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Los Dos Dientes de Don Miguel

April 15, 2010

“All in all, the creative act is not performed by the artist alone; the spectator brings the work in contact with the external world by deciphering and interpreting its inner qualifications and thus adds his contribution to the creative act.” -Marcel Duchamp

My last year of university my art professors gave me the freedom of a grad student; I was left to paint on my own, and I would meet with them once a week to show my newest work. One semester I had the two most respected painting professors simultaneously, and when I would meet for coffee and critiques with each one I showed them the exact same paintings. I would line up five canvases, and the first professor would point and say “good, good, bad, good, bad” and then proceed with his explanation of why. A few hours later I would take the same paintings and line them up in the same order in front of the other professor, who would say “bad, bad, good, bad, good.” They had totally different opinions, and there was no way to paint something they would both like. But that was the great lesson that has stayed with me; once you go beyond the technical ability, art is subjective. As Marcel Duchamp said, it is 50% what the artist creates and 50% what the viewer adds. Each person’s view is a result of their personal history, imagination, and taste.

This week I used Facebook as an outlet to involve friends and family in the photography editing process. The photos were of a leathery old fisherman in Puntarenas. Editing is often more difficult than shooting, especially when you get several great photos of the same subject. I guessed totally wrong about which ones people would pick, which made it all the more enjoyable for me to read. (That does make me wonder though how many photos I have buried away that people would like more than what I show the public!) If you were one of the friends that voted for a favorite, remember that I am no different than one of the art professors I mentioned before; I have an educated opinion that you can learn something from, but it doesn’t mean my choice is any more right than any other choice. Ultimately, choosing a “best” photo from these is purely subjective. I said I would reveal my pick and describe the photos today, so here it goes:

All of these photos were shot with a Nikon D700 + a 50mm 1.4 lens. It was in a carport/ boat ramp with filtered light that created a lightbox effect, and the color contrasts were what made me jump out of the car.

The Portrait

The Portrait

This is actually the photo that I thought most people would pick. It was my runner-up, but was actually the 4th place in the public votes. What works here: 1) Direct eye contact- eye contact in a travel portrait engages the viewer. 2) great expression; the subject is totally at ease… this stoic look reminds me of an indian chief. He is relaxed, comfortable, and open to the camera (and the viewer) 3) Composition- natural framing (the red pillar, white door frame, and log) frame his body and draw focus to the man and his weathered body. The eyes are the entry point, the landscape of his skin the path, and the exit point is with his legs going out of the frame. This photo is all about the man.

What it doesn’t have: Don Miguel had three main features that were eye-catching- his leathery reddish skin, his thick white wavy hair, and his two bottom teeth. In comparison with the other photos his hair isn’t as dynamic and his teeth aren’t visible, but for me his gaze made up for that. I also de-saturated this photo a little, so the colors are slightly muted by comparison to the other 3. I did this because I thought it matched the mood of the picture, and gave a hint of a weathered feel to the photo. I don’t know if that had any impact on the comparison, but it is the only photo that the saturation was lowered. The Japanese have done market research that proves people are more attracted to bright colors and deeply saturated images; this is why point-and-shoot cameras are now pre-set to saturate colors so intensely.

The Story

The Story

This was the crowd favorite, receiving more votes than all of the others combined. It was the only wide shot, showing more of the surroundings. What it has: 1) A story- It is obvious that he is telling a story, and that encourages the viewer to look at the surroundings and imagine what that story could be. Since it was a wide shot, there are more “puzzle pieces” to work with. 2) Gesture- His gesture at first glance implies motion, but at closer inspection seems as solid as a bronze sculpture. 3) Balance- this photo has a unique balance to it, and a lot of layering. The colors are balanced, the shapes (despite being curiously “off kilter” as it was pointed out) are balanced, and even his gesture makes him seem like he is balancing the photograph. 4) The 3 elements- this photo also shows all three of the characteristics that were so intriguing about Don Miguel; his skin, his teeth, and his hair.

What it doesn’t have: I don’t know that this photo is necessarily missing anything, but side by side choosing between a wide shot and a close-up I personally tend to go for the close-ups (assuming they are equally interesting). I am also probably a little burnt out on doors because I’ve photographed so many over the years.

The Composition

The Composition

By naming this photo “The Composition” I don’t mean to say that it has the best composition of the 4, because it doesn’t.  I mean that it seems that composition is the dominant characteristic. What it has: 1) Gesture- I love his right arm in this photo, and gesture of the left arm is nice too. 2) Don Miguel’s 3 traits- again, here we see his great hair, skin, and two teeth. When I saw this photo the name for the series and this blog popped into my head and stuck. 3) Balance- The balance in this photo is between the texture rich subject in the bottom heavy right corner and the empty blue wall behind him that he is pointing to. This photo is more dependent on the high color contrast to stay balanced than the others, but it works.

What doesn’t work:

Eye contact (well, the lack of, I should say). I think the fact that his head is facing me but his eyes aren’t looking in my direction made me skip over this one. The other thing, which no one would ever know, is that this is the only photo that is cropped. I think it is common for photographers to be more proud of the compositions that they made through the viewfinder than ones they made in post-production.

The Digital Painting

The Digital Painting

This was my pick of the 4 photos. To understand why I like it you have to remember my frame of reference; my formal education was as a painter. I’ve studied a lot of photography as well, but regardless of whether I’m using a brush or a camera I’ll always be a painter. Painters battle “flatness” from the first stroke, trying to represent 3 dimensional objects on a 2 dimensional canvas. Painting makes you keenly aware of the tools that you have to do this. These tools, or attributes, are: line, shape, value/ tone, space (positive and negative), light/shadow, texture, color, perspective, and composition. There isn’t time to go into these in depth now, but let’s just say that for me this photo has a successful sum of these parts; they make Don Miguel almost reach out of the photo. In this case it doesn’t bother me that he isn’t looking at the camera because he is looking in the same direction that his hand is gesturing. There is something effortlessly graceful about it that grabbed my attention.


The Raccoon Conundrum

March 30, 2010

“It will all make sense when you are a kid again.”

Recent painting of mine

I simply couldn’t understand why it was so hard for them to let go. I was sitting in my treehouse, reading a book about wilderness survival, and trying to figure out why raccoons would be so stubborn. I was maybe 12 years old, and thanks to my mom’s love of horses we lived on a good sized piece of property.  The acres of woods that surrounded us were my stomping grounds. According to the book I was reading, you could construct a raccoon trap by making narrow hole in a log, then driving a few nails in around the sides (diagonally  so that they pointed in towards the bottom of the opening) and placing something shiny in the bottom. A curious raccoon would reach his paw into the narrow hole to grab the shiny treasure, but then wouldn’t be able to get his fist back out because of the nails. He would remain too stubborn to just let the treasure go, and would be trapped. I never actually made the raccoon trap; it seemed too cruel. Besides, there were plenty of snacks still left in the fort, I wasn’t going to have to resort to trapping wild animals any time soon.

It takes an adult mentality to understand the raccoon conundrum, but a kid’s spirit and simplicity to understand how to escape. The raccoon is not a stupid animal; on the contrary, he is actually quite clever. Tests have shown that raccoons are capable of abstract problem solving and are adept at opening locking mechanisms, with the ability to remember solutions for several years. Why then, does he sit there, stumped by his own stubborn nature? Most people chase after their treasures (of one sort or another) in their twenties, and by the time they reach their thirties are clutching what they have, but feeling trapped by it in some way. When I first moved to Costa Rica, I had a conversation with a stranger in a little sunset beach bar. I have forgotten almost all of the details of that moment except for one thing that he said. He was apparently a rich man, but had only recently felt any sort of freedom in his life. He said “You never really own anything… usually you just become a slave to what you think you own. Don’t let your belongings or what you create determine you fate.”  I was in the when you’ve got nothing there’s nothing to lose phase of my life at the time, so it took a decade for that advice to mean anything to me.

The “treasures” we cling to can be material items, relationships, jobs, or even social identities. All of these things are parts of modern adult life, and are fine to hold dear if you are happy with them; the problem is when you cling to them after they have become detrimental to your spirit. Sometimes it only means changing your perspective and opening up. Most days my child-like spirit keeps me free from the trappings of adult worries, but I haven’t completely escaped. When I do, I think my sunset beach barstool advice will be:

“An open hand gets you out of more trouble than a fist.”

Zach of all Trades, Master of…… Fun?

February 2, 2010

Paris, July 2009 ©ZMcDuffie 2009

“I have no special talent. I am only passionately curious.” -Albert Einstein

Blogs, Twitter, Photography and the Information Age

If you would have told me a year ago that I would be actively writing blogs and have a twitter account I most certainly would not have believed it. I still don’t even really like the word “blog”, it ranks up there with other words that make me cringe like “cloister” and “pecan”. Not only did I not like the sound of the word, but I considered blogs, tweets, and status updates to be mostly senseless jibber-jabber for people that are in front of their computers way too much or highly addicted to their iphones. I use the internet like a battery charger. I plug in just long enough to get some new ideas, connect with important people, and then I’m done. Time to go back outside and live/love/learn. Ahhh but then my uncle, the “ad man”, told me that I was looking at social media from the wrong perspective…. and I listened because his advice has helped me stay ahead in the business world (which has ultimately helped me stay outside).

The most important change that blogs and sites like Twitter and Facebook bring is that people are now getting their news from their friends, their peers, and their common interest groups on a scale that competes with the traditional media. Not all of that news is interesting, but that is the downside to free flow information… we get stuck weeding through the irrelevant to find what interests us. This means that the key to using social media to your advantage is to separate quality content from fluff. For example, now instead of random searches on google to find interesting photography news and sites, I can follow blogs and twitter feeds from people that spend their time finding interesting quality content on the web (or creating their own quality content). It is like having a team of like-minded people researching for me. I can also see what my favorite photographers are into right now, not in 2 years when their next book ends up on the shelf.

One of the coolest things about the age that we are living in right now is that tools to make and broadcast movies, books, photographs, and music are available and within most people’s reach. Reaching a broad audience with an artistic or journalistic message is easier than ever. Artists can now skip past publishers, record labels, TV and film studios, and take their message straight to the web. It was in thinking about this concept, and thinking about what I had to contribute to the web world (in relation to quality content), that I ended up with the idea for my latest project, Out to See.

Zach of all trades, master of….. fun?

My life is centered around being passionately curious. It seems that my greatest area of expertise isn’t in one particular subject, but rather in trying to learn how to do a little bit of everything that interests me (and enjoying the hell out of life in the process). Reaching this conclusion was a comical epiphany. I guess I’m somewhere between modern renaissance adventurer and just a kid trapped in an adult body ( a kid with a global case of Attention Deficit Disorder). I realized that I was in a unique position to share a lot of inspiring information with a wide audience (about my experiences with learning and travel). I didn’t need to convince a publisher to let me write a book about it; I could just do it on my own. So I started a blog called Out to See . It did mean accepting the fact that I would be pouring hours of work into a project that had no real financial return, but that would be the test of my artistic purpose. I decided to spend (at least) one year creating a blog with inspiring stories, interviews, and advice for my fellow travelers and soul searchers out there in the world. This project’s success will be measured by the number of people it reaches and inspires. So if you enjoy it, please pass the word along.

Since this blog site (that you are reading now) is going to remain more related to my photography and personal art exploration, I’ll wrap up this post with a couple of recent images I’ve taken here in Costa Rica. Hope you enjoy the photos and the new site…

© ZMcDuffie 2010

©ZMcDuffie 2010

©ZMcDuffie 2010

©ZMcDuffie 2010

Zig Zagging into 2010

January 5, 2010

“Somehow the detached life on the sea gives me the ability to think. It’s a life of action, yet contemplation.” Carleton Mitchell, legendary sailor, photographer, and writer

I took this photograph a couple of years ago, while on a surf trip in the Mentawaii Islands in Sumatra. For me this photo mimics the reflection, mystery, allure, and enlightenment the sea offers to those she enchants.

It has been awhile since I last sat down to write. I was told recently by a family member (that is an active blogger) that blogs are meant to be consistently maintained, and that I have been slacking. I sort of thought of the blog as a modern day message in a bottle… something that a stranger on a distant digital shore would stumble upon and find a little inspiration or entertainment out of. Other than the brief flash of attention from the one post that was picked for the wordpress homepage I really never have thought of it as if anyone was actually following my meandering progress through this creative life. Today the cold weather in Florida  has kept me housebound (yes, Florida, but on a motorcycle or sailboat 40 degrees with below freezing windchill is cold for someone used to tropical heat!) so I guess it is a good occasion to catch up with my cyberspace chores.

Besides sailing and visiting with family for the holidays, the last month has been continued reflection about the direction to take for 2010. Between the bad economy and the downturn of the print (magazine) world it is a tough time to chase professional photography dreams. I’ve also had some internal debate on what the end game is about… ultimately, what is it that I want to wake up and do everyday? and where?  I had been thinking that all roads led to NYC for pursuing photography and design dreams, but then every time I am sailing I experience a peace that trumps all other desires. For now I am content to continue making slow but steady progress towards all of my goals in both the art and business worlds. In the art world that means exhibiting photography and compiling new bodies of work, and starting to work on the first prototypes of the lighting design ideas that I have. In the business realm it means launching my “learning vacation reviews” site, and continuing new projects at School of the World, like launching a digital video program. I would still like to make a more permanent move and set down roots (NYC? Miami? California? Australia? Europe? Brazil?) but until I get a little money saved and figure out the details it seems that I’ll be splitting time between south Florida and Costa Rica.

I hope to make sailing one of the biggest components of my life in 2010. One of the things that I love most about sailing is the simultaneous appreciation of the moment and gentle reflection of life that it induces. As in life, the course is rarely a straight line; sailing is usually tacking or jibing a zig zag line back and forth, stitching the sea of your thoughts together on the way to your final destination. -Z

The Sum of How We Spend Our Days

November 9, 2009

“Greatness is not in where we stand, but in what direction we are moving. We must sail sometimes with the wind and sometimes against it – but sail we must, and not drift, nor lie at anchor.” –Oliver Wendell Holmes


The reason I haven’t written lately is because I’ve fallen in love… with a classic sailboat. Eight days ago I was sitting at home, cruising the internet, dreaming of the day I would have my own sailboat (a very old dream, so it always seemed like one of those distant “one day” kind of things). I’m a spontaneous person and never hesitate to go for my dreams, but I surprised even myself when I came across a 50 year old classic Pearson Triton sailboat for sale on craigslist and five days later I had flown to florida and was aboard my very own boat. Cool. Who buys a 50 year old sailboat over the internet (I did send my dad to check it out first at least) when money is tight and we’re in a bad economy? Ummm, yeah, that’s me. The best irrational, spontaneous, ballsy move I ever made. (Lucky for me I like vintage classic things, because that was all I could afford.) There is no substitute for how it feels to be at the helm of your own life though, gliding along on a tangible dream, graduating from Dreamer to Do-er.

So basically, I’m admitting that I’ll write again when I get around to it… like when it rains or when there is no wind… or maybe when I get back to Costa Rica. Sailing makes this whole internet business seem inconsequential… in the meantime know that I’m out there grinning ear-to-ear, living in the moment, with full sails (or scrubbing, sanding and polishing). No time for the cyber world.

Life is, after all, the sum of how you spend your days. So enjoy as much as you can.


October 23, 2009

“Living for me is a creative action, I am unsatisfied with simply existing. I can’t help it- it is part of my make-up. I want to know every moment how I can refine and intensify my connection with the world, and every moment how I can make some definite contribution- some crystallization of a perception- some actual golden experience.” -Ansel Adams

I took the photo above while in Bimini last April, where I spent a week learning apnea diving and swimming with wild bottle-nosed and spotted dolphins. This photo qualifies as street photography of the realm of my soul, and helps to remind me of the magic moments in life. To try and explain what it is like to interact with dolphins in the wild to you would be beyond my descriptive powers… even the visual adjectives of photos I took there can’t do the trick, as the closer to amazing a photograph gets the closer it resembles the thousands of stock paradise images that dull the senses of the modern consumer.

Since my last blog I have been trying to untangle the various desires of my heart, mind, and soul and line them up so I can get on with pleasing them all in an orderly fashion. Happiness is a slippery mistress though, and doesn’t always take direction well from list-makers. Like seawater, it is better to soak in it than to try to contain it, as containment usually yields a foul, cloudy, lifeless mess. So I’m trying to figure out how I satisfy my artistic need to find out what the big leagues are all about (which inevitably means extended time in NYC) AND my salty soul that wants little more than to spend my days deciding between sailing, surfing, diving, or fishing. Fine art and fashion photography in NYC are as far away as another planet from the peace of holding your breath and sitting on the bottom of the ocean in 70 ft of water while watching dolphins play…. yet somehow I am determined to find a way to combine these two sides of me. Peter Beard was able to combine his beloved Africa with the art and fashion world, so we’ll see if I can manage a similar fusion.

The ability to hold your breath for the extended periods of time necessary for experiencing the underwater world of apnea diving is established in the pre-dive preparation. In other words, learning to hold your breath is really about learning to breathe properly beforehand (and to have a lot of  mind over body control). My instructor, William Trubridge, is a world record holding freediver. (Check out this video of him breaking the world record this year in the “no fins” category here) . He is an extreme example of focus, passion (he trains over 300 days a year) and Clarity of Purpose. He taught me the importance of proper breathing, and some yoga breathing techniques that are important for energizing the body. He also taught me a lot about mental control. You can imagine how important it is to not freak out when holding your breath that far from the surface. These are both extremely relevant lessons. Breathing is, both literally and figuratively, life. We take it for granted as an involuntary action, but by focusing on doing it properly, even just a few minutes a day, our bodies and souls benefit from increased energy. In regards to happiness, there is nothing more important than to understand mental self-control. As Abe Lincoln said, Most folks are about as happy as they make up their minds to be.”

P.S. Finally, after a two year break, I’ve started painting again.

Potential Has a Shelf Life

October 8, 2009
Ingrid, Playa Jaco, Costa Rica 2006

Ingrid, Playa Jaco, Costa Rica 2006

“To me, photography is the simultaneous recognition, in a fraction of a second, of the significance of an event, as well as of a precise organisation of forms which give that event its proper expression. I believe that through the act of living, the discovery of oneself is made concurrently with the discovery of the world around us which can mould us, but which can also be affected by us. A balance must be established between these two worlds- the one inside us and the one outside us. As the result of a constant reciprocal process, both these worlds come to form a single one. And it is this world that we must communicate. But this takes care only of the content of the picture. For me, content cannot be separated from form. By form, I mean the rigorous organisation of the interplay of surfaces, lines and values. It is in this organisation alone that our conceptions and emotions become concrete and communicable. In photography, visual organisation can stem only from a developed instinct.” – Henri Cartier-Bresson

The photograph above is still probably to this day my personal favorite. I’ve traveled to the ends of the earth for inspiration so it is ironic that this photo was taken walking distance from my home here in Costa Rica. I remember thinking that it wasn’t even a very good day for shooting, but I was teaching a photography class so I was obliged to go out to see. I came across this fisherman’s daughter clawing away intently at something in the rocks so I asked her what she was doing. She didn’t say a word, just looked up for the first time and showed me a tiny mollusk she had pulled off the rock. It was a split second, I barely had time to push the shutter before she was back in her world, oblivious to me and the camera.

Irving Penn died yesterday. He was, like so many other great photographers ( such as Henri Cartier-Bresson and Annie Leibowitz for example), a painter turned photographer. This is an interesting detail to me, being that my education was primarily in painting as well. What you commonly see with painter-photographers is a deep appreciation for composition. I was reading an article/ obituary about him in the New York Times and one of the quotes regarding him stuck with me.  Alexander Liberman (remembering when he first met Penn) said “I was struck by his directness and curious unworldliness, a clarity of purpose, and a freedom of decision. What I call Penn’s American instincts made him go for the essentials.” The characteristics Liberman described are the essential qualities of a person on the path to realizing their dreams.

So here I am, thinking about my plan to achieve my next level of personal dreams, and what keeps repeating in my head are Liberman’s words describing a young Irving Penn. Clarity of Purpose. What is it exactly that I want out of my art and my life right now? The great thing about being so creative is that ideas flow like water most of the time… but that can leave you running in circles if you aren’t careful. Like my uncle the ad man says “Your great idea’s worst enemy is your next great idea.” The first step towards attaining goals or dreams is being very clear about what they are. So I am busy defining what I want and how to get it. Potential has a shelf life after all, and it would be a shame to waste it.