Practicing my Scales

grove, photograph

“It seems to me that a photographer who takes [images without an underlying idea] is exactly like a pianist who repeatedly plays the scales.”

– Brooks Jensen, Letting Go of the Camera

I struggle constantly with this issue of taking photographs that are just visually interesting and taking those that are inspired by an idea. Especially since most of my work falls in the “fine art” category (as opposed to photojournalism or editorial). I feel like I should have an idea in play before I take the picture but, to be honest, I’m usually looking around for something that I know is or can be made visually compelling. Most of the time I don’t sit around coming up with a specific idea and then go out in search of images that express that idea.

I think a lot of it has to do with what one considers an idea. How broadly can it be defined? How important does the idea need to be? For example, I just completed a small project where I photographed rolls of paper in my studio – the idea was to capture their geometric qualities in an abstract fashion, to reduce them to curves, lines and shapes. I guess this is an idea, though not a very important one. But some of the images were pleasing to look at.

Jensen believes good photography is about ideas but does allow that the just-visually-interesting shot (what he calls tones and zones) has value – they’re necessary exercise akin to playing scales, just insufficient on their own.

I’ll take solace in this for now. As I go out and do my zones and tones work, I’ll remind myself that I’m just doing my scales (something I refused to do when learning to play the piano!).


Beholding Beauty

“Incubus 1”

“Beauty needs a consensus, or at least the possibility.”

– Michael Freeman, The Photographer’s Mind

The concept of beauty in art is one that continues to draw my attention, I guess because much of my work explores subjects and treatments that don’t fit that term’s usual definition.

Freeman, in his (excellent!) new book, The Photographer’s Mind, begins with a lengthy discussion of beauty and it’s evolving role in contemporary art and photography. One of the points he makes is that members of a culture share a common understanding of what is beautiful. Of course, there is disagreement about whether any particular image is beautiful, hence the catchphrase “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder”. But when we attempt  to create something of beauty, we are aiming in a general direction that we believe others will agree with. Beauty cannot exist only in the eye of the beholder.

I think this is why I sometimes get a little bored with beautiful images. They speak to culture’s conventions, they are considered beautiful for the very reason that they share common qualities with other beautiful things. Beauty is a confined space that artificially limits our free expression. Ultimately there becomes a sameness about beauty. Images that do not aim at these conventions cause us to consider them on their own merits, without benefit of ready-made criteria. There’s greater opportunity in both creating and viewing such images to experience something new.



A Litmus Test for Art

vapors 1, photograph

“If all your life means to you is water running over rocks, then photograph it, but I want to create something that would not have existed without me.”

Minor White

White wasn’t one to mince words and here he is being a bit judgmental in my opinion. But his point is one I’ve been thinking about lately.

There is an interesting period in the history of photography that started in the late 19th century and extended into the early part of the 20th – that of pictorialism. Photography started off being used to capture scenes very literally. The pictorialists wanted to use photography as an art form and they moved away from focused literalism to more interpreted images, often doing much of their creative work after the shots were taken  (about a hundred years before Photoshop!). Their photographs were often very stylized, softly focused, emotional. It was an attempt to make photography “art”, which was not it’s reputation at the beginning.

The dominance of pictorialism in photography lasted only about 30 years before being taken over by photography purists who insisted that images be in focus, more “real”, less like a painting and truer to the unique capabilities of the camera.

I wonder why this trajectory has occurred. Why the turn away from pictorialism (I admit I haven’t read that far so maybe there’s a simple answer).  I find my own work leaning much more toward the pictorial than the purist. I was told recently by a very well known photographer that my work “wasn’t what contemporary photographers are doing”. Hmph!

One of the things I like about the pictorial style is the obvious imprint of the artist. I both like to see that in the work of others and I like the opportunity to express myself more easily through my work. I like the idea that what I’m creating would not have existed without me – I think that’s a very good litmus test to apply to one’s work. Try it out…

Careful Looking

trunks, photograph

“In every landscape should reside jewels of abstract art waiting to be discovered.”

– Melissa Brown

I used to photograph the landscape around me with great frequency. It was my subject of choice for many years. Living in a scenic area made this easier. Over time, however, I began to feel dissatisfied with my results.

First of all, there are a lot of really wonderful landscape photographers working today – it is very difficult to take a capture the landscape in a unique way. Yes, you can go to different places and wait for interesting light or cloud formations, but even these have become commonplace. And I didn’t feel that I was contributing much to the image, other than being there.

So I began to look for more personal and intimate scenes in the landscape. I began to look within the landscape around me, visually editing in a more elemental way what I saw.

I find that through this scrutiny I am better able to express my intention. The process of looking past what is evident and trying to find the hidden “jewels” in a scene engages me more deeply than just snapping the grander landscape. It allows me to simplify, to decide what not to include, to exercise an “economy of means”, all of which require a more careful looking on my part.

And careful looking is an essential part and one of the great rewards of artmaking.

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If Truth be Told

lines, photograph

“That’s part of what I love about abstracts.It’s not the symbolism; it’s not the metaphor. It’s the simple chord of tonalities… Such tones just make the hairs on the back of my neck stand on end.”

– Brooks Jensen

I also love abstraction but have sort of a love-hate relationship with it. The quote from Jensen comes from an essay he wrote that states categorically that abstract photographs do not sell (he concludes that if you do them, you’ll have to do it for yourself). This has also been my experience. It’s too bad…

I suspect abstraction in all art forms can make it less accessible to many people. Think of Finnegan’s Wake by James Joyce, 20th century atonal music, your most recent trip to any Museum of Modern Art… I happen to enjoy a lot of that type of thing (or I used to, as I get older I sometimes don’t have the energy to unravel the tones in the chord).

Photography bears perhaps an extra burden when it comes to abstraction because, by it’s very nature, photographs have a quality of verisimilitude – the quality of truth. Unlike any other art form, photography is always of something out there in the world. It cannot completely divorce itself from that pedigree, no matter how much interpretive license the photographer takes. Usually the first thing a viewer asks about an abstract photograph is “What is that a photograph of?”. They try to relate it back to the object that was actually in front of the camera when the shutter clicked.

A good abstract photograph actually takes advantage of this – it relies on the close juxtaposition of the object the photograph is of and the degree to which that object is somehow hidden behind the chord of tonalities Jensen refers to.

But an abstract photograph can never completely let go of what it is a photograph of. I wonder to what degree the weight of that underlying thing-ness undermines the abstract-ness of the piece?

Don’t Pass Up the Chance


liquid gold, photograph

“There is a vitality, a life force, a quickening that is translated through you into action, and because there is only one of you in all time, this expression is unique. And if you block it, it will never exist through any other medium, and will be lost.”

– Martha Graham

I don’t think I’ve heard or read a better reason than this to pursue one’s art in the face of obstacle, doubt or lack of motivation. What Graham says is surely true.

Because we are all unique, each piece of art we create could not have come from anywhere or anyone else and any choice we make to not create it means it is lost forever.

I believe, in fact, that at any given moment, our choice to not express ourselves means that, even for us, that piece is lost forever. Tomorrow or the next day our attitude, our spirit, our intent will be different and what we create will also be different. Any opportunity to express ourselves by creating art is precious because it exists in a singular confluence of time, place and identity.

Just think what you might have made. Don’t hesitate – create!