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.
Now beginning a series of works I’m very excited about in which art itself is a part. Whereas there may generally be elements of the background that are de-emphasized or peripheral, the use of art seems to make every element of the work essential, with each element standing as a work in and of themselves, yet working in harmony as a whole.
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Status quo as I sit at my computer creating art is music. If not shuffling through my own collection I’m streaming via Internet, generally my favorite XPoNential Radio, a public station out of Philly that includes the terrific program World Café featuring a string of superb hosts, from the encyclopedic David Dye to today’s wonderfully vivacious Raina Douris. I’m still more into buying music for my collection rather than simply streaming a service (I have a buddy who continues to deride me for failing to subscribe to Spotify), but most of the new music I’m exposed to comes through those sources.
One such song is ‘Headed South’ from the artist Justin Peter Kinkel-Schuster. It’s about a relationship that has reached its end, and the only way to properly conclude it, the singer sings, is to simply leave. And so he’s “headed south”. One of the lines that stands out to me is:
“One day you’ll know me only by the shadow that I cast”
What a perfect description of what an artist does. To some degree everybody does just by living. Perhaps synonymous with Whitman’s “You may contribute a verse”, the artist commits those shades of light and dark within them to external medium. The work survives the artist. Maybe, if not hanging on display, only in a box up in the attic, or a few bits of data on an old hard drive, or something buried in a cloud database of old web pages. Or a not quite describable memory in the back of someone’s mind. But it’s out there in some nook or cranny. A shadow.
Perhaps some shadows are bigger than others. With luck, today’s work will be one of them.
One more Noir work before moving on. Again, we see the value in the wonderful Nikkor 1.8 lens that gave me such a sharp, precise, but short focal plane for capturing this portrait, while nicely blurring everything behind her. (I discussed the value of a good camera and lens in my most recent post). The computer allowed me to play with the light and color curves to create a nicely smooth, contrasting, introspective work. I prefer doing portraits in noir; it reveals an ‘inner light’ that seems lost when throwing color at it.
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Thanks to local artist Lina Forrester, who set up her easel at last fall’s Porchfest, for allowing me to post this work. Find her artwork at linaforrester.com.
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Back to abstract next week, and some new stuff I’m pretty happy with. Don’t miss it!
One of the things noir artworks bring out is the quality of the camera and the lens that captured the image. Particularly with abstract works, not only doesn’t the camera matter so much, sometimes the work is all the more striking when starting with an image of lower resolution and less sharpness. I shoot with three cameras, one of them a film camera, plus a smart phone. But my Nikon V3, which is no longer manufactured, is my go-to camera. It’s a small, mirrorless camera with interchangeable lens. Despite good reviews which convinced me to buy it, professionals never warmed to it, so Nikon has replaced it with their new Z Series that costs three times as much even before lenses, which are also more expensive. I thought I was spending too much money for the V3. One of my lenses, and the one I was using for the Porchfest shoot from which this and the last several works were taken, is a 1.8 that is incredibly sharp. As this work illustrates, at the higher f-stops the focal plane is quite deep. I adjusted the color curves to push this work into the near infrared, just as I did with last summer’s tornado series, which helped the foliage pop even as the cooler colors darkened, creating a high contrast, sharp image. But I have to give most of the credit to this work to the camera and the lens.
But it’s that dependence on hardware, years ago, which dissuaded me from serious photography. To really shoot well, especially nature, wildlife and studio photography, requires ungodly expensive equipment. I knew I could never afford all the equipment I wanted, especially as I was trying to start a family. Professionals may invest tens of thousands on equipment, which is why I pray my work never deprives a professional photographer of a sale. It’s also why I differentiate so strongly my photo art from straight photography. Photographers create through the camera. Photo artists use the computer to create visions a lens can’t see. Either way, it’s an art.
Musician Zak Skinner, also featured in the most recent post, playing on a perfect Autumn afternoon at the recent Porchfest in Jefferson City.
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Exhibiting a few noir works this week.
I’ve said before that I believe black and white photography – “Noir”, as I like to call it because, I guess, it sounds cooler – is itself a form of abstraction. The world doesn’t look like this. Add just a little bit of artistry and it really doesn’t look like this. The last time I concentrated on Noir work was last summer’s very successful tornado series. In retrospect, I added filtering in those works that was intended to, and did, emphasize the edging of the tornado ravaged buildings. Now, I think that might have been one bridge too far. The work here, as with the other two that will be exhibited in this week’s blogs, simply plays with the lighting and the color curves.
Color curves in black and white. Well, yeah, baby! That’s one of the most artful techniques.
Returning to Noir photography is, for me, like a visit to the beginning; call it a drive by ‘grounding’. Actually, move backward through the last four posts to find the full range of my work, (click this link to go to the main page, then scroll down) beginning with today’s noir, to three works, each progressively more abstract, all derived from captures made during the same event, in the same lighting, at the same time of day; four very different visions.
Musician Zak Skinner performs at last fall’s Porchfest held along Jefferson City’s gorgeous Forest Hill Avenue. When my sweet wife was an even sweeter little girl growing up here, she wanted to live in a home along Forest Hill Avenue when she grew up. Today, she lives with me on the other side of town along a street with no sidewalks in a 23-year-old, vinyl-sided house of limited old-tyme charm. But, hey, she’s got me!
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I’ve written before that the more unique are the elements of a photographic capture the less room the artist has to take that capture into new visions. The elements themselves predominate both the composition and the artist’s technique. In this case, a bubble machine had been placed near Zak, so the bubbles dominated the scene visually. I isolated nearly every bubble and pulled both the bubbles and the background into their own files, applied different techniques to each seeking to better saturate the bubbles but not the background, then blended both files back into the original. Finally, I pulled Zak out of the composite entirely and created yet another file which desaturated and de-emphasized the buildings in the far background and blended that one back in; this helped Zak himself stand out; albeit, it also added some graininess in the background, but I think it works. All that effort created a work that is closer to realism (or perhaps surrealism) than abstraction. But that’s the nature of a capture with strong visual elements; the artist is essentially along for the ride.
So just as I get a hankering to prioritize photographic captures with people, everybody goes home and becomes shut ins. Was it something I said?
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A good friend, something of a social butterfly for whom our current social distancing model is akin to torture, signed off a recent series of texts with ‘hope you don’t get too bored at home’. Which, as I pointed out, is very difficult. I’m the opposite of a social butterfly – I’m an extreme introvert. I have declined invitations to exhibit at certain galleries because they require volunteer hours working with the public. There are so many things I’m interested in that keep me preoccupied. Boredom only becomes an issue when I can’t decide what to do next.
One of those things that so interest me is history, to an extent that I consider myself an amateur historian on some subjects. I’m fascinated by the shifts in culture, societies, economies, and, of course, people. A subset of history is the question of purpose. The purpose of any given individual to the course of history.
This is one of those circular, meaning of life questions that may especially arise at night, music playing, a couple single malts down the gullet: ‘Why am I here?’ For most of us, ‘purpose’ is hidden in the minutia. Little ways we interact with people or things we throw out into the universe may just that tiny little bit move the ball forward in ways we can never calculate.
But there’s a relative multiplier to ‘purpose’ in juxtaposition to history.
History is not an even flow. It recedes, it moderates, and at times it gushes. When it gushes, ‘purpose’ expands in magnitude. It’s still incalculable to most people, we’re still just incrementally moving the ball forward. But the ball is moving faster.
In our present circumstances we are not at war, and saying we are is imbecilic, incitement to overreact, and belittling to those who have indeed experienced the horror of real war. It is not a virus to be labeled with a particular nation or race as a scapegoating tool of incompetent political expediency. What once passed as ‘status quo’ will not be returning in a few weeks, or months, or years. We have entered a period of profound change, and how we engage now will define our tomorrow. Ask yourself, why am I alive, now?
Perhaps it’s the infinite variations artists deal with that makes us, as a breed, shall we say, slightly more flamboyant, further to the left of the spectrum. Any spectrum. In the creative process there is no single “right” way to proceed, although I’m of the opinion that most works hold certain approaches, sometimes just one, that leads to the best results. It falls to the creator’s decision to go that way - the artist’s eye at work.
This becomes more agonizing in traditional art; a decision to invoke a particular brush stroke, a particular chisel strike, and the direction of the variation is set. Photo artists and digital artists confront the exact opposite problem in that no action is, holding the analogy, set in stone. Today’s work is an example of a capture that moved in multiple directions. Compare the work above to my most recent work, ‘Goes Around’. It’s the same capture visualized very differently and flipped. There are actually four versions, of which I’ve chosen these two as final versions. Final, of course, being relative.
Frustration can set in when variation after variation never seems to reach a conclusion, and I’m thinking of my own recent work ‘Chalk Angels’ that I spent literally days on. In that case, rather than multiple variations, it was a matter of applying technique after technique to the same work, never quite feeling like it was finished.
So many works, I’ve gone back later, sometimes years later, and created a new variation. Art becomes an analogy of the human experience - a constant morphing towards possibilities.
Creator and the creation. Are they ever finished with each other?
Everyone has been affected by Coronavirus by now. One of the galleries I exhibit at has postponed its new exhibit and closed for two weeks, and a second, while its new exhibit opened, cancelled the opening reception. I assume the gallery itself remains open – you know what happens when you assume. A third gallery is about to host its big annual judged show – I’m holding my breath to see how that comes down. A concert I have tickets for has been cancelled and the venue closed for two months – not weeks, months (which is actually what the Center for Disease Control would like everything and everybody to do). My son works a couple restaurant jobs – also waiting to see what comes down with that. At least a couple trips to the ballpark have been postponed indefinitely, and every sporting event I follow on video has shut down.
And the thing is, I’m a big fat introvert! I don’t go out that much anyway. Think how the social butterflies are feeling.
As I wrote this, an alert popped up that the stock market is once again suspending trade. That, to me, just underscores how unsuited our societal institutions in general are for a pandemic like this. So much of our civilization is based on uninterrupted individual production. One person goes down with the flu at work and everybody’s work plans are thrown off for a couple days. We have few institutional provisions for people not being productive for longer than a couple days. People are encouraged NOT to get sick; functionally, it results in people PRETENDING they’re not sick.
And now, to stop this, we’re assuming that everyone is pretending.
Stop almost everything to combat Coronavirus, and our social and economic institutions that count on nothing stopping are going ape shit.
And, folks, it’s just starting
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I want to say I’m quite proud of this work. It went exactly the way I envisioned, from the capture onward. That it went that way suggests I’m getting a slightly better handle on the many new tools and techniques I’ve been exploring. Which is not to say getting there did not produce its variations …
Over the years, I’ve gone out of my way NOT to capture photographs of people. Now I’m doing exactly the opposite.
I avoided it for so long mostly for privacy concerns. I didn’t want to put work out there of some anonymous stranger only to have that stranger show up later complaining that they’d never given me permission. Forget that such captures would always be gathered in public places. Do I have a right to use the image of someone for my own purposes? I suppose that’s the ‘straight arrow’ side of my personality coming out; I’m fine stirring the pot up, as long as I don’t REALLY get in trouble for it.
What’s changed is that the abstraction techniques I’m using now are so compelling when applied to human figures as to overwhelm any fear I once had in capturing them. That, and that when I’m finished applying these techniques the identity of an individual pretty much vanishes. At least eight faces are clearly depicted in today’s work – could a positive ID be made from any of them?
Oh, sure, this was a public event and the individuals captured were part of an organized group conducting a planned activity, so, yeah, those involved probably have a fair idea who was who. But all those factors, in my current view, make them fair game.
A story is told of a young person in a small, poor village who wants to buy his teacher a gift. Being poor he has nothing he can give her. The ocean, the most magnificent force of nature in his life, is just 20 miles away. So beginning early one morning he walks all the way to the beach, takes up a handful of sand, walks all the way back to his village and places the sand on his teacher’s desk. “The journey”, he tells her, “Is part of the gift”. This parable has always struck me as an especially poignant means of conveying that the heart and effort that goes into an act is more important than the act itself.
But everything can be turned on its head. It’s struck me that art traditionalists take the same tack in considering digital and photo art. Anything touching a computer is found to be inadequate; only brushes and paint are judged a legitimate long walk to the beach.
However, turns out there’s more to the story than what was once told to me. The teacher is actually quite popular. There are others in the village who, equally poor, recognize the symbolism that a little beach sand infers. Another young person, who is quite social and vivacious, convinces a slightly older person who’d studied under this teacher to lend him a bicycle. He makes the same journey to the sea and comes back with the same size handful of sand, albeit he makes the journey faster and with less effort. Another young person hires himself out working nights in a small business until he has earned just enough money to afford a bus ticket. His journey involves less physical effort, but he must endure the mental anguish of traveling the crowded and somewhat dangerous bus route. He too comes back with an equal sized handful of sand. Finally, a fourth young person remembers her friend from the youth congress she attended, who happens to live in the city by the ocean. She writes her friend a letter, and the friend then mails back to her, in a small container, a handful of sand.
So there the teacher sits on her birthday with four piles of sand on her desk, each of them obtained through compelling journeys, each of them reverberating with the sounds and scents of the vast ocean, each of them brimming with heart. Were she to consider one more beautiful than the next she would not have become a great teacher.
The anthropological record is filled with societies who died off due to their inability to change with rapidly evolving conditions – rapidly evolving conditions in climate, viral, and societal forms. Art is illustrative.
Art was arguably relatively stable until the rise of modern art, including the Impressionists, in the late 1800’s. Society was already rapidly changing as the Industrial Revolution facilitated transportation and communications revolutions; economies were becoming global and ideas could be rapidly shared. The human ‘toolbox’ for conceiving and affecting the world grew from a handheld box to a factory-sized space with no walls. Established communities (audiences, critics, educators, aficionados) have taken years to ‘get it’.
Artists themselves are not immune; stuck on certain techniques, certain mediums. Stuck on things we’ve learned inside and out (often haven’t at all) and know how to control (and actually can’t). It’s understandable; a certain technique sells, and a new direction sits around collecting dust.
It’s worth suggesting that the lure to go off exploring new directions is what defines ‘Art’. Break away from the ‘old’. Evolve with conditions.
I admit it – three quarters of the time I start working on a piece, I’m just playing. In more serious moods I call it ‘experimenting’. Nah – it’s playing. It’s diving joyously into a pool looking to see what works there.
Now, the quarter of the time remaining, I start working believing I know exactly what I’m doing … yeah, most of the time I’m wrong and I end up playing anyway. For me to predict exactly what a given technique is going to achieve is like a weatherperson saying they know exactly what second NEXT WEEK it’s going to start raining; there are just too many variables. Until last summer I had only so many balls to play with, and I knew how each of them bounced, so I had a fair idea the direction I might be taking a piece even if I was playing. As I’ve learned more, however, I’ve got all these new balls. I dare say I have ten times the balls I used to have, and, because they’re new, I mostly only have the vaguest of ideas how each of them bounce. So now, it REALLY is play!
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I had something more serious in mind for the bunnies – something more akin to last year’s ‘Marked Down Man’ that is on exhibit at the Soulard Gallery for about another week. But as I’ve said before, all it takes is the most subtile shift in lighting or subject to completely throw off how one work unfolds in comparison to another work that seemed to be, but turns out wasn’t, identical. There’s a point while playing when I expect something artistically serious to emerge, and I expect it right up to the point it doesn’t. And then it’s just school at recess.
Juxtaposed from the complicated techniques featured of late, sometimes the best art is the most straightforward, the simplest. In this work, great depth is achieved by the layers of light and shade provided by the forest itself. All the artist need do is extenuate the strengths of the photograph. Often the most powerful artistic technique is simply not doing anything stupid.
… or is that not as simple as it sounds … ?
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This is often a difficult time of year for me because by now I’m pretty much out of good photographic captures. I find winter a lousy time of year to shoot; once the Christmas lights are down all you’ve got is a cold, dead world. The light is bad when there’s any light at all. (I actually lined up a shot while running an errand this morning, finished the errand and grabbed my camera, and discovered any semblance of decent light had vanished). I start combing through my captures from the previous summer and autumn to see if I missed something or I pull something I’d previously brushed past to see if maybe I can pull something from it.
It’s always a relief when I find something like today’s work; something that, once I’ve worked with it, is actually pretty good. I wonder if I’ve got more there.
That said, it’s time for me to grab the photo bag, make sure all the cameras are charged, get my feet moving on the pavement. I can go another week, maybe two, before I’m out of material unless I bring more home. This is when the new year truly begins.
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Update: Just after writing this, while getting my Nikon ready, I discovered it contained a cache of captures from last October’s Porchfest that I’d forgotten about. The well is again full!
All my life I have had to learn to do things differently. To see the world differently.