Thursday, July 20, 2017

Self-Critique III

Can anyone be a fair judge of their own artistic effort? Writers and artists run the spectrum of attitude, from vain boastfulness and pride, to quiet modesty and tact. Courtesy suggests any artist must refrain from indulging in too much self-promotion; whereas a real confidence may express itself as passive acceptance of the judgment of history and the marketplace. A jury of your peers has a nice ring, but we know that fairness and justice are seldom the driving forces of prizes and grants and praise. I've never been shy about offering my aesthetic opinions. Some people believe, apparently, that artistic endeavor is already so difficult, that negative criticism should be avoided, to protect the tender sensibilities of those who might be unable to handle rejection. 

Any honest craftsman welcomes criticism, which may help to define meaning and effect, and guide further development. But trying to see your own work, objectively, requires a special kind of disinterestedness. Am I willing to subject myself to the same standard that I set for others? Can I apply a higher standard to myself than I maybe aspired to? Am I willing to admit to myself that my standards weren't high enough, or that I fell short simply because I lacked the inherent talent from the beginning? These are uncomfortable questions which any artist or writer faces, even if they never discuss them in public. Ultimately, any serious critic must insist that merely trying is not enough, and that failure must be a possibility in art, as it is in life. In the arts, "A for effort" can't be on the menu. 

My photographs clearly belong to a tradition of "straight" image making that has its origins in the 19th Century--Timothy H. O'Sullivan, William Henry Jackson, Edward S. Curtis, Darius Kinsey, Robert Adamson, David Octavius Hill, etc.--which then evolves fully in the 1930's via the f64 Group, which included Adams, Edward and Brett Weston, Cunningham, Van Dyke, Lavenson, etc. For a time at the turn of the 20th Century, so-called "soft image" work was favored, partly out of deference to the "artistic" qualities of painting, which was ironically undergoing its own formal crisis in reaction to the invention of photography. Just as straight depiction in painting was beginning to disintegrate, photography was finally throwing off its painterly preoccupations and declaring accuracy and vividness as its chief values. If photography could achieve the verisimilitude of "reality," painting could be free to explore other spheres of expression. 

By the time I'd entered the field in 1985, serious large format photography--primarily black and white, but moving inexorably forward with color as well--had been accepted as a valid art form. The high art values achieved by Strand, Edward Weston and Ansel Adams in the 1940's/'50's and after, were commonly accepted, and all the major museums in the Western World now mount photographic exhibitions right alongside the plastic media. 


For many years, there was a debate about the value of photographic prints. In theory, any photographic negative may be endlessly reproduced (printed). In fact, it's nearly impossible to make so-called "identical" prints through individual exposure and development, even assuming that materials (paper, chemicals, etc., which may be proprietary or privately concocted) are uniform to begin with. The simple fact is that producing more than a handful of superior prints is difficult. In addition, any successful photographer knows that control of an edition is part of the process of controlling the value, particularly with very popular images. Once a photographer closes a print run, or dies, the number is fixed. 

As I have mentioned, my own working methods were determined in part by my expectation. I never imagined that my work would ever be shown in galleries, and I could see no particular reason to have multiple prints (mounted or not) of images. Once I had achieved a print that satisfied me, I stopped working on it. Usually, I ended up with only 1-3 prints of a satisfactory image. I never expected my prints to "sell" anywhere, so there seemed no point in have additional ones. Was this an expression of my artistic "modesty" or simple pragmatic efficiency? Perhaps laziness had something to do with it. 

Ansel Adams once said, acting as the promulgator of his medium, that "the specter of the hobby is always lurking" behind every amateur photographer, by which he meant, if I read him right, that most people stop short of realizing their full potential photographers, simply by shirking the challenge, excusing their reluctance by calling it a pastime (or a "hobby") instead of the art it can be. It's like a conscience call. 

By moving up to larger and larger negative formats, I believed that I could achieve greater accuracy and tonal scale in my work. It was also upping the ante, a commitment which the larger and more demanding (and expensive) equipment would enable. Could I have achieved my goals with smaller formats? Probably not. I had seen how even a 2 1/2 square negative would blur even at 8x10 dimension. "Blow ups" were fine, as long as you didn't get too ambitious. But I was ambitious! I'd seen what Adams and Weston could do with 8x10, and that's the potential I wanted to test in my own work. I didn't exactly want to make photographs just like theirs, but I knew that this was a journey I wanted to take, even if it resulted in failure. 

Photography is forgiving enough, that if you use the very best equipment, and the best materials, the odds are that you'll make work that may impress people. 

In truth, I was more than willing to let the large format images I knew I could achieve, stand in the beginning for what I wanted. Standing on the rim of Canyon de Chelly and blasting away at the canyon walls below may have been like shooting fish in a barrel, but I couldn't resist the lure of the iconic. And the really big 11x14 negatives I could make, would guarantee that my contact prints would be at least as impressive as any smaller format versions. The greater challenge, naturally, was in finding compositions that were completely original, and not just later examples of the same subjects. 

Harry Callahan said that a good photographer was never more than 10 feet away from a great picture. But accepting that as an aesthetic axiom does not necessarily imply that one should be limited to that range of possibility. There are landscape photographers who wander the world restlessly for any kind of exotic picture, even hiring bush pilots and helicopters to get them into the right position or remote location. Both extremes--resisting the exotic, or embracing it--seem unnecessary to me. I think it's possible to construct compelling photos out of arrangements of objects in a room. But that doesn't imply that hiking around the Alabama Hills on the eastern side of the Sierra Nevada isn't also a fruitful approach. 


Serious landscape photographers may think of themselves as pioneers, in much the same way that Timothy O'Sullivan was, in the 19th Century. Though the rigors of the outback are nothing like they were in his time, with mule-teams to carry his baggage, there is still the excitement and pleasure of being outdoors, away from "civilization," on the hunt for the wild, untamed, unspoiled natural wonders. That may sound like a cliché, unless you've hiked five miles with a 30lb. view camera on your back, carrying a 12 lb. wooden tripod up a steep trail to a promising overlook. 


Though many of my photographs are of classic subject matter--compositions that others have essayed, with greater or lesser success, I think that most of them deserve to be appreciated. My images all have a strong sense of organization, a sensitivity to context, as well as a respect for traditional pictorial values. They aren't humorous. They aren't kooky. They don't strain for effect. 

As a conservationist, I have a preservationist's concern for the environment. Some photographers are willing to allow their art to reflect the devastation man has caused on the earth. Robert Adams, Lewis Baltz. There is pain in their photographs, and disgust, and outrage. Even hopelessness. Is it apposite to use your art to make deliberate political statements with your camera? No doubt. But the choice to do so will subtract from the opportunity to appreciate what we most value. Probably the best expression of preservation for a fisherman is not to fish at all, and to insist that no one else does either. As a fly fisherman, I am sensitive to the use I make of fresh water habitat, but the point is to live, not refrain from experience, either as a protest or as a sacrifice. 


For me, no photograph could be "merely" pretty and be truly compelling. There must be an underlying mystery, a quality of power or eccentric design which keeps us looking, keeps us coming back, to attempt to unravel what's intriguing to our eye. Though oil storage tanks--big cylinders full of raw or refined petroleum--aren't pretty, I thought that the message implied here by the oddly named company logo, with the criss-crossing grid lines unintentionally setting out an ironic pattern of mathematical meaning, told me something about the world. This photograph was taken with an 8x10 view camera. It could obviously have been snapped with a 35 millimeter hand-held, and the resulting "content" would be the same. But for me, the importance of the "message" of the picture was enhanced by the clarity and crispness of the accuracy of the lens. People who wander about with little hand held cameras, snapping away happily, are missing something. 

One of the best aspects about large format cameras, is the methodical routine you go through to set up for a shot. It involves a sequence of decisions. Nothing worth doing in the arts is really easy, and much of the inconvenience of large format photography is really an imposed discipline. It forces you to think about depth of field, about vantage, and about the ambient conditions. Though there may be occasions when time is of the essence--when the available light or transient shadows are fleeting--in general the best photographs occur under conditions of calm pursuit, allowing the unfolding process to dictate what your desire can realize. And then there's luck!

You have to be ready to experience the unexpected. Interesting photographs often become possible under changing conditions, and these may occur under unusual or hazardous conditions. One of my best photographs was taken during a dreary rainy morning in Tilden Park, when the light was drab, and my equipment and I were getting wet. I almost had no idea what would come of this picture, and for some years afterwards, I was uncertain about whether it was a good photograph, or not. But people I showed the image to, told me it fascinated them. The tree trunks almost seemed to be translucent! 


Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Self-Critique II

Reflexivity in self-regard presents difficulties. Is regarding oneself critically an exercise in myopic delusion? Can anyone be truly objective about the products of one's own imagination? One's own craft? 

Like many people who pursue photography seriously, I began in admiration and idolatry, moved on to imitation, and eventually found myself in the uncharted territory of original exploration. Imitation will take you only so far in any artistic medium. Eventually, you have to ask yourself whether what you're doing has any purpose beyond reprocessing others' work. 

In deciding to pursue landscape photography seriously, there were several aspects to consider. There's the investment in equipment, the opportunity to explore remote locations, access to a suitable work-space, and the purpose toward which all that expenditure and time spent leads. Harry Callahan remarked once that the one thing he knew for certain, what kept him going, was the certainty that the one thing he wanted, at the start of each day, was to photograph. It was a reliable compulsion. And that's pretty much what I felt when I began; I knew I wanted to make pictures. And as I became more familiar with it, the more I liked it. 

There are many kinds of photography, many approaches to subject matter. I admire many of these different kinds of work, though not all. There are things that photography can do well, while some others seem to work directly against the advantage of image-making. Deliberately making blurry images, for instance, seems to me a distortion of the meaning of photography. It's many times harder to make a precise depiction of a real scene, than it is to do with a camera. This would suggest that whatever potential lies in the direction of that precision is closer to the soul of photography. 


One of the first things you notice about serious landscape photography is the tendency to portray "big scenes"--and I was typical in my initial fascination with the heroic images that the great landscape photographers--Ansel Adams, Edward Weston, Eliot Porter, Michael Kenna, and dozens of others--had made. But I also have a strong reductivist tendency in my nature. I like the closely seen detail, presented with intense concentration. And I also love "abstraction" as a genre, the interest in surfaces or spaces that are not about what they are, but what they may mean as pure form, or texture, or metaphorical suggestiveness. 

Ultimately, the best landscape photography isn't about the celebration of place, but about the transcendence of place (and name). Beyond referentiality, there's a purer appreciation of any scene than the simply referential can summon. Most photographs are recognizable images, but it's how they are seen, arranged, portrayed, that makes interesting work. Any tourist can perch on the edge of the Grand Canyon, or at the margin of the Pacific Ocean, and snap away, probably in color. The sense of inspiration people feel before awesome natural scenes is rarely interpreted by their cameras, because they don't understand how to translate the feeling into a compelling composition. All sunsets are equally a subset of "sunset" but all are different, and it's that difference, made into photographs, that makes all the difference

If all landscape photographers are aspiring towards the same goal, in what sense may they actually define themselves, to set themselves apart? Many of the images in my book are of subjects that all landscape photographers pursue: Dunes, mountains, waves, trees, flowers, canyons, cars, buildings. So it can't just be that the choice of subject matter determines the quality of your work. Obviously, no one can "own" a place simply by having successfully photographed it, though the way one great image has been made, or done, may close the door permanently on all future versions of that scene. Anyone trying to re-do Adams's Clearing Winter Storm, Yosemite, will merely end up in slavish imitation. But no one would suggest that Yosemite Valley has "been done" once and for all. There are always more images, more points of vantage, more variations of light, atmosphere and condition to be explored and exploited. 

Ideally, I always wanted to do several kinds of photographs, but you have to follow your nose to the places that inspire you. Landscape photography sometimes may seem like a pantheon of shrines, familiar spots on the planet nearly everyone is drawn to. As you approach them, you do so with respect, and awe. They are magical places, which may yield up their beauty or mystery to your lens, or not. Sometimes it's all about luck. There's an old saying in photography, that photographers don't "take" photographs; photographs "take them."  Paul Caponigro has said that the process by which a photographer makes an image is an entirely mysterious one, in which a number of elements of opportunity and chance converge. This "moment" may be fleeting, or voiceless, or may seem invisible to the untrained eye. One is, in this sense, "given" to complete certain image, chosen by fate or some higher power to be allowed to perform it. It's like a gift. 


I'm not ordinarily a mystical guy. Not religious. Not interested in superstition. But I think there really is something to the notion that one is given to have certain images. It's a combination of desire, accident, timing, unconscious intuition, and perhaps divine intervention (though I'd not be willing to emphasize the divine part). I remember trying to set up this image taken at Death Valley Dunes. The heavy wood tripod I was using kept sinking deeper and deeper into the sand, changing the composition each time I looked through the ground glass to focus. Every so often the wind would blow little bits of sand off the crest of the wave. Standing as still as I could, with the shutter in my hand, using the dark-slide to shield the lens from the sun's rays. And I had no idea whether the negative would develop in the manner I had planned. All these ponderable issues can build up and overwhelm the most inspired visions!


I've talked around the issue of value, but I realize that the point of criticism isn't merely descriptive. Great critics teach you more than they cut you down to size. That was true of Edmund Wilson, or Hugh Kenner. But there are few serious critics of art photography, and few of those spend much effort in attacking what they don't like. 

In the final post, I'll try to estimate the value of what I have published in this book, without being either too easy, or too hard on myself. 

Thursday, July 13, 2017

Self-Critique I

Coffee table books. Somehow, the phrase suggests decadence, frivolity, perhaps self-indulgence. There's by now a long tradition, over the last century, of books designed to exist as a kind of furniture, as appurtenances of upper-middle-class ostentation, created to be seen or experienced as tasteful extravagances on living-room tables. Early in the 20th Century, photography joined art, travel and architecture as one of the proper subjects for such containers. As the technology of printing progressed, it has become more and more possible to produce printed photo-books that could rival original photographic prints from which they were derived; and with the arrival of the digital revolution, it has finally become possible to make printed images which are just about equal in quality to originals.   

When I first took up large formate photography seriously in the mid-1980's, it was in large measure in response to the imagery I had seen in books. Ansel Adams, Edward Weston, Paul Caponigro, William Clift, Imogene Cunningham. Though my original impulse had been documentary--to create color images of Japan, where we were living in 1985--I quickly realized that the real challenge, the true seduction (if you will) was in making carefully controlled and produced black and white compositions that left nothing to chance. Mastering the technique of making large negatives and transferring them to fully realized prints would require some materials, and some trial and error, but with devotion, and a little luck, I soon became capable of doing so. 

I'm not sure today, over thirty years later, what my initial expectations were, but clearly I wasn't expecting to enter the competitive world of galleries and workshops and fine monographs. Then what was I thinking? I suppose, given that I've always been a "book person," I was unconsciously imagining that my work would one day find its way into a book. Producing prints for gallery walls is a daunting proposition. Typically, when I worked on a print, I would stop when I'd made a single print that I found satisfying. The idea of replicating that target print with a run, say, of 20 or 50 or a hundred copies, seemed absurd, since I had no audience, and no gallery owner to market them for me.  I've never enjoyed the schmoozing and self-promotion that most "serious" photographers have to engage in, either as the subject of my own campaign, or as a "camp follower." I suppose this is partly an ego thing: I don't want to pretend that I think my work is better than it is on the one hand, and I don't like genuflecting to someone who is presumably higher than I am on the pyramid. I don't like vying inside the aesthetic class system--it's a distraction and a bore. 

Nevertheless, the idea of having a book of my images was always there in the back of my mind, and by the end of the first decade of the new century, I was finally able to consider underwriting such a publication all by myself. I'm not bothered by the vanity charge; indeed, anyone who has had to submit to the machine of publication by a typical publisher, understands the compromises that go along with it. Except for a handful of household names, hardly anyone can claim to have marketable photographic material in any medium whatsoever. In order for any art to exist on its own terms, without relying on the organs of culture, it must either be entirely free of obligation, or be so carefully husbanded that it's untouchable. Without having gone to the trouble of promoting my work through galleries and workshops, I could hardly expect any "reputable" publisher to consider doing a book of my work. Art book publishing is risky enough, even with established artists and photographers.   

With the advent of increasingly precise digital printing, it finally became possible in the last decade or so, to transfer large flat-print images into digital files that could be fed into digital laser-printing machines, which in turn could be made into astonishingly impressive physical pages, even as the organic chemical processes of the old technology were rapidly being supplanted by digital projection media. At some point, I realized that producing a collection of my images in a book was really the ultimate fulfillment of my interest. A book allows you to choose and sequence your images, and to control the parameters of the presentation, in a way you really can't in a gallery. Though a book is certainly a commercial object, in the sense that it may be sold on the open market, it's much less dependent upon sales, than the way a gallery depends upon the purchases of prints. Some galleries use exhibition monographs to promote sales, as if books were just selling tools. But for me, the book is an end in itself, what I'd always imagined as the sublimation of the process, from pre-visioning to darkroom printing to collection.    

This year, I finally decided that the time had come to explore making a book from the prints I had stored in my darkroom. Did I have enough good work to fill a book? Was I certain enough of my accomplishment to risk making a fool out of myself?    

If you haunt the bookstalls of new or used book dealers, you know that every year there are thousands of poorly conceived photo-books. Many of them are in color, and most of them are artistically drab and careless. Though available digital technology would allow finer productions, few publishers seem willing to spend more on quality, and even fewer seem capable of conceiving tasteful presentations. Many follow ephemeral trends, trying to cash in on temporary aesthetic fads. Every year, there seems to be another "exploitation" book on Ansel Adams, with blurry reproductions, intended to capitalize on his reputation. 

And of course, much of the work that finds its way into books doesn't rise to a level of quality that really deserves wide dissemination. So the question remains: Is the work good enough to justify spending the resources to summarize it in the synthesis of a material text? Each artist must answer that question for him/herself. I've always believed that I was my own best critic, that I was really the only one qualified to answer that question, at least with respect to my own work. In a sense, I don't care what other people think. If people dislike your work, you can't control that. There are artists who try to placate their audience, who depend upon others to define their sense of themselves and their work. Ultimately, that kind of obsequiousness doesn't interest me. I'm not looking to "please" people, particularly when it comes to confirming my own worth or vision. If people like your work, great. But if they don't, you can't rely on that as the measure of your own commitment. 


Most art books exist within the confluence of art and the market. But art isn't just a marketplace. And there's the simple pleasure of presenting something you've made, with effort and pride, to the world at large. For me, there are few things in life as exciting as making an object--a poem, a drawing, a photograph, a landscape design--out of your own inspiration, bringing it into being. "Did I really do that?" Wow. And your confidence in doing so will be reflected in the quality of your product, not in the sense of a marketable product, but as a child of your creativity. You wouldn't put your own child up for sale or auction; so why would you think your art could be treated like any kind of commodity? 

I know of few things that are as gratifying as launching an artifact into the world, so that it acquires an independent existence, with its own integrity. In a sense, artistic vanity and ambition fall away from a valid object, in such a way as to honor the act, and not the individual person. My ambiguity with respect to the artifact may seem unusual, but in the end we're all just custodians--not just of the things we produce or own during our lives, but of the insights and records and residue we leave behind. Posterity will decide what to do with our efforts. That part is out of our hands. 


In the next part of this blog, I'll address some of the contextual and critical implications of my work. The art book as material object. The meaning and scope of the images (content). 

End Part I