Disturbing News

Into the Continuum, photograph

A painting without something disturbing in it – what’s that?

– George Braque

Another bold statement that might just contain a grain of truth in it.

Does all (or most) good, interesting art have at least some element in it that could be considered “disturbing”? If there is nothing that throws us off just a bit, is the art reduced to something that is just decorative? What role “decorative” art plays is a topic for another post…

I use the word disturbing in a fairly general sense – to unsettle, to interrupt, to interfere with the order of something. When I experience this in a work of art it causes me to stop and reconsider, to reflect on something in a new way. My status quo has been disturbed. What results from that experience can be good or bad, but without something in the work that triggers it, chances are we won’t get much from seeing the work.

I always get a small thrill when I create an image that I know will disturb my viewers (bearing in mind the above definition). I don’t want to make you feel bad, I want to make you feel…

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!).

 

Torn Asunder

not quite myself, photograph

“Collage is the noble conquest of the irrational, the coupling of two realities, irreconcilable in appearance, upon a plane which apparently does not suit them.”

Max Ernst

Sometimes I like to experiment with “photocollage”, taking textures or multiple exposures and layering them to combine them in unique ways. Working with planes of content, manipulating them in ways to convey new meaning, breaking them down, reconstituting them. The dissonance that results from combining or breaking apart is stimulating.

The lines are blurring between photography and general mixed media fine art as photographers start incorporating new elements in their work and other artists begin to use photographic components in theirs. I like this ambiguity as it creates new space for both types of artists to explore and find new meaning.

Instead of relying on the subject alone to make the point, this approach allows me to layer additional information through how I add to it or change it. It’s very exciting to look at the photographs I take and hear them ask me, “And now what?”.

Anything that perpetuates the creative moment and inspires you to look for more to say is good.

Productive Patterns

transits 39, photograph

“A piece of art is the surface expression of a life lived within productive patterns.”

David Bayles and Ted Orland, Art & Fear

Do you have productive patterns in your life that enable you to more produce art more easily?

The authors emphasize the importance of making a lot of art, quantity breeds quality and perfection is an aim that gets in the way. This is certainly true in photography – good photographers shoot all the time. Your own work teaches you what you need to do next, that’s it’s main purpose in fact.

So it’s a good idea to figure out what strategies, techniques, tricks, habits and rituals facilitate you making more art. It might be something very idiosynchratic that seems a little obsessive-compulsive. It might be a particular form that is the gateway for you to make art. The authors cite Chopin’s fascination with Mazurkas – some might have advised him to try something else, but the consistency of the form allowed him freedom to roam creatively and prodigiously. Making a series, photographing the same subject over and over in different ways, is another method of expediting production.

Constraint can be an impetus to creativity. You don’t have to reinvent yourself with each piece, you can narrow the focus of your imagination, honing it’s edge so it cuts through the inevitable impediments that arise in the face of artmaking.

Of course, just making a lot of art, while necessary, isn’t sufficient. You have to examine what you create, look for what has worked and what hasn’t. Everything you need to know to make your next piece of art is contained in all the art you’ve made so far. No one else can teach you more than is there.

Artistic Grammar

transits 36, photograph

“Art is like beginning a sentence before you know its ending.”

– David Bayles & Ted Orland, Art and Fear

Whether it’s making the first few marks with the brush on the canvas, or snapping the picture and hoping that the camera captured something like what inspired you to take it, when we start our artistic utterance, rarely do we know how it will turn out. It’s not a happy environment for control freaks.

As art viewers, when we see the final piece we don’t know its genesis. As the authors point out, any given masterpiece might have been moments away from abandonment before some inspiration struck and the artist found the right way to complete the work. That’s how fragile the process of getting from the beginning of the sentence to the end can be.

And I would add to their point by saying that a good piece of art is like a sentence that ends in time. How many pieces of art have you made that remind you of a run-on sentence, one that you didn’t know how and when to appropriately end?

No art will get made if we don’t start speaking, and our best pieces will get made when we know when to shut up.

Beholding Beauty


“Incubus 1”

“Beauty needs a consensus, or at least the possibility.”

– Michael Freeman, The Photographer’s Mind

The concept of beauty in art is one that continues to draw my attention, I guess because much of my work explores subjects and treatments that don’t fit that term’s usual definition.

Freeman, in his (excellent!) new book, The Photographer’s Mind, begins with a lengthy discussion of beauty and it’s evolving role in contemporary art and photography. One of the points he makes is that members of a culture share a common understanding of what is beautiful. Of course, there is disagreement about whether any particular image is beautiful, hence the catchphrase “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder”. But when we attempt  to create something of beauty, we are aiming in a general direction that we believe others will agree with. Beauty cannot exist only in the eye of the beholder.

I think this is why I sometimes get a little bored with beautiful images. They speak to culture’s conventions, they are considered beautiful for the very reason that they share common qualities with other beautiful things. Beauty is a confined space that artificially limits our free expression. Ultimately there becomes a sameness about beauty. Images that do not aim at these conventions cause us to consider them on their own merits, without benefit of ready-made criteria. There’s greater opportunity in both creating and viewing such images to experience something new.

 

 

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.
Add to DeliciousAdd to DiggAdd to FaceBookAdd to Google BookmarkAdd to MySpaceAdd to RedditAdd to StumbleUponAdd to TechnoratiAdd to Twitter

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.

Add to DeliciousAdd to DiggAdd to FaceBookAdd to Google BookmarkAdd to MySpaceAdd to RedditAdd to StumbleUponAdd to TechnoratiAdd to Twitter

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…



The Dark Side

san francisco nights, photograph

“… it’s also important to recognize that what we’ve created may be private work, rather than something to offer for publication or exhibition.”

John Daido Loori, The Zen of Creativity

Do you ever create this kind of private work?

We’re not referring to work that is kept private because it isn’t up to our personal quality standards, but rather work that just isn’t suitable for consumption by others. It might be something that was inspired by an inner muse that you are not ready to share. The work may even be disturbing to others. Not all art is “feel good” art.

As artists I think it is good to challenge our audience, but not to intentionally upset them. Since we explore our inner state through our art, it makes sense that a wide range of feelings and emotions are represented.

I know many artists are tempted to produce only work that uplifts, themselves and others. We are all enriched by such work. But I recommend examining other modalities in your art as well.

I was recently told by someone that a body of my work “should be seen, but was not commercial”. In other words, it had something to say but nobody would probably want to buy it and hang it on their wall. There are all sorts of categories that art falls into beyond the familiar ones so many of us focus on.

So tell me, do you have a collection of private work hidden away somewhere? What can you tell us about it?

Add to DeliciousAdd to DiggAdd to FaceBookAdd to Google BookmarkAdd to MySpaceAdd to NewsvineAdd to RedditAdd to StumbleUponAdd to TechnoratiAdd to Twitter