Tag Archives: art

Mirror, Mirror

Ice Shards in Black Water Jackson Lake, Colorado, 2015

Ice Shards in Black Water
Jackson Lake, Colorado, 2015

When I began to take a more-than-casual interest in photography, I began to look at the works of other photographers, which in turn led to an interest in art in general.  For me, looking at artwork is a little like looking into a mirror – it reflects back to me my own interests, tastes and perceptions.  Identifying and analyzing how others have considered and resolved artistic issues allows me to decide what I have liked and not liked about their approach, which helps me to understand myself a little better with respect to the things that I want to encourage in my own work versus those I don’t want to pursue.

The great thing about this is that there’s so much artwork available to practice on, both contemporary and historical.  It allows you to experience art not just as a passive viewer, but as an active, critical participant.  It’s a fun little intellectual exercise to engage in when looking at art (at least for me), with the practical payoff of helping to improve one’s own artistic development in the process.

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Is Photography Too Easy?

Cottonwood Copse Near Greenland, Colorado, 2014

Cottonwood Copse
Near Greenland, Colorado, 2014

Is photography too easy?  This may seem like an odd (and possibly pretentious) question coming from one who photographs, but I think it’s a fair one.

There’s no doubt that it’s now easier than ever to make a photograph.  Digital technology has eliminated the requirements for developing film and printing in a wet a darkroom.  And computer software makes it relatively easy to produce a polished-looking photograph that can be quickly and easily printed.  The barriers to entering this discipline have never been lower, and the world has never been flooded with as many photographs.

They’re not all good photographs, of course.  Most probably are in fact simple snapshots, with no aspirations toward being anything more, quickly taken with a mobile device of some kind simply because it was easy to do so, and destined for no purpose greater than being shared on a Facebook page or something similar.

Still.  The sheer number of photographs being made today suggests that many will be “good” simply by being happy accidents.  Beyond this, the lowered entry barriers to practicing photography means that more people are able to pursue photography seriously now than ever before, resulting in a larger pool of increasingly accomplished practitioners making work.  And among these practitioners, digital processes mean that they are producing more work more quickly.

As a result, there really is a large amount of very high quality photography being done today as compared to even 10 or 15 years ago, at least in my opinion.

I wonder, does this devalue the worth of photography as art?  Fine art photography has always labored under a legitimacy issue when it comes to being taken seriously as an art form.  In my experience, it still does not get respected by the public as art in the same way that, say, painting does.  Has the increase in the amount of good photography being done these days created a glut that further threatens the legitimacy of this discipline?

Or, is there still room for individual photographers to create unique, compelling art?  At the very least, I think the bar has been raised.  It’s no longer enough to make technically proficient, aesthetically beautiful photographs.  There’s just too many very good photographers who can do this.  I’d like to think that technical proficiency and aesthetic beauty are still prerequisites to good photographs (sadly, much of what is regarded as contemporary photographic art seems to lack these ingredients), but really good photographs require something more.  Reaching what that something more is is not easy to do, though I do think there are a number of contemporary photographers who get there.  The really interesting question is if these achievements will be recognized and embraced in a time when making photographs is just so easy.

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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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All Art is Illusion

Wellington G. Webb Building No. 1, Denver, Colorado

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.

 

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Pleasing the Critics, Pleasing the Public, Pleasing Yourself

Tree and Cross, Near Taos, New Mexico

I’ve observed an interesting state of affairs in photography.  Critics seem to like photographs that are conceptual or documentary – the art value of the photograph is not about the photograph per se, but about a concept that the photograph illustrates or about the thing the photograph depicts.  The public tends to like photographs that are representational and beautiful – the art value of the photograph is the photograph itself, in terms of its appearance, presentation, and craftsmanship.

While these two approaches are not necessarily mutually exclusive, it’s often difficult to produce works that check both of these boxes.  Photographs that are made simply to be beautiful don’t need to present a deep concept or document a particular subject, and often don’t.  Conversely, photographs that are designed to provoke an intellectual response or present a specific subject don’t need to be beautiful, and often aren’t.  Moreover, if a photograph comes down on one side of this divide, it is often saddled with an adverse inference as to the other.  For example, photographs that seek to be beautiful are often dismissed by critics as lacking merit as serious art, while photographs that are conceptual or documentary are often overlooked by the public as objects of beauty.

It seems as if it’s not possible to please both sides of the house.  What’s a photographer to do?

I think there can be only one answer to this question:  make work that pleases yourself.  This strategy certainly avoids the necessity of having to commit to one camp or the other, but there is more to it than this.  The simple truth is, you produce your best work when you are working to please yourself, regardless of how it is received by your audience-at-large.  The image in this post is called “Tree and Cross, Near Taos, New Mexico.”  I have a guess as to which side of the house my audience-at-large would place it, but I’m keeping mum about that for the reasons I’ve discussed herein.

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Photography and Experiencing the World

Longs Peak, Cloud Wave

Most of us experience the world through a common framework of references:  we walk and talk, we see and hear, we act and do.  These are very basic experiences that we all have in common.  Beyond these basics, however, are whole worlds of perceptions and awareness that we each also have, some that we share with other people, and some that we experience individually.  The practice of photography is one of these kinds of experiences.

I’ve mentioned before on this blog that I’m constantly looking at the sky.  I’m truly amazed and awed at the variety of displays that can happen there.  The image in this post, “Longs Peak, Cloud Wave,” is a perfect example.  Over the course of several hours in Rocky Mountain National Park, I observed this cloud come together.  First, it slowly gathered its shape from the formless masses of clouds around it.  Then, it hung in the sky over Longs Peak and the Never Summer Range, sometimes advancing, sometimes receding, but always delicately balanced over the peaks.  Finally, it gradually dissipated back into the formless masses of clouds from which it came from.  It truly was fascinating and awe-inspiring to watch.

It’s come as a bit of a surprise to me to realize that not everyone watches the sky like I do.  In fact, as near as I can tell, most people don’t.  Perhaps it’s the photographer in me that pays attention.  There are other things, too.  Even before I took up photography, I always was fascinated by how light would reflect off of shiny surfaces, smoothly and gradually building up from inky black shadows to piercing silver highlights.  Or how a city skyline could be abstracted down into different arrangements of lines and shapes, creating different feelings of weight or movement.

The practice of photography has channeled these perceptions and awareness even more.  Now, not only do I walk and talk, see and hear, act and do, but I also highlight and darken, frame and exclude, arrange and compose.  On some level, I’m always thinking in terms of images.  I use photography as a way of experiencing the world.

All this is not to suggest, of course, that photography is the only way to experience the world in a unique or elevated manner.  I’m fairly certain that participation in arts of all kinds probably provides such experiences, and that many other human activities – religion, sports, travel, whatever – probably do to various degrees as well.  Still, to me photography holds a special position in providing an unusually direct and immediate way to achieve this effect.

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