Aiming High

 

drops 1, photograph

“If you would hit the mark, you must aim a little above it; every arrow that flies feels the attraction of earth.”

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

Most of the time I find myself trying to do something I haven’t done before, trying to figure out something new. Usually something I don’t know if I can pull off.  There’s a downside to this in my experience that has to be managed.

I’ve been playing the piano for the past 5 years or so and I’m typically interested in playing music that is beyond my ability. As a result, I don’t play it as well as music that would be more appropriate for my level. I have to be satisfied with a more limited “success” in the interest of  stretching myself past my comfort level. And my playing is actually better for it.

In photography, I try to constantly explore styles, subjects and techniques that are new to me. The results may not be of as high a quality as what I have more experience with, but the effort informs everything else I do in a positive way. Plus, I have a restless artistic nature that gets bored easily – it’s more fun to try new things.

Is it better to try to perfect what you know or to move on to what you don’t? For now, I’m following the advice of Gertrude Stein who said, “If you can do it then why do it?”.

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What Do They Know?

westside road 36, photograph

“I cannot convince myself that a painting is good unless it is popular. If the public dislikes one of my Post covers, I can’t help disliking it myself.”

Norman Rockwell

How immune are you from the opinions of your audience? Do you find yourself being influenced by their favorites? Can you feel completely comfortable with something no one else likes?

I must admit that I experience a certain deflation about a piece that I think is a winner that meets with no interest at all from others. At best it makes me questions my judgement, at worst it makes me relegate it to the reject pile. A rare few I keep in my favorites folder, but I’ve stopped sharing them – they’re just for me.

I don’t think one should blithely say that the opinions of others should be ignored – it’s the rare artist who makes their art only for themselves. On the other hand, too much importance attached to these opinions can result in rudderless artmaking.

For me the secret is to pay attention to the opinion of those whose opinion I respect or whose criticism comes with more to ponder than just a thumbs up or down. Something that starts out as a personal favorite, when examined from this perspective, can turn out to be a stepping stone to something better. Some pieces are keepers, some are there to point the way…

The Aleph

rose 25, photograph

“Vermeer found a life’s work in the corner of a room.”

Irwin Greenberg

There are worlds within worlds.

One of my favorite short stories is The Aleph by Jorge Luis Borges – an aleph is a point in space which contains all other points. Anyone who gazes into it can see everything in the universe from every angle simultaneously, without distortion, overlapping or confusion. A concept full of hope and potential.

As an artist you define the scope within which you create your work – it might be your room, your house, your town, country, etc. The physical scale of this boundary does not limit the reach of our exploration. It may feel that way at first, or at some point – you may want to believe that if you could just broaden our range, go to this or that interesting place, your work would jump to the next level.

It’s rarely true.

The solution is not to find a way out, but to find a way in. To enter the aleph.

Practicing my Scales

grove, photograph

“It seems to me that a photographer who takes [images without an underlying idea] is exactly like a pianist who repeatedly plays the scales.”

– Brooks Jensen, Letting Go of the Camera

I struggle constantly with this issue of taking photographs that are just visually interesting and taking those that are inspired by an idea. Especially since most of my work falls in the “fine art” category (as opposed to photojournalism or editorial). I feel like I should have an idea in play before I take the picture but, to be honest, I’m usually looking around for something that I know is or can be made visually compelling. Most of the time I don’t sit around coming up with a specific idea and then go out in search of images that express that idea.

I think a lot of it has to do with what one considers an idea. How broadly can it be defined? How important does the idea need to be? For example, I just completed a small project where I photographed rolls of paper in my studio – the idea was to capture their geometric qualities in an abstract fashion, to reduce them to curves, lines and shapes. I guess this is an idea, though not a very important one. But some of the images were pleasing to look at.

Jensen believes good photography is about ideas but does allow that the just-visually-interesting shot (what he calls tones and zones) has value – they’re necessary exercise akin to playing scales, just insufficient on their own.

I’ll take solace in this for now. As I go out and do my zones and tones work, I’ll remind myself that I’m just doing my scales (something I refused to do when learning to play the piano!).