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.



Up in Smoke

vapors 4, photograph

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


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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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?

What Did You See?


“The person viewing your work has no idea what the scene really looked like, nor do they care…”

– Mike Svob

It certainly is true that no one who was not there with you really knows what you saw and, even if they were there, we all know that each of us sees differently. Given the same  put, most of us would come up with at least a slightly different output.

But do our viewers care what the scene looked like? Often we want them to. We try to depict as faithfully as possible what we saw so others can share it too. We want them to share our experience of it. There is a genre of art the might accomplish this, work that is representational in nature that invites the viewer to stand next to us and see what we saw.

I hope my viewers don’t really care what the scene looked like. I hope they care what it caused me to think or feel. That’s what I want  to share, not the scene itself.

I hope  my viewers want to take a different journey with me, not back to the place I was, but to the place I went afterwards. To the place populated by my reactions, interpretations and impressions of the original scene.

Caring about what the scene really looked like means caring less about the work of art that it inspired. Focusing on the scene can be a distraction from the art. It is the art which is my offering, the thing I wish to share with you.

Just for a Moment


Transits 3 Untitiled

“A still photograph is called a still photograph because the picture doesn’t move, not because the objects in the picture are not in motion. The photographer’s mission, should he decide to accept it, is to capture motion with stillness.”

– Vincent Versace

Photography (and art in general) is such a contrary activity. We try to depict three dimensions in two, motion in stillness, the passing of time in a moment. Perhaps someday all these limitations will go away and we’ll be able to use holographic technology to recreate reality almost as we experience it.

Will this spell the end of art? Does art exist partly because the artist has to figure out a way to make his/her point within the confines of the constraints of the medium? I don’t know.

When photography was first developed in the 19th century some thought it meant painting was no longer necessary. In reality, since now there was a way to capture reality more literally it freed painting to move into more expressive directions. And photography itself quickly moved past it’s own literal tendencies.

I suspect holographic artists of the future will find ways to use that medium to do some very interesting, artistic things. In the meantime, I’m happy to keep capturing motion with stillness.

(This photo is part of a new series of figurative work I am working on. The effects are all done in camera by photographing figures in motion with special lenses.)