How, Not What

standing tall, photograph

“When an artist is more concerned with what is said than how it is said there is no art.”

Anonymous

How, not what. What is static and one-dimensional, weighted down by reality. How is dynamic and multi-dimensional, revealing our personal vision.

This is why artists can return to the same subjects over and over and still create work that inspires or intrigues. In fact, some artists paint or photograph the same subject many, many times, intentionally challenging themselves to represent it in new ways. This in-depth exploration of a single subject can be both demanding and rewarding, forcing the artist to explore nuances and subtleties that the first few visits fail to elicit.

The most mundane of subjects can manifest the most sublime of art – because the art is not about the subject, it’s about how we tell you about that subject. And those stories are without limit.

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The Creative Child Within

vapors 6, photograph

“I used to draw like Raphael, but it has taken me a whole lifetime to learn to draw like a child.”

– Pablo Picasso

In his book, Art, Mind and Brain: A Cognitive Approach to Creativity, Howard Gardner discusses children’s art in several fascinating chapters. He describes a U-shaped developmental curve in which preschool children often display tremendous creativity, then enter a phase until adolescence of relative adherence to convention from which some emerge to embrace a creative freedom reminiscent of earlier times. Some, of course, do not emerge to revisit these earlier times. I realize this is a vast generalization for which there are numerous exceptions.

What interests me is this phase most of us enter, coincident with early school years, in which we learn the conventions of our society. It may seem like we stifle that early creative impulse during this time, but Gardner makes the claim that it is a necessary interlude so that our more mature creative expression is made against the backdrop of the norm. Preschoolers don’t have that context, which is why their creativity is qualitatively different (not better or worse). As Gardner says:

“the adult artist is fully cognizant of the norms embraced by others, his willingness, his compulsion, to reject convention is purchased, at the very least, with full knowledge of what he is doing and often at considerable psychic cost to himself.”

This phase of learning society’s conventions is akin to an artist learning their craft, going through the hard and tedious work of developing their technique so that they can break the rules with intention rather than ignorance.

I found this parallel interesting, another example of how the yin and the yang are needed to create the balance needed to grow.
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Float Like a Butterfly…

spring garden, photograph

“Art is like a butterfly fluttering in a meadow. Analysis of art is like a butterfly on a pin. Each has its value, but we must always be aware of the difference, and what is gained or lost.”

– Darby Bannard

I like this analogy a lot – we can learn so much about a butterfly from observing it in the meadow and equally as much in the laboratory, as a specimen. It’s just that we learn completely different things. Both have their place.

But, as Bannard points out, we need to bear in mind the differences and understand the limitations of each. Neither offers the complete picture and confining oneself to one side of this equation or the other denies us a deeper understanding of each.

Over the years I’ve enjoyed classical music – often I will hear a piece and love it without knowing anything about it, who wrote it, when it was written, the musical structure underlying it, etc. I can appreciate it as is. At times I’ve studied music and music history and the understanding I’ve gained in doing so can deepen my appreciation of a piece and make me like it even more.  On the other hand, if I really don’t like it, knowing more about it will not cause me to suddenly change how I feel. What I gain is understanding, not necessarily enjoyment.

For me the approach that works best is one of balance. In my last post, I referred to a review of my work in which a theorist seemed only able to look at the work from a theoretical and historical perspective. I do appreciate that viewpoint but it must be balanced by a perspective which enjoys the work on its own merits.

So I do like to learn about art theory and history, but don’t rely on them for my enjoyment of the arts – rather I look to them to further the enjoyment my direct experience offers me.
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Where Do You Fit In?

water marbles, photograph

“To be original one needs to learn the ideas of other painters in order to be different from them.”

Edgar Payne

During a portfolio review recently a reviewer told me that all photography is inevitably a collaboration with the work of past photographers and that I should understand my role in that collaboration. In other words, I needed to know the work of others and be able to explain my work in relation to theirs.

I know many artists struggle with the issue of the influence other artists have on their work. We all want to find our own voice and yet we all want to learn from others. A strong argument can be made that all art is to some degree derivative and that it is only in modern times that originality became so important to artists.

But this reviewer was making a slightly different point – they weren’t commenting on whether the work was original, but whether there was any reason to be doing it at all. Their point was that art must be understood and can only be evaluated in its historical context. The question posed by the reviewer was “Why, given what others have done with this type of work in the past, are you doing it now? What are you  trying to say that is relevant today with this subject?”. The implicit assumption was that if I couldn’t explain this, the work had no meaning.

I’m not sure how I feel about this. I don’t necessarily care what others have done with similar work or why they have done it. I may be interested in the work as a source of inspiration, ideas, techniques, etc. But I don’t really feel that I need to be engaged in a conversation with other artists, living or past, about my work. The conversations I’m more interested in art is with myself and with others who view my work. I suppose some of them are familiar with specific artistic traditions and may want to know how I fit in.

I’m afraid I may need to let them figure that out for themselves.

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Whether You Like it or Not

euphorbia 4, photograph

“If you only photograph when you feel like it… you’ll never be totally successful as a photographer.”

– Freeman Patterson

Many of us view artmaking as something we do purely for fun, so it’s hard to understand why we would practice our art when we don’t want to. That seems like a contradiction. And we’ve all felt at one time or another like making art is the last thing we want to do.

But I agree with Patterson, to improve as an artist you must  be committed enough to your work to practice it  even when you aren’t in the mood. It will cause you to take your art more seriously. You’ll be forced to find your creative muse under a wider range of circumstances and mental and emotional states, which will allow you to access a deeper well of inspiration.

We’ve all heard artists say that it is important to show up each day in the studio for work. I don’t take this literally because I can’t  (I have a full time job, after all) but rather for me it means that I am committed to take as many opportunities as I can to make art regardless of whether I am in the mood. I have a limited amount of time left in my life to make art and I can’t afford to limit myself to only those times when I feel like doing so if I want to grow.

This doesn’t mean that making art becomes a chore or, worse, a punishment. There are times when I choose not to practice art, when I need a break or just want to indulge in some other activity. But I’m careful to not decide against practicing art solely based on whether or not I feel like it at the moment. Such a habit would gradually cause my artistic muscles to grow slack.

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Up in Smoke

vapors 4, photograph

“But can you think of anyone who’s not hazy with smoke?”

Rumi

I’ve been working on a series of photographs of smoke lately which I’ve titled Vapors. Shooting smoke is an interesting experience for several reasons. One is that (at least using the technique I’m employing) you can’t really see what you are going to get when you snap the shutter. It’s all in constant motion, of course, and shooting at 1/200th of a second with flash means you will capture some invisible slice of that movement and freeze it in unexpected ways. I’m starting a sub-series called Vaporettes which appear to be dancing figures – note the head with distinct facial features and the sinewy torso and leg beneath in the shot above.

This gets about as far away from previsualization as you can go, short of randomly taking shots of random things. Yet I’m carefully crafting the situation in which interesting things can happen. I just can’t control the outcome. Sort of like life, I suppose. Do all you can to create the possibility, then work hard to manifest the best you can, without being able to see into the future to know the outcome.

Normally when we photograph, we see in the viewfinder what will end up in the final shot. Though often we’re disappointed in the result – how can that be? We see what’s going to be there, after all. I think if we really were objective about what’s in that viewfinder instead of projecting our thoughts and emotions at the moment into it, we’d rarely be as surprised as we often are.

I find photographing smoke to be a fascinating exercise in preparation and letting go of anticipated results. Fortunately for me, I’ve ended up liking a lot of the results, but it’s always a total surprise.

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A Litmus Test for Art

vapors 1, photograph

“If all your life means to you is water running over rocks, then photograph it, but I want to create something that would not have existed without me.”

Minor White

White wasn’t one to mince words and here he is being a bit judgmental in my opinion. But his point is one I’ve been thinking about lately.

There is an interesting period in the history of photography that started in the late 19th century and extended into the early part of the 20th – that of pictorialism. Photography started off being used to capture scenes very literally. The pictorialists wanted to use photography as an art form and they moved away from focused literalism to more interpreted images, often doing much of their creative work after the shots were taken  (about a hundred years before Photoshop!). Their photographs were often very stylized, softly focused, emotional. It was an attempt to make photography “art”, which was not it’s reputation at the beginning.

The dominance of pictorialism in photography lasted only about 30 years before being taken over by photography purists who insisted that images be in focus, more “real”, less like a painting and truer to the unique capabilities of the camera.

I wonder why this trajectory has occurred. Why the turn away from pictorialism (I admit I haven’t read that far so maybe there’s a simple answer).  I find my own work leaning much more toward the pictorial than the purist. I was told recently by a very well known photographer that my work “wasn’t what contemporary photographers are doing”. Hmph!

One of the things I like about the pictorial style is the obvious imprint of the artist. I both like to see that in the work of others and I like the opportunity to express myself more easily through my work. I like the idea that what I’m creating would not have existed without me – I think that’s a very good litmus test to apply to one’s work. Try it out…