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Art is not pointing

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This essay came about from the discussions generated in my weekly IDEA groups on art and photography. [ sept 7 2013 ]

Art is a conversation with the visual, philosophy and society.

This conversation has been going on for as long as people have made what we call “art”. We join that dialogue, adding our voice to it, along with an interpretation of the ongoing conversation and ideas being explored. Without a knowledge of how and what created this conversation as well as the topics and context, the risk of our work being only self-referential is high. (Yes even a blind pig finds an acorn now and then but not often enough to sustain itself.) Having a purpose and something to say is a requirement for any work to be art, even if that references past art works or is intended only for those with an understanding of art history. It is impossible to make significant art without some knowledge of the dialogue that came before, the history of the media, and the context in which that conversation existed.

Expression of self doesn’t add to the conversation that art is. It is through being part of the conversation art has been having for all of time with and about philosophy, society and the ideals that makes us human. The Self being all important to this conversation is an indulgence with meaning for that person but is hardly relevant to much else. Modern myth that we are all artists is bunk; no-one has that as innate ability. The potential may be there but it isn’t through technical learning or mastering a craft that makes a person an artist. It is through understanding the conversation art is. Then moving beyond the narcissistic self in what we make in order to join in that dialogue.

Curiosity drives art. A rebellious curiosity that wonders and looks for the alternate or personal view that relates to the art dialogue with meaning for more than just oneself. Filtering that conversation through our unique personal experience and voice adds to the history of the conversation. I often wonder about those so self-important who they think the world should be interested in their “self expression” as art. If what we engage in doesn’t reach beyond self, how does it stand as something important enough for others to pay attention to?

I have heard it said art was pervasive in everyday life in other times. This isn’t true at all. Craftsmanship was but not the art that lasted. Salons, apprenticeships and a continuing discussion with other arts and artists shaped the next generation as they learned how to master the craft it took to make art. The art that shapes how we see the world isn’t done without a reference to the history of art or that ongoing dialogue. And for those of us who are photographers, we need to know who came before us and how they brought photography into the larger art world.

Photography itself is in a strange place due to it being a relatively new media and not having the history that other forms of art have. The uses photography is capable of other than art, muddies the waters on how it is viewed as an art form. With the advent of the popular notion that everyone is an artist (which didn’t exist in previous times) came the idea that study or understanding don’t matter in the making of art. The technical of composition, line, form and such are all anything really needs in order to be considered art. Photography is one of the biggest offenders of this because of the technical which makes learning to be competent a fairly painless process. What the older forms of visual arts taught during the learning it took to be competent is cut short or even missing because of the emphasis on this technical side of making photographs.

With all that in mind, I’d also tell you not to think about the above when engaged in creating something. Instead follow your curiosity and the need to see something made with your point of view and voice in it. Don’t strive for profound or even unique, instead strive for something that expresses your opinion or view or curiosity or need to understand. At the risk of adding to the buzz words – be authentic, be you and use what and who you are to stand for something. Then show me, tell me, or make me as the audience see, hear, feel or understand that point of view or opinion.

[As a side note no artist of any stature I have ever known uses the terms “my art” it is always my work, my paintings, my photographs etc.]

ART and IDEA

 

The IDEA group Sabrina wrote about on her blog last week is an off-shoot of the Artist Round Tables (ART) but with a different focus. It’s along the same idea of understanding and developing voice but we also look at how our own work fits into the larger scheme of art and the world around us. It’s said that those who don’t study history are doomed to repeat the past and the IDEA group is a step in non-repetition.

Making images that matter–ones that will have an impact or be of lasting importance–takes much more than good composition or an understanding of the “rules”. It requires an understanding of what makes the iconic images that shaped photography important and how they relate to the times that shaped them. This is more than just a visual exercise and requires looking beyond the visual surface. Understanding art and images is also understanding of the relationship of art to its own past, how it relates to the social and political times in which it was made. The importance of an image like Pepper #30 goes far beyond tonal values or composition–those things are only supporting props to what makes this image so important and lasting. Much of this work was aimed at higher goals. Unfortunately those goals seem to have gotten lost in the pursuit of craft for craft’s sake in today’s “hurry up” world.

IDEA is a group of 5 photographers with relentless curiosity and a desire to make meaningful images using their own voice. The image discussion and understanding the impact of these images on the world and the art of photography allows us to see how they have shaped our current standards. And learning the all things that go into making art will allow us to develop a voice and say something new.

I’d like to invite those of you interested in discovering your own voice to apply to this year’s Artist Round Tables. This relationship of our own work to the history of art is sure to come up along with the reasons and ways we can develop unique work that will matter beyond our times.

 

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The Myth of the Muse

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In the 40+ years of making art and sharing ideas and working with other artists, I have never heard any references to “the muse” in any way, shape or form. I believe it’s a word or label that critics, writers, and dilettantes use for the exploration of an idea to its conclusion.

“The muse” is something that has always be referred to by those with barely a glimmer of the sweat, hard work, and risk that go into an idea, image or a piece of work. For them, it appears that attributing that kind of exploration of an idea to a mystical process makes it more palatable. In my view, labeling the effort as something mystical reflects a misunderstanding of the process of exploring an idea to a conclusion and it is demeaning to the person who created the work.

“Muse” and “inspiration” are not the vocabulary of working artists but are used by critics and those who write about art. Words passed on to people learning the art and craft from those who teach art from a formula. They are also words used to define the parts that elevate some works out of formula or work that doesn’t fit into the rules. How else does someone who can’t envision the process or has no real experience define the creative connection? Making it something magical or esoteric is more romantic than hearing about all the failed attempts and much easier than explaining true inspiration or influence.

This muse is misrepresented as much as finding a passion or inspiration is misunderstood. Ideas or a creative thought appear to come unbidden from a magical place but to a working and long-term creative, they come from connecting the dots. The dots are the influences we have stored and adapted from looking and analyzing lots of different arts, from reading and feeling the world around us in the arts. Ideas come in many forms and putting them together is the job we have set for ourselves.

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Rear Curtain

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Rear Curtain is the brainchild of Ray Ketcham who collaborated with two photographers he was mentoring, Matthew Connors and Sabrina Henry. At its heart, Rear Curtain is about storytelling. Ray believes images hold the potential to share some of the most powerful stories that connect us no matter where in the world we live. Finding stories that link people to one another and that reflect how we are all the same can make the world a better place. Through sharing our lives and those of the people around us–our family, friends, neighbors, and our community–we can move others to new points of view by showing what we all have in common regardless of race, culture, religion or geography. These stories can improve understanding and influence behavior, all with the hope of–in some way–changing the future.

The mission of Rear Curtain is to be a place for emerging visual storytellers to share the stories that are important to them and also to be a resource of learning tools for those who wish to advance their storytelling skills.

Today Ray continues to expand the collaboration by working with several additional photographers to bring ordinary stories about extra-ordinary people from around the world. He believes the most important thing you can do is tell the story your neighbor or community needs told, and in a lot of ways, it’s harder and more important to tell the story close to home to prevent the familiar from becoming invisible.

To find out more, please visit RearCurtain.com.

Looking for Passion

In a recent post by Sabrina Henry–one of the photographers I’m mentoring–some questions were raised on what is passion and how to find your passion. As is our usual practice, it became a conversation that I believe is important to many of us. For any art, the search for answers is individual and no one way fits everyone. Discovery of these answers can be guided by what others have done or their experiences in finding them but ultimately the hard work needs to be done by the person seeking them and are very personal. Below is part of my conversation with Anita who first posed these questions to Sabrina.

Do you need passion before you get to work or does getting to work making photographs “wherever you are” help develop/uncover passion and desire?
How do we find/understand what we want to say?

I have thought about these questions for a week and a way to put an answer in writing that makes sense for you. The problem with email or writing something is that it becomes a semi-definitive answer that may not fit everyone. Without feedback or that interaction and the ability to see how the words fall on someone, they become sort of sterile and may not be the right path for that individual. That’s much of the problem with books on the arts and photography and the problem with so much of the online jabber. An idea becomes diluted or misdirected when it isn’t a conversation. One way doesn’t fit everyone. So with all that said, I’ll attempt to help or at least try to give you a way to find your own answers because your answers will be yours alone and won’t fit anyone else.

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Craft

Something a little different today. I have been encouraged to share a little of an email conversation from several weeks ago. Take it for what it is–just my opinion on what importance craft has been given in photography.

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Something was said the other day that got me to thinking about the difference in craft and art. I have had a little experience in both so thought I would rattle a little on the differences as I see them.

My art work came first along with the study of art and time with both my mentors. One of the best things about not being locked into a “career” is I have had time to explore other things (I won’t go into the bad parts of that). So in time I went to school and studied gunsmithing and as usual I went into it full bore and worked my hardest to become one of the best around. In many ways I succeeded in the pistol end of this and in building and custom work on very high end skeet and trap shotguns. I did learn a lot on the nature of craftsmanship and how it applies to artwork and other disciplines from my time working on beautiful objects. Huge amounts of money are spent on these types of firearms and only the best wood, metalworking and workmanship is expected. Although I have seen firearms whose beauty and workmanship would take your breath away, I do not consider them art, even when I have heard the term used to describe them. The finest craftsmanship and beautiful materials don’t make a work of art. They will make a beautiful object that is a joy to hold and view, as well as an object that continues to provide that same pleasure over and over every time you see or hold it.

This is true also for some photographs and other works of painting or sculpture. However the part we admire is the skill and ability of the person who made it, not the message or voice of the piece its self, much the same in a fine firearm. The difference is that craft is about the skill and mastery of that skill–not the image. Art is about the image and the skill will either add to that or become secondary to the work’s message and soul. It is my contention that many folks in photography have been caught up in the skill portion of the work and can’t differentiate between the mastery of skill or voice or message. When they combine, it makes the creation of a clear voice easier but it isn’t about how it is told as much as what is said. Not all works have to have the voice of Shakespeare to be eloquent or get the meaning across. Some photos can use the simple voice of Steinbeck and tell a story as well or even use a voice and skill set we don’t know about yet. I admire craft for the skill of the person making the work and I admire them in the work. That isn’t the same as having the admiration for the work and what it makes me feel. If the work can transcend the craft with message and feeling it, becomes much more than just the maker’s skill. Read more »

Do You See Stories?

 

Jack and Kristy-9065Do you see stories? I know it sound like a bit of a funny question but I do. It may come from a lot of people-watching in airports or public places. One of the things I do is sit and watch folks and try to figure out their story. In a lot of cases if it isn’t obvious, I will make one up to go along with the way they look, walk, stand etc. It’s an exercise in imagination. Sometimes the really interesting things are the stories that should have been instead of the ones that were. If it isn’t there, make it there. If it is there, tell that one, but tell a story that is worth listening to.

 

More ideas and truths are expressed in fiction than ever in non-fiction. Fiction doesn’t have facts to get in the way of truth.

As usual I am on another ramble that will only make sense to a few, the point I am attempting to make is to see stories in everything around you. See the story that went into the shopkeeper’s job and life, the story that went into making the hot rod at the car show, the story that walks with the elderly at the supermarket and so on. See the story that happens when you combine things that don’t look like they fit together, see the story in the sunset and the gardens you photograph. Seeing these stories will add meaning to the images you make and help you to see even more. See past what the world hands you!

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Projects of a Personal Kind

Before I get into what has been in the works, tonight I wish I was in Vancouver for dinner and conversation. Dave, David, Mary and Sabrina are getting together to talk photography and have dinner. I was graced with an invitation which means a lot to me from this group of folks. Unfortunately due to a personal project and timing, I can’t make the journey; I really do wish I was there tonight. However this is one of the last two nights of shooting on the project in this location.

Personal projects, even the small ones, sometimes take on a life of their own.

After all the years of riding I know a lot of different people and from all sections of the biker world inculding a lot of guys in the Christian Crusaders MC. It’s a ministry that preaches to outlaw bikers and they move a tent meeting around the western US.  About the time I was starting to work again on a series of portraits of guys who have been riding for 25 yrs or more, I found out the CC would be setting up a revival tent in my area for two weeks. I managed to call in a couple of favors and secured permission to shoot the whole time they were here, both in the tent meeting and in the camp they take with them wherever they go.

I am drawn to the faith-based images even if the work is in the east but to me, a revival meeting is as foreign as any celebration in India. Knowing some of these folks and a little about them, I sensed a lot of that same passion and power in these folks that I see in others’ images.  My curiosity and need to see took over and away I went, looking for that kind of emotion and power. The color of a foreign land isn’t there but the rest is. Being the whole project is taking a somewhat photojournalist feel to it, the images take on a B&W feel to them that also fits with the folks and location.

Lots of white backgrounds and people who are focused on the sermon not on the photographer, is a real different feel than my normal way of working. It makes for a different aesthetic than I am used to and also drives home the fact that color and location don’t make a style, vision does. The expectations I had going in have all been thrown out the window and new ones replaced on a daily basis.

The plan is to put this whole mess into some sort of coherency as a book and couple of slide shows. So I will be updating the progress as it occurs along with a few here and there from the Rhody parades which I covered for four full days (that is a lot of parades). Wish I had more to say on all this but for me it is tough to describe the swamp when you are standing in the middle of it.

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What’s in Your Wallet

There has been a lot written about self-assignments and I figured I’d throw my take on the issue into the mix. To often I see a self-assignment that involves technical issues, the idea of only using one lens or f-stop or something that has to do with the technique of making an image. This is great for learning the gear but it won’t make better photographs from a vision point of view. Technique is fine but isn’t a substitute for something to say. I am as guilty as the next guy for making a technically good image that isn’t something that you really want to go back and look at twice. One of my mentors in sculpture Gerry Conaway once told me that “Great art was art you saw something new in every-time you looked at it“. For what it’s worth, I believe these should be words to live by–if you want your work to mean something and stand the test of time.

So for a self-assignment I have reached back into something I used to do in the old film days when I was broke and a student. I take an old “not so worth keeping” slide (I’m pretty sure most of us have a few) and cut out the film then slip it into my wallet. When I see something that may make a decent image, I take out the slide and frame the image. Then once I have an idea of what I am trying to say, I think through the technical such as depth of field, exposure, etc. The point is to see the image without all the technical stuff getting in the way.

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B&W TV

TV-Light-022The Story

About 18 years ago I was hurrying to catch a ferry late at night and drove by an apartment that was dark except for the reflection of TV light bouncing off the ceilings on the upper floors. The light show was so fascinating that I drove around the block a couple of times and then parked and watched the light long enough to miss the ferry. One thing about having a ferry system is you get a fair amount of time to think while waiting for them. I got the idea to try and see what those lights would look like in the woods. That weekend was spent going to a lot of garage sales and buying several $5 B&W portable TVs and a lot of extension cords; I even got a few donated just to haul them off. Finally ended up with 8 working sets.

The nice thing about having 5 acres of brush and trees and neighbors that already know you are a little out there, is you get to do things you want. I scattered the TVs at the end of a bunch of cords back into the woods up and down the main road and turned them all on to different channels, pretty much Canadian channels as that was all I could get on the antenna then waited for dark. It was a pretty good show driving by slowly, with light bouncing around in the trees and out to the road, all changing by the second and with no sound or real reference to a TV show. When asked, I told folks that I liked TV so I wanted to share it with the squirrels on the property. Left them on for about a month at night, now they don’t ask me much about what I am doing even after all these years.

The Point

When it comes to an idea or a photograph, don’t ask someone else what it will look like, go out and try it. There is no substitute for seeing it yourself. Experiment and do the stuff that is really out there, you may not get a second chance to try. The forums are full of people asking what this light does or how it works or how do I do this or that. The answers they get are really meaningless without the experience itself. Light never looks the same way twice. I could have let the whole thing go and wondered how cool it would have looked, now I know and so do a few others and that is something that can’t be taken away.

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