Sunday, December 14, 2008

Discovering the "Himalayas" in a freezer-full of ICE

The autumn is over, work is piling up at my day job, the administrative side of joining the Lorton Arts Photography Workhouse is beginning to borrow from my "photo safari" time on weekends, it's cold and miserable outside, and my muse is either sleeping, disinterested, or just out taking pictures somewhere without me ;-) So, what is a photographer to do?

I do not know who first said it, or was the first to express a sentiment similar to this, but an often repeated photographer's adage is, "If you can't find a photograph in your home, what makes you think you'll find one in the Himalayas?" Thus, paying homage to this wise adage (and with the Himalayas very much on my mind, if only because I recently finished re-reading Jon Krakauer's extraordinary personal account of the 1996 tragedy on Everest called Into Thin Air), I turned my attention to the ice in our freezer. My muse (who made an unexpected, but most welcome, last-minute appearance!) and I soon started searching this make-shift aesthetic landscape for any "mini-Himalayas" that might catch our attention.

The result is a small, but growing, portfolio of abstract images that I call - with uncharacteristic brevity - ICE. Although it is very much a work in progress, I already feel the healing power of its primal forms, tones, and textures. Perhaps a few photos in the series even manage to show the ice both as "it is" and - echoes of Minor White - what else it is. Regardless, my muse and I are just happy to be back together again and exploring the beauty and mystery of the world with my camera; even if that "world" (for the moment) consists of nothing more than a few chunks of ice from our freezer. Of course, neither truth nor beauty cares anything about what others call the place that is their home.

Tuesday, December 02, 2008

A Powerfully Moving Photo Essay

I normally wait until my muse gently nudges me from sleep or slothful inattention to post some thoughts on my blog. And when I do, I typically show some recent work of mine, or merely jot down a few stray philosophical thoughts about what occupies my mind at the time I post my entry. But sometimes, as now, when I stumble across something on the web that makes my jaw drop with admiration and awe, I just have to pass on the link to those of you who might otherwise have missed something I think is very special.

So...stop reading, and just click here to experience one of the most powerfully moving photo essays I have ever encountered. It is entitled Days with my Father, and is by photographer Philip Toledano.

It is an intensely personal, beautiful story about, and homage to, Mr. Toledano's aging father. But it touches - brilliantly and eloquently - the very core of family, family relationships, caring, and love; and of the Buddha-like impermanence of life and everything sacred. Indeed, in may make you cry (as it did me). It is, in short, an extraordinary work of art; and a testament to what words and pictures can do when the instruments of their creation are in the right hands and creative spirits. I have never met Mr. Toledano, nor have I ever met his father, but through this magisterial work I feel as though I've touched both their souls.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

The Click of the Shutter Button...and A Deep Mystery

Physics is replete with "revolutions" in world-view that emerged after someone was brilliant enough - and brave enough - to question the foundations of "common wisdom." Witness Copernicus and his assertion that the Earth was not the center of the universe; Newton and his realization that the same force that binds us, as physical beings, to this planet is the same one that keeps the planets in their orbits; James Clerk Maxwell and his curiosity about the relationship between electricity and magnetism; Einstein and his stubbornly persistent analysis of the deep meaning of simultaneity; and Louis de'Broglie (along with a handful of others, including Einstein) puzzling over the difference between particles and waves. The list goes on and on, of course. In each case, a seemingly mundane - but sincere - questioning of an "obvious" fact (as Tommy Lee Jones says to the Will Smith character in the movie Men in Black, as he tries recruiting Smith's character to join MIB: "Everybody knew the Earth was flat...") led to a radical conceptual reordering of how we think of the universe, and our role in it.

While I do not propose any such radical reconceptions of our world in this humble little blog entry, I am going to suggest that the "creative act of photography" affords us an opportunity to ask a disarmingly trivial question (that may indeed alter how we perceive and interact with our environment, and ourselves). I will preface the question by first positing that one of the deepest mysteries confronting science today (apart from questions pertaining to the standard model of physics, string theories, or loop quantum gravity) is the nature and origin of consciousness. Consciousness is something we all, presumably, possess; yet is something about which - apart from knowing we possess it, and guessing that our experience of it is "pretty much the same" as that of any other humanly conscious creature - we have little or no real understanding.

Three of the more cogent (and often widely disagreeing) discussions of consciousness are (1) Consciousness Explained (by Daniel Dennet), (2) The Conscious Mind (by David Chalmers), and (3) I am a Strange Loop (by Douglas Hofstadter). None of these, of course, "explains" consciousness; but all are great at stimulating further discussion.

My particular interest, at least for purposes of this blog entry, is that aspect of consciousness that has to do with intentionality; i.e., the (apparently) willful decision to "act" (such as when we decide to "press the shutter" of a camera). Before I ask that question, however, consider this "simple" experience: I am holding a ball in my hand, which, at some point in time, for whatever reason, I decide to throw up in the air a few inches, and catch again. A trivial everyday act. Yet an utter mystery, as far as both fundamental physics and our understanding of consciousness is concerned. Just as there is no "physics" (of which I am aware), no equations or simulations, that accounts for why a small sphere located at some space-time position (x,y,z,t) suddenly "decides" to move against the gravitational field; there is no theory of consciousness that "explains" why I chose to throw up a ball. Oh, I certainly register the fact that the ball has been thrown - i.e., I am "conscious" of having done so after I've done it - but I have utterly no idea why I chose to throw it at the time I threw it. Bejamin Libet has studied this fascinating phenomenon in the laboratory (see Mind Time), and has found that consciousness is actually far from a vehicle of willful intentionality; indeed, its real purpose may be to negate possible actions, not - as we have been taught by convention - to create them.

Why am I choosing the words I'm typing now, and not others? How are they forming in my mind (and, while we are on the subject, what is mind?) I am aware of having "written", but I am at a complete loss as to explaining why I chose the words I did; nor am I able to "explain" why they emerged when they did. They "come out of me," as if by magic; and I have little, or no, "control" over what they are or when they will form. My conscious self reflects back on their existence, but appears blissfully unaware of the process by which they were created.

So what does all of this have to do with photography? Everything, really; the creative act of photography is a microcosm of our general state of conscious experience. In my previous blog entry ("Experiential Flow in Photography"), I wrote of how the best photography is usually done when the photographer is in a state of flow; in which many of the attributes of "self awareness" - or consciousness itself - vanish. In truth, though, every single photograph is a result of (at least an instant's worth) of a "lack of consciousness." When I press the shutter, at that instant, I am completely unaware of why I have done so. It is important to understand exactly what I mean by this. I do not mean that I have idea of what I am doing. Clearly, I am out taking photographs, and I am fully aware of this, even as I press the shutter. But when my finger physically moves down on the shutter button to initiate capture, I have absolutely no idea why that act did not occur a microsecond before or a microsecond after. Indeed, if Libet's research is to be believed, the best I can say is that I become aware of having pressed the shutter button only after I have done so, but in no other way has my consciousness been an active participant in the process that led up to pressing the button.

The act of taking a picture thus presents the photographer with both a puzzle (about who we really are, apart from the role we play in helping the universe take a picture of itself) and an opportunity to learn something about the universal core of the creative process and consciousness itself.

What I sometimes do (when I can retain enough of my self-awareness to remember to do this;-) is to try to minimize the time between which I have pressed the shutter and at which I become conscious of having pressed the shutter. This is not at all as "easy" at it may sound. It requires a razor-sharp Zen-like focus on the process and the moment; and is, at heart, obviously antithetical to the "photographic flow" process, as described in my earlier blog entry. It harbors a bit of a paradox: the deeper one is immersed in the "flow," the less able one is to "reflect" on the process and "understand" the unconscious instant of capture; on the other hand, the "easier" it is to reflect on the process, the less likely it is that the process being reflected upon is the one of deepest interest (i.e., "flow"). Paradox - unavoidably it seems - always lurks around questions about consciousness; and just as mysteriously, it lies at the very heart of the creative process.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Experiential "Flow" in Photography

I am often asked, "What do you think about when you do photography?" To which I typically respond with something like, "the less the better." An answer which, unfortunately - more often than not - only leads to a protracted discussion (that my deliberately "short" reply is usually meant to avoid).

However, the truth is that while my reply is curt, it is far from flippant. Indeed, it conveys the very essence of what I love about photography. Apart from the signature theme of my blog ("Tao" / photography), and my lifelong predilection toward mysticism and spirituality, the one word - the one idea - that best describes what the "I" that the external world calls "Andy Ilachinski the photographer" experiences during (the most memorable moments of doing) photography is flow.

Here I am thinking of the word "flow" as defined by Mihály Csíkszentmihályi, director of the Quality of Life Research Center at the Drucker School of Claremon Graduate University, and author of (among many other books), Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. In this book (and in his multi-decade long examination of the subject), Csíkszentmihályi describes the supra-conscious state (sometimes called the "groove" by musicians, or the "zone" by basketball players) that people "awaken" to and experience when completely absorbed and immersed in an activity. For me, of course, that "activity" is doing photography; or, more precisely, when I am out "shooting with my camera" (and eye/I).

When I write, as I do in some of my blog entries and Blurb books, that my best moments as an artist - as a human being - are those when I entirely lose a sense of self, I do not mean this to be interpreted as poetry or metaphor; I mean this literally. If I come home from a day's worth of a photo-safari, armed with 10 or more GBs of RAW files, and know that I was totally aware of what I was doing the entire time (consciously thinking of f-stops, filters, and compositions), I will also know that there will be little chance of finding any soulful art in that huge digital pile. I was not in the flow. On the other hand, if I go out for a walk with my dog and camera, and come back with but one shot of I know not what because my mind was lost while I was taking it, I stand a good chance of savoring that precious gem of an image that is likely to emerge on my computer screen. Not always, of course, but the chances are usually good, if I lost myself in the process of capture.

This experience, and my interpretation of it, is far from unique. It is experienced by everyone, at some point in time, though not everyone is always attuned to when (or why and how) it happens, nor appreciates what needs to be done to maximize the chances of it happening again. This is where Csíkszentmihályi's books come in handy, as they describe the nature of this experiential flow; how it comes about, what the tell-tale signs are, and how one might better prepare for the "ride."

There is a wonderful 20 min long presentation by Csíkszentmihályi on TEDBlog. A powerpoint presentation (in Adobe PDF) is available here.

Csíkszentmihályi identifies 8 conditions / dimensions of the flow experience: (1) clear goals every step of the way; (2) immediate feedback to one's action; (3) balance between challenges and skills; (4) focused concentration; (5) sense of potential control; (6) loss of self-consciousness; (7) time distortion; and (8) autotelic or self-rewarding experience. Critically, in order to maximize the potential for experiencing flow, one must eliminate (as much as possible) any anxiety or boredom, and strike a delicate (and typically dynamic) balance between the challenge of the activity and the available skills that one brings to bear on the required tasks. The purest - or deepest - states of flow are achieved when one is able to apply a maximal skill set (which can itself, of course, be achieved only through long study and practice; i.e., a total immersion to craft) to the most highly challenging activity. This is rare, but is a spiritual prize well worth pursuing.

Among the several wonderful quotes that Csíkszentmihályi includes in his University of Pennsylvania's Positive Psychology Center presentation are these three: one from an anonymous rock climber...

“You’re so involved in what you’re doing, you aren’t thinking about yourself as separate from the immediate activity. You’re no longer a participant observer, only a participant. You’re moving in harmony with something else you’re part of.”

...one from a surgeon:

“You are not aware of the body except your hands...not aware of self or personal problems….If involved, you are not aware of aching feet, not aware of self.”

...and one from poet Mark Strand:

“You're right in the work, you lose your sense of time, you're completely enraptured, you're completely caught up in what you're doing…. there's no future or past, it's just an extended present in which you're making meaning…”

These sentiments pretty much express my own experience of flow in photography. When in the flow, I do not know my name, I do not know where I am except for the "feel" of my immediate surroundings, I do not reflect on my problems or station in life, I do not worry about what "I need to do" after I've finished my photography. I am one with my camera, I am one with what my camera is pointed at, I have no conscious sense of self or awareness of being, apart from a pure primal joy in experiencing total immersion in what I am doing. I am focused, strongly and deeply, but not at all actively engaged in thinking about anything. There is no sense of time, not even as I press the shutter repeatedly or take long exposures and somehow, though only mechanically and utterly devoid of conscious reflection, tick off the required seconds. I know the flow has vanished when I hear myself ask, "What now?"

Interestingly, Csíkszentmihályi's research suggests that it is highly unlikely that individuals will attain a sense of flow - in any field or endeavor - unless they've immersed themselves in it for at least 10 years. I can attest to this being true in my case, though (being a bit slow perhaps;-) it took me nearly twenty to reach this state. But, oh how I look forward to that precious, wondrous experience when it comes! Alas, when I am one of those (much, much more frequent) non-flow states, the best I can do is recall having the flow experience, not the flow itself. But I know it will come...

So, "What do you think about when you do photography?"

Wednesday, October 08, 2008

The Allure of Abstraction and the Difficulty of Defining It

"Abstraction allows man to see with his mind what he cannot physically see with his eyes... Abstract art enables the artist to perceive beyond the tangible, to extract the infinite out of the finite. It is the emancipation of the mind. It is an explosion into unknown areas." - Arshile Gorky

I have written about abstraction, at least as it applies to photography, a number of times on my blog. But always more implicitly rather than tackling the subject head-on; musings lurked in the background and served more as highlights and accents to the images rather than the main source of discourse. I've certainly posted more than a fair share of abstract images, since that is what my eye responds to most strongly. Indeed, my last three major projects were all heavily abstract: micro worlds, mystic flame, and glyphs. So abstraction is obviously on (and "in") my mind, quite strongly. But I'm not quite sure whether it's more my inner "I" or my outer "eye(s)" that is responsible for abstraction being such a deep rooted meta-pattern in me. So that's the subject of this post.

So, "What is an abstract photograph?" A simple (but far from complete) answer is that it is any image that does not depict anything that is "obviously" representational. By that I mean, whatever shapes and forms it appears to depict, none (or, at most, only a small subset) of them are obviously something that is recognizable; or, if it is recognizable, it is not uniquely so, as the shapes and forms can be interpreted in multiple self-consistent ways. This loose definition also allows for innately recognizable "objects" to be assembled (or composed) in an otherwise unrecognizable way (or that renders the collective unrecognizable as a whole).

A recent editor's note in Photo Techniques magazine (by Jerry O'Neill, Nov/Dec 2008 issue) revealed that Google is about to embark on a massive image cataloging task, in which it is anticipated that upwards of a trillion images will be parsed and indexed according to their content, rather then (as done now) by label. While the methodology to be employed is naturally left unspecified and proprietary, undoubtedly it will consist of some kind of AI-assisted pattern recognition of specific features and rudimentary scene analysis (such as facial contours, buildings, trees, water, and so on). It will be interesting to see what technique the Google researchers have come up for recognizing and indexing abstract images; i.e., images that do not contain anything "obviously recognizable." Will there be primitive categories of tone, shape, and texture? (Which apply equally well, of course, to non-abstract images!) How will an ostensibly "obvious" head shot of a horse, say, differ in Google's catalog from another one in which the contours are deliberately cropped (focusing, say, only on the mane of hair) and facial features either blurred or photoshopped away, rendering the image all but unrecognizable? At what point will one type of image transition into another? Even more simply, beyond referencing an image as "abstract" (by what measure?), what finer distinctions will be made in that class, and how will they be defined?

Google's laudable objective is to provide users with a way to find images according to what they innately depict, rather relying on someone else's depiction (via external label or reference) of what the images contains; and to do so automatically, by scanning the image itself. The problem, with both practical and philosophical components, is that the more abstract the image, the more difficult it becomes to distill it into a few simple features.

In some ways, this reminds me of an idea in theoretical computer science that has do with how one can tell whether a sequence of numbers, say, is random. The mathematically precise way of distinguishing random from nonrandom sequences, is that nonrandom sequences may always be compressed into something shorter than themselves; a random sequence cannot. Thus an otherwise infinite sequence that starts out and continues ad infinitum as "111011101110..." may be compressed by the much shorter (than infinite) description, "an infinite sequence of the symbol set 1110." In essence, one exploits an inherent pattern or symmetry, and uses that innate feature to compress information; or to more optimally express the information content. But a truly random sequence cannot be compressed into anything shorter. In order to communicate what the sequence is to someone else, one must exhaustively list each symbol that appears, for as long as patience permits.


However, some special random sequences, like the digits of Pi=3.14159..., may yield to a compressed description, such as "sum this infinite series..."; which raises the intriguing question of whether there are "special" abstract images in art and photography that similarly yield to "simpler" distillations? One possibility is that while some abstract images in the sense defined above are "random" (in a mathematical sense) and therefore are generally unyielding to distillations, there are also those that - despite not depicting any obviously recognizable thing - nonetheless evoke (in some quasi universal way that depends on the viewer's cultural background, for example) some obviously recognizable feeling (or a subliminal mood). A long time-exposure of waves in the ocean far from shore may not at all be "obviously long time-exposures of waves" (and thus not easily conducive to simple distillations: I wonder how Google's indexing will handle this case?), but may evoke very similar emotional responses in different people. An aesthetic compression based on evoked emotion rather than on the objective content may be much more useful in such cases. On the other hand, some other abstract, one that is perhaps created very artistically using some clever combination of light and shadow, may neither depict anything "obviously recognizable" nor evoke any universally shared feeling. A multiple exposure of a dozen separate shots, each of which is itself an "abstract" might be an example. I'd also be interested to learn how Google will handle such examples.

As for the philosophical dimension of abstraction, at least for me as a photographer, I tend to use abstraction in the classical (Alfred) Stieglitzian way; i.e., as "equivalents" of my inner emotional or cognitive states. Of course, I fully understand that there is a much greater chance that the viewer will not respond to an image in a way that mirrors my inner state when I created it than that the image conveys to the user what I really felt when I pressed the shutter. There are simply too many variables impossible to account for or control. But it is also often true (at least for me) that it is impossible to convey the feelings I have about a subject or scene without resorting to abstraction. It is certainly not true in all cases (sometimes a red barn is exactly what I need to express the beauty of redness). But as I grow as a photographer, and experiment with new techniques and ideas for projects, I am finding my artistic path moving ever more deeply into the abstract part of the aesthetic forest.

Perhaps, just as there are no "simplifications" of truly random number sequences, the purest form of abstraction is the one for which there is no better distillation than the abstraction itself. Then again, isn't that generally true of all art?

Sunday, September 07, 2008

Abstract Glyphs: Mysterious Purveyors of Hidden Harmonies

What does Athens, Greece have to do with the Carpathian Mountains? That's a trick question, of course, as the "connection" between the two depends on first unraveling the meaning of the enigmatic title of this short blog entry... which has to do with a lucky find of (ostensibly "hidden") glyphs, and musing on them as mysterious purveyors of some unfathomably deep cosmic truth. (Of course, one is free to just revel in their just-as-ineffable quiet beauty without succumbing to my usual Borgesian overtones of over-intepretation ;-)

I have previously written about a trip my wife and I took to Greece earlier this summer. Though my discussion focused almost exclusively on Santorini (the second leg of our journey), we also stayed in Athens and Crete. While I have yet to "develop" the raw files from the other two legs of our journey (and the obligatory shots of the Acropolis, the Palace at Knossos, and Samaria Gorge), I wish to share a few images from a growing portfolio I've tentatively entitled Abstract Glyphs: Mysterious Purveyors of Hidden Harmonies, and which came about by chance in Athens.

After spending the first three nights of our trip in Athens, my wife and I took a cab to the port of Piraeus to catch a ferry to Santorini. Since the ferry was delayed a few hours, I had some time to prowl around with my camera. Indeed, I had the run of virtually the whole open dock area; but could not stray too far - say, back into the city - for fear of missing our ferry.

So, what might catch a photographer's eye on a small city dock? And what does this all have to do with glyphs and the Carpathian mountains? My eye quickly homed in onto the two dozen or so oversized rubber dinghies hanging over the side of the dock to prevent the moored ferries from slamming their hulls against the concrete overhangs (which you can just about make out from the link to a Google satellite view given above). Or, more precisely, my eye quickly homed in on the splotches of colorful paint that adorned nearly all of the rubber dinghies on the dock. What immediately came to mind, as I approached the first dinghy for a closer inspection, is a marvelous - and surrealistically strange and funny - novel I had read last year by Polish novelist Witold Gombrowicz called Cosmos.

The novel begins as two young men meet - by chance - on the way to a Polish resort town in the Carpathian mountains. They are soon drawn to a particular rooming house as a direct (if unpredictable) consequence of seeing a sparrow hanged on a piece of wire hooked over a branch; an event that not only convinces the two that it has some deep hidden meaning, but is but a precursor of ever more bizarre and intricate "decodings of meaning" the two must make to understand their (increasingly confusing) lives. As the novel unfolds, our protagonists proceed to "discover" (though "conjure" may be more accurate) ever more recessed layers of "hidden meaning" from what (to all outside observers) are nothing but meaningless everyday things and events. They see arrows in ceiling stains that point in directions they must follow; and search through other people's rooms hoping to find important "clues," such a nail pounded partway into a wall just above the floor. Though disturbing on many levels (I'm leaving a lot out of this short description), the novel reminds us - and me, during the moment I took to walk over to inspect my first "paint splotched dingy" in Athens - that meaning exists in the world (or in a place, or encoded in a given object or symbol) only when there is someone to decode it.

There is no "meaning" in a signal without a receiver; and a receiver will interpret a signal as meaningless if it does not have the proper context in which to decode the signal's message. But what if there were no intended receiver, but there was a context in which a signal might nonetheless reveal a meaning? And what if there was no message sender (more precisely, no intentionally sent message), but a receiver was nonetheless present; and - purely by chance(!) - was in the proper context to receive a "message"? Is the whole world, perhaps, best described as a vast surreptitious web of timeless "meanings" in search of local senders and receivers?

Such were my thoughts, and such was the state of my mind - which also provided an inner meta-context - in which I took nearly a hundred photographs of "Hidden Glyphs of Unknown Meaning" at the port of Piraeus in Athens. Were these messages, I wondered; encoded by some mysterious (perhaps long deceased) author? Were they clues to the evolution of the universe? Hints for my own life's journey? Or just random irrelevant scrawls of disinterested natural forces (that confuse and confound unsuspecting errant passerbys with their siren-song of illusory order when meaning seems to magically arise in an otherwise random context)? What cosmic messages are locked in these hidden glyphs of unknown meaning? Is there perhaps an even deeper level of understanding - and by whom? - of the hyper-glyph that I unwittingly unleashed into the world by using my camera to muse on the indecipherable glyphs I found in Athens?

Sunday, August 24, 2008

"Boinga, Boinga, Boinga" Shots

My family and I recently returned from a "mini vacation" in the Adirondacks, near Lake Placid, NY. The trip evoked many wonderful memories of taking similar trips with my mom and dad over 30 years ago. Though I haven't been in those parts for many years, the Adirondacks' unique charm and quiet ambiance almost instantaneously enveloped my soul. I felt as though I had come home.

Since the trip was geared more for "family" and camping, I spent relatively little time prowling with my camera. Of course, I did manage to catch a few images of the "rocks and water" variety...particularly on the ausable river.

Indeed, there is a short story attached to the images I took there, which I'd like to share in this blog entry. The title - "Boinga, Boinga, Boinga" Shots - refers to the "bounce" (translated as a "Boinga" sound) that all intrepid photographers perched on exposed trail bridges over the river go through while patiently waiting for the reverberations caused by (largely disinterested) passerbys to die down so that they can finally click the camera's shutter. Since I wanted to produce silky-smooth water flow, I needed my exposure times to be fairly long (> 5 to 10 sec). But, being the tourist attraction that it is, the ausable river trails are naturally overrun by adventurers; not all of whom appreciate the "fine art" of taking long exposures. Capturing a shot such as the one that appears at the top of this entry thus requires an enormous amount of patience; both on the part of the photographer and, unfortunately, on the part of the passerbys.

This particular shot was the result of - what must have seemed to an outside objective observer - a comedy of errors. First I had to wait for the clouds to block out the sun. A process which played itself out multiple times over the course of a hour or more, as small bands drifted in and out of view. Next, I had to "coordinate" cloud-blocked composition opportunities with stretches of time during which the bridge was entirely free of passerby footsteps. This was far from easy. I had to make quick sideways glances to the left and right, while holding my camera in position for a preplanned shot. Of course, there were several "opportunities" which misfired. Typically, if I clicked the shutter and the bridge was free of hikers, a cloud would dissipate faster than I had anticipated and the shot was ruined. Just as typically, the clouds would stay in place and the light would be just right, but a hiker (or two, or three, or an entire family!) would appear - mysteriously - from out of the woods (and off the trail) and noisily make their way - boinga, boinga, boinga - across the bridge.


Once, just for good measure, a family of three started on their way from one end of the bridge toward me and my tripod near the middle, and stopped in mid-stride when they saw me lift my eye and head (and may have heard me mutter something like "Arghh" after missing a chance to get a shot). Seeing that the cloud cover was still good and that the party was (at least for the moment) motionless - and upon hearing one of them say to the others, "Hey, look, a photographer is taking pictures, let's be quiet" (which brought a smile to my face) I bent back over my viewfinder and was preparing to press the shutter, when - boinga, boinga, boinga - forward (and onward and closer) went the boots.

The unfolding events were far from over. I lifted my head, uttered another soft "Arghh" under my breath, and felt the group halt again (and heard the same member softly admonish the others, "Hey, he's not done, hold on a minute.") Back to my viewfinder I go, only to see the clouds break and the bright sun beat down on the water. I lift my head back up, this time because of the blinding light; but this time hear, "OK, he's done, let's go." Before his sentence is finished, the cloud cover comes back and my eye goes back to the viewfinder, only to see the effects of the - boinga, boinga, boinga - footsteps coming closer to me. I keep my eye glued to the finder, hoping for a miracle. As the group passes me, one of the hikers accidentally trips over one of my tripod's legs (though there was ample room to maneuver around). I straighten up and accept the sincere and immediate apology; but as I do the cloud cover vanishes.

The group of hikers is now standing a few feet from me, and is both quiet and intrigued by what I am taking pictures of. I answer a few questions (while waiting for the clouds to come back to block the sun), and - seeing the cloud cover return - quickly turn back to my camera, and hear a "Hey, good luck with your shots fella" followed by the now omnipresent boinga, boinga, boinga sound (and reverberation) as the group moves away. I lift my head (in half disgust, but with still a bit of humor at the Monty-Pythonesque predicament my desire to capture this little scene has placed me in) and see the group, once again - and for the last time, since they are now getting close to the other side of the bridge - stop, and no doubt seeing my increasing angst - sincerely wish to allow me to take a "quiet" shot. Gratefully, I bend down, see that the cloud cover is still good, and take my shot. As soon as I hear the click of the shutter after the exposure is complete (though there is no way the group of hikers could have heard from where they were standing), I feel the boinga, boinga, boinga of their steps as they step off the bridge and move off into the woods and out of site. That whole process, to capture that one shot, took about 40 min.

When I got back to my car, and after I had a chance to reflect on my experience, I admonished myself for my infantile-like reaction to the not-always-accomodating natural elements (cloud cover vs no cloud cover) and the presence of hikers with heavy boots. Apart from the obvious fact that I had no more right to be on the bridge than the hikers (so that, in truth, they "owed" me nothing by way of accommodating my purpose for being there) , we were all a vital part of a little self-contained "world" out there on that bridge. And the hikers, whose boinga, boinga, boinga certainly affected my ability to capture an image at the instant that their boots were going "boinga, boinga, boinga," actually helped me produce what I feel is a better image than what I was likely to have captured were it not for their presence.

The simple reason is that the interplay between the bright sun, cloud cover and the boinga, boinga, boinga all conspired to slow me down. These elements collectively helped ease my mind and soul to a slower pace; one much more attuned to the Adirondacks' own natural rhythms. I may have wanted to take a quick picture and go, but I didn't take the time to ask the ausable river whether it wanted its picture taken in such a quick and impersonal manner. As a photographer, I ought to have known better. And I humbly and sincerely thank the merry band of hikers - who kept going boinga, boinga, boinga - for reminding me of the need to just slow down, immerse myself in the environment and quietly listen to my subject.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Color vs. B&W...a "Heisenberg Uncertainty"-like Relation?


In my last post, and immediately on the heels of returning from a trip my wife and I took to Greece, I noted that Santorini = geometry + color + shadow; emphasizing color, in particular, and brazenly declaring that Santorini is glorious, breathing, living, and sometimes blindingly bright color.

While I do not back down from those words - indeed, as I look over my growing portfolio of finished images and a selection of draft prints, I am, if anything, even more enamored of the "full color" results - an interesting thing happened as I went back (a second time) to process a few images in black and white: they reminded me of how awestruck I was when I first gazed onto the strange Escher-like Santorini architecture.

To be sure, what struck my eye first (or so I remember) was Santorini's blazing color; and my first emotion was pure joy - joy at being on a long awaited and much needed vacation with my lovely wife, joy at finally arriving at such a magnificently beautiful place, and joy at looking forward to discovering yet-unseen but sure to be wondrous sites. Consequently, when we got back home and I started processing my images in my usual style, I was struck by how much of my raw joy was missing from the black and white images. However, the color images instantly evoked many of the same feelings. My earlier blog entry thus followed naturally.

So what happened afterwards, and what is the point of this new entry? The answer is both "simple" and subtle...and, for me, a source of an important lesson I ought to have learned long ago. After working on over a 100 or so color images, and taking a few days "off" (while working on other, much older images having nothing to do with Santorini or Greece), I went back for a second look at my Greece files. I must emphasize that as I managed my usual black and white workflow, I did nothing objectively different from what I had originally done upon our arrival home from Greece (and what had originally resulted in my decidedly negative reaction, compelling me to work in color). But this time, even after completing only the first few files, I was struck by how powerfully the black and white images reminded me of the unbridled awe I felt at simply being in Santorini and finding myself amidst its magnificent architecture. This awe was not, strictly speaking, an emotional awe; it was much more akin an intellectual awe. My experience of witnessing Santorini's architectural splendor unfolding before me reminds me of the first time I gazed at an Escher print (which eventually resulted in a lifelong pursuit of math and physics). The point is that I had (at least) two layers of experience with Santorini landscapes; and that both cannot be simultaneously expressed equally as strongly in a single type of image. While the color images most strongly evoke the purely emotional side of my experience, the black and white images most strongly evoke the purely intellectual and cognitive side of my experience. Interestingly, neither type of image - alone - suffices to express the full depth of my experience. (This vaguely reminds me of Heisenberg's uncertainty relation between complementary variables, such as position and momentum, on the atomic scale).

Why had I not noticed this the first time around? I think it is because my emotion - or, rather, my strong desire to express my emotion of being in Santorini - was so overwhelming, that the secondary component of my experience in Santorini (a somewhat more detached intellectual "awe" of its geometry) was lost in the process. Yes, the color images vivdly convey the blazing light and glorious color of the island; but they also leave little room for any reaction other than a joyful exhuberance. The focus on color in my color images is necessarily so strong, and so dominant, that even the photographer's own eye is unable to discern the other - equally as important - dimensions of the original experience. In a sense, going back to the original files and "revisioning" them in black and white (although, truth be told, that is how I originally "saw" them while I was composing; I chose to retain the color afterwards only because the color reminded me of what I felt in Santorini, not because that is how I previsualized the images taken there) is my answer to Minor White's well-known admonition to use photography to tell the viewer something about what else the subject matter is. My color images show you what Santorini is; my black and white images tell you what else it is.

By stripping away the color, by focusing exclusively on only two of the three dimensions - geometry and shadow - I can more easily express the emotionally less charged component of my experience. Since color is absent, it is no longer the "distraction" it is in the color versions of the same images. The viewer is forced to interpret an image in terms of form and tone alone; and, hence, in Santorini's case, in terms of geometry and shadow.

And as for my lesson...? The lesson - I warn you it is a "trivial" one, but one I obviously needed to "relearn" at best - is that a single image can be used to express markedly different emotions; the "emotion" being a function of how the original captured (or raw) image is processed. Indeed, since my experience of Santorini (as of any place I visit, including places I know as well as my own backyard) is obviously multidimensional and is far deeper than "mere" joy and awe, I suspect that I will slowly discover multiple versions of the same underlying "raw" image captured by the camera. Collectively, and over time, these "expressions" will tell an increasingly more refined (but forever incomplete) story of my experience in Santorini. And I will continue to search for ways to bring out (and discover!) certain aspects of my original experience; undoubtedly focusing on one particular dimension at a time, at the expense of another, complimentary one (perhaps best expressed by some other expression; or "performance", as Ansel Adams likened a print to a negative). But, of course, that is precisely what photography is supposed to be all about :-) (Shows how much I have left to learn!)

Monday, July 14, 2008

Santorini (Greece) = Geometry + Color + Shadow

Regular readers of my blog, and those that have seen my work in Lenswork , Focus, and Black & White magazine, know that I am primarily (indeed, almost exclusively!) a black and white photographer. While I have dabbled with color in the past, and print in color on occasion (the last time involving images taken in Hawaii, with an "explanation" provided by this 2006 blog entry), almost everything I do "seriously" (and seriously try to sell) is in black and white. O'Reilly publishing also published a "color portfolio" (of sorts) of some flowers, but these were considerably older than the "2005" byline date would suggest, and - moreover - were never meant to be part of a larger body of work. Generally speaking, and without apology, color is simply "not my thing."

So, it came as somewhat of a shock to my system to learn that Santorini, Greece - a veritable paradise of color, geometry and shadow that my wife and I were fortunate enough to visit for a few days earlier this month - effectively makes a mockery of everything I held sacred about black and white ;-) Trying to render Santorini in black and white, even if duo- or tri-toned, would be like trying to convey to someone who had never heard of George Carlin what his "seven words you can't say on television" are without uttering what those words are, and doing so in a PG manner. Simply not possible.

While I tend to "see" the world in tones, not colors (a habit I think I first picked up when my eyesight started going bad when I was five; since - without glasses - the world is made up mostly of featureless, colorless splotches in my visual field), I recognize that when color is the primary - or otherwise important - focus of my aesthetic attention and therefore needs to be expressed, it behooves me to render the scene in color. But color is by no means my primary focus. And to the extent that my (mostly B&W tonal) aesthetics dictates how I perceive a photographic environment, and what grabs my attention in the photographic environment, it is simply a fact that I have seldomly produced a body of work consisting of color images. However, Santorini renders all such musings and intellectualizations absurdly moot. Aside from its intricate labyrinth of criss-crossed and interlocked walkways (that passerbys must occasionally share with mules), Santorini is nothing but color; glorious, breathing, living, and sometimes blindingly bright color!

I am convinced that color is somehow born and nurtured here, before being unleashed in muted tones elsewhere in this world. A result partly of the eternally bright midday summer sun and partly of the bright local hues and saturation, Santorini is ablaze with color. This is somewhat of a paradox, as most of the buildings are painted a bright white, and are devoid of any color; of course, this accentuates the omnipresent colors that much more and renders them, if anything, more intense.

Since we were there for only a few days, I regret not having the time to "attune" myself to the fantastic - and phantasmagoric - Escher-like architectonic forms. I was more in "point and shoot" mode, trying to capture as much of the colorful geometry as I could in the time we had, than in my more usual slow, deliberate, and contemplative frame of mind (which, had I followed, would have resulted in far fewer shots; perhaps none at all (!). As it turned out, I did manage to find several wonderful scenes that show some of Santorini's unique charm (though I'll let kind readers judge for themselves).

On a physical side, what I will always remember about Santorini is the steps; endless steps, ups and downs, and more endless steps ;-) My wife and I needed about 80 steps or so to get down to our hotel room from the main desk (which is itself about 75 steps removed from the "top" of Fira, the town we stayed in), then another 50 to arrive at the hotel's restaurant for dinner. It is the first place either of us has stayed in with the amusing (and slightly surrealistic) property that, if - after locking your hotel room and before arriving at the hotel's restaurant - you suddenly remember that you have forgotten something absolutely vital for the rest of the day, you will pause, in mid-step, for considerably more than a few minutes (partly to catch your breath and partly to just think), reflecting on the pros and cons of going back to the room for the item; and, 9 times of of ten simply decide to forget it. This place is just hard on the legs and lungs! Though we were both immediately winded less than half-way up the first series of steps the first day there, we soon acclimated to the mini-climbs and were hardly out of breath by the last day. Just in time to prepare for our hike down Samaria Gorge on Crete, our next stop; but that's another story. (We also both found our thighs had expanded two or three inches in girth with pure muscle after we got back home.)

I have posted a mini "point and shoot" portfolio of Santorini's Geometry, Color, and Shadow - (no B&W to be found anywhere ;-) - here.

Monday, June 09, 2008

The Eightfold Path Toward Self-Discovery Through Photography

A while back, I posted an entry called The Eightfold Way of the Artist, in which I describe the basic "steps" by which most artists - and most photographers (not that there is any meaningful difference between the two;-) - typically develop an aesthetic language over a lifetime's worth of "seeing" and "expressing" their own unique vision. That earlier discussion, however, was fairly abstract; and emphasized how the evolution of one's personal art may be used to reveal, over time, the artist "behind" the emergent work. I'd like to revisit this idea, but from a slightly more practical (but no less philosophically deep) point of view: namely, how the nature of the expressed art form itself changes over time, and what we - as artists - can learn from the forms of change.

In keeping with this entry's more prosaic tone (though, as I glance ahead to what I wrote below, I'm not sure how much "philosophy" I've actually stripped from my earlier post; I'll leave that up to the patient reader to decide;-), I should note that it was prompted by a disarmingly simple and straightforward question my mom asked me a few weeks ago (well, it was straightforward, but only before I realized that answering it - in a meaningful way - would prove anything but). Having just seen my Micro Worlds portfolio, my mom asked: "Andy, these are lovely, but why do you take so many pictures of the same thing? You used to show me such a variety of subjects; why the change?"

My immediate reply was accurate but shallow. I said that I no longer find individual images adequate to fully express what I want to communicate about what I'm seeing and feeling. My mom - who is not used to shallow answers about art, having lived with a rather deep artist (namely, my dad) for as long as I can remember - called me on my flippant reply, and probed for something deeper. I tried again: "I don't think in terms of individual images anymore; and when I see a subject that interests me, I want to explore it more, with multiple exposures and viewpoints." In some ways, of course, that was worse than my first answer...my mom countered with: "Andy, you've restated my question quite nicely. Now, how about explaining why you don't think in terms of individual images anymore?"What follows is a summary of the deeper answer I gave my mom after I took a few hours to ponder her probing question. I concluded that my mom very perceptively discerned a genuine meta-pattern shift in the gestalt of my photography; and that the essence of that meta-pattern shift provides an important clue as to what stage I'm in, in my natural (and still very much ongoing) evolution as an artist. I also thought that it might be a worthwhile exercise to think through, and describe, the various stages that I suspect most (if not all) photographers gradually move through as they mature as artists. While my notes contain the germs of ideas for "stages of artistic evolution" whose numbers range from a only a few to more than a dozen, I eventually settled on eight stages (perhaps an unconscious homage to Buddha's Eightfold Path).

Let me begin by stating up front that my description of the "8-fold path toward self-discovery" in no way implies that I have any special insight into the deepest strata of art or photography; it is offered simply, and humbly, "as is" and is to be read - and understood - purely as an expression of but one point of view (which the reader is entirely free to disagree with; indeed, I hope does disagree, with at least parts of it, so as to foster a dialectic by which we can all collectively probe the meaning of art and photographer even deeper).

"A man's work is nothing but
this slow trek to discover,

through the detours of art, these two or three
great and simple images in whose
presence his heart first opened."
- ALBERT CAMUS

Stage 1: Joyful snapshots of anything and everything. What is the first thing anyone who gets a new" toy" (or serious tool) wants to do? Play with it, of course; see what it can do, learn how to use it - mechanically, at least - and just have some fun with it. The beginning photographer - such as I remember myself being when I was barely 10 and my parents had given me a Polaroid instamatic camera for Christmas - doesn't really care much about anything other than taking pictures of whatever strikes their fancy. And that's precisely what they get: pictures of their dog or cat, their room, mom and dad, their own reflection, snapshots of their friends, a tree, a shoe, a baseball game, an apple, whatever. Everyone begins somewhere; and that "somewhere" for photographers is a joyful - but otherwise essentially indiscriminant - expression of a new found tool that takes pictures. And pictures they will take; all kinds of pictures, with hardly any rhyme or reason. In a basic sense, anyone who is alive and is the least bit curious about the world - and is given a camera, or any other artistic tool - instantly becomes a stage-1 artist.

Stage 2: A passive stirring of aesthetic value. As the photographer evolves from stage one to stage two, she still takes images of anything and everything that strikes her fancy but now finds that certain objects draw a deeper attention than others. Her gaze still falls on most everything that surrounds her, but her embryonic photographer's "eye" begins to discern that aesthetic value is not homogeneously distributed; certain scenes, and certain things, draw her eye more than others. For the first time, though perhaps weakly, some aspect of the environment draws the artist's attention. But the second stage artist is mostly passive, reacting to aesthetic stimuli as they appear and are recognized, but still largely undiscerning as to their relative merit and eager to "take in as much as possible." The stage-2 artist creates pictures in which others recognize that certain things are given more or less visual weight than others; but - because the stage-2 artist is still only a "beginner" - the pictures themselves are not necessarily as aesthetically pleasing as they could be.

Stage 3: Willful engagement of the aesthetic environment. The transition from stage two to stage three is both difficult to see "from the outside" (for observers of the artist's inner journey) and dramatic (as experienced directly by the artist). The transition occurs when the artist finds herself discontent with the merely passive capture of objects, and instead actively seeks objects she deems "interesting." She has started to categorize the world according to her own unique measure(s) of lesser and greater aesthetic value. Objects (or places, or people, or situations, ...) that the stage-three artist holds in high regard become beacons in the environment that both immediately draw the artist's attention, and are "attractors" toward which the artist actively makes her way. If the artist finds trees of particular interest, for example, she is no longer content with leaving a park with a "few stray shots of trees," but now deliberately goes to different parks (and other places that has lots of trees) to "see" as many different tree as possible. The stage-three artist begins to learn what she values most, and then goes out to find it. She also learns to better express what she "sees" and is better able to create aesthetically pleasing images. "Objects" of attention in the stage-3 artist's picture repertoire are no longer appreciated by others merely as objects that clearly "stand out" from the background, but as bona-fide "aesthetic elements" assembled by the artist's growing creative powers of expression.

Stage 4: Recognition of the power of expression. The transition between stage three and stage four is marked by a gradual recognition of the power of using photography - traditionally, a print - to express not the object itself, but what draws the artist's attention to the object. In practical terms, this means that the stage four artist is concerned less with depicting trees merely as objects of interest (in keeping with our "tree" example) - being quite happy to display a set of "shots of pretty trees" that are otherwise unremarkable in any way - and more with finding the one shot (and the one resulting print) that best expresses to others why the artist loves to photograph trees. This subtle (and not so easy) transition represents a very significant worldview shift; as well as a shift in artistic sensibility. Indeed, many artists (myself included) find themselves "stuck" at the boundary between stages 3 and 4 for years, as they patiently develop and explore ways to express meaning, and not just being. Making matters even more difficult is that the stage 3->4 transition involves a gradual recognition of - and increased attention to - two different worlds of reality and expression: (1) attention to using a print to isolate the tree as it "appears" to us, as an otherwise embedded feature of the external environment, and (2) attention to using post-capture tools (either in a traditional or digital "darkroom") to properly express the most "important" features of the tree as captured in a photograph. Again, this distinction is both subtle and deep. It is meaningful only insofar as the stage-4 photographer realizes there is an important aesthetic difference between using tools to render differences between trees and their environment (in order to "make them stand out" better from the surrounding clutter), and using tools to selectively render the inner parts of a given photograph (the first inkling to dodge, burn, and make other tonal "changes" to an image), so that the viewer can better "see" what the photographer is trying to express. The slow and careful learning, nurturing, and refining of these skills can (and often does) take years, if not decades, to develop fully.

Stage 5: One picture is not enough. Sooner or later, but only after comfortably settling into stage 4, every artist yearns to go beyond the "image" - to go beyond just showing a single picture, or at most a few individual prints, of a subject the artist holds dear. More effort and more care are put into every single capture (and its attendant post-capture processing); and more and more finished prints are deemed "worthy to show others" by the artist. But the stage-5 artist also grows increasingly dissatisfied over what she is beginning to perceive as "too shallow" an expression of an inner vision that is slowly trying to make its own voice heard. "I like this tree," she finds herself thinking to herself more and more often, "but it doesn't - can't ! - by itself express why I've been taking pictures of trees for as long as I have." She continues, "Each of my trees is lovely, and I'm proud to show them to others, but I'm somehow missing the bigger picture here. It is as though each of my pictures is a chapter in a book yet to be assembled." The artist may not yet quite know what this nascent "book" is, what form it will eventually take, or what it will "say," but her aesthetic eye has measurably raised its line-of-sight to higher levels. The stage-5 artist no longer thinks (or "sees") in terms of individual pictures. Rather, the world is seen as a patchwork; a tapestry of overlapping images. Or, simply, in terms of groups - or portfolios - of pictures.

Stage 6: Telling a story. Inevitably, the artist becomes interested in not just putting together a set of assorted - but only marginally related - prints (as in collections of "best of" shots), but in carefully crafting and sequencing the images in a portfolio of prints to tell a specific story. If the original interest was (and remains) trees, for example, the artist now wishes to move beyond her ever growing collection of "individual trees," to a new form of expression designed to reveal both how "sets of trees" are related, and a bit of the process by which the artist's perception and expression of her general "love of trees" has itself evolved over time. The stage-6 artist thus naturally steps away from a focus on prints as prints (even if they are otherwise a part of a larger collection) and moves toward an increased focus on portfolios of interrelated images. It is no longer enough to just find that one "good" or "best" image - even if it is one for the ages (though any artist is always happy to find it! ;-) - the artist now first thinks in terms of mutually related groups of images. Ideally, each image both stands on its own and compliments and/or enhances all of the others. In more practical terms, the artist now wishes to express not so much her love of "trees" per se, as represented in the "best possible way" by a single image, but a deeper aesthetic experience of trees in general; as exemplified perhaps by a selection of personally meaningful images captured in a favorite park, or accrued over several weeks or months (or years) even as the artist explores other subjects and themes. The stage-6 artist's attention has moved from "pictures" to projects that culminate in portfolios of interrelated images; all motivated by a growing desire to use sets of images to tell a story about what the artist's eye (and heart) is drawn to, and why..

Stage 7: Portfolios of Portfolios. The penultimate stage typically appears only when an artist has attained a certain level of "aesthetic maturity"; by which time a meaningful body of work - consisting mostly of portfolios (though "individually meaningful" images still pop up from time to time) - has naturally emerged. Each and every portfolio has both a story to tell, and is an element of an as-yet unrevealed and unrealized deeper story; a story about which the stage-7 artist hears the first faint murmurs of. A story concerning the truths of the world "out there" as revealed to the photographer through her lifetime's worth of aesthetic judgements as to what to shoot, what to keep, how to express, what to show, and what to sequence into portfolios. The artist realizes that her art has not only captured an aesthetic impression of the world - an aesthetic that is uniquely hers, though the details may overlap with that of other artists - but is a manifest imprint of a deeper aesthetic order of the external world. The artist begins to understand and appreciate certain universal objective truths by examining the subjective aesthetic order that she herself has "imposed" on the world. By studying her own portfolio of portfolios - as though her life's work was itself a "world" open to capture with an aesthetic eye and camera - the artist discovers universal truths about the world itself. In my own case (though I suspect I am far from moving into stage-5, much less stage-7), I can glimpse some of the feelings associated with a stage-7 worldview by looking inward to my motivation for creating my recent "portoflio of portfolios" called Sudden Stillness. Sudden Stillness consists of four fundamentally interwoven portfolios called Chaos, Order, Complexity, and Entropy. The subtitle of the book conveys the deeper meaning behind (and reason for the particular sequencing of images in) the book: visual echoes of timeless rhythms. Collectively, the four portfolios weave a "story" about the fundamental rhythmic patterns that regulate our world (from this one photographer's point of view, of course). In short, the stage-7 artist uses her own work - consisting now mostly of portfolios of portfolios - to transcend art and begin addressing deeper and universal themes and issues regarding the order of the world around her. Art is no longer concerned solely with the here and now - for its own sake, and regarding limited sets of objects, themes, and contexts - but assumes an added dimension of seeking a transcendent truth about the nature of the world itself. And part of that truth is revealed - to the artist - by the artists own body of work.

Stage 8: Self-discovery. Stage-8 is not all that different from stage-7, at least outwardly, and if measured objectively in terms of the artist's physical output (in terms of images and prints). The stage-8 artist still typically produces portfolios of portfolios, still diligently practices her artform, relentlessly striving toward perfection, and delights with each every "beautiful print" as though it was her first, just as she has always done and will always do; but the artist shows no outward sign of doing anything different from the stage-7 artist. Indeed, paradoxically, the stage-8 artist may even appear to others as being stuck on a plateau (albeit an aesthetically very high one), and no longer willing, or able, to "evolve" artistically. But something fundamental has changed - and in a dramatic way, but one invisible to anyone but the artist at first - in the way the artist understands and interprets her own work. Of course, all of the technical components of image capture and mechanical procedures of post-capture processing have long ago been turned into virtually reflex action on the artist's part. Without this being true - something that requires years and years of dedicated and full immersion in art - no artist can progress to stage-8 (this - namely, the need for total immersion - also appears to be universally true of any creative field, if the practitioner wishes to attain the highest levels of "creative accomplishment"). And what is the fundamental change that occurs? In the same way as we indicated that the stage-7 artist uses her art to uncover truths about the world, the stage-8 artist discovers truths about her own soul. The world, and the artist's own work, have both come full circle: the world revealed through an artist's vision; and the artist's expression of the world uncovering the depths of the artist herself. Seer and seen become one; and the seen brings the seer back to self.

“A man sets out to draw the world.
As the years go by, he peoples a space
with images of provinces,
kingdoms, mountains, bays, ships,
islands, fishes, rooms, instruments,
stars, horses, and individuals.
A short time before he dies,
he discovers that the patient labyrinth
of lines traces the lineaments
of his own face.”
- JORGE LUIS BORGES

Sunday, June 01, 2008

Mystic Flame Portfolio

After devoting almost four months of work to my Micro Worlds portfolio (which I'm delighted to announce has recently been published in Lenswork issue #76, print and extended DVD editions) - a project that required me to be painfully hunched over my tripod like a old pretzel - I naturally wanted to choose a follow-on project that would give some much needed rest to both my back and eyes. But I didn't necessarily want to back away from the kind of abstract images that make up Micro Worlds. Indeed, while I've always been attracted to abstract forms (perhaps driven there by my admiration - awe even! - of my dad's paintings), I am finding my photography descending to ever deeper levels of abstraction.

And so, in a step that seemed a natural one to take (at least I could temporarily free myself of a tripod and not be scrunched up for hours on end in some inhumanly back-breaking stance; see my attempts to photograph a time exposure of fast breaking waves at Miami beach in a stiff wind to see an example of just how inhumanly scrunched up I can get!), I turned my attention to the wonderfully abstract and ephemeral patterns of fire.

“All things, oh priests, are on fire . . .
The eye is on fire;
forms are on fire;

eye-consciousness is on fire;

impressions received by the eye are on fire.”

- BUDDHA

All one needs to start a fire is some flammable or combustible material and an adequate supply of oxygen (or some other oxidizer). Subject the two to enough heat to initiate a chain reaction and...voila. On a more technical level, fire - or, more precisely, combustion - involves a complex series of molecular interactions. The burning of even comparatively "simple" few-atom molecules may involve more than 100 unique chemical reactions. The flame itself is an exothermic, self-sustaining, chemical reaction that produces energy and glowing hot matter (a tiny fraction of which is plasma). It emits both visible and infrared light; though the actual frequency range is a function of the chemical composition of the burning elements and intermediate reaction products.

Aesthetically, flames can be quite mesmerizing; displaying rapidly shifting patterns and complex nested tones and textures. Of course, capturing such patterns presents somewhat of a challenge, not unlike that of capturing images of flowing water and breaking waves. One cannot readily predict what specific patterns will arise. The best one can do is get whatever equipment will be used (camera, lens, tripod, exposure time) in place, and take as many shots as necessary so that interesting patterns can be "discovered" after the fact.

As I've only just started my new project - with the working title, "Mystic Flame" - I can offer but a small preview of shots to come. But judging from the results thus far, I foresee this project consuming at least as much attention of my photographic eye (and passion) in the coming weeks (months?) as "Micro Worlds" did before it.

Please click here to see my - still quite nascent - Mystic Flame portfolio. What you will be seeing are actually digital negatives. That is, a collection of reverse-toned images in which the darkest portions (of the "real" image) appear the lightest, and the lightest portions appear darkest. The most striking feature of these photographs, at least from a philosophical point of view, is that they provide a glimpse of the unseeable. Because the exposure times for most of these images lie between 1/500th and 1/4000th of a sec - or, in a slice of time that is far shorter than what our eyes need to "see" (and/or discern) patterns - they depict a reality that is fundamentally inaccessible to us. Yet here it is...simultaneously a beautiful enigma revealed, and an invisible reality not quite completely exposed; for once a pattern is "captured" by the camera, its ephemeral form vanishes forever.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Selection, Selection, Selection,....

Michael Reichmann, author of the wonderful blog Luminous Landscape, recently posted an interesting essay on the convergence of still and video photography. Citing such new cameras as Casio's EX-F1 and the Red Scarlet (which can shoot 60 frames per sec and 100 fps, respectively, without mechanical shutters, and at speeds approaching 1/40,000 sec), Reichmann suggests that new technologies are harbingers of a future in which the distinction between still cameras and video cameras is blurred, if not made moot entirely.

His assertion is both well argued and nuanced, and I encourage interested readers in clicking on the provided link to enjoy the article for themselves. For my purposes here, I'd like to focus on the aesthetic issues that such a convergence of technologies portends; and will argue that the distinction between "still" and "video" is - artistically speaking - somewhat of a red-herring.

While still photography and videography obviously represent two objectively distinct modes of expression, the distinction has heretofore been largely a technological - not artistic - one (I hope to explain what I mean by this in what follows). Because the two technologies have up until now been sufficiently "different," they required an artist (note I do not say photographer or videographer, but artist, because I think the category must now be made larger) to invest (sometimes huge amounts of) time and dollars in two sets of "still" and "video" equipment. What the technological convergence is leading to - indeed, what it already has led to, judging from cameras such as the EX-F1 - is a time when all serious artists can now use one and the same recording instrument to express their artistic sensibilities. The real issue is "artistic expression"; or what the artist wishes to convey with his/her art, be it still photography or videography. And what lies at the heart of any form of expression is selection; indeed, an almost endless (and endlessly nested) sequence of selection upon selection upon selection. The fact that the act of "taking pictures" has now become essentially synonymous with "taking videos" only serves to emphasize the fundamental role that "selection" plays in the creative process. And that part, at least, has not changed; if anything, it is becoming more difficult to do.

Consider the basic steps that any traditional photographer follows when approaching a subject and, ultimately - after recording and processing the images in either an analog or digital darkroom - using some medium (print, folio, gallery exhibit, or book) to express and communicate a "vision." Each step entails a myriad of decisions - or selections - that a photographer needs to make to complete the work. The not-quite-infinitely-long chain of selections begins with a basic question: "What does the photographer wish to express?" Is it a feeling? A thing? A sense of place? A sense of family? A still-life? The list is almost endless, but a selection must at some point be made. Once made, the photographer must decide on where to go to "find" (or "search" for) pictures.

Having arrived somewhere, the real work begins. In no particular order, and from a first-person perspective (speaking from my own inner experiences): What grabs my attention? Where do I look? Where do I stand? What light do I need? What do I exclude? What lens do I use? What f-stop/exposure-time combo do I use? Do I need to change the ISO? Do I need a filter? Should I shoot a sequence? Should I take a couple of different perspectives? Do I need to position my tripod any lower or higher? I could go on, but the point is clear. While most of this is automatic, much of the "creative process" consists of making a repeated series of selections.

Of course, the need to "select" continues (intensifies even) after we get back to our darkroom. What images do I keep (and "work on")? What software do I use? What factors need adjustment? White balance? White/black points? Tonal distributions? Shadow noise? Global/local contrast? Dodging or burning? Toning? Sharpening?

Now, suppose you've processed dozens (or hundreds) of images for a shooting project, and are ready to start thinking about what needs to be done to "communicate" a vision to an audience. More selection. Which images do I use? What sequence of images do I combine? What manner of expression do I use? If a book, how many to a page, and in what layout? If a gallery, what is wall placement? One row or two? How large should the prints be? ...the list goes on and on.

And so we come full circle to the new cameras, such as the Casio EX-F1, that purportedly blur the distinction between still and video photography. While the fact that the distinction between these two technologies is becoming more and more blurred is arguably and demonstrably true, the deeper question is, "How does the lack of any distinction impact the creative process?" If one accepts the premise that art, in the broadest sense, consists of however many selective steps a given artist needs to go through in order to express (in some form, of the artist's choosing) an original idea or feeling, then the only way in which a convergence of still-video technologies impacts art is in providing the artist a richer set of technologies for recording and expressing images.

The question of whether what results remains "photography" (albeit in a different form), changes to videography (but, again, different from more traditional forms) and is no longer photography, or becomes some as-yet undefined "hybrid recording process" (that is different from either of its two historical antecedents), seems to me to be the wrong (or, at least, not most meaningful) question to ask. A better question is, "In what ways will artists adjust their creative process to find a better way to express their artistic vision?"

It may turn out that some photographers find great artistic merit in having not one image (or only a handful of images) with which to express their vision but an entire movie; and/or find clever ways to combine still and "moving" images to expand their repertoire of artistic expression. The way in which they "do art" will therefore change, and the "art" that they eventually wind up doing may bear little or no resemblance to what may have in the past been called "photography." Other photographers, earnestly trying out the new technology for the first time, may find themselves overwhelmed with the now thousands of images from which to choose the "right one" - where before they had to sift through a few or at most a dozen - and either walk away from the new technology or (regrettably) take a step backwards as artists.

Annie Lebowitz, in a PBS documentary of her life's work, admitted to having virtually no editorial skill when it came to selecting the one or two images that would make it into print from a shoot; a task she was more than happy to leave to the editors. Being good at one aspect of the creative process - or being good at making some "artistic selections" - does not guarantee the same success for other aspects of the creative process or ensure that the photographer will be equally as adept at making all required selections. In the unfortunate event that some new technology enlarges the "selection space" in precisely the dimension in which a given photographer is least gifted as an artist, it behooves that photographer to proceed slowly.

For many photographers (particularly those still working with "analog" large-format cameras), the convergence between still and video recorders will likely make no difference whatsoever. Their art will remain what it is, and evolve as it has and will continue. Still others will inevitably forge a new and unanticipated path - and an entirely new form of art - for which we do not yet have a handy label or phrase, and the nature of which none of us, at the moment, are prescient enough to predict or imagine.

Art, by its nature - and as life - grows, adapts, and evolves. In time, perhaps the very words "art" and "photography" will be supplanted by something else; and, in some future time, be recalled by historians as archaic "symbols of something that used to be done using some older forms of technology." But whatever the new words will be that convey the essence of what we now call "art," I suspect that the creative process itself will remain fundamentally unchanged. And what lies at the core of that process is selection, selection, selection, ... (as determined by the artist's soul).