Motivation is a photography blog that discusses the creative aspects of photography. The posts will include thoughts about images and their interpretation, photographers and their work, technique, workflow, my ongoing projects, and perhaps even the occasional off topic rant.

The Empathy Project II

In my last post, I had the opportunity to introduce my Empathy Project. The idea behind the project is that doctors often see patients without nearly as much time as they would like to have in order to get to know them  as 'people'. This is particularly true in this era of the electronic medical record. It's easy for doctors to lose sight of the fact that patients have the same types of lives as they do, with the same ups and downs and with interesting events that they have either witnessed or lived through. This project is an attempt to recognize 'patients as people' by having me take their portrait and record their stories at the end of their visit to my office.

Today I offer the second installment of the project. I plan to post a series of five and then take a break as I prepare the next five.

© Howard Grill

© Howard Grill


(If you are an email subscriber to the blog, I don't believe the audio will come along with the please visit the on-line blog post if you would like to hear it.)

The Empathy Project

I would like to introduce a new project that I have been working on that really means quite a bit to me. As many readers may know, my 'real job' is as a cardiologist, and I have often thought about how I might integrate photography with my job as a physician. Recently, that integration has become a reality.

The idea for this project has been mulling in my mind for quite some time. The motivation to finally initiate it was based partly on a Brooks Jensen podcast (#962), where Brooks discussed the importance of going out of one's comfort zone and, instead of photographing things that are easily available, ASKING to photograph things that require permission to shoot. I decided it was time to do some asking.

The genesis of my idea was as follows:

Doctors often see patients without nearly as much time as they would like to have in order to get to know them  as 'people'. It's easy for doctors to lose sight of the fact that patients have the same types of lives as they do, with the same ups and downs and with interesting events that they have either witnessed or lived through. This project is an attempt to recognize 'patients as people'. That's the idea....of course, moving forward, I will write a more formal 'Artist's Statement', but I wanted to share the project as it was coming together.

But on to the specifics. What I wanted to do was to take several (or more) minutes at the end of some of my office visits to talk to patients about themselves and their stories, not just their symptoms and diseases. I wanted to ask if I might take their portrait with a camera I brought in (nothing fancy, no time for big setups or flash, just the overhead office lighting and adjustments made in Photoshop) and record some of our conversation that I would then edit to 1-3 minutes in length to accompany their portrait in order to let people 'know who they were'. I really had no idea how people would react. The fact is that very nearly all the folks that I asked were very willing, and often excited, about participating.

Of course, in order to do this I had to do some asking. I had to both ask the hospital for permission to do the project and also ask the patients, if they said yes, to also sign consents. To my surprise, the hospital administration totally loved the idea. In fact, if everything went well, they wanted me to print the portraits large and display then in the main lobby of two outpatient facilities.  They even wanted to install permanent speakers into the lobby walls so that visitors could not only see the portraits, but also hear the audio that went with them. So, just by asking, I received not only permission, but also a more or less permanent display with plans to change the portraits and audio once or twice a year at two separate locations. Like Brooks said, just ask!

© Howard Grill

© Howard Grill


With some help from our media department, I have decided to call the project "The Empathy Project". I was initially against this name because, though I liked its conciseness, I thought empathy implied 'pity'.  Turns out that isn't the meaning of empathy at all. It means "the ability to understand and share the feelings of another, with a desire to help", and that just seems very fitting.

I have completed the first grouping of five portraits, and this is the first of the images and audio. The next four posts will complete this first series, and I plan on posting further series of five as I complete them. I hope you find the project and the portraits/audio interesting and meaningful! If you do,  please feel free to share it!

(If you are an email subscriber to the blog, I don't believe the audio will come along with the please visit the on-line blog post here if you would like to hear it.)

Flowing Petals

Sometimes you just have to go with the flow!

Flowing Petals    © Howard Grill

Flowing Petals    © Howard Grill

With my next post, I will be introducing a very special project that I have been working on. It is one that has been extremely meaningful to me. So I do hope you will 'tune back in' to see my first project post, I think you will find it interesting and worthwhile.

May I Take Your Photograph

One of the things that I have difficulty with is asking someone I don't know out 'on the street' to take their photo. For the last several weekends, the Pittsburgh Renaissance Festival has been ongoing. It was cloudy on Sunday and so I thought it would be a good time to go to make photographs. My goal was to ask people (well, the actors anyway) if I could take their photo, so as to get used to just asking. They were all happy to oblige and I started to feel more comfortable with the process. I'm not sure though if that will translate to feeling comfortable asking strangers on the street, but it's a start!

© Howard Grill

© Howard Grill


This lovely woman, who was was selling parasols, was one of many who were glad to oblige. I liked the idea of placing myself in a position where the lines of the parasol seemed to emanate from her. 

Foggy Morning

A few weekends ago the weatherman was predicting fog. So I got up early on Sunday morning planning to drive out to Moraine Lake, about 45 minutes from my home. There is a golf course close to my house which I decided to drive through in order to get to the highway. As I was driving through it, I noticed how heavy the fog was and how beautiful the trees looked in it. 

Then it struck me....why drive 45 minutes hoping the fog doesn't burn off and that it is still over the lake when I arrive, when there is a gift being handed to me right here and right now. As my teacher Nancy Rotenberg used to say, 'take the gift you are given'!

So I parked the car and starting making photographs on the golf course. Given the fog, it was pretty empty except for one crazy photographer and a couple of crazy golfers who couldn't see where their balls were going. I respected their presence in the deep fog and they respected mine...."Hey", the call went out, "we are hitting some balls in your direction and we really can't see you or where the balls are going very well".


Fog And Trees    © Howard Grill

Fog And Trees    © Howard Grill

This final image is my interpretation of the scene using some of the techniques I have learned in the digital artistry course I have been taking. I think it transmits the feel of what it was like to be out there that morning!

The John Lennon Wall In Prague

The John Lennon Wall is a wall in Prague, Czech Republic, that has been filled with Lennon inspired graffiti since the 1980s. The message it transmits is that of peace and love, and the politics that go along with that. Under the communist regime, there would often appear grievances in writing on the wall.

The original wall art and John Lennon pictures are now buried under layers of paint, but the message remains the same as layers continue to be added.  I found this small part of the wall to carry a strong message worth photographing!

John Lennon Wall I

There are also a good number of small bands that come to play and sing by the wall. While I was there I made a fun thirty second video of a group doing just that. But it seems difficult to put the video here in the post, as I would have to host it somewhere first. I did, however, upload it to my Instagram page, (the link is direct to the video), so feel free to have a quick look there if you're interested. Feel free to follow me there as well :)

More Compositing

Back in the beginning of August I mentioned that I had been working on learning more digital artistry techniques and I posted a piece that I had finished after visiting the Pinkas Synagogue in Prague. At that time, I warned that I might be posting more composites as I continued to work on them. You were fairly warned and yet here you are :)

This piece started as a photograph of some ships in the water on a gray day, with a very bland sky, made during a photo trip to Provincetown, Massachusetts. I decide to work with it, seeing what type of image I could make that had a nautical theme to it.

Provncetown Harbor    © Howard Grill

Provncetown Harbor    © Howard Grill

In addition to the 'base' image of the boats at the bottom, I layered in some textures, some text, some brushwork and two other images. There is a large image of a nautilus shell......don't look for it; it didn't work as a component of the composite, but it did work to bring in some nice highlights to the lighting. The boat on the upper left comes from a shot I took in Florida. Finally, there were also a good number of color and contrast edits

I am finding this kind of work interesting and challenging and intend to continue with it!


It's been some time since I posted a musical interlude on the blog, and I happened to run across this video. I like Jethro Tull quite a bit, though I am not what you would call a rabid fan. However, I think this tune has something for everyone, no matter what kind of music you like. It's got some rock, some jazz, some classical moments.....I don't know, but I find it hard not to like!

One of the great Jethro Tull stories is that Ian Anderson oroginally wanted to be a rock guitarist. But after learning guitar, he heard Clapton and Hendrix play and came to the realization that he would never be able to master the instrument in the way they had. So he decided to take up another instrument. The flute.....he would become rock's greatest flutist. There pretty much weren't any other flutists or bands using the flute as one of their main instruments, so he could be the best and the worst at the same time. The rest is history. At least that's the story I've heard

My biggest question though, is how does he do it on one leg??????

Water Abstract

I enjoy abstract photography and for some time have been taking abstract photos of moving water. You can stay in one spot while shooting, varying your shutter speed and aperture, and each image is different. Even when using the same settings each shot still looks different. as the water movement varies from second to second. The challenge is to go through them afterwards and choose the ones that seem just right. In processing the photographs, I like to bring out the details in the water so the currents look almost like paint strokes.

Water Abstract    © Howard Grill

Water Abstract    © Howard Grill

Stuff That Works - MagicSquire

I have recently been learning more about 'digital art' techniques like compositing, blending fact you just might be seeing some of that here in the coming months. Perhaps. We'll see. But one of the things that digital artists use quite a bit are Photoshop brushes. And those brushes need some sort of organization. When doing 'straight' photography, I pretty much needed just a soft round brush and a hard round brush. There was rarely a need for more. But dabbling in digital artistry I can see a need for watercolor brushes, grunge brushes, bird brushes, cloud brushes, splatter brushes etc. The native Photoshop panels are somewhat non-intuitive and generally clumsy to use. So I began looking around for an organizational solution and I found it in a piece of software that is a Photoshop extension called MagicSquire by Anastisy.

MagicSquire installs a panel that lets you name and organize your brushes in an intuitive and visual way. The brushes can easily be dragged to different groups for rearrangement and the groups can also be renamed, deleted etc. Just about anything you, or at least I, might want in a basic and intuitive brush organizer is possible. The only hitch I had was that it wouldn't install using the Adobe Extension Manager. However, there was an indication in the introductory email that this might well be the case and one is given a link to download Anastisy's version of an Extension Manager. The installer worked like a charm, with the panel installing on the first attempt.

MagicSquire also puts all its data in a folder in you documents folder. What does that mean? It means that if you have to uninstall Photoshop for any reason you don't have to start from scratch remaking your brush groupings. The data is all there to be imported right off the bat. Your work is saved. Likewise if you get a new computer.

MagicSquire isn't free, but really good things often aren't. However at 19 bucks I think it is money well spent.

Want to see the software in ya go. Let me add that I have no association with Anastisy whatsoever, I just like it when something solves a problem and solves it well. I do know there are several other pieces of software 'out there' that have similar functions. I haven't tested or compared them, but I am quite pleased with MagicSquire! Oh, and updates to the software are free and that's always a plus.

And some newer features:

The Pinkas Synagogue

During my recent trip to Prague, I was able to take a private tour of the city's old Jewish Quarter. The tour was a truly unique and a fantastic experience (I used Terezin Private Tours - Anna was not available but her colleague Alicia was wonderful). The tour was quite moving overall, but I was particularly affected by my visit to the historic Pinkas Synagogue.

The synagogue was built in 1535 and is the second oldest surviving synagogue in the city. The reason there are old synagogues in Prague, as opposed to some other European cities, is that Hitler had planned to use this area as a museum for an 'extinct race' and thus not much was destroyed. That and the fact that the country was basically handed over to Germany without much of a battle after the Munich Conference, as a form of appeasement.

The synagogue is now a museum, and on its walls are written the names of the approximately 78,000 Czech and Moravians who lost their lives in the Holocaust. The enormity of the number is driven home when one sees wall after wall after wall of written names.

Recently, I have been trying to learn more techniques used in digital artistry as another creative outlet in addition to my 'straight photography'. I am early in my attempts at this type of artwork, but when I was in the synagogue I had taken some photographs of sections of the walls. Having been moved by my visit, I wanted to try to make something representative of those feelings using the photos. The result of that attempt is below.

78,000    © Howard Grill

78,000    © Howard Grill

Another High Contrast Statue

A short while back I posted an image of a statue that I processed in a way that was a bit different for me. I photographed a number of the statues I saw on my recent trip to Prague and Budapest. This one was up over the doorway of a building and not at all a famous landmark, but i was drawn to the intensity of the facial expression. I decided to process it in a similar fashion as the last one.

Statue In Budapest    © Howard Grill

Statue In Budapest    © Howard Grill

A Day At The Museum

On my recent vacation, I had the opportunity to visit several museums. I happen to have my camera, but really had no interest in taking pictures of the paintings, which, in my mind, just detracts from experiencing them. But after enjoying a good many of them I needed a break and a few thoughts came to me about what photos I might be able to make that could be interesting.

The first thing that came to mind was the idea of a continuation of my "Mural Project", that is, taking photographs of segments of paintings and/or trying to combine them in some way. Here is an example of one such segment, but what I would do with them remains to be seen. These are ideas that are just forming. Can anyone identify the painter :)


Then, as I sat and watched what was going on around me, it became clear that many people, perhaps even the majority, weren't looking at the paintings as much as they were photographing them with a cell phone. In many instances people weren't even looking at the paintings except through the cell phone screen as an intermediary. Which got me thinking about Elliott Erwitt's fantastic series photographing how people look at art in a museum called:

I'm usually a bit shy about taking photos of people I don't know.  But they were so engrossed in their cell phone shots that it was easy!  Nobody even noticed. Of course, they probably presumed that I was doing the same thing they were and taking photos of the paintings, as opposed to taking photos of them taking photos of the paintings.


None of this may come to anything 'serious' in terms of it being a project, but they are fun ideas to play with. We will see!

Insights From Analog Photographs

I just returned from vacation and while away I had the opportunity to see not one, not two, but three photography exhibits! None of the visits to the exhibits had been planned ahead of time; they just happened to be in the cities we went to at the time we went. And there is nothing like seeing prints 'in person' as opposed to just in a book. So what did I get to see?

I was able to visit the "Migrations" exhibit by Sebastiao Salgado, a combined exhibit of  Robert Capa in conjunction with a large retrospective exhibit of the work of Elliott Erwitt, and a museum collection that included works by Steiglitz and Steichen. How can you go wrong with those? They were fantastic!

I made some interesting observations viewing the prints, at least they seemed interesting to me. They were beautiful  images. And most of them weren't sharp....well they weren't 'unsharp', but they also weren't the ultra-sharp images that we tend to produce today, particularly when pixel peeping. Not when you got in relatively close (the images were not huge either). And apparently these greats of photography weren't as concerned about maintaining detail in the shadows as many, myself included, seem to be today.  But the images really 'spoke'.

There is a lesson in there somewhere, not the least of which is that the content is far more important than absolute technical perfection (though I am sure that the 'technical perfection' that we can reach today is greater than it was in the analog photography world).

And don't be afraid of the color black.


I like taking photographs of statues, but as I was looking through some of them I realized they looked sort of bland. They looked, well, just like statues. I decided I was going to have some 'creative play' and see what I could come up with that might give them a deeper feeling.

I liked the result from processing this one as a high contrast black and white. Something about it just seems to 'speak to me'. I may have to try similar processing on some of my other statue photos to see what happens.

Bust    © Howard Groll

Bust    © Howard Groll


Quick Quotes: Gary Winogrand

Photography is about what can happen in the frame. When you put four edges around some facts, you change those facts.

Gary Winogrand

I love quotes that point out that photography, even film photography, is not about truth. For those who might be interested, I wrote an article several years back called "Photography and Truth". Photography, or should I say photography other than photojournalism, is not about 'truth'. Even photojournalism, which strives to be truthful, often inadvertently (hopefully inadvertently) changes the facts because of those four edges and what you don't see outside the frame.