Tag Archives: Misha Gregory Macaw

Just. Sounds. Terrible.

White Trees, Series 1, No. 9.

I’ve been listening lately to the photography podcast “F-Stop Collaborate and Listen” by Matt Payne.  It’s a great podcast, I really recommend it if you are a landscape photographer.  Every week he interviews a different landscape photographer, often a full-time working professional, on a variety of topics in current landscape photography.  Being pretty much an outsider, I’ve learned a lot about how this field works and who some of the personalities within it are.

One topic that comes up over and over is social media.  If you want to be a professional landscape photographer starting out today, I gather that social media is critical to succeeding.  Myself, I have virtually no social media presence, so I can’t really speak from firsthand knowledge, but I have to say it just… sounds… terrible.

First, as near as I can tell, the consensus seems to be that social media for photography is basically a big, hothouse, echo chamber.  It appears to reward the posting of essentially the same kinds of images over and over (the same locations, from the same viewpoints, under the same kinds of lighting conditions, etc.), typically in the form of a grand landscape in bold colors.  Since I photograph in black and white, often in anonymous locations and with somewhat subdued subject matter, it seems to me my photography might not have a place in this kind of environment.

Second, I get the impression there’s a lot of hostility in social media.  Say the wrong thing online, even with good intentions or by virtue of simple mistake, and you run the risk of being slammed with a backlash of vitriol and negativity.  While I realize that I’m an outlier, I’ll confess that I find people unpredictable and volatile under the best of circumstances.  I certainly would not want to expose myself to the ire of thousands of strangers online.

So, I used to think of my lack of presence on social media as a bit of a personal failure.  And really, it probably is – if someone wanted to magically offer me 100,000 followers on Facebook, I’d have a hard time saying no.  But given what I’ve learned about how social media works from listening to interviews with the pros, I do feel less bad about not being engaged with it.

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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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Art Speaks Where Words Cannot Explain

Black Trees, Series 3, No. 3

So, I’m not going to pretend that a work of art is as important as a ventilator, or that the work of an artist is as important as the work of a doctor or an ICU nurse. Priorities have to be placed, and it’s obvious where priorities should now be falling.

Still, art does have its place and its value in a society.  As the title of this post says: art speaks where words cannot explain. If you have experienced art to enrich your life in good times, as I have, then no less can it be healing and comforting in bad times as well.

Consider saying thank you to an artist. Of if not a thank you, just a note of some kind to let them know you appreciate their work. Creating artwork can be a very lonely experience in the best of times, and working artists can very easily fall through the cracks when times are bad. Again, not to take away from the doctors, the nurses, and everyone else on the front lines of the coronavirus crisis. But a simple, quick, and heartfelt expression of appreciation to an artist whose work has reached you in some way will, at the very least, make their day.

And no, please don’t send me a thank you. I’m doing fine, and plus I don’t want this post to be misconstrued as trolling for compliments. Besides, I am for better or worse a bit of a lone wolf by nature – I probably wouldn’t know what to do with a compliment anyway.

 

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That Plain Little Church…

San Rafael Church. La Cueva, New Mexico, 2016.

Sing those hymns we sang together
In that plain little church with the benches all worn
How dear to my heart how precious the moments
We stood shaking hands and singing a song

— Hazel Dickens, “Won’t You Come and Sing For Me”

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Wax and Wane

Moonrise Under Tangled Branches. Fort Collins, Colorado, 2015.

I haven’t been terribly active with photography over the last few months, but I don’t think I’m too worried about it. I think there’s a natural wax and wane that comes part and parcel with creative endeavors.

I’m comforted in part by my experience as a musician.  I’ve been active in music for a long time, much longer in fact than I’ve been active in photography.  Over the many years that I’ve played music, there have been many stretches lasting months or even years where I was not very active with music at all.  During those times, I never once doubted that playing music remained a strong part of me, and indeed all of those stretches came around full circle back to being active in music, including being so even today.

I’m pretty sure photography is in my bones now.  I don’t think I could not be a photographer even if I wanted to.  The wax and wane just is part of living a creative life.

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Splash

Longs Peak Sunset. Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado, 2017.

I was thinking the other day that making a photograph and introducing it into the world is a little like tossing a stone into a pool of water.  You would like to think that the pool is still, and the impact of the photograph will be like the splash the stone makes, commanding attention and then contemplation until the last ripple fades away.  In truth, I think it’s more like throwing a stone into a tempest-tossed sea.  Hardly anyone notices the impact, and it disappears into the chop nearly instantly in any case.

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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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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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