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A Photographer’s Frame of Mind: Why Artists Should Read Scott McCloud

While laid up with the flu and not venturing outdoors in the cold, I decided to reread one of my favorite authors.  Scott McCloud is a literate cartoonist who has produced three of the most analytical and concise looks at comics as art in our society. His UNDERSTANDING COMICS—THE INVISIBLE ART in 1993, REINVENTING COMICS—HOW IMAGINATION AND TECHNOLOGY ARE REVOLUTIONIZING AN ART FORM, in 2000, and MAKING COMICS in 2006 give an incredibly articulate voice to the communication process as it is used by the story-telling industry.

McClouds 5 aspects of Clarity & COmmunication:Choice of Moment Choice of Frame Choice of Image Choice of Word Choice of Flow


Scott McCloud begins with Clarity and Communication as the primary goals of the artist and how we get there is defined under five areas he wants us to look at. While he aims his analytic eye at the comic book, I have found that the first three of his five aspects of story-telling apply to the photographer in every sense of the word.

When a photographer gets ready to take an image he or she should ask themselves, "What do I have in Mind?"  That’s where the process and the experience should begin.

mcCloud's Choice of moment, choice of frame, choice of image


I know when I do a photographic student portfolio review that the first thing that comes to mind are questions to the student, "Why did you choose this moment to shoot the picture?"  What is it about this moment that made you snap the shutter? What are you trying to say?  What message are you trying to convey or capture? There’s even more to this first question and we haven’t gotten to design aesthetics quite yet, but let’s go ahead and look at the second aspect Scott McCloud mentions, and ask the student even more.


What made you choose the edges of this picture in this way?  What drove the composition to look like this and what made you choose this lens focal length and particular depth of field to produce the window that encloses the composition and the depth of sharpness in the image? The artist chooses to draw the image within a window that establishes either a wide angle scene-setting view, a mid-range view, or a close-up of detail, and somehow all of these are story-telling views.  Granted, each of these images should be necessary to the story-telling process and they are part of a greater group or sequence of images, but each one should be necessary.


Finally, I ask the student a question related to the first one.  Why this Choice of Image? Digital is cheap, the photographer can shoot literally hundreds of images (usually, with a subject with fast-breaking news being an exception).  This is when I want them to talk to me about aesthetics and design.  This is when all of those words like line, shape, form, texture, space, balance, continuity, emphasis, and unity (plus a few others) are all supposed to come out.  Now usually, this is what I hear when I talk about Choice of Moment in the beginning.  But choice of moment goes back to the question of simply "What is the statement you are trying to make with this photograph?" Frame and Design Aesthetics are HOW you achieve the STATEMENT, not WHAT you are saying.

Put it another way, Scott McCloud is more subtle is his questing, but I simply want to ask the student "Where’s the hook?  What is it about this image that makes you want to capture and to save it?"  The Photojournalist can answer this one a lot quicker than the Fine Arts photographer or the Educational Photographer, but all of them should be able to give a reason as to why they made a particular image.

Let’s break it down.

I dug out my old (like more than forty years old) psychology notes from a couple of classes on learning theory and came up with these points to ask the photographer, or maybe the photographer should ask themselves before they click the shutter.


What are you trying to do? What do you want to say?

Is it:

  1. Attention Getting?
  2. Teaching a Skill?
  3. Influencing An Attitude?
  4. Capturing a Moment for History,
  5. or Producing an Aesthetic Experience?

I think there are really three kinds of photographers outside of the home photographer who simply wants to record a personal moment.  These three kinds fall into the category of the:

  • Educational Photographers, who seek to communicate strongly the essence of their subject in the most pleasing light.   Advertising photographer are included in this group because they are trying to show a product and convince the consumer that product is superior for its purpose. 
  • The Photojournalist is recording history and reporting the news of the immediate moment. 
  • The Fine Arts Photographer is trying to capture a visual aesthetic experience in such a way that a viewer would choose to look at the image for the emotional satisfaction alone.

Now the Fine Arts photographer usually chooses the first, fourth or last of these questions about what he is trying to do. The Educator chooses the second or third and just maybe the fourth), and the Photojournalist answers the third or fourth.  But then I try to get a bit more specific:

OK, what did you really have in mind?  Here’s all that psych talk from long ago. (There’s a bunch of reasons to make photographs.)

  1. Identification/naming object/observing details
  2. Characterization
  3. Evaluation
  4. Prescribing
  5. Relating/import/conveying facts/relating to experience
  6. Motivation
  7. Perceptual Skill
  8. Recall Experiences
  9. Add Detailed Study
  10. Correct Misconceptions
  11. Prevent Misconceptions
  12. Compare and Contrast
  13. Build New Experiences
  14. Give Meaning to Word Symbols
  15. Demonstrate a Process
  16. Form Value Judgments
  17. Create An Atmosphere
  18. Prepare for Experience
  19. Motivate Learning
  20. Publicize Events
  21. Develop Insight and Appreciation
  22. Dramatize A Point
  23. Raise Questions/Problems
  24. Stimulate Reading
  25. Foster Individual Interest
  26. Provide A Setting
  27. Complete Research
  28. Provide Reference
  29. Enrich And Enliven An Experience
  30. Invite Participation
  31. Help Learner Understand Self
  32. Build Background
  33. Create Center of Interest
  34. Develop Critical Judgment
  35. Stimulate Creative Effort
  36. Introduce A Topic Of Study
  37. Review And Summarize
  38. Test Learning

Now usually the Educational Photographer (and in that I include Travel Photographers to some extent by their goals to show us far-off places) could say that they are trying to do the majority of those choices at one time or another.  The Photojournalist may have a bit more limited goals, and the Fine Arts Photographer probably seeks to enrich and enliven an experience as their most often chosen goal.  The Fine Arts Photographer has the hardest job and has to do it with the most elegant of technique and aesthetic skill because to the Educator or Journalist a picture of less aesthetic quality may still be the superior image if it conveys the most pertinent information to the viewer.

So the Fine Arts photographer has a lot tougher job justifying their image when they are trying to make a statement with the display of their photographic skill and craft, and catch a moment to be shared in contemplation purely for the aesthetic experience.  

The Educational photographer is trying for an aesthetic answer even though they really have other goals in mind. Advertising photographers, whom I class as Educational Photographers are trying to produce an aesthetic moment, but there are times when the product itself is utterly prosaic—perhaps the photographer can produce a symbolic image of the process but the product is never seen.  A photograph of a handsome man and beautiful lady enraptured with one another may sell perfume even if we don’t see the perfume bottle.

The Photojournalist seeks equally to produce an aesthetic moment as they report the news, but both can succeed without answering to the aesthetic moment.

What about my student in the portfolio review?  What do they need to do before they set out to trip the shutter?  First, they have to define the statement they are trying to make, and then to make the image with the most craft and skill that they can bring to the subject.  The choice of lens, the focal length, the framing of the image all these should come as they explore the image they are trying to create.  Finally, they select the one image that best defines the epitome of their craft and their vision, and with time they will produce an image that both achieves the statement they wanted to make and presents it with a truly aesthetic vision.

It doesn’t come easy, but the more they think about it and analyze the failures the better the student becomes.

After fifty years I am still trying to come to terms with all that is involved in becoming a Fine Arts photographer.




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Comics and the Warrior, the Healer, the Visionary and the Teacher

Themes and learnings

One of the things that helps me write is to find a theme that over time I can build on and use to tuck ideas into.  2008 was mostly about getting my feet wet, testing directions and getting acquainted with you and you with me. In 2009 I’m going to focus on giving you a foundation and then help you build on that foundation throughout the year.

twitter_page Comics and the Warrior, the Healer, the Visionary and the Teacher

Before I get into the details I want to tell about the graphic above, it’s my new Twitter background. Why is that important? I’ve been wanting to do one for quite sometime and as usual started out seriously designing, until this morning when I revisited what I had done yesterday. Looking at it I realized it was waaaay to serious, it didn’t really say much about me. So scrapped it and started over. This time I took a “I’m gonna have fun” attitude, and since  I love comic illustration or stories told graphically I used Comic Life together with some photos to design the background. The point is I had fun and more importantly I showed up in a way that put a part of me out there that many don’t see.

That brings us to themes…several years ago I became acquainted with the writings of cultural anthropologist Angeles Arrien author of The Four-Fold Way: Walking the Paths of the Warrior, Teacher, Healer, and Visionary. She spent many years collecting the wisdom of people all over the world and she found that when everything was put together a common theme surfaced that provided a fundamental base for living. She identified four archetypal paths or ways for helping us navigate change that are based on centuries old shamanic traditions practiced by indigenous people and how they managed change.  The masters of change among indigenous peoples were their medicine men, chiefs, shamans, and teachers, the recognized the constant nature of change and took on the role of supportively guiding their communities through life events instead of denying them. Arrien calls for a reconnection to the four archetypal paths  common to  all peoples they are,  The Way of the Warrior, The Way of the Healer, The Way of the Visionary and The Way of the Teacher. Expanded they boil down to:

  • Show up be visible and empower others through example and be present to your life invest in yourself
  • Pay attention to what has heart and meaning to your life
  • Tell the truth without blame or judgement be authentic in brining your life gifts to the world.
  • Be open by not being attached to outcomes so that we may have better access to our own wisdom.

The first step

The first and most important thing we as artists need to do to not only survive the current shifts but also emerge as leaders is to SHOW UP. Showing up means starting that blog by putting  the nurturing and empowering nature of your gifts out there for all to see. A strong part of this is self- investment because without it we are blind. When I designed the Twitter page above I decided to show up, by be authentically visible in a way I have exposed I also invested time in doing so because it reinforced my presence.

Showing up will also put you above the crowd of people who can’t seem to show up, it will place you in a position to lead and lead with authority. Because you will be one of the few who chooses to be present.

So in the coming weeks we will talk more about showing up with your blog will look, we will build the foundation using the “Four Fold Way” above together with practical and creative ways start building the structure of your house. We’ll also talk more about each element can help you overcome your fears and empower you to claim your spot.

How are you going to show up? What are your fears? Will you show up with me?

Please join the conversation and get our tips, techniques, news and support once a week.


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San Diego Comic-Con 2008: Part 2

My professional agenda for Comic-Con was fairly simple: Soak in the visuals, get a general feel for the industry and do some basic networking.  With this in mind, here are some useful tips I learned along the way on how to take advantage of the convention:

  • Bring a highlighter. You’ll need it to track the three-ring circus of panels.  Comic-Con often has an online schedule in advance of the convention, so it’s possible to do some pre-planning.  But it does change/update daily.
  • Know exactly what you are going for, and make it a tight goal, instead of "be discovered and become famous." Research how to meet those goals, and who at Comic-Con can help make them a reality.  If you are looking for work, check out who is hiring and get information on them in advance.  Find out who is looking for the content you are trying to deliver.  Are they offering portfolio reviews?  Will they be exhibiting? This will save you a great deal of time and energy.
  • Network. It’s the obvious one, and it is really easy.  But it’s not just shaking hands after panels or in the exhibitor’s hall.  That guy waiting next to you in line for the Watchmen Trailer may be a fellow artist, filmmaker, or potential client.  Get to know your fellow attendees.
  • Self Promote:  A business card should be mandatory, a giveaway product is even better. There is a "freebie table" where both companies and individuals give out free promotional items.  They do accept drop-offs, however they are vetted for quality and appropriate content.  This is not the venue for cheap photocopies on neon paper.  Instead think of color prints on good paper/cardstock, comics, buttons, CDs/DVDs, etc.  Keep in mind this isn’t a portfolio drop-off.  Portfolio Reviews are done on site, and it would be wise to attend those and give out your portfolio through social networking.  Instead think "product."  For those into guerilla networking, there were some artists, filmmakers and even studios giving out flyers and CDs of their work to those stuck in the various lines.  Some left piles of these fliers in specific spots to be picked up.  Gutsy, but quite a few turned into litter.  Be prepared to cast a wide net.
  • Be aware of the "line-fu." In order to get to the panel you want to go to, it’s best to be in line an hour in advance, especially if you want a good seat.  For popular panels, increase that to an hour and a half to two.
  • Take notes. It feels like you are in class, but your short-term memory will thank you.
  • Take a backpack or some other large item of holding for both your purchases and giveaway promotional materials available.  Make sure it’s something that you can carry all day.

Now to the meat of the convention…the panels!  It is here that I found the wealth of industry experience and information.  Panelists were very helpful, however many times they were asked what I refer to as "what-is-zen" questions such as "how do I get published?"  "how do you write?"  "how do you make your comic a film?"   These generic questions often lead to generic answers.  Instead, do some research on your own on the generalities.  There are many resources online, for example, with the basics on how to write a novel, film a movie, or make a comic.  Come armed with a direction or specific questions to make the most of the technical expertise out there. Immediately on the Thursday panels (Entertainment Weekly’s Comic Creators, How to Write a Pitch, Graphic Novels) that I attended, the love/hate relationship between comics and movies popped up. There is no beating around the bush.  Movies have been extremely profitable for comics (just ask Mark Millar of Wanted), and Hollywood is also reaping the financial rewards of fresh visions (The Dark Knight anyone?)  As a result, there is a tendency by newcomers to tailor their graphic works for film, using cinematic conventions and subsequent visual limitations, instead of working within the looser comics framework.  The resulting hybrid becomes less than either in its totality, and editors treat it as such. Another side effect of the comics/movie relationship is the danger of how the public views your work.  Mike Mignola, at Entertainment Weekly’s Comic Creators, stated that when people think of Hellboy, they think of the movie first and not the comic which differs in plot. Underscored at both How to Write a Pitch and the So You Want to Do a Graphic Novel panels was that everyone has an idea.  But, what editors and publishers want to see is whether you can follow through and have a finished product.  Evidence of past finished work, or a full manuscript or draft will attract their notice.  Even when doing a simple Q&A at a panel, you will receive more attention.  One of my friends at an author’s panel has several unpublished novels.  When he asked how best to proceed, he was literally showered with tips from the panelists.  Also, your idea should be able to be verbalized into a short pitch slightly less than a paragraph.  When the How to Write a Pitch panelists were asked what was a good example, Rob Levin of Top Cow responded, "Snakes on a Plane".  The graphics novel panel, organized by the independent comics publisher Larry Young of AiT/Planet Lar had a very mixed panel of authors/writers of various styles.  When asked about structure, Steven Grant (Badlands) was more freeform in advising to let the story dictate the structure.  However, on the same panel were Adam Beechen and Manny Bello (Dugout, Hench), whose background was film, and they admitted that they were fans of the three-act story. Another one of the major themes in the panels is being open to diversification.  J. Michael Straczynski, whose own background runs the gamut of tv (writer/producer, Babylon 5,) comics (writer, Spider-Man, Silver Surfer and several graphic novels), and film (the upcoming Changeling), emphasizes how healthy it is to keep working and active and to not limit oneself to a particular media.  If you are a writer, mention whether it’s an article, a comic, a script, a short story or a novel.    He further added, to speak with your own voice.  Often writers try to write how they think a good writer should write, usually by imitating their favorite authors.  Instead, write like you would speak your own story. It will ring more true and make a better impact. Next time, I’m going to bring a bigger notepad.