Know how certain days sort of have a “feel” to them? One “feels” Friday night, for example. Saturday afternoon. Monday morning. The other evening I was thinking how it felt like a Sunday night. It was actually Tuesday.
The quarantine, for me at least, has created a sameness in which everyday runs together. Nothing exists now that differentiates one day from the next; nothing on the calendar to count towards or after. Work at home, plus the dogs, at least define when to get up and when to go to bed. But the sameness also facilitates a sort of mental dullness; nothing to break up my self-absorbed routine so the tendency is to simply do whatever is easiest. We’re not talking boredom; I have plenty of interests just around this house to keep me occupied, all kinds of stuff I like doing. What we’re talking about are those outside things that prevent me from doing what I’d rather be doing and thus force me to focus more sharply on those things when time becomes available.
We are what we overcome. I must overcome my own lazy ass.
This was a fun series to work on! Seemed deserving of a slide show. Photographic captures were collected at one of the last open events before everything closed up – the St. Louis Art Museum’s ‘Art In Bloom’ event - and there were enough interpretive captures that I’ve been able to spend a couple months happily creating art using art itself and the people drawn to it as the focal points.
Trouble is, with social distancing, opportunities for photographic captures involving public gatherings have been nonexistent, and I’m down to just a few scattered captures before the cupboard is bare! I feel loath to go back to florals, landscapes, and old buildings – seems like my portfolio is bulging with that. Been down that road. I was digging the new paths.
So who knows what will come next. I’ll be as surprised by it as anybody.
I was recently tagged on Facebook to post images of ten album covers which reflect work that influenced my musical tastes. That’s a fun one – much of what passes back and forth on social media I’d just as soon forego, but music and creativity are for me inexorably and profoundly linked.
Years ago I took a couple years digitizing my old albums, track by track. I did NOT use automated software in which one simply plops the needle onto the vinyl, walks away, and the computer does everything. I used much more sophisticated recording software which enabled me to adjust each conversion to bring it up as closely as possible to CD quality. Going through decades of old albums, I would find tracks worn almost down to nothing; I’d clearly loved those songs and played them to within an inch of their life. And some of them were crap. On the other hand, I would find other tracks that were pristine, which I’d clearly only listed to a couple of times and gone on, and they were gorgeous, wonderful songs.
What the hell was I thinking?!
Well, what it reflects is that over time my musical tastes have evolved and changed, just as my creative approach to art has evolved and changed. After the Facebook tag, most of the albums I posted were decades old. It’s true that much of the music that first influenced me was from my youth. But most of the music in my current playlists are only a few years old. Well … for me “a few years” might be 15 or 20, but still.
The past is prologue. Where have you gone since then? What do you hear and see now?
I suppose it’s time to explain the moniker “Damn Photo Artist”.
Said supposition seems appropriate given the current societal hankering for life to return to “normal”, the tendency to damn anything that’s not irrefutably “normal” being at the heart of the moniker.
A million years ago, while a grad-ass in Community Development at the University of Missouri-Columbia, I worked with a rural sociologist named Daryl Hobbs (shocked to discover he does not have a Wikipedia page). We were contacted by leaders from the little town of West Plains (home of Dodger great Preacher Roe, among others), where I would later intern, who wanted help engaging in economic development. What these leaders wanted – what so many want when the subject comes up – was a single bullet solution: attracting new industries or ‘marketing’ and thus stealing jobs away from someplace else. ‘Marketing’ would be considered ‘normal’. Effective economic development, however, is a multi-dimensional approach involving a dozen or more strategies and taking a decade+ to effectively take root. Hoping to impart that to the West Plains leaders, the University decided to send the persuasive Daryl Hobbs out to talk with them. They were less than pleased. One of those leaders angrily stated, “All they’re doing is sending us a damn sociologist!”
So flash ahead to more recent years, when I began exhibiting art, and I began running up against traditionalists for whom the use of computers in creating art was sacrilege. For such traditionalists, art was acceptable only when made by hand, and photography, only recently grudging accepted in local art circles, only counted as film straight out of the camera. And up I pop with … what the hell is that!? Damn!!
Even before the pandemic threw the economy out of whack there were fervent lamentations to “bring back our jobs from China”. Look, global economics is simply a shift from production/distribution to distribution/production, which effectively pits localized labor forces in competition with each other. Here’s the thing: We did that. Us. America. That’s our economic model and we got everybody else to go along with it. China simply did what we taught them to do. And the reality is, American communities have been doing it to each other for over a century. Wherever you’re reading this, there’s likely a local economic development office, and I can almost guarantee that a large part of their charge, if not their main charge, is marketing – stealing jobs away from other American communities.
Just after my West Plains gig, I was part of a cadre of people trying valiantly to get across to state leaders that a marketing emphasis in economic development was ill-advised. We stated correctly that there would always be someplace come along that could do things cheaper than we could, and that we needed wholistic policies to build broadly based community and economic development initiatives that would build economic capacity with local and sustainable resources. They responded first by ignoring us, then by deconstructing and disenfranchising anything contrary to their political policies. (Sound familiar?)
WE. TOLD. YOU. THIS. WOULD. HAPPEN. Thirty years ago.
It seems like, from the day I was born, I have flown in the face of “normal”. A one-armed guy oblivious to any notion of disability, a Cubs fan living in Cardinals country, serving in Peace Corps instead of the military, preaching public service over politics, into music and movies almost nobody else around here is, wearing not just sandals but sandals with socks, an open-wheel racer on a stock car track, riding a bike in traffic. An artist using a computer to create art. Damn. Photo. Artist. In the face of normal.
Among the greatest of personal human foibles is the act of thinking too much. A young person might overthink the future. With age comes overthinking the past as well as the time to do it.
Everyone’s past includes moments of triumph and moments of grief, surrounded by long periods of mediocracy. Everyone’s the same in that regard – differences in personality create a predisposition to dwelling on one or the other.
I find the more I create and the happier I am with my work the less I dwell on anything at all. It was just someone else’s life. All the mistakes I made, and there were a boatload, and whatever I managed to accomplish are wrapped up and put away – they matter not all anymore. The act of creation has placed a final coda on previous lives. Someone new exists in its place. I did something wrong once, well gee, sorry about that; it doesn’t matter anymore. See who I am now.
I’ve noticed while out and about over the past week, as things are beginning a post-quarantine opening up, at least in this state, that people are being remarkably surly towards each other. Traffic is angry and impatient. People snarl. They seem fed up with being ‘nice’. Their lives have been inconvenienced and it annoys them. What stores are open, only roughly half the shoppers are wearing masks, and I’ve actually felt like some of those who aren’t have given me dirty looks (I’m obviously one of the folks wearing one).
There’s talk that sporting venues may open up somewhere around July, albeit with empty stands. Entertainment venues want to reopen with one-tenth their capacity, and to get in one has to have their temperature taken and be wearing a mask – I suspect that will hold with all public venues. Imagine a 38,000-capacity stadium opening with a limit of about 5,000 mask wearing fans. Does that even pay to open the doors? How does one drink beer and eat stadium-nachos while wearing a mask?
We’re a minimum of a year before there’s a tested vaccine, and a minimum of two years, and more likely three, before it’s distributed widely enough to support a full reopening of society. It’s not going to move any faster by treating each other like crap. Which, in an election year with a completely polarized electorate, is already propagating.
Show some backbone. Buck the trend. Be more kind.
Another way of doing sort of the same thing as my last work; but that’s part of the experimenting process, yes? Create something new, then create a variation, then create another variation, then another variation, pretty soon the artist has a series of works exploring a similar theme, all from different approaches. When that seems played out, move on – don’t get stagnate. You’ve only so much time to do this.
* * *
In my lifetime there have been many changes in the way we consume broadcast media. We went from black and white to color, smaller TV’s to enormous consoles, a handful of broadcast channels to a whole dozen channels on cable. Cable channels grew from a dozen to several dozen. Satellite joined cable as another source. VCR’s made it possible to consume on one’s own time rather than adhering to a broadcast schedule (so long as one could program the VCR) as well as the ability to consume movies and other productions at home. DVR’s and DVD players supplanted VCR’s, and BluRay supplanted DVD’s. Now streaming services, using an Internet backbone, kick all that to new levels, giving artists vast new platforms for creating new work; there are so many streamers looking for content. Netflix, Amazon, Hulu, Disney+, Apple+, HBO Max, Showtime, Starz, CBS All Access, Peacock, BritBox, Sundance Now, Curiosity Stream; I’m certainly forgetting something. It’s an embarrassment of riches. And, believe it or not, the traditional networks and basic cable channels still produce good stuff, particularly AMC and FX (though, please note, I detest ‘reality TV’ in all it’s forms).
Here’s the problem: Nobody can afford all that shit.
Here’s the other problem: Nobody has time to watch it all.
I pay full price for just one of the services listed above. Two more I get at reduced rates due to sales, and one I get for free on a promotional deal. And if I spent every waking second for the next week watching the things I’d like to see on those services I still wouldn’t get through it all. There’s an array of acclaimed works I’ve never seen simply because I don’t subscribe to their services: Game Of Thrones, Homeland, The Handmaid’s Tale, Westworld, The Man In The High Castle, Star Trek Discovery, The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel. Granted, I could subscribe to a service, pretty much catch up, then cancel that service and move on to a different one. I take it a lot of people do that, but geez …
Sheltering at home has greatly ratcheted up the amount of time many people watch programming. Me, maybe just an extra hour or two here and there. In a way, streaming only illustrates existence as a whole. There’s only so much time to do anything. How much do you want to spend.
One of the joys of experimenting in art is coming up with something not achieved before, at least not by the artist doing the experimenting. It’s different from seeing a work, seeing how it was done, then following the recipe – that routine does not occupy the same creative level. It doesn’t necessarily matter if that “something new” is good or bad or whatever. It’s the thrill of new birth.
Once an artist achieves something new, the creative act shifts towards refinement; towards its application to different visions. That process has its own joys and may even be ultimately more fulfilling. But it doesn’t have the surprise element that happens when “once” happens.
* * *
Today, May the 4th, 2020, my state begins a phased ‘re-opening’ after Coronavirus Quarantine, recognizing, some have suggested, that there is now room for new arrivals in the ICU. At this writing I don’t know yet what exactly it means or how it will affect my family; leave us in full knowledge that this was only the first quarantine and that more will be coming. A combination of boredom and lack of imagination implores a reopening for an economy that has just proved itself unsustainable. But arriving at a new outcome requires more … experimenting.
Subliminal haunting might be the context of this work. Other versions of one’s self looking over the shoulder of the present self, like separate personalities jealous of the spotlight. Or clingy memories reluctant to let go; mistakes that can only be rectified by being forgotten, and that refuse to be forgotten. Just face away from them.
* * *
I’d originally intended to title this work ‘Guy With Portrait Of Another Guy’, which is really all it is. Nothing especially experimental about it; just a guy in a dark corner with a painting of a guy that looks a lot like him. Lighting and texturing to create a pleasant bit of art was all that seemed appropriate. As I thought about the imagery I thought this more poetic title was more appropriate. An example, I suppose, of the complexity of the subliminal surpassing the simplicity of the work itself.
Writing last time about experimenting in art and why it rattles conservative perspectives drew me towards a broader realization.
Remove the notion of experimentation into a broader context and apply principles of scientific method. The scientific method works like this: You form a hypothesis, you test that hypothesis, you publish the results. In other words, you come up with some possibly crazy notion, you start experimenting to see how that notion plays out, then you throw it out there so somebody else can react to it.
And this method is the antithesis of so-called ‘intelligent design’, perhaps the most profoundly reactive and intrusive form of conservative authoritarianism and a topic which drives me right out of my water.
With intelligent design the experiment is rigged – only previously accepted constructs are applied. You don’t break new ground, you simply firm up the ground beneath established structures. Mind you, it’s not creationism I’m objecting to necessarily, so long as it is a matter of faith. Faith I get. Faith is internal. I deeply hold there are things going on in the universe beyond human comprehension.
If I may paraphrase the scientist Neil DeGrasse Tyson (hopefully not badly), one might break human thought into science, politics, and faith. Under faith, a person can believe anything they want. Anything at all. But as soon as it’s brought into the political or the scientific now that person is trying to impose their views on me, and it is no longer an issue of faith but of religious dogma.
For me, adherents of intelligent design lack faith in their beliefs, and find it necessary to reinforce those beliefs by codifying them into pseudoscience with an intent of forcing others to go along with it. It’s the science of stupid.
Religion is a great comfort to many, and, again, as a matter of faith I completely respect that. When it becomes dogma, well … it’s the smile on a doll.
* * *
This work is more digital composition than photo art because it combines multiple photographic captures with digital elements. There are a number of subliminal influences going on – I’ll be anxious to hear your interpretations.
Perhaps my pursuit of “art” is actually a series of experiments, and that’s certainly arguable over the last several months. While working on a greatly more abstract work that will be exhibited here in a couple weeks, a thought occurred: Wouldn’t it have been more appropriate to be running these experiments when I was 25? Even 35? What’s the point of doing this now?
The underlying current, of course, is that one experiments in their youth, finds a comfortable status quo, settles on it, builds on it through a lifetime. One can be relied upon for a predictability of output. Further experimentation is just childish. One should already have the answers.
It defines the conservative perspective.
It also sucks! I hate it.
It’s not a thought I have very often, thank bloody goodness, and it’s fleeting when it comes. To believe that life essentially finalizes itself then locks itself down at any point is to rationalize and prioritize a static world. To function under such a belief is to be functionally insane. Finding fault in every new thought or expression – I know guys that, I swear, have not listened to and enjoyed a new song in 40 years, and I just want to slap ‘em!
I experiment; therefore I live.
* * *
Another work captured from the Art In Bloom exhibit at a local art museum, also featured in Alone In A Crowd, a work I thought must surely be one of my best. It must have been so good it’s left the world speechless. One never knows …
OK, I admit it – the quarantine is even starting to get to me. I know, I just said in a recent blog that my life hasn’t been affected that much, and that’s still true. Turns out ‘that much’ is more than it seems. I still have plenty to occupy me at home; but there are no longer breaks in that status quo to provide contrast. Only the odd run to the store for supplies but trying to talk to anybody through a mask while doing so is like capturing photographs in a fog.
I fear I’m living too much in my own head.
* * *
A local museum recently held an event featured in today’s work, as well as works to come. Curators brought in local florists to create arrangements that mimicked the art the arrangement was to be displayed in front of. The result was an explosion of color and creativity. I’ve commented before that creating art from florals feels like cheating. The flowers themselves are already abstract works of art; what he heck-fire am I getting involved for? (This belies that reality that a huge percentage of my portfolio are florals). The florists created works of art by interpreting other works of art.
I walked into it by accident on the museum’s busiest day of the year, intending to gather photographic captures of something else and leaving instead with a treasure of subjects and images. Sometimes life is an art museum; sometimes life is a fog.
It is a bit unusual to capture a photograph that seems to want to move in several directions at once, and then actually can. Combining noir effects with color pops and abstract components shouldn’t work; in this case I think it worked together fairly well. It was a fun little piece to create.
* * *
Go to the Capital Arts Facebook page today and find their new Online Exhibit. The gallery invited artists across the community to submit digital images of their work as a means of keeping art dynamic when the gallery itself is closed, and it should be lauded for the effort. Well over one hundred works are on exhibit, revealing two things …
First, the incredible talent out there, even in a small town like my own. Tremendous work is on display, underscoring, I think, the creative impulses moving in all people, regardless of how ‘ordinary’ they seem or how far removed from the art ‘mainstream’. We are on this earth to create. Something. Anything.
Second, notice how art jumps when it’s on the computer screen. When the art itself is part of the light source, versus back in a corner waiting for light to find it. It begs the question – and this is another one the purists will hate – what is the best way to display art? Back to the first point, so many people creating art in so many mediums, so many ways, and so few see it. A few friends, perhaps, at best? OK, sure, get it accepted at a local gallery, but how is the foot traffic? How is the lighting? (BTW, Capital Arts is one such gallery that has gone to great lengths to assure that art is shown is good lighting). Digital tools have so greatly enhanced the creation of art; how will the technology ultimately impact the exposure and dissemination of it? It won’t stay the same, be assured of that.
I’m thinking about patterns. And what I’m thinking is that, over the past several weeks, the patterns by which everyone structures their time have been tossed into the trash. It’s happened in both fundamental and peripheral ways. Obviously, where one goes day to day, or the way one engages in work, or how we shop and what we buy. Also simple things like looking forward to that trip to the ballpark or that concert at the jazz club. Or even that Sunday afternoon sporting event on TV. None of that is there now.
What I’m curious about is if we’ll actually all flip back to it on a dime, or at all. I have doubts that the Coronavirus is going to magically disappear. To what degree could ‘normal’ re-establish itself?
I find that for many, their sense of ‘normal’ is what governs their world view. Take that away, and they feel unmoored. Me, working out of my home studio, other than a shifting of some family responsibilities, my life hasn’t changed all that much. Sure, I miss baseball; I miss open-wheel racing; I miss coffee with my buddies, but there are so many things I’m interested in that I have no difficulty filling the time. But then, I’m not normal. I’m a damn photo artist.
Static lines defining ‘normal’ are no longer unchanging. Now, we watch and see what happens.
The adventure story behind this work is worth telling.
A good buddy had seen ‘Alone In A Crowd’, the work featured in my most recent post, and liked it enough that he enthusiastically encouraged me to set up shop creating caricatures of people using the same techniques. What an opportunity, he suggested!
I pointed out two things. First, the idea of cranking out the same assembly line product day after day for a line of clients sounds too much like, well, work! Also boring! Second, as I’ve stated here any number of times, every photograph is a life unto itself. It’s almost impossible to apply the same techniques to different captures and have them come out exactly the same. All it takes is just the slightest difference in lighting or hue or, shoot, humidity from one shot to the next to throw everything into a different reality.
But for some reason, when I brought up this capture, for the hell of it I thought I’d try.
After all, the two captures in question were taken in the same place on the same day, and each featured a crowd of people in front of a wall-sized artwork. Why wouldn’t it work? So I opened both works and applied each technique used in ‘Alone In A Crowd’ step by step into the new work. And, actually, I came really, really close. I mean, it doesn’t look that way now because I’ve changed it. But before that, yeah, I got those people here close to those people there, using the woman holding the camera above her head as contrast, the same way the first work used the woman with the notepad.
And it was awful!
The problem wasn’t the people, it was the background. The artwork they were standing in front of was a sort of earth-toned, highly textured abstract that came out as an icky blob. No matter what I did it came out as an icky blob. I started changing the crowd away from my intention to try to create something resembling harmony between it and the icky blob. At which point everything looked icky.
Several hours into it, many versions of icky passing under the bridge, I realized I had to get rid of the background. Now, I almost never do this. There is, to me, something inviolate about every photograph that renders as sinful the act of combining elements of several images. It’s something of a point of pride – I take a single image and I create art from it. But, in this case, that background had to go.
I had photographed a Matisse just around the corner – just a touristy shot of Henri Matisse’s ‘Bathers With A Turtle’ (the Nazi’s considered it “degenerate” and it was purchased by Joseph Pulitzer Jr. to prevent its destruction), but it was my own photograph, not something taken off the internet, which WOULD have been a sin. It’s about 87 inches across; certainly not large enough to cover an entire wall as I’ve recreated it here. I’ve also desaturated it and blended the crowd to be slightly transparent before the painting. The crowd also required new filtering and lighting to fit its new background – the woman with the camera above her head had to lose her individuality.
The result, I think, is not icky. I feel it actually all works quite well!
I’ve mixed feelings about altering the look of a great master’s work and featuring it so prominently in my own, and for that reason this is a work I’m unlikely to ever exhibit. It’s more of a travelogue; a tourist’s journal. A typical adventure in photo artist.
All my life I have had to learn to do things differently. To see the world differently.