As the MA progresses, I am working on a process of image destruction and re-construction. This process of having a hand in the creation of an image is giving me great creative satisfaction. This has come about in this module, before this time I was just a ‘hunter’ of images, now I have become a ‘farmer’ of images and take the approach of the farmer and grow my images.
I remember hearing a story many years ago (no reference, my apologies, so it could be an old wives tale) about a baking company doing a test to see what sold best. A cake mix where milk alone was added, or one where eggs, milk, and sugar was added. The one where the baker had to add the eggs, was the better seller, because the baker felt more involved in the process. Whether this is true or not, I cannot say, however, I feel the same way about being more involved in the image making process, so I understand and like the analogy.
This week my research begins looking deeper into criticism. As well as the work of practitioners: Fredrick Sommer, Moholy Nagy and Barbara Kasten.
As a practitioner, I have to be able to explain what my work is about. It is more that describing the work, it is being able to see through the work, or more aptly being able to see to the bottom of the well.
The consumer of my images has to be able to understand what they are looking at. When I started the MA, I did not explain my work, I felt that the image should say it all without any explanation. At least this was my excuse, what the actual problem was, was that I was visually illiterate. I could make work, but I could not explain it. As the MA has progressed, reading about other artists work, and doing research on the art of criticism, I learned that all the negative connotations associated with the word, was true. However, in the broader scope of things, judging an image and personal opinions about it, is a very small part of the criticism pie.
There are other aspects of the system that need to be discussed, not merely judging a work. One has to be able to describe it, illuminate it, judge it and theories about it. So if work is judged negatively, that is only about 12.5% of the criticism pie. Positive judgment is the other 12.5% and the other three parts mentioned the remaining 75%.
Once I understood this, I no longer worried a work of art being good or bad, even if it is bad, it can still be valued from the rest of the criteria. It may have interesting connotations and themes, it may be well described in terms of it’s subject matter and subject. How the image was constructed, as well as other theories about the piece that may surface.
Once this became clear, it cleared the way for me to be able to talk about my work. It still not plane sailing. Because new questions come into play is: “I can talk about my work, but do I want to?” As one analyses one’s work, a lot about ones-self is uncovered, and it is not always pretty. However, this muscle needs to be exercised like the rest if it is to become stronger. So I am reading criticism on abstract works, because this is the form I am heading my practice in. I have always wanted to make this kind of work. I have very strong technical knowledge in both film and digital, but for the MA, I needed much, much, more than a Zone 0 to Zone X, A Leica M6 and Kodak Tri-X. What I needed was to get informed about my practice, to think, write, talk and express what I was feeling, and then to go out and make an image, came back and be able to have a discourse about it.
I looked that the work of Fredrick Sommer, he is an abstract photographer, originally from Germany. He moved, married, and lived in Arizona. His work defied easy classification. “The subjects of Sommer’s photographs are strikingly diverse. They range from disorienting landscapes and macabre aspects of the natural world to surreal arrangements of found objects and pure abstractions.”
This statement about his work attracts me, because he could move through genres, from landscapes to abstracts, but they were all, disorienting, macabre and surreal, so his subject matter varied greatly, but the theme of his work remained constant, that was his anchor.
It was in early 1955, that Minor White send Henry Holmes Smith (Photographer/Critic) a print of Fredrick Sommer’s The Sacred Wood and was asked to shed light and give a reading into the meaning of the image. Smith recounts: “It was a baffling image. I pursued it with every device I could think of, yet it remained unresolved throughout the winter.” Henry Homes Smith was a seasoned critic and he had difficulty decoding the image. He even discussed it with other photographers like Arron Siskind, who was also an abstractionist and Minor White, and still he was unable to shed light on the image. It was Siskind who suggested that Smith read the book by TS Eliot with the same name.
Smith goes on to describe the photograph, as what can be seen, i.e. what is perceived by the senses: “Spilled paint, plaster or powder, smashed putty, and sprinkled sand.” He regards this description as rudimentary and the least important thing about the image. What he later describes is what’s beneath the surface, at the bottom of the well, under the darkness and dirt.
From this I learn that the sensual description is the denotive part. The cognitive part of the image is connotative and up to the interpretation of the critic. It is therefore subjective and can vary from critic to critic, and likewise can be used by me as a practitioner to describe and shine light as to the meaning of my images.
With this is mind, I now construct my images of fences. I shoot both film and digital, I make analogue prints and inkjet prints, take them outside to my back yard, and cast them to the wind. I like it when the weather is bad: Rainy, foggy, dewey, high moisture content, windy, cold, followed by heat and sun. Then I take the images and dry them scan them and work them over in Literoom. This module has become “playtime” for me. I incorporating nature, the elements and chance, allowing the creature and the Creator to meet.
I have found amazing images when left out for a few hours, a few days and up to about a week. I am happy with the way the images look. They are abstracted, some with objects and things recognizable, other not. What I like about the process, is that it’s not totally up to me. I have to let go once I let them outside into the back yard.
I play a lot with the image in Literoom, and will be doing some more work in the darkroom on my series this module will include digital and analogue editions of images. Most of the time I am very surprised by the outcome. it brings to mind one of my favorite quotes: “Life was like a box of chocolates. You never know what you’re gonna get.” – Forest Gump.
I enjoy mixing my skills with chance and seeing what the outcome will be, so far I am pleasantly surprised. Below is work I am doing by taking the image outside and leaving it out in the elements and recovering between a few hours and a few days. I let the elements
From a historical persperctive, abstraction is not new. Charles Sheeler (1883–1965) was an early practitioner that made abstract images.
So, as far as being original with abstracts, I am not, however, I can be original with the subject matter, subject, the form and the medium. Almost everything has been done, however, the combinations of the above mentioned in limitless.
Trying to be creative and original is not only time consuming and energy draining, and if not careful can lead to battle fatigue. I am sure this does show up in the work in one way or another. Sheeler quotes: “I favor a picture which arrives at its destination without the evidence of a trying journey rather than one which shows the marks of battle.” I think as a practitioner it is very important to remember those words when making and creating works.
After having met Ansel in Carmel, back in the 80’s and as I look at my work now, I realize how influential he was on my practice. Not in the direct way, because I do not work in landscapes, but I did learn the Zone System and how to develop a good negative if needed. I also learned how to expose and compose well, and how to previsualise an image in the mind (that is see how the final image would look.) This was very valuable to me as a cinematographer and as a photographer, in the days of film, because it was a day/days later that one could see the photos, or the film dialies, and as a result of this, am able to image and image in the mind, and construct it with the tools at hand to make it look like that in the final outcome. Exposure was a big part of it, and still have a working SEI spot photometer that can read a 1/2 degree of area. As a result of the training, I still am able to make a very good technical image both in film and in digital as well.
When I was at Cal Arts, I met this girl, and we got talking about photography. I mentioned that I liked Adams, she snickered and blurted out: “He’s just a mechanic.” and walked off. I have to say that I was left winded, but grateful. It was that statement that brought me to the realization that there is more to photography that a technically well made image. Here I am some three decades later still trying to figure out what that is?
Over the years, I have come to see that there are many ways of seeing. There are physical, sensual, spiritual, and the intellectual ways of seeing. For myself, this MA is allowing me to get them into alignment. Contextualising my work, has been misaligned, so part of my intellectual way of seeing was very short-sighted. As the MA progresses, it has been getting better, as I read more and gain insights from other practitioners. I have also had to fight the resistance of application of that information, because I am by nature a pure seeker, and would prefer that information to come from the aether or an angel (as did Rene Descartes), who was visited by an Angel and told: “The conquest of nature, is to be achieved through number and measurement.”
In Thomas Kuhns’ book: The Structure of Scientific Revolution. It discusses the fact that it’s never the way scientists tell it. That is, in reference to how discoveries are made. The post hoc story is always about insight, the gathering of data and information, research, meticulous testing and experimentation. When in fact most of it is ruled by accident, chaos, synchronicity, piecemeal, dreams and other random happenings. Mostly incomprehensible, but somehow landing with an answer to a question, long ago formulated.
Modern science as we know it began with Rene Descartes, who when a young man, a ne’er do well, had joined the army. He was around 20, and when he was in the barracks one night, had a dream. An angel appeared to him and said: “The conquest of nature, is to be achieved through number and measurement.” This was in the early 1600’s when he was around 20. Descartes view on life was: “I entirely abandoned the study of letters. Resolving to seek no knowledge other than that of which could be found in myself or else in the great book of the world.” I have always had the same philosophy, but no angel as yet. However, I did have a dream also, where a young woman, (I think it Louise Nevelson I was doing research on her at the time) came and said: “Write your own life.”
With the MA, research is important, so in order to align the intellectual with the physical and the spiritual, I have resorted to the study of letters and reflection on how historical practitioners like Ansel, Ed Weston, and Man Ray, (all of whom whose work I am attracted to for various reasons) have influenced my work as a photographer. I guess there will always be some pollen of their flowers spread on my petals. And, as the MA progresses I am learning to embrace it, instead of rejecting or excluding their influence.
In addition, I am looking a the work of current/contemporary practitioners, so look and compare work beyond the modernist period. As my work at present is about destruction and reconstruction of the image. I am looking at the work of Barbara Kasten.
Being a child of the Bauhaus myself, I can see her roots in the works of Moholy-Nagy who taught at the Weimar in the 1920’s There are very similar forms between her work and Nagy’s. Barbara works primarily in color. However, I feel that her work is too much like Moholy-Nagy. She works with colored filters and lets light pass through to cast light and shadow. I do like the fact that she ‘constructs’ her images, however her work is too similar in subject matter. Nagy did a work in color and made in 1935, using the Dufay Color Process, with filters. And this is where I see too much similarity between his work and Kasten’s, and feel is appropriated a little too much for my liking, however, I do like that she constructs her images, and I am using this part in my present practice, can be seen in my image below. ‘Evening Dew’ I cut a piece of barb wired and laid it across the scan, also, took the image out in back yard, and left to elements for a day (Rain, wind, California sun, evening dew)
Rexer, Lyle. (2009), The Edge of Vision, The Aperture Foundation Inc., New York.
1. This week I was introduced to Ansel Adam’s abstract work by Richard Gadd of the Weston Gallery at Carmel-By-The-Sea. I am very familiar with Ansel’s work, but up util this point in my practice, I did not know that Ansel dabbled in the abstract.
Richard showed me a few pieces. The subject matter of one piece was a pane of broken glass. Supposedly there are only four known prints of this image. I have never heard of it, or seen it before this time, so it was nice to know that ol’ conservative Ansel, had broken out briefly from the ‘Landscape’ genre.
As I looked at the image, I wondered why he made an image of broken glass. I theorized that it may be linked to a story I had heard about Ansel. Supposedly he was a little drunk, and was supposed to have said: “I was an artist once.” I tried to find some evidence of this story which was in a documentary, but as yet have not been able to substantiate it. However, seeing that image made me think of that. The subject matter: broken glass, the subject: a broken man/artist.
I researched Ansel abstractions, and came upon an article written by Robin Greenwood: – ‘Ansel Adams and Abstraction.’ I was hoping to find some accolades about the work, however to my surprise I found that Greenwood did not like them: “these were the ones I really disliked.” It is interesting to not that not all people like abstractions. here is his reason why: ‘They are clichés now; abstract compositions. Boring.’ This will have to be something I take into consideration in my own practice. It seems that one cannot please everyone, and one man’s meat is another’s poison.
Since the first images made by Niepce and Daguerre, photographers have pushed the boundaries of the image. And just like painters, who got tired of realism, photographers followed in the me vein looking for ways to express themselves through images. Much of the photographers work is gleaned from Surrealism and Abstract Expressionism. Photographers like Minor White and Aaron Siskind had painterly qualities in the work and Siskind himself worked alongside painters like Kline, and from what I can see they drew from each others works.
I like looking at works of artists who are abstractionists, I particularly like the work of Kasimir Malevich, Paul Klee and Kandinsky. Malevich abstracted down to the color black and the square shape, Kandinsky moved in the same direction with the use of color alone. Klee abstracted down to still having some recognizable shapes and forms from the real world, but for the most part abstracted them down to their basic forms.
I am doin the same in my practice at present. In my module project fences, I am slowly pulling away from the subject matter of the fence alone and moving into the subject matter of fences as metaphor. Metaphor for boundaries, challenges, difficulties and successes we have in out lives and out art. So I am withdrawing the physical fence more and more from my images. Hopefully by the time the final major project comes around there won’t be a single recognizable fence in the image.
As humans we enjoy looking. This sensual aspect of the human being for survival also has to have other aspects. One cannot be “surviving” 24hrs a day for seven days a week. We need a break from survival. This is where the gaze of “art” and “photography” comes in. Once we have survived, the gaze can also be used as a means or relaxing, time off so to speak. The gaze can thus be directed into other areas to give enjoyment and relaxation.
When does the casual gaze become a problem? When dealing with photos and paintings, I don’t think that looking at the image for a long time constitutes a problem (porn not a consideration here) However when looking at someone, for an extended period of time, it can be a problem if not handled correctly. When I was younger, looking at a woman for a long while was a sign that I was interested, without having to use words. I think as human beings we soon learn how to handle the gaze when looking at the opposite sex and if they respond positively, one can proceed further, however if they are uncomfortable, they have ways of letting one know, and it is important at that time not to cross that boundary. Crossing those boundaries is when the gaze, or the extended gaze can be a problem.
One of the difficulties I have been experiencing is how to abstract my project Fences. I am not interested to show representational photographs, but rather what they represent. Therefore the images have to allude to, or connote certain abstractions such as fear, insecurities, uncertainty, death, escape, freedom, life; to name a few. Which a fence connotes.
I am not opposed to image and text, but feel that there may be a different way. After all it was well used by Martha Rosler’s: ‘The Bowery in two Inadequate Descriptive Systems.’ and do not want to go that route again. I appreciate it and enjoy the work, but feel I need to make my own road there..even though I may have to submit to an artist statement to put it into context.
Looked at the work of Fredrick Sommer. ‘The Sacred Wood’ His image was so abstracted that people where asking what it was? To which he replied: ‘Spilled paint, plaster or powder, smashed putty and sprinkled sand.’
I am really enjoying ‘creating’ the image more and more, instead of hunting for it or taking it. I like making an image and transforming it to represents the abstracts I think about. And it can be done, as Fredrick Sommer did.
Photographs not taken: The book arrived. I was interested to read how some photographers handle the missed shot. For my project “Fences” I missed a shot of a kid sitting on this fence. I thought how apt. As I was on the fence between representation and abstract photography. I did not get the shot, I had no film left. I did not take my I-phone with me, and I did not have my digital camera either. I felt bummed about it, but thought about recreating it, also from then on, I always have my digital camera with me, even if I am shooting film. I keep the last two shots in the camera, I don’t shoot the roll empty, unless I have a spare, so I did learn something from the mishap. Also, I learned this module, that restating the image is okay also, that image construction is not a bad thing. I also believe that the shot will turn up again, it has happened for me before. I don’t know when, but I will be ready the second time around.
I read: Young Timothy Archibald’s story about leaving his film at home on a film shoot. His dad dropped him off, he had no money, the stores was closed. He decided to fake the shoot. He was afraid of people, but on this occasion it did not matter somehow, as he pretended to photograph. People were nice, friendly and welcoming. He learned from his missed shots: there is nothing to be afraid of.
I think it’s important to keep this in mind in every aspect of making images. Fear creeps in, in various ways. Also, an opportunity lost is an opportunity gained.
Thoughts on Ansel: For the longest time, I have put the works of Ansel Adams to bed. He was a landscape photographer, very good at what he did, but for me I needed something a little more “Creative” Lately however, I am so glad I learned the “Zone” system, and how to develop and print an image. I can expose very well and develop a fine looking negative. How valuable this information is to me. I am technically very competent both in film and digital, and I can use these forms help me express my ideas and concepts. I do not worry about the technical side anymore, and this has given me a tremendous feeling of freedom.
If I see any image in film or digital, I do to concern myself how the image was made from a technical aspect, I just look at how it was conceived creatively, so half the battle is won, I only need to do half the work. This is all thanks to Ansel. He gave me a lot in that regard. Once in a while, I will pull out ‘The Negative” or “The Print” (I have one signed by him which I treasure very much) which I got from him when I need him up in Carmel, back in 1984. I still do some technical referencing, but not very often. His knowledge has remained at my finger tips, and is used in one way or another, daily.
What attracts in the image? It has always made me wonder, why I love a certain photograph, or painting over another, what pierces my heart for that minute I spend the extra time gazing at an image.
While studying my B.F.A. at Cal Arts, I finally had the opportunity to meet Ansel Adams. I was working at Panavision part-time while a student, and a fellow camera technician mentioned that Adams was having a retrospective up in Carmel and if I would like to go?
We drove up to Carmel by the sea, to the Weston Gallery, where the retrospective was being held. This was back in 1984. It was here that I had my first opportunity to see an Ansel “MURAL” print, the biggest print he made.
The title is: ‘Clearing Winter Storm. ‘ Back then I was all into technique, who had the best to offer, and still does. No-one has ever surpassed the Zone system. And, if used correctly, can compress or expand a wide dynamic range into VIII Zones of detail, with Zone 0 and Zone X being pure black and pure White. [A small caveat, there is no ‘0’ in Roman numerals, and wonder if Ansel knew that, I guess, nothings perfect.”] I was enamored by the detail, sharpness, contrast, tonal-range, shapes, edge burn, a dust/spec free image, the list goes on. I remember standing 4 inches away from the print trying to find the smallest speck of dust or air bubble. I searched for any type of flaw. However, I could not a single imperfection. I had excellent vision back then, I could read newspaper fine print standing up, so, if there was the tiniest imperfection, I would have found it. There was none! The Mural was technical love at it’s finest, I have never seen a better hand made print since. Then, I finally had the opportunity to meet Ansel, sit in his ZONE V Cadillac Sedan De-ville and have a book signed. It was a great experience, a moment I will always treasure. As a young film/photography student back then, there was no finer moment. I had met the Maestro. One always leaves with something when these events occur, even if it’s being able to re-count the experience decades later, with fond memories. When I look at prints to-day, I still use the same technique. I go up close and scrutinize the print quality in fine detail (technique+form) then I step back to take in the image as a whole (content)
This stepping back and looking at the whole ‘field,’ is what Roland Barthes calls the Stadium, one of two attributes, that calls one’s attention to the photograph. The other being the punctum.
I like the way he named these two attributes of an image, which ranges in looking from the general to the specific, the field to the spot, the square to the point. That lightning bolt, or cupids arrow, that shoots out at you from the image that paralyses you for that moment, as if venomed from a snake bite. I like the way he talks about the punctum striking outwards.
In Adam’s ‘Clearing Winter Storm’ I was sucked in, pulled inwards, drawn into the bright white light of the clouds in the valley, suspended between Half Dome and Bride Veil Falls. I have been up to that vantage point and never seen it look like it does in that Adam’s print. He did some alchemy in the darkroom up there in the Carmel Highlands.
So, I tried an experiment. I looked at the print as if it were a 3-D image, and started to concentrate, and allow my eyes to draw slowly for the foreground to the background, rolling the focus slowly backwards. The foreground started to blur and the background began to thrust forward as if the clouds started bellowing towards me. The whole area between Half-Dome and Bride Veil stands out in the most amazing way. The angles of the rock faces get exaggerated, the snow covered peaks become more visible, the cloud climbs upward into the sky like a whisp of smoke, and finally as the eyes begin to focus and the image becomes clear, I am drawn forward to the blackness of the two pine trees in the foreground.
I will still have to do some more study of the punctum, I am just at the beginning of physically understanding it, however intuitively and emotionally, it is very clear. For me Barthes has given me a way to understand how to feel an image as opposed to just seeing an image.
Barthes, R. (1980). Camera Lucida. Hill and Wang. New York.
Stacey, W. (2018). Photographs Not Taken. Daylight Community Arts Foundation, Arron, China.
Reading: This week I read an article by Grant Scott: “Why is narrative such a difficult concept for your photographers.” I don’t think this is limited to young photographers particularly, as I am finding it rather difficult to narrate my series on ‘Fences’