Different Strokes

euphorbia, photograph

“It is good to be humbled by seeing someone’s work that is both very accomplished and very different than our own. Who knows, it may open a door creatively for you.”

– Brooks Jensen

How much time do you spend looking at work that is “very different” than your own? I think this is an important question. I suspect many of us would have to answer, ‘not much’. Why is this?

It is so easy to surround ourselves with artists whose work is similar to our own and there are many reasons for this. We may be trying to develop a style or technique similar to theirs. We understand their work and it feels familiar to us. We know where to go to see it. Our friends share our appreciation of the work. The list goes on. Behind all of these reasons is a desire to feel comfortable. It’s reassuring to see other artists, especially good ones, going down the same path that we see ourselves on.

But inevitably we encounter dry spells, periods where our creative juices have deserted us. We need to prime the creative pump again. Everyone has strategies to get themselves on track again, excited about what they’re doing. One strategy that works for me is to look at all sorts of art, and particularly the work of photographers who do really different things than I do. I may not “like” their work, I may not be motivated to try what they do myself. But sometimes these angular departures from the path are what we need to kick start our imaginations. Occasionally you will get an idea that you can incorporate into your own work and sometimes you might even be motivated to actually spend a little time on this new path you’ve encountered. These little temporary excursions down artistic branch roads can be invigorating.

In fact, I enjoy this activity so much, I recommend that you don’t limit it to times you feel you need inspiration or a jump start. After all, we all would benefit from this all the time. Make it a frequent practice to seek out work that is different than what you think your interests are limited to.
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Does Your Art Say What You See?

apple heart, photograph

“To learn how I see, is something that cannot be taught, but must be learned. It is too easy to be the photographer that is expected rather than the artist within.”

– Brooks Jensen

[This is the same apple from my last post, just a few days later. In these cold winter days, the birds have made good use of the last few apples hanging on the bare trees. I was struck by the heart-shape created in the fruit.]

I’m reading one of my Christmas presents, Letting Go of the Camera: Essays on Photography and the Creative Life by Brooks Jensen, a favorite writer of mine on the subject of photography. The point he is making in this quote from one of his essays is one I ponder often.

We have all been taught in various ways what to shoot and how to shoot it. The work of other photographers implicitly describes this to us and we intentionally or subconsciously do as they do. We take workshops and read books where we’re taught how to be a photographer. People have expectations of us when they hear we are a “photographer”. They picture scenic landscapes, beautiful flowers or perhaps portraits of kids. They (and we) often provide neat boxes within which the work should fit.

The best other photographers can do through their work is to show us how they see. And I love this about art, it’s ability to tell us something intimate about someone else. Not all photographers reveal this through their work, but the best ones do.

Yet somehow, through the process of making our own work, taking our own photographs, we must learn how we see. And this doesn’t mean figuring out how to take the pictures that fit within the neat boxes others associate with “photography”. It means understanding more about ourselves, a process that is fueled as much by life’s experiences as it is by experiences in a workshop.

As we develop this understanding and learn to convey it in our work, we can hope to be one of those artists who, through their work, shares their own personal vision with others.

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Now You See It, Now You Don’t

dripping with color, photograph

“A great photograph is a distillation, a reduction of the chaos of our wider experience to a visually satisfying essence where what is excluded is as important as what is included.”

David Ward

A characteristic of photography that makes it such a unique art form is that it starts by confronting what is essentially complete and continues by carefully choosing what to eliminate. The scene in front of you, whether a landscape, portrait or abstract, has all of the basic elements needed for your creation already there. What you need to do to get started is to decide what not to include in the final work.

The closest thing to this I can think of in other art forms is in sculpture, which often proceeds through a process of elimination. The stone is gradually chipped away, and what is left is the finished  art. But what is removed is nothing more than unrealized potential – simple stone. In photography what we eliminate is realized potential – it is real stuff that might be interesting to leave in. This makes it harder to get rid of because its presence often tempts us by its color, its interesting shape or some other unusual quality it possesses. We have to overcome the tendency to leave well enough alone.

It’s best to be ruthless when considering what shall remain. What is the picture about? Why are you taking it? What compelled you to stop and consider whether there was something worthwhile there? Anything that isn’t part of the answer must go.

And since these things are there to start with, it is a conscious decision to remove them rather than the quite different decision to simply not create them to begin with, as in painting, writing, music, etc. I don’t think one type of decision is any easier or harder than the other. I suspect that some people are more comfortable with one or the other and that may be what draws them to their artistic path.

I just bought my son his first camera and he asked me for advice about taking pictures. My first suggestion was “get closer and then get closer still”….

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The Artist as Mad Scientist

self portrait #23, photograph

“Life is ‘trying things to see if they work.'”

– Ray Bradbury

An equally apt definition of artistic creativity. Experimenting with your art is essential to keeping it alive and interesting, to yourself and others.

Some people are relentless experimenters – they’ll try anything and everything. Others seem reluctant to venture too far from their familiar path. Sometimes I have to force myself to go ahead and attempt some new idea. The potential for failure serves as a deterrent, but invariably when I make the effort I am rewarded with a strong rush of liberation. And, of course, there is no need to share those experiments that fail with anyone else. Even if the experiment fails, perhaps I learn something new that I can use elsewhere.

One of the most profound consequences of digital photography has been in the realm of experimentation. When shooting film, you had to consider the cost of buying the film and getting it processed – even 35mm film might cost on the order of 50 cents a shot. That might make you think twice about trying some hair-brained new idea. Also, you had to wait to get the film back before knowing what the results of the experiment were. Now, you can get a fair amount of immediate feedback that helps you make useful course corrections. In fact, there is almost no excuse left now to not try all sorts of crazy things. I’m finding it easier to talk myself into various experiments with so little to lose.

How much time do you spend experimenting, trying something which you have no idea will work at all? I’m talking about radical experiments, not minor adjustments to what you’ve been doing. How often do they end up in public view? Are there specific methods you have to force yourself to experiment? How does radical experimentation make you feel?

BTW, the above is another in my new series of self-portraits. It’s all about experimenting in this project!

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It’s a Love/Hate Kind of Thing…

your grandfather’s barbershop, photograph

“Here’s the interesting thing about HDR images – a lot of photographers seem to dislike them, it’s a love it or hate it kind of thing, sadly. But the general public, the non-photographers out there, love them. And we should be asking why.”

David DuChemin

This is an interesting observation from a well-known photographer about HDR (High Dynamic Range) photography. HDR has become very popular and controversial at the same time. My experience is just as he says: this technique and resulting style of images polarizes photographers but non-photographers seem to really, really like the images.

This post will not discuss the pros and cons of HDR nor discuss how it is done. Rather DuChemin’s comment makes me wonder why this difference exists and why it should matter to us as photographers. This discussion extends to artists working in other mediums because the differences I’m talking about can just as easily exist in their world.

Photographers too often lose sight of the emotional impact their images have on others – we become focused on technical details (of which there are a lot in our world) and we become attached to the traditional approach. The former is a well known trap photographers fall prey to. Being in the printing business, I have a lot of experience watching photographers obsess about minute technical details in their prints that I guarantee you no one else will ever notice. While attention to detail can be important, sometimes it becomes nothing but trees hiding the proverbial forest.

The general public rarely cares about how you made an image and they don’t usually care too much about many of the minor details or technical imperfections in a print or painting. They care about how the image makes them feel. The artist is always looks at their work with a more critical eye than the general public. How many great images would have seen the light of day if the artist could only look at them with the eye of the general public?

Which leads to the other question – if a general style of image makes the public feel good, shouldn’t we be interested in understanding that better? Maybe we don’t have to embrace the HDR style in our own work, but perhaps if we understand what it is about this style they like, we could find ways to move in that direction. Assuming, of course, that that direction isn’t totally contrary to our own style.

If you are an artist of any stripe who has an interest in sharing their work with the public, it is in your interest to understand as much as possible about their preferences. Artists who say they do what they want and don’t care about the public’s desires either don’t really need to sell their work, are incredibly lucky to be doing what the public wants, or are very unsuccessful.

By the way, the reason I think the general public likes the HDR style so much is that it combines the verisimilitude of traditional photography with a heightened surrealistic quality that creates a new visual experience.

And a final note, do you miss the good old days when your local barbershop had a stuffed deer head mounted on the wall?

I, Myself and Me

self portrait #14, photograph

“Self-portraiture is a singular in-turned art. Something eerie lurks in its fingering of the edge between seer and seen.”

– Julian Bell

I have begun a series of self-portraits which is a new endeavor for me. I must admit it’s one I have mixed feelings about already…

Certainly there is a long tradition in most art forms of doing self-portraiture. I’m sure some of it comes from the ready availability of the subject. And they are certainly willing to do what they’re told. On the other hand, it feels sort of self-indulgent to think that anyone else would be interested in looking at a picture of you. And many of us (particularly those of my age!) don’t find it as rewarding to look at our physical selves with such scrutiny anymore.

It’s been said by many artists in many ways that every image we make is in some sense a self-portrait. They all reveal something about ourselves. I’m sure that how we represent ourselves directly in a self-portrait reveals even more. To be subject and object, seer and seen at the same time presents a unique opportunity to contemplate how we feel about ourselves and how we wish to be seen by others. By objectifying the self, we give it shape and allow it to be observed analyzed in new ways.

What have your experiences been with self-portraits? If you have avoided them, why? What have you learned from doing them?

Remembrance of Things Past

into the light, photograph

“The best part is: I’m never finished! There are always new angles, new shadows, new lights…”

– Paula Bachtiger Kling

One thing I love about photography is that the same image can be reworked in so many different ways.

For several years now I have been photographing the female figure, typically in motion. That work has evolved over time and, while each “generation” involves new photographs, often they really represent a new style or interpretation. I can go back and apply that style to older photographs, either shots I’ve already printed or shots that only work now, given whatever my new style is. The photographs are the raw material, awaiting the shape and form I give them, which can change over time.

Not only am I looking for new photographs to make, but I’m always considering new ways to interpret older work. I think this deepens my relationship with the work, because I spend so much time over the years with the same images, revisiting them to see if new life can be breathed into them.

So often as artists we work on a piece, finish it and never really think about it again – we’re eager to move on to the next piece. With my photography I am able to reacquaint myself with previous work, to remember what I liked or didn’t like about it and try to improve upon it. Reunions like this always teach us something of value.

How much time do you spend with past work? What do you gain from it?

If Truth be Told

lines, photograph

“That’s part of what I love about abstracts.It’s not the symbolism; it’s not the metaphor. It’s the simple chord of tonalities… Such tones just make the hairs on the back of my neck stand on end.”

– Brooks Jensen

I also love abstraction but have sort of a love-hate relationship with it. The quote from Jensen comes from an essay he wrote that states categorically that abstract photographs do not sell (he concludes that if you do them, you’ll have to do it for yourself). This has also been my experience. It’s too bad…

I suspect abstraction in all art forms can make it less accessible to many people. Think of Finnegan’s Wake by James Joyce, 20th century atonal music, your most recent trip to any Museum of Modern Art… I happen to enjoy a lot of that type of thing (or I used to, as I get older I sometimes don’t have the energy to unravel the tones in the chord).

Photography bears perhaps an extra burden when it comes to abstraction because, by it’s very nature, photographs have a quality of verisimilitude – the quality of truth. Unlike any other art form, photography is always of something out there in the world. It cannot completely divorce itself from that pedigree, no matter how much interpretive license the photographer takes. Usually the first thing a viewer asks about an abstract photograph is “What is that a photograph of?”. They try to relate it back to the object that was actually in front of the camera when the shutter clicked.

A good abstract photograph actually takes advantage of this – it relies on the close juxtaposition of the object the photograph is of and the degree to which that object is somehow hidden behind the chord of tonalities Jensen refers to.

But an abstract photograph can never completely let go of what it is a photograph of. I wonder to what degree the weight of that underlying thing-ness undermines the abstract-ness of the piece?

How Do You Find the Time?

flourish, photograph

“If I don’t practice for one day, I know it; if I don’t practice for two days, the critics know it; if I don’t practice for three days, the audience knows it.”

– Ignace Paderewski

Do you find that as an artist you need to limber up – you know, flex your creative muscles before undertaking any serious work? Or do you dive right in? Is there a specific ritual that gets you warmed up?

What happens to your work if you can’t do it for awhile? Does it feel like you have regressed or can you pick up where you left off? Has this ability changed as you have progressed in your own art career?

As a photographer, there are some constraints about when I can practice my art. It’s hard to do at night, for example (though there are some things one can do then). Add to that that I run a small business full time and have family duties and I find that my time to do photography usually comes in short randomly spaced bursts of time. I might have a couple of hours here and another hour there. Rarely is it even as much as a full day.

So I have to dive in and make the most of that time when it appears. I’m sure my work would be better if I could do it more regularly. One thing I miss about painting is that it was a little easier to do, since it all occurred in my studio and I could do it whenever I had a little time. There was less dependency on the external world being in a certain condition – perhaps that’s one reason I was drawn to do abstract painting (even less external dependency).

I have recently been trying to create more discipline in my photography by focusing on projects that are self-assigned. When I have a deadline, even a self-imposed one, I find I plan a little more and make more time.

What strategies do you use to get yourself to create more time in your schedule to make art? Maybe I can steal one or two…

The New Medium for Art

Weight of Time Passed, photograph

“Once a new technology rolls over you, if you’re not part of the steamroller, you’re part of the road.”

– Stewart Brand

I spend most of my day looking at paintings and photography on a computer monitor and have been researching various aspects of publishing artwork, both online and in more traditional mediums.

It has struck me that the computer monitor is becoming (or has already become) the most common medium by which we view art. It’s not galleries and museums, and perhaps not even books anymore. Our common visual reference is the monitor.

This has some potentially far reaching consequences. Monitors (assuming it’s a good one, which is becoming more common) display images with a dynamic range and quality that reproductions cannot match. Viewing a piece of art on a large, good monitor has become a really nice experience. Because light is streaming through the image instead of reflecting off of it, their is a luminosity to images viewed this way that cannot be matched when the image is on paper or canvas.

I suspect many will agree that the images on a monitor beat images in a book or a print. Now for the controversial part of my post…

How does this experience compare to seeing the original piece of art? I’m wondering if our visual taste buds are becoming accustomed to seeing art with the luminosity and quality of a monitor band whether we will become “disappointed” when we see originals. I know that I’ve already had this experience in certain museums, where my first impression of certain paintings or photographs has been one of great disappointment. Perhaps a copy I saw on a poster or in a book had been somehow more vivid and the real thing is a letdown.

I know that there are definite tactile qualities that a piece of original art has that a display cannot reproduce. This is more true of paintings than of photographs, which have no three dimensional character and are all, after all, reproductions. But I wonder how the increased use and quality of monitors and the resulting experience of viewing art might subtly influence how painters paint and how viewers react to original work?

I can’t imagine monitors will ever replace original art, but I also can’t imagine that how we see original art hasn’t been affected by this relatively new way of experiencing it.