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The Photograph, and Me

White Trees, Series 3, No. 4

White Trees, Series 3, No. 4

In my last post, I mentioned how I feel that when you put a person in a photograph, the photograph tends to become about that person and not whatever else may be in the frame.  For this reason, I tend to avoid putting people in my photographs.

But there’s even a little more to it than that.  I can speak only for myself, but I feel like when I see a person in a photograph, it tends to take me out of the photograph.  To me, a photograph without people in it has two participants – the subject of the photograph, and me, the viewer.  When a photograph has a person in it, it feels to me like the number of participants has grown to three – the subject, the viewer, and the person in the photograph.  Human likenesses exert such a powerful influence, that the depiction of a person in a photograph is almost like having another actual person in on the viewing experience.

I find this inhibiting.  When another person is around, maybe subconsciously I put my guard up.  Even if that person is just a likeness in a photograph.  I feel much more free to really “inhabit” the photograph as my own experience when there are no people depicted in it.

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More Human Than Human

Figures Made of Stone, Study No. 1 Colorado Springs, Colorado, 2018

Figures Made of Stone, Study No. 1
Colorado Springs, Colorado, 2018

I’m not a portrait photographer, and in general I don’t like putting people in my images in any capacity.  To me, when you put a person in a photograph, you instantly make the photograph about that person.  If it’s a portrait, then obviously the photograph is about the person whose portrait has been taken.  But even if it’s not a portrait – say, news photography, street photography, or even just a person in a landscape (as sometimes is done to create a sense of scale) – the photograph, to me, still is about that person and his or her relationship to whatever else is going on in the photograph.  By leaving people out of my photographs, I think the photographs are free to be more purely about what my subjects are, typically landscapes, abstracts, or architecture.

Nevertheless, the human condition, as expressed through the human figure, is a fascinating subject in its own right.  The obvious way to explore this subject would be to photograph, well, people.  But again, to me photographing actual people as a way of exploring the human condition runs into the problem I’ve described above.  The photographs are less about the human condition generally, and more about those specific people in the photograph.

What to do?  Personally, I’ve come to enjoy photographing representations of the human figure that are (of course) not actually people.  Using inanimate objects of human likenesses, such as statues, allows the photographs to become figure studies of the human form, without creating the distraction that comes with photographing actual people.  It’s been a wonderful way to explore the expressiveness of figure studies, while maintaining a level of abstraction that you just don’t have when you put a real person into the image.

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Nebulous Residue

White Trees, Series 3, No.3

White Trees, Series 3, No.3

An artist cannot endure reality; he turns away or back from it: his earnest opinion is that the worth of a thing consists in that nebulous residue of it which one derives from colour, form, sound, and thought; he believes that the more subtle, attenuated, and volatile, a thing or a man becomes, the more valuable he becomes: the less real, the greater the worth.

- Friedrich Nietzsche

I wish I could say I can take credit for this quote because I came across it in context, but the truth is I came across it on the Facebook Page this morning of one of my favorite photographers, Guy Tal.  If you like thinking deep thoughts about photography, I highly recommend his blog.

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On Portraiture

Marin's Figures, Study No. 2

Marin’s Figures, Study No. 2
Denver, Colorado, 2017

“All photographs are self-portraits.”

- Minor White

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Just With a Camera

White Trees, Series 2, No. 8

White Trees, Series 2, No. 8

You don’t make a photograph just with a camera. You bring to the act of photography all the pictures you have seen, the books you have read, the music you have heard, the people you have loved.”

- Ansel Adams

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Everything in its Time

Triptych, Radiance No. 1

Triptych, Radiance No. 1

I remember the first black and white photograph I ever made, the one that really got me into photography in a serious way back in 2012, was an abstract triptych I made using an iPhone camera as the capture device.  For awhile, back then, I was really into these triptychs.  I made quite a few, and then, one day, nothing.  Completely lost my interest in them.  I still thought they were pretty cool, and tried from time to time to rekindle the magic, but I found I couldn’t make one worth anything even if I tried.  The interest and inspiration just wasn’t there.  Years went by.

And now, suddenly, they’re back.  Again, using an iPhone as the camera.  The interest and inspiration is there again.  I’m not sure what changed, nor how long they will be with me, but I’m happy they’re back.  Everything in its time, I guess.

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When We Look at Our Photographs

Baroque Figures, Study No. 1 Asamkirche, Munich, Germany, 2017

Baroque Figures, Study No. 1
Asamkirche, Munich, Germany, 2017

When we look at our photographs and find not the slightest reflection of ourselves, it’s a good sign that our images have lost their souls.

- David duChemin

For the record, I’ve always considered my photographs to be highly reflective of myself.  For better or for worse, I can’t imagine undertaking photography (or any kind of art) in any other way.

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And Stars Too

Two Stars Over the Never Summer Range Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado, 2017

Two Stars Over the Never Summer Range
Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado, 2015

“What are men to rocks and mountains?”

- Jane Austin, Pride and Prejudice

And stars, stars too.  If I am recalling correctly, the two stars here actually are the planets Jupiter and Venus, which came into (I believe perfect) alignment a couple of years ago.

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On Inspiration

Standing Wave Over the Mummy Range

Standing Wave Over the Mummy Range
Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado, 2016

It’s that time of year again, when there is enough daylight to allow me to drive up to Rocky Mountain National Park after work.  For example, if I leave my house in Fort Collins at 6 p.m., I can be at this spot by around 7:30, and still have a good hour and a half of light to work with for photographing.  I’ve been making these trips in June and July for the past four or five years.  They began as an exercise to help me practice my outdoor photography skills, but have since developed into a cherished summer ritual.

Truth is, for a while now I’ve been pretty uninspired when it comes to landscape photography.  But I plan to continue my visits to the Park if for no other reason than that I’ve come to enjoy making the trip so much.  I’ll bring my camera along too, because that’s part of the ritual.  Inspiration is a flighty thing, it comes and goes without much rhyme or reason.  But I believe that so long as the underlying passion remains, the inspiration will return, and I’m not yet prepared to concede that the passion is gone too.

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Tools of the Trade

Steel Staircases.  Near Eaton, CO 2015

Steel Stairs
Near Eaton, Colorado 2015

I believe in keeping things simple, so for the last few years I’ve been carrying only two lenses – a Canon 24-105 L, and a Canon 100-400 L.  Between the two, I can cover the range from 24 mm to 400 mm without fumbling around with a lot of lens changes.  I realize zoom lenses with long ranges come with an image quality trade-off, but the convenience of keeping my workflow simple in the field is worth it to me.  I would rather spend my valuable field time seeing, reacting, and shooting, rather than having to make a bunch of lens changes. And, in fact, I would guess that well over 90% of my images are made with the 24-105 L (and probably half of those at either 24 mm or 35 mm), so my workflow in the field really is straightforward.

Still, I do think the 100-400 is worth keeping around.  There are some situations where the reach really comes in handy.  This image, for example, likely would not have been possible with the 24-105.  It was made with the 100-400, at 400 mm.  This enabled me to: 1) shoot from across a busy highway; 2) isolate this pattern from its surroundings; and 3) create a very flattened perspective (due to the telephoto effect), accentuating the graphic aspects of the composition.

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