I’ve been looking back at images I made in the last few years. It’s an annual practice that I enjoy at the beginning of each new year and is an important part of deciding which images will be introduced as new prints.
In moving some things around, also an annual process, I came across a box of slides from 1991. Yeah, I can’t believe how long ago that was now either. This image however was not representative of my style then. It is more abstract than my work was then. It is a much more subjective image. In the last several years however, my work has become increasingly subjective — more about form, texture, color, and minimalist. In some ways I feel my work has become more about mood and more expressive.
It’s not that I haven’t created expressive imagery before, it’s just that I’m making and exhibiting more of it now. I find it very exciting and freeing. I’m creating work that is both authentic and in the moment. I’m expressing my personal aesthetic without concern to ultimate use and really enjoying it.
Wikipedia defines chiaroscuro as Italian for light-dark, in art is the use of strong contrasts between light and dark, usually bold contrasts affecting a whole composition.
Painters who employed this technique included Caravaggio (1573-1656) and Rembrandt (1606-1669). In modern photographic portraiture, “Rembrandt Lighting” is still a common device to add drama.
In nature photography, I can employ the concept of chiaroscuro by being very attuned to areas of light and shadow and emphasizing that contrast by exposing for the highlights alone and letting the darks go black. In the image below I was dealing with backlighting and a translucent subject which gives additional drama to the piece. Having such large areas of negative space (black areas) requires me to be especially sensitive to composition and balance in the image.
Photography as an art form is like any other two-dimensional visual medium. Many of the attributes of a successful painting need to be considered in photography. I strive to make images that are dramatic or peaceful, complex or minimalist, colorful or monochromatic. Understanding the impact of visual experiences on the psyche and how to employ visual tools, are all part of the process and fun of being an artist.
I am in the final printing stage of work that I will be exhibiting at my annual two-person show with Artists’ Gallery in Lambertville, NJ. This year I have teamed up with the amazing Gail Bracegirdle whose work I have admired for years. The name of our show is Observations and touches on the question of whether artists really see the world differently.
The show will be up starting June 4 with a reception on June 6 from 5-8 pm. This show is more about my visual approach than any particular subject matter, so it seems extremely personal to me.
Among the images I made in Maine this past trip (August), there is one in particular which I think speaks to a sense of quiet. At least that is how it strikes me. It is the type of image I am making more and more, one with only a few elements where the mood is more important than the objects in the piece.
What this image consists of are really just two partial birch trees, a small sail boat, water, and a horizon line. There is some structure to the sky, but mostly it is white. This is an image I saw in my head first. From the position in which I was originally, I saw the sailing boat moving slowly and I visualized the two trees acting as framing devices. I was using a Panasonic lens which covered equivalent focal lengths of 28-280mm so I could have framed this image in many ways. I chose a focal length of around 90mm which isolated the trees but still kept the boat small enough to not overwhelm the image. Keeping the boat low in the frame emphasizes the trees and sky, which adds to a feeling of calm. The water is also calm. The boat is framed to be moving toward the edge of the image which keeps it from being thought about too much as the story. The tonalities and colors are soft and cool. I also opening up (lightened) the shadows to lower the contrast.
I think it is an image you can get a bit lost in……….
My “formal” education in photography started in High School where I took my first class in black & white image making. It was a basic course but stoked the flames. In college, I continued my exploration of black & white photography while majoring in Psycho-Biology. In all, I had 4 semesters of photography in college which allowed me to both learn and experiment with the medium.
After my undergraduate career, I moved to color slide film. With nature as my primary theme, I learned to deal with the added complexity color can bring to an image and the unforgiving attributes of slide film. But, color excited me, most editors wanted color (specifically slide film), and I understood the importance of color both biologically and emotionally.
Within the last couple years however, I have found myself gravitating back to black & white work for certain scenes or feelings where color either detracts or is unimportant to the image. These images have a somewhat different mood than even my more monochromatic color images. I have now dedicated one of my printers to just black & white work and am finding myself thinking in both color and B&W more often.
The image below is a good example of where I feel B&W is especially effective. It allows for the image to be mostly about texture and geometry. There is no color aspect to draw you to one part of the image over the other. The bird is for me the visual center and being the only animal in the image, the visual subject. In a color image, I think it would be lost (at least in this image).
It’s hard for me to not anthropomorphize the behavior of animals looking up to the sky as being spiritual. There just seems to be a natural interpretation of any animal with their eyes searching the “heavens” as seeking guidance or being lost in a sense of wonder.
As someone who spent their college career in the study of animal behavior, any form of anthropomorphizing was unscientific. As an artist now, I don’t have to fight that urge. In fact I think it has become a part of my image-making process. I look for the “expressions” in animal subjects that relate to my own emotions and feelings. My work isn’t just about the animal in my image, but also about how their behavior speaks to our own lives.
This little kit Red Fox was part of a den I worked at for over a week. I feel like I caught it in a private moment of youthful contemplation of the universe. Color isn’t important to the image, so I rendered it as a black & white. To instill a sense that it was unaware of my presence, I composed so that it blends into its surroundings but made sure that the eyes and ears (pointing forward with its line of sight) are clearly visible.
The artistic process differs from medium to medium and is of course a never-ending learning process. As an artist working in the medium of photography, I cannot help but compare my medium and process to others. I find it both helpful in understanding my own medium but also in growing with it. And although I have been working in digital format for almost 10 years, the medium still feels new to me.
There is one aspect of working in digital format that may be more important than any other. Unlike working with film, having immediate feedback on the camera’s LCD means being able to respond both to the scene in front of me and to the image I just created. And so as in painting, sculpture, or even composing music, I can analyse the result and adjust the process to do things differently.
Mostly, people think of that feedback as a way of checking that the camera is working correctly and that the image reflects what was desired. That is helpful, but maybe even more important is that the image itself becomes a new thing to which I can respond. Just as a painter lays down a brush stroke and then responds to how that brush stroke changes their feeling about where to lay down the next brush stroke, the photographer can respond to an LCD display of an image to determine what next direction to take.
In the image below that I made in Acadia National Park this past August, I was able to respond to the image I made as separate from the scene in which I was working. The image I made then could send me in a different direction than the scene itself would have. As a result I could respond by changing focal length, perspective, polarization, exposure, composition, and if I chose to, also white-balance and application of a variety of other camera-based controls. The immediate feedback offered by the camera’s LCD allows me to be more creative in the field and ultimately with the final print.
This image was made with a Panasonic GH2 with an Olympus 9-18mm m4/3 lens at 18mm hand-held.
I often come across photography related quotes and wonder what they originally meant. The quote “F8 and be there” is attributed to Weegee (actually Arthur Fellig) who was a famous street photographer during the 1930’s, 40’s and beyond. Arthur Fellig’s quote was meant to explain his secret to success. I believe it represents a philosophy to keep technical decisions simple and be where your vision takes you. The quote has been the mantra of photojournalists, travel photographers and even nature photographers. To some it implies that great images are the result of happenstance. But in a way, it represents a truism without much meaning. Photographs, wherever they are made and regardless of the subject, always require a “be there” component. The “F8” element speaks to the need for sharpness (the f8 aperture is the sharpest point of some lenses) and also a reasonable depth of field. The ability to work quickly is a necessity when working with action subjects.
The quote though in some ways over-simplifies the process. What made Fellig’s work so captivating was not his use of f-stop or even the fact that he was “there”. Personally, I dismiss this notion of “right place, right time” as helpful in explaining the success of an image. Every image has a place and time element, it is what the photographer brings to that place and time that makes an image meaningful.
In a January 19, 2012 New York Times article, Roberta Smith writes about Weegee’s photography – “The combination of grit, humanity, intensity, merciless opportunism and spatial precariousness, coupled with an eye for uncanny details, regularly resulted in pictures that you can’t stop looking at….” For Arthur Fellig to explain his success as “f8 and be there” only suggests to me that he was so comfortable with who he was and how he wanted to portray events, that he could be anywhere at any time, not worrying about mundane technical questions, and create stirring images. For me, the real meaning of his quote is simplify your process and be true to your vision.
Yesterday I was at Artists’ Gallery in Lambertville, NJ greeting visitors as they came in out of the cold to see the latest work of the 18 member artists. I had a very nice talk with a woman who came in with her husband. It was their anniversary. One of my images reminded her of a passage from the book Lord of the Flies. She was drawn to the piece visually, but it was the connection she made with a particular book passage that solidified her choice to purchase my print entitled Nocturnal Shore.
Great writers can place powerful pictures into reader’s minds the same way visual artists working in 2-D or 3D put powerful pictures in front of viewer’s eyes. But equally true is that powerful pictures can cause one to recall great written passages. I find this relationship between the arts, a consilience of sorts, increasingly interesting.
An excellent recent blog post by Mark Graf deals with a quote I had never heard before:
“Art is never finished, only abandoned.” – Leonardo da Vinci
As is often the case, Mark’s posts stimulate thought. I commented on his blog that I often develop an image soon after making it if I feel I can capture the emotion I felt while in the field. This allows me to most precisely create an image that reflects both my feelings about an experience and also the colors, contrast, and general biological attributes of the scene. In this way, my “finish” point is based on a fresh memory. It’s not so much an “abandonment”, as in I don’t know what else to do to the image so I will just leave it be, as it is a recognition that the finished piece is what I intended when I started the process in the field.
The result of working on an image while the experience is fresh in my mind often results in a finished piece that also reflects closely what I saw. Although, once I am physically removed from the scene, if only by hours, every image becomes an interpretation based on memory. An especially exciting experience may be remembered more “vividly” than it would have appeared to someone standing next to me while I made the image in the field. I am of course perfectly OK with this (not that I have a choice really), as what I am creating is always an impression of an experience, not the actual experience. Neither film nor camera sensors record anything exactly as they appear. Film always had color and contrast biases. Working in digital format can be just the reverse of film (if working in Raw) in that it can require almost total artistic input due to the little pre-determined color or contrast decisions made by the camera.
So what happens to an image not developed soon after the field experience, but instead worked on six months or even years later? Well, like any other art I use all my experiences with the subject (some of which may be new since making the image), and my current mood and esthetic tastes to make a finished piece that reflects who I am at that moment. In this case, I have less of a “field intended result” in mind and more of a “current state” of mind on which to determine when a piece is “finished”. A year later I may be in a different state of mind still and work the image differently.
I suspect da Vinci didn’t foresee photography when he made his quote (or did he?). Photography, unlike many other art forms, may always be a work in progress, allowing different interpretations by the artist without end. It may not be so much a matter of abandonment as it is a temporary withdrawal (a temporary satisfaction). Because, unlike a painting which must be cast off (abandoned) if it is ever to find itself with a new owner, an original photographic image is always within reach of a new interpretation by the photographer. Unless of course you consider each iteration of a photographic image a form of abandonment, in that case……never mind.