There is a marketing undertow towards specialization. Commercially successful artists tend to be known for a particular genre of media and subject. Oh yes, So-In-So can be counted on for doing Such-And-Such. Perhaps this be one of my flaws.
It was actually pointed out as such during an exhibition not long ago, that all my work seemed different if nonetheless following a similar style. A collection of my work being too diffuse – no single focus – no specialization.
As much as I love working with macros and with florals, if that were all I did I would get bored really fast (though such boredom might pay the mortgage). Constant repetition of the same work has no appeal for me; the attraction lay in the diversity of creation. An exploration of variation and alternate vision. Each work – each leaf – its own universe.
I suspect one of the reasons I’m drawn to florals is that more often that not it requires the use of macros. And shooting in macro, my friends, is the great equalizer.
Shooting great landscapes or seductive portraits or fashion photography really does require professional grade equipment; in the case of the latter to get the lighting exactly right, in the case of the former to capture the lighting that is available. A friend once showed me a gorgeous photo captured of the Grand Canyon at night, illuminated by lighting strikes. That shot, I calculated, would have required a large format camera ($15,000) using an unusually sharp wide-aperture lens ($3,000) with a heavy filter to prevent the lightening from washing out the rest of the image ($500) connected to a light sensor that would fire the shutter at exactly the instant the lightening bolt became visible ($1,500) as well as a series of strobe lights that would fire to illuminate the foreground which the filter would otherwise darken ($2,500), mounted on a heavy tripod to prevent movement caused by wind gusts ($600) and proper tenting to prevent sudden rain from ruining all that equipment ($1,000), and the shutter would have to stay open a good long time so the mountains in the distance would be properly exposed. Then, of course, there was the photographer’s time and travel to set all that up on numerous occasions to get the right shot. For one shot, or maybe a series of the same shot.
Much of those necessities go away with macros. Even many smartphones can take good macros. Sure, the photographer still has to get the lighting perfect and set the camera distance correctly to the subject, balancing perspective with a tight focal plane to create depth. But those are more creatures of skill and timing opposed to massively expensive equipment.
I still prefer my Canon G11 when I set out to shoot macros. It has a precise macro and its zoom allows me to adjust the perspective to fit the situation. New versions of the Canon G-series run, what, about $700? Mighty Mouse!
Everyone’s life takes twists and turns. My biggest as a photographer happened when it became clear my Minolta XG-M which had accompanied me overseas and with which I’d shot hundreds of 35mm photographs had to be replaced. Minolta was in the process of being bought out by Sony at the time (and if you ever wonder where Sony got its photographic chops, it bought it from Minolta) and all the mounts were changing, which meant all my lenses would also have to be replaced. I was coming out of grad school, I had student loans to pay, I was trying to get married, I was trying to buy a house, I was trying to become a father, I was trying to start a career.
I could not begin to justify spending money on new photography equipment to satiate my damned hobby. So I walked away.
For a half dozen years, I did not capture a single image.
Two things happened:
I was already a computer nerd. Once I came to understand the power of using the computer to create art from digital photography, I finally began to slowly emerge from the womb. DamnPhotoArtist was born.
My philosophy: There will never be a camera lens that can match what I see in my head. The computer is my artboard. But, especially in nature photography, there are works captured every day by professional photographers using ungodly expensive photographic equipment that is phenomenally gorgeous art! Incredible work that humbles me to the bone.
What if, instead of diving into PhotoArt, I had dived the other direction – screw the debt, forget the family, and plowed thousands of dollars into photography equipment, and traveled the world capturing wonders.
Once in a while, a shot like this one comes out – straight photography, done with equipment on-hand, employing little or no computer enhancement, that reveals so much that no enhancement is necessary. And it makes me wonder – what if? What if?
Welcome to minimalism week! I’m going to make three posts this week of recent work in which the computer played no more role than a standard darkroom enlargement easel could accomplish. Big MO here was captured using my Nikon1 V3 with a 30-110 lens. I love the detail – look at the drops of dew clinging to the blades of grass. Look at the steely glint in Big Mo’s eye. “Besides, YOU didn’t kill Liberty Valance”!
The authors of a study published a few days ago offered an excuse for the reason people react so viscerally to the end of television series like Game of Thrones. According to these researchers, human beings may form “parasocial” relationships with fictional characters that in some cases are functionally equivalent to social relationships, so when the artists conclude the fiction the viewer experiences separation anxiety. They have been dumped. In other words, it’s not so much HOW the series ends as it is that the series has ended at all.
The lead researcher speculates, “People have simply not developed separate ways of thinking about relationships that are imaginary rather than real”.
The implications, if true, broadly extend across the human experience. Human beings through history have tended to react to complex issues with simplistic and authoritarian responses. Simple responses provide easy if highly inaccurate solutions that also facilitate denial. Fiction is much easier to love than reality.
The need to simplify pervades. Complexity simply re-roots. Welcome to the jungle.
Bear in mind that laws don’t restrict human behavior so much as they change the economics of it. The intended prohibition of a behavior will prove futile if new channels of distribution or accessibility brings the activity into an acceptable window of risk, or if new technologies render restrictive laws obsolete or ineffective. The inherent weakness of authoritarianism is that it provides an economic incentive to develop alternative markets or technologies that deliver the prohibited products or services by unanticipated means.
The more “black & white” is a forced perspective the more subtile becomes the shades of grey.
Show time once more, in an exhibit focused on art based around water. I’ve brought back one of my favorite Missouri Capitol works (Shadow Of A Doubt) and produced a new work based on a bayside cityscape with futuristic architecture (City Aside A Warm Sea) that I chose to keep small (5x7) and give a big, expensive pewter frame. But I wanted to take some time discussing the transformation of a much older capture I’ve chosen to simply title ‘The Landing’.
I love exhibiting in galleries, and I love exhibiting in metal. Metal is simply the gold standard of two-dimensional mediums – nothing has greater luminosity. But metal is also expensive to produce, and it’s not always practical to produce everything I want to exhibit in metal. (Reminder: I will produce any work on photo paper if that’s the way the buyer wants it, I just won’t guarantee exclusivity as I do with metal works).
‘The Landing’ dates to my days in Peace Corps on the island of Saint Vincent. Leeward coast, way up close to the volcano, I came across these boats and captured one of my favorite images with my Minolta XG-M on Kodachrome slide film. It’s straight, traditional photography, and I dearly wanted to produce it for this exhibition. But when I pulled it up on my computer to prepare an inkjet print I discovered a problem.
Slide film is tiny – about an inch wide. When I scanned it and brought it into the digital world years ago I was able to maintain good color and clarity, but at the expense of tremendous graininess, and there on my computer I could easily see the lines of pixels prevalent even at high resolution. I knew it was simply not appropriate for exhibition.
Not unless I could fix it.
I started by bringing the capture into Camera RAW to turn down the clarity. Then I applied a texturing filter I knew would smooth out the pixels. Here’s a trick: Filtering has a profound affect at lower resolution and is more subtile at high resolution. By resizing the capture to a high resolution and turning down the filter to a low scale I was able to obscure the pixel lines without adding overt brush strokes. Then back to RAW for more clarity work, and finally an edging filter to increase the definition of the objects. Lastly, I determined that the scanning process had also added blue to what is supposed to be a volcanic black sand beach, so some final color correction on the sand was necessary.
The image below compares the initial capture (right) to the final work (left). Arguably, I’ve lost a great deal of detail in the beach – few of the many stones present in the original are still discernable in the final. But the graininess and rough pixelating of the original are also gone. The work on the left is much softer, more dreamlike, and appropriate for exhibiting. The original capture was made a decade-plus before digital photography at the consumer level existed - even the small reproduction below reveals the lines and pixelization in it. The work on the left owes its existence to the advent of computers and photographic enhancement software, and is now on exhibit for your dining and dancing pleasure. Time marches on.
A slight sidebar on economics. The flier above lists the price of ‘The Landing’ at $55. Of that, the gallery will take a 25% cut – that takes me to about $41. My costs were $20 for the frame, plus figure $6-$8 bucks for the ink and a couple sheets of photographic paper. Once it sells, I’ll make about $14 bucks. It took me hours to transform the image to make it appropriate for exhibition, and another hour-plus as I struggled with a paper jam, then matted and framed the work. That doesn’t include time spent years ago in capturing and scanning the original, or the costs for developing the original Kodachrome.
Love for one’s art is the only reason to do any of this. The term ‘starving artist’ exists for a reason.
No subject so defies attempts to artsy it up than cherry blossoms. Not that I haven’t done it. Not that I don’t always try. Over the years I’ve tried so many techniques, most successfully, some less so, that this series seemed to demand that it be left alone. So I did. Well, mostly I did. No more than the sharpening and exposure tweaks any traditional photographer would do in their darkroom. Just straight photographic captures, in this case using the macro setting on my Canon G series camera, assisted by perfect lighting conditions. Art through the technique of restraint
One tulip tree captured repeatedly at different angles at the same relative time. Three different works. The lighting didn’t change, the camera settings didn’t change, the angles changed only marginally. The post-capture studio work for each came within a few days of each other. But they are all different.
Perhaps one would argue the differences are too subtle to matter, but I don’t think so. The character of the second is darker than the first; the character of the third is more abstract than the second. The cumulative effect of the three reflects the difference between photo art and photography. As photographs, all three works are essentially identical (if still capturing different parts of the tree). It’s the same tree; the same being. Captured. As photo art, each work is its own creature; each has its own personality. Each exists only in itself; art born from within.
Subtly different or not it seemed to me rolling each out as its own post might get a little old, especially as three others follow next that also draw from the same subject. Unfortunately, presented as a group tends to de-emphasize each, which is not what I want at all. So please, go back to the works above and spend time with each. Let me know if you prefer one in particular!
OK, pun that is part of the title of this work is intentional – I hasten to mention that (when I had other things to talk about) first, to forestall the Twitterverse (and I use the term to define Social Media in general) going crazy. I fully appreciate the ascension of Social Media in our consciousness, but, let’s face it, people have a tendency to react out-of-context and go off half cocked (I remind you of the line from ‘Men In Black’ that so perfectly defines humanity: “A person is smart; people are dumb, panicky animals and you know it"). And second, because enough people remember my old journalism days to know I previously had large issues with spelling. I say ‘old’ days because it was my inability to consistency spell anything greater than C-A-T that let to my demise in journalism. I say ‘previously’ had issues because, now, and for the last couple decades, there is spellchecking software, which if I’d had ‘then’ I’d probably still be in journalism.
I adore good journalism, and have tremendous respect for journalists, especially in this environment, where politically empowered bullies use journalists as scapegoats to cover their every flaw and numerous misdeeds (in all fairness, journalists themselves contributed to the rise of the bullies in question). Bottom line – I simply lacked the temperament to be a journalist, and it is my good fortune that my deficiencies drove me out of that profession rather quickly. I’m simply not a Type-A personality, I don’t have the killer instinct a good journalist needs, and I just don’t have the proper temperament. I much prefer the cool breeze on the deck to the heat of the kitchen; slow roasting a chicken on the grill to crispy southern pan fried.
No, not a misspelling. Altering context by wielding semantics.
A guy I knew in high school, who had found me on a widely used Social Media platform, once respond to one of my works by saying “I don’t understand still lives”. Some time later and for an unrelated reason I decided the guy was a blowhard who I really didn’t need in my life (he probably felt the same way about me – especially in my younger days I could be a little shit). (Cue the chorus crying, “younger days”?). Certainly over time a number of acquaintances have fallen by the wayside for that reason; who needs that kind of ugliness in their lives?
I suspect I’m the real loser in the deal.
It wasn’t this guy’s fault that his opinionating posts irritated me – he wasn’t trying to piss off specifically me. And, of course, in those days so many of us thought we could use Social Media to actually educate everybody to why they should think like we personally do. That my lasting thought about the guy is that I didn’t need him is a subtraction from my own universe. Me retreating to the cool breeze and the slow roasting chicken on the deck, missing everything going on inside the house.
One of the attractions I find living in a heavily wooded rural area (ignoring the stiflingly reactionary politics that goes with it) are the thousand shades of green that caress the landscape. Springtime is when that contrast becomes most noticeable. Every tree seems to ‘leaf out’ by a different shade, manifesting at different times, broadcasting their arrival at different volumes. It is incredibly difficult to capture the subtle hues with a camera. But nothing makes the forest explode like the flowering trees: Dogwood, Hawthorne, Redbud, Pear, Cherry. It’s interesting to me that generally they don’t clump in groves – one such tree will stand solitary in a stand of scrub oaks, maples and cedars, clean white huddled by a broad palate of greens.
It’s tempting to draw an analogy – daring to be different in a world that seems to demand conformity. A forest that was once clear cut, then allowed to grow back in natural chaos, no dominate force, no overseer, and at least one living by different rules. Tempting, and I’ve clearly floated it, but the forest seems apart from any greater world it may be compared against. An intellectual analogy that feels muffled by a cocoon of leaf and bloom. All simply ‘is’ – there is no enforcement in effect, no demands being imposed. A gentle breeze ruffles the branches.
Edging taken to its extreme is a line drawing. Sometimes that’s a useful exercise, if only as a reminder that it’s how a large segment of the population sees the world: Right and wrong, good and evil, black lines on a white background. Doesn’t everything work better when everyone does what they’re supposed to do. The artistic equivalent of authoritarianism.
The irony of authoritarianism is that there are no absolutes, and sometimes authoritarianism actually works. There was a reason for Churchill. There was also a reason to get rid of him. Of course, nobody agrees when ‘sometimes’ is. Britain during World War II, yeah a little authoritarianism probably worked. The United States during World War I - definitely not. Nor now, but, again, I digress.
The Art World is not immune. Traditionalists have always been there to slow everything down. Today there are artists who insist ‘art’ can only be created with something like a brush using something like paint onto something like a canvas. Their assertion actually excludes most artists working right now, who are younger, creating art on their computers, or tablets, or smartphones. They don’t do art the way they’re supposed to.
Photo art begins down deep in the pixels of a photographic capture; begins with an assault of experiments seeking the truth of the capture that leads to art. Sometimes black lines on a white background is the strongest technique. Sometimes the way is open for Churchill.
The truth always comes out, eventually.
There are certain techniques – a dozen or so – I check out when I begin working with a new capture, even if I think I know the direction I’m going to take, and even if that direction does not include any of these techniques, I’m going to check them out anyway. These techniques run the table from subtle to hugely radical, including stuff I almost never use, stuff that examines edging, lighting and texture. I do that before I begin following any notions I might have about the work I want to create.
I do this even for techniques I don’t want to use; possibly even hate using. Because here’s the thing: I may think I see the truth in a given work, only to discover something very different. Every photograph hides its own story deep within its pixels. It’s like doling out subpoenas from which emerge some bombshell I hadn’t expected. Or wanted. Sometimes there’s a bombshell I sort of suspected was there, but didn’t want to believe. It’s part of human frailty; wanting to believe something we’ve been led to believe, an empty and opaque husk that seems solid.
One of the things I like most about working creatively is the solitude of it. Not necessarily socially but mentally. Creativity quiets mental clutter. It’s like relaxation techniques for the mind - quieting first these distractions, then these over here, until finally we’re focused in on a single vision, the rest of existence shuffled far into the peripheral, all nonsense save that being created.
The relevance of clarity is sometimes misunderstood in floral compositions (honestly I find this important in most macro photography). Yes, it’s important the primary subject be quite sharp, or at least SOME of the primary subject, but flowers are so thin and delicate that too much sharpness imparts a disquieting sense of hardness. Sharpness imposes art, whereas softness, especially combined with backlighting, facilitates art. But it’s a fine line because too little clarity can simply appear blurred. Using a short focal plane when capturing the photograph may facilitate the effect because it reduces the range of sharpness within the composition. But there again, miss too far and it’s just a blurry photography. It a question of managing the light and the clarity until the art emerges.
All my life I have had to learn to do things differently. To see the world differently.