The World is Not Yet Done

rose 38, photograph

“And so you make your place in the world by making part of it – by contributing some new part to the set… Each new piece of your art enlarges our reality. The world is not yet done.”

David Bayles and Ted Orland, Art & Fear

Many years ago I studied philosophy, actually got my college degree in that discipline. At some point I came to feel that something essential was missing from this pursuit – it was too involved with analyzing the world and too little with being in it.

My odd life trajectory next found me writing software for a living and, for the first time, I felt that I was making part of the world. I had to sit in front of a (metaphorical) blank piece of paper and compose. This felt better, I was more involved.

Then I moved into management and, oops, found myself once again more involved in talking about doing rather than actually doing. I learned again how empty that could be, so I walked away.

Then I became a photographer. Now I get to add my individual parts to the set, and each day I am reminded that the world is not yet done. Makes you want to get up each day, knowing there’s work to be done.


Calla’s Curves

Calla 2


“A curved line is the loveliest distance between two points.”

– Anonymous

The calla lilly is one of the most well represented flowers in all of art, whether painting or photography. I suspect it runs neck and neck with the rose.  The calla flower itself is a veritable cone of curls. Here you also get to appreciate the sensuous lines of the leaves as well.

This image is composed almost entirely of curved lines. Curved lines invite the viewer to wander a bit, take a little extra time. Straight lines direct the viewer to a certain spot while curved lines offer alternatives. Paul Klee said that a line is just a dot that went for a walk and in this case the journey is a pleasantly meandering one.

It’s important to let the visual design of an image to allow the subject matter to express it’s natural qualities. Here the sinuous curves tell the calla’s story.

More Than Meets the Eye

daffodil, photograph

“While the photographer cannot eliminate the object […], he still wants the photograph to be the main source of the spectator’s feeling. While he cannot erase from the viewer’s mind the implications of the subject, he prefers to depend for his effect on the visual relationships that are present in the print itself.”

– Minor White

This is certainly how I feel about doing photography but there are some that will disagree. And I’ve seen many photographs where I believe the subject was the focus, rather than the photograph itself. The cameras ability to easily render what appears in front of us can make it easy to fall into the trap of simply documenting what’s there.

As you may know, I like to compare photography to painting – having done a lot of both, it lets me bring to bear my own personal experiences. Plus I think many of us hold different views of these two artforms, both in terms of creating and viewing them, and these differences can be revealing. After all, both are about creating images, yet there are many distinctions we make between them, which I have often found puzzling.

Most paintings are more about the painting than the subject (portraits is an exception that comes to mind).  We don’t think about painting anymore as a method of simply documenting our world. Rather it is a way of interpreting our world, expressing how we feel about it.

Photography, both because of its historical roots, and because it is a better tool than painting when documentation is needed, is more often relegated, both by viewer and photographer, to being primarily a means of reporting on the world.

But a photograph, like a painting, wants it’s own identity – it wants to be more than it’s subject. That’s why, when I look at something and consider whether I will take the picture, I ask myself what I will do with the photograph to make it distinct from what I’m photographing.

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Simple Gifts

rose 1, photograph

“The point of art has never been to make something synonymous with life, however, but to make something of reduced complexity that is nonetheless analogous to life and that can thereby clarify it.”

– Robert Adams

I’ve been working my way through a couple of books of essays by Robert Adams – this quote comes from “Photographing Evil” in Beauty in Photography: Essays in Defense of Traditional Values. He is discussing whether photographers have as much right to “arrange life into a composition” as do painters.

This has been a controversial issue in photography since it’s beginning. There persists a prejudice out there that “arranging life” (a better phrase than the pejorative and dreaded “manipulation”) should not be allowed in much of photography. These days we have many more tools with which we can “arrange life” in our work, especially after the shot has been taken.

Adams’ point above is that any art form is not primarily about exactly representing life. Art, including photography, is always an abstraction of life. Here’s the definition of abstraction from Wikipedia:

Abstraction is the process or result of generalization by reducing the information content of a concept or an observable phenomenon, typically to retain only information which is relevant for a particular purpose.

By reducing information, we keep what is important for our purpose. What to include or exclude is a critical concern of artmaking, perhaps the most important.

John Barclay has an interesting post on his blog about the power of simplicity in photography that makes some interesting points about this. I suspect that the more we can “arrange life” in our work to make it simpler, yet with sufficient analogy to real life, the clearer our intention will be.

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I’m the Decider


calla 2, photograph

“Creativity is allowing oneself to make mistakes. Art is knowing which ones to keep.”

– Howard Aiken

One of the most important phases in the process of making art is that of editing. By this I mean the decision what to do with a new work. I’m intentionally skipping past the prior step, which is the often paralyzing one where we have to decide if something is “done”.

Editing is commonplace in the photography world, where often hundreds or thousands of shots must be sifted through to isolate the few keepers. Often there is a hierarchical system used, perhaps a ranking of each image from 1 to 5. Many software programs used by photographers to catalogue their work have this capability built in. But such a simple ranking system doesn’t do justice to the complex analysis we all go through to sort this out.

All artists go through this discussion with themselves. They have to decide which pieces to keep, which to toss, which to put in their next show, which to invest in framing, which to keep as an example of something, which to put aside to come back to, which to paint over, etc., etc., etc. Rarely have I seen an explanation of how one should approach this imposing task, and it’s one we’re confronted with continually.

I suppose we each come up with our own system, though I suspect we all wonder if ours works to our benefit. Perhaps some of you keep everything – that’s one way to avoid making the harsh critical choice about our own efforts. Maybe you are more ruthless, quickly tearing up or painting over anything you know isn’t among your best work. You could let the public give you feedback – I’ve heard of comedians who take their material on the road in small clubs first to see what resonates.

I think knowing what to keep of your work implies a deep understanding of your own goals and standards. It implies a degree of objectivity, but also allows the freedom to be compassionate.

One of the wonderful things about art is that it affords us so many opportunities for self-inquiry beyond the “simple” making of the art itself.