Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Influences and Inspiration

I'm going to be taking a workshop at Lúz Gallery this weekend entitled "Visual Narratives", given by Susan Burnstine. In preparation for the workshop, we were asked to put together the following: a series of 10-20 images to discuss in the context of visual narratives, an image that best represents ourself (!), and one or more images that inspire us. I don't know how the other participants are finding the preparations, but at first I was a bit stumped by the second and third items. It took a while for me to realize which image best represents myself, and as I thought about inspiration I started to think outside photography. In this post I'm going to share some nascent thoughts on how artists working in mediums other than photography have influenced and inspired the work I do (and aspire to do) in photography.

Helen Frankenthaler

"Message from Degas"

I have long been a fan of Frankenthaler's work in etching and lithography. I picked this image because I learned a lot from it about proportions within space, the use of fine line to create contrast to large masses in a way that activates the composition, and most importantly that rules must sometimes be broken for the sake of composition. In this image, there is a large mass of darkness coming from the top of the frame. Our natural inclination (and one of the "sacrosanct" rules of composition) is to place such a large, dark mass at the bottom to "ground" the image. Sticking to the rules would not have produced such a strong, compelling work and would have decreased the sense of flow we feel in the yellow ground.

         "Sill life with carp" E. Manet                                  "To e.m." H. Frankenthaler

In the work on the right, Frankenthaler used the colour palette of Manet's still life, but she broke down Manet's composition to its most fundamental base - the distribution of colours and tones, thus transforming the classical still life into something far more emotional. This type of transformation is something I strive to produce in my photographic work.

Pat Steir

Starry Night: August

I've taken away several lessons from the prints and paintings of Pat Steir. If you look at this image, you can sense that it continues beyond the confines of the frame, which engages your imagination as you actively "fill out" the image. I learned that you can have an image that uses mostly dark tones with bright highlights in a way that doesn't feel high contrast but convinces you that you are looking at a normal scene with a full tonal range. The pattern in this image is random, but reads as if there is an order to it, one that can be discerned with further consideration. I also like the light pattern on dark because it makes me aware of the patterns of lichen and erosion on the coastal rocks where I live.

Richard Diebenkorn


"Ocean Park"

I've learned a lot from Diebenkorn about geometry in the landscape, how it can be used to create effective compositions (e.g. Cityscape), and not to fear having a large open space within a composition. Look at that huge expanse of blue in Ocean Park and imagine creating a photographic composition that crowds the contrasting elements into a small part of the overall image. When you look further, you realize this isn't minimalist to the point that we have basically a horizon line that fails to meet the "rule of thirds", but otherwise divides the space into two bands of tone - this composition contains several geometric and colour elements within that thin band at the top, that counterbalance the huge expanse of blue and are bold enough to hold our attention.

Gerhard Richter

"Drawing, 1999"

Drawings like these by Richter have taught me a lot about the importance of placing elements within a composition, about the importance of how the elements relate to each other, and about how information is transmitted to the viewer by these elements. Looking at this drawing, I can easily see a marsh scene, the shore with grass on the left, reeds in the water on the right. Looking at this makes me realize that artistic intent doesn't have to be sacrificed for clarity; the viewer can extrapolate from partially visible elements in either a dark or high key image to interpret the scene portrayed. Looking at this drawing makes me think of images of blade of grass in fields of snow made by Harry Callahan.


Richter is famous for his blurred, photorealistic paintings. This one is made from a newspaper photo of the body of Gudrun Ensslin, a founder of the Red Army Faction, who hanged herself in prison. For me, the blurring represents a truth about photography - that it can never convey the absolute truth. Of all the visual arts, we turn to photography as the purveyor of unvarnished fact. Yet it can never fulfill that role - the person who took the photograph has made decisions about composition and lighting that blur the facts, at least a little bit. The facts are blurred further by the viewer, who rarely looks upon an image in a completely dispassionate way, but brings interpretation and opinion to that viewing. Again, there is a slight distortion of fact. Add onto that the collected viewing by many people and the resulting polarization of opinions about the image, and then the truth is blurred further, just as Richter has shown in this painting. I find this idea freeing, because I don't have to feel that as a photographer I'm constrained to make images that are completely representative of a set of facts that are before me. I can be free to interpret what I see and make art rather than just a photographic record of facts.

Richard Serra


"One Ton Prop (House of Cards)"

I've learned a lot from the sculpture of Richard Serra about how objects not only occupy space, but also define space. The lines defined by the edges of the materials that he uses have made me look for edges and lines that "draw" objects and spaces in my photographic compositions. Serra also draws and makes prints, and it's interesting to see how he visualizes the transition of his three dimensional ideas to the two dimensional medium of drawing, just a photographer must visualize representing the three dimensional world in a flat object:


Edoardo Chillida

"Euzkadi V"


Chillida is another sculptor who also worked in drawing and printmaking. When I look at his work, I'm inspired to consider how I will produce the final work from my photographic practice. In the Euzkadi print, it is interesting to consider how he placed the image on the paper, how those decisions become part of the composition and define a larger space. In Gravitation, materials are layered, with cut outs to define space and spatial relationships as well as mark-making to distinguish different compositional elements. This work inspires me to question whether photographs must be a single layer (I'm not thinking of Photoshop here), what might be gained by combining different materials, using cutouts to reveal only parts of an image. There's also many things to take away from this work in thinking about making artist's books.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

IMPRINT: Opening from within

I was at the opening of the show IMPRINT at Lúz Gallery this afternoon. Here are some of the comments people shared with me:

I love the way the images relate to each other.”

The work has a really cohesive quality, a real strength.”

There’s a great flow to this show.”

You might be thinking from those comments that IMPRINT is a solo show. It consists of the work of eight photographers who are, in the words of the gallery owners “artists who have made a lasting impression on us during the last 12-months.” A group show with such flow and cohesiveness it gives the impression of being a solo show? Yes, thanks to the skill and talent of the curator, Diana Millar. I am very fortunate to be one of the artists included in this show.

Millar and her partner Quinton Gordon are consistently presenting work at Lúz Gallery with the intention of not only putting outstanding photography before viewers, but doing so in a way that transforms how people think about photography. As someone else said to me at the opening:

I always love coming to this gallery, (and I apologize if this seems like a backhanded compliment), because I know what I’m going to see is art, not just photography.”

In putting together a group show that has a sense of cohesiveness with high visual impact, a talented curator like Millar must bring together several elements. The first important one is image selection, looking over the work of the different artists and selecting the strongest images from each. At some point in this process, consideration has to be given to how the images from different artists might relate to each other, although subjects, process and visual approaches are going to differ. Eventually this leads to designing the show itself, planning how works will be hung in the gallery space to create a natural visual flow that creates that sense of cohesiveness.

In the case of IMPRINT, Diana successfully brought together the dreamscape images of Susan Burnstine, panoramic views of seashore and sky by Karen Curry and abstract light sketches by Gillian Lindsay in one physical zone of the gallery. From this description it might not seem that these images would relate to each other, but they share a lyrical quality and give the viewer a sense of passing from a internal view (dreamscape) to the external view (panoramic widescreen) to an almost subconscious view of the abstract light patterns. What I loved about this grouping of images was the way it invites inquiry – as a viewer you sense the flow and relationship between the works of these three artists before you can articulate why that flow exists.

The role of process in Gillian Lindsay’s work provides a nice bridge to the second zone created by Millar within the gallery space, where lumen prints from my series Taxonomy were hung along with the Surfland series of wet plate collodion tintypes by Joni Sternbach, the Polaroid images of Sea Life by David Ellingsen, the hand annotated landscape images of Lyndia Terre, the soft focus images of a fishing village by Jan Gates and the Mile Zero images by Quinton Gordon. Once again there is a nice flow and interplay between these diverse works, with an underlying link of documentation: of plants (Taxonomy), a closed culture (Surfland), biodiversity (Sea Life), mapping the landscape (Terre), of a disappearing culture (fishing village), and of the daily landscape (Mile Zero). Although the different processes used were quite diverse, from one to the next there was always at least one shared characteristic, which leads the viewer not only to connect process to process, but also to think about how each subject matter is best served by one process over others.

Usually openings are mainly social events held in the dark of night, where friends and family come to support the artist(s). They are characterized by being overcrowded, making viewing of the actual work difficult. Most of the time people stand in groups chatting, their backs to the art work. This afternoon’s opening was a welcome change from this norm. Held on a sunny afternoon, the work was shown to its best advantage under natural light. There was a steady flow of people, and while there was socializing for sure, I noticed that a lot of people looked carefully at the work, talked about it, considered it, and then went back two or three times to look again. The strength of the work drew them in the first time, but it was Diana’s excellent work as curator that created the flow and cohesiveness that brought them back to consider further the work again.

Check back with the Lúz Gallery website for photos of the installation and opening. I apologize for not including any here, but from the start of the opening to the finish, I was completely immersed in the experience and gave no thought to taking photos myself. It is a deeply engrossing show – if you are in Victoria or can find a way to get over before December 22nd, I hope you will come and see the work.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Stepping into the Abyss

Last night I listened at Lúz Gallery to an artist talk by photographer Dan Milnor, that was very personal, very insightful and very thought provoking. It was as much about his journey as an artist as it was about the art that he’s made, a journey that has caused him to question everything he thought he knew about being a photographer.

Milnor had a successful career as a commercial and fine art photographer, when around fifteen years ago he became tired of the demands of commercial photography and took a job with Kodak. The job required him to sign a non-competition agreement, and in return as a Kodak employee Milnor had access to as much film and processing as he wanted to pursue his personal photographic projects outside of work. Released from client demands, his personal photography took off and he had the freedom to plan specific long-term projects that sometimes took years to complete. The talk began with a slide show of work from a project on the Easter pageants in remote villages in Sicily. Paired with haunting music, the images had power and strength. This project, and others he undertook in the same time period were very focused and planned, with the intention of generating images for exhibitions and potentially books. At the end of his fifth year of working for Kodak, Milnor had amassed several bodies of work that impressed other accomplished photographers. At this point Dan had an epiphany, equating the freedom he had from working for clients with the ability to focus on and produce excellent personal work. Having had that epiphany, Milnor left Kodak and once again became a commercial photographer.

Ten years later, Milnor sensed something missing. The first hint was a decision to visit a friend in Panama and to take some pictures, but to just take “snapshots” rather than doing a specific, focused and well planned project. He found the experience somewhat surreal, in the sense that he was more aware of all that was around him, and he made images of whatever attracted his attention. It went against the grain of how he’d worked before, and how he’d been trained to work and to think about making photographs. After the trip, Milnor edited his images and created a book using the print-on-demand service Blurb. Another part of the puzzle to his growing unease with his commercial photography career came one day while he was at home, watching planes take off from John Wayne Airport. He was thinking how he should be on one of those planes, going somewhere else to make photographs, when he realized that a decent photographer should be able to make good images wherever they are, including at home. Thus began the project “Homework”, defined only by restrictions on locale and how many exposures on film he would make at any given time. The resulting images are abstract, raw and very engaging and again he self-published them as a book for his own reference, considering the images as something of meaning only to himself. It was during a visit to a local art broker to deliver work from another series that he learned to his surprise that the Homework images were ones that the broker felt would be easy to place with clients.

So these two personal projects developed more organically, with virtually no planning compared to his previous personal projects. Dan had really not planned a specific outcome for the work, nor did he necessarily see it as having the wider artistic appeal of his more focused work like the images from the Sicily project. I think one might be able to describe these last two projects, and how they worked out, as a second epiphany of sorts as Milnor continued to consider the impact of being a commercial photographer. It was at this point that the offer of a full-time position as Photographer at Large with Blurb dovetailed with a decision to once again stop being a commercial photographer.

Dan turned his attention to his abiding interest in the “wild west”. He grew up on a ranch in Wyoming, and has been fascinated with the remaining vestiges of the past history of the frontier ethos that exists today in states like New Mexico. His current working project is “The New Mexico Project”, and it started out as a planned, focused project in two parts, the first being “Wildness”. After working on the project for awhile, Milnor was driving from LA to New Mexico, his mind filled with ideas and thoughts about how the project was developing, how to pull images together for an exhibition or book, when he realized that he had been passing through an interesting landscape that he was completely ignoring. He reflected on the fact that the Panama and Homework projects, lacking such specific focus, had allowed him to be much more aware of everything around him at any given moment. This realization lead to the third and final of his epiphanies, and it was the one that caused Milnor to turn his back on the concerns of the photographic establishment with respect to what defines a project and what are the desired outcomes of a project. It also completed a long, slow process by which Milnor unlearned the patterns of thinking that go along with those concerns.

This was the point where I felt that I was no longer listening to a great, articulate artist’s talk, I was listening to something unique and very special. Because Dan Milnor, after years of being a successful photographer by just about anyone’s standards, threw out everything he knew about being a successful photographer and asked himself the critical question “What does photography really mean to me personally?” It was at this key point that the lessons learned from the Panama and Homework projects came together to change the direction of the New Mexico project.

Milnor found himself in northern New Mexico where he slowly worked at being accepted in a small town that didn’t see many gringos. He began photographing the farmers and then other members of the town, some who have never been photographed, and have never held a photographic print in their hands. He wasn’t sure what the outcome of the project would be, but he realized that the people the project was arguably most important to would be the least likely to see the finished work – that is, those he was photographing. His sole concern about the outcome of this project is how he can engage the subjects of this project with the work itself. Dan would like them to be able to see and interact with the work, and to contribute their thoughts and impressions on what it being photographed means to them. This is a project outcome that lies well outside the understanding of the current photography world.

Dan described how he’d photographed a farmer who had never had his photograph taken before, who had never used a computer. The farmer’s wife showed him his photograph by lifting the lid of the laptop, where the first thing he ever saw on a computer was a photograph of himself. In this day and age of “Photography 2.0 on the Web” etc, it’s almost unimaginable. It’s not difficult to see a parallel between a subject seeing an image of himself for the very first time, and a photographer who has walked away from one understanding of what photography means to search for a different understanding.

I sense that Milnor’s desire to hear from his subjects about their experiences of being photographed and how having prints of their images has brought that experience into their lives, is tied into his own query about what photography, and being a photographer, means to him. It’s a shared journey between photographer and subject, a way to deepen further the engagement between the two. By approaching this project in a completely unstructured way, with no particular destination in mind, Milnor has taken the proverbial leap of faith, and stepped off into the abyss.

In one of those odd quirks of synchronicity, this morning I started reading a book that’s been on my nightstand for a while. It’s “A Field Guide to Getting Lost” by Rebecca Solnit. In the very first essay, Solnit writes “Leave the door open for the unknown, the door into the dark. That’s where the most important things come from, where you yourself came from, and where you will go.” She goes on to recount an experience she had while giving a workshop, when a student came to her with a quote from the pre-Socratic philosopher Meno “How will you go about finding that thing the nature of which is totally unknown to you?” Solnit goes on to write that “it is the job of artists to open doors and invite prophesies, the unknown, the unfamiliar; it’s where their work comes from…”

It’s not easy to leave the comfort zone, to stop turning the crank making work that is on the surface successful, but which has perhaps lost significance or meaning for the maker. Yet as Solnit writes, that is exactly what the job of the artist is, and it was a singular privilege to hear Dan Milnor talk so honestly about how that journey has transpired for him.