It’s “Guest Blog Wednesday” featuring Trey Ratcliff!

Being an artist sucks. Being an artist is awesome.

Trey’s new book “A World in HDR” has just been released. Besides a practical tutorial on HDR, there is ample discussion on new ways to look at art and the internet. This experiment started a number of years ago when he first got started sharing his HDR Tutorial. Below is an extended exposition on some of these thoughts. Send him your thoughts on Twitter at @TreyRatcliff .

How have we all gotten ourselves into this situation? What is going on with being an artist on the Internet anyway?

Let’s face it. There are multiple people that live inside of us. One of us cares what other people think. One of us could care less what other people think. One of us really wants to make money. One of us really does it for the art.

I grew up in the 70’s and 80’s, when having “multiple personalities” was seen as something horrible and possibly dangerous. We all know one of Sybil’s personalities was a bloodthirsty murderer, and if we couldn’t control them, what could we possibly do when we have the occasional dire thought?

I’m here to talk about all these personalities and why the cacophony can be an incredible source of inspiration and drive.

Just Find Some Beauty

I’ll start this article by telling you the important conclusion: root out the beauty from the chaos. Throughout this treatise, I’ll sprinkle in pretty images I’ve taken over the years. Despite all the psychological delving herein, it’s nice to be reminded that beauty exists. Some of you may know that I am heavily influenced by the Impressionists of the late 19th century, and in particular by Auguste Renoir, who said, “To my mind a picture should be something pleasant, cheerful and pretty. Yes, pretty! There are too many unpleasant things in life as it is without creating still more of them.”

Farewell India - The Taj Mahal
Farewell India – The Taj Mahal

Why do we care what other people think?

Aren’t we independent thinkers? Do we really care if “ImagesOfExtraPixels” in Wisconsin sees our photo on Flickr and gives it a little star? Are we that hungry for affirmation? Maybe.

I think of that show “The Bachelor.” Maybe you have seen it. Let me describe a common scene. There is inevitably a “selection” process in which the man hands out roses to a line of women. If a woman does not get a rose, she gets into a limo and is driven off. A camera is on her. She balls hysterically because the man did not choose her. I am always flabbergasted by this scene.

“Who are these women?” I ask incredulously to the wind. “Who are these women who define themselves by what a man thinks of them? What’s wrong with them? Where’s their backbone?” Then after shouting crazily into empty air, I go check Flickr to see if people saw my latest upload and how many comments it got.

Conterminously, within me, there is a violent person that could care less what other people think. I’m going to do what I want to do anyway. They’d better like it! If they don’t like it, there must be something wrong with them! Oh yeah, you don’t like HDR because it’s not realistic? Right… But you do like black and white, right? Oh, that’s realistic. The world is all black and white and grey after all.

The River Runs Through the Andes
The River Runs Through the Andes

How can both of these people exist inside of us? How can they co-exist? Do they just follow their modus operandi independently, like two angry lovers silently sitting beside one another on a long drive at night?

I contend that it is okay to have both of these personalities playfully fighting with one another. Ultimately, the personality that doesn’t care what other people think should win. This is really the only way to keep your art unique, uncompromised, and wonderfully yours.

Look at what other people say, and especially pay attention to constructive criticism. The true well-balanced artist can take this into consideration in the future while still remaining independent. Surround yourself with trusted and honest friends, whether they be on the internet or in person. You can both stay independent and at the center of critical examination while maintaining a delicate balance on your psyche.

Being an artist on the Internet

I believe that everything evolves, including the economy. Capitalism is great, and free markets have done more to create wealth for billions of people than any other system. However, I don’t believe that capitalism is last step in evolution, and we are moving just beyond it now.

I believe the new currency is “attention”. It is a second currency that coexists with dollar, euros, and yen. If any of you are gamers, you might be familiar at playing in worlds with two currency systems, and our real world is increasing becoming like this game.

A Neo-Rockwellian Christmas
A Neo-Rockwellian Christmas

In capitalism, wealth can be “created” from nothing. I believe the same is true of attention in the evolving economy. We have all changed as people. Our lives are now hyper-organized because of computers, and we have a lot more attention to give! A few years ago, it was impossible to imagine life without web browsers. Now, it’s impossible to imagine life without tabs in browsers! Just like the mind, we can have several threads going at once. Our tools enable us to have 10x the attention as 10 years ago.

We get bored so easily, and the internet is helping to stimulate us when we need it. I get tremendous inspiration from other photographers (you!) and artists on the net. Often times, I just need 10 or 15 minutes of looking at pretty things and inspirational art to give me a little kick. I imagine you are much the same.

I noticed a problem. I would go look at one of my photos on Flickr and it might have something like 5,000 views. And then I would go look at one of my friend’s photos, which was just as good, and he would have about 49 views. And it’s not just him. I can go look at hundreds of other photos that I feel are very very good, and they only have a smattering of views. That’s not right.

The problem is not with the photos – it is with the “attention distribution engines” of the internet. What are those? Well, they don’t exist! Flickr is cool, but it’s really not a great tool for finding new artists and seeing their work.

This is Nathaniel
This is Nathaniel

So, to help HDR artists get more attention, I started with a friend to be the first of these “attention distribution engines.” We are still in beta and invite codes are going out. But the purpose of the site is to increase the total amount of attention and drive traffic to the respective artists’ blogs, portfolios, or other websites. So far, people are getting more than 10x their Flickr views. Wonderful!

Even though is primarily for the HDR niche, the engine behind it can be used to increase attention and work across any medium of art. The hierarchical nested websites like Flickr and DeviantArt, to me, are an increasingly “old” way of sharing and promoting art.

Regarding the first part of this article, I think this is a great step forward. In the end, we photographers just want people to see our stuff! We do like sharing. You just want to know that you exist. And you do!

As the internet evolves around the new system of attention-currency, I think that artists are going to rule the Internet. The general public craves eye-candy. We make it. The engines are being built now to turn the internet into a giant candy store so that people can get what they want, when they want it.

I get this question a lot when I speak to groups – particularly to college students. It’s a good question, although not necessarily asked in the right spirit.

So, how does one use Twitter and Facebook and Social Media and all that Happy Horsecrap to get popular anyway?

Well, here is the answer that I give. It’s counter-intuitive. Read books about anthropology, genetics, physics, biology, and other historical analysis of how science re-shapes our world. For example, if you can figure out how an ant colony feeds itself, you can figure out how to get popular on the internet. If you want to know more, I’ve assembled a World Class reading list over at my site – Trey’s Book List.

All the while, just focus on creating great content. Great content will always win in the end, and you can wait for the Internet’s discovery engines to find you. They will, at some point. By paying attention to the books and thoughts above, you can do many things to “help” the internet discover you.

Ask anybody that is popular on the internet for their secrets, and they will tell you the same thing. Their approach to art is no different then their approach to the internet. They experiment, they fail, they forgive themselves, they try again, they fail, they have occasional successes, but they don’t give up. In fact, this is no secret at all! It’s just a way of being. As an analog, I’ll give you another quote from Renoir: “Anyone can look at my materials or watch how I paint–he will see that I have no secrets.”

You will remember in the beginning of this section, I claimed that this “How do I get popular on the Internet” question to be not in the right spirit. I notice some people want to be popular for the wrong reasons:

1. It’s cool to be popular and happiness is easier
2. Because when you are popular, you get what you want
3. Because then I will know I am a good person because so many people like me

Okay, those are all horrible reasons. Here is another dirty secret… MOST people that are popular on the internet did not set out to be popular. And frankly, they don’t know what the heck to do with themselves once they get popular! I started a charity page where Team Stuck In Customs lends money to entrepreneurs around the world. That’s one thing, I suppose. But, like everyone else, we just kind of cobble this together as we go along!

I've reached the end of the world
I’ve Reached the End of the World

It requires an absolute purity of creative soul and purpose to get popular in the right way. All my close friends know that I would sit up all night processing photos whether or not anybody noticed. In fact, that is what I did years before anyone did! I bet you can name a few people who are popular who “don’t deserve” to be so. And then you hear little stories about them from time to time. It makes you question if they are in it for the right reasons…

The real key is to care less whether or not you are popular, and just keep creating great art. Do soft things in the background to help the Internet notice you. Want to know my Twitter strategy? It’s very simple. I do 33% sharing other artists and inspirational finds, 33% sharing my own work, and 33% connecting people with others they would find interesting. That’s it. Don’t over-promote or under-promote… find a balance while sharing with the world all that inspires you. Help people out. It’s simple!

“If you are passionate about your art, keep it pure, and are generally a nice person, WE will bend over backwards to make sure you are noticed! That’s what we’re here for!” – The Internet (as channeled by Trey)

To that end, I’ll leave you with a last quote from Renoir, who, like most of us, spent the bulk of his life relatively unnoticed.

“The work of art must seize upon you, wrap you up in itself, carry you away. It is the means by which the artist conveys his passions; it is the current which he puts forth which sweeps you along in his passion.”

Hong Kong from the peak on a summer's night
Hong Kong from the Peak on a Summer’s Night

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