vapors 6, photograph
“I used to draw like Raphael, but it has taken me a whole lifetime to learn to draw like a child.”
– Pablo Picasso
In his book, Art, Mind and Brain: A Cognitive Approach to Creativity, Howard Gardner discusses children’s art in several fascinating chapters. He describes a U-shaped developmental curve in which preschool children often display tremendous creativity, then enter a phase until adolescence of relative adherence to convention from which some emerge to embrace a creative freedom reminiscent of earlier times. Some, of course, do not emerge to revisit these earlier times. I realize this is a vast generalization for which there are numerous exceptions.
What interests me is this phase most of us enter, coincident with early school years, in which we learn the conventions of our society. It may seem like we stifle that early creative impulse during this time, but Gardner makes the claim that it is a necessary interlude so that our more mature creative expression is made against the backdrop of the norm. Preschoolers don’t have that context, which is why their creativity is qualitatively different (not better or worse). As Gardner says:
“the adult artist is fully cognizant of the norms embraced by others, his willingness, his compulsion, to reject convention is purchased, at the very least, with full knowledge of what he is doing and often at considerable psychic cost to himself.”
This phase of learning society’s conventions is akin to an artist learning their craft, going through the hard and tedious work of developing their technique so that they can break the rules with intention rather than ignorance.
I found this parallel interesting, another example of how the yin and the yang are needed to create the balance needed to grow.
vapors 4, photograph
“But can you think of anyone who’s not hazy with smoke?”
I’ve been working on a series of photographs of smoke lately which I’ve titled Vapors. Shooting smoke is an interesting experience for several reasons. One is that (at least using the technique I’m employing) you can’t really see what you are going to get when you snap the shutter. It’s all in constant motion, of course, and shooting at 1/200th of a second with flash means you will capture some invisible slice of that movement and freeze it in unexpected ways. I’m starting a sub-series called Vaporettes which appear to be dancing figures – note the head with distinct facial features and the sinewy torso and leg beneath in the shot above.
This gets about as far away from previsualization as you can go, short of randomly taking shots of random things. Yet I’m carefully crafting the situation in which interesting things can happen. I just can’t control the outcome. Sort of like life, I suppose. Do all you can to create the possibility, then work hard to manifest the best you can, without being able to see into the future to know the outcome.
Normally when we photograph, we see in the viewfinder what will end up in the final shot. Though often we’re disappointed in the result – how can that be? We see what’s going to be there, after all. I think if we really were objective about what’s in that viewfinder instead of projecting our thoughts and emotions at the moment into it, we’d rarely be as surprised as we often are.
I find photographing smoke to be a fascinating exercise in preparation and letting go of anticipated results. Fortunately for me, I’ve ended up liking a lot of the results, but it’s always a total surprise.
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…