Sunday, November 28, 2010

The Beautiful Photograph

Recently my wife and I visited The Phillips Collection in the Dupont Circle area of N.W. Washington, D.C. We went to see the photography exhibit, TruthBeauty: Pictorialism and the Photograph as Art, 1845 - 1945. I highly recommend seeing this absolutely beautiful exhibit of 120 images ... it was one of the best exhibits of pictorialism I have ever seen. FYI ... the show closes January 9th 2011. Try not to miss it.

Another exhibit worth seeing of pictorial works is at The National Gallery of Art ... The Pre-Raphaelite Lens: British Photography and Painting, 1875-1875. Some of the works are by Lewis Carrol, Julia Margaret Cameron, Roger Fenton and Henry Peach Robinson. Definitely worth seeing.

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, photography was just beginning to make its mark on the art world. I say make its mark sparingly because photography was not really accepted as a true art form, but it was struggling hard to gain acceptance. Consequently, photographs of that period were made to look more like paintings ... the imagery was usually soft focus and poetic in form and subject matter. The prints were beautiful and at the time difficult to craft. Prints were made of platinum, gum, carbon and even gelatin silver prints. Included in the show were examples of prints that were hand colored/painted with water colors.

Over the years I have seen a lot of examples of pictorialism, specifically in shows at The Corcoran Gallery/Museum and The National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. to name a few, but never an exhibit encompassing all the "who's who" of pictorialism in one exhibit. Some of the greats represented were Henry Peach Robinson, Edward Steichen, Julia Margaret Cameron, Alfred Steiglitz, Alvin Langdon Coburn, Gertude Kasabier, Frederick Evans and even early pictorial works by Ansel Adams and Edward Weston.

I can not stress enough how beautiful the images were ... they were just drop dead gorgeous! The word  "conceptual" never really came to my mind. As we drove home, I began thinking about what has been happening within photography. It is all I hear are words like "contemporary" and "conceptual." Photographers such Jeff Bark, Gregory Crewdson, Paolo Ventura, Edward Burtynski, Erwin Olaf and Todd Hido are today's super-star conceptual photographers. Of course their work is beautiful ... but in a much different way. Their prints are huge and graphic ... modern looking as opposed to classic and timeless. The editions are small ... 5-7 prints total ... and they are quite expensive ... in the high five figure and even six figure range ... big buck for living photographers.

The question I ask is, what has happened to the beautiful  image? What about images made just for beauty sake ... no real intellectual concept other than showing the grand landscape, or sweeping panoramic views of rocks and ocean. It seems to me that today there is much more emphasis on the concept of the work rather than its sheer beauty. Craft seems to play second fiddle to concept. I suspect the traditional landscape in the genre of Adams and Weston are, for the time being dormant. What do you think?

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Photo Angst!

Ever get excited about going somewhere to photograph? You make plans and basically can't wait to start shooting ... well ...

At the beginning of the summer I began working on a new body of work.  For now it is titled "A Passage of Time." I am very fond of water and how it relates to the landscape ... being it ocean, river or lake. I have always been, for lack of a better word, a "water person." I love being in it, around it, seeing it and playing in it and on it. I can look at it for hours at a time and never be bored ... water is forever changing. I remember during my days as a photography student in Santa Barbara, California passing by the same water view daily. No matter if the sky was clear blue and I passed the same spot every day at the same time, the ocean always had a different look and aesthetic. I found the longer I stared at the ocean, the more it changed as time elapsed. What better medium than photography is there to be able to interpret and capture the passage of time of water and sky ... non that I can think of, but I am a photographer!

Many years ago I visited the Outer Banks of North Carolina ... all the way down to Cape Hatteras. It was fabulous ... sand dunes, wild untamed ocean and not many people. Perfect for image making. It had always stuck in my mind that some day I would like to return and spend more time photographing.

After a bit of planning, my wife and I headed south to The Outer Banks, aka, OBX. It was about a 6 hour drive from our home in D.C. We stayed at the Hampton Inn in Corolla, which is at the northern end of OBX. In hindsight, Corolla was a little too far north of Nags Head, Rodanthe and Cape Hatteras. Non the less, the accomadataions were quite nice. We had a mini suite with ocean view for about $119.00 per night including breakfast and warm cookies at the front desk in the evening.

Day one was a driving day. Consequently, we didn't arrive in Corolla until late afternoon, but did drive around a bit after checking into our hotel. It got dark early, so we grabbed a bite to eat and returned to our hotel room to plan the next day's excursion.

We were out and about early on the second day. While Corolla and neighboring Duck were beautiful, it was a bit too medicinal for my taste ... huge similar looking homes/McMansions with golf course type landscaping. Route 12 was the major north south highway. The further south we drove the more interesting things began to appear. My first stop to photograph was Avon pier, about 1/3rd of way between Corolla and Cape Hatteras. I was excited! Grabbed my camera and tripod and headed to the beach just under the pier. Here is where the fun begins. The wind was blowing about 35 MPH right off of the ocean and into my face ... sand was blowing everywhere. I wanted to make some long exposures ... yea, right! I extended the tripod legs and set the tripod down. The wind was so strong, it almost blew the tripod over ... and the camera was not even mounted. Well, there went that photo opportunity!
The rest of the day was no better. I had photographed in windy conditions before, but nothing like this. Consequently, we drove around the rest of the day taking note of places to return the following day, hoping the wind would subside.

The next day was no better, but another element came into being ... rain. Not just drizzle, but a downpour. To make things worse, the wind was still howling. What fun!

The following day was not much better except that the rain was more intermittent. Instead of heading south, we drove north towards the far northern end of Corolla and turned into the wild life refuge on Currituck Sound. It finally stopped raining, at least for the moment. Again, I grabbed my camera and tripod and headed for the water. Low and behold there was something worthwhile to photograph. As you can see from the above contact sheet, I only exposed 6 frames ... and one of them was a bracketed exposure. After my 6 exposure fiasco it began raining ... again! We headed back to the hotel. Talk about being disappointed!

Once back at the hotel, we logged on to The news was not good. Heavy rain and wind for the next 3 days. It was time to pack it in and head home. Not even a full roll of film exposed ... bummer!

We arrived home the next day about 9:30 PM. The following day, after a bit of procrastination, I headed to the darkroom and fired up my trusty JoBo film processor. Being a film shooter, one never really knows what you have until the film is processed and contact printed. That's one of the things that I like about working in film as opposed to digital. For me, this is what keeps the mystery of photography alive and exciting.

You be the judge ... Luck or talent? Your comments are always welcome.

FYI ... check out BWGALLERIST. A really nice on-line magazine that caters to fine-art black and white photography. You will even see an interview of yours truly!

Friday, October 22, 2010

Everyone is a Photographer

Since 2001 I have been a resident artist ... actually, I dislike the term artist ... I'm a photographer, at The Torpedo Factory Art Center in Old Town Alexandria, Virginia, across the Potomac River from Washington, D.C. Having a studio in one of the premiere art centers in the U.S. has given me the honor and privilege to meet people from all over the world. What amazes me more than anything is how many "photographers" I meet. Everyone who owns a camera considers themselves a photographer. My wife and I at one time owned a piano, but we never considered ourselves pianists. Seriously, I am not trying to be sarcastic or cynical. Just trying to prove a point about what I see going on in photography. Everyone is a photographer!

These are exciting times when it comes to photography. Never before have so many people been making images. Finally, due to technological advances, photography and the image making process (i.e. digital cameras and printers) is accessible to the masses. This brings to mind a term from ECONOMICS 101 ... "barriers to entry." What this refers to are the obstacles that get in the way or obstruct a person or company from entering a specific market. For example, auto manufacturing has extremely high "barriers to entry" ... financial, engineering, ruglatory, etc. Not too many years ago, the "barriers to entry" in becoming a photographer were somewhat steep. There were equipment costs (4x5 to 35mm systems), owning a darkroom, working knowledge of photographic chemicals and film and of course the ability to make technically competent, well composed images. Today, most people own a computer, a digital camera and color printer ... bingo ... you're in business! Digital cameras have auto exposure, auto ISO, auto focus, face recognition and vibration reduction. Heck, you don't even need a tripod! As you can see, today the "barriers to entry" with respect to photography are relatively low.

Taking into account that just about everyone today has the ability to make images/art, this has created an unbelievable paradigm shift in photography and the arts. The amount of images being made today is mind boggling. We as photographers have only scratched the surface ... stay tuned!

Susan Sontag, in her 1977 book "On Photography" writes about photography's role in society from the perspective of the 1970s. She speaks of how photography has contributed to our becoming voyeurs due to the amount of images being made as of the 1960s and 1970s, as well as their genre. She also discusses photography's relationship to politics. "On Photography" is a heady read, but considering the book was written in the 70s, it is as relevant today as it was then, especially with respect to photography's impact on culture. Think about it ... from the moment we awaken we are bombarded with imagery, both print and electronic. I'm getting dizzy!

I want to leave you with a thought ... based on the principles of supply and demand, does photography have the same intrinsic value that it had prior to the digital revolution? Your comments are always welcomed.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Is Bigger Better?

I've noticed in the past few years that prints have been getting much larger. Some are framed, while others are mounted on aluminum or face-mounted to plexi-glass. This is true for color as well as B/W prints.

What has happened to the intimacy between the viewer and the image? Most contemporary photography is printed large 30" x 40" and 40" x 60."

The only exception I can think of is the work of contemporary landscape photographer, Michael
Kenna. By today's standards, Kenna's prints are relatively small; approximately 7.5" x 7.5" gelatin silver prints matted 16" x 20" printed in editions of 45 ... postage stamps in comparison to the works of Andreas Gursky, Hiroshi Sugimoto and Edward Burtynski.

Kenna was interviewed for "THE PHOTO REVIEW" by Dean Brierly in 1997 for an article titled: "In the Darkroom with Michael Kenna." When asked if he ever prints larger, Kenna's response was, "No. I prefer the intimacy of the smaller print. I experimented with 16" x 20" prints in the late 80s but later destroyed most of them. Some collectors really like them but they just didn't feel right for me. Apart from the more obvious technical and optical considerations, what is more important for me is the relationship that a viewer has with the print. The eye comfortably views and focuses an angle of about 30 degrees. This translates into a viewer comfortably standing about 10 inches away from a 4" x 5" print and 3.5 feet away from a 16" x 20" print. Small prints have a greater feeling of intimacy - one looks into the print. Large prints are more awesome - they are something a viewer looks out at. I believe in fitting the print size to one's particular vision and prefer the more intimate engagement of the smaller image."

It was not so long ago that a 16" x 20" print was considered fairly large. 20" x 24" prints were considered very large. I can recall an instance about 15 years ago, when a client purchased a 40" x 40" print. At the time, due to technological limitations, I had a commercial lab make an 8" x 10" copy negative of a 20" x 20" print so as to enable them to make the large 40" print on roll paper. The original negative could have been enlarged at the lab, but there was so much print manipulation (dodging and burning), that I thought it best to copy a finished print rather than have a stranger try to interpret my negative.

Today is entirely another story ... either capture the image digitally, or capture an image on film, scan the negative and print on a large format ink jet or light jet printer that ranges in size from 17" to 104" in width. What a world!

Bottom line ... In my opinion, the desire to print large-scale is driven by the fact photographers now have a technology that has expanded his or her creative vision in ways unthinkable 10 years ago. Some imagery just looks better at 30" x 40" than it does at 16" x 20." We have essentially moved away from the so called "intimate" relationship we had with an image to one of an in-your-face life-like visual experience. It's sort of like going from pager technology to IPhone 4 technology over night!

When Dean Brierly asked Michael Kenna if the pendulum is swinging back towards smaller prints, Kenna says, "I honestly don't follow the photography world enough to know what is going on. But as you say, it is predictable that if big prints have become popular, there will be a pendulum swing away from them. As there are always dedicated followers of fashion, we also know the grass is always greener on the other side." Keep in mind this interview was in 1997 ... almost at the very beginning of photography's digital revolution.

Friday, October 8, 2010

A Personal Vision

I've been thinking about starting a blog for quite a while. The big question I faced is what to blog about? So many photography blogs focus on process and technique. Now, all of us photographers are in some ways interested in cameras, lenses, film, inks, papers, film/digital and PhotoShop. Photographic technology and process are great, but there is more to image making than the actual process by which we all make images. For me, photography is about communicating my vision. Cameras, inks, papers, films and software are only tools which help me communicate that vision.

Keeping the theme of communicating personal vision in mind, it's a good time to talk about one of my heros, Chuck Close. Just recently I finished reading the biography of Chuck Close ... "CHUCK CLOSE LIFE" by Christopher Finch. Close is an amazing artist and individual. Aside from the fact that he has been a quadriplegic for 22 years and continues to be at the top of the contemporary art world, photography has played a significant role in his art. He has a tremendous admiration for photography. His use of photography and understanding of the medium led me to do a bit more research into his personal views on the photographic art form and how it pertains to his personal vision.

I came across a book titled, "PHOTO WISDOM: MASTER PHOTOGRAPHERS ON THIER ART" by Lewis Blackwell. The book is a compilation of artist's statements about their work, process and creative vision. The book includes statements by such notable photographers as Michael Kenna, Loretta Lux, Mary Ellen Mark, Elliott Erwitt, Edward Burtynsky, Joyce Tenneson and Chuck Close to name a few.

Close really hit a nerve when discussing his attraction to photography ... He states "the thing that interests me about photography and why it's different from all other media, is that it's the only medium in which there is even the possibility of an accidental masterpiece. You cannot make an accidental masterpiece if you're a painter or a sculptor. It's just not going to happen. Something will be wrong." He goes on to explain that "this is photography's great advantage and its Achilles heel: it is the easiest medium in which to be competent. Anybody can be a marginally capable photographer, but it takes a lot of work to learn to become even a competent painter. Now having said that, I think while photography is the easiest medium in which to be competent, it is probably the hardest one in which to develop an idiosyncratic personal vision. It's the hardest medium in which to separate yourself from all those other people who are doing reasonably good stuff and to find a personal voice, your own vision, and to make something that is truly, memorably yours and not someone else's. A recognized signature style of photography is an incredibly difficult thing to achieve." In closing, Close says "photography's not an easy medium. It is, finally, perhaps the hardest of them all."

And I thought painting and sculpting was difficult!