Week-7-Contextual Research

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.”

Fig 1: Edward Weston, Frederick Sommer, 1944 (No. 9), gelatin silver print. Courtesy Frederick & Frances Sommer Foundation.

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

Fig 2. ‘Dividing Line’  © Pierre Chemaly

From a historical persperctive, abstraction is not new. Charles Sheeler (1883–1965) was an early practitioner that made abstract images.

Fig 3. “Side of White Barn.” Charles Sheeler. Photo credit: www.mfa.org

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.


Barbara Kasten/Maholy Nagy

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.

Collision 1 T, 2016, Fujiflex Digital Print, 63″x48″ Photo credit: baraberakasten.net

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)

Moholy Nagy 1935. Dufay Color Photograph. Photo image: Pinterest.
‘Evening Dew’ ©Pierre Chemaly





Rexer, Lyle. (2009), The Edge of Vision, The Aperture Foundation Inc., New York.


Frederick Sommer.     https://youtu.be/lmdRZ5eXssw