Tag Archives: 2019

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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