A photography group I belong to was having a discussion about whether an image should be evaluated as an individual image or part of a series based on a theme or common thread of artistic intent. The following is an essay I wrote on the subject after evaluating my own thoughts and feelings. Enjoy!
As one of Joe’s Disciples I have struggled with what I have found to be one of the fundamental traits of an artist, which is that of “vision” or “artistic intent.” I deeply sympathize with those who have weighed in on the subject in this group, having myself looked long and hard for the clues that would lead me down the path of creativity. I still don’t think I am on the path, but I’ve found the trailhead, and even though my car’s in the parking lot and I’m just gathering my gear, the trail lies long and uncertain ahead of me in the woods. My understanding of the subject is very basic and not nearly as developed as I’d like, but I would like to try to share part of my experience.
As a landscape and nature photographer, I’ve looked at a lot of work, trying to discover the photographers’ vision. I’ve read a lot of artist’s statements, sometimes marveled at the lack of clarity and wondered if the statement represented vision or an excuse. I’ve looked at a lot of work that was presented as “artistic” and thought “how can this group of out-of-focus-no-subject-grainy-no-color images be called “art?”” Coming from a person with no art background who has managed to cobble together some basic photographic technique and generally regards a successful photograph as one that is properly focused, exhibits balanced composition and has good exposure, I struggle with abstracts and have traditionally dismissed them as “I don’t get it.”
A poignant example of this is a series of images on Photoeye by Kevin O’Connell titled Chords. It is an edition of 15 gelatin-silver prints of a single light pole in eastern Colorado. O’Connell’s statement says that “The series evolved out of the landscape work I’ve been doing on the eastern plains of Colorado since the mid-90’s, and was at least partially inspired by Barnett Newman. While my landscapes have been a study of the horizontal, occasionally influenced or marked by the vertical, the Chord series explores the vertical, human, element.” My reaction when I first saw these images a year or so ago was “WHAT, how can they call !@#$% pictures of a lamp post ART?” The fact that the prints are offered for sale for prices ranging from $750 – $2000 only fueled my consternation. That they are still offered for sale a year or so later gives me some consolation.
My conclusion from the O’Connell example is that, while they are not pictures I would ever take myself, and would not have an interest in hanging on my wall, I can look at them now in context of the photographer’s intent and evaluate them on that basis. Yes, I can see where a light pole represents a departure from a “study of the horizontal” and perhaps even how it represents “the vertical, human element” although I confess I struggle to see the “human” except perhaps as the light pole is a manmade object. O’Connell has a landscape gallery on Photoeye as well. It is easy to look at his landscape work and see how Chords departs from that, but Chords represents a “Body of Work.”
If Kevin O’Connell came to Second Tuesday and brought in just one picture of a light pole, and presented it as “isn’t this a cool light pole?” we’d politely stand around and look at it until someone asked “so what does this represent?” or “why a picture of a light pole?” If we were able to see the whole group and understand the background and intent we might still ask “why pictures of a light pole?” but we could evaluate it for what it is. O’Connell, by the way, is far more than just some dude with a camera. He is a respected artist, has had a number of books and exhibitions, and had some of his work published in Lenswork in 2002.
My own “Aha Moment” came at a meeting where I showed a group of my images and someone (thank you, Kate) used the term Magic Moment to describe a number of them. I was able to look back through my work and found a number of images that seemed to fit that theme. While it was not necessarily what I had in mind when I made the pictures, it was clearly a common thread in a lot of my work and I was able to group some of them together for a personal project and used them to make a calendar. For anyone interested you can see them here: http://tomdills.com/2007_calendar/ . Some of them work better than others, but in the context of trying to stay seasonal with a calendar and limited to landscape orientation, I think it works. It’s an admittedly elementary interpretation of the concept, but I am proud of the result and see it in some respects as my first Portfolio. It works for me and accomplishes what I set out to achieve. I’m currently on a “reflections” kick and that theme has been recurring lately in my work. I look forward to seeing where that leads me.
About a year ago I participated in a workshop where several well-known and respected nature photographers offered critiques of participants’ work. Each participant was allowed to submit two images, and the presenters took turns offering their opinions on the work. Because they were shown out of context and with no opportunity for narration or background, the comments consisted almost exclusively of how the respective images conformed or didn’t conform to the “rules” of photography. My conclusion was that I had no further interest in participating in such sessions because the comments had little relevance to me, since they did not take into account the reasons I or any of the other participants had made the pictures.
I’ve spent a lot of time over the last year or so examining the concepts of artistic intent and creative vision and trying to place my own work within that environment. While it might be easy to conclude that nature photographers in general have no artistic intent, that they are content taking documentary pictures of pretty places, interesting animals and dramatic scenery, I think the themes are there and you just have to find them. For many photographers I think it may be simply a matter of examining your images to determine what made you do what you did. The reason you chose a particular composition, exposure or shutter speed may seem purely intuitive, but once you latch on to a theme or thread, other common elements will begin to reveal themselves.
I now find myself looking at a scene in the context of many themes and have determined that the things that draw me to a subject are often as simple as the patterns, textures, reflections and color. Knowing that, I try to approach every subject with the thought of which of those things are present and how I can show the scene in that context. I am also open, although somewhat less successfully, to what other elements may exist that are not on my “list,” and how I might work them into an image. Rather than limiting my vision and the resulting images to a predetermined set of rules, I feel that my vision has been expanded because once I have determined which elements tend to speak to me, I look for them in a scene and use them to guide me. While it may be a place I’ve never visited, or a subject I’ve never encountered, I can look for the elements that I know appeal to me and attempt to figure out how best to capture them in camera.
In conclusion, let me say that I consider myself to be an Enlightened Disciple of our Grand Poobah, and the advice and guidance of the group as a whole has allowed me to move from someone who takes albums full of vacation snapshots to someone who takes albums of vacation snapshots with vision. Seriously though, I have found it to be a challenging experience but well worth the effort. I look forward to continuing the journey, just as soon as I make sure I haven’t left my car keys in the trunk. Come along, it will be fun!
Thanks for listening.
Brother Tom D.