Category Archives: Uncategorized

On Posting

Marin’s Figures, Study No. 5 (Archivaldo by Jorge Marin). Denver, Colorado, 2017.

The noted photographer Garry Winogrand is reputed to have said “I photograph to find out what something will look like photographed.”  I think sometimes I post to see what photographs will look like posted.

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Realism and Abstraction in Painting and Photography

Five Cars, Building Clouds. Eaton, Colorado, 2019.

It’s been observed that painting is an additive medium, whereas photography is a subtractive medium.  In painting, you start with a blank canvas and add elements to it to build your composition (for example by painting a house, painting a tree next to the house, painting a blue sky above the tree and house, etc.), while in photography you start with a cluttered frame and subtract elements from it (for example, by moving the camera to exclude the fire hydrant in the foreground, zooming in to eliminate the gas station next to the house, etc.) until you have only the elements left necessary for the composition you are trying to achieve.

It seems to me also that painting is a medium concerned with the adding of realism, whereas photography is medium concerned with the adding of abstraction.  In painting, you start with a blank canvas, the ultimate expression of abstraction.  There’s nothing there, it can be anything you want until you start painting on it.  The process of creating the painting is essentially the process of adding realism to it, right up until you reach the level of realism that you desire, be it a still-pretty-abstract piece of abstract expressionism, a somewhat-more-realistic work of impressionism, or a very-realistic work of (quite appropriately named) photorealism.

Photography is just the opposite.  The nature of the camera is to produce an image that is perhaps the ultimate expression of two-dimensional realism.  However, if you hold a camera up in front of something and simply click the shutter, the resulting image will be photo-realistic, but rarely will be pleasing.  It takes the application of abstraction to make a photograph interesting, and the tools of the photographer are largely used to introduce abstraction into the photographic image.  Such tools include, for example, camera placement, lens selection, long exposure, and dodging and burning, which were the tools used to in the making of the image in this post.

 

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Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil

Black Trees, Series 3, No. 2 (aka “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil”)

Some photographs are special to the photographer.  Not that they’re better or worse than any other photograph in the portfolio (truly I like all my photographs the same), but they carry a special meaning.  This is one of those photographs for me.  When I first made it, it made me feel something I couldn’t quite put my finger on.  I called it “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil.”  Today I’m feeling a little bit of the grandeur and the banality, the beauty and the terror, the good and the evil in all that is living and being alive, and it made me think of this photograph.

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Developing a Personal Style

Great Sand Dunes National Park, No. 5. Colorado, 2014.

Wow, I’ve read a lot of stuff online and elsewhere about how photographers can and should develop a personal style.  As a preliminary matter, my understanding of personal style (I’m sure different people have different opinions on this) is that it is a way of making photographs, such that viewers readily recognize them as being the product of a particular photographer.  Having a personal style seems to have become a sort of “holy grail” among photographers, as if having one will be synonymous with success, creativity, and fulfillment.

So how do you develop a personal style?  Don’t try.

If you think having a personal style is important, I’d get over this.  Don’t listen to the advice of people on how to develop a personal style, and don’t have it as an agenda item on your “todo” list for improving as a photographer.

Instead, just photograph what you want in the way that you want to, honestly and humbly.  Photography, to me, really is a simple thing:  you see something in the world that moves you, and you try to isolate what moved you, first by capturing it with a camera, and later by editing your capture with whatever tools you choose to use (e.g., a darkroom or a computer).  Notice that this process does not include a step of making sure that what you capture and how you edit conforms to a personal style, or indeed any other agenda point to tick off in the photographic process.

If you practice photography in this way, I suspect that your personal style will find you.  I can’t tell you this from firsthand experience, though – I don’t even know if I have a personal style, and I’m pretty unconcerned about it.

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Editing, Not Processing

White Trees, Series 2, No. 9

Making a photograph largely is a two-step process:  working with the camera to make a capture (in the field, in the studio, or wherever), and working with the capture to make the final photograph (in a darkroom, on a computer, or whatever).  The second step commonly is called “processing” the image.

It’s a term I don’t like.  “Processing” makes it sound like the second step is very mechanical, rote, or devoid of creativity.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  Working with the photograph after capture often is where the key creative decisions that craft the final image are made. 

In the case of black and white photography, the decisions typically are on questions of brightness and contrast.  Sounds fairly straightforward, right?  It’s not.  There are myriad ways to work with and apply the grayscale spectrum to a black and white image that dramatically, decisively affect the way the final image looks.

This White Trees image is a perfect example.  The concept behind the White Trees images are very white subjects against very dark backgrounds.  It didn’t have to be this way – the image could have been made to make the trees very dark against very bright backgrounds, or relatively mid-toned against a mid-toned background, or in any other combination of brighnesses and contrasts achievable in a darkroom or on a computer.  The impact of the White Trees images comes precisely because the white trees/dark background combination suits the subjects of the photographs so perfectly.  It was a deliberate choice that was made, and deliberately carried out in working with the images after capture (not always a technically easy thing to do, by the way, but that would be a subject for a different post).

The term “processing” cheapens the act of working with the image after capture, in my opinion.  It sounds like something you would do to a tax return.  For this reason, I prefer the term “editing,” which I think more accurately describes the creativity in what is being done.  It’s true, usage of the term “processing” is so widespread that I, too, slip up and find myself using it now and then.  But as much as possible, I try to use the term “editing.”  I believe the words we use to describe things are important, because they subtly shape our perceptions and biases when we undertake the actions they describe.  Being an “editor” provides a much better mindset for working with images after capture than being a “processor.”

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Speak to Me

Cross in the Landscape. Near Velarde, New Mexico, 2016.

These things speak of New Mexico to me: distant mountains, overhead wires, low hills, low scrub, clear blue skies, clear golden sunlight, wooden fenceposts, wooden crosses.

It’s not an exhaustive list for sure, there are other things too of course.  But photography is the art of subtraction, taking things out of the frame until only the essential of the subject remains.  That’s what I’ve done here – removing element after element until the only things remaining in this view of the New Mexico landscape are those that speak to me about it. 

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Those Crimson Peaks Stir My Soul

Longs Peak, Cloud Crest.  Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado, 2015.

When you have an interest in photography, like I do, you tend to look at a lot of photographs.  It’s natural, I think, to begin to form opinions about what you like and don’t like, what works for you and what doesn’t, etc.  Eventually, you may find yourself asking whether certain photographs are “art” or not, or maybe if they are “good” or not.

I’m not even going to wade into that debate.  As far as I’m concerned, you could doodle a stick figure on a cocktail napkin and call it “art” and you probably would be right, and the question of whether something is “good” or not is largely in the eye of the beholder. 

But I will say for myself, having looked at a lot of photographs, a hallmark of the ones that stand out to me is that they tend to have a degree of nuance, subtlety, or sophistication in the way in which they communicate their message.  Photography being a visual medium, it’s a bit hard to describe what I mean.  But, by way of analogy, it’s kind of like the difference between the sentence

“Those mountains are pretty at sunset”

and the sentence

“Those crimson peaks stir my soul”

Okay, granted, neither of these sentences is a literary masterpiece, but the point I’m trying to make is that the second sentence (hopefully) communicates its message with more nuance, subtlety, and sophistication than the first sentence. 

Photographs are like that too, except of course that the language of photography is visual communication rather than written communication.  Some photographs simply are executed with more nuance, subtlety, and sophistication than others.  It’s something to perhaps consider if you find yourself asking whether something is “art” or not, or whether it’s “good” or not. 

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Make Something

Baroque Figures, Study No. 3. Asamkirche, Munich, Germany.

Baroque Figures, Study No. 3
Asamkirche, Munich, Germany, 2017

Do you know a writer who doesn’t write?  A painter who doesn’t paint?  A musician who rarely plays their instrument?  Maybe, a photographer who rarely gets out their camera to photograph?

I bet you’ve met a few folks like this.  There’s a lot of people out there who are more in love with the idea of being an artist than actually being an artist.

Real artists make things.  Writers make prose, painters make paintings, musicians make music.  And, photographers make photographs.

It doesn’t matter if your photographs are good or not.  If they’re not good, don’t share them, maybe throw them away.  I’ve made many, many photographs that have never seen the light of day.  The point is to be making them – if you’re making them, you’re being an artist.  If you’re not making them, well… you know.

Making something isn’t about numbers or time.  Some people will have a high output of work, some people will have a low output of work.  It’s also, of course, okay (and even desirable) to rest or take time off now and then.  There are no hard or fast rules, everyone is different.  In your heart, you’ll know if you’re making the cut or not.

Because ultimately, making things is where the rubber meets the road.  If you’re an artist – get out there and make something.

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Yin and Yang

Black Trees, Series 3, No. 1

Black Trees, Series 3, No. 1

If you’re reading this blog post, you may be familiar with my White Trees series of images.  I began that series back around 2012, when what had been a two-steps-forward, one-step-back interest in photography turned more serious.  The White Trees photographs began as part of a learning exercise designed to get me out into the landscape to photograph, and then to use the resulting captures in an interpretive and expressive process of image-making.  The basic concept behind the White Trees images are very white trees against relatively dark backgrounds.  I”m happy to report the White Trees project is ongoing, with new images continuously in development.

Over the years I’ve been working on the White Trees concept, I’ve produced a great many captures that, for one reason or another, are not suitable for the project.  Often, they end up making otherwise great images, and many of those images have become completed works in their own right that are now on this website.  After working with these “offshoots” of the White Trees project for awhile, I came to realize that a number of these images had their own hallmark characteristic – very dark trees against relatively lighter backgrounds.

And so, a new project has been born, the Black Trees project.  In truth, I already had been working with the Black Trees concept in other settings, and so a Black Trees Series 1 and a Black Trees Series 2 already exist.  However, I have not used the trees from the White Trees project as subjects for the Black Trees concept before, which makes a difference. So, I’m starting a new Black Trees Series 3.  I think it makes a nice complement to the White Trees project, kind of a yang to the White Trees’ yin.

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Torn

Marin's Figures, Study No. 4 (El Abrazo by Jorge Marin)

Marin’s Figures, Study No. 4 (El Abrazo by Jorge Marin)
Denver, Colorado 2017

I’ll confess I like these “Marin’s Figures” images out of which I’ve been making a series.  The subjects are sculptures by the contemporary Mexican artist Jorge Marin that I encountered entirely by chance in Denver, Colorado back in 2017.  I found the sculptures so compelling that I was quickly moved to photograph them.

As much as I like these images, I’ll also confess I’m a little torn.  With regard to the sculptures themselves, their compelling nature is down to the work of Mr. Marin.  My photographs of them to a large extent therefore are simply recording the artistry he has already produced.  If I like these photographs, how much of that is down to me?  In evaluating these photographs, where does his artistry end and my artistry begin?

I think the standard answer to this kind of question among photographers is that photographers create artistry through the choices that they make in their use of the photographic medium.  The eye of the photographer creates composition through excluding elements from the frame and carefully arranging the elements that are included therein; the camera can be used to to create blur or sharpness with shutter speed and aperture controls; the computer or darkroom can be used to manipulate brightness and contrast so as to create visual harmony and the placement of emphasis within the image.

I certainly used all of these elements in producing these photographs.  With respect to composition, I used low camera angles and very close placement of the camera to the sculptures so as to present a very specific view of the sculptures set within a precisely arranged background of sky and branches.  I used a relatively wide aperture and slow shutter speed largely to accommodate the low light levels of the dusk in which I was photographing, but also to soften and blur the branches in the background.  At the computer, I very carefully worked with the brightness and contrast to achieve the specific look I was after, in this case a very shadowy figure against a comparatively bright background.

Without meaning to sound pretentious, these choices are artistic decisions, and they do indeed dramatically affect how the final image looks.  Don’t believe me?  Just go online and search for pictures of “El Abrazo” by Jorge Marin, there’s lots out there.  You may or may not like my photograph, but I do believe my photograph genuinely looks different than most photographs of Mr. Marin’s sculptures (or indeed of the sculptures themselves when seen in person, though this is a bit of an apples and oranges comparison).  If my photograph looks different, it’s a result of the artistic choices I made in the photographic process, which certainly are down to me.

In the end, like many things in life, I’m not sure there’s a clear answer.  I like the photographs and I believe in my artistic contribution to their making, but I suppose it’s okay too to feel a little torn about them.

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