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Monthly Archives: December 2013
When someone views your art, do they know it’s yours, even without seeing your name on it? I’ve heard this standard posed as one measure of being successful as an artist. It’s been called having a style, having a voice, having a vision, but really it all comes down to the same thing – have you put a piece of yourself into the art you make, recognizable and distinguishable from everyone else out there? Are you in your art?
There’s a lot of advice floating around on how to achieve this. One piece of advice I’ve heard is to pick something and become known for it. What that thing is could take a nearly infinite number of forms. For example, you could choose to become known for a particular kind of subject matter – landscapes, portraits, documentary, whatever. Or, you could become known for a certain kind of process – printing on crazy materials, using homemade cameras, employing really obscure darkroom methods, and so on. Maybe you could become known for a unique approach – photographing only at certain locations, or certain times of day, or under particular phases of the moon.
A lot of photographers who struggle with putting themselves in their work take this kind of advice seriously. And I don’t necessarily dispute that it may be effective, but to me it seems a bit like putting the cart before the horse. I would like to think that if you simply stay true to your own vision of the world, then that vision will come through in your work, no matter what kind of work you to choose to make or how you choose to make it. I have no problem with any of the techniques I’ve described above, but using them should be in the service of your vision, not something that you impose upon it.
The image in this post, “RE/MAX Building No. 2,” is the latest in a string of architecture images I’ve been posting. Before that, I was posting a lot of landscape images. On this website, I’ve also posted several abstracts, and even a color image or two. It could be argued that these different kinds of images don’t have much in common, and that I may be diluting my work by failing to be consistent. Instead, I sincerely hope my personal vision for each piece I’ve made comes through in my body of work as a whole.
Not too long ago, I spoke to someone who had looked at this website for the first time.
“Nice work,” they said. “Why are there so many pictures of trees?”
Since this post really isn’t about the tree images I’ve made, I’ll save a discussion of that for another time. Rather, this person’s comment got me thinking a bit about insecurity and taking chances with your work.
The image in this post, “RE/MAX Building No. 1,” was captured, edited, and printed a good six months ago. It has been ready for posting for awhile, and yet I’ve hesitated to put it out there. Why is that?
I suspect it’s because at the time I made it, it was quite a departure from the typical kind of work I had been making public. Over the last year and a half or so, I’ve been principally preoccupied with making landscape and nature images (including, yes, many images of trees). To the degree that people have taken an interest in my work, I suspect that they’ve come to expect landscape and nature images from me. That’s great! I love doing the landscapes and nature images, and I look forward to doing many more to come.
This image, however, is quite different from the landscape and nature work, I think. Not only is it different, but to me, it’s really kind of in-your-face different. At the risk of engaging in a critique of my own work, I would venture that the centered composition, flat image plane, and somewhat graphic feel of this image is rather at odds with the more arranged compositions, greater depth of field, and more “photographic” look of the landscape and nature images I’ve done.
Put simply, I was afraid that putting out this image might alienate the people who have come to be interested in my work. It still might, but I’ve concluded that I can’t let that stop me. It’s important to take chances with your work – it’s the only way to stay true to yourself, grow, and mature as an artist. Consider the alternative. If you put out the same kind of work over and over again, then in the best-case scenario, your work becomes solid, maybe even good, but always predictable. In the worst-case scenario, it becomes dull and repetitive.
So, here’s to taking chances with your work. May you always have the courage to do so.
Is this building beautiful? Is this image of it beautiful? Why or why not?
I don’t know the answers to these questions. If anyone has any insights, I certainly would enjoy hearing them. All I can say for sure is that it is beautiful to me. I could spend a lot of words trying to explain why, but ultimately I think trying to explain why something is beautiful probably is a pointless exercise. When I saw the building, I was immediately enamored of it. When I was working with the camera, I could see many possibilities for the images. When I made the prints, I was really happy with the outcomes. It’s all very mysterious and subconscious. You can try to rationalize if you like it or not, but ultimately the decision is made in an irrational part of the mind.
The image in this post is called “Wellington G. Webb Building No. 2.” It is a long exposure photograph of a building in Denver, Colorado that I suspect is not photographed very much. I find it beautiful, and I hope you do, too.
One of the powers of art is the power to move people, and that’s a good thing. Photographs mesmerize, paintings captivate, songs beguile, and stories enchant. I sincerely hope that everyone reading this post has, at one time or another, been moved, challenged, or otherwise responded to a work of art in a way that has stayed with them over time and added to their life in a meaningful way.
Sometimes, being moved by a work of art crosses the line from the ordinary to the transcendent. I hope it’s not a stretch to say that art can make you rethink your assumptions, question your beliefs, or look at the world in a different way. Sometimes, it can make you look at yourself in a different way. Experiencing art in this way can be challenging, even difficult.
At such times, it’s worth remembering that all art is illusion. A well-crafted work of art can make you think that it is the truth of what it represents. It is not. For every photograph, painting, song, or story, there was a man or woman who made choices about how to use a camera, or place paint on a canvas, or about how notes would fit together on a score or how words would follow one another across a page, all with the goal of creating a specific illusion that he or she wanted you to see. It is commonly suggested that art reveals truth about the real world, and that may be true, but if so, it is a specific, contextualized truth about the real world, not the reality of it. A work of art may be relevant to reality, but is not itself reality.
As a simple example of the foregoing, I share the image in this post, “Wellington G. Webb Building No. 1.” It is a quintessential illusion. This building and this sky did not look this way on the day I captured this photograph. They have never looked this way, and they never will. The image was made this way because the photograph was a long exposure – the shutter of the camera was open for a period of several minutes, as compared to a fraction of a second for more conventional, everyday photography. What I observed with my eye – the reality of the scene – was low, fast-moving clouds hurrying across the sky on a gray, November day. What the camera recorded – the illusion – was the streaks made by the clouds as they moved across the camera’s sensor over the duration of the exposure. Does it present a truth about this subject? Perhaps. But it does not present the reality of it.
What is a study? The Merriam-Webster online dictionary defines a study as “a literary or artistic production intended as a preliminary outline, an experimental interpretation, or an exploratory analysis of specific features or characteristics.” That’s exactly what the image in this post, “Snowy Trees, Study No. 2,” is.
In looking over my body of work recently, I realized that many of my images tend to be rather low key – that is, having many dark tones near the black end of the grayscale spectrum. There’s nothing wrong with this. I like dark tones, and low key presentations can be very effective in conveying certain kinds of moods and atmospheres. Still, high key images – images having many light tones generally distributed toward the white end of the grayscale spectrum – communicate their own kinds of moods and atmospheres. As a photographer, I am interested in exploring this kind of visual communication as well.
One problem. I really didn’t know how to do this.
It’s harder than you might think. Pulling off a successful high key image is not simply a matter of making everything in the image brighter. You end up with an image that just looks overexposed. Instead, it’s more about compressing the tonal range within a relatively narrow, white-shifted band on the grayscale spectrum, while carefully fine-tuning the contrast within that band to keep the image from looking flat.
At least, that seems to be what I’ve learned so far. In order to give myself some practice, I devised a small project for myself. I selected a number of images from my archives that seemed to be good candidates for a high key treatment, in this case, snowy trees. Truthfully, these snowy tree images were captures from earlier this spring that I felt didn’t make the cut for the snow images I was working on then (those earlier images already have been posted to this website). However, they were perfect as practice vehicles simply to explore the dynamics of how high key imagery works. In other words, they were perfect as studies.
I didn’t specifically intend for these studies to become finished pieces. Still, I’m happy with the way they are turning out, so I’ll keep posting them as long as I like what I’m seeing.