Lauren Henkin, Visual Artist
Published by Lumiere Press in 2011.Essay by Michael Torosian. Introduction by Howard Greenberg. Edition of 250.
Sometimes it takes nearly a century for photographs to be shared with the world, even ones made by one of the most influential photographers in the history of the medium. That was the case for some of Edward Steichen’s prints made during his “early modernist period,” from 1915-1923.
In 2008, Joanna Steichen, Edward Steichen’s widow, shared eight strikingly beautiful early prints with Howard Greenberg, owner of the Howard Greenberg Gallery and representative for the Edward Steichen estate. Taken out of a safety deposit box and presented in an envelope, Mr. Greenberg held before him, “an astonishing bouquet of experiments in toning and multiple-printing processes.”
Michael Torosian of Lumiere Press and Howard Greenberg had talked, over a decade before, about publishing a book of Steichen’s work showing his transition from Pictorialist to Modernist. However, neither felt they had the appropriate examples to move forward with the project—until they laid their eyes on the prints Joanna Steichen revealed. These photographs provided the evidence they needed to tell this story of transition from Steichen the painter, to Steichen the photographer.
The book that evolved from the discovery of these prints, Eduard et Voulangis, is one of the finest samples of an artist-in-residence, in this case, the artist’s own residence in Voulangis, just outside of Paris. Steichen would use this time that Greenberg called “a great artist’s most contemplative period” to evaluate, create, and innovate. Steichen’s would also declare himself clearly as a photographer by both burning his paintings in a bonfire and photographing a cup and saucer 1,000 times.
The foundation of the book and of Steichen’s transformative period lies in the image, Three Pears and an Apple. Despite its literal title, the complex geometry of the print itself affords the full range of experience in a photograph: curiosity, exploration, revelation, and ultimately, introspection. It is an image one can get lost in, continually returning, perplexed and intrigued by its deceptively simplistic veneer. In his accessible essay in the book, Torosian says of that particular image, “Like bodies brought together by gravitational force the elegance appears inevitable, the simplicity preordained.”
The images in the book are printed richly, as if the limitations of “color space” didn’t exist, some with warm tones that seem unachievable, others with such subtle variances in deep shadows that the eye becomes lost in geometries within geometries. One initially absorbs the overall composition, but then, steadily consumes the nooks of detail, the marks, the subtle shifts in tone—an exploration of color, line and form that would be impossible without the careful and subtle printing achieved here in extraordinary four-color offset lithography reproductions.
In his introduction, Greenberg describes Steichen as an “alchemist,” creating prints that were, “unusual and unique in ways that I had never encountered, in ways that I didn’t think were possible.“ Steichen’s experimentation in printing with platinum, gum-bichromate and ferroprussiate, coated in multiple combinations, enable these prints, and ultimately, the book, to read like an unencumbered exploration in printmaking. In addition to the beautifully rendered offset reproductions, Torosian took great care in selecting the other materials and printing techniques that would be employed, a delicate balance to achieve when working with such subtle imagery. As Torosian describes, he wanted the cover to be, “somewhat decorative” with a pattern that referenced the rhythm in the image Wheelbarrow with Flower Pots. The warm tone and soft tactile quality of the handmade papers by St. Cuthbert Mill and Papeterie St. Armand along with the delicate letterpress printing of Zapf’s original cutting for lead casting of the Palatino typeface complement the images presented in the book. The book sits comfortably in the hand, and a subconscious awareness slowly builds, informing the viewer that each design decision references another. There are no loose ends—everything is considered with thought and respect to the art exhibited.
My only unresolved question is whether Steichen’s experiments should be presented less formally. When looking at the prints and reading the text, I imagine clothing lathered and stained in various chemicals. But the book, presented as ‘perfectly’ executed as it is, in a subliminal way contradicts the celebration of the organic process of experimentation that can bring at times, imperfection or even failure. It is, however, not a long-lived point of contention.
I am a photographic artist who was raised in the darkroom by great printmakers like George Tice, but has lived within the confines of digital machinery for nearly a decade. While I seek out those who, in Steichen’s footsteps, are pushing the boundaries of photographic printmaking, I feel that experimentation is something not always celebrated, but more often hidden, cloaked in labels of an artist as ‘inconsistent’ or ‘lacking a clear vision.’ I can’t think of a contemporary book that so openly reveres experimentation, as this book does.
I have felt for some time that while documentary photography answers questions, successful fine art raises them. There must also be proof of craft, of effort, and an investment from the artist. As Greenberg describes, “These are works of intellectually ambiguous abstraction – hypothesis on sensitized paper.” For me, they offer what great art should, a safe place to revel in the unknown.
— Republished from Issue 23 of Parenthesis, The Journal of the Fine Press Book Association
For more information on this title, visit Lumiere Press.
I’ve finally realized why I love photography. Last week, I went to see a show of platinum/palladium prints by one of the living masters, George Tice. I met George in 2005 when I took a workshop with him at what was the Maine Photographic Workshops. I can say emphatically that he is one of the best photographic printmakers I’ve ever encountered. I remember holding some of his platinum prints in my hands—without the separation of glass; without glare; without the formality of gallery walls surrounding me. The tones, the way he articulates space, the depth of the detail all combine to present the original capture in a way that is completely unique. It was the kind of haptic experience that is rare when encountering art.
The exhibition presented 16 of Tice’s images. It is rare to see such large (20x24) examples of platinum prints executed so flawlessly. A few of my favorites:
But it was looking at this image of lily pads that brought the epiphany.
I stood in front of it for a long time. I left myself in it. When I emerged, I realized that the few times I connect with a photograph is when I am reminded that this medium, invented to perfectly depict truth, is capable of shedding that expectation and can express instead, an abstract rendering of the world. Lily pads become circles; reeds become lines; reflections become brush strokes; and, all of what I think I know—is gone. For a few moments, the burden of association is lost and I am floating alone in depths of tone.
This is when I love photography.
When the medium born to depict reality, doesn’t. No other art form is capable of producing this kind of exchange—an expectation of an exact record, only to strip that preconception away, leaving form in its place.
This is what makes photography so distinct. It isn't its ability to capture light. It isn't its ability to capture time. It is its ability to exist under the guise of reality while simultaneously being capable of advocating escape from it.
Last month I spent a week in Daytona Beach, Florida—teaching, giving an artist talk, attending an opening and soaking in dialog with other artists and curators about photography. After all the events were over, I spent an afternoon participating in an extended conversation sitting around a large table between myself, three other artists and two curators. It was an opportunity that I never had before, to have a lengthy, open and unfiltered discussion about what our individual perceptions were of the current state of photography, what our struggles and worries are as the medium progresses, and where we would each like it to go.
We started by looking at the work of one of the photographers. It was casual, no sense of rush or unease like there is at the formal portfolio reviews. We could each linger on a particular image as long as we wanted, ask the questions that needed to be asked, and understand where the artist was heading with their work. It was one of the more enjoyable presentations of prints that I’ve had in a long time.
The last time I was shown prints by the artist, or showed mine in return, was at Fotofest this past March. While those interactions generally are the ones that I enjoy the most at portfolio reviews, many of them I engaged in, especially when I think about the experience I had last week in Florida, were lacking. The atmosphere was one of competition rather than sharing. Many of the photographers I showed my work to weren’t even looking at my prints, but focusing instead on seeing who was walking around, as if always looking for a better opportunity to network.
The conversation in Florida ranged from the quality of prints now showing in galleries and museums; to whether museums should be showing more online exhibitions; to the difference in viewing images in books compared to exhibition; to how to show books in exhibitions; to current trends in photography. When we left, after a few hours, all I could think was why why why are we not able to have more of these kinds of interactions—artists with artists; and, artists with curators removed from the formal setting of a portfolio review event?
Certainly, I understand why it would be difficult for curators to commit to ongoing discussions like these. Just the time required would be difficult. But we artists, at a minimum, should be engaging each other more often and with more clarity and depth.
One of the main topics of our discussion was the viewing of images online and the dangers that doing so poses to the medium (see Casual Consumption). The previous night I had based much of my artist talk on my history and education as an architect. I was brought up as an artist to primarily use the tools of light, form, material and scale to communicate the ideas I wanted to convey. I feel deeply and confidently, that I could make a strong argument why viewing images online doesn’t engage any of these.
So, how to combat this? Clearly, it would be unrealistic and naïve for me to suggest not showing images online (although I have experimented with ways to force people to look at new work in print before viewing online – see Lookbook Series V1: Growth).
One of the artists in Florida presented, as an example, how the Metropolitan Museum of Art displays works online as a potential answer.
I also find the way the Beinecke Rare Book Library shows their collection of photographs to be very compelling (you can even see an image of how the artist signed the back of the print). See examples here.
What's wonderful about how the Met shows many of its works is that by allowing the viewer to zoom in, almost to the point of being able to see the texture of the object itself, it begins to communicate scale and materiality. For me, this is a huge leap forward to how photographs should be presented online as well.
The big realization that came from this talk was that, for me, photographs are objects, in three dimensions with scale, made of specific materials, that react differently in varying lighting conditions and convey potent ideas about form. The big problem right now with the push to view everything online is that photography seems to be the only medium where there isn’t an internal acknowledgement on the part of the viewer, that what you’re seeing on the screen is actually not the art itself, but a representation of the art. I don’t believe other mediums have this problem. When I look at paintings or sculpture online, I know that what I’m seeing is just a depiction of the real object. And I don’t judge it as the art itself. I look at it, get a general sense of what the artist was trying to do, and leave it at that. Most of the time, I use the internet only as a reminder of an experience I had in seeing the object in person.
I see this voracious online consumption as very dangerous to our medium. So much so that I’ve given serious thought to taking all of my work offline. My interest in photography is in creating objects. I do not believe that the life of a photograph begins at conception (capture), but at birth (the print). I find this push for accepting what we see on the screen as the art itself a threat not only to my years of work trying to become a competent printmaker, but also in reaching a point where the prints I produced could provide enough of a living so that I could focus solely on creating work. But even larger than that, I worry about it further segregating photography from broader recognition as an art form, especially if we accept that merely subject and composition are enough to make it art.
Over the last 2 years, I've unintentionally become an active collaborator. It started with the publication of my first book and grew from there. I didn't know, when I started working with John DeMerritt and Inge Bruggeman on Displaced, that the experience would lead to working with other writers, letterpress printers, printmakers, bookbinders and most recently, another visual artist. I have found the collaborative process so compelling, so challenging, so critical to my individual growth, and so powerful, that I want to share some thoughts on the process. When I was a student in architecture school, I worked side-by-side with about 10 others in an open space. We worked all the time. We talked all the time. We exchanged critical feedback all the time. We freely offered ideas and took them in return, without the burden of needing to credit one another. It was natural and expected—the give and take—with an unspoken understanding that this dialog was an absolutely essential component to improving.
The term in-process, which I find so rarely embraced in photography, was all that existed in school for me. Rarely, if ever, was I done with anything. It was only the constraint of the end of the semester that defined any boundary to what I was creating. Instead, there were questions like how can I improve this? where does it fail? what am I overlooking? how could I have better communicated my ideas? I have such difficulty with the expectation for completion—at portfolio reviews, in critique groups, in my own head. I realized a few months ago how far off track I had gotten when, after talking with another artist repeatedly about artistic practice, I returned to the fundamental belief that artistic practice is about exploration not completion. He questioned me, When the hell is anything done? The conversations that followed were a result of our both being open and willing to share failures in both practice and thinking. And I know they have given me the confidence to set a new course, one that I should have been traveling all along. I'm grateful.
A few weeks ago, we entered into a formal collaboration, my first with another artist also using the medium of photography. Richard Benari and I have been communicating for over a year about art and the creative process. On the surface, we have very different approaches to the making of art. My work begins in narrative, he rejects it entirely. Much of my practice is steeped in printmaking, he questioned my distrust of online viewing. My work originates as landscapes, his as still lifes. And yet, we found common ground in the importance of composition, in the belief that art is fundamentally about seeing, in the complex geometries found in abstract expressionism and in conveying the full range of experience to a viewer: curiosity, exploration, revelation, and ultimately, introspection. In the short time we’ve been working together, I’ve learned an incredible amount about communication, composition, editing and building a conceptual foundation. It has also raised questions for me about my habits (some of which have become too comfortable) and what I hope to achieve; questions that may take time to contemplate, but that I know will lead to stronger work.
An architect friend of mine told me years ago the secret to any great partnership. I had questioned her about what made her marriage (one of the best I have seen) work. She said that in most partnerships the formula is:
1 + 1 = 2;
but that in great partnerships, the formula is instead:
1 + 1 = 3.
When I think about collaboration, or a partnership, either professional or personal, I now use this formula as a basis by which to ask some fundamental questions to evaluate whether the relationship will be a healthy one. Will we each contribute equally? Can we work together to create something not achieved alone?
I'm not necessarily advocating for collaboration, but certainly for more ongoing, regular dialog and critical feedback. It takes a level of trust and respect to be able to sustain the tests and challenges of a working partnership. I have had opportunities for collaboration where the personalities involved didn't click or we had different ideas for what the outcome of the collaboration would be or even what the definition of collaboration is. It's tricky. I have forced myself to be patient—to find the right fit—often watching artists work and evolve for months or years before approaching them to work together. The more research I've done into how they work, how other collaborative efforts have evolved, and who they are as a person, the better the outcomes have been.
Most photographers I know exist in extreme isolation, with little interest in seeking out ongoing commentary or working partnerships. Maybe it’s that we’re afraid to expose ourselves to critical feedback. Maybe it’s that we don’t know where to find the people to turn to for this kind of exchange. Maybe it’s that we feel insecure about our own vocabularies for talking about the work of other artists, especially those in other mediums. I don’t know the answer. But I do know that the progress I’ve made, both in my own thinking and approach to creating new images, would not have the strong footing that I feel it now does, had it not been for the critical dialog and collaborations I’ve engaged in the last few years.
In the year ahead I look forward to three active collaborations—one with writer Kirsten Rian, one that I described above with Richard Benari, and a third, with artist and master printer Paul Taylor.
My hope for all of us is to at least consider reaching out to begin conversing with artists of any medium. We need the communication, we need the feedback, we need each other.
I have been pondering, for some time, about the relationship between the work an artist produces, who they are as a person, and how one affects the other. The more I teach, the more frequently I hear descriptions of projects as “about life,” “about me,” about “how I see,” about “the perception of time.” I still, have yet to know what any of these mean. If you’re taking a photograph to begin with, it’s about life, it’s about you, it’s about how you see, and it’s about perceiving time. Am I wrong? When I hear these, I give the same response over and over again, which is this… peel away the layers, and figure out what this is really about. Because inevitably, it’s who we are, as individuals with unique perspectives on the world and life, that pushes the work beyond generic. I often get blank stares back.
The stares are understandable… because what does peeling the layers away mean? And how does one go about doing it? What am I really asking of them?
At the heart of it, what I am after, is authenticity. I want an honest account of what the intention is behind creating something. But it goes beyond that. It’s that I also want to know that who they are is represented in the work, I want to be shown something I haven’t seen before and offered a reason to give a shit.
But it goes beyond that too.
I came upon this quote from Robert Adams, “At our best and most fortunate we make pictures because of what stands in front of the camera, to honor what is greater and more interesting than we are. We never accomplish this perfectly, though in return we are given something perfect - a sense of inclusion. Our subject thus redefines us, and is part of the biography by which we want to be known.”
And then I watched this:
And then I studied these:
And as I take it all in, I wonder… would I feel as much affection for his work, if I didn’t have as much respect for the man? It’s a worthy question to ask because it gets to the heart of what I’m trying to teach… that who you are as person is who you are as an artist. I strongly believe that if you respect your subject, it will come through in the images. On the flip side, if you are a shallow human being, if you genuinely don't care passionately about the work you're making—if you're in it for other reasons—that as well will come through, even if it means in subtle clues. You the individual and you the artist are the same. One informs the other, you travel together, grow together, fail together and ultimately, are life partners.
If you aren't yet sure of your place in the world, of what you believe in, of why you want to take certain images over others, and most important, of what you are compelled to take, then it may be more important to invest time in finding out who you are than to learn about how your camera works, or what kind of film to use or which competitions to enter. Because the depth (or lack thereof) of who you are as a human being is always embedded in your images.
I strongly believe this to be true for any kind of artist, whether it's one documenting the economic downturn or another photographing tree stumps. What I’m hungry for is evidence of a rigorous editing of intent, a purpose that is clearly defined and executed.
The work that stands out, that makes the most sense, that won’t let go, that haunts me, is that which has been stripped bare to reveal a core of an idea and of a human being—work that is at its essence, raw.
I had this epiphany after teaching The Photographic Voice last week with Kirsten Rian. We have been assigning our students prompts every two weeks, visual exercises aimed at getting them to see in a different way, challenge their preconceptions of what photography is, or what art is, and encourage them to shed the notion that in complexity they will find authenticity. The results have been fascinating. The assignment was to find a video, maybe on YouTube, or by another artist, and to create a set of still images inspired by moving ones.
In response, Kimi brought in these lovely small prints, in groups:
We started moving images around, grouping and ungrouping them, imagining them in color versus black and white, at different sizes, and printed on different materials.
And I realized. What I spend most of my time on now is not conceiving of photographs, but in interpreting ideas into objects. I am a translator.
I told a friend recently that a photograph is merely the first mark on a canvas. That it does not have to always be the end product, but simply a sketch, a starting point. Many of my students get wrapped up, intimidated by, fearful of the taking of photographs, while I wait for them to bring in 100 prints so we can begin the conversation about crafting something from what they’ve taken. They see the beginning of the process as what matters. I see the end, the interpretation of the idea, as what determines artistic success.
For years I’ve harped and harped about the need to study the craft of printmaking and principles that have formed this medium, from exposure, to paper, to ink, to books, to installations, to color, to sequencing, to editing, to writing, etc. Why? Why have I been so unrelenting? I realized last night that it isn’t merely because I value and respect the highest level of craftsmanship in any medium, or because I worry about practice and traditions that have held for decades not being passed down, or because I resent the laziness I see so frequently. It is that as a translator, the more languages I become fluent in, the more effective I will be at interpreting the ideas in my head to those who are viewing—whether that be in book, exhibition, online, or any other kind of viewing experience.
With Kimi’s images, we talked about the need for perfect prints, that with quiet, small, delicate objects, the craft behind them would need to be as much evidence as the composition is of the message behind this small series, the need to stop, to focus, to still the mind. We talked about possibly separating out the layers of objects, separating the sky from ground, clouds from branches, to declare them all filters of understanding. Would that mean printing on acetate? Or vellum? Should they become three-dimensional? Would there be value in making the viewer aware of the original video? If so, how? Should the prints pair vertically, horizontally, or stand alone? How can the sequence help the viewer? It’s in the answers to these questions, the translation, that will enable the viewer to understand the message more clearly, and also force the artist to assert how she wants them to be seen.
For too long we have given the camera too much power to determine what the art actually is. I see evidence of this in the obsession with equipment. It should not be the camera that determines what the art is, we should be.
After spending a century establishing the possibilities in this medium, and working toward its acceptance as fine art, might it be possible for us to now declare that we are more than mechanical technicians? Can we now free ourselves to focus on a higher plane of artistic pursuit, the real challenge being what do I have to say with these photographs?
Susan Sontag, in her essay, Against Interpretation, states, “In most modern instances, interpretation amounts to the philistine refusal to leave the work of art alone. Real art has the capacity to make us nervous. By reducing the work of art to its content and then interpreting that, one tames the work of art. Interpretation makes art manageable, conformable.”
I am not advocating for forcing an interpretation of art onto viewer. What I am promoting is a better interpretation from within the individual artist—a clearer, more frequent internal dialog within ourselves, so that the decisions we make in how we present our art solidify the conceptual foundation of the work.
We aren’t taught this skill. We’re taught to focus lenses, to remove spots, to correct color, and to run nozzle checks. How many photographers can you name that experiment with materials with the same passion that sculptors do?
I’ve never taken a workshop where the instructor challenged me as to why I was presenting my images at the same size, one after another. I was challenged on this point constantly in architecture school. But really, why shouldn’t educators and reviewers question it? Why should art conform to any set standard of anything?
Part of me is resentful that we’ve been boxed into printing and exhibiting images, one after another after another. Why, instead, we haven’t been encouraged to explore the medium of storytelling to it’s fullest potential? But also, why have we succumbed to the most literal of interpretations that our cameras provide? Shame on us.
As I prepare my final prints from three different portfolios for the upcoming Fotofest portfolio review event, it is still difficult to divert from the same old presentation methods of my past. The doubts come to the surface, how will these weirdly yellow-toned images that sit next to traditional black and white ones go over? What about these small ones printed in the lower corners of the sheets? Or this page, with nothing but a single line of text? All I can do to alleviate the fear is remind myself that any success that I’ve had has come from listening to the work itself, not of those voices that tell me to comply with a given set of standards.
I’ve realized that as I progress, my interest in photography as an artistic practice is in the learning of more visual languages and in becoming a strong enough speaker in each to effectively translate the many stories I have continually flowing through my mind.
More from Houston later this week… .
In Rebecca Solnit’s A Field Guide to Getting Lost, she leads us, chapter by chapter, via essays about being alone in the woods to species extinction, to all the meanings and implications of being lost.
The book begins with Solnit describing her first experience getting drunk, as an eight-year-old at a family celebration of Passover, the annual Jewish holiday that celebrates an escape from slavery in Egypt. She describes a particular part of a Passover Seder, a time during the service where you are supposed to invite Elijah into your home, and in doing so, open the door to the unknown.
In an opening passage, Solnit shares a quote by one of her students, which supposedly came from the pre-Socratic philosopher, Meno. “How will you go about finding that thing the nature of which is totally unknown to you?” This question begins the journey of the book with the consistent suggestion that it is a complex phenomenon, to be lost, and one in which there is much to be found, and possibly reclaimed, from the experience.
What I discovered was not only a truly incredible translation into words of what I have felt, and tried to communicate with my own imagery, but also what our job, or purpose should be as artists, in opening the minds and imaginations of our viewers while also providing a safe haven of their own to be lost.
Solnit writes, “It is the job of artists to open doors and invite in prophesies, the unknown, the unfamiliar; it’s where their work comes from, although its arrival signals the beginning of the long disciplined process of making it their own. Scientists too, as J. Robert Oppenheimer once remarked, 'live always at the ‘edge of mystery’—the boundary of the unknown.' But they transform the unknown into the known, haul it in like fishermen; artists get you out into that dark sea.”
I can’t think of a better way to describe the role of an artist.
She describes the origin of the term “lost,” as “coming from the Old Norse los, meaning the disbanding of an army, and this origin suggests soldiers falling out of formation to go home, a truce with the wide world. I worry now that many people never disband their armies, never go beyond what they know. Advertising, alarmist news, technology, incessant busyness, and the design of public and private space conspire to make it so.” She talks about how now, the presence of wildlife in suburbia is more prevalent than children and wonders what this next generation will be like, having grown up “under house arrest.”
The more I read, the more I could relate to all the experiences she describes. Much of my work is about being lost and in particular, Displaced, is about losing control and venturing into the unknown. I am a perfectionist and control-addict. At the end of my marriage, after years of faithfully staying on some invisible course—building equity, building trust, and sculpting a life—I didn’t want to let go, I didn’t want to face being lost. There is one image I have in that series titled Entrance to the Cabot Trail that depicts the internal struggle. It was 6am, dark with a horizon line erased by fog. I was in the midst of health struggles, even to the point of not being able to drive comfortably. But, I had made the 4 hour trek up to Cape Breton by myself to then drive 6 hours around the Cabot Trail. But, seeing that dense blanket over the roadway, I had an out. I didn’t want to keep going. I pulled over, afraid, alone, and uncertain about what to do. I just stood there for minutes, outside the car, in the dark silent cold, figuring that a few moments embedded in it might give me some answers. Then, out of nowhere a car drove past on the other side. It emerged and disappeared so quickly, I wasn’t sure if I’d imagined it. I scrambled to get my camera out of the car—it's curved grip becoming an unexpected comfort in the absence of a live hand. This image was, to me, as close as I can get to documenting the moment of embracing what it is to be lost.
I can relate to the struggle that we all must feel nowadays, to leave our computers, phones and Facebook behind for inevitably, the question prevails, What am I without them? Do I have an identity tied to the physical environment anymore?
I wrote a question in the margin. “Is it in the gaps of understanding where I find solace in the work?”
In chapter two, "The Blue of Distance," Solnit goes on to describe the process of longing. She writes of seeing the “deeper, dreamier, melancholy blue at the horizon, the blue of land that seems to be dissolving into the sky”—or the space and beauty that is at once wanted and unattainable for we can never really occupy, own or possess—a horizon.
She makes a case for embracing the feeling of longing as opposed to continually trying to satisfy thirst for whatever is the object of desire. She writes, "…often it is the distance between us and the object of desire that fills the space in between with the blue of longing. I wonder sometimes whether with a slight adjustment of perspective it could be cherished as a sensation on its own terms, since it is as inherent to the human condition as blue is to distance? If you can look across the distance without wanting to close it up, if you can own your longing in the same way that you own the beauty of that blue that can never be possessed? For something of this longing will, like the blue of distance, only be relocated, not assuaged, by acquisition and arrival, just as the mountains cease to be blue when you arrive among them and blue instead tints the next beyond."
Immediately I think of the pages in the books of photographs I have worn down over years of handling. I think of the sheer pleasure that comes in the anticipation of turning those pages—almost as much, or more than arriving at the subsequent images. There is a moment, and it is similar to walking through an exhibition when you’ve ended your acquaintance with one image and move to begin a new one, when the excitement and thrill of what will come next? outweighs the actuality of what lies ahead.
And we rarely acknowledge those feelings at all in the process of viewing art. Maybe, it is that which is in between, the anticipation of the unknown, that is the most important part of seeing.
I've written another question in the margin. “Maybe that’s why I emphasize movement in and out of a picture along with moving around the frame?”
I haven’t been able to verbalize why, but in my pictures, I tend to emphasize movement into the frame, as if you were walking straight into the picture, along with movement within the frame, or from edge to edge. Maybe I like that bond that is formed between viewer and the horizon, the context of edges that help define the unattainable. Maybe it is the sustained awareness of that which is unavailable to us, what can never be owned. I'm really not sure why I do that, but I make a point of not blocking movement from the interior of a photograph to the exterior. I believe, it is the realization that there is a stopping point, when you must turn around and exit the picture, or back-track the way you came in, that gives the image mystery despite it's surface of formality. It's knowing you will never be able to walk into it, and the longing that comes with that experience, that I hope gives viewing the image a longer lifespan.
While there are some passages that stray beyond the tangible, if it were up to me, this book would be at the top of the list of every art school curriculum. Never, aside from maybe Robert Adam’s Beauty in Photography, have I felt a stronger attachment to a book as I have formed with this one.
I’ll leave you with this last quote.
“Sometimes gaining and losing are more intimately related than we like to think. And some things cannot be moved or owned. Some light does not make it all the way through the atmosphere, but scatters.”
Over the last year I've noticed a shift in what I'm reading. I'm less inclined now to be reading books on photography and more likely to be reading about building trust in yourself, the importance of architecture, the dangers of consumption, and lots of poetry. I'm not sure what spawned this shift, but it is these books, on topics that are outside the visual arts, that have encouraged a heightened sensitivity to the world around me, and my ability to communicate, both in words and images.
I thought it might be useful to start a new feature on the blog called A Photographer's Alternative Reading List. The list is meant to share what I've been reading that has broadened my perspective on being a better communicator, artist, and person. I hope, that if you choose to read any of these books, that you will take as much away from them as I have.
The first book I wanted to share is titled The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains by Nicholas Carr. If you've been reading this blog, you know that of late, I've been very concerned with how images are being digested when presented online, and whether to alter the presentation of my own work because of it. In a previous post titled Casual Consumption, I wrote simply about what I'm experiencing as a result of showing my work online, and my fears about where we are heading with this onslaught of visual imagery. I had no factual evidence for what I was feeling, simply a gut reaction to my own experiences. The Shallows has further deepened that sense of dread.
The book opens with a quote from John Keats:
"And in the midst of this wide quietness A rosy sanctuary will I dress With the wreath'd trellis of a working brain..."
The fundamental premise of the book is that the internet, is at it's core, is a medium of distraction and that the more we engage it, the more it disassembles our ability to focus, digest information, remember, and possibly most important to us artists, engage in the creative process with the deep meaning that comes from quiet contemplation.
The book is not a diatribe. It methodically presents how information has been communicated and digested throughout history, from oral communication to scrolls to the origination of the first printing press and codex to the birth of all that is digital. The increasing ability to study neuroplasticity, or the ability of the brain and nervous system to change structurally as a result of input from the environment is also presented in depth. The loss of our capacity to memorize and focus are main themes and a case is made that the internet actually encourages us not to focus, but procrastinate. Procrastinate what exactly? I can guess that it was the work and mental energy needed to delve into something meaningful whether that is a long piece of writing, or, as I fear, worthy imagery as well.
One fascinating passage talks about the role that long-term memory plays in our ability to process complex ideas or thoughts. In this paragraph, Carr is quoting John Sweller, an Australian education psychologist who has spent three decades studying how our minds process information.
"In order for us to think about something we've previously learned or experienced, our brain has to transfer the memory from long-term memory back into working memory. "We are only aware that something was stored in long-term memory when it is brought down into working memory," explains Sweller. It was once assumed that long-term memory served merely as a big warehouse of facts, impressions, and events, that it "played little part in complex cognitive processes such as thinking and problem-solving." But brain scientists have come to realize that long-term memory is actually the seat of understanding. It stores not just fact but complex concepts, or "schemas." By organizing scattered bits of information into patterns of knowledge, schemas give depth and richness to our thinking. "Our intellectual prowess is derived largely from schemas we have acquired over long periods of time," says Sweller.
Another interesting point was made when describing the research that Jakob Nielson, a consultant on the design of web pages who has been studying online reading since the 1990s, has been done on how we actually read text on a monitor:
"Fast. That's how users read your precious content. In a few seconds, their eyes move at amazing speeds across your website's words in a pattern that's very different from what you learned in school.' ...most Web pages are viewed for ten seconds or less. Fewer than one in ten page views extend beyond two minutes, and a significant portion of those seem to involve 'unattended browser windows left open in the background of the desktop.'"
While this research was conducted with an emphasis on how we read text on the web, I cannot help but believe that images, in their visually accessible nature, garner even less time.
Undoubtedly, the internet has made my work available to a much wider international audience. But... if that new audience isn't really processing the work in any kind of meaningful or lasting way; if that new audience is using my images in the same way that we are using all internet content—as another method of distraction—then what's the point of gaining that wider audience?
Another interesting passage was a discussion of how we interact with the tools we use and how we adapt to them. Carr writes:
"Whenever we use a tool to exert greater control over the outside world, we change our relationship with that world. Control can be wielded only from a psychological distance. In some cases, alienation is precisely what gives a tool its value. We build houses and sew Gore-Tex jackets because we want to be alienated from the wind and the rain and the cold. We build public sewers because we want to maintain a healthy distance from our own filth. Nature isn't our enemy, but neither is it our friend. ...an honest appraisal of any new technology, of progress in general, requires a sensitivity to what's lost as well as what's gained. We shouldn't allow the glories of technology to blind our inner watchdog to the possibility that we've numbed an essential part of our self."
I just took down probably the largest show I will have in quite a while. With each show I am lucky enough to secure, I am reminded of what gives me the most joy in creating art—the ability for those very few people who do take the time and make some deep connection with it, to understand me and how I see the world. That connection is why I do what I do. It's worth the frustration, the rejection, and the financial strain.
I know what you're thinking.
You're thinking, Ok, so you're not making those connections online. But still, what is the harm, why prevent a potential connection by keeping the images offline?
This is the tougher question to grapple with. But again, in my gut, I feel that by further populating this infinitely large cyber repository of imagery, that I will, in some way, be participating in the perpetuation of this medium of distraction—that in my small way, I will be procreating even more noise, not art, not shared human experiences.
The last thing I want, thirty years from now, when looking back on my life's work, is to conclude that my small contribution to this world has been the numbing of anything—but especially the minds I had hoped to connect with, excite, and inspire.
I’ve had two major surgeries in the last 12 months. 8.6 x 6.4 x 3.8 In 2004, I first learned of a growth in my abdomen. It was a benign tumor, but unusual to have at 29 years. My doctor said it would expand and should be removed surgically. I didn’t know what to think. I didn’t want surgery. I could barely stand a flu shot much less the thought of being cut open. At the time, I thought the best course was inaction — maybe it wouldn’t grow, maybe it would shrink.
What I wasn’t aware of was that this thing would grow into such a large mass that I would feel incessantly uncomfortable in my skin and ever-aware of it’s ability to further embed itself within me.
Six years later I was 35, divorced and without kids. After years of steady growth, it would deceive me into believing that it was a baby I was carrying — a clever disguise to avoid removal by a woman already fearful about a future alone. Having it inside me, increasing with a sense of entitlement and feeling more and more like a child was a bittersweet reality to face every night lying in bed, always questioning why the life I planned wasn’t the one I was living.
10.8 x 8.7 x 7.2 During the first few years of living with this invader, I became used to the frequent sonograms and exams. The resulting number combinations measuring the size of my growth held greater and greater meaning. I began to know, without needing to reference previous year’s results, what the numbers referred to—how much wider, how much longer, how much deeper. I could, by memory, immediately assess by how much the new dimensions surpassed the old ones.
12.2 x 7.8 x 9.3 A week before Thanksgiving 2009 I met my doctor once again for an exam. The conversation began unexpectedly. Instead of being presented with numbers, I was told, “We have another issue to talk about.” I didn’t want to know.
One of my ovaries had been aggressively taken over by some other, completely new growth. Maybe it was cancer, maybe it wasn’t. They wouldn’t know for sure until it was removed and tested. The doctors assured me that the chances were low that it was cancer, but the thought that haunted me was of someone taking what was mine since birth. It felt like a violent crime — and one requiring my consent. One week later I was in surgery.
I was asked if I wanted to remove the older mass at the same time. Kill two birds with one scalpel. No thanks. It was happening too quickly and in some strange way, it had become an adopted part of me. It felt as wrong approving it’s demise as it did to cut out my ovary.
11.6 x 8.4 x 10.6 Sometime before this first surgery, I began photographing urban landscapes — trees, weeds, shrubs and other vegetation attempting to grow in unlikely places. At times invasive, at times reclaiming, at times succumbing, it was hard to know whether to champion these subjects or hone my garden shears. There is a fine line between what is deemed invasive and what is merely reclaiming a rightful environment. Who am I to judge, even when the domain is my own body? I never connected these urban growths to the ones in me. I was drawn to them because they persevere. They are survivors. Emerging through asphalt, suffocated by electrical wires, trapped between buildings, standing proud even in defeat, they are both accommodating and unyielding. I respect them.
17.8 x 11.9 x 8.6 Eight months after my first surgery and I felt the most uncomfortable yet. I didn’t sleep easily. I like lying on my stomach, but could no longer. My clothes were tight despite eating less and less. I was exhausted. I learned at my next appointment that the large tumor still in me merged with smaller ones, making all of my symptoms more acute. I could feel its shape within me. Any attachment I had, as an adopted part of my body, was quickly disintegrating. Exactly one year after removing my ovary, I decided again to undergo elective surgery and the six hours it would take to slowly extract it.
I didn’t make a connection between what I was seeing on my ground glass and what was inside me until I visited the studio of a fellow artist and examined some x-rays she had hanging. Immediately, it made sense. I was connecting that which I had tracked for so long in my body with similar tales of survival in the external landscape. These humble subjects, ones I found beautiful, would enable me to let go of the fear and willingly accept these aggressive beings that will, most likely, be in me for the rest of my life.
For me, it’s difficult to think of plants as invasive. But in these contexts, deeply embedded in the industrial urban fabric, they are just that. They are what don’t belong. I needed to change my perception of what is “invasive” — to find some kind of respect for anything that persists in growth, no matter what the environment. I fear that someday I will breed a tumor that isn’t benign and will eventually succeed in its attempt to overtake. For now, I am content to photograph growth I could favor, that of the natural reclaiming a small piece of its habitat.
Thank you to all of you who have helped me in the production of this work, either through printing, editing, sequencing, and/or general support. Special thanks to Dale Schreiner, Kirsten Rian, Michael Borek, Beth Kerschen and especially, Tyler Boley.
Hope to see you all in September.
With all of the chatter over the last few days on the benefits/detriments of viewing photographs online, I thought I would expand my comments from the original blog post that brought forth the discussion on The Ten Blog. Jennifer Schwartz of the Jennifer Schwartz Gallery was kind enough to ask me to contribute to this post. It was difficult to invest as much time into my response as I would have liked because when I got Jennifer's request I had literally just checked into a hotel for my last night's stay in Seattle after spending 5 exhausting days printing with master printmaker Tyler Boley for my upcoming show at Newspace Center for Photography. I've written about my friendship with Tyler before on this blog. I met him 4 years ago in Vermont. He was giving a workshop in printing fine art black and white photographs using Jon Cone's beautiful inks, a process now known as Piezography. Since that time, Tyler has been a mentor to me on the printmaking process. He has answered questions that no one else would be able to answer, he has shown me techniques in Photoshop and with my printer that quite simply, have made my ability to continue in photography possible. I firmly believe in the printmaking process. For me, the end result is the print, or rather, the full experience of viewing the print. Without it, photography holds little interest for me.
During the times when I've gone up to Seattle to print in Tyler's studio, we often get into heated discussions about viewing images online, about why photographers don't invest more time, energy, and yes, money into becoming really good printers, and about how, as artists who passionately care about the craft of printmaking, can we make both artists and non-photographers aware of the value and importance of maintaining the level of craft that the founders of this medium trustingly bequeathed to us. These conversations usually end in frustration.
I've spent the last two years building a new body of work titled Growth. I've spent the last 3 months preparing to show this work and other unpublished, unexhibited portfolios in September. For some reason, which is very unusual for me, I have held back on sharing these new images online. They're not on my website, blog, or Facebook. In fact, I’ve hardly shown them to anyone. I don't know why I've kept them to myself. But maybe it was this very idea of casual consumption that I didn't want.
Selfishly, I don't want to offer my work, that has taken so much from me, to be immediately devoured, digested, and discarded by this community which lately, always seems ready and eager for more.
I listened again to the interview I did with Cat Gwynn for Photo Radio about her series, Hungry – The Insatiable State of America. What Cat is showing in that body of work, is another kind of casual consumption, one that I can speculate that most of us would look upon with disdain, our consumer culture becoming ever-more demanding for anything we don't already have, what is new. But are we just as guilty—always craving new imagery, rather than what might take time to appreciate, what is subtle, what is well-conceived, and well-crafted? Is there a place for subtle work in this online emporium we all now have frequent-viewer memberships to?
There may be ramifications for not sharing these images. I doubt that many of us would, and it is against my own advice when I talk about expanding your audience. Yesterday, in the midst of all this discussion, I got an e-mail from Andy Adams of Flak Photo, asking to see the new body of work. I told him, that in thinking about all of this, I had decided not to publish the images online, at least for a while. I didn't hear back from him. Did I piss him off? Maybe. Did he want a first look to possibly put it on Flak Photo? Maybe. Am I missing an opportunity by not giving him what he wants? Maybe. But I want, for once, the prints to make the first impression.
My fear is that our community will become that which so many of us are disgusted by and focus our work on, ever-hungry consumption. I don't want the same afflictions that we look down on, the devouring of our natural resources, the lack of patience for experiencing what is real and in the moment, and the focus on instant gratification to be what our legacy is to the next generation of photographers.
Hope to see you all in September.
When I was recovering from surgery, I received some recommendations for books to read. One of the books I finished was The Architecture of Happiness by Alain de Botton. It is the best book I've read in a long time. It makes a case for recognizing the often overlooked connection between constructed space and our perception of comfort, safety, and pleasure. When you study architecture as I did in college, you slowly, at times painfully, become aware of that connection. It is at once liberating, exciting, and heartbreaking. As you develop your own personal sensitivity to space, you also realize how little the importance of it is valued, especially in the United States.
de Botton states, "Our love of home is in turn an acknowledgment of the degree to which our identity is not self-determined. We need a home in the psychological sense as much as we need one in the physical: to compensate for a vulnerability. We need a refuge to shore up our states of mind, because so much of the world is opposed to our allegiances. We need our rooms to align us to desirable versions of ourselves and to keep alive the important, evanescent sides of us."
I have always been drawn to photographing houses. Maybe even more, since I lost mine. It has always represented everything to me that was sacred and important: family, safety, warmth, humility, and comfort. The pictures that have truly haunted me, especially in Displaced were the ones of homes, or that represented the idea of home. And I can't seem to let it go.
This read was eerily timely. I have been constructing, in my imagination, a body of work that gets me back to drawing, the kind of drawing I did when designing buildings— but somehow combining that with imagery. I don't know yet exactly what that means, and this is the struggle, but when I read the book, I knew I had to try. It is so important to me, to expose what memories lie beneath the surfaces we exist in, that I am willing to risk, and to try a working method I've never explored before. I'm willing to fail.
In thinking about this undertaking, I've been looking intently at the work of others combining drawing, collage or sculpture with images. I've been fascinated by the work of John Baldessari, Rachel Whiteread, and Portland's own, Heidi Kirkpatrick. Rachel's in particular has stuck with me. She is primarily a sculptor, but uses drawing to further conceptualize and plan for her final three dimensional piece. She focuses a great deal on home, on the mundane objects that we keep and use over and over again, without ever really examining. You can watch a short video on Rachel's work and sketchbooks by clicking here.
I miss drawing. I miss the precision, the control you feel in adjusting the weight of the pencil against the paper. I miss the softness of the gray tones. There has been a long gap between when I made those drawings and now. I want to go back to them. There was a beauty there, that combined with who I am now as a photographer, might finally make sense to me. It's almost as if I've led two separate lives, and now feel finally able to marry them.
I will try to take you along on the building of this work, but for now, I leave you with another quote from de Botton, "...the architectural impulse seems connected to a longing for communication and commemoration, a longing to declare ourselves to the world through a register other than words, through the language of objects, colours and bricks: an ambition to let others know who we are — and, in the process, to remind ourselves."
I can trace the path that led me to photography. It was in 1996. I had just completed a 1-credit elective on photography in architecture school. The one assignment we had to do all semester was make a class-long presentation on a photographer. I didn't know anything about photography when I took the class. I had been taking photographs, but I knew nothing about photography. I went to the architecture school's library and started perusing books, trying to figure out who I could talk about for an hour. I froze when I saw this image.
I couldn't stop looking at it.
I chose Harry Callahan. It seemed to be fate that just after graduating college in St. Louis and heading home to Washington, DC, a huge retrospective of Callahan's work was waiting for me at the National Gallery of Art.
Whatever I had felt looking at that old publication of his work in the library held nothing to the prints I saw at the National Gallery. They were simply, stunning. I hadn't seen anything like them before. Maybe I just wasn't looking. I didn't care. I stood in front of some prints from Cape Cod, mesmerized, trying desperately to analyze them, thinking, how can I do this? how do I learn to create pictures like these? this is what I want to do...
It was his ability to interpret a scene, in print, that had captured me. I have been trying, since then, to emulate his, and others' abilities to re-imagine reality in print form. It is the never-ending challenge, believing that not only is it my responsibility as a photographer to capture something interesting, but my responsibility as an artist to interpret it in print form as well. If I don't do that, if I don't take that responsibility, then I am just a technician using various pieces of equipment to determine what it is I am trying to say in my work. It is this challenge, not the learning of new software, not seeing my work on the walls, not even publishing, that keeps me interested in photography, the directing of image into print.
I worry though that what I saw in past masters, that desire or drive to re-interpret reality is dwindling. I see so many bad prints shown in galleries that I just stop looking sometimes. I get so angry that someone could print images so poorly.
A friend told me a story about Jon Cone, the innovator and creator of Piezography. Jon was looking at a print, held it up to the light, said How could you possibly think this is acceptable?, and then tossed it down. I find myself wanting to ask that more and more lately. And it has bothered me, up until now, because I didn't understand a potential reason or explanation for why this was happening. Was it a loss in artistic intention, education, caring, responsibility? It seemed to be most evident in digital prints and I couldn't figure out why that was. I didn't want to bring it up except with people I trusted because I didn't want to spread the already accepted notion that digital output was in some way lacking. I do not believe that. And yet, it was in digital prints that I was finding myself most frustrated.
Then it hit me.
It happened when someone sent me a RAW file from a digital capture. I opened the file in Photoshop and thought, this ain't too bad! What RAW had given me was a file that looked pretty decent. It looked remarkably close to what I would imagine the scene had been. And it got me wondering whether those photographers out there that are shooting digitally and being given files from software as a starting point that are pretty close to "acceptable" are swayed by that initial view of their image? Could it affect how much actual manipulation or adjustment they end up making?
I immediately thought about my own process. I am still a film shooter, but I scan my negatives and print digitally. The difference though, is that what I start with in Photoshop is usually a severely flat image. It's as close as I could imagine to starting with a blank canvas in photography. I can do anything with it, I can go many different directions. In many respects, I think that this aspect is where the greatest amount of artistic intention comes into play. When shooting, I have limited choices sometimes in terms of composition, lighting, etc. But with printing, I can do anything, the choices are wide open. And I guess this is what upsets me... when I know that there are some out there either ignoring or in some cases, shirking this responsibility. Not in every case, but in some, there is an attitude of acceptance rather than insistence.
Here is a starting scan from my friend Tyler Boley who has spent decades photographing the Northwest landscape. He shoots mostly large format 5x7 and is the best digital printer I've come across.
And here is the image after he adjusted it Photoshop.
What I wonder, is if another photographer had gotten this image below (which was generated by applying the “auto” curve in Photoshop to give you a sense of what the computer thought this image should be)… right after capture… as the starting point… whether the adjustments that I know Tyler has made (both large and small) would have been lost along with the whole mood and subtle beauty of the print because it's a close enough situation? (thank you Tyler for letting me ruin your image).
I hate to say this, but I feel like there is a generation of photographers breeding out there who would have seen this and thought good enough.
And then of course, there is the classic example of Moonrise over Hernandez, one of Ansel Adams' signature images. The before and after from his capture to print is also astounding.
Here's what happened when I applied the same "auto" curves command in Photoshop to Adam's original file as I did to Tyler's.
Not too bad as a starting point... Maybe lighten up that foreground and I'm done, right?
Here's what it comes down to for me. I love a lot of the new technologies available to us. But I seriously question whether we are pushing hard enough to keep the level of craft in printmaking at the level it has clearly been at since the beginning of this medium. I get questions all the time from people who expect their new digital printer to produce the level of craft and quality produced by the best darkroom printers. But, they don't want to work or invest in truly understanding how to get achieve that level out of Photoshop, scanning, printing and especially critiquing their own perception of what a print should look like.
I hear more and more a defense of digital printing and an acceptance of it. I want it to be accepted too.
But not at the expense of the craft of printmaking.
This post is dedicated to my friend Carl Dahlke. Carl, I hope you find inspiration in this, I know others have found it in you... Be well.
I'm teaching a class right now on how to build a portfolio and today was one of the more difficult sessions for my students... artist statement day. We have talked quite a bit about how to communicate about their own work as well as others', in both verbal and written forms, but I think they were all dreading the sharing of their written words. It's not easy... sharing how you feel about art. When expressing my own opinions, I’m usually thinking, Will I be the only one that feels this way? Am I wrong? Am I missing something obvious?. The more I do it though, the more I realize that there is no wrong answer. How I feel is how I feel. That's what's beautiful and freeing about art—you can react however you want to. Whether good or bad, how you interpret it is never wrong. We lose sight of this sometimes, lost in our own insecurities. In talking about the images presented in the class, I started to analyze my own process for evaluating images. I don't claim to be an expert in this, but for me, there are many factors that determine a final evaluation of a photograph. The more important ones include the following and I thought I would try, as best I can, to describe what I’m thinking about when looking as a way to measure what I value, how I come to a certain conclusion about the merit of a particular image, and offer some kind of formal process or check list to help others who might struggle with communicating or drawing their own conclusions.
I haven’t given too much thought about the order in which I’ve listed these. I suppose you could conclude that because this is the order I chose to write them in, that it is an indication of value or importance. I’m not certain of this, but it could be…
Beauty For me, the process of viewing begins with beauty. Beauty is the portal by which I can be allowed into a photograph, to delve, and eventually process what is presented. Recently, at many gallery shows, I feel like I’m seeing nothing but banal images. I’m not sure why the current trend in contemporary photography seems to be moving away from the standard of beauty, but I find without it, I have very little interest in the photograph. I don’t think that what I’m describing necessarily has to mean “traditional.” There are many examples of “untraditional” beauty. Like Robert Capa's photograph below, to me, is beautiful. The subject and message is difficult to digest, and painful. But because the photograph itself, without any context of what it means, still exudes beauty. It is an important component in accessing this scene. I wonder, in looking back generations from now, whether many of the images I see produced today, which are poorly crafted from capture to printing will be unable to communicate what the photographer intended, simply because they’re ugly. I sense there is a rejection of beauty as a rebellion against traditional ways of seeing. I agree, we should challenge ourselves to move forward, but the rejection of beauty will not help, simply because as a tool of communication, it reigns supreme.
Composition When I’m looking at a photograph for the first time, I quickly ask myself: Does the image feel balanced? Is there movement happening within the frame or is it static (and which is appropriate)? Are there any elements that are unnecessary or confusing? Should the photographer have shifted the camera in any way? Does the image successfully reinterpret three dimensions into two? Should the image be cropped? Has the composition enhanced or hurt the mood of the image? Could it have been taken at any time or is there a sense that the photographer captured something fleeting, a moment that would be lost if it hadn’t been stolen?
Asking and answering these questions has become an intuitive process for me simply because I’ve committed to looking at an abundance of prints. But, there usually is some point I get hung up on. It is rare for me to see an image like this one, that I recently saw for the first time, by Leon Levinstein, of a handball game in New York. To me, this image has been perfectly composed. I wouldn’t change anything about it. The placement of the bodies creates a perfect balance within the frame. The movement perfectly conveys the meaning and subject of the photograph. And even the decapitated body in the foreground seems ok, something I don’t usually recommend. But here, it’s a rule expertly broken.
Subject One of the difficulties when planning a new portfolio is not actually coming up with ideas for work… it’s how to interpret those ideas. So, let’s say you wanted to do a body of images on greed. What does that mean exactly? Does it mean you photograph Wall Street investment bankers? Or wealthy shoppers on Rodeo Drive? Or simply the color green? This is the real challenge. What will be the subject chosen to communicate the story? And when I think about photographers who excel at this, I think of two in particular, Lauren Greenfield and Sally Mann.
In the case of Lauren Greenfield, I think about her Girl Culture series. In contrast to Thin or her latest works on the fashion world, this book's subject is broader, leaving endless possibilities for interpretation. What I loved most about it was the different ways she explored this topic, from girls going to prom, to contestants in the Fitness American competition, to a showgirl dressed in full garb walking up and down the aisles of an airplane. I think that most of us would have just chosen one of those segments, let’s just say girls going to proms, to focus on. And you know what? That still would have been good enough. But Greenfield took it 50 steps further than that. Her choices for subjects seemed brilliant to me.
In the case of Sally Mann, the work that comes to mind is What Remains. Again, what I found fascinating with this series what how far she decided to push it. This work started with her photographing the remains of one of her beloved dogs. Again, how many of us would have stopped with just that? Then, she went and photographed human corpses at a research facility. And then, on top of that, to end it, decided to come back home, full circle, and photograph extreme close-ups of her three adult kids. What I have learned from both of these incredible photographers is the power of interpreting an idea through different subjects.
Mood How does the image make me feel? I think is one of the hardest questions people struggle with, but one of the most important.
The mood the photographer creates, with tools that include composition, equipment, printing style, and more, all work together to set the stage for how the viewer will experience an image.
What people find annoying about plastic cameras is that they clearly set a mood, but often the photographer relies too heavily on this gift and just gets sloppy, usually with composition, seduced by the aesthetic quality from the camera. It’s one of the difficulties of being taken seriously while shooting with them… convincing viewers that you’re not relying on the equipment, but merely using it as a tool to enhance the mood you’ve already set with the subject and composition.
Each of us, when presenting a show, or book, or body of work, should look at it as a novel, the most satisfying of which build slowly, over time, with the author carefully leading us down a path they want us to follow, all the while thinking we’re the ones in control.
Context I believe a lot of the questions that I ask in this category are really tied to how deeply you believe photographs are a depiction of reality.
For example, with Gregory Crewdson’s work… does it matter, in the evaluation of the photographs that these are all staged presentations? Does knowing the context in which these photographs were shot make them better or worse? If you see a beautiful print of a majestic landscape, would it matter to know that a utility pole has been removed in Photoshop? If I didn’t know that Ansel Adams had only a few seconds to calculate what aperture/shutter speed to create his famous Moonrise picture, would the picture, or my perception of him decline? I struggle with this… how much to reveal, how much to hide. It is really a reflection of whether the photographer understands their own work, what needs to be shared in order to understand the story, and what should be hidden to add mood or enhance the viewing experience.
Execution As most of you probably know, I believe an image itself is not the end product in photography. The final deliverable is the print. I feel that the craft of printmaking is a necessary and vital component of making photographs. I have heard stories lately of gallery directors having conversations with photographers who have been accepted into group shows asking the director about how or where they should have their image printed, including what size to print at and whether Wal-Mart was acceptable. This is dangerous territory for me to write about because I feel so strongly about it, but let’s just say this, if you do not take the time, effort and energy to learn how to print images properly, all of the work that has gone into building your eye and developing a visual narrative becomes unnecessarily threatened.
I recently judged a plastic camera show at LightBox gallery in Astoria, OR. It was fascinating to me, to be able to see the prints that came in from the jpgs that I had seen on my monitor. In many cases, I was shocked by what some thought was an acceptable print. I’m talking about halos, posterization, off-colors, etc. It made me so angry that my fellow photographers would not take the care and responsibility for presenting high quality work, but also, and more importantly, that now having these prints on the walls, they were now the standard for what a “fine print” was.
I have a close friend who is currently obsessed with monitor calibration. She has spent a ton of time and money trying to figure out why what she sees on her monitor doesn’t look like what she sees in her prints. We’ve talked about all the possibilities for what could be the problem and like a doctor trying to diagnose mystery ailments, she is going through lots of tests to check off all the things that might be the cause.
She has told me a couple of times that when she asks fellow photographers about it, they respond with My prints always come out right! She has reached a point where the results are “close” to what she sees on her monitor, but she’s not satisfied with “close.” She wants to know that what she’s doing on the monitor, the adjustments she’s making, have value.
What we have concluded over many conversations is that there is a whole crop of photographers out there whose aspirations are merely to be good enough. I honestly can’t imagine a time when I’ve ever been satisfied with a print the first, second or even third time it came out of my printer. I wonder how many prints it took for George Tice to get this one right? He told me it took him 20 years to print one image correctly. Believe it or not, this problem runs in the opposite direction too. I've heard people comment, when looking at a masterfully printed image, That’s a beautiful print. They seem to do this unaware that the photographer might instead prefer to hear, That’s a beautiful photograph. I don’t think the viewer is ill-intentioned when this happens. It’s almost like the print is so beautiful that they can’t evaluate anything else, the beauty has blinded them, or made them suspicious.
I encourage you to challenge what I have proposed above. I have come to the conclusion, after having gone to countless shows and looking at an endless number of images, that I’m a tough customer. I rarely see work that I like. I think that while not all of these criteria have to be met in order for me to like an image, I believe that we should strive to come as close as we can to a point where most of them are.
My hope in reflecting on this is that we as a community can encourage each other to raise the bar for what we should expect from photographs and that I might help those of you who struggle with talking about images, gain more confidence… no matter how you feel about them, you are right!
The example of trees does suggest a harmony for which it seems right to dream. Robert Adams said this in an interview with Constance Sullivan in response to a question about why he photographed the same cottonwood tree in the '70s.
As one of the most photographed subjects, trees are to me the more responsible, more beautiful, more giving versions of ourselves — and I look to them more and more for inspiration. I find myself being drawn more and more to them lately, particularly the ones with unusual or damaged forms, ones that aren't traditionally beautiful.
When I was little, I had a difficult time letting go of possessions. I kept old, ratty pillows, unwearable clothing, stuffed animals whose fur had been so matted there was no fluff left on them. I thought that non-living things had souls too and that by discarding them, I would be disrespecting their right to exist. I have always been prone to seeing the life in inanimate objects – that in understanding them I would better understand myself.
I have been photographing a single tree lately. I studied it from all perspectives in varying light and conditions. It's never the same. It has a branch that has broken off either by lightning or other violent act. It doesn't seem to mind. It adds to its power, a continual reminder that it has survived the violation and is unashamed of the now permanent flaw.
Of course I realize that this form has had no control over its ability to avoid the damage. But I am learning from the way that it copes and this enables me in turn to dream of finally accepting my own flaws.
More images to come...