At ground level, cities seem large and often impersonal. From high above, the view seems endless and make me feel more significant. At the same time, standing there looking at this view is almost like looking at a picture of the view. Thirty three stories high, in a large conference room with sealed windows, there is a disconnect from the sights and sounds of the city and the experience of being in the city is altered.
I made a few images today that reflect my growing interest in the immediate landscape - the space we currently occupy and spend much of our time in. It's important to use our eyes to find things of interest, little delights that give momentary visual pleasure, larger vistas that provide that sense of perspective and define our relationship to where we live. I love spending time in the forest and along the shore making images, but the vast majority of my time is spent in the city, at home and at work. Today I'm traveling on business, and while waiting to depart I found myself intrigued by lines and reflections. I love the way the lines of this airport building draw our eye to the horizon, the feature of the landscape that defines, and fails to define, our destination.
As I continue my reading of commentators like Frank Gohlke, Robert Adams and Gerry Badger, I've come to realize that one of the best things about photography is the way it can easily be integrated into every day life, and that the banal events of the every day can be suitable subjects for photographs. I think this is a natural outcome of doing this formal, "daily practice" exercise for a year - a repudiation of the idea that photographing is a special act reserved for times of "serious" art making and an appreciation for the possibility of integrating knowledge of composition and form, intent and expressiveness, into images of any subject made at any time. I will continue to make series of images like "That Summer at the Lake" and "My Beloved Rises from Her Sleep", but I can see that I will no longer restrict myself to making, or looking for, such specific series. An artist on Flickr whose work I greatly admire is Amy Fichter, who has been making images that acknowledge those singular moments of the day and express an appreciation for her surroundings as she finds them at those moments – her work greatly inspires me to integrate photography into my own day-to-day existence in a similar way.
So this is Appa. My sister-in-law is staying with us at the moment, and recently her daughter's cats joined the family here. Appa and I have a special relationship based on her unconditional acceptance of loving from me whenever she demands it. I generally come in the house through the basement when I get home, and for the past couple of months I have immediately heard a loud "thunk" from above me, rapidly sprinting little feet across the floor and down the stairs accompanied by little cries announcing the princess' arrival. Appa is in need of some immediate petting, but she is in constant motion while demanding that attention as I sit to take off my shoes and pay homage to her highness. So in one sense this is a mundane image of a banal moment in the day, but in another sense this image expresses that frantic motion with her eyes keyed into my hand at all times. One might question whether images like this are art, but I think that is too heavy a burden to place on a single image and I don't consider the question important to why I made the image. Viewers who have had cats in their lives will come away from this image with a personal memory of their time with cats and will also know a bit more about the personality of Appa. In my view, that makes this a successful image.
Every morning from early spring to the start of fall, I have sat on this little settee on the porch of the studio building to eat breakfast. It is a lovely shaded spot where I can deeply breath in the fresh air, enjoy the sounds of birds, bees and squirrels going about their morning routines. I also take the opportunity to do some reading while I eat breakfast. As you can see from this image, I'm currently reading Gerry Badger's book of essays on photography. I took this image to document my love of this morning routine, which will have to be abandoned in the colder weather of the winter. During those colder, darker, wetter winter months, this image will be one of the talismans I use to look forward to spring.
This morning I was reading the following passage in Badger's book, in an essay about the American photographer John Gossage. "Is the great photographer characterized by a style? There is a presumption...that photographers who are artists rather than mere photographers distinguish themselves as such by exhibiting a marked style. Therefore there is a tendency...to progressively distill one's vision, reducing the range of subject matter and its treatment until it can be claimed – usually by the gallerist – that so-and-so has developed an original and instantly recognizable style. Or are the really great photographers drawn from the ranks of those who reject visual style in favour of visual sensibility, those who recognize that the medium is profligate rather than reductive...Those accordingly who tend to put content before form...Great artists, great photographers, reach such a pinnacle because they do not follow the norm. They break the rules. They follow their instincts and convictions, not the herd and the smart money. But in my view at least, the best photographers come from the last category, those whose style and individuality emanates from deep within them, and is not...something grafted on from outside." Badger goes on to write: "Each clicking of the camera shutter should be a new adventure, an imaginative and appropriate response to a problem. Style in photography....should emanate from a particular response to a particular subject and a particular set of circumstances, acted upon by a particular sensibility." (Gerry Badger, "The Pleasures of Good Photographs", pp 89-90).
I find that Badger has hit on a number of key issues with making photographs. He does not dismiss style, but makes a distinction between the style that rises from within the photographer vs. the a stagnant, repetitious branding "style" that boxes a photographer into a very narrow range of subject and treatment. I also view each click of the shutter as a new adventure where my goal is to produce an image that is appropriate in style to the nature of the problem/subject before me. I find that my daily practice is expanding, rather than contracting, my range of subjects and photographic responses to them. One of the reasons I reduced my activities on Flickr came from a realization that I was starting to select images to post based how well they would generate comments from my "followers". This situation made me very uncomfortable, the idea that I would not share images that spoke to me personally very strongly because I knew the "market" would not be very receptive to them. I rebelled against this narrowing of my photographic activities, a rebellion made much easier because (a) getting comments on a site like flickr is a completely meaningless, arbitrary indication of "worth" and (b) I don't need to derive income from the sale of my art.
I wanted to end by pointing people to two photographer friends whose work on flickr very nicely illustrates Badger's thesis that internally driven work may or may not have a cohesive visual style, but is none the less recognizable as images made by the particular artist. The first example is the work of Jan Gates, who has a voracious interest in walking the neighbourhoods where she lives and documenting all that catches her eye. The work is strong in composition and its use of colour, and it is readily recognizable as her work. The second photographer is JM Golding, who has a deep personal connection to the landscape. Although on the surface the images have a very similar visual style, one can readily sense that this style is generated from deep within the artist, and is appropriate for what Golding wants to convey about the personal impact these landscapes have.
I made this image when I returned home after a long work day. There's a rich tradition of making images with/by moonlight - there's something quite compelling about that isolated spot illumination. Although I realize that many will find the clothesline running through the frame distracting, for me it acts as a visual reminder that we see the moon everywhere - not just in an isolated park or forest, but just across backyards in the city. The pull the moon exerts on us is the same, regardless of location - a sense of longing and a call to adventure.
I've been walking past this bin on the way to and from my office for several weeks now, trying to decipher the message that's scratched into the side. The message was much more extensive, but most of it has been obliterated. So those three cryptic words are all that's left to us.
I was at the doctor's office for a routine check up today, and as I sat waiting in one of the exam rooms, I realized the room served the purposes of a confessional. I could hear faint murmurings of a patient and the doctor in a neighbouring room - no details, but that quiet murmuring made me think of someone making a confidential confession, seeking absolution from the doctor. I started to think what it might be like to make a series of images of non-religious confessionals. They might be straightforward images like this one, or perhaps dark and mysterious - shot from outside the space, a door half closed with the faintest hint of figures within. I'm probably not going to pursue this idea, but it illustrates what I love about making art - that freedom to consider any or all ideas, to think of how the idea might be developed in images, to consider how the images would (will) be made. It certainly kept me entertained while I waited, and gave the brain a nice work out in the process.
When I made this image, I was primarily drawn by the sharp, constrasty reflection of one of the newest buildings on campus in the windows of another new building. When I looked at it closer, I found myself loving the distortions, which called to mind surrealist paintings and photographs. The grid imposed by the window trim reminds me of David Hockney's collages of overlapping polaroids, which inevitably distorted the size and shape of the subject.
A scene I don't see every day - three pigs by the side of the trail, happy as pigs in....well, you know what. Actually, this little pig farm has played a part in my horse riding experiences. For some time I used to board my horse at a stable in the same area. Every now and then it's nice to give the horses a break from riding over jumps in the ring, and "ride them out" on the trails. There was a nice little "circle" route we could take - around the corner, down the road to this trail, along the trail to the next country road over, and then back along the roads to the stable. Now, most horses are extremely suspicious and frightened/worried about pigs. In fact, my horse could smell the pigs (not these, but their predecessors at the same farm) a couple of hundred yards away and wanted nothing to do with them. At the time, I didn't have enough skill or courage to get my horse to walk past this pig farm - we tried a number of times, but in the end we always "turned tail", and retraced our route back to the stable.
So as I was riding my bike down the trail today, I got a bit nervous about going past the pigs - how would my bike react? Would it rear, buck, or perhaps spin suddenly and dump me on the ground? Fortunately the bike remained reasonably calm as we went past the pigs, and later during the return trip I stopped to take this picture. I could see my bike quivering slightly on its kick-stand as I dismounted and approached the pigs, but with the picture taken I remounted and we went on our way back to the car.
I never cease to be surprised how often I embark on a little photographic walk, only to get no further than the back deck - completely stopped and engrossed by clouds. I find that clouds communicate in a language of emotion that is obscure and difficult to interpret. It is perhaps a language that reflects our own emotional state, where we find signs of hope, joy, foreboding, or fear in the clouds as a confirmation of what we feel at any given moment.
Alfred Stieglitz was the first to make a concerted series of cloud photographs as a study in abstraction, which he referred to as "Equivalents". The website for the Phillips Collection has this to say about the Stieglitz cloud images: "Stieglitz photographed clouds from 1922 into the thirties. A symbolist aesthetic underlies these images, which became increasingly abstract equivalents of his own experiences, thoughts, and emotions. The theory of equivalence had been the subject of much discussion at Gallery 291 during the teens, and it was infused by Kandinsky's ideas, especially the belief that colors, shapes, and lines reflect the inner, often emotive "vibrations of the soul." In his cloud photographs, which he termed Equivalents, Stieglitz emphasized pure abstraction, adhering to the modern ideas of equivalence, holding that abstract forms, lines, and colors could represent corresponding inner states, emotions and ideas".
I think one of the strongest draws that abstract images have on me is the emotional response I often feel viewing such an image. If one can get beyond the expectation of representation in art, or in the "treasure hunt" of finding something quasi-representational in an abstract image, what abstract art offers is a very personal, unique relationship with each viewer. An image that gives one viewer a feeling of joy may well invoke a different response in the next viewer. As an artist, I love making abstract images because they go hand in hand with experimentation. You start with no idea of the destination, and little accidents and happy circumstance guide the way to a completely unanticipated, satisfying image. What more could an artist want?
Title: "St. Peter Appears in the Sky, 1878 - Exhibit 03.004 from Dr. Hammer's Museum of Curiosities"
(click image to view larger)
It's been some time since I shared a story from my time with Dr. Hammer and his Museum of Curiosities. As I continued acting as his assistant, photographing the exhibits for a comprehensive inventory, I came across this photo in an album of religious images. To me, it looked like an early cloud study taken perhaps by one of the English photographers of that era. But when I showed the image to Dr. Hammer, his eyes became quite misty and he shook his head vigorously up and down. He claimed that it was irrefutable proof that St. Peter had appeared in the sky to a group of itinerant workers in Lower Saxony. One of the group was an amateur photographer, who recorded this sacred event. I couldn't see the figure of the saint at all, but Dr. Hammer excitedly circled St. Peter's head near the top of the photograph, and pointed out what he took to be the symbol of the cross on his breast plate near the middle of the image. Hammer was adamant that he could also see St. Peter's hands folded together in front of his body. Regardless of the veracity of the story behind the photograph, it was becoming clear to me that perhaps the largest curiosity of this museum was Dr. Hammer's intense, personal bond with each of the dodgy exhibits that it housed. I strangely found myself falling under their spells as well.
I was attempting a Chuck Close self-portrait moment in the bathroom, but just cannot bring myself to inflict that on either myself or the world at large. But I quite liked the ghosting and softening of edges in this little scene.
Oxidation of metals is a natural process of abstraction. This process of transient states is the fundamental basis of the Japanese aesthetic of wabi sabi. I found myself drawn to this particular subject by the luscious natural colours and tones, the layering of textured surfaces, and the irregular lines formed when layers flake off. There is a richness in that combination that is difficult (but not impossible) to achieve in paintings. But unlike painting, here the process proceeds by the natural laws of physics and chemistry, and there can be no hint of deliberateness in the result. An artist friend, Rhonda Usipiuk, made some metal sculptures under humidified glass enclosures to study and take advantage of this process. Rhonda and I shared an exhibition entitled "Redox" that explored the phenomenon of making art by relying on the changing oxidations states of metals. In my case, that was the oxidation of iron ions in the formation of cyanotype prints, in hers the oxidation of the metals of her sculptures.
Rustarium, Rhonda Usipiuk artist
In response to my musings about the vast gulf that lies between describing a work of art using words, and being able to view the work, my friend JM Golding made the astute observation "...maybe it would make more sense for us to try to describe our responses to art rather than discussing the art itself, since language is one tool we have to express our internal experiences". I agree with this idea completely, it is central to understanding how art works and also to our own growth as artists. There comes a point where simply saying "I really like that", or "I know what I like" limits our understanding of art. Being able to start to move deeper in thinking about what aspects of an art work contribute to its draw upon us greatly enriches the experience. By doing this kind of "critique" of art whenever we are looking at it, we inform ourselves about how different elements of a work contribute to the strong response it invokes in us. This is true equally for both works that we strongly appreciate, and those that leave us cold or uninterested. Doing this deeper thinking on a regular basis educates our eye, and leads naturally to self-critique - applying the same deep thinking to work we make ourselves. Making that part of our art practice is how we as artists continue to improve and helps us make works that have more meaning for ourselves, and others.
P.S. - I just saw this quote someone posted from Rainer Maria Rilke "Understanding is attainable least of all by critique." How ironic, given what I wrote above. However, I wonder if Rilke is referring to criticism, as in negative feedback. When I write critique, I'm referring to a deeper analysis of an art work, which should be a balanced consideration of what does, and doesn't, work in the piece and is not personally directed at the person who made the piece.
I had an odd e-mail exchange with a friend, let's call him "ALEX*" (*not his real name). He sent me and a another friend this e-mail:
Hello Gentlemen Photographers,
I have been meaning to send these out.
I lovingly shot these fine portraits one evening when I was otherwise unengaged. The images are the result of long exposures and movement. No digital trickery was used, and all effects were achieved "in camera". What a fine looking family!
Now, the problem was, there were no images with this message. "ALEX*" (*not his real name) is not above spoofing people from time to time, and what with him being a bona fide art school graduate, I thought he was doing a little spoofing in the best pomo traditions. So I responded "in kind", showering his "work" some of my most favourite empty-headed, meaningless flickr-type comments "awesome", "nice bokeh", etc. "ALEX*" (*not his real name), replied the next morning a little peeved with my smart-aleck response, with the actual images attached. Indeed, a fine looking family of people they were, too (and one was a cat, although it looked like some wild beast from the underground!).
I mention this because the original e-mail, with its minimalistic description of the "non-existent" images, reminded me of numerous times I've read reviews of exhibitions, or a discussion of an artist's many years of work in art magazines. It seems that there is a policy about these types of articles that states: "whatever you do, don't discuss the art shown in the two illustrations accompanying your article". Indeed, these articles are famous (at least to me) for going on ad nauseum critiquing or gushing about work that isn't actually shown in the magazine.
Which, in a very round-about way brings me back to Fairbairn's statement I talked about a couple of days ago, "Whereas art is unthinkable in the absence of either the artist or the work of art, there is at least no theoretical difficulty in conceiving of art in the absence of an audience". My question is this: is there an audience if the art work is only described, but not viewed? Can we appreciate art third-hand? In a way, it's an interesting exercise to first hear a description of a work, picture it in your mind from that description, and then view the actual work. It illustrates perfectly how inadequate a verbal description of a visual image typically is, which makes it interesting that we endeavour to discuss art. Perhaps the difficulty in verbally thinking about art explains why an entire, seemingly arcane vocabulary can and was constructed for use in critiquing art.
This was just one of those moments where I feel compelled to stop and make an image, even if water/sunrise/fog is pretty cliché. It captures the emotion that welled up when I looked to my left while cycling. And I like the historical reference to Turner's painting of a London bridge in the foggy morning.
I'm currently reading a book about Vitamin D, which among other things reveals that many people in North America have insufficient levels of Vitamin D, or are virtually completely deficient. There are numerous consequences to this, but one of the most striking is that these deficiencies may account for 30% of deaths from internal cancers. One of the reasons the author (Dr. Michael Holick) suspects for the plummeting levels of Vitamin D in most people is the very successful lobby by the dermatology community that any unprotected sun exposure is dangerous. Vitamin D is produced naturally in the skin by the UVB rays of the sun, and people who live closest to the equator have lower incidences of many internal cancers compared to those in more northern locations. Holick and many other researchers have calculated that many hundreds of thousands of cancer deaths per year might be prevented by ensuring sufficient vitamin D levels in people, while the increase in deaths from nonmelanoma skin cancer from getting the small amount of direct sun exposure to ensure good vitamin D levels would be no more than 3,000 per year.
I mention this mainly because it's a perfect example of how reductionist approaches to medical science can solve one problem but inadvertently can potentially cause a much bigger problem. And I think that a reductionist approach to photography can also be counter-productive. The most successful images do not simply emphasize form, or line, or tone - they incorporate all of these in ways that are true to the subject of the photograph. Minor White and Ruth Bernhard were famous for urging students to consider what it truly meant to be the subject - be it tree, rock - to truly connect to the history of the subject. It seems like hocus-pocus, but that deeper connection shows in the resulting work and is intuitively recognized by the viewer of the work. Focusing on one small thing, like reducing a problem in science to one element, loses the impact of what's outside that narrow focus.
The topic of discussion at our house this morning was organic lemons, and their propensity for rapidly going moldy while stored at room temperature. Not such a large problem if one can buy a few at a time, but it seems that the local stores don't stock bulk organic lemons, just poly-bags of them. I suggested that when we buy a bag, we juice half the lemons and freeze it for use in recipes. Elena suggested that we also freeze the rinds for a ready source of lemon zest. Two great ideas! Elena then said that it was a pity no one knew we'd come up with these marvelous ideas (are you getting the impression we aren't modest?), and I responded that an idea is great even if only the person who came up with it knows about it. Greatness does not require an appreciative audience (even if it's natural that we'd welcome the recognition).
My friend JM Golding introduced me to the essays of W.R.D. Fairbairn on the psychology of art. I found the essays at our local university library, and was just now casually flipping the pages of his first essay, published in 1938, entitled "Prolegomena to a Psychology of Art". My eye fortuitously fell upon this passage: "Assuming that the shipwrecked Robinson Crusoe was an artist, it would be ridiculous to maintain that there was no art in the Juan Fernandez island until the arrival of the man Friday. Whereas art is unthinkable in the absence of either the artist or the work of art, there is at least no theoretical difficulty in conceiving of art in the absence of an audience."
This statement is most likely taken out of context of what Fairbairn is constructing (I have not read the entire article), but I like the fundamental concept the statement addresses. It speaks to the fact that art making is really a private, personal endeavor. Thet resulting art has an inherent quality that cannot be altered by the opinions or response of an audience. I think artists strongly connected to their work do not consider a positive response a "validation" of the work. Of course it's a pleasure to get positive feedback on something you are so invested in, but seeking validation from external sources to me suggests that there is less commitment to the work and too much thought of "pleasing" an audience. I don't have Frank Gohlke's book "Thoughts on Landscape" to hand at the moment, but I recall reading an interview that was conducted in front of a group of art students. There was a discussion about the reaction of a West Coast artist who visited New York, but found the art in galleries to be less engaging because of a perceived lack of "soul" or more specifically personal commitment on the part of the artist. Apparently the students in the audience rejected this reaction of the West Coast artist, feeling that he or she failed to understand the cultural differences between east and west coasts. In particular, the students rejected the idea that art could be made for personal reasons, and that those reasons enrich the experience for both artist and viewer. Gohlke reacted very strongly against this attitude of the students. As for Fairbairn, I'm curious to read what role he attributes to the audience.
It wasn't an easy decision to make this photograph. I don't know how this shell came to be on top of the rock at the water's edge, but it most likely was placed there by someone. It's a composition that is too facile to create one's self by picking up shell, putting it on top of rock or placing it somewhere else to make a nice "still life" on the beach. Edward Weston made a somewhat infamous image "Shell and Rock Arrangement", where he placed a large shell within a natural rock bowl on Point Lobos to create a composition. He was severely criticized in some quarters for doing so, although he did not perceive a problem with what he had done - simply used the outdoors as a still life studio.
So my hesitation was borne of the concern that the photograph would look too contrived, and it would be inferred that I had "created" this arrangement. But in the end I could see some possibilities for deepening the tone of the rock and holding the creamy tones of the shell in the final image.
I went over to the library on campus today to get the 1983, expanded version of Helen Levitt's book of photographs, "A Way of Seeing". Levitt's lyrical photographs of New York street scenes made in the 1940s is absolutely captivating - the way children play, the random interactions of people on the streets look staged only because it is rare to see anything like this today. It's absolutely fascinating to see these images of children playing on their own, with make-shift costumes and toys, joining in games that are invented on the spot. There is such a spirit of inventiveness and imagination that is probably quite foreign to most of today's children with their organized play dates, soccer/dance/music lessons and demand for sophisticated tools of play (7 year olds with laptops?).
James Agee wrote a wonderful introductory essay to Levitt's work in 1946, and one of the passages really hit home with me regarding the problem artists (everyone) have with the visual assault we experience on a daily basis. In writing about the potential reasons why few photographers engaged in making street, or lyrical photographs Agee offered a few possibilities. "...it has become all but impossible, even for those who had it in the first place, to maintain intact and uncomplicated the simple liveliness of soul and of talent without which true lyrical work cannot be done. As small, quick, foolproof cameras became generally available, moreover, the camera has been used so much and so flabbily by so many people that it has acted as a sort of contraceptive on the ability to see. And more recently....the camera has been used professionally, a hundred times to one, in ways which could only condition and freeze the visual standards of a great majority of people at a relatively low grade...photographers who really have eyes, and who dare to call their eyes their own, and who do not care to modify them towards this standardized, acceptable style, have found it virtually impossible to get their work before most of those who might enjoy it..."
In many ways, what Agee wrote in 1946 nicely summarizes my on-going love/hate relationship with sites like Flickr. The vast majority of images one is exposed to on Flickr can truly act as a "contraceptive on the ability to see" and tend to freeze community visual standards at a "relatively low grade". However with some serious effort, Flickr does also offer those "who dare to call their eyes their own" a way to get their work before others who can appreciate and enjoy it. I have finally come to a personal way of using Flickr to get my work before a relatively small, select group of people whose work I respect, whose assessments of my own work I value and trust, and who do not simply constitute a mutual admiration society. Still, at the end of the day, I think the balance of time must be spent on doing one's work in response to the internal guide, as the surest way to avoid modifying one's eyes towards some standardized, acceptable style.
It was actually very pleasant this morning when I noticed the angles of the skylight in the kitchen. I thought of making an image, got distracted by cats and thoughts of breakfast and it was while I was sitting on the studio porch having breakfast that I remembered and came back in to make this image. As the day progressed, clouds rolled in and while I was working on this image it was pouring rain. All of which influenced how I decided to interpret the "negative", to create this image which is more reflective of how the day developed. And as I wrote that, I heard thunder which is so very unusual here.
In writing a couple of days ago that I was going to curtail my internet time, I was not referring to the time spent on this blog, or keeping up with the work of a few people who are special to me. Ted Orland wrote in a letter to Sally Mann back in 1974 a couple of things that resonate with what I have been feeling lately about all of this.
At one point he writes "The pessimist in me, however, suspects that a great majority of people operate from a position of neither intuition or consciousness. I rather tend to Oespensky's view that most people spend their days in a state of sleep, guided along paths laid out by habit or by others. The need is to awaken from that state, recognize the surrounding chaos, and give yourself permission to create from it your own cosmology."
Indeed - I fear spending my days in a state of sleep, guided along paths laid out by the habit of mindlessly spending time on internet trivia. Orland went on to write: "And another thing: I used to think that developing as an artist consisted largely of things like keeping an open and probing mind, analyzing the significant elements in the landscape, reading/discussing/attending the Arts, and so on. Lately I've adopted a much simpler view: that all one really needs is Time - time to do one hell of a lot of work! And time is created not by philosophizing about it, but by the discouragingly tangible bit-by-bit pushing aside of inessential tasks and distractions."
In many ways, it was this idea of devoting time to making work on a daily basis that started this project of "daily practice". I don't take Orland's sentiments to mean he felt an open, probing mind or deep thinking about subject, or reading etc weren't important - far from it, and I feel that keeping this journal about my daily practice has more fully integrated those aspects of art practice into my work. But I do agree with him that being more deliberate about taking time to make more work, is the most important thing we as artists can do. In the best case scenario, we are compelled to do just that, but the reality is that we all have lives that consist of many other aspects that must be included and balanced. On that concept, Orland wrote in the same letter: "It's a delicate task - matching input with output, life with art. Yet the need is exactly that: to integrate all (emphasis his) the threads of one's existence until they become a working part of the total fabric."
I consider this little journal one of the positive steps to a personal awakening.
I went back to work after a nice vacation, and two things occurred to me. The first was that I had not really explored the work place as a source of images for my daily practice. And the second was...that this flotation device is shaped like a bunny.
The shape of the device, which we use to incubate small reaction tubes in a water bath, has a certain irony. The campus where I work is renowned for its bunny population. Years ago, people started "donating" (i.e. dropped off in the dead of night) their no-longer-required domestic, pet bunnies. Over the years, with our mild winters and low predator population, and the verdant grasslands of the campus, the bunnies multiplied like, well, bunnies. To the point where as I leave campus at the end of the work day, I see herds and herds of the little darlings grazing the lands as far as my eye can see.
The POTB at the university decided that enough was enough, and it was time to cull the rabbit population....at which point the local media, national media (probably international media) and local citizenry got into the act. After much discussion, court actions, injunctions etc...hundreds of thousands of dollars will be spent (most raised privately) to capture the bunnies, sterilize them, and then send them to sanctuaries. Over 1,000 of the bunnies will actually go from our little Canadian island paradise to the wilds of Texas, where they will live out their days grazing in designated areas at an animal rescue facility.
Fortunately, I don't think Mr. Floaty has anything to worry about. Our other flotation device is shaped like a dragon - I don't think the fate of the dragon population on campus has been decided yet.
I had one of those distinctly bizarre flickr moments today. A few days ago I had left a comment on someone's lovely seascape image, which had a strong dark band of storm cloud across the top that seemed to be pressing down upon the horizon. It was a strong element in the composition, and I left a comment "The lowering sky...", a somewhat pithy and succinct indication that I found that element particularly compelling and a narrative element foretelling the coming of a storm.
I was checking back to see what other comments had been left on various images, and right below mine on this seascape was a comment that did not directly refer to the image, but the author instead took it upon himself to critique the previous 6 or 7 comments that had been left. The comments "excellent, beautiful, phenomenal, lovely" all got a thumbs up with "awesome" clearly being this person's favourite of the comments. A comment "stunning" was deemed to be heartfelt but used the wrong adjective; the person who left the comment "Silence..." was deemed to be slightly confused, and the critic deemed that my comment indicated I was completely confused. Ah, good times.
I was curious about this person who felt they had the right to critique comments left by others, and he turns out to be a professor (I have my doubts) slash educator in the fields of communications and public relations. Who thinks "awesome" is the pinnacle of commentary on a good image (well, it is so communicative!) and who thinks that coming in upon a discussion uninvited to play god with who "gets it" and who "doesn't" is good public relations practice.
Incidents like this are relatively rare, but this one came at a time when I'm given serious thought to curtailing how much time I spend on the internet. I am waiting to get a book from the library entitled "The Shallows" by Nicholas Carr. Carr apparently makes the case that everything we've learned from recent research into neuroplasticity means that while we may think we are shaping the internet, the truth is that the internet is shaping us. When book reading became prevalent, it encouraged us to focus and give careful consideration and deep thought about what we were reading, and these behaviours/talents/abilities were codified into our neural networks. The internet is changing that to shallow breadth and emphasis on speed. Whether that's what we want or not. Well...I know that I do not want that, I feel there's some evidence it's happening to me as an individual, I intend to take steps to stem the flood. I will certainly keep up with a couple of things on the internet (such as this blog), but many things are going to be dropped and much time devoted to forming habits and behaviours that re-establish strong focus and deep thinking.
It was a marvelous morning today: a cool/warm breeze that was as piquant as a good hot and sour soup blew a fresh smell from the ocean. I've been working my way through Frank Gohlke's "Thoughts on Landscape", a collection of essays written by, and interviews with, the photographer. Here's a snippet from page 192:
"Our experience of landscape involves a continual tension between the familiar and the new, the typical and the unique, between the tendency to fall back on comfortable habits of perception and the necessity for a heightened attentiveness to what is unprecedented in every situation. As a photographer my relationship to the landscape I photograph is one of dialogue. I am not simply the interrogator of a passive subject; I, too, am being questioned. I look at this place and ask "What is important here" and the reply comes back, "What is important to you". The work that results encompasses both questions."
Simply stated, I photograph the landscape because it is where I want to be; being along the shore, or in the forest, is always restorative for me. For the visually oriented, the landscape offers an infinite variety of details large and small to engage with; lines, forms and textures abound - it is like walking through a drawing or painting that is ever changing with the light, the wind, the rain. The photographs I make in the landscape are highly personal: in their details they reveal far more about me than they do of the physical moment at which each was made.
What I find most revealing about Gohlke's comment is his referral to "a continual tension" which exists in the landscape and our experience of the landscape. Successful works of art generally incorporate some kind of tension; it seems that landscape as subject brings the tension into play implicitly.
Title: "When the sun chased the ghostly kite runner"
(click image to view larger)
Today I ventured out to a place where people often hang glide, wind surf and fly kites. I had my 4X5 pinhole camera with instant and regular film, and I wanted to use the wider open space to do some sun drawings. There was a fellow there taking a break from flying his kite who was interested in the camera; "must be ancient" was his comment. He started flying his kite, and I tried to follow it with the pinhole: there's a bit of a ghostly image of the kite in the top centre of the picture.
While adults were interested in the camera (one fellow with a digital camera was quite amazed to see me using film), a young girl of about 10 or 11 was interested in what I was doing. I answered that I was drawing with the sun on film, and she asked if she could try. Her mother came over to watch, and I gave her very minimal instructions - move the camera around, up as high as you can and as low as you can, and from side to side. As I watched her, I also saw her rotate the camera and tilt it towards and away from the sun. She was a little worried that it wouldn't turn out, but after we pulled the instant film and peeled it apart, she was absolutely thrilled. As was I - she hadn't moved her body much when using the camera, but all the tilting she did brought the drawing right across the entire frame. I told her that her drawing was the best I'd seen, better than the ones I'd done so far. Her mother immediately thought of getting the image enlarged and printed to frame for her daughter's room. It was such a lovely, fortuitous encounter and in many ways affirmed how doing even the simplest, most spontaneous art making brings something special into a day.
My summer vacation is coming to a close, and I was working today to finish my "project" - which was to completely re-do my main web site. I was getting cabin fever, and went for a drive/stroll with the camera - the wind was up and the sea was a bit choppy this afternoon, but the sun was warm. I settled on at a favourite spot, enjoying the view of Mt. Baker in the distance, when the gulls started congregating in front of me. I felt as if they were an audience waiting for me to perform a party trick, but they were just facing into the sun and the wind, resting at the end of their day. After sitting peacefully for an hour, I felt refreshed and came home and finished the web site. Tomorrow I want to finish cleaning up and organizing the studio - as I was documenting some drawing and paintings for the web site, I felt the pull to do some new work. I'm also looking forward to getting out with the film cameras this weekend, too.
Parks play an important part in my childhood memories. My mother's family was fairly extended, with 4 sisters all married, living within blocks of each other in the city back east where I grew up. Each summer this extended family would go once or twice for a big picnic in one of the local parks. The sisters made mountains of salads and deviled eggs, there was pop and chips and hamburgers and hot dogs for the park BBQ. It was an enormous effort for everyone to organize this, but we'd have a wonderful, memorable meal while fighting off the bugs, the wind playing with the paper table cloths that covered the picnic tables. There was usually a lusciously ripe watermelon for dessert. I would play endless games with my cousins, and as dusk came everything would be packed up and we would all return home pleasantly tired.
I've lived here on the west coast for the past 27 years, and this is the first time I've really been in this park which is right downtown in the city. I was sitting on a bench, thinking of those wonderful family picnics, and remarking to myself how this park was similar in many ways to one of the parks where those picnics happened. I suddenly remembered that there were peacocks at that park long ago, and how we kids would wait in anticipation to see the peacock spread its tail feathers. Turns out, as I discovered on a walk to the washroom today, there are peacocks in this park as well. So in many ways the circle of present day and fond memories was completed.
There is nothing, and everything, remarkable about this image. On the one hand, it's a fairly standard family-type snap shot taken to commemorate the beauty of the park on a lovely day. But at the same time there are many remarkable things about this view: the interplay of blue against white in the sky, the change in the shading of the blue as you look down between the trees; the varying shades of green in the foliage, and the reflection of those trees in the dark, still waters. I was influenced to make such a "straight" image from my recent reading of Frank Gohlke's "Thoughts on Landscape". Looking at this image now inspires me to do a series of straight images that incorporate these little jewels of tone/texture/repetition.
Yesterday was a milestone - the completion of two thirds of this year of daily practice. I was feeling under the weather, and couldn't really muster the devotion and concentration when making the image, which in some ways seems a pity given the significance of the day. On the other hand, I did make an image which really is the most important purpose of a daily practice. I think Georgia O'Keeffe said that she went into her studio every day, even if all she accomplished was sweeping up or stretching canvas. The important thing for her was to go into the studio each day.
I was sitting on the porch of our studio this afternoon, and saw this fuchsia blossom laying on the step. Summer is coming to a close here, and the fuchsia plants are starting to look a bit dejected. As the final part of this year's project begins, I'm starting to consider what to do next year. Of course, the daily practice will continue, but this public face of it probably will not. It's unusual for artists to show work in progress, or working drawings/paintings/photographs to others. One of the inspirations for doing this project came from reading Edward Weston's Day Books. Although we now have access to some of Weston's journals, at the time he was writing they were private and reserved for his own purposes. After this year is finished, I think I want to continue with a handwritten journal - a somewhat less structured venue to write down thoughts, excerpts from readings and combine those in an organic way with prints of recent work. I believe that doing this will give me the breathing space to bring together information and give further thought before writing about it here.
I also want to be a bit broader in my definition of what constitutes my daily practice. For this year, it has been to make images each day, choose one of those images to post here, and write about it. I had planned after the first 4 months to print out all the images I'd taken up to that point, and then mount them in the studio so that I could look for emerging themes. I didn't anticipate the time required just to print the images, and to find a large enough space to put them up (basically a wall needs to be finished and prepared for mounting images). Essentially I need to take some days to look at recent work produced, and be able to recognize what is coming out of that work, or see where the work is going. So in 2011 that will be another component of the daily practice, and I envision that there will be days when I write here about what came out of those sessions of carefully considering recent work.
I almost never talk about the process I'm using to produce my images, because I have an aversion to the gear-head orientation that seems so common with people who photograph. I'm a firm believer that the equipment is incidental to the success of image-making, and this was the topic of a recent post at The Online Photographer. But at the same time, I have an embarrassing number of cameras, some of which have not seen much use. In the new year, I might restrict myself to using one camera/lens combination for a month, then change the camera/lens combination for the next month and so on. It seems somewhat arbitrary, yet successful art is often created within a limiting set of parameters chosen by the artist. Naturally there may be times when I will visualize an image that can't be realistically made with the particular camera/lens combination I'm using that month, but that means I will have to sharpen my eye to the possibilities within the range of the equipment. Years ago, one of my science mentors told me that I would have many more good ideas (in science) than it would be possible to work on. The same is true in photography - for every "missed" shot, there are thousands waiting to be recognized and used. If I do this exercise next year, I think at the end of the year I'll have a good idea of what is possible with a significant portion of my camera collection, and I will be able to logically pare it down (which I would like to do).
Naturally, much can (and will) transpire in the next four months, and how the following year is structured could change as a result. As it should.
The title of this blog is taken from Alexander McCall Smith's 44 Scotland Street series of books. Bertie is a wee precocious boy who's not allowed to be a child. His mother has grand plans for him, and has organized "The Bertie Project" to educate him well beyond his years. This blog is meant to be my own personal "Bertie Project" - a way to lead a more enriched life.