Wednesday, October 21, 2015

NOTES ON THE ART OF BLACK & WHITE

As I mentioned in my previous post, I have been spending a great deal of my time studying a wide range of topics which now includes glaciers and the effects of climate change (which I will touch upon in the near future), the art of Impressionist painters, and the human condition of being an artist and creative person (also an upcoming post). 

My subject of primary interest has been the B&W photographers of the 1930's up to the early 1950's, and not just those working in the landscape genre. I have looked at many of the works of Edward Weston, Dorothea Lange, Edward Stiechen, Richard Avedon, Elliot Porter, Man Ray, Alfred Stieglitz, Paul Strand, and of course Ansel Adams just to name a few. 

In particular, I have been perusing the works of Lee Miller, a woman who began her career as a fashion model for Vogue magazine during the late 1920's, then moved behind the camera after moving to Paris in the early 1930's, and finally became a war correspondent/photographer during WWII. As a neophyte photographer, she studied under another significant photographer of the time, Man Ray. From him she learned not only composition, but unique techniques in lighting and the use of shadows. After becoming an accomplished photographer it was only natural that she work in fashion photography because of her contacts and previous associations. I have found this genre of her work, especially for both the French and British versions of Vogue magazine, to be some of the best I have seen, particularly her smooth highlight tones. In comparison with Edward Stiechen's work, who was considered the best in the world of fashion and portrait photography, her work seems to be much more elegant and creative than most of his work, and better than most of her contemporaries as well.

I mentioned in a previous post that I had also been studying the work of Ansel Adams. What I have been discovering in his work are his use of deep blacks and scintillating highlights in his prints. There is a distinct evolution in this aspect of his work after WWII, where it appears that he achieved a balance between the two that I find more eye catching than his earlier work, or for that matter, his later work. Of course all of this is due to burning and dodging in the darkroom, what we now do with masks, brushes, and grads in Lightroom and Photoshop. His technique in the field was to produce an even toned negative which would allow him more latitude with his printing techniques. Today, we follow his example by trying to create a RAW file that is somewhat over exposed, allowing us the same latitude with which to work with our available tools on screen.

As a direct result of this investigation of technique, I looked back at all of my work since I switched to digital and found that I had subconsciously been practicing these techniques all along. A subliminal message transmitted down through the last few years has become the norm in most of my conversions, and obviously is a direct influence from previous viewings of the work of the masters. This is not to say that I consider my work as good or better than Ansel's, but that I have found what I consider my own niche in the B&W genre. In today's world of photography, it is almost impossible to be unique without drawing some form of criticism, occasionally some praise, or comparisons to any number of artists who are considered masters of the art. And yet, finding one's place in B&W is easier in some respects than with color work.

As an example of what I am talking about, the image Ghost Trees below reveals deep blacks and luminous highlights while retaining some details in the shadows. The image conveys a dark mood of mystery and shadows in keeping with the nature of the scene, that being the trees were torched in an intense wildfire that burned for a week before being brought under control. I could have brightened the image to reveal more shadow detail, yet I wanted to evoke a mood of darkness and destruction to complete the mood I wished to achieve in the image.




This is a conscious effort on my part simply because I like the way these techniques make the image appear to have depth. When the tonal values are too close to each other, the image tends to look flat to my eye and lacks enough separation between tones to make the image interesting. This trend is quite evident in much of the B&W work today, especially in architectural works.

What I am driving at here with all of this is rhetoric is that we each see differently when it comes to our perceived aesthetics, a subject that I continually return to time and time again. It is what separates us from each other as photographers and reveals a sense of individuality in our work. Without these distinctions, our work becomes mundane, or worse yet, we all become copy cats and do a disservice to the art of photography.

Like any creative venture, it takes time to evolve a sense of personal aesthetics. Our evolution as artists is a long path, but in the end, we all begin to create work that is distinctive in all aspects, which makes each of us and our art unique.



 
You can learn more about Lee Miller here: Lee Miller

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Until next time ....

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

THE ART OF LANDSCAPE PHOTOGRAPHY - Breaking The Rules & My Own Evolving Aesthetics

I have been doing a bit of reading lately and came across one of Ansel Adams' books of work he created in the National Parks during his long and extensive career. One of the things that particularly interested me after flipping through the pages was his compositional style. In comparing his to others and my own, I noticed how much all of us have copied his style, some without even knowing that we were doing so because those that influenced many of us were influenced by him indirectly through others.

I have been a disciple of his work since the early days of my career and owe much to his style of photography. I can say with conviction that if it were not for him, I might not have ventured into this field at all.

Ansel was a proponent of the 'rule of thirds' in his career, but like all of us today, broke the rule whenever the subject material dictated or required it. After viewing many of his images over the years, it seems that he broke this rule more often than not. When one looks at photographs from the span of his career, we see this deviation a great deal, moving the horizon to the top or bottom of an image. I mention this because I see in my own work and the work of others that we do not break the rule as often as we probably should. The 'rules' of photography are not meant to be hard and fast so to speak, they are there as guidelines to help us make decisions.

My recent sabbatical from creating new work has been due in part to the fact that I felt I was in a rut of sorts, that I had reached an impasse creatively. To me, my work had become predictable and formulaic in many respects, so I decided to take a look at the work of others who have influenced my work over the course of my career, and the obvious place to start for me was at the beginning, with the one who first showed me the way. 

After this recent viewing of his work, I decided to take a close look at my own, to see where I might have made other, not necessarily better choices in composition, but also to help me possibly redefine my future work. What I found was that early in my career, I followed the rules fairly close while concentrating more on honing my technical skills. As the years passed, I began to deviate from the rules, but I found that I adhered to the rule of thirds more often than not. It was not until the last few years that I began to see a drastic deviation from this rule. What all of this told me was that the answer I was looking for was not in composition but elsewhere.

In the last few years, I have been creating works that often do not reflect the actual colors in the scene that was before me. I have used 'split-toning' quite a bit to create pieces of art, rather than images that were close to reality. This was a conscious decision on my part in an effort to break from the crowd. At times, my use of highly saturated colors often put me at odds with my own aesthetics, and I would look at an image and think to myself that I had gone over the top a little too much, but at the same time I would pull back from changing the result. This feeling was beginning to make me question the direction my work was taking and question whether or not I was really creating what I wanted. There was this nagging feeling that I had reached an impasse, that it was time to take stock, to ferret out my really deep personal reasons for why I was creating the art I was making. It was time to analyze my work from an aesthetic viewpoint and this would also give me an opportunity to question the validity of my work.

After much thought over the past few weeks, I wish I could tell you that I have had an epiphany. I have not. What I can tell you is that art for me is an ongoing evolution. When we question the validity of our own work, it only means that we are about to move in a new direction, a change that will either stay with us for a number of years, or disappear as a temporary bridge to what comes next. Without this evolution, our art becomes stagnant and devoid of life for us as individuals. With this in mind, I have made some conscious choices about how my work will look and be perceived in the future. When I return, and I will return, I hope that the new direction will continue to please some of you as much as I hope it will please my own sense of who I am as a photographic artist.

I will leave you all with an image I made last winter up in the Gloss Mountains of northwestern Oklahoma. The light colored material in the foreground is a thin layer of gypsum that rain has softened enough for grasses and small plants to push through. The fact that plants can grow amid a mineral that is a member of the halite family (salt) is a miracle in itself. As for any difference in previous work, I have retained some detail in shadows that I might normally allow to go black in past works in monochrome. I have also refrained from adding a bluish tint, something I have been fond of in my B&W landscapes.




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Until next time ...  

Monday, October 5, 2015

REFLECTIONS

I recently decided to take some time from my art in order to pursue other projects, but I find I am still working at it. I cannot seem to escape from it quite yet and I am puzzled, but not surprised. I suppose it is a bit like trying to quit smoking or some other habit that one has lived with for so long.

I have been editing quite a lot of images that I chose to rework and some that have not seen the light of day since being made. I have not created any new work but guess that it is just a matter of time before doing so.

I am currently putting together some exclusive 'folio' boxed sets of some of my work that I will offer on the website soon. I am having quite a lot of fun doing this because it allows me to look at my work in a different way - by association, rather than by date or time of creation. Each folio is of a specific location.

I have also been uploading quite a lot of my catalog to Getty Images. I have had a small amount of success from my association with them and currently have 4 images that will be used in some permanent displays in the near future. Nice to know that one's work hangs someplace where it is seen everyday by hundreds of visitors.

I recently deleted all posts from my Google+ page except for a 'goodbye' post. However, I am now a Moderator for the Intimate Landscape Scenes Community on G+. There you can see images that I have never shared before as well as a few that I have in the past that fit within this category of the genre. I do not know when I will return to posting on my main page but expect it will be in the Spring of 2016 - maybe ....

In looking back at my past work, I see a smooth transition from film to digital, then a softening of the latter towards a more artistic look. This was a conscious decision on my part about a year ago. I had tired of the 'look' I was achieving and made the decision to alter this 'look' to a softer more dreamy appearance. I also noticed a trend towards less intense color in many of my images.

All of this will undoubtedly continue and may even become even more noticeable in future works. But for now, I will wait and see what happens when I return from my self imposed sabbatical.





*** My website will be down for 'CONSTRUCTION' beginning Thursday, October 8, 2015 for some updates and rework with an expected relaunch around October 15 ***
 

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