A Geography Lesson

fort point 1, photograph

“If, however, teaching photography means bringing students to find their own individual photographic visions, I think it is impossible. We would be pretending to offer the students, in William Stafford’s phrase, ‘a wilderness with a map’.”

Brooks Jensen

Teaching photography, or art in general, is challenging and many, if not most, good artists are not good teachers (most people are not good teachers). Teaching art is particularly hard because there is this “personal vision” thing at which artists eventually aim their focus. It’s what makes it my art, and separates it from the art I made while still learning my craft. Many of us won’t feel successful until we’ve connected with it.

Personal vision is extremely elusive. Our initial experience with it tends to arise from a growing dissatisfaction with our work, so we are introduced to it by it’s absence. We often look to teachers for help, those who we believe have discovered their own personal vision. Sometimes we “adopt” their vision, sometimes we want to hear the steps they took to get there and sometimes we just want encouragement on our own journey.

There are several problems we face in getting help from teachers to discover our vision. At best, they have discovered their vision, not yours. Your vision is a product of all the unique experiences and qualities that define you and thus cannot be truly understood, much less taught, by another. And I bet you would be surprised how many of these teachers, if pressed,  would admit to not even understanding their own vision. It’s not clear that personal vision is something that, once developed, is retained – I think it evolves as you do, since it is an expression of your thoughts and emotions, which change over time. So there will be periods where you feel in synch with your vision and times when you don’t – it’s a moving target, one which needs to be continually reacquired.

I love the metaphor used by Stafford above – artistic vision is a wilderness and there is no map. It takes courage to wander into it without concrete guidance but there is no other way to embark on the journey.

Teaching art can serve an important purpose. There are definitely skills to learn, techniques and craft to develop. You can save enormous time by learning these things from others. And a good teacher will provide the support and environment that makes your travels through the wilderness less intimidating. They might even accompany you on the journey.

But only you can chart the right path through the wilderness…

It’s a Love/Hate Kind of Thing…


your grandfather’s barbershop, photograph

“Here’s the interesting thing about HDR images – a lot of photographers seem to dislike them, it’s a love it or hate it kind of thing, sadly. But the general public, the non-photographers out there, love them. And we should be asking why.”

David DuChemin

This is an interesting observation from a well-known photographer about HDR (High Dynamic Range) photography. HDR has become very popular and controversial at the same time. My experience is just as he says: this technique and resulting style of images polarizes photographers but non-photographers seem to really, really like the images.

This post will not discuss the pros and cons of HDR nor discuss how it is done. Rather DuChemin’s comment makes me wonder why this difference exists and why it should matter to us as photographers. This discussion extends to artists working in other mediums because the differences I’m talking about can just as easily exist in their world.

Photographers too often lose sight of the emotional impact their images have on others – we become focused on technical details (of which there are a lot in our world) and we become attached to the traditional approach. The former is a well known trap photographers fall prey to. Being in the printing business, I have a lot of experience watching photographers obsess about minute technical details in their prints that I guarantee you no one else will ever notice. While attention to detail can be important, sometimes it becomes nothing but trees hiding the proverbial forest.

The general public rarely cares about how you made an image and they don’t usually care too much about many of the minor details or technical imperfections in a print or painting. They care about how the image makes them feel. The artist is always looks at their work with a more critical eye than the general public. How many great images would have seen the light of day if the artist could only look at them with the eye of the general public?

Which leads to the other question – if a general style of image makes the public feel good, shouldn’t we be interested in understanding that better? Maybe we don’t have to embrace the HDR style in our own work, but perhaps if we understand what it is about this style they like, we could find ways to move in that direction. Assuming, of course, that that direction isn’t totally contrary to our own style.

If you are an artist of any stripe who has an interest in sharing their work with the public, it is in your interest to understand as much as possible about their preferences. Artists who say they do what they want and don’t care about the public’s desires either don’t really need to sell their work, are incredibly lucky to be doing what the public wants, or are very unsuccessful.

By the way, the reason I think the general public likes the HDR style so much is that it combines the verisimilitude of traditional photography with a heightened surrealistic quality that creates a new visual experience.

And a final note, do you miss the good old days when your local barbershop had a stuffed deer head mounted on the wall?

The New Medium for Art

Weight of Time Passed, photograph

“Once a new technology rolls over you, if you’re not part of the steamroller, you’re part of the road.”

– Stewart Brand

I spend most of my day looking at paintings and photography on a computer monitor and have been researching various aspects of publishing artwork, both online and in more traditional mediums.

It has struck me that the computer monitor is becoming (or has already become) the most common medium by which we view art. It’s not galleries and museums, and perhaps not even books anymore. Our common visual reference is the monitor.

This has some potentially far reaching consequences. Monitors (assuming it’s a good one, which is becoming more common) display images with a dynamic range and quality that reproductions cannot match. Viewing a piece of art on a large, good monitor has become a really nice experience. Because light is streaming through the image instead of reflecting off of it, their is a luminosity to images viewed this way that cannot be matched when the image is on paper or canvas.

I suspect many will agree that the images on a monitor beat images in a book or a print. Now for the controversial part of my post…

How does this experience compare to seeing the original piece of art? I’m wondering if our visual taste buds are becoming accustomed to seeing art with the luminosity and quality of a monitor band whether we will become “disappointed” when we see originals. I know that I’ve already had this experience in certain museums, where my first impression of certain paintings or photographs has been one of great disappointment. Perhaps a copy I saw on a poster or in a book had been somehow more vivid and the real thing is a letdown.

I know that there are definite tactile qualities that a piece of original art has that a display cannot reproduce. This is more true of paintings than of photographs, which have no three dimensional character and are all, after all, reproductions. But I wonder how the increased use and quality of monitors and the resulting experience of viewing art might subtly influence how painters paint and how viewers react to original work?

I can’t imagine monitors will ever replace original art, but I also can’t imagine that how we see original art hasn’t been affected by this relatively new way of experiencing it.