“We all have our limitations, but when we listen to our critics, we also have theirs.”
– Robert Brault
It is important to remember that critics have limitations, just as artists do. They come with their own histories and prejudices, which they mostly cannot help but have color their critiques of our work. Often we do not know what these are, so it’s hard to interpret what we hear appropriately.
The same is true for artists and their art – each of us has our own background and experiences that inspire and define what we create. Most of our viewers know little of this and, thus, can only interpret our work based on what they see combined with their own insights. And in some sense, that’s fine – it doesn’t matter that they don’t know why we did something.
And that is true for how an artist uses a critique – while it may be interesting to know why the critic says what they do, ultimately it’s up to us to take the words in and see what truth they have for us.In that way, we become a little less constrained by their limitations and are left to do battle with out own.
ancient urban 4, photograph
“Sharpness is a bourgeois concept.”
– Henri Cartier-Bresson
I have a strong preference for photographic images that are partially out of focus. They seem to reside in that in-between, on the edge place that I find most interesting.
They remind me of the moment when you wake up from a dream and some elements of your consciousness are from the dream state while some are from your newly wakened state.
Finding just the right mix of abstract/literal, in focus/out of focus, distorted/straight is a challenge. I find that it’s a fine line one balances on. A little too far in either direction just feels off somehow. This actually adds an additional challenge for me as an artist, which provides a little extra creative juice to add to the mix.
Of course, this is all subject to personal taste. There are definitely folks who just have no interest in photography that isn’t tack sharp, infinite depth of field, etc.
For those of you in this camp, I refer you back to Henri Cartier-Bresson…
ancient urban 3, photograph
“Its not that we need new ideas, but we need to stop having old ideas.”
– Edwin Land
What is your relationship with your past? With work you’ve done before? With the work of others you’ve been inspired by?
For me it’s a most delicate balance. I can get too enamored of what has worked for me in the past and find myself unconsciously repeating it. Or I’ll find myself emulating work I see that I like from others. This can hold me back from exploring new ideas.
On the other hand, it’s important to understand what I like and don’t like, what has worked or not. So the past informs me, it provides important clues about what I should do next. The trick is to extract enough from it to be the seed of new thought and work, but not to retain so much that it constrains.
I try to use the past as a springboard, not a hitching post. And like the experience of having just sprung from the board, the feeling of turning your back on ideas that have meant something to you in the past can be both exhilirating and terrifying.
A true leap of faith…
hands 4, photograph
“They are imbeciles who call my work abstract. That which they call abstract is the most realistic, because what is real is not the exterior but the idea, the essence of things”.
– Constantin Brancusi
Smart people in many fields, ranging from classical philosophy (Plato) to modern physics to Kashmir Shaivism and Buddhism, point out that external appearances are not real in some fundamental way. They are transient, illusory, a deception.
We have it backwards – what we think of abstract is real and what we perceive of as real is abstract. Of course, it’s hard to live one’s everyday life with this perspective. But, as artists, we have the freedom to entertain this viewpoint in our work.
This is why most of my photography explores a shadow world, a level or two below what we think of as reality. It’s like the part of the iceberg below the waterline – there’s much more there to explore than what’s on the surface. That volume has extraordinary dimension. It is from there that the parts we see emerge above the surface.
It’s reassuring to know that there is so much more in the abstract world beneath the surface of things – no end to what we can explore!
hands 3, photograph
“The moment a man begins to talk about technique that’s proof that he is fresh out of ideas.”
– Raymond Chandler
I really don’t like to talk to people about how I’ve done a particular shot. You might have gathered that from reading this blog, where I rarely if ever discuss how the photograph was made. This is definitely not a how-to type of blog…
It’s not that I’m protecting some great secret, I just think it’s beside the point. The point is how the photography makes you feel, what emotional or intellectual response does it elicit, not technical details about what camera or lens was used, what lighting, exposure, etc. When I get into that kind of discussion with someone, I know they’re not really seeing the photograph.
Since I tend to shoot images that involve a fair amount of technique, some of it unusual, I’m opening myself up to more than my share of such questions and conversations. And I accept that – but I do relish the times when someone talks to me about how they feel about the image. And I feel myself deflate a bit each time I hear “how did you do that?”.
transient 3, photograph
“The job of the artist is always to deepen the mystery.”
– Francis Bacon
I’m not very interested in using photography in some of it’s more common forms – to explain, document or reveal. Rather I’d rather put it to work in the service of mystery.
Mystery arouses curiosity and speculation, which allows for a greater range of meaning. In fact, since photography is so well suited to literal description, the use of ambiguity can be even more compelling.
Perhaps an apt analogy is between a documentary film and film which is fiction. While good documentaries can be fascinating, they usually don’t involve the viewers imagination and emotion in as complex a fashion. Documentary film and photography brings you face to face with reality – the impact of that reality can be powerful. But non-documentary film and photography invite you to create your own reality, make up your own story.
Deepening the mystery is an important way for me to pen my own reality…
transient 1, photograph
“…detail kills imagination.”
A bit of a controversial position to take as a photographer in this day and age of digital everything – more megapixels, bigger sensors, better lenses, sharper prints… The capability is all there, but does that compel us to use it?
Most painters, except those doing photo-realistic pieces, know that the surest way to kill a painting is to try to put all the detail in it. It’s a beginners mistake. The viewer is more engaged when their perceptual system has to get involved, when it has to resolve what’s going on.
I find myself drawn to photographs that are more suggestive than descriptive for the same reason. I have to look at the photograph for a while to figure out what’s going on. Too much detail, as Whisson says, deprives me of an important facet of my experience.
Some will argue, perhaps rightly so, that photography is a unique medium because of it’s ability to capture detail and render scenes literally. They say that one should embrace this and find the artistry within that characteristic, that doing so is what it means to be a photographer. I understand this – I sometimes wonder why photo-realistic painters don’t just become photographers!
Maybe I should take up my brushes again. But until then, I’ll soldier on taking pictures that stare those damn pixels right in the eye!
spring garden, photograph
“Art is like a butterfly fluttering in a meadow. Analysis of art is like a butterfly on a pin. Each has its value, but we must always be aware of the difference, and what is gained or lost.”
– Darby Bannard
I like this analogy a lot – we can learn so much about a butterfly from observing it in the meadow and equally as much in the laboratory, as a specimen. It’s just that we learn completely different things. Both have their place.
But, as Bannard points out, we need to bear in mind the differences and understand the limitations of each. Neither offers the complete picture and confining oneself to one side of this equation or the other denies us a deeper understanding of each.
Over the years I’ve enjoyed classical music – often I will hear a piece and love it without knowing anything about it, who wrote it, when it was written, the musical structure underlying it, etc. I can appreciate it as is. At times I’ve studied music and music history and the understanding I’ve gained in doing so can deepen my appreciation of a piece and make me like it even more. On the other hand, if I really don’t like it, knowing more about it will not cause me to suddenly change how I feel. What I gain is understanding, not necessarily enjoyment.
For me the approach that works best is one of balance. In my last post, I referred to a review of my work in which a theorist seemed only able to look at the work from a theoretical and historical perspective. I do appreciate that viewpoint but it must be balanced by a perspective which enjoys the work on its own merits.
So I do like to learn about art theory and history, but don’t rely on them for my enjoyment of the arts – rather I look to them to further the enjoyment my direct experience offers me.
water marbles, photograph
“To be original one needs to learn the ideas of other painters in order to be different from them.”
– Edgar Payne
During a portfolio review recently a reviewer told me that all photography is inevitably a collaboration with the work of past photographers and that I should understand my role in that collaboration. In other words, I needed to know the work of others and be able to explain my work in relation to theirs.
I know many artists struggle with the issue of the influence other artists have on their work. We all want to find our own voice and yet we all want to learn from others. A strong argument can be made that all art is to some degree derivative and that it is only in modern times that originality became so important to artists.
But this reviewer was making a slightly different point – they weren’t commenting on whether the work was original, but whether there was any reason to be doing it at all. Their point was that art must be understood and can only be evaluated in its historical context. The question posed by the reviewer was “Why, given what others have done with this type of work in the past, are you doing it now? What are you trying to say that is relevant today with this subject?”. The implicit assumption was that if I couldn’t explain this, the work had no meaning.
I’m not sure how I feel about this. I don’t necessarily care what others have done with similar work or why they have done it. I may be interested in the work as a source of inspiration, ideas, techniques, etc. But I don’t really feel that I need to be engaged in a conversation with other artists, living or past, about my work. The conversations I’m more interested in art is with myself and with others who view my work. I suppose some of them are familiar with specific artistic traditions and may want to know how I fit in.
I’m afraid I may need to let them figure that out for themselves.
euphorbia 4, photograph
“If you only photograph when you feel like it… you’ll never be totally successful as a photographer.”
– Freeman Patterson
Many of us view artmaking as something we do purely for fun, so it’s hard to understand why we would practice our art when we don’t want to. That seems like a contradiction. And we’ve all felt at one time or another like making art is the last thing we want to do.
But I agree with Patterson, to improve as an artist you must be committed enough to your work to practice it even when you aren’t in the mood. It will cause you to take your art more seriously. You’ll be forced to find your creative muse under a wider range of circumstances and mental and emotional states, which will allow you to access a deeper well of inspiration.
We’ve all heard artists say that it is important to show up each day in the studio for work. I don’t take this literally because I can’t (I have a full time job, after all) but rather for me it means that I am committed to take as many opportunities as I can to make art regardless of whether I am in the mood. I have a limited amount of time left in my life to make art and I can’t afford to limit myself to only those times when I feel like doing so if I want to grow.
This doesn’t mean that making art becomes a chore or, worse, a punishment. There are times when I choose not to practice art, when I need a break or just want to indulge in some other activity. But I’m careful to not decide against practicing art solely based on whether or not I feel like it at the moment. Such a habit would gradually cause my artistic muscles to grow slack.