Monthly Archives: January 2014

Magical Realism

White Trees, Series 2, No. 2Wikipedia, my favorite non-authoritative source of knowledge, defines magical realism as “a genre where magic elements are a natural part in an otherwise mundane, realistic environment.”  It’s most often applied to literature (my current thinking about it stems from recently reading some of the works of Japanese author Haruki Murakami), but I was interested to learn that it is used in connection with visual art as well.  Again from Wikipedia, “in contrast with its use in literature, magical realist art does not often include overtly fantastic or magical content, but rather looks at the mundane through a hyper-realistic and often mysterious lens.”

This idea of magical realism resonates with me.  My goal with photography is to walk the fine line between reality and interpretation.  On the one hand, one of the great characteristic hallmarks of photography is the inherent realism of images made with a camera.  However, photographs that hew too closely to realism often become merely documentary or journalistic in nature.  On the other hand, image editing software such as Photoshop allow one to take a photograph and manipulate it to look like just about anything the mind can imagine.  This can result in images that look artificial, fantastical, or fake.  Walking that fine line is to achieve a balance between the two extremes, where a photograph can show both the realism of the subject it captures, as well as the magic that characterizes the less perceptible, more sublime qualities of that same subject.

As a medium, I’ve always felt that photography holds an almost unique place in the arts as a means to achieve this balance, but I never knew quite the name to give for it.  “Magical realism” is as good as any, I suppose.  I hope the image in this post, “White Trees, Series 2, No. 2,” strikes the balance I’ve described herein, and if it does, I’ll be happy to call it a work of magical realism.

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Making Time for Photography

Windswept Bristlecone Pine, Mount Goliath, ColoradoI’ve been fairly busy lately and haven’t had a lot of time for photography and photography-related things.  When I say I haven’t had a lot of time, I mean solid, continuous blocks of time in which to get things done – a weekend, an evening, a couple of hours, whatever.  In the past, this really might have slowed down my output.  After all, why would I want to work on, say, editing an image when I don’t have the proper amount of time to commit to it?

What I’ve learned, though, is that this is pretty defeatist thinking.  It’s a great excuse for not getting things done.  Instead, I’ve been using the time available to me – 15 minutes here, a half-hour there – to work on my images.  Granted, I don’t get finished in one sitting, but I do get them done.  In the process, I’m able to make photography a more realistic part of my everyday, work-a-day life.  It keeps me continuously involved in the craft, and keeps the inertia going for generating work.

But doesn’t the quality of the work suffer by working in a somewhat piecemeal, fragmented way?  Surprisingly, no.  The image in this post, “Windswept Bristlecone Pine,” was made by working in this manner.  So were several other prints over the last couple of weeks that I’m fairly happy with.  Conversely, there have been many occasions where I had several hours in which to work, and produced nothing that I really liked.  There seems to be no real correlation between the amount of time within which to work, and the quality of the output.

Stated differently, I believe there is no need to wait for the “perfect conditions” in which to work on one’s art.  Even if there were such a thing as “perfect conditions,” waiting for them to occur would likely result in a lot of down time where nothing gets done.  And, if anything, working on an “as-available” basis seems to produce just as good a quality of output on just as consistent a basis, at least for me.  So, my suggestion is to just get on with it, and work your photography (or whatever art or other endeavor you may be involved in) into the available time that you have.

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Every Photograph is a Revelation to its Creator

White Trees, Series 2, No. 2

“When photographers get beyond copying the achievements of others, or just repeating their own accidental first successes, they learn that they do not know where in the world they will find pictures.  Nobody does.  Each photograph that works is a revelation to its supposed creator.”

- Robert Adams

I love this quote by the American photographer Robert Adams because, for me, it encapsulates so much of the fear and wonder of creating art.  Whatever else people may think about artists, I think they think that artists have a predictable, repeatable process for creating their work, perhaps in the way that a carpenter might build a cabinet or a chef might prepare a meal.  Nothing could be further from the truth, at least for me.  I wish I could wake up in the morning and say, “I think I’ll make a fine art photograph today,” and have a completed image running off my printer that same evening.  After all, photography is just about finding an interesting subject, operating a camera, and doing some computer (or darkroom) processing, right?

If only that were true!  I struggle myself with trying to create a degree of predictability in my own process.  The simple truth, I think, is that the process defies predictability.  When I go out with my camera, I never know if I’m going to capture anything worthwhile.  When I work on a worthwhile capture, I never know if I’m going to end up with a satisfactory print.  There have been numerous occasions where I thought I had good starting material and that, for sure, I would end up with something great, only to somehow find it all went wrong along the way.  Conversely, there have been numerous occasions where I thought my starting material was mediocre, but that I would give it a try anyway, and ended up with something that I really liked.

If the process of creating art is so unpredictable, how do you go about making new work?  For me, it comes down to trust and faith – trusting my eye to see things that I find interesting, and faith in my ability to translate that into a personally satisfying image.  While somewhat scary, the possibility that any individual attempt at making an image might not work out is less important than being able to produce a meaningful body of work over time.  The image in this post, “White Trees, Series 2, No. 1,” continues what I hope is just this kind of a meaningful body of work, notwithstanding several dead-end attempts at other images in this series along the way.  Every photograph a revelation, indeed.

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Your Own Work on Your Own Wall

Snowy Trees, Study No. 3

If you are an artist, do you hang your own work on your own wall?

I suspect for most artists, the answer is yes.  And, of course, when I say “hang your own work on your own wall,” I am using shorthand for any kind of work that can be presented, regardless of whether it is hanged, staged, projected, played, read, etc.  The point is, I suspect most artists enjoy having the enjoyment of their own works in their own homes.

For me, however, the answer seems to be no.  I have hung not one of my own photographs in my own home.  Why is this?  It’s not because I dislike my own work.  On the contrary, I’m generally personally happy with the quality of my photography and feel like I am making good work.

Rather, I think it’s because photography is a process for me.  Much of the enjoyment comes from seeing something in the real world that would make a good image, and translating that vision into a tangible photograph that I can hold in my hands.  In the steps that I undertake along the way – composing the image, operating the camera, editing on the computer, and making test prints until I finalize the photograph – I feel like I really come to know the final piece inside and out.  After all, I created it from my mind’s eye and worked to produce it as a final image on paper.

Stated differently, I think my own work holds no mystery for me once it’s complete.  This stands in contrast to the work of others, where I can be endlessly captivated because I am seeing only the final product, without any knowledge as to its creation.  Again, don’t misunderstand me, I like my own work and it is immensely satisfying to make, but having once made any individual piece, I’m generally ready to move on to the next one.

So, while I like the image in this post, “Snowy Trees, Study No. 3,” I probably won’t be hanging the print on my own wall anytime soon.

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