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Thursday, July 26, 2012

Found Objects

One of the most interesting things about being a photographer is the change that takes place in how one views the world. Instead of the usual mental state where one simply cruises through the day with a narrow, more-or-less self centered focus, everything suddenly becomes full of interest and potential.

One of the fun aspects of this heightened awareness is what is sometimes referred to as ‘found objects’. These tend to be those little, insignificant things that one would normally never really notice. However, within the mind of the creative and sensitive observer, these objects become endowed with presence and meaning. It is actually quite fun to capture these little things and to try and convey the presence or connection that I see in them. Whether the resulting images ascend to the point of being ‘art’ is not the point for me. It is, simply put, FUN! A whole new world of potential is opened up for exploration!

The primary requirement is that these objects are seen and then photographed untouched and ‘as found’. It is the fact that these objects are captured in situ that makes them interesting. The scenes are not constructed artificially or with intention - it is vital that they evolve naturally, as that is the aspect about them that speaks the loudest. The scene is a ‘found object’, it has come into existence through natural processes and chance. It is the job of the photographer to capture the object in such a way as to convey the story or statement that exists within it.

Sometimes, the interest lies within the object itself. Sometimes the interest is generated by the object and its relationship to its immediate environment that poses a question:
(click on image to enlarge)   Boots
Occasionally, it is the relationship of the object to some other point of interest in the immediate vicinity:
(click on image to enlarge)    Water, Water Everywhere
Then again, there are those little finds that lend themselves to an entirely different interpretation if one applies a little imagination:

(click on image to enlarge)   Memories of a Green World
These photographs are all part of a growing series I call ‘Sidewalk Stories’. All of them are found in and on New York City sidewalks. New York City is, almost literally, a continuous sidewalk network from the Whitehall ferry terminal on the southern tip to the edge of the Harlem River on the north end, with some 13.4 miles in-between. The potential for finds here is staggering! How many found objects wait to be discovered...



Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Organic Films

One finds inspiration and vision in the most unexpected places.

Following by wife's insistence that I take a break from my seemingly never ending backlog of work, I accepted her suggestion that we take our new pup for a walk in a local park. Getting outside into the fresh air and sunshine is never a bad idea, so I happily acquiesced and off we went.

Naturally, I packed a small camera, 'just in case'.

The walk was pleasant and we casually made our way to the shore of the Great South Bay. Gardinor Park has one of the very few remaining undeveloped stretches of beach on the northern shore of Great Cove. As we strolled along the shoreline I noticed that one of the recent storms had washed up great sheets of sea lettuce, which now lay stretched and bleaching in the sun. My first thought was that I'd never seen that much sea lettuce before and that it was a bit of an odd, if messy sight. On the first pass, I paid it little attention, focused as I was on Nancy and the pup. On the return pass, Nancy struck up a conversation with another dog owner and I wandered over to the shoreline to see if there was anything interesting about.

That was when I noticed , really noticed, the sea lettuce. It was stretched in thin layers over a fairly broad expanse of the beach. As it bleached and dried in the sun, it had taken on a fantastic texture which could be seen if one got right down close to it. Out came the Leica and off I went, looking for the most interesting bits and snapping away.

It was fantastic. The normally nondescript sea lettuce had taken on an entirely new presence in its decaying transformation. Visually, it had actually become MORE organic in appearance as it decayed. I processed the images in high contrast monochrome to bring out the incredible details in full.

(click on image to enlarge)
I recall the fascination many years ago when I had first seen images produced by an electron microscope. A whole new world of astounding, living textures had been exposed to me. I immediately recognized that same experience in the textures of the fading sea lettuce, the thin algae form having taken on a new structure as it compressed, folded and stretched into semi-transparency as it dried out.

(click on image to enlarge)
The end effect is at once fascinating and a bit creepy, in a deeply thought provoking way. The textures project this inescapable organic presence. Studying the final 12 images in the series, I can't help but be forced to recognize the fragility of life within these thin, semitransparent structures. The connection to our physical and, ultimately, our inner selves is direct, speaking to the soft, albeit tough, reality of skin, muscle and sinew. The emotional message is more subtle, of course, addressing the stretched, thinness of self as we age and, eventually fade. These films are dying or, more likely, already dead, their cogent mortality immediate and stretched out, ready for study by the sensitive witness. The images conjure thoughts of human faces - old, dark, leathery. Sun cooked by years of exposure to the raw, burnishing elements and time's unforgiving hand, the ancient fisherman's sun drenched soul exposed.

This is my journey. Photography paves the way. Thank you for joining me for a few moments.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

The Promise of Days in Sunshine

I've spent much time recently experimenting with images of people. This probably wouldn't strike most as being unusual unless you consider the nature of my early photography work, which was almost entirely devoid of human presence. Recalling that my day job requires, if anything, a rather intense involvement with a broad range of people, from UN representatives to cleaning staff, in both good moods and bad, in matters personal and professional. My weekends were generally spent in a concerted effort to get AWAY from people! My early photography, with it's emphasis on nature and landscapes was a direct result of this.

I've noticed a change in myself recently. While my high stress day job has not changed a bit, my recent iPhone experiments in New York City and elsewhere have opened up an unexpected door to a rather different perspective. At least part of this progressive change can be traced back to Sean Kernan's suggestion to me to study Robert Frank's book 'The Americans'. The process had already begun in the form of my street photography, but Mr. Kernan's suggestion and Robert Frank's work have catalyzed the formation of the process in my mind and photography goals.

The result can be seen in my growing series of City images, taken with both the iPhone and my Leica. The subject matter has shifted from the 'traditional' form of street photography towards a specifically broader perspective: that of the relationship of people within the spaces they inhabit and to each other. I have tried to capture a specific dynamic in the urban images, where nature has been severely constrained to a bare trace of an existence in what, a little over a century ago, was once a mostly natural woodland. What greenery now remains is entirely man made, in the sense that every tree has been intentionally planted and maintained by man in a specific, purposely restricted space. I find an inevitable stress in the natural relationship results which broadcasts itself into the dynamics of human interrelationships in these densely populated spaces.

(click image to enlarge)               No Connection
The word 'alienation' is certainly an overused descriptor, but that element is profoundly present and captured in these photographs. Lone isolated trees and lone isolated people at the center of one of the most densely populated urban centers of the world.

(click image to enlarge)                   The Confrontation
A very subtle change has taken place during the process of taking these photographs, however, and one that was entirely unexpected. The importance of the personal relationships has started to come to the fore. The New York City work does not lend itself easily to this due to the rather specific direction of the project. Instead, it has presented itself at family gatherings, especially in the presence of the very young and old members of the family as they act out the natural dynamics that comprise all families. Here is the stuff of our lives and an enormously fertile field of potential. The difficulty lies in taking these daily, commonplace events and bringing forth the soul that lies deep within the heart of the relationships in play, the stuff of memories recorded in the albums of family snapshots.

(click image to enlarge)            The Promise of Days in Sunshine
This is pretty nearly the exact opposite space from where my photography started. Funny how that works...

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Barriers

Barriers come in many forms. There are the common physical barriers, some inconvenient like that fence that blocked your favorite shortcut as a kid, others serving practical purposes, such as the various forms of traffic control which block your short cuts as an adult! Still others are beneficial, such as barrier islands that form protected waters where marshlands and estuaries can exist, flush with wildlife.

The barrier foremost in my mind lately is that of the 'day job'. Now, calling my day job a barrier requires a certain context because, lets face it, without it a lot of necessary and/or desired things would not be possible. There is that pesky mortgage, the kid's college tuition, all the bills associated with living in the Long Island version of suburbia, the nice vacations, etc., etc. All that is understood and accepted, if reluctantly, in spite of the running joke that 'my day job is really cutting into my play time!'. On top of that is the disruption caused by a do-it-yourself kitchen renovation. Disrupted habits and routines are not always a bad thing, but when layered on top of an existing stress, well...

The barrier caused by the day job that seems to crop up too often recently is its tendency, through stress and mental exhaustion, to deplete the energy needed for creativity. Too often lately, I've caught myself late in the evening staring into the 24" high res lcd panel, filled with some image file I am trying to finesse to fit the potential I see in it and my focus drifts and my eyes slowly close - only to snap awake when I catch myself. The result is the writing starts to fall off and the image processing backlog doesn't get any smaller. It even gets noticeably harder to fire up that creative spark needed to enter that mental space that allows me, even drives me to create.

This is NOT good, especially for someone who's need to create is one of the prime motivators in life. The frustration can become palpable.

So, what is one to do? Not much but ride it out, unfortunately. The day job is not always this stressful and, as the saying goes, this too shall pass. The kitchen project, little by little, is getting done and in a few more weeks we should have a functional, and even attractive, kitchen again. In the meantime, I've learned how to install an Italian tile floor, the definition of the word 'slake' as applied to mortar, how easy it is to blow a hand powered tile cutter to smithereens and the advantages of spending a bit more money for a proper stone cutter table saw (highly recommended). The RAW photo files will still be on the computer and waiting.

(click on image to enlarge)                     A World of Wounds
In the midst of this morass, I have found one creative outlet which has paid some surprising dividends: the iPhone camera. I've discovered that the few minutes spent walking between Penn Station and my office can be a goldmine. In this mile and a half of walking and observing, before the pressures, interruptions and obligations of the day start to encroach upon the psyche, the creative spirit can still manifest itself. The result is a collection of little images that speak to a unique world that exists in the early moments of each weekday in New York City. As I take my varied daily route through Murray Hill, I am primed for the small discoveries. The resulting collection is growing, such that I have committed one of my web site galleries to iPhoneography. I have posted a few examples with this blog entry as usual, but be sure to stop by the iPhoneography Gallery to see the rest of a continuously expanding collection of images. One photograph, 'An Intersection of Metals', was even selected for the juried photography show currently being exhibited in the Kiernan Gallery's 'iSpy: Camera Phone Photography Show' in Lexington, Virginia.

(click on image to enlarge)              An Intersection of Metals
It seems the late night creativity has taken a little bit of a hit as of late, but creativity finds a way. This time, it came out through a little camera phone and a series of unexpected but intriguing photographs.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

The Days of Future Past

"I love deadlines. I like the 'whooshing' noise they make as they fly by." - Douglas Adams

Wait a minute, was that December that just blew by?!?!

Here we are finally coming out of the far side of the careening rush of the holiday season. Like many people,  I frequently find myself wondering how we continue to lose ourselves in the maddening crush of the season rather than take the other direction and just slow down a bit and reflect on our personal take on the Solstice and/or whatever spiritual take we might have on it. One of the victims of this year's running about has been my photography. There is just too little free time to get out to personal shoots or even process images. I've certainly let my blog updates take a bit of a back seat to more pressing matters. Still, even with all the rushing about, it is a natural time to find a moment to look back over the passing year and consider the ground covered, lessons (hopefully) learned and also to consider the rapidly approaching future.

The news isn't all bad, happily enough. It looks like we had a banner year for Holiday season sales which has contributed in some part to the running about - but that's a good thing and hopefully a sign that the economy is starting to warm up again. We will have both kids home for Christmas, which is a very good thing! I've made some new friends over at the Islip Arts Council and won an award for my Maple Red print at the recently concluded Seatuck Environmental Association Photography Show, which is sponsored by the Council. The reception was very well attended and my prints received a lot of attention, particularly from Council members. I am looking forward to doing a lot more work with this group. As this post does not discuss some photographic concept in my usual manner, I will share the three images that were accepted into the Seatuck show, starting with the award winner, "Maple Red":
(click on image to enlarge)         Maple Red
On the bad news side, another gallery has closed. Studio East Gallery, owned and operated by my friend Terry Falquero closed their doors after a three  year run. We had the reception for the current mixed media show a few weeks ago and it was a bittersweet event, knowing it was the last show for this quirky little gallery. I will miss our monthly show receptions and friendly, interesting discussions with the other artists. I may actually have to consider joining one of the local art groups at some point. 

It is already time to start considering next summer's show schedule. We want to show in the Westhampton Spring show, for instance, which will be a new one for us. We are considering a return to Sag Harbor as well, as they seem to have wised up and allowed tent setups on the park grass instead of the roadway. I want to find a show venue in the Stony Brook area as well, which is an odd void in our show network. I think we will still limit ourselves to showing on Long Island for the coming year. The logistics of traveling out of state are just too much for what amounts to a weekend event for us, at least for the immediate future. Next on the promotional front is the ongoing search for open artist calls for shows and publications. I've two submissions in the works as this is being written, so hopefully they will come to fruition.
(Click image to enlarge)                Inner Light
One of the year's outstanding moments was my portfolio review with Sean Kernan. This, in fact, may have been the most important moment of the year for my development as a photographer. We had a really interesting, if all too brief, discussion about my work which ended with Mr. Kernan's entirely unexpected statement that "Anything that I could show or teach you, you are already doing. You are on your own. Let's see what you can do!" 

I really did not see that train coming, as the saying goes.

(Click image to enlarge)               Windswept II
Bearing in mind that I have never taken a photography class, or even an art class for that matter, excepting the usual 8th grade thing we all take, Mr. Kernan's pronouncment came as a surprisingly profound shock. It is one thing to study on your own, comforted by the fact that you always have the option to reach out to those teachers and resources to get a helping hand or hints of direction. It is quite another to inadvertently discover you've passed an important benchmark without even realizing it. I'm still sorting this out in my own head and it will be interesting to see how this newfound realization affects my work.

So, here is to hoping all of you have an interesting and happily challenging new year. Get out there and let's see what you can do!

Monday, November 7, 2011

On Personal Growth and Learning


"Don't ever take an art class. It will ruin you."

These words were spoken to me over thirty-five years ago by a gentleman who had just purchased one of my paintings. Obviously, the statement stuck in my head. Why have I remembered this comment after all these years?

I think the first part of the answer is the sheer surprise I experienced at the comment. At the time my greatest desire was to get into one of the established art schools and here was a person who loved my work enough to spend money on it telling me to do exactly the opposite. I recall asking him why he would say that and his response was something along the lines of "they will make you just like everyone else. It will destroy your originality."

Ah! Even then I could see the sense in the statement. I've since followed that dictum and never have attended an art class of any kind, not even one on photography. Another question remains however: how is one to advance as an artist without the guidance of peers (or superiors) in some form? In my case, having a deep, inherent curiousity provides a natural drive to educate myself about those things that interest me - which is pretty much everything. In the case of the arts, I avail myself of all the information that exists on the internet, in our public libraries and magazine publications. There is an enormous amount of information within reach out there if one is willing to commit the time to search it out and then really study it.

Note that I did not refer to this process as 'work'. If the act of applying yourself to study and learning seems like work, it is strong evidence of a lack of passion for what you are doing. For me, this is not work. Rather, it is more like breathing, something I am driven to do. My wife will occasionally chastise me for bringing along some bit of technical reading material when we go on a vacation trip as she says I should take the opportunity to relax. What I've had to explain on more than one occasion over the years is that burying myself in that sort of research is how I relax! Learning really is like breathing to me, especially so when it is a subject in which I have a fervent interest. I can actually get a bit fidgety if I can't get to a bit of research on something that has lit a fire in me.

The technical aspects of photography aside, one of the most important resources available to us is the work of those artists we admire. I can spend literal hours poring over the work of the likes of Stieglitz and Steichen and others. I was browsing through a rather dingy, dusty, unkempt, dark rabbit hole of a bookstore recently and found gold in the form of two out-of-print books - The National Museum of Art Calloway Edition of 1983 'Alfred Stieglitz' and 'A Life in Photography', Edward Steichen's autobiography. Bookstore nirvana! The opportunity to study the work of these masters in such high quality printings at my leisure is invaluable. I do not limit myself to the masters of photography either. I began my art career as a painter, after all. I have a beautiful copy of Andrew Wyeth's autobiography as well and have many hours invested in this one book. It is from Wyeth that I learned something of the importance of what is included in an image and what is left out. Wyeth's work opened the door for me to a whole new consideration of how to approach composition and the contribution texture can make to an image.

I have many ideas from Wyeth's tempera paintings that I want to incorporate into my photography, but this is not easily done. The two mediums have fundamental differences in material and process that I have as yet been unable to bridge successfully. The excitement lies in continuing to try! Another example of a painter that has had a strong influence on me, especially in my early in my studies, is Maxfield Parrish. Parrish's landscape paintings, his main focus in his later years, are a wonder to me. His exceptional mastery of the ancient master's technique of glazing with oil paints (think Rembrandt) represents the high point of the technique and it is brought to its full modern potential in his landscapes. I have one photograph where the Parrish influence is clearly evident, 'Dream Swing'.

(click on image to enlarge)    Dream Swing
It seems to me that the influence of Stieglitz and Steichen on my recent work is fairly obvious. The current Cityscape series of limited edition architectural prints do not seek to copy their work, but to incorporate some of their ideas within modern subjects. Here I am trying to expand on certain aspects of the Photo Secessionists style by minimizing the softening effects of that period and blend it with the sharper, highly detailed and graphic nature of the silver gelatin prints from the '30's. The results are really intriguing and have received very strong positive reactions from viewers. The resulting images are unique in both look and subject, but deeply rooted in the the previous accomplishments of my silent mentors.

(click on image to enlarge)   The Morgan in Winter
For people like me, the process never stops, nor do we want it to. It isn't just some holistic sort of self-improvement thing. Rather, it is a basic function of our character, the desire to understand the world and universe around us. In that process we usually do improve ourselves, if for no other reason than we operate from a greater and more accurate understanding of our environment. The sheer scope of the unknown assures us, happily I might add, that we cannot possibly run out of things to learn! In this way, that delicious, childlike sense of wonder and awe can last a lifetime!

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Steichen

As my experience and education regarding photography continues to grow, I make a point of learning, at least broadly, the history of this amazing medium. I've always been one to hold to the maxim that if you want to fully understand something, you need to understand its history as much as its current status. This applies to photography as much as any subject. We are fortunate in the case of photography in that it is a very recent technological development and therefore well documented. As with all human endeavors, it is the human element that lies at the center of what photography is and was. This is why I've spent much of the last year studying the early masters of photography as an artistic medium.

A few moments ago, I completed Edward Steichen's incredible autobiography "A Life In Photography". I have been engrossed and moved by this man's story and the parts he played in various aspects of our recent history. I am forced to sit for a while and contemplate his story and why it affects me so.

Part of the matter, and possibly the most superficial although still important, is Steichen's direct participation in such a broad range of historical events. A brief overview:

- He taught himself photography as a young boy when the medium was still barely more than a fledgling technology and was right at the forefront of its development and ultimate acceptance as an art form.

- His relationships as a young man with some of the world's most amazing artists and influential men, in particular Auguste Rodin and Alfred Stieglitz.

- His personal contributions to photography, including aerial photography for the Allies in WWI.

- His development of portraiture as an art form while photographing many of recent histories iconic figures.

- Inventing and re-inventing the concept of fashion photography.

- Creating the first independent photographic unit within the US Navy for the purposes of documenting WWII - he was in his late 60's at the start of the war!

- Serving as the Photographic director of arts in the Museum of Modern Art after the war, assembling some 40 world class photographic exhibitions over 15 years, culminating in the matchless and world renowned 'Family of Man' exhibit, still being shown when he authored his autobiography at the age of 84.

The descriptive title 'Great Man' is one I apply very rarely. I freely apply it to Edward Steichen. Here was a man possessed of an aggressively seeking mind matched with real talent and vision. As recently as two years ago I did not know he had existed. How can it be that people of Steichen's quality are relatively unknown in our society while characters like 'The Situation' and Charlie Sheen fill the headlines during their 15 minutes of fame and are idolized by a sizable chunk of our population, only to be replaced by the next flashy, meaningless splash? As if that weren't bad enough, all this goes on while people of real ability and commitment are rarely known outside of a narrow circle of familiars. It points to something deeply broken within our society.

This small blog entry cannot do Steichen or his contributions any real justice, but I highly recommend reading up on him in detail, especially so if you have any degree of interest in photography. I will offer a couple of small examples that may, hopefully, pique your interest enough to get you to educate yourself regarding this great man. To this end, I am going to break from my usual practice of displaying and discussing my own photographic work and display that of another artist.

The first is an example of his early work from 1902 in Paris and representative of his relationship with the great sculptor, Rodin. Steichen met the older and already established great sculptor during one of his visits to Paris as a young man, still interested as much in painting as photography. Over a period of about a year, the two developed a close friendship that ultimately led to Rodin granting permission to Steichen to photograph him and his work. One of the resulting images is also one of the great, masterful portraits even to this day.
(click on image to enlarge)           'La Penseur'
Here, in this stark, simple photograph, Steichen manages to capture the utter essence of one of the world's greatest sculptors, two of his works forming the backdrop of the portrait. One of the things that I really like about this image is that it represents an intersection of talent of two of my most admired and favorite artists. I've pored over this photograph for hours and even had the pleasure of examining the original in the Metropolitan Museum of Art recently. It is one of my absolute favorite works of art.

Portraits were how Steichen made an early living in New York City and also established himself as a photographer of considerable talent. Over the years, he was employed in photographing many of the powerful and celebrated personalities of the time and exhibited a consistent ability to bring out the subject's personality. There are many, many examples of this talent, but one the most interesting to me is Steichen's photograph of the famous actress Greta Garbo, taken in 1928 and seen below. Steichen was forced to rush through the shoot in an environment where the actress' public image was rigidly controlled by managers and  the shoot also interfered with the active, tightly organized filming schedule. He was unhappy with the results as the shoot progressed, but the right moment arrived when the director shouted over that it was time to get back to filming. Steichen had the camera ready and recognized the delicate and brief moment when Greta Garbo's true personality flashed to the surface as she turned and glared at the director.

(click on image to enlarge)                   'Greta Garbo'
Here, preparation and talent combine to deliver on a moment that existed in front of the camera for the briefest of instants and the subject's personality comes right to the forefront.

The last example is another one of Steichen's earlier works, dating to 1901. It is a self portrait, done by Steichen as an experiment. It is also one of my favorites examples of his work. The print is heavily manipulated by Steichen, as much painting as photograph, as he used his considerable creative talents from both mediums and combined them on the master plate to create a subtle yet powerful image.

(click on image to enlarge)                                'Self Portrait'
In order to understand and better work within the photographic medium, it is necessary to understand its history and roots in all its creative variety. Edward Steichen embodies very nearly the entire history of photography in a single package, not only by being present during the early days of the medium making itself known as an art form, not only by participating personally in its history and development, but by actually being one of the creative spirits to make that history, and then guide its progress through nearly a century of growth and development. A unique and great man indeed.