The Art of Illusion

transits 122, photograph

“I no longer worry whether a painting is about something or not. I am only concerned with the expectation, from a flat surface, of an illusion.”

William Scott

All art is illusion since it is a (mis)representation of reality in some way – unless you consider it as a physical object in it’s own right (a bit of paper or canvas, some pigment or emulsion). But the art always stands for something else and it can never be that thing entirely.

I like to bring that quality to the surface of my work so that when you look at it, it’s apparent that I’m not simply trying to replicate reality. I’m inviting you into the illusion, allowing you to add your own interpretation, to construct your own reality out of the sketchy elements I offer up.

It can be a little unsettling and it requires a bit more effort to create the story, and all good art comes with a story, either entirely personal or more communal. Sometimes the material I provide doesn’t inspire your imagination to engage, other times it sparks an unexpected journey.

Either outcome is fine, I just ask that you keep looking.

Creating the Story

transits 123, photograph

“We become who we are by virtue of the choices we make … about which parts belong to the story, and which parts can be left out.”

– Ted OrlandThe View from the Studio Door

Orland describes a bit about how consciousness happens – five times a second or so, we take a snapshot of the most plausible reality we can from what our senses offer us. We have to gather these discrete snippets from the blizzard of perception coming at us at all times or we’d be overwhelmed.

Each time one of these electronic impulses causes us to sample reality, we “paint the foreground, mute the background”, we “separate  the specific from the general”. We fit together the pieces we can and set aside the rest. We decide which parts belong to the story and which do not.

This process is duplicated when we take a photograph. We create the story by using various techniques to bring certain things to the forefront while simultaneously de-emphasizing others. We do this through composition and design, through selective focus, through dodging and burning, and myriad other strategies.

Making art is our way of recreating a personal world in much the same manner that we all create our everyday worlds. Here our choices are more conscious and controlled. It’s a way to dip into the ever rushing stream of reality and slow it down enough to enjoy and reflect upon it.

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?”.

 

Planning to Improvise

smoking nude 2, photograph

“Careful planning, and brilliant improvisation.”

Sergi Eisenstein

The yin and the yang of making art. Years of practice, hours or even days of careful preparation for a specific piece and then ultimately the surrender to the creative spirit. Planning gives way to improvisation.

As in all things, the key is finding the right balance. Planning without improvisation produces nothing or work that is static, lifeless. Improvisation without planning may lead to an occasional success but lacks consistency and dimension.

Moving from one phase to the next is hard. It’s sort of a left brain/right brain kind of transition. It requires a shift in focus that requires a leap of faith – faith that the planning has laid the foundation from which the improv will flourish.

The piece above, part of a new series for me, is a case in point. I photograph smoke and independently I photograph figures in motion. Both require a lot of technique, lighting setups, creative use of exposure, etc. Lots and lots of shots to get some that work. The improvisation comes when I start combining them into image collages, looking for complementary forms and motion. I enjoy the discipline needed at the beginning and the freedom to play at the end.

The yin and the yang.

 

 

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!