Tag Archives: 2019

The Photograph Is Its Own Reality

Figure Study, Duomo of Milan. Milan, Italy, 2019.

Here is a photograph of a sculpted figure decorating the exterior of the Duomo in Milan, Italy.  When you look at it, maybe you see the graceful lines of the carving, or the way the proportions of the figure blend harmoniously with the alcove in which it is set, or maybe you feel the sense of serenity seen in the figure’s face or are uplifted by the movement conveyed in the outstretched arms and tilt of the head.

What you don’t see is how small this figure is from where you must stand to observe it.  It must be, if I recall correctly, two or three stories above the ground (I had to use a long telephoto lens to get this close to it in the photograph).  You also don’t see that this is one of a dozen or more figures of this kind decorating this wall of the cathedral, all of which compete for attention with one another and with the other various busy decorative embellishments and designs on the building’s facade.  You definitely don’t hear the noise of the traffic on the nearby city streets, feel the jostle of the crowds that gather around the Duomo at all hours, nor feel sleepy from the heat of the late summer Italian day that lingers on long into the gathering evening.

In short, the experience of standing and looking at this figure on the side of the Duomo was nothing like what is depicted in the photograph.  But that’s okay.  No photograph can ever really document what it was like to actually be there in the specific time and place in which it was taken.  It’s just lines and shadows on a flat piece of paper, after all.  To the degree a photograph presents a reality, the reality presented is only that of the photograph itself – a two-dimensional scene, in your hands (or on a screen, or hanging on a wall), at the particular time and place you happen to be at when you look at it.  The reality presented is that which the photographer wants you to see, nothing more and nothing less.  It can be related (maybe even highly related) to what was there when the photograph was captured, but it need not necessarily be related to that at all.

Myself, I like to think my photographs reflect my particular way of seeing the world.  If you were to stand ten different people in front of the Duomo in Milan, sure, they would all see the cathedral, but my guess is they would have ten different individual experiences about seeing the cathedral, all embodied by different aspects of the cathedral that they saw.  This photograph is what I saw when I looked at the cathedral, is this what you would have seen?  The way this photograph makes me feel is what I felt when I looked at the cathedral, is this what you would have felt?  The reality of this photograph is not at all like the reality of standing in front of the cathedral, and almost certainly not like what your individual reality would be if you stood in front of the cathedral.  But it was my reality, maybe even my reality alone, and it is what I have sought to embody in the reality presented by this photograph.

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Shoot First, Ask Questions Later

Dark Cars, Dark Clouds. Lucerne, Colorado, 2019.

Why do I shoot photos of railroad cars?  Who exactly is my audience for this?  Would anyone use this to decorate their wall?  Would any critic consider this to be fine art?  Was this really a productive use of my time for photography?  Is photography really a productive use of my time at all?  Does this duplicate the work someone else already has done?  Is it beautiful to look at?  Is it more than just about a train?  Is it more than just about a photograph?  Why does it matter?

I shoot photos of railroad cars because they speak to me.  I am the audience for these photographs.  I would use them to decorate my wall.  It doesn’t matter to me if a critic would consider them to be fine art.  Yes, it is a productive use of my time for photography.  Yes, photography is a productive use of my time more generally.  I don’t know if this duplicates the work of someone else, nor do I care.  Yes, it is beautiful to look at.  Yes, it is more than just about a train.  Yes, it is more than just about a photograph.  I don’t know why it matters, but it does.

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Just Right

Storm Over Rock Cut. Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado, 2019.

I’ve noted before that I’m a big fan of the contemporary photographer Michael Kenna.  I’m hardly alone in this.  He is one of the most renowned and widely collected photographers working today with many admirers around the world.  And deservedly so.  His work is just beautiful.

With so many followers, it’s perhaps no surprise that many photographers seem to be trying to (consciously or unconsciously) imitate his work.  On the face of it, the look of his pictorialist, black and white landscapes would appear to be easy to imitate.  And yet.

So often I look at the work of other photographers whose work is playing in Kenna’s space, and I end up having the same reaction:  1) I look at their work, and am very impressed;  2) I later look at the work of Kenna, and suddenly the imitator’s work seems shallow and pale by comparison.  There are, in fact, only two photographers I can think of off the top of my head whose work I think is on par with Kenna’s in the style that Kenna pioneered (whether or not this is a good thing I don’t know, and in any case they shall here remain nameless).

What is it about Kenna’s work that stands apart and above from his crowded field of imitators?  I guess I can say only that it’s “just right.”  There’s something about his choice of subject matter, the equipment he uses (he’s known for Hasselblad medium format film cameras), his perspectives, compositions, and the choices he makes in his darkroom printing.  If any one of these (or a multitude of other) variables is off, even just by a little bit, as I presume to be the case for the many Michael Kenna imitators out there, the result no longer is “just right.”  The products of such efforts become merely, again, pale and shallow imitations of the magic of the original.

“Just right” is an interesting concept.  In my own efforts, it’s the discriminator between work that passes the bar from one level to the next.  In the field, I frame and re-frame compositions until it looks “just right” on the camera’s screen (thank you digital cameras!).  On the computer, I edit and re-edit until it looks “just right” on the monitor.  I then print, tweak, and re-print until it looks “just right” on the paper.

Of course, “just right” also is a difficult concept, in that it is completely subjective to the eye of the beholder and therefore cannot be taught to another with any objective standard.  To this, I can say only that every artist being honest with himself or herself carries around their own “just right” standard with them.  It’s the little voice inside one’s head whispering, even when you want your work to be perfect and finished, that it’s not.  Ignore that voice at your own peril, it’s usually right.

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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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