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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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Proving Ground

Moon and Dark Sky Over Rock Cut

Moon and Dark Sky Over Rock Cut
Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado, 2017

Over the years that I’ve written this blog, I’ve come to realize that it’s become a kind of proving ground for the images I post here.  When I create my images, I subject them to a fairly intense process of scrutiny.  Naturally this includes reviewing the images on the monitor as they are being created, but also I make prints of every image I post here on the same grade of paper that I use for the sale and display of my work.  The printing often involves several iterations reflecting successive stages of editing, and often each iteration will sit on my desk for days or even weeks as I live with the print and gradually see what changes I can make to improve it.  In short, I invest a lot of time and effort to make sure I’m satisfied with an image before it is posted here.

Nevertheless, the act of posting seems to change the way I look at the print.  On more than one occasion, I’ve cued up a blog post with an image that I’m going to post, but before I post it I’ll see something about the image that makes me pull it back.  A couple of times, I’ve even done this after the image has been posted.  Usually I’m able to further tweak those images and they make it back on the blog, but sometimes those pulled images never see the light of day.

There’s just something about posting. The act of committing the image to public view creates a kind of feedback that I just don’t get when I’m editing an image in private. It’s a valuable kind of proving ground that I’m grateful to have at my disposal.

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Fill the Frame

Marin's Figures, Study No. 3 Denver, Colorado, 2017

Marin’s Figures, Study No. 3 (Equilibrista 90 by Jorge Marin)
Denver, Colorado, 2017

I generally don’t take a “rules” approach to photography, as in where some say that following certain rules or formulas are what it takes to produce compelling photography.  The one possible exception may be the “rule” that says to fill the frame with your subject.  Nine times out of ten, I find that doing this results in a stronger composition.

It’s been said that photography is a subtractive art – taking things out of the frame until the only things that are left are those that are necessary for the photograph, and nothing else.  Because the world is a visually chaotic and cluttered place, this is where much of the challenge of composing for a photograph comes from.  Indeed, I often have found it simply is not possible to compose a photograph that I want, because I cannot eliminate distracting and non-essential elements from the frame.

Filling the frame with your subject is one way toward subtracting out those kinds of distracting and non-essential elements.  Obviously, the more space your subject takes up in the frame, the less space there is for anything else.  It probably seems intuitive and simple to understand when I write it here this way, but I think many novice aspiring fine art photographers make the mistake of not filling the frame with their subject, and consequently having too many distracting and non-essential elements therein.  I know I did.  It really is a skill to learn just where to draw that fine line.

On a related point, filling the frame with your subject really requires that you pay attention to your background.  If you have filled the frame with your subject, odds are you are either standing very close to it or have zoomed in on it with a telephoto lens.  This makes it easy to change how the background looks, since slight shifts in camera position will have a big effect on what appears in the background.  So I rarely accept that the first spot in which I’ve chosen to stand is the best.  Instead, I move around and try out different camera positions to see how that affects what appears in the background.  The background is a critical part of a photograph, and is worth investing the time to get right.

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Landscapes are Landscapes, Photographs are Photographs

Longs Peak, Range of Clouds Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado, 2015

Longs Peak, Range of Clouds
Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado, 2015

“My interest in photography did not begin with books or mentors, or with any burning desire to see the world through a camera.  It evolved from an intense devotion to mountains and wilderness that eventually shaped all the parts of my life and brought them together.”

– Galen Rowell

What an interesting quote by the great landscape photographer Galen Rowell.  It’s interesting to me personally because it is almost exactly backwards from how my interest in photography developed.  From a very young age, I remember being interested in photographs as objects in and of themselves.  I remember when my Dad would travel on business, I would ask him to bring me back a postcard from where he had been and spend an inordinate amount of time getting lost in the photograph.  Conversely, I did not grow up with much of an outdoorsy lifestyle, and to this day I have no appreciable wilderness skills to speak of.  Most of my landscape photography is done by the side of the road or maybe, if I’m feeling adventurous, down a well-marked, well-traveled trail in a National Park or somewhere similar.

This is not to say that I have no connection to the land or to landscapes.  To the contrary, I feel a photographer interested in producing expressive photographs should feel a strong connection with the subject matter he or she is photographing.  It’s just that my connection with landscapes has not developed as a result of lots of time spent in the back country or otherwise outdoor adventuring.  I love to travel and to see new places – most of my eyes on the landscape likely has come through the windshield of my car.

There’s nothing wrong with the Galen Rowell approach, of course, and indeed my experience is that most photographers who photograph the landscape come at it from this perspective.  I’m a little fearful, however, that the Galen Rowell quote may create an expectation that reverence for the landscape is all that is required to photograph it expressively.  It is not.  It my opinion, it’s far more important to have an interest in photographs – what makes them work, what make them fail – to produce expressive landscape photography.  Being an accomplished outdoorsman is admirable, but landscapes are landscapes, and photographs are photographs.  It is being an accomplished photographer that is required for photography.

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Like the Germans Do

Death Figure.  Ulmer Muenster, Ulm, Germany, 2018.

Death Figure
Ulmer Muenster, Ulm, Germany, 2018

I came across this cheery fellow in a small alcove of the Ulmer Muenster, a gothic church in Ulm, Germany.  Nobody does gothic like the Germans do.

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Meeting the Challenge

Bright Cloud Over Longs Peak

Bright Cloud Over Longs Peak
Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado, 2017

I never get tired of the views of Longs Peak from the Trail Ridge Road area of Rocky Mountain National Park.  I have a number of images collected together on this website of the peak photographed from this area, and probably a dozen (or more) pretty much finished images of it that I haven’t gotten around to posting yet.

After a few years of doing these kinds of photographs, I began to realize that many of the images I was making were looking alike.  The profile of the peak is more or less the same, and the big topographic features of the terrain remain the same too.  Given these limitations, the challenge of the project has become to see if I can keep making photographs of the peak in such a way that each given image says something unique about it and the collection as a whole does not become duplicative or boring.

This image was taken well after the sun went down over the horizon (I’m always surprised at how many landscape photographers pack it up after the sun goes down – some of the best light remains for a good 20 or more minutes after sunset!).  As I recall, the sky conditions were pretty flat and I wasn’t sure if I could make something interesting out of the scene.  There was a bright spot on the clouds above the peak, though, that with the longer exposures required in the dim light produced the interesting elongation of the cloud that shows up in this image.  In the end, I think it fits the criteria I set for myself in keeping this series of images going.

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I Make the Photographs I Want to See

Baroque Figures, Study No. 2. Asamkirche, Munich, Germany.

Baroque Figures, Study No. 2
Asamkirche, Munich, Germany, 2017

There’s a lot of photography being done out there these days, and a lot of reasons being given for making photographs.  In the art community, in particular, it often seems to me that a photograph is not seen to be complete without a small treatise of theory and explanation to accompany it.

Introspection in an artist is a good thing.  I like to think about the reasons I do what I do, and certainly I encourage anyone engaged in an artistic discipline to do the same.  But it can be taken too far, I think.  Getting too wrapped up in the theory and explanation of photography takes away from its practice.  It can get in the way of producing work or, even worse, compromise the purity of the work being done.

There are many reasons I practice photography, but only one that underlies them all – I strive to make the photographs that I want to see.  I think this both helps to keep me grounded in my approach to photography and keeps me true to my own internal vision in my practice of it.

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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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