On Specialization and Passion

I’ve been thinking a lot about specialization lately – it’s part of the natural evolution of an artist, so it’s not that unusual to think at length about it – but that doesn’t mean it isn’t still a bit scary.

There’s a new book out – which I haven’t read, but I did read the reviews! Outliers: The Story of Success by Malcolm Gladwell outlines why some people are lucky enough to live “remarkably productive and impactful lives, while so many more never reach their potential.” And he puts forth the premise that it takes 10,000 hours of practice to reach mastery of your field. Back when I was an actor I heard it took ten years, when I started studying photography I also heard ten years. Of course, everyone thinks they’ll do it faster and better, and sometimes you think you really are ahead of that curve – but now that I’m in my 13th year as a photographer, I can look back and agree that yeah, it really did take me about 10 years. I produced some amazing images in my first year – natural talent does have something to do with it! But after ten years, it was just different. Better. I’d never thought about the number of hours – but 10,000 sounds about right. That averages out to about 20 hours a week for 10 years – and that’s hours of “practice” which means hours where you were pushing yourself in some way. If you spend 20 hours doing the same thing every week you’ll get very good at that one thing!

Last week I went to a big Studio Opening in LA, and specialization kept coming up as I talked to other photographers. To be remarkable, you really do have to narrow your focus – it’s impossible to be everything to all people. And it happens naturally as you progress in your career. Certain projects elicit great passion, and others not so much, so it’s only natural to follow your bliss – right?

But what if your passion is leading you into areas that are less than profitable? And you see your peers scooping up money in buckets all around you – and the only difference is that their passion leads them into more profitable arenas? What then? Do you follow the lead of your friends and try to feel the love for something new? Or do you forge ahead on your own path, knowing that the only real success comes from passion. Think about it – if you’re like most people all your great successes in life came in areas where you felt great passion, and that passion fueled your drive, and led directly to success. It’s the natural way…

So why then do we balk at following our own path? I don’t know. I just know that at times specialization comes easy for me – I strip away anything in my life that doesn’t excite me and move me. And other times, I agonize over the next step and find it hard to take any action at all. Right now I’m in a stage of big growth – and I’m stripping away some things that no longer work for me with great glee, and holding onto other things out of fear – and it’s not over yet! After all these years I’m still narrowing my focus as an artist, and it’s scary and amazing all at the same time.

Specialization, passion, and evolution as an artist… Overthinking it can make you crazy, but sometimes a little overthinking feels good, if it helps you get back on your OWN path. You know that path? The one where your passion leads you!

My current favorite iPhone Apps

I finally found an iPhone To-Do List App that I may like for more than five minutes…

It’s called Done, and it’s very very simple, which is exactly what I wanted. Just a simple little To-Do List that’s easy to check off, and has categories of tasks. I didn’t want to assign contexts, or due dates, or anything else complicated – and I really didn’t want to have to pay a monthly fee to use it. And this is important, I wanted it to be elegant in how it worked, and look like a native iPhone App – so many of the new Apps look like the interface was designed in the dark, by a first-grader. No thanks! I wanted a simple elegant interface that fits in with everything else on my iPhone. And I think I found it! It would have been nice if it was able to sync with my MAC, and the developers claim that’s a future feature, but in the meantime it’s not a deal breaker for me.

Oh, and it’s only $.99 in the iTunes App Store. You really can’t beat that!

And while we’re talking Apps, my current favorite is Shazam. If you hear a song and want to know who the artist is, just launch Shazam, hit the Tag Now button, and and Shazam will “listen” and then deliver up not only the name of the song and artist, but also links to purchase it on iTunes, and maybe even a link to the video on YouTube. Very, very cool and you can download it for free!

My other favorite App is only of interest to photographers. It’s called PhotoCalc and I love it for the Sunrise and Sunset times! But it also has a really handy Depth of Field calculator. I can input f/1.2 with a 50mm lens, with the subject 3 feet away, and find out that my total depth of field is exactly 0.1 feet – in other words, just a little over one inch. My focus better be spot on, if I’m shooting under those conditions, and knowing exactly how narrow the depth of field, instead of just guessing, can be really helpful. I’ll admit it, most of the time I just go on instinct – I mean I know 1.2 is extremely shallow, and that in a close up portrait if the eyes are in focus, the nose will be out of focus – that’s a given. And I know that if I want the nose and lips in focus, I should back away from the subject just a little, or else go to 1.8 or 2.0. I know all that. But sometimes it’s cool to know exactly how many inches, or feet, you have. There’s also a Flash Exposure calculator and a reference section with info on the Zone System, the Sunny 16 Rule, and film types – very old school, and I like that! PhotoCalc is $2.99 and totally worth it for the Sunrise and Sunset times alone – if knowing when the light is best is as big a deal to you, as it is to me…

Hollyhock House and a Studio Opening

Yesterday was great! I had a party downtown in the evening, so I went into LA a little early and spent some time up at Hollyhock House. Designed by Frank Lloyd Wright in 1919, and built on the top of a hill in Los Feliz, it’s spectacular. The house was commissioned by an heiress named Aline Barnsdall, who was a bit of a rebel – in a good way! Her dream was to create an art complex with a couple of theaters, and studios for potters and painters and all kinds of other artisans, plus a school for her young daughter to play and learn and grow. So she bought this large hill – Olive Hill – in Eastern Hollywood, and hired Frank Lloyd Wright to design it all. Most of the project was never completed – but the main residence was – Hollyhock House, named after the design motif Wright employed throughout the house, based on Miss Barnsdall’s favorite flower.

I first discovered the house back in the early 1990’s and I’ve brought many friends to tour it over the years. It feels like this private, special place, sort of hidden away in plain site, in the middle of the city. The view of the Griffith Observatory and the Hollywood sign can’t be beat – especially if you’re on the roof of Hollyhock House. And in the other direction is all of downtown. It’s amazing at sunset.

The house itself is concrete and leaded glass and the abstracted Hollyhock motif shows up in all sorts of interesting and imaginative ways. I remember reading long ago that FLW choose olive as the main color for the house, since Olive Hill was of course covered in olive trees at the time. He intended the walls to be the color of the underside of the leaves, and the main accent to be the darker green color of the top of the leaves. It’s a beautiful thought! And the violet and the white in the leaded windows are in reference to the colors of the Hollyhock flower. Then as a further accent, the windows were rimmed in wood painted gold. In 1994 the house was damaged in the Northridge Earthquake – and I remember cracks in the walls, and scaffolding around the house for years afterward. And then as repairs were made, the city choose what I call “parks and recreation green” as the accent color for the house – you know, the bright green paint they always use on picnic benches in national parks. Almost a kelly green? Totally wrong and garish-looking on Hollyhock House. Thankfully it’s been replaced by a much more authentic olive green since then!

It had been a while since I’d been up to Hollyhock House. It’s one of my favorite places on earth and one of the all-time top ten homes in LA, and one of the top ten Frank Lloyd Wright homes – so very very special – but I realized I hadn’t been in a couple years, so I was glad when I found myself with an extra hour in LA on an unexpectedly beautiful balmy day, right at sunset. And the house hasn’t changed. It’s still the most peaceful, pleasant, blissful spot in the city. There’s also an art museum on the property and they do a lot of art education – it’s a real asset to the community. To me it’s the best part of LA – truly!

Then after Hollyhock House, I headed downtown for a friend’s BIG studio opening. I’m incredibly happy for and jealous of Rob and his girlfriend Vanessa. They’re getting to live the fantasy life of many many artists – a huge vintage loft in the old Southern California Edison building, circa 1903, in The Brewery Art Colony. It’s the kind of place you see in the movies when the character is a hip, successful artist. In fact, right after they took possession, CSI: Miami shot an episode in their space – it’s that cool!

Here’s a few links if you’re curious…

And a super cool video of the party, shot by Tony Bisson! I make a quick appearance at about the 2.5 minute mark…

Desirous of everything at the same time…

Mad to live.

Mad to talk.

Desirous of everything at the same time.

Never saying a commonplace thing.

But burn, burn, burning…

And everyone goes “Awww!”

Sounds like a blueprint for a life worth living.

Cirrus Clouds // Photo: Cheryl Spelts

Here’s the quote…

“the only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn, like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars and in the middle you see the blue centerlight pop and everybody goes ‘Awww!'” – Jack Kerouac, On the Road

LA Guns at Brixton South Bay, in Redondo Beach

I got to start 2009 off right with a concert!

The venue was a small club in Redondo Beach called Brixton South Bay, the band was LA Guns, and I got to meetup with some old friends and meet some new ones. It was a fun night!

It was the first time the band had played together in a couple of months, and they sounded good. I think it’s safe to say that I got a little spoiled this summer and early fall – I got to see them in concert five or six times – but that was months ago, and I guess I missed them, because I really really enjoyed the show.

This particular venue wasn’t that exciting, but it did have some cool lights, so it was a fun show to shoot. I got a shot with Marty Casey and Tracii Guns bathed in orange light from one side and violet from the other. I call that RBL light, for obvious reasons, and it’s rare to see it, but always beautiful! But my favorite shots from the night may be the solo shots of Jeremy Guns and Alec Bauer.

I used a wide angle lens almost exclusively that night – and I really pushed the colors and textures – so the images are a little different, and a little out there – but I think they’re fun!

Oh, and the poster for the event featured one of my images!

LA Guns

LA Guns // Photo: Cheryl Spelts

LA Guns // Photo: Cheryl Spelts

LA Guns // Photo: Cheryl Spelts

LA Guns // Photo: Cheryl Spelts

LA Guns // Photo: Cheryl Spelts

LA Guns // Photo: Cheryl Spelts

LA Guns // Photo: Cheryl Spelts

LA Guns // Photo: Cheryl Spelts

LA Guns // Photo: Cheryl SpeltsAlec Bauer // Photo: Cheryl Spelts

LA Guns // Photo: Cheryl Spelts

LA Guns // Photo: Cheryl Spelts

LA Guns // Photo: Cheryl Spelts

LA Guns // Photo: Cheryl Spelts

LA Guns // Photo: Cheryl Spelts

LA Guns // Photo: Cheryl Spelts
And finally four-fifths of the band in the greenroom before the show with Darryl Boyd who owns Rock-n-Roll GangStar Apparel.

Edited to Add: A pop culture blog called Icon vs. Icon, recently named LA Guns one of the top Live Acts of 2008, and they used one of my images to accompany the article. It’s a live shot from Yucaipa, back in September. I really do love to see my images turn up in the press, when I’m not expecting it. It’s like an Easter Egg Hunt!

Happy New Year!

“Excellence is the result of caring more than others think is wise, risking more than others think is safe, dreaming more than others think is practical and expecting more than others think is possible. BELIEVE BIG.” – Anonymous

As satisfying as 2008 was, I am so ready for 2009!

Artistically, the past year was amazing – I love my body of work from 2008. I shot some images that will be among my favorites forever. Iconic, beautiful, powerful images that I fall in love with every time I see them. That’s what I hope for every day, and it was gratifying to find so much of that particular kind of satisfaction in one year. It was just a great year!

And 2009 is looking even better, if that’s possible, and I believe it is. I believe in believing big – even if it is a bit of a twister to say and even twistier to comprehend. But try…

Pale Pink and Orange Bougainvillea // Photo: Cheryl Spelts