumblings of change

At some point along the way I began to see another opportunity emerge: a potential new career path. “If I can build a website for myself,” I thought, “I can build websites for other people, and make a better living doing something I enjoy.” The barriers to entry seemed relatively low: I wouldn’t need to go to the equivalent of law school or medical school in order to build a legitimate web design practice. I discovered websites like A List Apart (ALA) that published free (and priceless) articles that helped me to learn the art, the science, and the trade of web design. ALA was founded by Jeffrey Zeldman, a pioneer of publishing on the web and the preeminent champion of Web Standards.

In and of itself, this course of self study probably would have sufficed, but in order to gain more in-depth technical knowledge, build professional credibility, and academically affirm what I was already learning on my own, I entered and completed a Master CIW Designer professional certification program at STCC, worked an internship, scored a couple of freelance gigs, landed my first real design job, then the rest was history.

Consequently, at some point during the early aughts my site entered its adolescence (or was it extended childhood?) with an awkward multiple identity: fine art portfolio, aspiring mural painting business, and web design business, all lumped together under the label of Creative Services. My accountant assured me that it made sense on paper, but I struggled for several years with the breadth of the endeavor. While such diverse Creative Services may be an apt metaphor for my oeuvre—the spirit of my life’s work—it did not make for the most cogent business model, and ultimately proved to be unsustainable. So I contented myself with my role as an in-house web designer, which it turns out is not a bad place to be.

To blog or not to blog? That was the question.

Later I blogged in fits and starts (briefly in 2003, and again from 2007-2009), but ultimately scrapped those projects while I still had some water left in the proverbial well. Both my personal and professional life were in flux, so I choose a handful of priorities to receive the lion’s share of my attention. I needed to put writing on the back burner for a while, but I pledged to resume the practice when it fit more comfortably into my life. I wasn’t finding my public Voice then, and that was OK. It was the right battle, but at the wrong time.

Nor did I fully comprehended the scale of the Web—the fact that I wouldn’t be writing for just myself, friends, family, and business associates, but potentially for a worldwide audience. The responsibility of having such a global voice was intimidating. Would my small town musings seem petty on this big important world stage? How would I forge a connection? How would I keep trolls and stalkers at bay? How would I avoid being perceived as one? Already I’d had mixed success in attempting to befriend my heroes online. I had only experienced real-world rejection up to that point; would I be able to handle a whole new flood of potential rejection on a worldwide scale?

And then there were the technical considerations of blogging. At the time, I had not yet experienced the joys (and the heartaches) of wrangling with content management systems (CMSs), so I wasn’t quite ready to redevelop my site using one of these platforms. Needless to say, manually managing a growing body of content became laborious.

So I poured my energy into other creative pursuits. All the while I’ve been engaged in the Web and its people. But I’ve been listening, reading, commenting, and storing up energy more than I have been speaking up. It is possible that this may eventually change. Exposing our ideas to the judgment of others is a risk that we take living in this world. For all its ills, social media has given us a gift: the permission to express ourselves extemporaneously on the web.

Happy (social) medium?

Oh sure, I use the microblogging and third party sharing platforms—the Twitters, the Flickrs, the Facebooks, and what have you. These are hardly a substitute for one’s own personal/professional website, but with their built-in communities and their occasionally well-designed tools, they do enable one to develop a form of “web presence” without having to build a website from scratch.

On Twitter, I often feel like I’m hollering (or whispering) into the Abyss (à la the movie Garden State) rather than personally connecting. Still, it seems meaningful enough to be worthwhile. Like little mental calisthenics or musical scales, I can develop my voice without the more intense responsibility of gestating ideas into more fully-fledged essays. That’s not to say that there haven’t been golden moments on Twitter. I’ve been moved by certain tweets (1, 2, 3, 4). And there have been more than a few tweets that have helped me to solve a work problem or to better understand an issue relevant to my career, government, or society.

On Facebook it’s more personal. I put a lot more thought into the work that I share there, and the way I interact. On Facebook, people feel more familiar. But I still measure my words.

Long before I tiptoed into sharing via these relatively new sharing services, I contributed photos to the Mirror Project (1999-2005), a photographic community curated by the inimitable Heather Champ. And I lurked around the fringes of Fray—a magazine of true stories and original art edited by Derek Powazek. There, I interloped and read, but did not contribute; I dreamt of a day when I would be so bold as to comfortably and confidently express myself in this brave new medium. Little did I know that self-expression would rarely be comfortable.

But for all the wonders that these online communities have wrought, I have been longing for something more. A property of my own. A place to be. Preferably with a wraparound screened-in porch, crickets, and stars at night. Near a pond to skate on in the winter. Hopefully this will be it. Or an integral part of it.

And then there is mortality

One of the aspects of life that starts to hit home the longer you live is that more and more people you know and love die. Some leave by way of tragic accident, well before their rightful time. Others succumb to disease. Still others simply live to a ripe old age and follow the rules of DNA to their peaceful repose. As profound and sad as the loss of these significant individuals is, it is no more nor any less than an inevitable part of life—the life that we are all a part of and will ultimately manifest in our own way, in our own time.

So part of the impetus here may be to leave a bit of a legacy. If I can share something that teaches or enlightens someone (including myself) or brings a smile or a laugh or a tear, then I will have succeeded, and the building of this site will have been worth the effort. Otherwise, I’ll just have all of these ideas swimming around in my head—not doing anyone any good—until that great day of reckoning.

But to keep things in perspective, this website will be impermanent as well. At some point the delivery formats may change, the servers may crash, I will stop breathing and will consequently stop paying my web hosting bill, and this site will shut down. And that will be OK. Then again, it is possible that at some point there will be a sort of a massive free archiving system (Google?) that will prolong the inevitable erasure for a hundred or a thousand years. More likely, this will all go the way of Yahoo! Geocities and the eight-track tape. Sometimes, in spite of our noblest efforts, things stop working and we just have to let go.

But I am not ready to let go just yet

Bringing this full-circle, my intention with this website re-dedication is simple. Be myself. Welcome you. Hopefully entertain. Get some of these ideas out of my head and onto the digital paper. My inner idealistic 20-something still wants to save the world through his art, but a more seasoned me has begun to accept that more modest goals may illuminate more sustainable paths. And I’ve grown to feel that simplicity and happiness are noble goals in and of themselves. I will end this essay with one of my favorite quotes, which is a nice touchstone for any endeavor, but particularly for the creative efforts that I publish to this website:

Don’t ask yourself what the world needs. Ask yourself what makes you come alive, and go do that, because what the world needs is more people who have come alive.

—Gil Bailie