Thursday, November 30, 2006

Compelling Fiction

Arthur, in the comments to this post over on Art and Perception, wrote

This is so, I think, because great (or even merely good) art is not primarily concerned with presenting literal truth. (This is more the role of science and philosophy). Rather, the role of art is to present compelling fictions. By “fiction”, I don’t mean necessarily a conventional narrative. I mean that works of art create their own worlds, with their own rules.

Robert Adams expressed some thoughts that I think are related to this in his book Beauty in Photography. First thought - "The job of the photographer, in my view, is not to catalogue indisputable fact but to try to be coherent about intuition and hope." And the second thought is "There is always a subjective aspect in landscape art, something in the picture that tells us as much about who is behind the camera as about what is in front of it."

It seems to me that quite a lot of landscape art (painting, sketching, photography) is not so much about presenting a compelling fictional world, separate from reality. It's about presenting a glimpse into how that reality is seen by the artist.

I'm not sure if that's agreeing with Arthur or not. But I think Arthur's got a fascinating insight, and I'd sure like to see more discussion along those lines.

(photograph above not particularly relevant to this discussion. I just think the blog looks nicer with images embedded in the stream of posts.)

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Thanksgiving, belated

This past Thanksgiving, we traveled to Clarks Summit, PA, where we visited with family. We had, as Arlo put it, a Thanksgiving Dinner that Couldn't Be Beat.

While I was at my sister's house, I had my usual need for a little solitude and quiet. Just around sunset, I took a little solo stroll, taking along my Canon A95. I took a lot of photos, almost all of which were complete dreck. The one above is really the only one I like, and it's not something I'd write home about.

But it didn't matter. The air was crisp and clear, and the light was soft and seemed to light the world from within. Even the fact that I was strolling on a new road in a woods that was in the middle of being turned into a housing development didn't seem to bother me. Anymore, it seems like unless the spot is completely urbanized, I look around and I see the same landscape process at work, the patterns just calling out to be photographed. In a world where often there seems to be too little that makes sense, it's a comfort to realize that water still flows downhill, that sand gets sorted by size by the flowing water, and that surface tension organizes the whole thing in ways which reflect some deeper design.

On the way back, I sang a little bit of doggerel verse that went like this:
You can get anything you want at Alice's Restaurant
You can get anything you want at Alice's Restaurant
Walk right it, it's around the back
Just a half a mile from the railroad track
You can get anything you want at Alice's Restaurant.
All you have to do to join is sing it the next time it comes around on the guitar.

Hope you had a nice Thanksgiving.

George Tice - Common Mementos

This past weekend, I bought copy of the George Tice Common Mementos Lodima Press portfolio book. (Lodima Press is the outfit started by/owned by/run by Michael Smith/Paula Chamlee).

This little book (more a large pamphlet, really) contains 16 photos, done by Tice between 1967 and 1999.

Beautiful photos.

Tice writes:
Common Mementos is akin to a short story, a short film, and essay. It si my attempt to define and interpret the New Jersey with whihc I was familiar. I think of it as a journey in time as well as place.

These are the scenes that caused me to pull the car over and get out the camera. Some of the photographs were taken immediately after composing the image on the ground glass, but oftentimes I waited hours for conditions to improve: for the light to change, for the wind to cease, for people, traffic, or clouds to move out of or into my picture.

How do you measure these pictures? I doubt the future will consider much within worth preserving. The twenty-first century wouldn't allow it. It will eclipse most of the past. My memories were amassed here. These are my mementos.

Common Mementos is a bit pricy for such a slender volume, but I just love the photos, especially when taken as a whole. I just love Tice's work - his ability to deal intimately with the urban landscape is just incredible.

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

The Myth of Talent, Redux

Interesting comments on my post on Talent, including this post over at The Landscapist. Since I am snowbound, I thought I'd take a bit of time and try to respond to some of this directly.

Since Ed Richards comments seem to summarize the drift of the argument, I'll cite him here:
I disagree - you do not get to be Mozart or Rubens or Stravinsky or Feynman, or fill in the blank other great artists just by working hard. They did work hard - it is necessary but not sufficient. The theme of your last several posts has been to do the best you can do and be happy with what you can do. That is exactly right, because it is all you can do. Denying that talent matters is not necessary for this thesis, and I think it defeats your point - if talent does not matter, it must mean that someone is just not working hard enough when then cannot do great art.

It's not a secret that some people are more capable than others. That's evidently true; we see the evidence around us all the time. Have a bunch of people perform a task, and measure their performance, and their performance will fall roughly along a bell curve, and all that.

But if you want to persuade me that talent is important, it's not enough to list the people who fall in the 99.99999th percentile in their field, and say "These people are talented - without talent they would not be this good". That's working the causal connection backward - you've identified the top performers and then said "See? These people were talented, and they ended up at the top. If you don't have talent, well, you're just screwed." But if the talent myth was correct, you'd be able to take this year's kindergarten class in Seattle, WA, and identify the 'talented' kids, and then fifty years later, you'd observe a near 100% correlation between identifying a kid as 'talented' and their eventual place at the top of the spectrum of performance in their field. And you can't do that. Hell, college admissions staff at universities can't even do that prediction for something as simple as looking at 18 year olds and predicting which ones will graduate from college with good grades four years in the future.

Even worse, it's nearly impossible to evaluate early predictions of the careers of 'talented' artists, because when you go back and ask people about the artist's childhood, people don't want to say "What was Vladimir Ashkenazy like as a child? Well, to tell you the truth, I thought he was a no talent worthless kid who would never achieve anything."

And that's the problem. People make some initial effort at something, and they're not very good, and they conclude "I have no talent", and they quit. That's a failure, because as you've defined it, talent can only be identified it after a person's career is nearly complete. It's not a statistical predictor, it's a statistical observation. As a predictor, it's completely valueless.

And when people use it incorrectly as a predictor, they get discouraged, and they quit, and the world in general is less nice a place than it might have been had they persevered.

Monday, November 27, 2006

What you can control, and what you can't

It's illuminating to consider what aspects of the artmaking process you can control directly, and which aspects you can't.

Things you can control directly:

  • when you pick up the camera (or step up to the easel, or pick up the sketchbook...)
  • how long you spend with the camera in your hands
  • what you point the camera at
  • when you let the shutter go
  • how you interpret the images (in the darkroom, or on the computer)
  • which exposures you print, and which you ignore

Things you can't control directly:

  • how your images are interpreted by others
  • whether other people like your images, or hate them, or (worst of all) are indifferent to them
  • whether your photographs are viewed as 'good' or 'bad' by others

A natural outcome of these observations is this: if the things that give you satisfaction are things in the can't control category, then how satisfying photography (or whatever art you engage in) will be for you is ultimately determined by other people. If your satisfaction comes from things in the can control category, then as an artist you're going to be pretty self sufficient. I doubt there are any artists out there who geniunely don't care about the stuff in the can't control category, although I know a few who fall close. Likewise, there are artists who fall close to the extreme of getting all their satisfaction from the can't control category.

It seems to me the important point, here, is to remember this - when dissatisfaction rears it's ugly head, you have to turn to the only things you can control. There's little point in fretting about stuff you can't control, because by definition you can't control it and thus aren't responsible for it.

Thursday, November 23, 2006

The Role of Art

In his book The View from the Studio Door, Ted Orland goes on at length about the function of Art in society. In particular, this passage caught my attention:

Most historical artwork played a role in society or religion or both. There's pretty good evidence that Bach himself understood that to make work that mattered meant addressing art at every level - from the purely technical to the completely profound - simultaneously. He once composed a set of training pieces whose purpose, he said, was "to glorify God, to edify my neighbor, and to develop a cantabile style of playing in both hands."

Some version of Bach's three tiered work order might be a worthwhile guide for artists working today. Today most artwork is not part of something larger than itself. It certainly isn't within the art world, where the embattled but still dominant postmodernist view holds that artists are not even the authors of their own work - that there is no such thing as an 'original' piece of art, but rather that we make art by taking things out of their original context (i.e. deconstruct them) and reassemble them in a new context. The idea that the subject of art is art may be a stimulating intellectual proposition within the art world, but it goes a long way toward explaining why most non-artists find zero connection between their own life and that same art. How deeply can art matter if the only fitting description of its meaning and purpose is "art for art's sake"?

I'm highly sympathetic to Orland's view of things. What do you think?

Wednesday, November 22, 2006


I hear a lot about talent. So-and-So is hugely talented, they say, and that explains why their art is so damn good. I think the whole talent thing is a myth. At least, I think that talent is vastly over-rated.

Let's suppose that we say that someone has 'talent' or 'natural ability' when they start out the learning process ahead of most folks. That's nice, isn't it? They get a head start. A head start implies that they have an advantage when it comes to winning the race. Empirically, we can see this - some folks DO seem to have a head start - they made their first photos at four years old, they were using a view camera at 7 years old, and they got their first solo show at the age of 10.

If you start out with natural aptitude, well, that's nice. But the myth is that talent is a substitute for hard work, and that just isn't so. My observation, based on knowing quite a few 'talented' folks, is that what talent bought them was a head start in an effort where the big issue is staying engaged when the going gets tough. Talent got them past the first 100 yards in an effort on the scale of a marathon. The rest of the distance, it was just hard work. The adage is that the harder you work, the luckier you get, and that's completely true.

But more importantly, photography and art aren't a race, are they? I mean, I suppose if you want to be recognized as the world's best photographer, then talent might be important. But most of us aren't vying for that particular prize. If we're aiming for a prize at all, it's much more likely to be the 'most improved player' award.

In the end, it comes down to this: do the best work you can. Talent or no talent, that's all any of us can do. If you feel like you've got talent - hey, good on you, mate. If you feel like you've got no talent at all, and it's all hard work - welcome to the club - just rest assured that there are NO people who live in that elysian realm where the work just flows out of you like water from a fountain. Even the super-successful 'talented' folks have to struggle - doing your best is hard work, no matter where you are in the chain of progress, and no matter where you started.

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

The Perils of Theory

I'm a bit of a jazz fan. One of the things I've noticed about the history of jazz is that it started out very accessible. I've got a CD of Louis Armstrong and his sidemen playing songs by W. C. Handy, and I'll bet that there isn't a human on the planet who can't appreciate that music. It's straight ahead, full of energy, and the lyrics of Handy's songs speak to us directly about the human experience. But as Jazz progressed, it became more and more theoretical.

Here's an example - some time ago, I bought what amounts to the complete recorded works of John Coltrane. I wanted to try to follow the music journey Coltrane followed, so I arranged the music in chronologic order, and let it rip. And it turned out that the early stuff - I could follow that. I understood what Coltrane was doing, right up to just past his epic "A Love Supreme". It was no longer music for everyone - it became music for other jazz musicians, and I couldn't follow. For whatever reason, whether it was just deeper understanding lifting Coltrane into the musical stratosphere, or his descent into the world of drugs, Coltrane had gone where I couldn't follow. Whoosh, he's gone, and what was incredible music in "A Love Supreme" became just random sound, with no structure I could understand. And just about the time the Coltrane and the rest of the Jazz world took that step, Jazz stopped being the dominating musical force it had been. It's not just that I couldn't follow; it's that no one who wasn't a high-level jazz musician could follow. The audience for Jazz narrowed to the world of people who played jazz, and the jazz world was just talking to itself.

I see a lot of photography that's like that - it's stopped being straight ahead photography that's accessible to everyone, and become something that's about art theory, including references to art history, quoting from the work of other artists. If you don't have an education in art history, this sort of work is inaccessible. Joel Peter Witkin seems to me to be a prime example. I've had an art historian talk me through one of Witkin's photographs, complete with the metaphoric allusions, the references to art history. It's not photography for everyone, it's photography that's about impressing other folks with lots of art education.

Everyone gets to choose what they're trying to achieve, and that's fine. But it's worth noting the trend. Do we really want to make photographs that are all about impressing other photographers - photos that are about capturing 14 stops of range because they're shot in a slot canyon, say, or about clever juxtapostioning of references to art history? Or do we want to make photographs that are about conveying our direct experience of the world around us?

Monday, November 20, 2006

Understanding and Attentiveness

In one of the books I read recently, the author describes going on a mushroom hunting walk with a mushroom expert. As they walked through the woods, the author couldn't find ANY mushrooms. Yet, around every turn in the trail, the mushroom expert pointed out likely mushroom spots, and sure enough, in each spot, there were mushrooms.

What was the difference between the author of the book and the mushroom expert? It wasn't attentiveness; both were actively looking for mushrooms. But the expert has one added tool - understanding of the structure of the place - that combined with her attentiveness. Using both understanding and attentiveness, the expert was able to pick up the subtle patterns that determine where mushrooms will grow. The result is that the author looked at the woods, and it was just that - undifferentiated woods. To the mushroom expert, though, the woods was a highly detailed, structured place. And once you understood the structure, finding mushrooms was pretty easy.

When I first started photographing on the beach, I didn't understand the beach. I didn't understand about sand, and gravel, and water flow. I didn't understand about waves, or tides, or rocks. That lack of understanding made it really, really hard to find photographs. But the more photographs I made, the deeper my understanding became, and not only did finding the photographs get easier, the photographs got better. As with mushrooms in the woods, if you understand the structure and process of the beach, it's a lot easier to be in the right place at the right time with the camera ready and the shutter cocked.

I've mostly stopped photographing on the beach, now, and I'm doing almost all my photography in the valley near my home. It's taken some time, but I'm slowly coming to understand the structure and process of the place - how water affects things, how the hills on either side shade the valley at different times of day, even how human activity changes the way things look at different times of day and different seasons of the year. Slowly, that understanding is starting to show up my photographs, and the photographs are getting easier to find and getting better as well.

The delightful thing, from my point of view, is that going out with a camera is the best way I've found so far to come to understand a place. It turns out that not only does understanding help my photography, but photography helps my understanding, too. There's a delightful symmetry and synergy to that.

Sunday, November 19, 2006

What's the connection?

Photographer Doug Plummer is also a birdwatcher. He's not a birdwatcher in the sense I am (I watch the birds caper about outside my studio window and give them names like Manny, Moe, and Jack, the three Stellar's Jays that live near my home). He's a birdwatcher in the 'read about a bird on a mailing list, head out to go see it' sense. You can read about one of his recent birdwatching adventures here.

So what's the connection to art and photography? Read the following: "You look ... and go usual suspect, usual suspect, usual suspect, usual suspect, wait. That's different."

That could easily be a description of a photographer, waiting for the photograph to happen. You're going along, and it's usual suspect, usual suspect, usual suspect, wait. Out comes the tripod, up goes the camera. Click.

It's nothing deep or insightful. It just reminds me of so many other things I've heard photographers say. At a workshop dinner, I heard John Sexton comment that the most useful photographic technique he'd found was the u-turn. Truer words were never spoken.

I've gone on long photographic trips with a friend of mine, David Clarridge. David has lots of excellent qualities that make such long trips companionable, but one of the ones I most value is his reaction when we pass something he wants to photograph - an almost instant "I think we need to go back". No apology, no hesitation. That's because the second worst thing is when someone waits for five miles, and THEN says "I think we need to go back."

What's the worst thing? When you're sitting in the restaurant after sunset, and your photographer buddy says "You remember that little grove of trees, with the really still pond beside it? I wish we'd stopped there."

Friday, November 17, 2006

Interesting posts on landscape

Two interesting blog posts that are worth reading (and then keeping an eye on):

At The Landscapist, this thread touching on how the current popular style of landscape photography often seems to fail to capture a sense of place.

And over at Art and Perception, the beginning of what I think will be an interesting discussion on "What makes good landscapes".

Thursday, November 16, 2006

Feedback on Unfinished Work

Somewhere recently (can't quite remember where) I read a comment that photographers, as a rule, rarely show work that is 'in progress'.

I suspect that's true, but I also suspect that it's not a good thing. One of the things I most valued about the Monday Night Group (see also this) was that it offered a way to easily (and with relatively low emotional risk) get feedback on work that wasn't finished, or didn't seem to work, or was just vastly different from what I'd been doing.

And it turns out that while getting feedback on finished work is helpful in that it gives you information you can roll forward into the work you make next, it does nothing to improve the work you just 'finished'. Feedback on work in progress has the advantage that it gets rolled into the current work. That's important in the sense that a comment like "you know, if you lightened this face just a smidgen, it might help make that the visual focus of the print" can really move a print from 'good' to 'incredible'. It takes a certain learned ability to suppress defensiveness but in the end, I've seen it make a real difference in my prints.

The really big payoff, though, comes in how it encourages taking risk. Your unfinished work, especially work that you feel weird about, or don't understand, or which has you stymied or frustrating - that's the work that's at the edge of your art where the growth is happening. A really good group that's been looking at your work for a long time will spot that stuff a mile off, and pick it up instantly and say "Hey, this is different. What's going on with this? You should work more on this." The experimental stuff, the stuff you tried that didn't work - that's often the stuff that is a failure as a finished piece but a success in how it points to a new direction to explore.

Big numbers and Emergence

Brooks Jensen’s’ editorial column in the Nov-Dec Lenswork and Colin Jago’s post on Photostream, along with Stumbling on Happiness by Daniel Gilbert have had me thinking hard about the effects of the ‘coming flood of photographs’ enabled by digital photography.

The naïve expectation is that the photographic future will be just like the photographic present, only more so. If you made 1000 of photos a year, and 1% were outstanding, you’d get 10 oustanding photos a year. If you increased to 10000 photos a year, you’d get 100 outstanding ones. If photographers suddenly are ten times as productive, and we have ten times as many photographers, we have 100 times as many good photographs. Interesting, but not earthshaking.

But this ignored the effect of ‘emergence’ – the property that systems change in fundamental ways as the numbers get bigger. For example, if you take 7000 neurons, and you hook them together, you end up with a nervous system that’s on a par with a sea slug. If you take a million neurons, though, and connect them all together, you don’t get a sea slug that’s 140 times bigger, you get a nervous system similar in scope to that of an arthropod – capable of more sophisticated behaviors than you’d expect looking at a sea slug and trying to scale. And if you take 10^12 neurons and hook them together, you get a human brain, and you also get consciousness, .5mm mechanical pencils, love and hate, Mozart’s flute concertos and Donatello’s crucifixes, and explosions brighter than a thousand suns. And, I’d point out, you might not expect that if you were thinking of a really big sea slug.

Before, lots of people took photographs, but they took 36 photos a year. After the New Year’s hangover subsided, they’d take out the roll of film, get it processed, and look: there’s the photo of Jennifer’s birthday party, and Tommy playing goal at the soccer game, and Aunt Lucy at Thanksgiving, and the Christmas photos. But now, the same people have digital cameras, and they take a lot of photos, and the result is that we have Flickr photosets with dozens of images on the same subject. Photographers like Doug Plummer are returning from assignments with so many photos that they have problems with file names colliding, and just editing the stuff they’ve captured is a significant task. Where they once returned with hundreds of photos, they’re now returning with thousands and thousands.

Sure, there were photographers in the past that made huge numbers of exposures on a single subject; National Geographic photographers were known for incredible volumes of exposures even in the pre-digital era. But they were limited by the finite duration of an assignment; they couldn’t work on the same subject for more than a short time. But now, we have photographers who will photograph prodigiously for a lifetime in a single place, and they’re going to have collections of millions of images all connected thematically. The numbers are so much bigger that things are not going to scale linearly.

Try to imagine a mega-photo-essay which is to Eugene Smith’s photo-essay Minimata, what a web-weaving spider is to a sea slug. Or, if you prefer, imagine a collection of photos that is to Ansel Adam's Yosemite and the Range of Light what a Seeing Eye dog is to a garden snail. That’s a big leap, but now try to imagine a world that’s awash with such mega-photo-essays, and the mind boggles.

My volume of exposures has jumped dramatically in the past year, and I can already detect some interesting effects. There’s a lower threshold to ‘photographic seeing’, with the result that I’m capturing things I probably wouldn’t have seen before. The much larger volume of exposures has also changed my photographic experience of the landscape – it’s started to encompass more subtlety and become deeper and richer, with longer periods of flow and a more meditative quality, and it’s become more gratifying. Because there are more photographs, I’m finding more relationships between photos, and the relationships are becoming more finely shaded. It's not about 'better', it's about 'different'. Making thousands and thousands of photos enables you to see and understand things that making hundreds of photos can't.

So maybe the future of photography is going to be quite a bit different, and not just the same thing only more so.


It appears that Blogger just dropped the post I'd written for today.

How very.... frustrating.

If this is Thursday, there must be a post at Art and Perception

It is Thursday, and lo, there is indeed another of my posts on Art and Perception.

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Seen It Before?

I've gone back several times to re-read this post on The Online Photographer.

In it, Mike Johnston writes
Once you've seen "enough" photography, then you start to realize that this competence isn't enough. You start to get bored with the obvious. It's not enough for a photographer to do what lots of photographers have already done. New photographers like to make photographs that work by photographing what many photographers have already figured out are things that work as photographs. If ya follow.

Now, part of that I agree with. There are things to be learned from doing imitative work; it's a tradition that's been used in the rest of the art world for a long, long time. I remember reading an interview with a jazz trumpeter (can't remember who, sorry) who offered up the insight that first he learned to play like Louis Armstrong; once he'd done that, he moved on to learning how to play like himself.

But I also think what Mike wrote is a little misleading. If you care about the prints as objects, then clearly going out and buying a contorted pepper and a tin funnel and trying to recreate Pepper #30 is a pointless exercise - Weston went there, did that, and trust me, you're not going to out-Weston Edward Weston.

On the other hand, I think it makes sense to observe that Ed Weston did some amazing work by photographing his food before he sat down and ate it, and if the spirit so moves you, I don't see much harm in you (or anyone else) going and doing the same thing. You're unlikely to chart new territory and get your own page in the art history books, but that's unlikely anyway. My point would be that you won't have Ed Weston's experience; you'll have your own special experience - an experience that can't be duplicated by anyone else, no matter how good they are.

In fact, one of the wonders of the whole thing is that you can't have someone else's experience, and they can't have yours.

Mike also writes
Have you seen it before? If you feel strongly like you’ve seen a picture before, chances are that it’s nothing but a genre photograph, a cliche, one step above a pretty postcard.
Stop the bus. I want off. I've looked at a lot of photographs. There are a lot of photographs that are similar. That doesn't make them derivative; I made a photo (the one above, in fact) which is strikingly similar to one made by Richard Garrod. I'd never seen Garrod's photo until about a year after I made mine. The reason my photo and Garrod's have any similarity is because Garrod went to the beach, and he came to some understanding of the spot, and he made his photo. And, independently, I went to a beach, and I came to understand the same thing Garrod had, and I made my photo. Is it a surprise that the photos are similar?

Do your own work, and let the chips fall where they may. If you're doing your own work, don't worry if it looks similar to what someone else has done. Scrupulously avoiding anything that's similar to work you've seen elsewhere is just as destructive to artistic progress as slavishly imitating that work.

"Quiet" Photography

I stumbled on The Landscapists yesterday, I don't remember my path to finding it. It's a relatively new (and very interesting) blog.

I especially enjoyed this post, about 'quiet' photography. I'm a fan of what I think of as quiet photography - and to the extent that the web seems to push things away from that direction, I am anxious about the impact of the web (and photoblogs).

I was especially intrigued, though, by the idea that 'quiet' photographs must be small scale works. How small must they be to be quiet? 5"x7"? Can an 11"x14" be 'quiet'? How about a 20"x30"?

I guess if I'm the only 'quiet' photographer making big prints, it means I have the niche all to myself. Or maybe I'm not as quiet as I think I am.

The Coming Flood of Photographs

Brooks Jensens writes (in his editorial in the Nov-Dec 2006 LensWork) about the impact of the coming flood of fine art photographs caused by digital photography allowing more people to engage in photography, and allow all photographers to produce dramatically larger numbers of images. It's a good editorial, well worth a read. (If you don't subscribe, well, why don't you?)

Jensen seems to see the coming tsunami of fine art photos as a paradigmatic shift, and I get the feeling he's bracing for the changes, but I'm unconcerned. I know a fair number of fine art photographers - not a huge number, but quite a few.

It turns out that the vast majority of fine art photographers I know aren't worried about prints at all. Oh, they make prints, sure. They struggle over the prints they make, trying to make them better. They are wholely engaged in the process of making photographs - going out and making exposures, coming back and making prints. But the goal is not the prints, and if you told them that in 100 years, no copies of their photographs would exist, their response would be "You think this is news to me? Who cares?" That's because their goal is not to make prints and have the prints be treated as valuable artifacts, their goal is to be engaged in making photographs. The process itself is the goal.

Once again, I've come around the the difference between art as a verb, and art as a noun. Predicting a tidal wave of new photographs swamping the planet, Jensen is worried, because that instantly changes the game, and if you're thinking about art as a product, increasing the supply of the product without increasing the demand has some pretty significant impact.

But I'm thinking that it will cause people to change their view of photographic art - to turn away from the 'art is a noun' view, and turn toward the 'art is a verb' view. There are some number of photographers who will look around, see 1 billion other photographers, and say "Why bother? Everything's already been photographed. It's all been done. I can't add anything". Their focus is on the product - the finished photographs and their place in the world of saleable objects. I agree - the future there looks bleak. Just look at what's happened to the stock world - shot to hell almost overnight.

But there are other photographers who are in it for the process; they're in it for the experience they have making those photographs. They want the deeper engagement with the world around them; they want the sharpened vision and the sense of flow and the satisfaction of holding the finished print in their hand. If their work has limited audience, or no audience at all other than themselves - well, that's not desirable but it won't stop them either.

And look at the bright side - instead of having millions and millions of people who never try to make art at all, maybe we'll end up with millions and millions who try to make art on a daily basis, by picking up their camera and chucking it in the car when they drive to work, or head out to lunch.

It's hard for me to see that as a bad thing. People's experience of art should not be limited to seeing art made by someone else, hanging dessicated and petrified on a museum wall complete with a convenient plaque next to it describing it so that you don't even need to really look at the art - just glance at it and then read the explanation the art historian wrote up to make it easy for you.

Art should not be a spectator sport. Art should be participatory; people should have art-making be a part of their ordinary, quotidian lives. That would be good, not bad. And if digital photography shatters the fine art photography market but enables vast swaths of humanity to make first hand art instead of view secondhand art, I'd call that a damn good deal.

Sunday, November 12, 2006


Way, way back in 1996, I was thrilled to get work into my first show. I was happy to be preparing. I was happy when the prints went up, and I was sad when the prints came down.

Since then I've had work in dozens of shows. Most of them were a whirlwind of happiness alternated with panic, terminated by a firm conclusions that "I'll NEVER do that again". And then, a few months later, I'd be back at the beginning of the cycle again.

Things got better when I decided that I would aim for one show per year, and I'd just assemble a show out of what I'd done during the past year. That eliminates the panic part, although there's often a last minute hysterical call to a friend to borrow frames, or mat board. But the crunch of getting the work done is now spread across the year. And sometimes, show opportunities drop in my lap, and I just take a few prints, frame them, and hand them over. No muss, no fuss.

But I still have the love/hate relationship with shows. I love seeing completed work on the walls. I hate mounting, matting, and framing a pile of prints. I like the thrill of delivering prints, but I hate artist's receptions. I like the feeling of accomplishment I get from getting it all done. But no matter how efficient I get, after the show, I end up thinking it wasn't worth the time, effort, and cost of mounting the show. It takes a few months before I can look back and see that the yearly show provides motivation I'd otherwise be lacking.

Friday, November 10, 2006

Attention span

Karl Zipser commented on my post at Art and Perception, writing Let me offer some criticism of your post. The entire first paragraph is unnecessary. This is a blog post. Even intelligent people expect to have instant gratification, to know what the point is right away. Why do you think you have special rights to violate the expectations for the medium?

It's an interesting question, deserving of a serious answer. It strikes directly at the heart of what I think ought to be the role of Art in our society.

Is it true that even intelligent people expect to have instant gratification? And if it is, does that mean that we need to oblige them? Our society caters to that desire, and the result is that we get served up a world view that consists of thirty second snippets, starting with Sesame Street and continuing on through our lives. Instead of serious issues getting serious, substantive discussion, the political discourse is conducted in point-scoring 30 second soundbites on the evening news. The result is that big issues that could easily be the subject of dozens of doctoral dissertations are handled by the process of extreme distillation, so that all the detail and nuance is gone.

Art can help. Art can teach us that there are rewards in taking a longer look - that often instant gratification is nowhere near as gratifying as the climax we experience at the end of a longer effort of attending to something.

Time for a concrete example. Consider which is more gratifying, this:

A man went to war. On his way home, he had problems.

or Fitzgerald's beautiful translation:

Sing in me, Muse, and through me tell the story
of that man skilled in all ways of contending,
the wanderer, harried for years on end,
after he plundered the stronghold
on the proud height of Troy.

He saw the townlands
and learned the minds of many distant men,
and weathered many bitter nights and days
in his deep heart at sea, while he fought only
to save his life, to bring his shipmates home.

Robert Fitzgerald's translation of The Odyssey runs on for another 460 odd pages. Maybe it's ok to take a little more space and time, in order to get at things a bit more deeply.


Tuesday, the valley below my home flooded. It wasn't a little flood, it was a big, whopping "things outside the 100 year flood plain are under water" flood. Pretty much the entire valley was under water; all the roads out of Carnation were closed. If you all felt uneasy on Tuesday, it was because the entire world was cut off from the civilizing influence of little Carnation, WA. Lots of people had their houses full of water, and it just looked like the evening news when they want to show you a horror story.

I was working the polls on Tuesday, and I went out at lunchtime to make some photographs. I'm not quite ready to look at those, yet.

I went out Wednesday morning, though. It was hard; I was upset and most of the places I wanted to go were still inaccessible because the roads were still underwater. When I got home, my wife asked me if I'd gotten anything good, and I told her I'd gotten nothing but crud. Sometimes that happens.

But this morning, I sat down and went through the Wednesday images, and got a surprise. Lots of dreck, to be sure; bad compositions and nasty tonality and power lines whacking off corners in ugly ways, and no convergence or depth at all. I look at those frames, and it's clear I was just pointing the camera and letting the shutter go. But, to my delight, some frames are good. Strangely, most of the frames that are not dreck are exposures I don't really recall making. There's probably a good lesson, there. Right now, I don't have a clue what it is.

Anyway, the decent ones are now in the sdg gallery on my website. If you just want to see the new ones, start here.

Thursday, November 09, 2006

The Four Seductions

I've just put up my weekly post over at Art and Perception.

Rather than crosspost it here, with the result that any comments would end up split between two places, I'll just link to it here. Go read it at The Four Seductions.

Monday, November 06, 2006

Words to ponder

From The Accidental Masterpiece - On the Art of Life and Vice Versa, by Michael Kimmelman: provides us with clues about how to live our own lives more fully. Put differently, this is about how creating, collecting, and even just appreciating art can make living a daily masterpiece. I don't mean that every day becomes perfect if we enjoy art. But having spent much of my own life looking at it, I have come to feel that everything, even the most ordinary daily affair, is enriched by the lessons that can be gleaned from art: that beauty is often where you don't expect to find it; that it is something we may discover and also invent, then reinvent, for ourselves; that the most important things in the world are never as simple as they seem but that the world is also richers when it declines to abide by comforting formulas.

It's a very interesting book, and an excellent read as well.

Taking the photos that are there

I can remember my first photographic visit to the Washington State coast. It was just after I'd started using a 4x5 camera, and as I drove from my home to the coast, in my mind I was seeing lots of wonderful photos of rugged coastline with clear, beautiful weather and Ansel Adams style big, photogenic clouds decorating the sky.

But when I got there, I found that the weather was overcast and the light was flat, and instead of the clear view of things, I was confronted with mist, fog, and rain. I took some photos, sure, but there was a keen disappointment that the weather was just not cooperating. In the end, I headed home, feeling that I'd gotten my butt whupped by the weather.

My first night home, I had a very vivid dream. In the dream, I was back on the coast with my camera, in a little grove of twisted trees that I'd ignored completely when I'd been there. The grove of trees was filled with fog, and I was finding beautiful compositions of the fog and trees, one after another. In my dream, I was capturing all the wonderful photos that had been there but which I'd ignored completely because they just weren't the photos I expected or wanted.

Since then, I've been back to the coast countless times. Each time, I try to make a conscious effort to let go of my expectations, and just work on capturing the photos that are actually there in front of me. The beach is changing constantly; it's never the same from visit to visit. Weather is upredictable and changes rapidly. The only constant is that with each visit my understanding of how the place works improves, and although each visit is essentially a visit to a new, fresh spot, the underlying structure and process of the beach are the same. Ironically, the conditions which seem to be most productive for me are the ones I felt stymied by that first visit.

Time and again as photographers, we arrive at a spot with expectations of what we'll find and the photos we're going to make, and time and again those expectations are shattered by the realities of the spot. Our only response can be to let go of our plans, show some adaptability, and work on capturing the photos that are actually in front of us.

This was driven home again this weekend, when I read Colin Jago's excellent writeup of his Bernera Beach Project. The whole thing is an excellent read, but this part really caught my eye:
it has been interesting comparing the months that I've struggled with the months that have been easy. A significant factor has been whether I've known in advance what I'm going to photograph. The more sure that I've been before I got out of the car, the worse the photos have been. June's experience with the yellow flag irises is a good example of that. Reality (or, perhaps photographic ability) just hasn't matched my imagination. At the other end of the scale, one of my most productive times came after an argument with a landowner meant that I had to abandon my intended plan for the day. In a somewhat bad mood (you would have thought not conducive to producing good work) I wandered off to see what else there was to see.
There's so much excellent stuff in Colin's writeup that it's a shame to focus on just one minor item like I'm doing. But I think it's very interesting that Colin found that his most productive times in this spot (which, coincidentally, is also a beach!) happened when he was forced to abandon his preconceptions of what he was going to see and photograph.

In the same vein, Doug Plummer recently had a wonderful description of finding photos when his expectations were not being met, on this post on his blog. Only when he accepted that he wasn't going to find the photos he expected to find, and relaxed and took the time to just be present in that spot, was he able to open his eyes and see the photographs that were before him.

It seems the photographs are there, all around us all the time. Finding them is often a matter of letting go of our preconceptions and ambitions and just being at that spot, open and alert to the flow of the photographic possiblities that streams past us all the time.

Sunday, November 05, 2006

More on Quality and Quantity

There's much interesting reading in Chantal Stone's post here and in the comments of her readers.

Chantal writes: "This brings up an intersting topic for discussion. Does quanity equal quality? Or does quantity inspire quality? By shooting all the time, of course one will improve as a photographer...practice makes perfect afterall."

It's not so much that I'm advocating the idea that quantity is the same as quality. What I'm advocating, really, is the idea that if improving the quality of your work as a whole is a goal, then one very successful but non-intuitive approach to realizing that goal is to work toward quantity, and not quality.

Paradoxically, I find that I get my best work when I stop worrying about quality. If I stand there behind the camera and tripod, and think "Right. Now, I'm going to look for the really excellent photographs, and ignore the not very good ones", I come home with nothing but dreck. If I go out with the camera, and I just photograph everything that captures my attention, I become more involved with the process, my linear/rational mind gets out of the way, and I come home with better work (and often with a few positive suprises).

This is related, I think, to exposure resistance, where we try to edit our work at exposure time. My personal experience is that I'm a terrible editor when I'm behind the camera. That's not the time for me to be thinking about whether I'm getting good stuff, or bad stuff, or stuff that's good enough. It's the time for me to be taking the photographs I find, as I find them, and leaving the editing decisions for later. It's not the time to be thinking about the future, it's the time to be right there, in that spot at that moment, not just looking at what's around me but actually seeing it.

Chantal also writes "But isn't true improvement measured by the ratio of 'good' images vs. how many images taken?" I just completely disagree with this. I'm not even sure how much I think improvement ought to be measured by the number of 'good' images. If I'm making the photos I want to be making right now, and the work is progressing - that's success. If I am progressing by coming home time after time with nothing but crap, but I'm slowly learning what I need to learn to make the photos I want to make - that's STILL success.

There's also stuff in Chantal's post (and more in the comments) that seems to be about mistaking quantity of work for number of exposures of a single scene. It's an understandable confusion, but it's not what I'm getting at when I say "Quantity is Quality". I'm not advocating hooking an intervalometer to your camera, setting it to release the shutter once a second, and then holding the camera strap and swinging the camera around your head until the memory card is full. I'm advocating doing what you do now - if that's portrait sessions, do more portrait sessons. If it's landscape photographs, go out into the landscape twice as often. Just doing the same thing but releasing the shutter twice instead of once for each photo won't do much.

Saturday, November 04, 2006

Getting Satisfaction

The following passage from Ted Orland's The View from the Studio Door really rang my chimes as I was re-reading that book after spending time viewing some new (to me) photoblogs this morning:

In another time and culture closer to our own, Johann Sebastian Bach composed new church music for each Sunday Mass - and he was just one composer among hundreds who held similar jobs. Think about that: there was a time (and not all that long ago) when artists were employed to make new art every week - art that addressed the deepest issues of life and death and spirituality. We have nothing like that today.

Those examples are not exceptions. Most historical artwork played a role in society or religion or both. There's pretty good evidence that Bach himself understood that to make work that mattered meant addressing art at every level - from the purely technical to the completely profound - simultaneously. He once composed a set of training pieces whose purpose, he said, was "to glorify God, to edify my neighbor, and to develop a cantabile style of playing in both hands."

Some version of Bach's three-tiered work order might be a worthwhile guide for artists working today.

I think this is what is bothering me about those photoblogs I wrote about yesterday - not so much that they're the photographic equivalent of fingering exercises, but that they're just fingering exercises and nothing more, and I don't see any evidence that the photographer's work extends beyond these exercises.

It seems to me that the discipline of a photo a day (or a painting a day, or a sonnet a day, etc.) is hard and long. I'm sure it builds your technical chops but my experience with photoblogging was that absent some compelling meaning to what I was doing it turned into a deadening slog.
I wonder, too, if this is why so many people who view photoblogs blitz thru the images in the way described by Gordon McGregor in the comments to a post below - endlessly cruising for the next 'Wow' image but never getting any satisfaction, just looking for more intensity of the viewing experience. Without some deeper meaning to make the work coherent as a whole, it's the most intense photo that wins.

Would it be nicer, perhaps, if the photoblog was intended to fit into Orland's three-part scheme - if the photography was intended to have spiritual significance, edify our viewers, and develop our style of playing, all at once? It sounds awfully hard to do but ultimately more rewarding for both the photographer and the viewer.

And I bet the photos would not end up all being the sort of high-impact wowser that photoblogs seem to lean toward so heavily.

Friday, November 03, 2006

What's that mean?

I've just spent half a day browsing photo blogs.

One problem I have with many photo blogs is that they're a stream of images, but there seems to be little connection from one image to the next. One day, it's a flower. The next day, it's a gritty image of an urban hotel doorway. After that, it's an image of someone walking a dog. (No, that's not a real photo blog, that's an example). The photo blog isn't a connected body of work, it's just a random stream of images that happen to have been made in chronological sequence by a single photographer.

In contrast, there are some photo blogs that seem more cohesive. I'm not sure I can articulate the difference between random images and a theme like "Here's what I noticed today", but it's definitely true that some photo blogs seem to be a unified body of work much more than others.

Part of it, I suspect, is that in some cases, the photoblog is a very public way of 'playing scales' - that is, the photos made for the blog are the photographic equivalent of keyboard practice for a pianist - practice you do daily to keep your skills up and your vision sharpened up.

The problem I have with those photos is that they seem to be just that - practice, with no real investment by the photographer in meaning deeper than "Let's work on my lighting skills (or use of shallow depth of field, or long exposures, etc.) today." This lack of investment seems to come through the photo in a way I find really hard to articulate. But my inability to articulate it doesn't mean that it's not happening.

It's not so much that I insist that you should be able to look at a photo and answer the question "What's that mean?" I happen to think that art is one of the ways we (as humans) deal with ambiguity, deal with things that aren't easily articulated, with things that seem to bubble just beneath the surface. It's really more a matter of I like to be able to look at a photo (or more importantly, a collection of photos) and feel that asking "What's that mean?" is not a pointless exercise.

Thursday, November 02, 2006

Quantity is Quality

In 1997, when it was time for my New Year's resolutions, I decided to set some photographic goals. My big goal was to produce one finished print, mounted and matted, each week. At the end of the year, I'd have 52 mounted, matted prints ready to go into frames. It turns out that was an ambitious goal. I didn't achieve it, but I did make a lot more photographs than I had the previous year.

My catchphrase for this goal was "Quantity is Quality". My working theory was that by doing at least one print per week, I'd ensure that I made a consistent effort each week to get out and expose film, to get into the darkroom and print, and to take at least one of the prints I made and finish it off by flattening it, dry mounting it, and cutting an overmat for it. That part of the project worked amazingly well. I learned a lot about steamrollering roadblocks in my photographic practice. And, I believe, by focusing on keeping quantity up, I made dramatic improvements in quality. I find it paradoxical but for me it seems that by focusing on making a lot of work and not worrying too much about how good it is, I not only make better work but also improve more quickly.

So I've been interested in things like photoblogging and the Photo A Day process, and the Painting A Day movement started off by Duane Keiser. They seem to be related to my idea that in a limited sense, Quantity is Quality, or at least Quantity can lead towards Quality.

I have a lot of photoblogs that I like, but far and away my favorite is Kathleen Connally's A Walk in Durham Township. I was drawn to her photoblog because she lives not far from where I grew up, and she's photographing stuff which I'm interested in. But what amazed me as I looked at the archives in her blog was what I saw as a steady improvement in the quality of her work from the earliest images to the most recent ones.

And then I read an interview of Kathleen, and she said that she makes between 100 and 300 exposures a day. That's a lot of exposures, although in fairness she does say that she's not averse to making 50 exposures of one scene, as the light changes. Clearly what's happening for Kathleen is that, in some sense, quantity is quality.

I get the same feeling from browsing the Painting a Day websites I've visited, like Jon Conkey's THEMEWORKS, where Jon picks a 'theme' for each month, with the theme seemingly chosen to emphasize some particular aspect of Jon's praxis - quickness in rendering, long view landscapes, etc.

So part of what I'm trying to do now is focus on quantity again. That's part of why I like the streamlined nature of an all digital workflow; it eliminates a lot of the overhead that makes focusing on quantity such a strenuous proposition. It's often hard for me to get over the hump and get out the camera, but I am thinking maybe a photo a day photoblog might be a good motivator. Maybe it's time to revive the Quotidian View, just to have a specific venue for the daily photos, along the lines of Doug Plummer's Daily.

Wednesday, November 01, 2006


Two tidbits of news:

  1. New sdg photos on my main website, here. These are six more from the same morning as the last set.
  2. I've been asked to be a contributor at Art and Perception. Naturally, I accepted immediately. I'll be making posts on Thursdays, starting tomorrow. It's an excellent blog, with many interesting posts from many interesting artists. Don't miss the comment threads, which contain excellent discussions.

Depth cues and the landscape

When a person stands in the landscape and looks around, their visual experience is three-dimensional. They 'see' things with depth; they experience some objects as proximate and some as remote. This happens even though we can't really 'see' depth; we see lots of little cues (including stereo vision information) and our brain helpfully creates a 3-d model, and part of our visual experience is this 3-d model, not just the direct experience of the light streaming through our pupils and onto our retinas.

One of the problems that landscape artists face, then, is that we're trying to cram this 3-d experience onto a flat surface. To do this, we include some of the depth cues that our brains recognize, like overlapping. For a flat print, it's hard to recreate the stereo information. For photographers, cues like distant objects appearing smaller, and convergence of parallel lines, and overlapping - the camera includes them without our intervention. (Yes, you in the back, I know we can jigger with convergence by using movements on our view camera. Sit down.)

But one of the ways we can enhance the apparent 'depth' is by either amplifying the depth cues that are there, or adding depth cues that seem to be missing.

Here's a iconic landscape.

We've got sky up top, and we've got the ground below. But this looks 'flat', like a kindergartener's depiction of the landscape.

First, let's get the sky out of the way. When we look at the sky, it's never a uniform brightness. Typically, it's brighter at the horizon, especially when it's early or late. So we can add a gradient to the 'sky', and we get

This looks a bit more like sky, doesn't it? It's not extreme as gradients go, but it's enough to give that blue rectangle a sense of sky-ness. Notice the strange sensation of the blue reading as 'sky' but the flat, uniform green still reading as if it's just a green rectangle. It's as if someone is occluding a view of the landscape with a flat, evenly illuminated green card.

Next, we tackle the ground. When we see a tonal gradient on a flat surface, we tend to interpret that as a plane that's tilted and thus has different angles to the light source depending on where we look. So we can add some depth cue to the ground by adding a gradient, too.

There's a bunch of stuff to notice, now. First, we now have a depiction that our brain interprets as a landscape - green foreground running off into the distance, blue sky above. It's just like the world, only lacking in detail. Notice, too, how the gradient seems to wrap up the sides of the image a bit; it doesn't, the gradient is perfectly uniform but your visual system is noting the contrast with the edge of the frame and 'post processing' that into a change in contrast. Note, also, how your gaze is drawn to the horizon. It's as if that tonal gradient is pushing your gaze up away from the dark foreground and drawing it up to the light horizon.

Interestingly, you also get a sense of depth in the ground if you reverse the gradient:

Now our gaze is drawn into the foreground, pushed away from the horizon.

Using these depth cues on your photographs is left as a trivial exercise for the reader.