Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Still-Lifes



Always carrying a camera with you, always having a camera at hand, means being ready to photograph whatever you see that catches your attention. You are able to capture what captivates you. You are always looking, always seeing, and having a camera at hand means you are able to catch the light as it passes. Photography is often about making the ephemeral, always-changing light into a more permanent record.

Digital cameras speed this up. You don't have to wait, and there is no set-up relative to old film cameras. The down side of that is that you can make many photographs and get nothing worth keeping. The up side is that you can afford to be spontaneous, and keep trying. You might make many images to get the one you want, in the end; but there is no film cost, either purchase or processing or printing. Film still has many advantages, especially in large-format photography. It's still not possible to duplicate the subtleties of large-format transparency film using any other medium.



But all photography is artificial. It is an imperfect replication of what the eye sees. The eye can see in much darker circumstances than most films, most cameras. Low-light photography has its own rules and challenges. At the same time, certain films, and most digital cameras, see further into the infrared and the ultraviolet than the average human eye can register. What the photo does that the eye does not is stop time, or emulate time; but freeze it, or slow it down, take an image out of the flow and contemplate it.



Still life images seem to demand color. What catches my eye is the arrangement, the angle of light and shadow, the bright illumination of sunlight, or the even light of bright cloudy light. It's about looking at details. About seeing the world inside a small container. The still life is a vessel in miniature. Still-lifes are usually close-ups, with most of the world cropped out of the frame. They zoom in, they look closely, they focus on detail. Arrangement of objects can become an art in itself. Composition and arrangement make all the difference between bland and energized.



Still life seems, therefore, to demand color rather than black & white photography. Some subject matters, backgrounds included or excluded, require color. Demand color. B&W emphasizes form, tone, and contrast. It emphasizes shapes and abstract forms. A great B&W photo might be of a mountain but it's also an abstraction. This is explicitly acknowledged by great B&W photographers: their art is artifice, one step removed from documentation. They seek to express through their art, not just document.



But color can express as well. It is a different kind of expression. Not all photographers can work in both color and B&W; not all can make the conceptual leaps, or go back and forth. They are in truth different realms, different ways of thinking about light, form, and shape.



I strive to do both. I have been working in color for decades, since my first maturity as a photographer. Now I am working again in B&W, which I actually did a fair bit of as a child, as a teenager. There will be more of these still-live photos coming down the road. I find this a congenial way to experiment. Painters have been using the still-life for centuries as etudes, as studies, as ways of learning techniques and processes; and sometimes in the process, although not always, making great art. The potential is there.

There will be more.

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