Twice Seen

Man and Child, photograph

“In the words of a Native American holy man, to see profoundly means ‘to look at the world twice,’ minutely as well as dimly, in order ‘to see all that there is to see’.”

Eugenia Parry – in an essay introduction to “Bill Jacobson Photographs”

One of the things I love most about visual art is the way in which it allows us, and sometimes forces us, to see the world differently.

Imagine for a moment a world without any visual arts. The only things to see… would be the things themselves. While it’s hard to even imagine, I believe that there would be far less dimension to our world. Our surroundings would feel a little more like a Hollywood set. We would lack the ability to see “all that there is to see”.

Much of my photographic work involves images seen less minutely and more dimly. They might feel a bit like the dream state, or that interval when awakening emerges from our dreams. Just as we perform important work on many of our conscious thoughts while dreaming, we can expand the range of our vision of the world by viewing it in a manner less minute. Then we will look twice, and maybe more than twice, to see what is revealed when the particulars are absent.

Please do keep looking. You will continue to find more.

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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?

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Self-Forgetful Concentration

vintage vines, photograph

“What one seems to want in art, in experiencing it, is the same thing that is necessary for its creation, a self-forgetful, perfectly useless concentration.”

Elizabeth Bishop

First of all, I think Bishop is being facetious here in her phrase “perfectly useless”. There is little that is of more use to us than the still point of concentration we experience when creating art or being moved by it. “Self-forgetful” is a state sought by most spiritual paths as a requirement for deeper understanding.

What struck me about this quote, however, was the way in which Bishop equates, at some level, the experience of creating art with that of experiencing it. When I see art that captures my attention, there is a sudden suspension of my surroundings as I focus my attention on the piece in front of me. It is similar to the way in which we become unaware of what’s going on around us when making art.

This shared state of mind, this self-forgetful concentration,  is at the root of the connection between artists and their audience. It occurs at a level underlying the specifics of any individual, at a more essential stratum. For me, this is one of the reasons it is so rewarding to be an artist – knowing that I share a bond with others making and experiencing art that exists regardless of our differences.

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Ready to Jump

laguna dreams, photograph

“But an artist’s waiting […] is not to be confused with laziness or passivity. It requires a high degree of attention, as when a diver is poised on the end of the springboard, not jumping but holding his or her muscles in sensitive balance for the right second.”

– Rollo May, The Courage to Create

I liked May’s analogy of the diver poised on the board to describe the heightened sense of awareness that artists feel when they are in the creative process. To the outside observer it may appear that little is happening, but inside the artist be in the most intense and delicious state of attention possible.

I know that when I am out photographing, it looks like I’m just idly walking about, looking here or there. In reality, my focus is very directed, and I am processing the scenes around me as rapidly as possible, considering what might work, how to frame it, how to make it a creative capture, what I might do with the image later, etc.

Just like the diver, I, too, am poised, waiting for just that “right second”.

May also discusses the role of relaxation in the creative process. We have all heard the stories of people struggling to solve complex problems, only to have the solution come to them when they least expect it, perhaps while taking a walk or in the shower. He says that we are at our most creative when we are going back and forth between relaxed downtime and energetic work. It is the periods of intensity juxtaposed with periods of seeming inactivity that produce the best results. As in all things, I guess it is balance that works best.

What circumstances have led you to be at your most creative and productive?

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More Than Meets the Eye

daffodil, photograph

“While the photographer cannot eliminate the object […], he still wants the photograph to be the main source of the spectator’s feeling. While he cannot erase from the viewer’s mind the implications of the subject, he prefers to depend for his effect on the visual relationships that are present in the print itself.”

– Minor White

This is certainly how I feel about doing photography but there are some that will disagree. And I’ve seen many photographs where I believe the subject was the focus, rather than the photograph itself. The cameras ability to easily render what appears in front of us can make it easy to fall into the trap of simply documenting what’s there.

As you may know, I like to compare photography to painting – having done a lot of both, it lets me bring to bear my own personal experiences. Plus I think many of us hold different views of these two artforms, both in terms of creating and viewing them, and these differences can be revealing. After all, both are about creating images, yet there are many distinctions we make between them, which I have often found puzzling.

Most paintings are more about the painting than the subject (portraits is an exception that comes to mind).  We don’t think about painting anymore as a method of simply documenting our world. Rather it is a way of interpreting our world, expressing how we feel about it.

Photography, both because of its historical roots, and because it is a better tool than painting when documentation is needed, is more often relegated, both by viewer and photographer, to being primarily a means of reporting on the world.

But a photograph, like a painting, wants it’s own identity – it wants to be more than it’s subject. That’s why, when I look at something and consider whether I will take the picture, I ask myself what I will do with the photograph to make it distinct from what I’m photographing.

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What Color is Your World?

Georgetown bedroom, photograph

“..Why would anyone want to photograph an indisputably colourful world in monochrome? If colour film had been invented first, would anybody even contemplate photographing in black and white?”

– Russell Miller

I love B&W photography. But Miller raises an interesting question about the role of B&W photography and it’s place in history.

We had many years of only B&W photography and many of the most famous photographers worked primarily in that mode. As a result, many of the most recognized photographs are B&W. Would things have been different had color film been invented first? I believe they would. I’m not saying that we wouldn’t have B&W photography but I suspect it would be a very minor niche, probably done as infrequently as monochrome paintings.

It’s interesting that television and the movies started off also as B&W only but now there are extremely few movies and no TV shows produced without color. We even go as far as to “colorize” old B&W movies (which interestingly enough seem not as visually interesting as they did in their original state).

My own experience selling color and B&W work is that the average person, not the photography collector, prefers color work by a wide margin. It makes it hard to allocate wall space in shows to B&W work if I’m trying to recover costs or make some money. I wish this weren’t so. It’s possible my own color work is just better than my B&W and my experience may not be the same as yours in this matter.

Putting additional pressure on B&W photography is that most people are shooting digital cameras which always capture images in color. Of course, it’s easier than ever to convert these to B&W but we don’t necessarily go out with the intention of shooting B&W which was the case when we were loading B&W film in our cameras.

I’m not sure why B&W photography has had the staying power it has, but I’m glad for it. It’s a different and special way of seeing.

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Support Systems

hinges, photograph

“It’s hard to overemphasize the fact that the most difficult part of artmaking is not the making-a-living part – it’s the staying-alive-as-an-artist part. Without a support system, you not only lose a precious connection with your fellow artmakers, you also lose access to all those school experiences that have no natural counterpart in the outside world”.

Ted Orland

A friend of our just told us that her college-aged daughter is attending a 4 year art school program. Another friend recently completed her MFA at the same school. This brought to my mind a discussion Orland has in his book The View from the Studio Door in which he talks about the pros and cons of art school.

He observes that one of the differences between art school and the outside world is that there are not that many ways to be part of a community of artists outside of school in our world today. Art is no longer woven as tightly into society’s fabric as it used to be. It’s easy to find oneself working as an artist in relative isolation. I’m sure this can be a difficult change upon graduating from art school – a lot of the support systems are suddenly absent.

I believe that blogging and other social networking communities have given many of us a welcome means of connecting with others. It’s become an amazing window to a worldwide artist community. I’ve enjoyed participating in this but felt the need for something else, something more immediate.

A friend and I decided about 6 months ago to start a group composed of local photographers which meets monthly. One of the goals was to foster a sense of artistic community among our peers. We give ourselves an “assignment” each month, something vague enough we can each interpret it our own way, and we share what we’ve done that month at each meeting. This gives us an incentive to go out and do some art – often the assignment pushes us to try something we would not have otherwise done. We share our work, books we’ve read, shows we’ve seen, things we’ve been struggling with – and we top it off with a great potluck lunch.

It’s been a great success so far, and I think we’ve all been surprised at how revealing and inspirational the process has been. Interestingly enough, Orland shares that he has been in such groups himself for many years, sometimes more than one at a time and some for a very long time.

What do you do to find or create artistic community? What forms has this taken for you? How have you found it to be beneficial?
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Wabi-Sabi 1, photograph

A funny thing happened this week – one of those whimsical coincidences that can reveal. I read a book that had been recommended by Donna Watson on her wonderful blog Layers. The book is Wabi-Sabi for Artists, Designers, Poets & Philosophers by Leonard Koren. In it I found a phrase the not only resonated with me strongly but was the exact same phrase that had been used by Robert Adams which was the inspiration for my last blog posting. I realized that my previous posting had mysteriously foreshadowed this book and that there was a theme here for me to explore further.

Here is the quote from Koren:

“The simplicity of wabi-sabi is probably best described as the state of grace arrived at by a sober, modest, heartfelt intelligence. The main strategy of this intelligence is economy of means. Pare down the essence but don’t remove the poetry”

There’s that phrase again – economy of means. Why was it haunting me?

First, what is wabi-sabi? I won’t attempt to explain it fully here (Koren’s book does a wonderful job of that) but basically it is a fundamental Japanese aesthetic of beauty. In his introduction Koren describes wabi-sabi:

“Wabi-sabi is a beauty of things imperfect, impermanent, and incomplete. It is a beauty of things modest and humble. It is a beauty of things unconventional.”

I have always been drawn to photographing objects in some state of deterioration. I’d rather shoot an old, decaying building than a new shiny one, a beat up old car than this year’s model, an antique rather than something just made. I never understood what appealed to me in these objects and sometimes felt self-conscious pursuing them.

The concept of wabi-sabi has given me a context within which to consider these subjects. Koren discusses some of the metaphysical, spiritual, moral and emotional foundations of this interesting aesthetic. For example, a metaphysical aspect is “things are devolving toward, or evolving from, nothingness”, while a moral precept is “get rid of all that is unnecessary”. The economy of means phrase refers to the unpretentious simplicity vs. materialistic complexity that is also fundamental to wabi-sabi.

I like the idea that what and how I photograph can cause me to think about the world around me in a more conscious manner. I have a feeling a wabi-sabi series is in my future.

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Is Art Better?

fort point 3, photograph

“There is no progress in art, any more than there is in making love.”

Man Ray

I found this quote in another essay by Robert Adams in Beauty in Photography called “Making Art New”. He discusses whether art in general has improved over time, which is an interesting question that I’ve never really considered.

It is certainly true that our own individual artmaking can (and hopefully does) improve over time. We acquire more technique and perhaps dive deeper into what inspires our art, making it more personal and meaningful. But can we say in the same way that the quality of art overall is better today than it was a century or two ago?

It’s a hard case to make when we consider some of the art of Michelangelo, Rembrandt, Cezanne, etc. Even in the highly technology laden art of photography, in which the technology has vastly improved to allow us to make new kinds of pictures, can we say that the work of Weston, Cartier-Bresson, or Stieglitz is not at least as good as anything being done today? They used much simpler tools but their results still achieved greatness.

In many ways, we can say we have made progress over past times – medicine, sports, and technology come to mind. But other areas, perhaps more representative of the essential aspects of being human, defy the notion of progress. Methods change, styles come and go, preferences vary, but the basic quality of what is produced in different times doesn’t follow any linear line of progress.

I like this about art – it connects me in a unique way with people from other times. If time travel were possible, we’d have more in common as a result of our art than many other aspects of our lives.

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Simple Gifts

rose 1, photograph

“The point of art has never been to make something synonymous with life, however, but to make something of reduced complexity that is nonetheless analogous to life and that can thereby clarify it.”

– Robert Adams

I’ve been working my way through a couple of books of essays by Robert Adams – this quote comes from “Photographing Evil” in Beauty in Photography: Essays in Defense of Traditional Values. He is discussing whether photographers have as much right to “arrange life into a composition” as do painters.

This has been a controversial issue in photography since it’s beginning. There persists a prejudice out there that “arranging life” (a better phrase than the pejorative and dreaded “manipulation”) should not be allowed in much of photography. These days we have many more tools with which we can “arrange life” in our work, especially after the shot has been taken.

Adams’ point above is that any art form is not primarily about exactly representing life. Art, including photography, is always an abstraction of life. Here’s the definition of abstraction from Wikipedia:

Abstraction is the process or result of generalization by reducing the information content of a concept or an observable phenomenon, typically to retain only information which is relevant for a particular purpose.

By reducing information, we keep what is important for our purpose. What to include or exclude is a critical concern of artmaking, perhaps the most important.

John Barclay has an interesting post on his blog about the power of simplicity in photography that makes some interesting points about this. I suspect that the more we can “arrange life” in our work to make it simpler, yet with sufficient analogy to real life, the clearer our intention will be.

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