The Broken Mirror

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Boxed In, photograph

“A photograph is only a fragment, and with the passing of time it’s moorings become unstuck.”

– Susan Sontag

More thoughts inspired by On Photography by Susan Sontag…

Sontag talks about the discreteness of a photograph and the effect of that on how we see things. Photographs become untethered from the stream of time they came from. No matter how we felt about the subject at the time we photographed it, over time, those sentiments change. The context is lost, or at least becomes diffuse. Sontag likens photographs to quotations, essential nuggets lifted form their original setting to take on a life of their own.

Of course, photographs always depict the past so are infused with an inherent pathos of nostalgia. This sentimental view of the world as seen through this universal and ubiquitous collection of photographs leads us to a feeling of mastery over it, in the same way that a collector of objects feels mastery over his stamps, coins or dolls.

I wonder how differently people 200 years ago experienced their reality. Was it more fluid and connected? Is the over-used modern term alienation partially caused by the fragmentation of our world into tiny moments of time captured in a photograph? Have we shattered the mirror forever, to find ourselves surrounded by an infinite number of minute shards of glass? Can we ever put it back together to see the whole picture again?

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What’s New?

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Webbed, photograph

“We tend to think things are new because we’ve just discovered them.”

– Madeleine L’Engle

I wonder whether artists 100 years ago found it easier to believe they were being creative in a unique way? These days it is so easy to see the art of others.

Thousands of individual websites, blogs, online galleries, social networking art sites like Flickr overwhelm us with access to artists all over the world and their creations. It can be exciting, humbling and inspiring all at the same time.

Long ago artists could only see what other local artists were creating so uniqueness must have felt more attainable. Have you ever had an idea (all on your own) only to find another artist who had already done it (perhaps better than you could)? It can take the wind out of your sails.

Of course, you could avoid looking at the work of others – artificially recreate the limited access artists long ago had to other art. But maybe it’s better to know an idea you have has been exhaustively worked through by others so you can take it a step further. Or is it’s unique status in your own creative world reward and justification enough?

I suspect that the increased access to the work of others has accelerated the rate of creativity and uniqueness in the art world. Increased communication tends to spawn innovation in most fields and I don’t think art is any different in that regard. That increased pace comes at a cost, which is the pressure to take the status quo to the next level.

Some days I dream nostalgically of a time when I would have been the only photographer in town and everything I did was new to me and to all I knew.

Those days, my friend, are gone for good…

Do Not Disturb?

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Abandoned, photograph

“Art is meant to disturb, science reassures.”

– Georges Braque

It may sound contrary, odd and… disturbing to think that art is “meant to disturb”. Not the usual way to talk about our old revered friend. What’s going on here?

All visual art captures and extracts a moment in time from the incessant flow of our lives. It represents a break in the continuity of our experience. It remains frozen in perpetuity and serves as a gentle (or not) speed bump on our everyday road.

Art presents a veneer, a superficial view of the depth of reality. We look at the work of art and our mind and imagination adds the ingredients that supply the dimension to what we see. We provide the context, the story, the meaning, the narrative. The art is the trigger but we (the viewers) do the work.

Science, on the other hand, reassures us because it’s purpose is to explain everything. It tries to make sense of all things so that we do not have to figure out the story ourselves. We can sit back and be told, rather than assume the burden of providing the explanations.

Science seeks to preserve and enhance the continuity of our world, while art can’t help but intervene, stop us short and “disturb” our complacency. In the world of science, we rely on the scientists – we don’t have to go into the lab ourselves. In the world of art, we’re all lab assistants and it can be hard work.

Mental Pollution

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Backdoor, photograph

“Photographs, which cannot themselves explain anything, are inexhaustible invitations to deduction, speculation, and fantasy.”

– Susan Sontag

I’m reading Sontag’s seminal work “On Photography” and finding it thought provoking.

She is making a point here that our photograph-dominated culture has created a view of social reality that is a series of unrelated anecdotes, undermining a sense of continuity. Each photograph is a discrete and arbitrary framing of reality which presents us with the opportunity to seek what is beyond it. The photograph hides more than it reveals – it can never reveal the underlying reality of what it depicts. Instead it presents a surface level view, which invites the “deduction, speculation, and fantasy” mentioned above.

Therein lies our fascination with the medium. I think there is a unique relationship between photography and the world that does not exist between painting and it’s subjects. There is a literal and obvious way in which the camera records reality – initially we are tempted to accept what the camera captures as reality. Yet a photogaph’s ability to explain reality is so compromised that it inevitably triggers our efforts to understand the underlying story in a way which is irresistible.

Sontag accuses industrial nations of turning their citizens into “image-junkies” which she terms the most irresistible form of “mental pollution”.

More on this to come… but I find her discussion of the way in which photography has changed how we see and actually experience the world around us fascinating. I hope I’m not contributing too much to the sea of mental pollution out there!

Man vs. Machine

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Abstract I, photograph

“Anyone who can be replaced by a machine deserves to be.”

– Dennis Gunton

A visitor to my studio last weekend made the observation that photography had become much easier and faster with the advent of the computer and digital imaging.

Needless to say, I didn’t let that one pass…

Technology is usually an enabler, rarely an expeditor. I can do so many things now with the camera that I could not before but I wouldn’t say I do any of it any more quickly. There is now endless experimentation with each image. That all takes time and generally I only consider something done when I grow tired of working on it. In the old days, pieces were finished because I ran out of things I could do to them rather than running out of interest.

I suspect that many oil paintings take longer to produce than watercolors merely because it is much easier to alter or correct an oil painting – if you make a serious mistake in a watercolor painting, you toss it and start over. I suppose in some sense you could argue that oil painting is easier than watercolor for that reason (I’ve heard this before) but I think it’s equally hard to paint either. Both require the same combination of artistic creativity, technique and intention.

As I’ve said before, it ain’t the tools, it’s the one who wields them.

I could not have made the photograph above 20 years ago. I won’t go into detail about how this was done, but there is a lot of technique involved which relies on equipment and tools which didn’t exist then. All of which enabled me to create an image which could not have existed otherwise.

How cool is that?

Old School…

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Crop Rows, Photograph

We just finished our first of two weekends of the Sonoma County Open Studio event, ARTrails – overall it was an interesting, rewarding and exhausting time! Above is one of the pieces I sold over the weekend, printed large on canvas. I was happy to see that my new “textured” work was well received.

Of course, in an event like this inevitably you get into some interesting conversations with people. I had a couple of teenagers come by from the local high school art program who were photography students. I asked them if they were still being taught to shoot and develop film and print in the old fashioned darkroom with chemicals – the answer was yes, the instructors felt this was a worthwhile discipline to learn.

I wasn’t surprised but I was disappointed – for the students. Having done lots of printing the “old” way as well as the new, digital way I believe there is no inherent advantage in teaching them to print using antiquated, vastly inferior tools. It would be like going to medical school and learning to perform surgery without anesthetic and modern instruments. What’s the point? No one does it that way anymore and there isn’t anything to be gained from wasting time using outdated techniques.

I believe that the reason things are still done this way in academia is twofold – first, there isn’t money to buy the equipment needed in all cases to use the latest and greatest techniques. Though, I must say, my son’s high school does have an impressive computer lab and it would be easy to add here and there to create a first class digital photo and printing lab.

I suspect the main reason is that the instructors themselves have not adopted the best practices themselves and are more comfortable teaching what they know and have taught for a long time – the old school way, as it were. Many teachers are not comfortable teaching something they themselves are still learning and there is so much new emerging development in the photography world these days it is hard to not be in a continuous student mode yourself.

To teach our new young photographers techniques they will never use in the future does not serve them well. We want to excite and inspire them, not demotivate them with how their parents had to do it.

Is Vague in Vogue?

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Skimboarding I, photograph

“Exaggerate the essential; leave the obvious vague.”

– Vincent van Gogh

Every image has obvious elements – too often we find ourselves representing these qualities in excruciating detail. Why? Well, it’s… obvious. It’s easy and comfortable. It can make the viewer comfortable, too, and anticipation of that can compel us as well.

What is essential, on the other hand, requires some thought. We have to abstract from the obvious, sometimes deconstructing it, to reach what is essential in the scene. We may get it wrong, or we may not be able to express our conclusion well. It’s riskier than the obvious, but it is only when we stretch to touch the essential that we have any opportunity to make a real connection with the viewer. I think what draws people to art is the chance to connect with the essential and skip past the obvious that surrounds our daily lives to completely.

Part of my fascination with images partly out of focus is that it allows me to be intentionally vague about elements in the image that are not essential. Vagueness can be an enigmatic quality, a tool to employ to help with the essential. Just as the eye is attracted to the area of greatest value contrast in an image, the mind is drawn to point where the vague and obvious surrounds the exaggerated essential.