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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A Picture is Worth How Many Words??

you go first, photograph

“I have been urged … to write about my paintings… Why? Haven’t I, in a way, painted them?”

Charles Demuth

This quote is referenced in a wonderful short essay (Writing) by Robert Adams in his book, Why People Photograph. Adams discusses the topic of artists writing about their own work and makes some interesting observations.

As you might expect form the quote, Adams concludes that photographers (and artists in general) are not good at describing their own work and, in fact, do not want to do it anyway. Artists feel their work should speak for itself, be self-sufficient, and having to talk about it admits a modicum of artistic failure. Too much talk also risks the kind of over-analysis that can get in the way of spontaneous creativity. Since photography by its nature is often more representational and less subjective than painting, the public often feels more need to have the photographer describe their work to get at what they were feeling inside.

I know as one who has had to try to write about specific work in the past, it is extremely difficult and makes me feel very self-conscious. I usually feel that I’m tacking on these descriptions after the fact and that they were not really present at the time of artmaking or prior to it. Much of what I read from critics or other artists about their work gives me the same feeling.

What value is this post-analysis? Is there real benefit to oneself or others in attempting to truly describe one’s work from a sincere perspective. Can it provide insight into the creative process that allows others a deeper appreciation of your work? Can this effort force you to contemplate your own work in a way that might prove beneficial?

Ultimately I think that words are inherently insufficient to describe what is going on in the art as well as is the art itself. Words themselves are an art form. I’ve seen wonderful art which combines painting or photography with words, where both are equal partners in the product. Neither tries to explain the other. Can you imagine someone trying to explain a symphony by painting it? My wife, Susan’s, art journals are a great example of the power of combining words with visual art, rather than trying to use one to explain the other. I think it is useful to contemplate our own work but the effort to translate those ruminations into words useful to others seems doomed to failure.

Adams recommends that if we want to understand an artists work, the best strategy may be to look at the work of other artists that they like. The reflected light from that art may illuminate their work more than any direct explanation could possibly do.

By the way, I’d also like to announce the launch of my new website, www.bobcornelis.com, which replaces my old site (cornelisarts.com). I recommend taking advantage of the full screen mode in the galleries to see the best view of the work. Enjoy!

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