Merfeld Collodion
Merfeld Collodion
Merfeld Collodion
Merfeld Collodion
Merfeld Collodion


Welcome to Merfeld Fine Art Collodion

I am Ken Merfeld and this is my Blog, expressing my opinions, philosophies, musings, random thoughts, and reviews about art, photography, and the creative process. Is this site only about Wet-Plate Collodion and other alternative processes ? No.  Art encompasses all mediums, techniques, and methods of expression. What is Collodion and who is Ken Merfeld ? See pull down menus above. Why should we listen to, or engage in conversation with Ken Merfeld ? I invite past photo and seminar students, peers, and art world junkies to offer their opinions if they have had experience with Merfeld and the results.

I will offer the following :

I am and have been a darkroom fanatic since the first day photography entered my life.  I highly value the not-so-current trend of being well-versed in photo history.  I have been a commercial photographer ( and have earned a living with my camera for 25 years.  I have continuously explored personal portrait and fine art projects via film and traditional silver printing. I have been a photographic educator, editor of portfolios, and designer of personal projects for photographers and artists for the same time period.  I continue to teach and also extend a critiquing service (“Photo Soup”) from my studio offering project, portfolio, and design reviews, and career direction / advice for students, grads, mid-career artists, art therapists and psychologists.

I still shoot commercially.  I still shoot film.  I look forward to the return of Polaroid.  I put images on glass and tin.  I also shoot digital and, in effect, combine 21st. Century technology with 19th. Century process, to create current bodies of work for reproduction and exhibitions.

Photography is my life, which I am fortunate to share with an incredibly supportive wife and two amazingly stubborn cats.  I do things other than photography, which will be discussed in future writing.  As Josef Sudek said, “… if you take photography seriously, you must also get interested in another art form.”

What won’t be happening on this site ?  I won’t be discussing what I had for breakfast, when I brush my teeth, how many friends I have, nor how much weight I have gained or lost for whatever godforsaken reasons.  Let’s avoid politics, religion, and sex as I hate to discuss the first two and prefer to keep the third personal – unless, of course, these topics are powerfully reproduced in visually compelling, inviting, emotional, communicative pieces of art !  Then we must chat.

My desire is to inspire yet question, motivate yet provoke, communicate yet challenge about our art.  Point our minds and employ our hearts in our work, sometimes actually having a thought or concept to spring from, other times shutting off your brain and relying on intuition, chance, spontaneity, even mistakes !

To those of you who have asked me to do something like this for years, I thank you for your persistence and your patience.  I will try to write as often as possible although an every day entry would probably be an unrealistic expectation.  Welcome to my Blog. Let’s see what happens and where we can take it !

Ken Merfeld      Sept. 14, 2010


I took a walk on the beach yesterday.  Venice Beach, Ca.  The pier, the infamous boardwalk including muscle beach, the locals, the endless ‘characters’, tourists, artists, vendors, hustlers, musicians, and vagrants.  Eclectic, crazy, complex environment with complicated backrounds, lots of people, movement everywhere, and even more people.  Difficult environment to shoot in for all of the above reasons but also because of difficult light.  Direct sun, high in the summer; in your face in the winter.  When the sun is high, the shadows are deep and you have to be careful.  When the sun is in your face, it is in your lens also, and you have to be careful.  Creating problems and limitations which invite you to see and move in different directions and angles for contrast, texture, exaggerated shadows, silhouettes, depth, drama, separation of form, surfaces, and subject matter.  It is almost too much to look at, too much to take in.  Visual overload with beach energy, twilight zone of light and shadow.  Light this gorgeous makes one forget about everything else. The drug of light, so to speak.  Everything is heightened.  One’s sense of reality changes, as do your feelings, emotions, and response to environment. One reacts differently in great light.

I came home on a natural, creative, “illuminated” high.  Just being at the beach is enough for me, but seeing, feeling, and appreciating that light is the gift producing slices of everyday life, beach details, poetic moments, and portraits.  How fortunate. Getting lost in the most beautiful, intense, incisive, cutting, brilliant, dangerous, hot, unforgiving, penetrating sunlight !!  Heaven.  Nirvana.  Ecstasy.

Times are hard, life is difficult, the world is tough but one can still take a walk on the beach, with a camera, in the sun, with incredible light, discovering and interpreting subject matter and coming home with art.  How fortunate.

Have a productive, creative New Year.  Be thankful.


If a picture is worth a thousand a thousand words, could you write those words?  Can you communicate about your own work?  Can you write intelligently about your process, your influences, your passions, your creative issues?  While your work should do most of the talking for you, the fact remains that we occasionally have to write about what we do.  The impact and emotional response received from your work should initiate a conversation from you to your audience.  Often this conversation needs to be written and/or spoken as well.  We are also asked to write art statements, personal philosophies, our opinions of other artist’s work, titles and meanings to our work, etc.

Concise and intelligent writing will enhance your viewer’s understanding of your work and possibly be an introduction to your mind.  If words are  always needed to explain your images, however, that is a different situation, perhaps a predicament.  To write about your work is to inform, educate, challenge, provoke, question, and give inspiration with your work. Can you do it and can you do it well?  Words can provide a wider context for your ideas and images but they can also get in the way.  Be careful.  Your words should only open doors for your viewer to discover the meaning of your work for themselves.  One should never feel the need to explain everything as an artist, nor justify their work, or tell your audience what or how to feel.

Photography itself is a form of language and an instant dialogue is initiated upon viewing an artist’s work.  Words can compliment that dialogue, expand it, and perhaps extend into other worlds thematically and emotionally.  If you do nothing but dangle participles, if you don’t even know what a participle is, nor the difference between a verb or an adverb, how can you write effectively about your own work?

If this conversation about being able to write is throwing a bit of a scare into you, you need to address it.  If you can’t spell, if you cannot diagram or construct a grammatically correct sentence, if you are prone to abbreviations, texting symbols and cute little icons, pull your head out of cyber space, rediscover the dictionary and do WHATEVER you need to do to learn how to write properly!  Your writing is yet again another extension of your work and who you are as an artist.  Words matter.


Being shy gets you nowhere in the art world.  Plain. Simple. Quiet.  It doesn’t get you very far in many other worlds either.  A shy photographer puts out very little, if any, energy and gets very little, if any, back.  And, then he wonders why he cannot be a good, “connected” portrait photographer?  To be slightly nervous (energy) and ‘sensitive’ (more energy) is fine and somewhat expected.  Properly handled, these traits are workable and can actually help you.  Being shy gets you nothing back in a portrait exchange because you have invested nothing.

What to do?  One must become ‘other’ than he really is.  Instead of being shy when shooting portraits, he must have some personality, emotion, dialogue, acute awareness, sensitivity, body language, vocal intonation, intelligence (technique), vision, and an innate response to spontaneity.  How can you possibly attempt all of this if you are painfully shy or ultra sensitive?  At best, over time, you illicit timid responses, a myriad of questionable emotions and confused looks, and perhaps you will stumble into a quiet success or two – if you are responsive to spontaneity, act quick, fine tune, vary, etc. …  all opposites of being shy.

I have spoken of the power of the camera before, the “magic” box that opens doors, facilitates change, allows us to be stronger, more confident, and have purpose.  The camera is our reason for doing what we love to do and, if embraced, enhances our personality, kicks up our energy, and makes us more than we really are.  Hell, your camera will give you a personality if you believe enough and allow it to!  Facilitate the change, allow your camera to help pry you out of your shell, jump out of your corner, climb out of your hole and create with confidence!  You don’t really want to be there in the first place so USE your camera to get out of shy and into energy, interaction, art, and portraits ! Your camera is your reason, your excuse, the conductor of your passion, the key that provides invitations and opens doors that otherwise would be closed.  Be dynamic with your camera !  Go home and be shy.


“Regardless of how you feel inside, always try to look like a winner.

Even if you are behind, a sustained look of control and confidence

can give you a mental edge that results in victory.”  -  Diane Arbus


What is focus? The difference between sharp and soft?  Is that it?  No. Is focus expected?  Somewhat, but less and less these days. In the 1860’s, Julia Margaret Cameron didn’t care about exact focus for a number of reasons. She said, “What is focus, and who has the right to say what focus is the legitimate focus?”  She was heavily criticized and she thumbed her nose at her critics!  Yes, she was a bit eccentric [especially for her time] but she was actually on to something – letting go [see blog #8].  She also said that she focused by “feel”.

Cartier-Bresson said that focus was “a bourgeois concept”, though most of his “decisive moments” were sharp.  Robert Stivers, a contemporary photographer, never shoots anything in focus, sometimes to the point of almost indistinguishable subject matter.  He has published books and gallery exhibitions.

Focus is also the ability to concentrate, create, and move forward with your work.  This focus needs to be sharp!  Your work may not always have to be in focus these days but your mind does so that you can produce your work.  One must focus and concentrate  through distraction, uncertainty, procrastination, experimentation, trial and error, astrological signs, the shape of the moon, changing tides, and your own personal mood and energy swings!

So, times and techniques have changed.  Focus is not critical anymore.  It is almost an additive.  If the integrity of the image and the ensuing emotional response is intact, most images are accepted as viable these days.  One can be a bit looser about sharpness but you cannot dull or blur your innate desire to work, to produce your art. Go make your own sharp, not-so-sharp decisions as long as you are focused on the bigger picture of creating work.  As long as your images have impact, elicit emotional response, and are remembered, who cares if they are sharp anymore?

No Blog

I did not write a blog last month.  I couldn’t.  My brain was, and still is, numb.  Words had no meaning.  My friend, an incredible artist, is dying from brain cancer.  Chemo.  Radiation. Pain. Confusion. Wheelchair.

We talked about life.  We talked about art.  We couldn’t understand why he was handed a death sentence one year ago and how vastly his life had changed overnight.

How do you continue to do your art?  Do you continue to do your art?  Depends on who you are.

We laughed watching an old episode of Bonanza where cowboy life was so clean and simple, they would sit around and harmonize with “Pa” after dinner, and their current dilemma was whether or not to put down an old horse.  Another life and death situation – but we laughed until we could not laugh anymore.

We created art also.  Yes, the Collodion camera and chemistry made the trip to 100 degree, hot, dry, Sacramento.  Tough shoot physically.  Tough shoot emotionally.  Had to do it but it was another out of body experience.  I have talked about it before.  The camera can be responsible for many things.  It opens doors, it allows you to be someone else, it facilitates interpretation, it communicates, it can be a true sense of joy.  It can also be a mask, a buffer to pain.  I brought it to interrupt the emotions, to give us a reason to be thankful for what was, and for whatever was left, and as a bond with which we still could create.  A final portrait of a man in a wheelchair, dying, yet remembering and still pursuing art.

He called me when the print arrived. We discussed how the chemistry had once again added to the narrative in it’s mysterious and truthful ways.  He said he loved the print and that it gave him goosebumps.  He thanked me.


We all need inspiration.  Or do we?  Where do we get inspiration?  What is the magic formula?  What button do I push?  What number do I call?

I agree with artist/photographer Chuck Close who says you should not sit around waiting for inspiration.  Artists show up and get to work.  “If you wait around for the clouds to part and a bolt of lightning to strike you in the brain, you are not going to make a lot of work.”  Inspiration comes out of the process of doing the work.  As you are working, your creative gene kicks in as you have to solve problems, figure things out, come up with interesting light, composition, design, mood.  While you are working, things happen, directions change, mistakes [?] are made and learned from, and then something else happens that pushes you in a different direction that makes you think of another idea which inspires another photo or perhaps even a new body of work.

Research is good.  Borrow from one, that is plagiarism and you go straight to artistic hell.  Borrowing from many is called research, and you are considered wise, as we all learn from the work of others.  Sitting on the couch dreaming of ideas does not put images into your camera.  Doing the work produces more work, which produces more ideas which produces more work.  Isn’t that inspiration?  Get to work!


“Inspiration is absolutely unnecessary and somehow

deceptive.  You feel like you need this great idea

before you can get down to work, and I find that is

almost never the case.”   …  Chuck Close

What do you want?

What do you want from art?  What do you give with your art?  Do you know what you do not want from art? Simple questions or complex?  What is the purpose of art to you? Is it to entertain, educate, provoke, stimulate, inspire, motivate, surprise?  Why do you look at art? What do you want other people to take away from experiencing your art?

When I hold a print in my hand, look at an image in a book, stand in front of a painting in a museum, or spend time in a photo gallery, I want to have an emotional exchange.  I want to HAVE to respond in some way.  I want an image to make me think. I want an image to make me feel. I want to be enlightened.  I want to be disturbed in a positive way, a new way, even a negative way. I want to laugh.  I want to cry.  I want to be intrigued, I want to wonder, I want to want more.  I want to be introduced into a mystery, or perhaps invited into a fantasy or a narrative where I might have to draw my own conclusions.  I want to be filled with wonder and be mesmerized, fascinated and/or educated.  I want my heart ripped out.  I want all of my senses attacked.  I want to be hypnotized by something I have never seen before.  I want to never be the same because of the image I just saw.  I want to be able to say, “Damn, I wish I would’ve thought of that, I wish I had shot that … where does that come from?”  I want to never forget that image.  Ultimately, I would like to be the artist responsible for the unforgettable, emotional image described above.

What I don’t want from art is what I have seen before, the mundane, the obvious.  I do not want to be bored.  I don’t want to drown in the vast sea of mediocre images produced these days. I do not want to see what everyone else sees.  I do not want to see an image that my mother could’ve taken.  It has to be more.

Keith Carter demands “opera” from pictures.  “If you can’t give that to me, I am not your audience, and you are not mine.” Nice analogy.

I guess I demand a lot from art.  What do you want?  What do you give?


What is a mistake?  Webster’s says a mistake is a wrong step, something incorrect.  Are there mistakes in art? Is there really a right or a wrong in art? Think about it.  There are rules and principles and supposed guidelines when you learn to make art.  Then you find that breaking the rules makes for another kind of art. How does that work? By definition, if you break a rule, you are making a mistake.  But, what if that mistake is, or leads you, to art?  If the very nature of being an artist is to creatively express yourself, find a vision, establish a voice or a new reality, how can you be wrong if it is YOUR expression?  Perhaps the world does not always like what you do, does that make you wrong? Or are you dealing with a selective audience?  If you are not accepted, is there a mistake involved?  Exactly who has the right to say what is right or wrong, good or bad, boring or sensational in the art world?  And where does the rightness and wrongness of it all come from in the first place?

Dali says,“we should not fear mistakes, there are none”.  I agree. I think that there are no real mistakes in art.  Mistakes are often gifts in disguise, if we have the latitude to receive them as such.  Mistakes are invitations, not limitations, to other directions, other solutions, different possibilities to explore.  Mistakes force us to engage other parts of our brains, or perhaps turn our over-extended brains off and float with intuition for awhile! An artist must have the courage to step off his path and embrace where he may have been thrown.  I believe that things happen for reasons in art. Often, an extended struggle produces unexpected results.  And anything different or unexpected can lead to a revelation, a new way of seeing, a new world to inhabit, a new playground, a new voice to be heard, or even a horrific nightmare to explore. Mistakes ??  Be careful what you call them.

                                              “I have made many wonderful mistakes that have changed my way of working.”                                                                                                                                     Ken Merfeld


Death is absolute, permanent, it stops everything.  No more life, no more art – unless there really is that big darkroom in the sky.  I am losing two friends as I write these suddenly misty, somewhat out of focus words, and it hurts.  Life is unfair, the art world is out of balance, selfishness is rampant, and death sucks. Death is a great re-evaluator when you are not the one dying.  It sure as hell puts a different perspective on life, time, spontaneity, and daily chores.

The death of one’s art is often metaphorically referred to as a “wall”.  When you hit the proverbial wall of non-productivity, zero creativity, and empty ideas, you die as an artist. And you don’t come back at Easter.  If you have been paying attention, however, if you have heeded the warnings, if you have listened to the echoes of nothingness within yourself, if you have watched other artists wither and disappear, then perhaps you have protected yourself artistically? Perhaps you know the value of that “other” place, that “safe” place that some artists go to produce their very personal, experimental work. Not necessarily destined for the world’s eyes, no pressure of expectations and/or imposed deadlines, from the dedicated heart, so important for survival.  Just work that you want to do, that is all yours, your playful visions, your crazy “what-ifs”, your personal projects that keep you alive, breathing, and growing as an artist, no matter what else is going on.

If you do not know what I am talking about, you need to re-evaluate your creative process and ask how do you keep yourself fresh, motivated, driven, challenged, alive, energetic and thoughtful enough to continue to create and come up with new ideas, new points of view, new subject matter?  How do you protect that part of yourself?  Are you the machine that drives your art or does the world drive it while you are running along side, until you hit the brick and mortar?

One must strike some kind of balance between expectation, stress, and pressure and his/her own ways of defusing and finding release, yet still  producing art.  This balance can be your salvation and survival as an artist.  Always be working on something for yourself.  No one can take that away.  That is perpetuating your life as an artist.  Think about how you will survive, not die, as an artist and what you will be working on.  Then do it, regularly.  It is your insurance policy against your early artistic demise.

It is possible to bring back your art.  You can’t bring back your friends.



Don’t be afraid of it. It’s okay “not to do” once in awhile.  To back off, observe, ponder, research.  Don’t always put pressure on yourself to produce.  The brain needs to relax occasionally. Refuel.  Your creative soul will kick-start you back into gear when it is time.  Believe in yourself and your process.  Do what you have to do, when you have to do it, but embrace the absence of chaos as well. Center yourself, create from a different place.

Enjoy the quiet.  Let your work make the noise.

The Zone

The “zone”.  How do you get into it?  What is it?  Why is it so important to your art?  Because it is the place you go to create, inhabit, take over to produce your work.  It is a state of mind.  It is a state of being.  It is where you go to get ideas, your methodology, your solutions, your modus operandi, your experiments, and your explorations.  It is YOUR playground!  It is that other place inside of you that drives you and challenges you to produce, and won’t let go when you are tired, and pushes you farther when you think there is nothing left, and challenges you to be more, find more, and create more.

It is your workspace, it is your mental place, and your combination of heart and soul that shuts out the “real” world and lets you free float in your “other” world.  It is directly connected to your work ethic, allowing ideas and technique to be born, grow, or die if necessary.  Your best ideas will come out of the process, they come out of the work itself when you are in your zone.  Sometimes you have to push your work through; other times, the work will pull you through.  Don’t sit around waiting for inspiration.  Get into your zone and get into your work.  As Chuck Close says, “ Things occur to you. If you are trying to dream up a good art idea, you can sit there a long time before anything happens.  But if you just get to work, something will occur to you and something else will occur to you and something else you reject will push you in another direction”.

As an artist you MUST learn how to get into your zone and trust it as the place from which you WILL create.  In your zone, you will dig holes so deep that your own personal, creative solutions will be the only way out.  In your zone, you will back yourself into corners where no one else’s answers will fit.  In your zone, you will create.  In your zone, you are free to be fearless.

“I think, invariably, people involved in creative work, if they are lucky, feel they hand themselves over to the

course of something else, to the creation of something they’re not entirely responsible for.  We look back upon

it as if it’s an experience had almost by someone else.”

                                                                                     Daniel Day Lewis


Many people believe that technology has taken the poetry out of communication and that too much technology is the destroyer of emotions and truth.  Does technology really do anything for creativity? Yes, it makes some tasks easier and you can finish some things quicker, but does it make you a more creative person?  Picasso went so far to say that “computers are useless.  They can only give you answers.”

We live in a technologically driven world yet we should not be technologically driven artists.  Our heart, soul, and fertile minds should be the main sources of our creativity, not a machine.  This is not to say that the computer is not an amazing tool.  It is, as long as it is used and respected as a tool, a contributing part of your process, and not just a method to correct what should’ve been taken care of in the first place, or to add what you forgot, or to put 47 more bits and pieces of whatever into your photo just because you can !  Technology can invite a certain carelessness, a lack of discipline, an invitation to lazy.

I believe the computer should be used like an enlarger in a traditional “wet” darkroom for cropping, contrast, burning and dodging, color adjustment . . .  This means that you have a good negative [ captured image ] to start with !  This process requires minor adjustments not a major overhaul.  In today’s world, this translates to beginning with a good capture instead of a media card full of improperly exposed, poorly framed images, adding layers and layers of extra information, de-saturating color, burying in Gausian blur, attached to a burning cow and flying out of a fireplace on a broomstick !! Treat the computer as if it were a darkroom enlarger, not a ride at Disneyland.  Do not forget that we are human beings full of emotions, feelings, senses, attitudes, and personal nuances; we are not creators made up of nuts and bolts or one’s and zeros.


“Digital capture can make a photographer sloppy to the point
of ineptitude. If used as a crutch, digital can induce our
photographic muscles into a state of atrophy.”


                   “I figured out pretty early, even in the darkroom, having too
                     many options is counter productive to the creative process.
                     And the computer is the king of too many options.”
                                                                                           Jerry Ulesman


                   “A computer lets you make more mistakes faster than any
                     invention in human history – with the possible exception
                     of handguns and tequila.”


I see more art [?] produced these days with less concern for quality than ever.  We are drowning in images to satisfy the thirst of the “media” for information, news, gossip, to see how we dress, what we eat, what we do, and where we go !  Where did the real art go?  The world is dumbed down as to what is acceptable as meaningful, insightful, innovative images yet manufacturers keep raising the amount of pixels, enabling us to see all of the mediocrity even better !  Contrary to some popular belief, mediocrity is NOT the new genius.  Mediocre is average.  And who wants to be an average artist?  The art world turns away from average.

How we are using images has changed.  Once upon a time, people put images into photo albums, as memories – images of events, weddings, birthdays, vacations, etc.  Now, images are used for daily communication, social media, blogging, web sites, etc.  Millions of images are put on Facebook every single day to be “social”, I guess.  How many of these images are mediocre to bad?  These images are certainly not uploaded to perpetuate art.  Millions of images clogging up our airwaves, electronic devices, and our brains!  Why?  Because IPhone technology is here and anyone can take a poor image and put it out there for the world to waste time on!  With smart phone technology comes the availability of hundreds of apps to make these images more or less colorful, more or less sharp, with bells, whistles and borders!  How about one purposeful, poignant filter to be added to this equation?  A “mediocre filter”, one that eliminates or refuses to upload boring, average, or poor images??  Wouldn’t that be interesting?  How many new, good images would we then see each day?  This filter is not going to happen, however, just like the price of gas will not go down to where it should be, the medical profession will never admit to a cure for HIV, and we don’t live in a racist country, do we ?  It seems that some things never change.  Don’t let mediocrity be one of those things.  Make it a personal goal not to put any more lame images out into this world.  No more drowning in the swill of mediocrity.  Rise above it!  Walk on water with your art, give the world something to bow down to, something to learn from, something to laugh hysterically at, something to hate, something to feel, something to remember!  Do not put the world to sleep with a monotonous succession of mundane images.  Say NO to mediocrity.



                                                                          “ If you are going to give someone a heart attack with your art,

                                                                             it should be because your work is so powerful, so beautiful,

                                                                             so controversial, so unique, so provoking that it is overwhelming!

                                                                             Do not clog up the arteries of the art world with the bacon grease

                                                                             of banality and boring images.”   Ken Merfeld


As artists, photographers, painters, we are always making choices, every day, creative decisions pertaining to all facets of our art.  These choices define our direction, style, content, vision, point of view, who we are, what we say, and what emotional response is elicited from our art. What do you put into your work?  What makes your work different from everyone else’s? What choices do you make?  …

Black or white?  Color or black AND white?  Film or digital?  Computer or enlarger?  Pixels or grain?  Artificial or natural light?  Hard or soft?  Reflected or diffused?  Warm or cool? Manual or auto focus?  Blur or sharp? Commercial or fine art?  Models or stock?  Dated or contemporary?  Comfort zone or other point of view?  Rhyme or reason?  Tension or static?  Contrast or grey scale? Normal or exaggerated?  Perfection or Wabi-Sabi?  Simple or complex?  Surface or depth?  Light or shadow?  Reality or imagination?  Love or hate? Educate or bore?  Laugh or cry?  Truth or lie [or both]? Information or interpretation?  Fantasy or nightmare?  Snapshot or narrative?  Square or other format?  From above or below?  Fibre base or inkjet? Glossy or matte? Archival or temporary? Subtlety or saturation? Concept or free-fall?  Less or more? From above or below? Centered or ‘off’?  Work or play or play with work?  Editorial or reportage?  People or product?  Kids or animals?  Fashion or advertising? Portfolios or web sites?  Promo pieces or emails?  Spontanaeity or preparation? Obvious or implied?  Definition or illusion?  Chance or certainty?  Everyday or the unexpected?  Whisper or scream? Revolution or repetition? Sheep or shepherd?  Moth or flame?  Cake or death [with a nod to comedian, Eddie Izzard]?  Paper or plastic?  Art or … everything else? [Picasso]

And, finally, Trick or Treat  …  Happy Halloween !


Paul Simon sings, “There are 50 ways to leave your lover …”.

I woke up this morning with 60 choices … to be other.

Ken Merfeld


Artists think too much.  Not all, but many spend far too much time in their heads.  This is not to say that you should not have some kind of a plan, some direction, an idea to pursue. Just don’t drown it by thinking it to death.  A concept needs room to breathe, to grow, to possibly change direction, and it can’t if it is nailed down.  Overanalyzing, excessive worrying, too much deliberation will drain the life out of your art.  I think it is possible to concentrate so hard that you can lose sight.  You can go artistically blind.

Josef Sudek, who saw and photographed Prague unlike anyone else, felt that theory was alright but, “it is like over eating: when you overeat, you get sick”.  Andre Kertesz felt that he was a lucky man because, “ … I can do something with almost anything I see.  Everything is interesting to me.”  He had confidence in himself and in  his ability as an artist, because he had honed his craft.

Get out of your head.  Do your research, sketch out an idea or approach, give yourself a direction and GO!  Do, react, respond … play with your art, experiment.  Let things happen.  Do not put yourself in a tunnel. Do not nail yourself against a wall. Creativity needs to be untethered.  To run wild, to float into uncharted territory, one must get lost first.  It is in the finding that you find yourself as an artist.  Trust in your process that something will happen with your art if you give it a little freedom.  A butterfly preserved on the head of a pin the may be a beautiful specimen to an etymologist but it is an entirely different act of creativity and expression to allow it to dance spontaneous and free.

You can’t pre-ordain your art and you shouldn’t try.

“My instinct about painting says:
If you don’t think about it, it’s right.
As soon as you have to decide, it’s wrong.
And the more you decide about,
the more wrong it gets.”             Andy Warhol


“Make photographs and worry about the meaning later.”

Keith Carter


Do you notice how people don’t notice?  How little the average person sees, what they actually spend time looking at … or don’t?  We live in an increasingly selfish world.  We are being bombarded by an array of individualistic, self-contained “tools” on a daily basis. People isolate themselves, they detach, they tune out with their IPods, Ipads, IPhones, laptops.  Their ears are plugged, their eyes are electronically occupied. Their brains are somewhere else, they do not see the world around them. Personal social skills are disappearing at an alarming rate yet there are more social “networking” possibilities than ever.  The younger generations have been struggling for a while to write grammatically correct sentences and now they can’t spell.  They twit abbreviations.

Where has all of the time gone ?  No one has any time anymore and it takes time to see.

Slow down, smell the proverbial roses once in awhile, and open your eyes and look around !  Raise your general level of awareness of the world around you.  See more !  Every day observe, stare [which is another conversation], notice, appreciate, take in MORE !  The world is complex, it moves fast. So are we and so can we, if we take the time.

What if you could not see anything?  What if you woke up tomorrow and you were blind?  What if you KNEW that you were going to wake up tomorrow morning and not be able to see?  Would you look at everything in the world today differently?  Open your eyes.  Appreciate what you have been seeing.  Now take a longer look at all that you have been missing.

 As photographers and artists we are visual people.  We live to see.  To see more is to appreciate more.  To appreciate is to take notice, to learn, be more aware. More awareness gives you infinitely more resources to draw upon, experience, and reference in your work.  To see more not only enriches your daily life, it gives you more to work with in your work!  If you understand this, go see more, and use more.  For all of you others, plug your earphones back in, go along your solitary path, and at least have a dictionary app on one of your electronic devices!  You are missing all that you can see and you are not missing what you do not see.


   “Still – in a way – nobody sees a flower – really

    it is so small – we haven’t time –

    and to see takes time, like to have a friend takes time.”

                                                                                                                                                           – Georgia O’Keefe

The Best

The Summer Olympics are on.  Very inspiring. The best athletes giving their best efforts after years and years of practice, pain, and perseverance.  To be the very best of something – what a goal!  Are you the best photographer / artist that you can be?  What % of every day do you spend honing your craft ?  If you spend 50% of your heart, soul, time, and energy on anything would you expect to be on top of the pile, when everyone else who is serious gives 110%??  Olympic athletes push themselves to be better, to do more, to try harder.  Are you an Olympic caliber photographer, do you push yourself regularly, or do you expect art to somehow fall into your lap?  Do you have a strong work ethic?  Do you shoot every day?  Does your art spend more time in your head than your camera ?  Do you really give your best to your art?  Are you driven or do you bumble along?  Are you hard working or are you lazy?  There is no in between for an Olympic caliber artist.

“Nothing in this world can take the place of persistence.
Talent will not; nothing is more common than unsuccessful people with talent.
Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost a proverb.
Education will not; the world is full of educated derelicts.
Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent.”

 Persistence and determination are a mind set.  Make up your mind to do something.  Then make up your mind to be the best.  Then do it.


We are visual people.  You know who you are.  Artists tend to be more aware, see more, appreciate more, and respond to more than the average person on the street.  Photographers, painters, cinematographers, and illustrators quite simply use their eyes more than others.  Visuals are inspiration, motivation, design, energy, and provide aesthetic companionship.  Yes, companionship, like having a friend, an acquaintance, someone you know, enjoy, and appreciate every single day.  Visuals [and your art] become a relationship, an extension of who you are.

Surround yourself with visuals.  Inundate yourself with what inspires and motivates you.  Great images belong on walls and in well-printed books.  Frame a special, meaningful image, hang it on your wall, light it appropriately.  See it everyday.  Enjoy it everyday, appreciate your personal, intimate exchange.  When meaningful art is on your walls it is like your own private museum, your personal art gallery, to be taken in at any and all times.  Watch your relationship with it deepen over time.  Emotions become stronger, good light becomes even more beautiful, you see more details, appreciate more subtleties, feel more presence and mood over time.

If there is nothing on your walls, you are missing an important exchange that constantly re-invigorates the artist within you.  Blank walls are dead spaces, canvases waiting to be filled, hallow thoughts, unrequited relationships.  Blank walls are empty; empty is nothing.  Nothing is the absence of stimulation, no reason to think, feel, engage, change, or grow.   Empty does not move, and it moves nothing else.  Don’t you want to be “affected” on a daily basis ?  As an artist, don’t you want to be intrigued, lifted up, dropped down, visually assaulted, punched around mentally and emotionally?  Don’t you want to feel as though you have had some kind of artistic experience / exchange every day ?  It can’t be done with blank walls.


Books are a good thing. Books are going away, as we know them. Really ?  Would we allow that to happen ?  Newspapers are dying, book stores and libraries are closing.  And nobody seems to care.  The world of paper is being given up to the world of electronics.  Saves some trees, I guess, but we could save a hell of a lot more trees if we took care of our environment, forests, and water supplies. Personally, I want the printed word in my hands, I want to feel and smell the paper, and  even get ink on my fingers.  I want a tactile, personal experience with a book.  I want to bend its pages and even write in the margins if I so desire.

Yes, our day to day lives related to the published news world has changed.  But, the news media has always messed with us in ways the actual nature of the news is being presented as well as it’s [truthful ?] content.  A very important function of books that must not change, however, is the photo/art book.  A beautifully printed photographic book is the next best thing to actually seeing a photograph hanging on a wall.  Books allow us to see many more images than galleries can hold, as well as bring us work of photographers we might not know about.  Although an argument can be made as to the accessibility/research factor of computer technology.  Photos are meant to be in books and shared and used for educational purposes on a more personal level.

Books are also good vehicles to present your work, art projects, personal themes.  A good use of a computer these days ?  Use it to make a book ! Express your vision and share your art with as many people as possible. Put more books out into the world.  Go to a book store while they are still around.  Buy books from book stores once in awhile, so they do not go to the graveyards already populated by the neighborhood movie theatre. Don’t always hit Amazon for the discount.  Artists will get some of the money, businesses will benefit, and employment is created. All necessary things in today’s ever-so-selfish world. And, finally, people must go outside to find a book store instead of stacking up more calories from your plush chair or couch, with that lit box in your face.  Go out and breathe some fresh air and interact with other human being, for god’s sake.  Don’t even get me going about the lack of social skills, and the reasons why, these days !

I am not denying the power of the web or the research capabilities of the electronic world.  They are here to stay.  Why can’t books stay also ?  Why can’t we have a choice ?  There is something substantial and lasting about a book.  Buy a book that means something to you.  Give a book to someone to enlighten, amuse, educate.  Holding a paperback, reading on the beach, has GOT to be a different experience than holding your kindle under your cabanna !  Do not let books disappear.  Books are a good thing !


What is failure in art ? How can an artist fail ?  Isn’t the very nature of art to create something that did not exist before ?  If you create it, how does it fail ?  Who has the right to tell you, the creator, that it is not worthy, it is not art ?  It is your art, your expression, your vision. Perhaps it is good, meaningful art, perhaps not. Maybe it is correct, technically proficient, aesthetically in proportion and maybe it is anything but, because that it your decision as an artist. Perhaps the world responds to your work, perhaps they don’t.  If you ARE an artist, you will continue to produce regardless.

What is failure for an artist ?  Failure is not trying consummately.  Failure is not working harder than anyone else to learn your craft.  Failure is being afraid to fail so you paralyze yourself as opposed to challenge yourself to grow.  If you are afraid to fail, you already have. Failure is not picking yourself up when you hit a wall. Failure is not attempting to creatively dig yourself out of the hole you are in because you were trying to be creative in the first place ! Failure is also allowing yourself to be defeated by insecurity, criticism, or neglect.  If one keeps experimenting with their art, there really is no failure, just different levels of success.

And you know when you fail within yourself as an artist.  You know when you could’ve pursued another angle, shot at a different time of day, put on a different lens, or switched cameras, but didn’t.  You know when you could’ve explored more.  You know when you could’ve researched more, if you researched your subject matter at all.  All of this relates to your personal work ethic, level of discipline, and creative finesse that you extend into your work.

So, what is the opposite of failure ?  Never giving up.  Try it sometime.  You just might succeed.

“… Breakdowns, breakdowns, everybody gets ‘em.  But what are ya goin’

to do about it, that’s what I want to know…”   Paul Simon

“… Fall down seven times, get up eight.”  … Japanese proverb


Tension is important in art, sports, and life.  Tension in sports and life build strength, endurance, and character. In art and photography, tension is right up there with great light and fearless composition in importance as to how the viewer’s eye is grabbed, held or moved, within or out of a frame. Tension is often one of the catalysts for effective composition.

Often tension is created by imbalance.  Imbalance throws us off, makes us look.  It induces a feeling, a reaction, within our emotional response to a visual. The opposite, being balance within composition, kind of lays there, dying for lack of movement, often static. Tension can also be oddity, slightly uncomfortable, like something is “off”.  I feel that the right kind of “off” is actually “on”.  It works.  It attracts, sometimes distracts, but always adds movement, direction, energy, and an opportunity for psychological exchange within a frame.  A certain amount of uncomfortable in a photograph is good, arresting, makes one feel something, keeps the brain involved.

Tension can create visual design interest, creating a feeling, a vibe.  The wrong kind of tension can be distracting to a fault, lead you in the wrong direction, or prevent you from moving within the frame.  How one uses the element of tension adds a controlled dynamic quality to your image, influences composition and eye movement, while often adding a subtle psychological influence.   If all of this is foreign to you as an artist, you are too in balance !  Try leaning to the left a little more and put some tension and imbalance in your art and your life.


According to Webster’s, to struggle is to resist opposition, to progress with effort or difficulty.  Most artists struggle on a daily basis, resisting opinions, criticism, negativity  [jealousy], trends, advice, etc.  Artists constantly struggle between time, materials, learning their subject, finding their voice, new directions, the next level, an alternative path.

 Art is a struggle; art is a process.  Art takes time to learn, to create, to appreciate.  Creating art is not like making a cup o’ soup, or maybe it is, if you have the eyes and talent of Warhol, Hockney, or Picasso.  Most of us have to work at it, and work hard, employing a disciplined work ethic, commitments, and goals.  Some say if you do not have a struggle within you or around you, you have to make one.  Create some chaos, put yourself at risk.

It is important to enjoy the struggle, the time spent, the journey.  The actual end result can sometimes be disappointing not because we are dissatisfied with the achievement, but because “it”[the process] is over.  What it took to get to the end result is often more important, more rewarding than the final art piece itself.  You do not dance to see where you end, you dance to enjoy the dance.  So, listen to the music and enjoy the struggle to find your art.

“Making good work is supposed to be hard.  It requires learning your craft and working harder than anybody who isn’t a photographer/artist can possibly imagine.”  Keith Carter

 “Complacency in art breeds nothing but redundancy.”    Ken Merfeld

Resolution or Revolution

It is the end of the year. Another one in the can. Personal artistic inventory time. Was it a good year, as in productive, creative, and challenging for your art?  Did you do anything different this year?  Did you challenge yourself to grow as an artist? Did you do what you said you were going to do at the beginning of the year? Did you dance the same dance in order to survive? Are you treading water creatively?  If you are not moving in some direction, you are eventually going to sink.

Will you be making New Year’s resolutions, things you are going to try to do, or plans for creative revolutions in your journey as an artist?

Resolution is a decision to do something; revolution is radical change.

Decide to do something different, and do it.  And have a prolific New Year.


Do you have a creative palette?  What does it consist of?  What makes your work different from everyone else?  What makes you who you are as an artist?  What makes your artistic vision / voice extraordinary, unique?  What ingredients do you play with?  What actually goes into your work?  Where does your art come from?  Do you research, test, subject yourself to trial and error?  Are you afraid to make mistakes?  Do you break rules, cross lines, push boundaries, venture into uncharted territories? Do you follow trends, always on the heels of what is “in”?  Are you sheep or shepherd?  Do you understand your process?  Do you even have a process?

These are not rhetorical questions.  If you understand and identify how you actually work, then and only then, can you change your methodology.  We must learn ourselves, who we are as an artist, and how we creatively function. Exactly what and how do we do what we do that we call our art?   If you don’t have a creative palette, you have no place to begin, you might not have anything to put into the middle, and you are going to have an extremely difficult time finding an end, a creative solution to your art.  If we have a bit of a handle on how we approach things, then we can make a decision to go to another place, a different challenge, a new approach.  If you don’t have a clue, then you don’t have a palette.

If you are always flying by the seat of your pants, if you are always trying to pull your art out of thin air – think about it.  What are you relying on?  Not your experience, dedication, persistence, or education; you are relying on chance. Chance will find some art, but even chance favors the prepared mind.  An artist must have a personal, creative palette built over time, through tears, frustration, mistakes, failures, and successes.  It becomes who we are and defines our persona as artists.  We must wear it out, exhaust it, and then construct a new one … or at least flip it over and try the other side.

Black and White or Color?

I talk more about black and white than I do about color.  I love black and white, the traditional darkroom, and the smell of hypo in the morning!  I guess that makes me a black and white guy.  I really do appreciate and enjoy color, don’t get me wrong, but I get more emotionally involved in the worlds of tonality and contrast rendered in black and white.  I see color but I feel black and white when I look at a photograph. Color gets in the way sometimes.  It is like one design element too many.  No distractions in black and white.  Got to have guts.

If you do shoot color, do something special with it, be different, find your own palette.  Shoot definite, powerful color, like La Chapelle color or Pete Turner color.  Make a colorful “statement” with your color, USE your color, or why bother?  De-saturated color is big these days via the computer.  A hint of color, I guess.  A little bit like toning a black and white print in the past. It looks nice, is subtle, but is not really a commitment to a color palette.  Gonna use color these days, grow a pair!  Rock the world and show them they were color blind before they saw your world of color!  Otherwise, color is good for food, fashion, birthday parties, and sunsets.  Black and white is good for your soul.

“Color is my daylong obsession, joy, and torment.”  Claude Monet

“Black and white are the true colors of photography.”  Robert Frank


Artists must be fearless.  Period.  Fearless with light, composition, approach to subject matter, and process.  It has been said that no passion so effectively robs the mind of all of its powers as fear.  We must be strong and confident in our work and methodology.  The energy that you give out is the energy that you get back.  Apprehension derails our creativity by misguiding or restraining our energy.

Fear takes on many forms: fear of being wrong, of being foolish, or in changing the way something has been done in the past.  Fear can be reluctance to deal with the unknown.  Fear can be brought about by lack of preparation and is the major block to getting new ideas.

Why not be fearless ?  What is to be gained by holding back ? Nothing. What are you afraid of ? Not being good enough, not being creative enough ?  If you are not out doing, you are only going to hear about it.  As automated as photography is these days, you still need to push the button.  Images do not get into your camera when you are sitting on your couch thinking and worrying.

Nervous ?  Don’t bother, get over it.  Your camera is a tool that gives you license to be other than you really are.  Use it.  Open doors with it, initiate conversations with it, become more of a dynamic personality because of it.  Our personality and energy are our most powerful tools on the street. Being shy gets you nothing and nowhere in the art world.  Being afraid gets you even less.  Be fearless with your art !  Go home and be shy.


What is art? Is this the ultimate rhetorical question?  Who decides whether or not something qualifies as “art”? Is one man’s art another man’s peanut butter and jelly sandwich ?  Irving Penn said that a piece of cake could be art and he sold photographs of cigarette butts found on the street as art.  Warhol said art was convincing the world they needed something when, in fact, they did not.  Avedon thought all art was about control, Degas said art was what you made others see, and Brassai saw it as raising other people’s levels of awareness. Frank Zappa said that art was making something out of nothing and selling it. A blue square with a yellow circle within it is exhibited as “conceptual” art.  Richard Prince appropriated another photographer’s image from a Marlboro cigarette ad and sold it for a million dollars!  What the F*#k??

Many people believe that art is not a thing, and it is not your job; it is a way of life.  Others feel that their art is their entire life.  Is art what is new – as in vision, point of view, or voice?  Is art what is old but is now appreciated?  Is all art about love [Hockney]?  Can it embody hatred, prejudice, propaganda? If beauty is in the eye of the beholder, is art in the heart and mind? Is pornography art ?  Is nudity?

So, what is art?  Everyone seems to have an opinion but definitions are all over the place.  Maybe art cannot be defined?  Maybe it is an illusion!  I don’t know. Personally, I FEEL something when I see art, or create my own art.  It is a “rush”, like all of a sudden there is carbonation in my veins, accompanied by a myriad of emotions [shock, awe, horror, envy …].  I respond, my body and mind react, question, scrutinize.  Sometimes I am changed by art and some art I remember.  Picasso said that “art is art, and everything else is everything else”. I like that.  He also said that art is a lie that makes us realize the truth. Now I am confused again.

What is art for you?  How do you decide?  How can you create it if you don’t know what it is ?

“What is the difference between art and a twinkie?”   … Blue Man Group

“Fuck art, let’s dance.”   …  Lawrence Ferlinghetti


As an artist you must always push yourself, take chances, look into the dark, challenge your unknown.  Put yourself at risk, not in comfort with your art.  Frances Bacon said that he worked much better in chaos and that “chaos breeds images”!  He even painted on the unprimed, backside of canvas because the image was “instantly indelible”.  He could not change his mind, he let his subconscious take over, and he constantly challenged his norm.

To find rhythm in chaos and turmoil and to create from the resulting energy is exhilarating, rewarding, and leads to other than safe and sound banalities.  Do not let your mind or your process be rushed.  Be aware of the frenetic energy.  Harness it, dance with it, play with it, yield to it and put it into your work.  Slow yourself down, but react fast, in this whirlwind and you just might end up seeing and using more.  Embrace a little more crazy in your life and let it fall into your art.

“Enjoy this world, even as it decends into chaos.  In fact, especially enjoy the chaos.” Bob Dylan

Don’t hurt

Most artists are emotional, passionate, stubborn, and extremely volatile. Many are unhappy, disreputable, self-centered, egotistical, and very demanding.  There is an adage in the commercial world, “assholes and cream rise to the top”.  Often this is painfully true.  Doesn’t make it right.

The truth is that the world tends to forgive and even overlook transgressions because the inspiration found in the art outweighs rude behavior. Still doesn’t make it right.  Alongside these selfish tendencies comes hurt.  In their blindness, tunnel vision, and self-fulfilling focus, artists often hurt and neglect the ones who love and support them.  This hurt is expected to be pushed aside in the quest for creativity, process, and production.  But hurt is hurt.  It is the acid that eats away relationships, deteriorates marriages, and destroys friendships.  To hurt or be inconsiderate of someone in the name of your art is selfishness at it’s ultimate.  It really has no place in the creative process as it always destroys part of it or someone.

Think about it.  Be more considerate.  Do not take out your support system.  It is important and needed.  Slow down.  Do not become a dick just because you are trying to become an artist!  Do anything and everything you can not to be a selfish artist.

It is our responsibility to help others understand a little bit more about our unreasonable demands of time, energy, and heart. People involved in our lives know that we are possessed but they need to understand that we are possessed with honest energy and heart, not the devil incarnate! We need to stop thinking of ourselves once in awhile and think about and spend quality time with others.  Communicate with passion, educate with love, or they will go away.  And you will be left with just your art.  For some, it may be all you need.  For most others, take heed.  Be forewarned.  Alone may not be your art, but may end up being your destination.

The Journey

If you are truly an artist, it’s all about the journey.  It’s never about the destination, because you never really arrive, do you ?  There is always the next level, a new direction, another experiment, a variation in technique or process, a complete change of subject matter and / or approach, the “mistake” that leads to discovery, etc.  You’re always on the road to something else. Never arrive.

A journey takes time.  It takes time to learn oneself and then re-learn oneself as an artist.  It doesn’t happen overnight, it doesn’t materialize from a dream as nice a thought as that might be, it doesn’t come from reading a book, turning on a computer, or taking a pill that also makes you feel ten feet tall.  It is in the doing.  It is time spent.  If you are lucky as an artist, the time spent is more creative and challenging than not.  It is reason to live, it is your life, your life’s journey.

If you think you have arrived, you’re dead as an artist.


Passion takes on many forms.  It can be fruit, sex, artistic intensity.  Good to eat, great in the bedroom, dangerously necessary in the art world.  Yes, it is a dog eat dog world and a passionate artist is self-consuming, almost by definition.  So, how do you not consume yourself ?  How do you not destroy the drive that if you drive too much will destroy you?  Moderation ?  No.  There is no moderation in balls-to-the-wall passion.  Many artists speak of getting into a “zone” to produce their work.  A place of engagement so intense that the work itself pulls us in, begins to dictate direction, depth, and complexity of subject matter.  Some artists are fortunate enough to discover their zone within which they can produce, other artists never really find a creative space, and still others get totally lost in their zone and end up so deep in their own forest that they cannot see the trees!

Be very forewarned. While passion is an absolute necessity in art, out of proportion passion can be the undoing of an artist.  If an artist gets to the point of totally being out of sinc with his work, if he hits that dreaded wall of “burn out”, the resulting confusion can destroy and disintegrate the creative process.  One can be left in a formless mass of nothingness with no energy, no creative thoughts, no free flowing ideas, and no more love of the medium.  Dissolution, disintegration, confusion, anger, a sense of abandonment can replace what was once abundant, spontaneous, and productive.  A sense of total loss, like a gutted trout – if a trout could indeed be creative to begin with !

We must learn to do something before our artistic spirit, our creative drive, the engine that moves our art sputters and dies.  For me, the answer lies in short term goals, working on projects within a certain time frame, short-to-medium bursts of creativity and energy.  Define a challenge, give your self a time frame to explore it, produce the resulting body of work (!), then move on to another. I call this working in a “series mentality”, something I have explored my entire career.  A sense of completion and/or accomplishment does something positive for the creative process.  It is rewarding in a very personal way, not requiring public gratification or recognition.  It strengthens the artist as a creator, a producer, a maker of something that did not exist before your involvement.  Isn’t that one of the reasons that we became, or are trying to become, an artist – to make stuff, and to enjoy the process ?

To have a release other than your photography, but within the arts, will also help your longevity and your sanity.  Josef Sudek said, ‘If you take photography seriously, you must also get interested in another art form.”  For him, it was music and he felt that his listening to music “showed up in his work like a reflection in a mirror.”

One other suggestion to safeguard the dissolution of your artistic passion is to have another form of release that is outside of the arts completely.  Use your body and relax your mind.  Get out and exercise, dance, do Yoga, climb a mountain, ride a bike, take a walk, swim a mile, whatever gets that other drug into your blood and makes you feel alive !  Make your body work and relax your thinking process.  Sweat a little bit and extend some energy other than what comes out of your mind.  Get too tired to think once in awhile.

The bottom line is each of us must learn how to live with, control, provoke, entice, relax and then revitalize our passion without numbing our creative process at the same time. Wake up and be very aware of your feelings, monitor and learn your energy, and have an appropriate release or two that will help you maintain your creative balance and how much passion you literally extend.  Learn your passion levels, do not drain yourself dry.  Learn when to tread water and resuscitate a little bit, learn when you need to dive deep again, and learn when you need a new creative body of water to dive into, period. Guard, protect, and nurture your passion.  Do not be controlled or defeated by it.  Pay attention.  Learn yourself as an artist.

“There is no passion to be found playing small – in settling for a life that is less than the one you are capable of living.” …  Nelson Mandela

“I am still hungry.”  … Andre Kertesz, at age 90

Letting Go

Most photographers are control freaks.  Obsessive, detail oriented, consumed. They need to be in total control and are uncomfortable, unsatisfied, and unfulfilled otherwise.  Most photographers are also perfectionists. Why?  Do we live in a perfect world?  Why do so many artists strive for consummate perfection in their work?  Who determined perfection as a goal?  Perfection in art is often boring, static, antiseptic, and  soul less. Dali says that perfection is unattainable, so why bother?

Photographers must be able to let go.  There should be an open – ended, brainstorming, free flowing mentality to one’s work.  Do not misunderstand.  An artist must be the master of light, technique, process, and subject matter.  The photographer must be the technical expert of “how to do” what he is doing, knowing the rules, guidelines, expectations?  Now, have the guts to break the rules, do the opposite, “cast it to the wind”, free float, do a technical “bungee jump”!  See what happens.  If it is not perfect, perhaps it is not supposed to be.

Dance with recklessness in your art.  Go to the edge, your “limit” and do a tap dance on it.  Obliterate your edges, no boundaries.  Embrace the unexpected, the unusual.  Take a second look at what you consider a mistake.  Often mistakes are gifts in your art, a direction you might never have thought of, or an artistic deviation from the path that you thought you were on.  You will not be receptive to the unexpected, to change, to anything new in your art without letting go of perfection.  Question less, accept more as a possibility in your art.  Adapt. Let go.  Let your art be free.


K-Mart went to Vogue, or did Vogue go to K-Mart?  Doesn’t matter.  The reality is that K-Mart has a four page spread in the September, 2010 issue of Vogue Magazine.  I know we are living in times when a lot of things don’t make sense but isn’t there something wrong with this picture?  It wasn’t long ago that Vogue would not have given K-Mart the time of day.  Different worlds.  Different entities. Different markets.

Has Vogue Magazine jumped the shark in these ‘anything goes’ economic times or has K-Mart shot up the ladder?  Is money the all-important “green” in this green conscious society we live in?  Do you really accept that?  Is everyone crossing over, dropping down for a dime?

Where are you in this picture?  What do you stand for as an artist?  Are you K-Mart or Vogue ?  Or are they now the same?

Growing Old

About growing old.  Don’t.  Refuse.  Basta !

Who said you had to grow up?  Artists should gain wisdom, experience, and technique over time while remaining forever young at heart.  Uninhibited.  Free. No rules.  Fearless. Crazy. Chaotic.  Always playing.  Like a kid again.  Creating with reckless abandon.  Kids don’t hold back, they know no boundaries, they have endless energy, and they produce until they drop.  Then they get up and start in again.

How do you do this as an adult, as you grow older as an artist ?  What do you do to nurture your creative soul while main lining a constant flow of energy that keeps you alive and productive?  How do you not grow old of mind, body, and creative spirit ? The answer is simple to say, another thing to do.  One must create no matter what, to constantly challenge yourself to grow, to never feel you have arrived as an artist. The key to not growing old is to continue to work on your art. Period. The energy of the finished work ignites the next body of work keeping you alive and productive.   It’s like a drug, creative adrenaline. A daily fix.  Good for your soul.  Keeps you young.

Refuse to grow old.  Do your work. Two other hints: lay off the chili cheese fries and get some exercise once in awhile.

“Every child is an artist.  The problem is how to remain an artist once he grows up”.  Picasso

“If you succumb to age your creativity can become clouded, you slow down, and you do not produce as much art.  So, what’s the purpose ?  I refuse to grow up or old.”

Ken Merfeld

The Box

You’ve all heard about the box.  Thinking outside of the box.  Performing outside of the box.  What about the box, exactly what is it?  The box is what everyone else has done that pertains to your area of interest. The box encompasses your specific subject matter (ex. portraiture, still life, landscapes, narrative, tableau …) including your technique, and your creative process. First, you must actually see the box, the world you choose to explore.  You must understand your box, learn it’s details.  What is it made of? What is the essence of your subject matter?  How has it changed or evolved over time? Who else has spent time in your box?  What have they done?  Research everything you can about your genre, your box.  Know all that currently happens in it and all that has already happened in it.  Who has danced in your box before you?  What was the beat they marched to?  Did they bring anything new to the world you are interested in?  Who influenced them?  Learn your box! You must know what it is and has been about.  It is also your place of departure.  You cannot leave people or ideas in the dust if you do not know what they are about in the first place.

After you have researched, explored, experimented with, and played in the box, you must construct your own version. This is your your vision, becomes your voice, and is your interpretation and/or translation of subject matter we may have thought we were familiar with, until you and your creativity came along.  New point of view?  New way of seeing, feeling about your subject matter? Evolved technique?  Inhabit your new world.  Own it, and the technique and personal process involved. Then go outside of it!  That’s the part we always hear about, but how do you do it?  Find how you are limited and then create over, around, and through any limitations. Limitations are nothing more than doorways to creativity.You just need to open them, kick them down, move them out of your path. Figure out a new way! Make your version more emotional, more powerful, more exaggerated, more surreal. Make it undeniably beautiful or incredibly bizarre, impossible not to look at, and even harder to forget. Push yourself out of your own new box and take a look.  You must see it, de-construct it, see it differently, re-interpret it, and build it again.  It is no longer a box, it is YOUR box, your voice, your approach, as the result of insight, interpretation, invention.  You are outside of everyone else’s box.  Now they must figure out how to go outside of yours.

Make the round world square.  Give it a new box.


Journals.  Keep them.  Write in them.  Refer to them.  Collect information in them. Information is going away. Information and imagery stored in electronic devices disappears.  It implodes.  It goes to cyber-hell and is lost.  Finished.  Basta.  No more.

We live in the age of electronic everything. and we can access more information than ever, yet we can lose the same information and more in record time.  So, we are supposed to back up our information on external hard drives two and three times, and then migrate all of that info to new technology as it evolves, to continuously protect ourselves and our information.  While sitting at my desk one morning, my external hard drive turned into cereal.  Snap – crackle – pop !  No more information, files, references, IMAGES !  Empty bowl of cereal.  Hundreds of images are with Peter Pan in Never-never Land.  Are we in the beginning of the age of non-information or will these be known as the “lost information” years ?

The fact is electronic devices fail.  They eat our stuff and vomit it into oblivion.  I put information into notebooks, idea journals, creative diaries, technical notebooks, darkroom journals, books of quotes, writings, and thoughts. I have never lost any of my notebooks (or negatives, either, for that matter.)  I have a personal library about myself as an artist: my ideas, my work, my experiences and experiments, my influences, my dreams, my “crazy”. A reference library sitting on a shelf, waiting to stimulate, remember, springboard from. Have you ever seen a Peter Beard diary ?  It is a thing of passionate beauty with a shit load of daily information, art, and personal experience.

Write stuff down.  Collect information in books.  Use pencils. Your information just might last.


How do you stop mediocrity ?  We all know that photography has changed as a creative medium, as far as how images are made, as well as what the world accepts.  It is easier than ever to produce, play with, alter, or appropriate images.  Is there more good art in the world as a result, or is more mediocre work being produced these days ?  You can be the judge, and we can all argue over what we think good art really is (another discussion), but I see more mediocre work being produced faster than ever. I see more bad images than ever.  Somehow, I feel our (?) standards have been lowered.  Not our personal standards, but what the world is now accepting as art, newsworthy information, and personal expression.  Some people would say that the world has been dumbed down, period.

Mediocrity is being hailed by some as the new genius.  A sign of the times.  The quick message, the instant news item, the paparazzi snap shot, a cell phone video.  Just the image, no matter what, no matter how.  Technique ?  Naw, don’t worry about it.  We’ll fix it, or do something with it, later. First, feed the frenzy, quench the thirst of the media and the part of the world that has nothing else to do and doesn’t know the difference.

I saw some of Hockney’s I-Phone art recently.  Art made by Hockney’s fingers on a little electronic device.  It was good.  But then again, I think most people would agree that David Hockney is a pretty damn good artist.  Basically, he put something good into an electronic device and it gave us art.  Hockney uses electronic devices as a tool, another one of his paint brushes at the end of his fingers, to creatively express.  How do you use electronic devices? Do you put good imagery in, help it a little bit, and spit out some art?  Or do you put mediocre in and try to make it something more ?  Mediocre in, mediocre out.  And that is a polite twist on an old adage !

How do we stop mediocrity ?  By not accepting it in the first place. Say no to mediocrity, by not allowing it to proliferate under the guise of ease of expression and the accelerated pace of our times.  We must be more critical of ourselves as artists and much more critical of what art we do put out into this world.  Mediocrity is not the new genius.  Mediocrity is average.  And who wants to be an average artist ?

“You can’t polish a turd.”    Anonymous

“If you put a good image into your camera in the first place, you won’t be drowning later, grasping for an electronic life-saver.”  Ken Merfeld

“An artist entering the world of photography today must be careful not to fall through the thin ice of technology and electronics that yields a ‘fix-it’ or ‘change it later’ mentality.” Ken Merfeld


Don’t be afraid of the dark.

Dark is important in our art. Dark is both the absence of light and the result of light .  The absence of light and subsequent subtraction of information creates mood, mystery, and drama.  The result of light is found in shadow, texture, contour, and form allowing depth, richness, and guts in our imagery.

No darks, no chiaroscuro. Dark can be a simple defining additive supplying texture in a jacket, pleats in a dress, or the soft curve and delicate space of a breast. Darkness can lead to mystery as Josef Sudek maintained, “the charm of everything is in the mystery” and Frances Bacon reminds us, “the job of every artist is to deepen the mystery.” The dark can also take us into the realm of the grotesque.  Mortensen warns us, “those who turn away from the grotesque are losing the richness and completeness of artistic experience … as everything exists through it’s opposite.” The dark can take us to the “other side” of our work, if we do indeed have another side to explore.  Basically, if you cannot manipulate, exaggerate, feather, blend, or interrupt shadow, if you cannot dance with the dark per se, then you do not know light.

Shadows can also be your friend. They provide elements of design and contrast, facilitate exaggeration and drama, and give ways to hide what you don’t want seen. We all need to spend time in the dark.  Appreciate the richness and mood of a Brassai or a DeCarava print.  Experience Ingmar Bergman, OrsonWells, Alfred Hitchcock, film noir, German Expressionism.  Feel the deep shadows, get lost in the shafts of light. Nothing safe. Definite emotions.

So, what can you do ?  You can light with less light.  Could you live a month without a softbox, umbrella, or an Octabank ?  Turn your subject away from your light source, a small light source perhaps. How little light can you use and still maintain the emotional impact of the photograph ?  If we light everything, then we have presented all of the information leaving nothing for the fertile imagination of creative minds !  Feel the dark, invite mystery, and inject more mood into your work.  See what happens when you ask your viewer to engage his mind a little bit more when experiencing your image making. Don’t be afraid of the dark.

“You can’t have a light without a dark to stick it in.”  …  Arlo Guthrie

“Dark is the next best thing to light.” …  Ken Merfeld


Light is a gift.

An artist must see, appreciate, totally understand, own, control, manipulate, manufacture, embrace, tease with, bend, direct, develop a personal feeling for, and become a master of LIGHT !  Nothing can exist without light; with light, everything becomes real.  If you are lazy about lighting or think it doesn’t matter, you are wrong.  Without light, we have no emotion, texture, contour, information, illusion, or interpretation in our work.  What does that leave ?

Do you see light every day and are you thankful every single day for that awareness ?   Do you appreciate whatever quality of light is available?  Can you alter it if you need ?  Do you notice how the light changes during the day and the resulting feeling ?   Natural light is the greatest teacher of all.  If you are a master with natural light and are able to reproduce all qualities of it inside as well, then you might actually know light.

Light is inspiration.  Think about that.  Think about what light makes you relate to because of how it makes you FEEL. Sometimes it is like you must begin with light before subject matter.  Light will show you the way to play with feelings, define space, introduce psychology, and envelop in mood – all of things that make one think, feel, and react when they look at your work.

Light is energy.  When reflecting on his life as a film maker Ingmar Bergman wrote : “I do mourn the fact that I no longer make films.  Most of all. I miss working with cinematographer Sven Nykvist, perhaps because we are both utterly captivated by the problems of light : the gentle, dangerous, dreamlike, living, dead, clear, misty, hot, violent, bare, sudden, dark, springlike, falling, straight, slanting, sensual, subdued, limited, poisonous, calm, pale light. Light. “

To which I would humbly add, “A day without photography and some kind of light is not worth getting out of bed for.” Notice the light tomorrow.

…  Ken Merfeld

Portraits I

Portraits II


Fine Art


Floral Project

The Arts

United Care

Still Life