“Art makers are not people who use a camera to record life so that they can see it in detail later. The art maker is the person who specifically chooses to engage life more directly, most intimately, most intensely, and they use the camera to reproduce or record that feeling … “ – Brooks Jensen, Single Exposures
If you ‘do’ photography, you cannot help but run up against the question, But is it art? I have written in this space before that I think it’s a bogus question – Jensen’s quote goes some way to demonstrating why the question is essentially meaningless. The key lies in the intent.
I often draw parallels between writing and photography. Think about words – we all use them, to serve a multitude of purposes. We make lists to help us remember. Maybe we write reports as part of our jobs. And every now and again, perhaps not often enough, we write a love letter. Words are common to all of these, but it is our intention, what we are trying to do, that sets one apart from another. Hopefully, we aren’t so incompetent with words that a love letter reads like a grocery list or that report for work sounds like a love letter.
Is photography art? It depends – what were you trying to do? I have said before that I struggled my first few days on the Oregon coast. I righted myself, but understand better now what I was doing and why it wasn’t working for me. I was taking photographs but honestly I was simply making a list of what I saw, so I might really look later when I had more time. I certainly looked like I was doing photography – and it was not photography the way I want to do it. I wanted to make my art, not a grocery list of what I saw. I still walked the beach, carrying the same camera, but being clear about my intention changed everything about my experience, how I approached the subject, and how I used my ‘tools.’ (My enjoyment also increased exponentially.)
So what are you trying to do? Is it working? If not, it might be a matter of being clear about what you want to do and making certain that your methods serve your goal.
On several occasions, people have asked me how I learned to photograph the way I do. It always surprises me – not that they ask (though that is a little surprising) but that I don’t have a quick or easy answer for them. There isn’t a book I can point them to, or a workshop I took, or videos I watched, though I have done all of those things. My learning ‘process’ is more haphazard and much less straightforward. Mostly, I stumble on things – sometimes when I can use them, sometimes I can’t because I’m not that far along.
The answer I would give is generally not the answer someone is looking for – it takes time, lots of time and much study. I study a good number of photographs, those made by others and my own. I ask myself what it is I like – or don’t like – about a photograph, what works, what doesn’t. I ask myself how it was done – then I begin the trial and error process (more often error than not) of creating those elements I like in my own photographs. Recognize too, that people have different ways of learning – mine works for me, it might not work best for someone else. (more…)
Creativity is allowing yourself to make mistakes. Art is knowing which ones to keep. – Scott Adams
This became one of my ‘dilemmas’ in Oregon. I had six, short days – I felt that I needed to be ‘productive’ and could not afford the luxury of mistakes. Yet mistakes seemed to be all I produced the first few days and my ‘art’ was telling me none were worth keeping. Remembering two, related ideas helped me right myself.
One, ‘productivity’ is not an absolute virtue. Sometimes it’s good to be productive. Other times, it can be unproductive – times like the middle of my creative process, when I am trying to find my way.
Two, making mistakes can actually be productive – learning from them, and, from that new vantage point, seeing the next step.
That, I believe, is exactly Scott Adams’ point. In the end, I made a lot of very productive mistakes during this trip.
Just returned from a week of photography on the Oregon coast, a place I had not visited before. If you know the area – and know my work – you might easily imagine how excited I felt making this trip. I had hoped for a marvelous week of shooting. I got a bit more than I bargained for – a week of revelations about myself and my process.
My first reaction to the Oregon coast was to feel overwhelmed – so much to see and only six days to do it all. Number one mistake. The first day or so, I started early, shot most of the day, in multiple locations. No time to absorb my surroundings. No time to recharge after shooting intensely for hours. And only enough time to move images to my computer, more for backup than review.
I was, of course, curious to know if I was ‘getting anything.’ I could not be sure but I had a sinking feeling – the photographs I was coming back with were boring, at best. So, the next day out, I repeated the process but determined to work harder. Number two mistake, with similar results, boring images. I began to panic, feel frustrated and then said to myself – Wow, you must really be bad at this, to come here of all places and produce awful photographs. Now, I don’t know whose voice this is but she can be cruel and not especially helpful, a bit of a bully.
In meditation, one method is to count your breaths. You will lose it from time to time, become distracted and ‘fail.’ The trick is to gently, and without judgment, bring your attention back to your breath – ‘back to one’ the reminder – and do this as often as you need to. The next day out, this is what I did – I simply went for a walk with my camera. If I felt myself pressing or forcing something, I reminded myself – it’s just a walk, you can do that. There is no pressure taking a walk. And it worked – I began to see better and more clearly. I made fewer, and better, images. When I made a mistake – and I did – it was not the end of the world but something to understand and learn from. Best of all, I started to enjoy myself.
So if you see a photographer on a beach somewhere, muttering to herself – “It’s just a walk, back to one.” – you will know who it is.
I love this photograph. No, it’s not a long exposure sea-scape, but in many other ways, it is representative of the type of photography I love and love to do – simple, graphic, with a good deal of contrast. Here is an interesting thing about this photograph – in August, I submitted it to a local gallery for their annual scapes show. I felt then – and do now – that it is a strong image and had a good chance of making the show. I was wrong. In September, I submitted it again to the same gallery for their September show (different juror, no theme this month). This time it was accepted. (more…)
I am currently working on a proposal for a solo show, probably the biggest thing I have taken on. Of course, the submission will include a selection of images, an artist statement, and a working description of the show. The gallery held an orientation recently. Of everything I heard, one comment about the show proposal hit me with force – “The jurors want to see that you’re thinking on a higher level about your work.”
Oh that. Thinking about the work. On a higher level no less.
Writers will tell you that oftentimes they don’t know what a novel is about until they have been living with it for a while, sometimes a rather long while. I keep working – and waiting for the revelation to come. I am beginning to suspect that the photography is the easy part of this whole art thing. Good thing I love it!
Some months ago, I read Looking at Ansel Adams, a marvelous book that examines a handful of Adams’ photographs, devoting a chapter to each. A chapter might deal with how he worked the composition, showing the different shots he took and the one he ultimately chose as the best. Another chapter might explore how he approached the printing of a negative and how his view of the print changed over time.
We don’t often get to go behind the scenes with a master photographer/printer, following them into the field or darkroom (or hanging over their shoulders at the computer). When you have such an opportunity, seize it – it may be the best education you will receive. Reading this book had a similar effect for me. One of my most profound experiences came with the chapter devoted to “Moonrise over Hernandez.
The book compares the contact print (essentially straight out of camera) to Adams’ final print. (Note – it took him many years to finally print this negative to his satisfaction. Over the years, the print became progressively darker.) Looking at the two side by side, I immediately knew one thing – if I had shot that, I would have deleted it when I did my review of the day’s shoot.
Yes, that’s right – one of Adams’ most famous prints (one that I happen to love) and I would have trashed it as totally unacceptable.
This reminded me of a hugely valuable lesson. Vision, the ability to recognize/imagine the potential in a scene, is vitally important. Craft and skill provide me the tools to bring that vision to a photograph. For me, developing both is more iterative than anything – I have a vision but no idea how to make it happen. I learn some skills but lack the vision to use them well. Step by small step, vision pushes my skills – and my skills stretch my vision as to what is possible. I rarely find the two – vision and skill – in balance with one another. Often, like the example I included here, I don’t actually know what I have until I begin to experiment – less ‘workflow’ and more trial and error. Sometimes I wish I was more ‘efficient’ and had a less cumbersome workflow. Then I remember that every photograph I work with, every processing step I try (and often discard) teaches me a little more about processing and refines my vision a little more.
Thank you Ansel – and aren’t we all glad I was not the one who shot “Moonrise?”
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