The Artist’s Lair

My first long term project after the master class with Keith Carter turned out to be one of my favorites for a lot of reasons.

My intention with the project was to do something with portraiture, which I had never attempted before – best way to learn is to dive in!

Jason KelchJason Avery Kelch

My “muse” for the project was Arnold Newman, probably the greatest portrait photographer of the the 20th century. He had a particular fondness for photographing artists in their studios, and since my immediate world is populated with artists I thought I’d follow suit. Shoot what’s familiar…

My initial aims were modest, just do maybe 20 environmental portraits of artists I knew in their studios. Simple (usually) natural lighting, B&W, hopefully shots with some character. I was envisioning the work in a self-published book.

Jennifer BecJennifer Bec Hirshfield

I tried to set up one shoot a week and after about 15-20 of these I decided to keep going. I started getting suggestions from various people about who to shoot next. I wanted to cover different mediums, have a balance of men and women, young and old. I even visited the curator at the Sonoma County Art Museum to connect with some of the more celebrated artists in the county. I met a lot of interesting people and everyone welcomed me into their studio sanctuaries. I discovered what a wide range of places people can create in!

One of my favorite aspects of the project was showing up at the studio of an artist who I had never met or seen before and having to figure out in less than an hour how to get the shot I needed for the project. The element of surprise (and fear!) was stimulating. Working within constraints leads to creativity in my opinion. Some of my favorite shots came in studios that were modest compared to many, with people whom I had just met.

Finally, after more than a year of visiting artist studios, I had to draw a line in the sand – I literally could have gone on forever (there are a LOT of artists in Sonoma County!). I decided to stop at 50 photographs and turn my attention to publishing the book.

Bill WheelerBill Wheeler

After a lot of trial and error I ended up printing 250 copies of a small soft cover edition with a local printer. As I already knew, printing high quality black and white work with a small run on digital printers is extremely difficult. And since I am a professional printer myself, I’m very picky! Here is the final result:


I was also honored to be able to have a short pop-up show at the Santa Rosa Museum of art with all 50 portraits and a sampling of over 20 original art pieces by selected participants.


All in all, I learned a lot and had a great time – lots of work, but well worth it!

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.

The Perfect Trap

view from lombard, photograph

“The trap is perfection: unless your work continually generates new and unresolved issues, there’s no reason for your next work to be any different from the last.”

David Bayles and Ted Orland, Art & Fear

Phew! What a relief. I can now stop trying to achieve that pesky perfection in my art!

In reality, I am so often aware of dissatisfaction with my work. I can look at any individual piece and see how it lacks something and, on the rare occasions when I feel perhaps I had success with some image, I can look over the body of work of which it’s a part of and note the failure of the whole to rise to the level of it’s best part. Even with my best work, I find something new I wasn’t aware of before that I feel compelled to address somehow.

For which I am grateful. Can you imagine how boring being an artist would be if each piece were a triumph? We need the occasional success but it’s the overall insuffciency of what we do that propels us forward to try to do better. Few activities in life depend so completely on not realizing our aims to have a chance to someday achieve them.

Just one of those quirky qualities of the artistic landscape…

Just Open Your Eyes

pastel morning, photograph

“But the ‘truth’ itself is simply there. This reminds us what the Zen Buddhists keep saying – that as these moments is reflected and revealed a reality of the universe that does not depend merely on our own subjectivity, but is as though we only had our eyes closed and suddenly we open them and there it is, as simple as can be. The new reality has a kind of immutable, eternal quality.”

– Rollo May, The Courage to Create

There is a funny paradox I often experience in artmaking – on the one hand I feel as though I am creating something new and on the other hand I feel I am simply discovering something already there. With photography this can be an even more frequent experience because, at some level, the subject of our photograph is already there. But clearly there is more to photography than snapping away at things in front of us.

I’ve heard other artists describe how they feel they are a channel or vehicle through which art happens, that it is when they get their ego out of the way that the creativity “happens”. This is often given external form in the guise of the Muse. Yet we obviously can’t just sit back and wait for the Muse to visit us, or wait for the moment of creativity to happen. We must create the opportunity and the right conditions.

I’ve started reading a fascinating book called The Zen of Creativity: Cultivating Your Artistic Life by John Daido Loori. Loori was a scientist who became a professional photographer and then a Zen monk!  An interesting part of his story is that he was introduced to Zen through Minor White, whose methods of teaching photography involved meditation, contemplation and ritual. Loori established the Zen Arts Center in NY where students learn about Zen using the arts.

I’m intrigued by the use of such practices to facilitate achieving the state where we can suddenly open our eyes to see what has been there all along. There’s art to be found there.

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Feedback about Feedback

godbeams, photograph

“… feedback is hard to get – except, perhaps, in the form of rejection.”

Ted Orland

Orland is making this statement in the context of a discussion of art school, which he describes as the one time and place in the life of an artist where they can expect regular feedback on their work.

I personally like feedback and have found it frustrating at times to get any that is of use. People telling me they like or don’t like my work isn’t that helpful – I’d like to know what they like or don’t like and why. Who offers the feedback is a consideration as well – are they an artist or not, how similar is their vision to yours, are they someone you know or a stranger? I actually value feedback from all sources, but I have to filter it through where it’s coming from.

I also have to consider what my objective is in getting feedback – it’s different at different times. Sometimes, to be candid, I probably just want a pat on the back and some encouragement (in which case, I hope they like the work!) and at other times I’m not sure of my direction and need help sorting it out. Then criticism is just as important, if not more important, than positive remarks.

I know artists who don’t really like feedback and I respect that. It can come from a place of confidence in their work or the desire to avoid any outside influence. I suppose sometimes it also comes from a fear of what they might hear.

If you are a teacher yourself, or just have reached a certain “public” stature, it can get more difficult to get good feedback and it might seem to you that you should need it less. How have you dealt with this?

How do you feel about feedback? When do you want it? How do you go about getting it? Has it been helpful to you in the past?

I’m going to be applying to a couple of “portfolio reviews” in the upcoming weeks – if I am accepted, it will be the first time I’ve had any serious review of my work and I’m sure I’ll find it interesting, rewarding, humbling, confusing, etc. Of course, first I have to be accepted, so it’s possible the only feedback I’ll get is rejection!

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The Good, the Bad and the … Useful

fort point 2, photograph

“Audiences and critics care about what is good, artists need to care about what is useful.”

Ted Orland

You know the old adage that we learn more from our failures than our successes. I suppose this is true in artmaking as well.

While we relish the successful pieces and are so disappointed in the failures, when you look back on your body of work over a long period of time, it is the failures that are more useful to us. It’s an important distinction – the difference between what feels good and what is good for us. Of course, we need both at times. Once in a while we need to feel good about our work so that we don’t give up hope. But our progress is fueled by the ones we don’t so good about.

It is our failures (which always constitute the majority of our work) we spend our time and thought on – how did that happen, how can I do it better, what worked and what didn’t? I use the term “failure” figuratively because, in some sense, there is no such thing as a failure when it comes to art. But we all have plenty of pieces that we choose to just keep to ourselves – you know the ones I’m talking about. It’s good to hang onto these and spend some time with them periodically. It would be fascinating if some well known, talented artist had a show of their failures, with a brief description of what lesson each taught them.

The trick to making these pieces useful is to learn how to listen to what they have to tell us. This is not as easy as it sounds. Knowing how to learn from our own work takes patience, a fierce resolve and the understanding that feeling good is not the only goal an artist has.

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Doing it Twice

“There is no great writing, only great rewriting.”

Louis D. Brandeis

I often find myself comparing the creative process in different artforms in which I have some experience: photography, painting, music, writing in particular. It’s interesting to examine the similarities and differences. Sometimes it can be revealing and perhaps will cause you borrow some approach from one for use in another.

This quote speaks to the process of editing one’s writing. Of course there are small edits you make along the way, changing a word, rephrasing a sentence. But when writing anything of significance, usually there are drafts, whole versions which are re-examined and reconsidered in their entirety.

The process of making a photographic print  is similar. There are minor adjustments you make as you make your first print, but that print usually serves as a proof (like a first draft) and often multiple proofs with revisions are made before a final version is created.

In my experience painters don’t tend to incorporate this concept into their work as often. I know that there are often preliminary steps that can precede the final painting: value studies, sketches, even smaller versions done in a different medium (pastels as a study for oils, etc). But rarely does a painter actually repaint a painting – do it over.

Part of the reason may be that it can take a long time to complete a painting and it’s hard to think about doing it again. Rewriting a book draft can take a long time as well – one reason it can take years to complete a book. Part of it is that some of the spontaneity which can make a painting fresh when it is repainted could be lost. Writing and photography are perhaps more “studied” artforms where that spontaneity is not as important or even wanted. Music is an interesting comparison – the writing of music is more like writing a book, with many revisions possible. Musicians obviously repeat performances of the same piece many times – each is unique but clearly the same piece.

What is your experience? Are there times when you’ve “redone” a painting? How has that worked for you? Does it depend on the type of painting, the medium, the subject matter, etc.? What are your motivations for doing or not doing this?

The Broken Mirror


Boxed In, photograph

“A photograph is only a fragment, and with the passing of time it’s moorings become unstuck.”

– Susan Sontag

More thoughts inspired by On Photography by Susan Sontag…

Sontag talks about the discreteness of a photograph and the effect of that on how we see things. Photographs become untethered from the stream of time they came from. No matter how we felt about the subject at the time we photographed it, over time, those sentiments change. The context is lost, or at least becomes diffuse. Sontag likens photographs to quotations, essential nuggets lifted form their original setting to take on a life of their own.

Of course, photographs always depict the past so are infused with an inherent pathos of nostalgia. This sentimental view of the world as seen through this universal and ubiquitous collection of photographs leads us to a feeling of mastery over it, in the same way that a collector of objects feels mastery over his stamps, coins or dolls.

I wonder how differently people 200 years ago experienced their reality. Was it more fluid and connected? Is the over-used modern term alienation partially caused by the fragmentation of our world into tiny moments of time captured in a photograph? Have we shattered the mirror forever, to find ourselves surrounded by an infinite number of minute shards of glass? Can we ever put it back together to see the whole picture again?

Do Not Disturb?


Abandoned, photograph

“Art is meant to disturb, science reassures.”

– Georges Braque

It may sound contrary, odd and… disturbing to think that art is “meant to disturb”. Not the usual way to talk about our old revered friend. What’s going on here?

All visual art captures and extracts a moment in time from the incessant flow of our lives. It represents a break in the continuity of our experience. It remains frozen in perpetuity and serves as a gentle (or not) speed bump on our everyday road.

Art presents a veneer, a superficial view of the depth of reality. We look at the work of art and our mind and imagination adds the ingredients that supply the dimension to what we see. We provide the context, the story, the meaning, the narrative. The art is the trigger but we (the viewers) do the work.

Science, on the other hand, reassures us because it’s purpose is to explain everything. It tries to make sense of all things so that we do not have to figure out the story ourselves. We can sit back and be told, rather than assume the burden of providing the explanations.

Science seeks to preserve and enhance the continuity of our world, while art can’t help but intervene, stop us short and “disturb” our complacency. In the world of science, we rely on the scientists – we don’t have to go into the lab ourselves. In the world of art, we’re all lab assistants and it can be hard work.

Is Vague in Vogue?


Skimboarding I, photograph

“Exaggerate the essential; leave the obvious vague.”

– Vincent van Gogh

Every image has obvious elements – too often we find ourselves representing these qualities in excruciating detail. Why? Well, it’s… obvious. It’s easy and comfortable. It can make the viewer comfortable, too, and anticipation of that can compel us as well.

What is essential, on the other hand, requires some thought. We have to abstract from the obvious, sometimes deconstructing it, to reach what is essential in the scene. We may get it wrong, or we may not be able to express our conclusion well. It’s riskier than the obvious, but it is only when we stretch to touch the essential that we have any opportunity to make a real connection with the viewer. I think what draws people to art is the chance to connect with the essential and skip past the obvious that surrounds our daily lives to completely.

Part of my fascination with images partly out of focus is that it allows me to be intentionally vague about elements in the image that are not essential. Vagueness can be an enigmatic quality, a tool to employ to help with the essential. Just as the eye is attracted to the area of greatest value contrast in an image, the mind is drawn to point where the vague and obvious surrounds the exaggerated essential.