Artistic Growth

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Artistic growth. It is not something planned, it happens organically as experience and knowledge are gained. When I first started working with a camera, my primary intent was to record what I saw. It was a rather literal representation that guided my purpose.  I’ve been working with a camera for 40 years though and have long understood that photography is not just a literal medium. It is a selective, abstracting, very plastic medium when so desired.

When one looks at the world with artistic vision, with the need to express feeling, and personal values, the medium of expression is of little relevance. I find myself less interested in the typical photographic renderings based on sublime locations and extraordinary events. If an image elicits a response of “luck”, “right-place, right-time”, or “where did you get that?” I wonder if I am creating something personal enough. While, there are certainly times and places which drive me to make images, I hope that those images are more than recordings. I want them to be about something bigger than the content in the frame.

While any selective process has an element of personal meaning to it, I acknowledge that  my response to an event or place can be guided by a desire to impress others or for financial gain. As an artist who must live off the work he does, I accept that my motivation is from more than one thing. But also, as an artist, I have to create images consistent with what drove me to be a full time artist. Right now, that work is rather different than when I started, and even different than what I was creating 5 years ago. If I were still creating the same pictures that I was 30-40 years ago (or even five years ago), I would be stating that my life and experiences have led me nowhere new, that I have not grown, or changed in any way. And that would not be true.

Much of my new work is done on the 7 1/2 acres of farmland my artist wife and I own, or in my studio within the farmhouse. Here the aesthetic experiences are simple but no less profound. As in other locations where I have worked for many years, I see more deeply with increased submersion. On or near the farm, I have daily, seasonal, and yearly interaction with nature and it is here that my most authentic work is now done.

What I See is the Way I See

I’m calling this WISIWIS instead of the more familiar WYSIWYG. It has long been true and understood by most photographers that the way they see their environment is highly dependent on their experience using optics, film, sensors, and processing of images. Optics, film, sensors, and processing options all provide an artists with a new way of seeing. When I really began to achieve images I was happy with was when I started “seeing” the way camera lenses and film impacted an image. I was in control of the process because I could visualize a final result within the new parameters that a wide angle, telephoto, or macro lense offered, and the color palette and contrast range of a particular film. 

Beyond lens and film, I learned to visualize what a polarizer would do, a Neutral Density filter, a shallow depth of field, the effect of purposeful motion or a long exposure. This all meant that when I arrived on a scene, I was “seeing” the way I saw (visualized) things as a final film slide or print. Nothing has changed since working in digital format, except now I can extend my vision to the finished print without an intermediary film process. Now I have greater control over subtleties in tonality, contrast, cropping, and exposure (very darkroom like). 

Now instead of seeing the way one or two types of film “saw” things, I can apply my own vision, my own “film” view of the world. As a result, what I see in the field has changed because the way I see  is now influenced my the new way that I work. Even though I’ve worked primarily in digital format for over 5 years, much of that time I was still working with “film” eyes. I am more certain now that I am seeing with my own eyes now and to me that is the way it should be. 

 In a winter image like the one below, I can visualize in the field the cool/warm light contrast, the texture that will be achieved by extended depth of field and compression of a telephoto lens. I can visualize a curves adjustment to gain contrast, a levels adjustment to open up shadows, and how the final cropping will impact the visual geometry of the piece. I can visualize the result on a matt paper or a luster paper and maybe even on canvas or metal. 

Early light brushes snow covered woods - (c) Paul Grecian

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If I Only Knew Then …..

I often read artists assert that their best work is yet to be made and if they knew then what they know now, their work would have been better. Maybe photography is a different medium in this respect from others. I’ve never felt that I was waiting for my best work to be created. In fact much of my favorite work and many of my more popular pieces are ones that represent my earlier visions and efforts. That is not to say that I have stopped growing as a photographer and artist, it’s just that I feel much of my growth is lateral. That is, I believe my style has changed over time and will continue to do so as I change in interests, and discoveries, and personality. But, is this work necessarily better than work I’ve already created? Or is it different and new.

Certainly I learn new things about the medium and what I can do with it all the time. In this way my growth is definitely vertical. But again, I’m not sure that knowledge of the medium equates to better images. If that were true, wouldn’t we all be the best photographers who ever lived because we would have more knowledge and experience than any of our predecessors. The fact that we are not necessarily better image makers because of increased knowledge, expereince, and better tools is because photography is still and primarily so – an art form.

This is an image I made some ten years ago and has found it’s way into over 100 homes, an Audubon calendar, and a book project. It’s one of my earlier pieces. Had I made this image last week, I’d be equally pleased with it.

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