Critical Thinking



waiting, photograph

“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.


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Learning How to Focus

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…

A Leap of Faith

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…

What is Real?

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!

 

 

Why, not How…

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?”.

 

Everyone Likes a Good Mystery


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…

Too Much of a Good Thing


transient 1, photograph

“…detail kills imagination.”

-Colley Whisson

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!