Wednesday, September 09, 2009

Photography Is About Light


Artlip Lake, MN

I just returned from a weekend at the Minnesota State Fair, in St. Paul, MN, the city I lived in for a few years before moving on to New Mexico, California, and then back to Wisconsin later on. I liked living in St. Paul; although most of the cultural events I wanted to be part of tended to happen in Minneapolis, I found St. Paul to be a less frenetic and self-involved place to live. Except, that is, during the annual State Fair, which is one of the largest in the USA; although people-watching and tracking the various items you can get "on a stick" at the Fair is always fun.


Hare Lake, MN

This past weekend in the Twin Cities I also shopped. The Twin Cities have many very good used book stores, some of the best between, say, Madison or Chicago, and Portland, OR. Every time I go back to the Cities, I usually end up finding one or two books I've been looking for, for some time, and a few other things besides. This time out, I found one of Jerry Uelsmann's long out-of-print early photo books, which I didn't have; some poetry books; some philosophy and gender theory; and Ansel Adams' Portfolio book, which I had been seeking for awhile but hadn't found a good copy of yet.



Adams published seven Portfolios in his lifetime. A Portfolio is an edition of photographic prints, usually presented in a slipcase with text sheets, signed and numbered. Adams, being the prolific master printer that he was, produced seven Portfolios each numbering over one hundred copies. That's a lot of prints. Nonetheless Adams Portfolios are rare and valuable nowadays. Most are in museums or private collections. Some have been taken apart and the prints individually framed, or sold. All of that is acceptable, of course. Yet it's nice for the rest of us to have this combined book edition, which is excellently printed and packaged, with typography closely matching the originals.


Artlip Lake, MN

In continuing my own thinking about making photographs in the American West, which forces me to always think of both Ansel Adams and Edward Westion, I continually return to study both photographers' work. This book of the Portfolios continues that study.


Artlip Lake, MN

What struck me most this morning, as I sat reading on the porch, was the recognition of something that I have known for many years about my own photographic work: All my photographs are about light. They're not really about the ostensible subject matter. They're really about light, and how the light changes. Many of my photographs are really about the sky, not about the land and people under the sky. I've known this about my own work for some time, as I said. What was nice to read, this morning, was an affirmation, or validation, of this same awareness, as part of Ansel Adams' photography, as well. It made me feel an even closer kinship to Adams than I have felt before: because this time, I knew the why of it.


mist, Artlip Lake, MN

Here is the relevant passage from John Szarkowski's "Introduction," which I want to quote at length before discussing:

Adams would object to being described specifically as a landscape photographer. Like all good artists he distrusts categories, and it is true that he has made many splendid photographs of other sorts of subjects. Nevertheless, it is our prerogative to define the reasons for our own gratitude, and I think we are primarily thankful to Adams because the best of his pictures stir our memory of what it was like to be alone in an untouched world.

It does not advance us very far to note that Adams has made elegant, handsomely composed, technically flawless photographs of magnificent natural landscapes, a subject which, like motherhood, is almost beyond reproach. These attributes are surely virtues. For many they are sufficient virtues, and these many need not wonder what the precise difference is between the best of Adams' pictures and uncounted other neat, clean, and dramatic photographs of the glorious American West.

The difference presumably depends from the fact that Adams understands better the character and magnificence of his subject matter, and thus is especially alert to those details, aspects, and moments that are most intensely consonant with the earth's own tonic notes. We must remind ourselves, however, that all we know of Adams' understanding of the earth comes to us not from any direct view into his mind or spirit, but only from photographs, little monochrome substitutes for his ultimately private experience. To the best of our knowledge, he knows no more than he has shown us. As with any artist, his intuitions are finally no better than his prowess.

What Adams' pictures show us is different from what we see in any landscape photographer before him. They are concerned, it seems to me, not with the description of objects—the rocks, tress, and water that are the nominal parts of his pictures—but with the description of the light that they modulate, the light that justifies their relationship to each other. In this context it is instructive to compare Adams' photographs with those of his older friend and neighbor Edward Weston, who photographed much of the same country that Adams has photographed, but who found there are very species of picture. The landscape in Weston's pictures is seen as sculpture: round, weighty, and fleshily sensuous. In comparison, Adams' pictures seem as dematerialized as the reflections on still water, or the shadows cast on morning mist: disembodied images concerned not with the corpus of things but with their transient aspect.

From the standpoint of craft, Adams' problem is more difficult than Weston's, dealing as it does less with eternal verities than with quicksilver. Those who have wondered whether Adams' legendary technique is in fact altogether necessary, or whether it might be a kind of showy overkill, reveling in an unnecessary perfection, have perhaps not understood the content of Adams' pictures, which describe phenomena as ephemeral and evanescent, in an unpeopled world, as those of his contemporary, Cartier-Bresson, describes in a world of human events. To describe in a small monochrome picture the difference between the warm sun of May and the hot sun of June, requires that every tone of the gray scale be tuned to a precise relationship of pitch and volume, so that the picture as a whole sounds a chord that is consonant with our memories of what it was like, or our dreams of what it might be like, to stand in such a spot at such a moment.

Adams would perhaps say that it comes down to a question of good description, which is doubtless true but which has caused a good deal of misunderstanding, since the thing being described is not (for example) a mountain but a concept of one way in which a mountain might be transposed into a photograph.

—John Szarkowski, "Introduction" to The Portfolios of Ansel Adams

Szarkowski gives us great insight in Adams; more than many other writers have. This is useful precisely because it makes it see the photographs themselves in a new way. Adams himself often said that his (legendary) technique was in service of his vision, that his craft was what he needed to do to create the emotional "performance" of the finished photographic print. (Adams, a trained concert pianist before becoming a photographer, often used musical metaphors to describe his creative process.) Szarkowski gives us insight into what an Adams picture really is about: time, change, the ephemeral nature of geology and life, and the ever-changing light, sky, and land. What was it that led Adams' towards championing environmental conservation, decades before it was popular to do so? His awareness of how fragile and ephemeral the land is, and what lives upon it, including ourselves. And also, his awareness that wilderness is necessary to our often overly-civilized spirits: just knowing that there are wild places still—and which we may travel to, to explore, and experience some of the often-buried wildness in ourselves—is a balm to the spirit.


Cross Creek Falls, MN

In my own work, I continue to make more and more B&W pictures. I receive approval for this from many directions, both artistically and aesthetically. I do not entirely trust the opinions of all who approve my working in B&W, precisely because there has always been a bias for B&W photography being more purely "artistic" than color photography. I've written before about this bias, following upon what Edward Weston wrote about the topic:

Black and white is more artificial than color, in the original sense of the word artifice: rather, B&W allows for more of the photographer’s control and decision. A color photo can be apparently pure reportage; or rather, it is unquestioned in a way that B&W is not. One is reduced to pure tone and form. Some subjects are better suited to color, because there is critical information in the color values. But one reason B&W is still considered—rightly or wrongly—the more artistic medium is because it is more akin to artifice than is the quick color snapshot. The aesthetic prejudice for B&W over color is debatable at this point in time; Weston is correct that neither supplants the other, but at the same time each is valid as an artform. It's no longer accurate to say that B&W is "more artistic" than color. Yet I am drawn to it, as a change from color. I've often worked in monochrome; indeed I have a whole body of work that's monochrome, which I return to from time to time.

So while I appreciate any plaudits I receive about my B&W photography, I have to question what prompts someone to make them. Because of this bias towards viewing B&W work as inherently more artistic, for the reasons I discussed above, I often have wondered if a compliment about my B&W work isn't really about it being in B&W rather it being good, in and of itself. It's important to always check one's motivations, as well as one's biases, at the door, and see what's really there, rather than what one thinks is there.


white stone at the lake shore, Grand Marais, MN

All prejudices—artistic prejudices being rather mild and forgivable compared to others—are a kind of conceptual filter on our perceptions. We all carry around a lot of filters, which are ideas through which we see the world, not as it is, but as we think it is, or as it ought to be. The purpose of meditation practice, be it Zen Buddhist sitting meditation, or Christian contemplative prayer, or Taoist egolessness, is to minimize or eliminate the conceptual filters we carry around, so as to be able to see what's really there. Frankly, making visual art, specifically making photographs, is a way of doing that work that surpasses many others, especially the more verbal forms of art-making, which are more prone to generating than removing filters. I find, when out making photographs, that I can let go of or turn off the monkey-mind far more deeply than when writing a poem or essay. My best poems come from that same place of no-mind that my best photos come from: more often than not, I don't feel like "I" made the photo, or poem, but that it happened, or arose from another place. Photography is also about seeing what's actually there, about finding out how the light brings the world into shape. It's a process of discovery.


in the northern Minnesota woods

Weston himself wrote about this, in his essay on his color photography:

The prejudice many photographers have against color photography comes from not thinking of color as form. You can say things with color that can’t be said in black and white. . . . Those who say that color will eventually replace black and white are talking nonsense. The two do not compete with each other. They are different means to different ends. . . . You find a few subjects that can be expressed in either color or black-and-white. But you find more that can be said only through one of them. Many subjects I photographed would be meaningless in black-and-white; the separation of forms is possible only because of the juxtaposition of colors.
—Edward Weston


Artist's Point, Grand Marais, MN

Perhaps I have made for myself a middle ground between Adams and Weston: I am well aware of how the light strikes the body, which sometimes is illuminated from within. I am fascinated by reflections: in still, in moving water, in glass, in mirrors. I love seeing more than one image at the same time, within the frame, when a reflection gives us another layer of depth and illumination.

There is an M.C. Escher print, one of my favorites, entitled Three Worlds. In this woodcut, we see three levels of existence, three layers of being, all detailed by the way light falls on them. We get the reflection of trees on the surface of the pond; the fallen leaves on the pond's surface itself; and we see a fish in the water under the pond's surface.



At the same time that I experience the world as ephemeral, even fragile, as often as I photograph the sky, I also photograph the rocks and waters of the land, that give the land shape, and which etch and shape it. Having studied geology, I am aware of the long-time-scale forces that shape the surface of the earth, that we experience as eternal but which in fact is ever-changing. I find the rocks to be both solid and shadowy. There was an ocean here before, millions of years before, where the living Prairie now is covered with waves of rounded hills, and waves of prairie grasses cresting in the wind. I find Adams' photographic style to be very comfortable to me, precisely because it's all about the light, and the changing face of the light and sky where they touch the land. But I don't reject Weston's more "sculptural" or "eternal" style, either.


Artist's Point, Grand Marais, MN

I find Weston's pictures call forth a sense of timelessness that is the eternal ground out of which being arises. If Weston expresses the Atman, which in Vedic cosmology is the unchanging, eternal soul, Adams expresses the Brahman, or power of creation, life and change. In Hindu mythology, they go together, are in dynamic balance, in a cosmic dance of balance. That is not unlike the way some artists reflect upon each others' work, or reflect and balance out each other—much as Adams and Weston can seem to do at times.


Cascade River, MN

The appeal of Adams' photographs is in part, as Szarkowski says, their ability to evoke an experience. This is why Adam's technical expertise was so essential to his work: this is what it served. For myself, I don't find myself trying to replicate Adam's technical expertise, not even when making a photograph in the same places he worked, but rather, I find myself trying to find a way to transpose into the photographic frame what it is that the vision of a landscape, or other subject matter, makes me feel. As with the best art, the best poems, the best music, the successful photograph evokes an experience in its audience—in many ways, it is an experience, rather than being merely a distillation of the artist's experience transmitted. A successful photograph or poem makes the audience re-experience what the artist felt: there is an emotional and experiential transmission, something frankly pre-verbal, an empathetic connection, if you will, that ignites either the memory or the dream of what it must have been like, to be in such a place at such a moment, seeing the light there, feeling the heat and pressure of it, and being aware of how quickly the light will change.


Artist's Point, Grand Marais, MN

I make very few photographs in the middle of the day: the light is usually too harsh, too vertical, too strong. Unless, for example, when I'm out in the Utah desert, perhaps, where the overwhelming whiteness of the sky striking the land with its heat and glare is what I'm trying to convey in the photograph. More often, the dramatic light happens at the edges of the day, in the nuanced twilight zones of dusk and dawn, and in the morning and evening periods when the light is strongly horizontal, strongly colored. It was not uncommon for Adams to wait several hours for the light to become just right, before he opened his camera shutter to make the photograph. I have waited hours, myself, for the light to become just right. Sometimes, in my traveling, I find myself lucky to arrive at a place just at the right moment, with the right elements all fallen into place, to make an exceptional photograph. But it's also true that chance favors the prepared: my discipline as an artist is to be always ready, with my tools at hand, with my perceptions engaged, so that when I do find myself in the right place at the right time, I can capture the ephemeral, changing, evanescent light.

It's all about the light.

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1 Comments:

Anonymous montreal florist said...

All the photos are really great. Wonderful!!

1:20 PM  

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