Sunday, November 9, 2014

November. Vantage Point.

I took a while to present my stuff today because I was attempting to reprise Szarkowski's final act. Vantage point on the face of it is pretty straight forward, but he also provides some summary material for the whole book including a definition of what a photographic artist is all about. More about all that below and in the extras.

Simon and I overlapped quite a bit with our approach to vantage point, I wished to provide as many samples as possible, believing that we learn visual things best from looking at lots of photographs. Simon provided some carefully chosen images from his own work that gave a more precise set of examples.

Greg changed 'vantage point' to 'perspective' and quoted Szarkowski, “Much has been said about the clarity of photography, but little about its obscurity” as a springboard for his assertion that reality and imagination rely on each other, - they interact. He showed us a set of his own in-process imagery that combined origami with photography - the constructed in the context of reality.

Homework, I believe, asked for two images from the past year that for you best exemplified what you got from the course. But I will provide an update when I can get the exact wording. Or you could present images that relate to vantage point!

Vantage Point.

John Szarkowski, in his book 'The photographer's Eye' has been placing before us several aspects of the new art of photography that seem to him to set it off from the older visual arts, “ ... an investigation of what photographs look like, and why they look that way.” Today we will be examining the last of these characteristics - that of vantage point. We not only select our subject matter but take our image from a specific angle. We select our viewpoint and then capture, rather than create a synthesis as would be more typical of a painting. Since, throughout the year we have also been looking at portfolios of photographers who break with this definition it is important to remember that Szarkowski is working within the modernist tradition where photography first began. Times change, the avant-garde moves the line forward into new territory but the traditional approaches to photography still have much to offer us all and may be revisited to find yet another starting point when the present vogue begins to loose its sense of purpose. For those of us who work with new ideas it is useful to know, even if we reject them, where it all began and the qualities of the foundation upon which we build new castles in the air.

Photography has often presented, often relied upon, the unusual vantage point, and in the beginning this strangeness disturbed viewers. To this day through the multitudes of photographic images, our ideas about the nature of reality are continually being challenged. We are still both disturbed and excited. We see from another vantage point and receive in the process another point of view.

Photographers from necessity chose from the options available to them, and often this means pictures from the other side of the proscenium showing the actor's backs, pictures from the bird's view, or the worm's, or pictures in which the subject is distorted by extreme foreshortening, or by none, or by an unfamiliar pattern of light, or by a seemingly ambiguity of action or gesture.

Photography today is free to sample ideas from the long history of the visual arts. Indeed, sometimes it seems that the camera, that potentially expressive instrument, is simply used to document a scene created by the artist, or to provide source material for photo-shopped conceptual art. This, in Szarkowski's view, would seem to be a failure to use the instrument well for what it does best and has always done; directly recording the nature of reality - the thing itself. However, the camera has always selected pieces of reality and has always expressed the point of view of the photographer. The present avant- garde of photography is simply an extension of, rather than a departure from, photographic tradition.

Szarkowski tells us that “An artist is a man who seeks new structures in which to order and simplify his sense of the reality of life”. It may seem a long stretch from Adam's and Weston's formal imagery to the highly constructed and 'shopped' images or the simple 'selfies' of the social media of the present day, but they all fit within his definition. Times change and the camera has always held up the mirror to whatever time it has found itself within.

The influence of photography has been profound: we see reality, we describe it to others, with thousands of photographs behind us bending our perceptions. Not just other visual artists, but writers and musicians make their images within this mind set. Even this little essay could be seen as a series of snapshots: I expect my readers to progressively 'see' my point of view.

Szarkowski is working hard to make a special case for photography, but people were making pictures long before photography arrived on the scene and it is highly probable that the photographic image owes as much to earlier forms of thought as present day photography does to the photographic traditions of a hundred and fifty years ago.

But Szarkowski is correct: the camera does have qualities that separate it from other forms of visual art ( In fact through much of its history photography was not considered capable of being art at all). He makes a specialized case for a different way of seeing and making, a particularly America one, even one that chooses certain photographers he brands as characteristic and ignores others. Within those narrow walls however, he has a sharply focused way of seeing what photography is and can be. His ideas have been very influential. He takes a series of slices and unfolds them for us. Finally we arrive at the last slice: vantage point.
What is our vantage point as we click the shutter and how well does it express our point of view?

Extra 1

When I began to seriously think about 'vantage point' I once again made the mistake of thinking that this was simply Szarkowski stating the obvious. Only when I started shooting in preparation for this lecture did I discover how I unconsciously use vantage point. How my images are often very finely honed to satisfy some important aspect of my visual mind; one that does not usually begin with a concept developed with words and then seeks an illustration for it, but is strictly visual thinking seeking formal visual satisfactions. Finding the precise vantage point and pausing with my finger on the shutter release until everything in my viewfinder is correctly arranged, until some special little relationship has perfectly set itself up is, it turns out, the inner key to many of my most personally prized photographs.

My granddaughter accidentally strikes an interestingly dynamic pose atop a driftwood stump in Ruckle Park, but I do not take the photograph until I can line up the distant beacon in the triangle of her knee. The 'negative space' is integrated into the composition. Value added!

The two arbutus trunks bend to form a strong graphic shape. I visualize how this would look in black and white, but before clicking I organize the image by minute adjustments in my vantage point so as to place the distant Beaver Point in precisely the right visual position in the V of the tree. The composition falls into place. Satisfaction!

My son in law and granddaughter are ahead of me, walking far out on Rathtrevor Beach. The stripped down landscape at this low tide, all beach and sky, places their figures in the context of immensity. But before I click the shutter I dodge to the left so that their figures are dead centre to those of two other couples in the distance. From a potentially weak and floppy kind of distant image I have created something of geometrical precision. Sea, beach and the line that divides them, and a three dimensional triangle linking the figure points. I have made a strong and ordered picture from this scene. Yes!

The light is soft, the scene indistinct; the camera has difficulty auto-focusing and so I focus manually on the white seagull. Here is a floating world wrapped in Turner-esque light, so I purposely leave the gull in an off-centre, intermediate place in the composition to emphasis the mood and click away. Later, I sharpen the waves in the foreground. A high key composition, vague, soft, dreamy... a reflection of the moment itself!

In my own mind these picky little visual alignments make art out of 'reality'; make intentional imagery of the kind Szarkowski describes: “An artist is a man who seeks new structures in which to order and simplify his sense of the reality of life.”
( We notice “An artist is a man....” and mentally translate more inclusively and correctly as “Artists are those who...”) :)

This quality of order and structure in art ( and we are studying ART photography remember) works on a variety of levels. At the craft level we may simply apply a conventional rule of composition to whatever image we make - the rule of thirds for example – irrespective of what we may wish to communicate. Perhaps we have nothing else in mind than superimposing a familiar structure on our piece of reality that will supply our and our viewer's mind with a satisfying sense of order. Art, in comparison, seems to be vague and intuitive, shy of formulaic solutions and yet, even as it seeks to poke us in the eye and wake us up, it still needs to find the right structure for the idea it wishes to communicate. That is why it is valued so highly of course, each work is, ideally, an individually perfect solution to communicating a specific idea.

I wrote a little piece on Dragongate to go along with my beach photos:

Extra 2
The other ( rainy) day I walked with a friend down at Indian Point and took a series of photographs which capitalized on her yellow rain-gear. I used a variety of vantage points and was also careful not to include her face so there would be no problems with copyright permissions etc. Also, no facial identity made her more universal, less specifically an individual and easier for us to both identify with and yet see the figure as part of the overall composition.

 I call 'hold that pose' so my camera settings can concentrate on depth of field rather than shutter speed. Her yellow figure works well in this lush green landscape, is part of it rather than using this landscape as a background prop. ( I also upped the iso to 800 on this dark Autumn afternoon so I could use a smaller aperture to obtain a greater depth of field)

Here the figure is more dominant but turns away to lead our eyes too into the scene. From this vantage point we look over her shoulder and are invited to see it through her eyes. The figure has a function in the composition.

The figure is small and isolated in a lonely grey seascape. My distant vantage point and wider angle lens emphasizes this and expresses my point of view about our human place within the reality of the world. The distant ferry is an important visual element here because it leads the eye ( and thought) from figure to ferry thus completing the third leg of the triangle composition begun by coastline and branch.
Turns out that vantage point is the angle from which one takes the photo and also the degree of zoom or how close we are. They work together.

Viewed through a screen of branches and the last back-lighted tattered leaves of Fall, the seascape is much more expressive than if it was photographed without this compositional framing devise. Vantage point is a powerful and expressive photographic technique.

Extra 4: Visualization: from vantage point to point of view.

In my photo presentation I showed a number of images, my own and those by more experienced photographers, and was struck by how the ability to pre-visualize was present in the finished images. In particular, the powerful photo of John and Yoko, by Annie Leibovitz, taken earlier on the day he was shot to death, suggests a degree of intuition of all concerned that is weirdly prescient.

My own sketch for a book illustration project, first in pencil and then photographed and placed in Lightroom' for the tonal work, requires the ability to visualize and build a scene from scratch, and yet photographic seeing may have been influential in choosing the angle of view, the perspective and the light. How much more 'real' the cabin seems because it in the guise of a common photographic vantage point using a wide angle lens and yet how different it is from a photograph in execution.

The images from David Blackwood of his childhood memories of Wesleyville on the far east coast of Newfoundland were chosen because the photograph's chief value over time has been as a documentation of the present for its value in the future. Blackwood uses his memory rather than a camera to create images of a vanished way of life. The question could be, as Szarkowski mentions, to what degree has the photographic tradition influenced the engravings presented here? How much have old b&w images influenced the artist’s way of presenting his personal perspective?

When making a photograph I know that I pre-visualize the finished image even as I see the photograph I wish to take, and adjust my shoot to suit: this is where vantage point blends with view point and then becomes a personal point of view or 'take' on the world. I know that this process is not unique to me but is a skill common to most photographers. Can it be learned or is it built into us individually from the beginning?

Extra 4 Rational versus intuitive.

What is art? Questioned, Picasso answers: “ Even if I knew I wouldn't say!”
The artist paints, dances or composes his revelations.... For artistic intuition emanates from the cosmos and embraces the whole world.
Colour creates Light. Studies with Hans Hoffman Tina Dickey

Flat grey sky, a long strip of black islands and something dark and ill defined on the sea's edge behind the crest of a breaking wave. For me this has a power to set my teeth on edge. It is a disturbing image out of all proportion to “dark day, ferry wave”. There are some images that Jung would describe as coming from our remote human past that bring up strong reactions. Perhaps a great white shark, an Orca, or a crocodile surges out to snag us off the shore and our first instinctual reaction is out of proportion to the present reality. We feel it, even though we may not be able to tell the reason why through standard compositional analysis or through ideas about what constitutes a 'good photograph'.

One of the problems involved in teaching the arts is that on the one hand an instructor wishes to present information that people can get their minds around, and on the other to shrug and say that really there are no rules and the whole process is intuitive and mysterious. Szarkowski performs a series of cross sectional scans of photography and step by step presents us with some conclusions that with effort and practice we can incorporate into our own way of seeing. Well and good, and thank you for this John. How is it then that often as not the images that touch us do not seem to follow rules at all? Or that we seem to take our photos intuitively and only later analyze them in terms of composition. In photography the `thing` we capture is all important, as though we the photographers are at the mercy of powerful chance, as though our subject has us by the neck and draws us like an arrow in a bow to the final shutter release. Weird stuff, and irrational, but in the end it is not wholly fancy equipment or practical training that produces the most telling images.

Extra 5

'What, how and why' and Szarkowski's emphasis on 'reality - the thing itself'.

An artist is a man who seeks new structures in which to order and simplify his sense of the reality of life. For the artist photographer, much of his sense of reality ( where his picture starts) and much of his sense of structure or craft ( where his picture is completed) are anonymous gifts from photography itself.
The photographer's Eye. John Szarkowski

When we ask “what is art or who is an artist?” we can get confused by the variety of definitions. Szarkowski was the curator at the Museum of Modern Art so we have to take his definition seriously, even as we recognize that here he is cutting it to fit the new form of art - photography. In an era dominated by abstraction he makes a case for a unique photographic art form oriented towards reality. He presents those qualities that mark photography as different from abstract and non objective painting.

One way of understanding why he puts so much emphasis on reality is to think of our human drive to make images, which has been an important part of our behaviour as far back as we can imagine, as central. In the past and in the present we as individuals and as societies see the world around us and we ask the question “What is this thing we experience as reality?” We explore this by making images, by music, by dance and through language. So, there is the world out there but we are part of it too and our human way of dealing with it is also part of reality.

If we ask what and why this reality is, we touch on religion and in the visual arts of Christian western societies for the past two thousand years this tie has been very strong. If we ask what and how this is, we touch upon another important way of approaching reality – through the magnifying lens of science.

Szarkowski's important way of defining photography, by concentrating on what and leaving the other questions to be imagined by the viewer is well suited to photography and its instrument the camera, which records in detail – the thing itself. His ideal photographers are ones like Weston and Adams who, theoretically at least, favour clear, sharp images of nature in all its forms: reality. And that at least is a narrow, clear cut way of defining photographs and relating them to the larger world of the visual arts.

Now, he is aware that an individual photographer does not work in isolation, that he too is immersed within a society and is influenced by other photographs and photographers. We all start by confronting reality ( the what) but how we see it and how we take its picture is conditioned by every other image we see around us. (Just go to a photo site like and see how closely all images conform to one another) . Hence his insistence on the Modernist agenda to seek “ new structures”. He tells us that photography works well when it is keyed to reality and that each of us is responsible for finding our own original ways of recording its image: that's the art.

A lot of effort in society goes into arguments about various definitions of art and this is part of a natural process of finding 'new structures' and is a central tenet of Modernist philosophy that has been a standard in photography since it was invented. We are inheritors of this 'progressive' way of thinking and it pervades all aspects of western societies. In science we pursue 'how' and ask it to provide newer and more refined answers. Religions are expected to explain the 'why' of our lives in regularly updated and more modern ways.

Art photography, Szarkowski seem to be insisting, should concentrate on keeping a clear vision of reality ( the what), and photographers need to focus on Seeing first and foremost and using their cameras to clarify, record and communicate 'the thing itself' to society as a whole. This would place the photographer within the role that western artists have occupied since the first cave paintings in Europe thousands of years ago: makers of 'structured' images that reflect the reality of the world*.

    *The first point to grasp is the immense fecundity of humans in producing objects of art. I argue here that art predated not only writing but probably structured speech too, that it was closely associated with the ordering instinct which makes society possible, and that it has therefore always been essential to human happiness.
    ART. A new history. Paul Johnson

Extra 6: Peering through the doors on perception

The most important duty of all is to look at art long and often, and above all to look at it with our own eyes. Facts are external and need to be learned. But the love of art is a subjective phenomenon, which comes to us through our subjective eye, and no expert should be allowed to mediate. In the end, our own eyes are the key to making art our guide and solace, our delight and comfort, our clarifier and mentor. We should use our own eyes, train them, and trust them.

from Art: A New History. Paul Johnson

We are at the end of a year's study of Photographic art: with Bill we have examined the American modernist writing about photography of Szarkowski and learned to both value and question his point of view; we have learned the practical aspects involved in making art photographs through the eyes and practice of Simon, and finally with Greg we have had our treasured beliefs challenged through works of post- modernist photographers. We have peered through many and varied doors on perception and are now set free to come to our own conclusions and to develop our own perspectives and ideas about our best personal practice.

The above quote talks about viewing art but of course it applies even more urgently to the makes of art, to us with our cameras. May we look so hard that we begin to See and may we see so well that our photographs take on a life of their own.

Monday, October 27, 2014

October: Time workshop

After a pause due to illness, the Saltspring group got together to examine student photographs that expressed their own 'take' on time. Greg lead the group through their set of images that he paired with images he had selected from the internet that seemed to reflect the ideas presented in the student's photographs. His emphasis was on two aspects of camera time; frozen motion and blurred motion, and the compositional considerations that accompanied these two technical camera options. We use both the camera and composition to communicate our ideas. He brought us back to considering the formal qualities in each image and how colour, line, form, etc. and their relationships within the frame are, along with the specific subject matter, vital to communication. And communication in an ordered form is what art is all about.

A photograph that was my own personal take on time, and which did not use frozen or blurred motion was this one on 'eternity', or outside of time. Time can be thematic, (the subject), as well, as Simon demonstrated in his last presentation.

Greg used my photograph to demonstrate frozen, fast shutter speed time. I later pointed out how I had used a very low vantage point ( hand held, at surf level) to position the figure high against the sea and sky and thereby increased the dramatic effect.

An extreme example of blur stemming from slow shutter speed is this shot from the ferry of streaky waves, dark land and sunset sky. By abstracting the scene into its principle underlying forms I communicate the feeling by suppressing detail.

Time, speed, distance. Shutter speed is brief, but within that time we see the blur of speed and feel the sense of motion through time.

A straight forward image of time's relentless  melt.

So, how does this image reflect time? The second part, the completion, of any communication (work of art) takes place within the mind of the viewer.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

September: Time.

A slower shutter speed permits camera movement, purposeful blur, to express thematic ideas.

A little cooler in the library conference room this last Sunday, and about time too, now we are into September! And the topic, coincidentally, was Time.
I presented Szarkowski's ideas about this peculiarly important aspect of photography - painting, for instance, may portray time too, but lacks that calibrated snatch of time performed by the shutter - that 'decisive moment'.


Simon showed us a set of his own well crafted photographs that showed us that time may simply be about shutter speed but in the larger scale of things can be about longer seasonal records, the repeated subject though the year. I think we all wished in this section to emphasis that time can be both a technical camera subject and a thematic exploration. We use shutter speed not simply to freeze motion or slow it down but as a tool for expressing more subtle and complex ideas.

Greg, in his role of lifting the roof off Szarkowski's modernist agenda showed us four photographers ( Wall, et al.) whose works questioned the basic framework of photographic dogma. Is this a photograph really, even if it is made using a camera? How far can we stretch our minds, and do we really want to? Remember, the title of this series of lectures is 'doors on perception', and here are some interesting and challenging views into an alternate universe. We look and question, and that is partially the point the artist is leading us to.

Homework. For next month make/take a photograph that for you best shows your reaction to 'time'. Keep an open mind. Good luck!

I read about Eadweard Muybridge's motion studies, with the calibrated backdrops and multiple cameras with stereographic lenses that revealed the position of, for instance, a horse's feet in mid gallop. And about Harold Egerton's development of the strobe and his photographs of events that couldn’t be seen by the naked eye ­ a bullet passing through an apple or a playing card, a humming bird hovering. They were great moments in photography. Feats. And the photographs were beautiful. That galloping horse and Edgerton's photograph of a bullet slicing the Queen of Hearts in half are romantic pictures. Poets took those pictures.
'At Work' Annie Leibovitz

We have been working our way through photography as delineated by John Szarkowski in his influential book 'The Photographer's Eye' and an interesting journey it has been, if only because he has challenged a number of cherished beliefs and created some more of his own. Having defined qualities that are unique to photography as opposed to the other visual arts: the tie to reality ( the thing itself, we take, not make), the selection of telling details from the mass of 'things', and the framing that includes some things and excludes others and in the process creates a separate selected version of 'reality'. Today we turn to another interesting quality unique to photography, that of 'time' and particularly the 'decisive moment' * when the camera records the image. As we will see, this business of time has been used by photographers in many different ways. Behind any photograph lies the mind of the maker and the ideas that drive it.

Szarkowski begins by stating that there is no such thing as an instantaneous photograph. Be it ever so obviously long, as in a time exposure, or encompassing just a millisecond as a bullet passes by, there is a segment of time involved. Furthermore, much of the interest of photography lies in its ability to record and thus preserve a moment in time: consider your own photo albums. Much of the usefulness of photographic documentation lies in its future. We have a sense of present continuity partly because we can sense our past trajectory. We sample the past, our waypoints, to plot our present course and project our future. As in Gauguin”s famous painting we ask 'Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going? ' and our camera provides a record, if not a definitive answer.

Today we also struggle with the same prosaic problems that beset early photographers; the struggling baby creates a blurred image, the passing vehicle does the same, as does the wave breaking upon the shore. Nowadays we have the potential to shoot within a wide range of shutter speeds. We can make informed choices of suitable speeds of exposure and of course we can adjust our iso sensitivity to permit combinations of shutter and aperture that suit our purposes. The history of photography has been one of seeking to speed things up and the accidentally blurred images of the past have been pretty much consigned to the dustbin.

The development of faster lens, shutters and films lead to a horse race of sorts. Who could claim to make 'instantaneous' photographs in the portrait studios? What does reality look like when recorded at high speed; a speed faster the a 'blink of the eye'? 'Verry interesting' was the general reaction in a science minded age. Enter Eadweard Muybridge, a man with both a photographic mission and a colourful personal history. By 1878, using calibrated backdrops and multiple stereographic cameras he was able to capture movement faster than the human eye – the galloping horse being the most famous example.

Another way of capturing very short slices of time was through the use of flash and strobe technology. Harold Egerton stopped a speeding bullet using a strobe, but we can all experience a version of this phenomenon with just our on-camera flash that freezes motion.

 Photographers discovered that these frozen moments held a special and hitherto unseen beauty. The fleeting expressions of the human face, the lines and shapes that now could be observed and reacted to in the photograph, were all instrumental in defining the particular niche that photography now occupies and Szarkowski described. The other visual arts now regularly use 'camera reality' - it has become the way we see the world -, just as concepts of the visual arts in general find expression in photography in a post modernist world view.

Today, fast time exposure still provides a real fascination, but slow speeds and blurred images too have been recognized to have their own special potential. We do not need to belong to one camp or the other but can choose the form of expression that suits our ideas and the subject matter we choose. We have a tool kit that encompasses both and can put our energy into the expression of our ideas about the world around us. Time, it turns out, is bigger than concerns around camera speed, it is a fascinating and all-absorbing area of study in its own right.

  • *The 'decisive moment' is associated with Henri Cartier Bresson, and while we know that he is describing the time between the opening and closing of the shutter, what we take from it is still open for us all to work out individually. It is more a sense of why we take photographs and what we choose to capture. He once wrote “"To me, photography is the simultaneous recognition, in a fraction of a second, of the significance of an event as well as of a precise organization of forms which give that event its proper expression.".

Extra 1

All photographs are memento mori. To take a photograph is to participate in another person's ( or thing's ) mortality, mutability, precisely by slicing out this moment and freezing it, All photographs testify to time's relentless melt.
Susan Sontag.

While it is easy to grasp that photography performs the function of documentation - every photograph instantly becomes a record of the past – I found that the series of photographs I shot on the ferry to illustrate shutter speed took on another aspect that Einstein himself would have found 'relatively' interesting.

 Photographing the ferry's bow wave from the deck high above showed an aspect that Szarkowski calls our attention to: that the camera presents us, especially at high or low shutter speeds with a way of seeing that is foreign to our normal perception. The foaming first fold of the ferry wave looks different, supplies us with alternate slices and ways of understanding,and opens the door to conceptual thoughts about waves, time and space. Not every art photograph echoes painting, science is also brother to the arts, and religion too has long been closely tied to the arts. All are ways of speculating about the nature of reality and our human place within it.

A book in the library ( 'The Oldest Living Things in the World') by a celebrated photographer, Rachael Sussman is a record of the oldest living things. She has developed a concept and parameters – the subjects must be at least two thousand years old – and then produced a body of work and presented it in book form with written commentary. 

Now, this seems like science where a camera has been used for documentation, or perhaps a literary work with illustrations, but it is photographic art precisely because she claims it to be, has conceptualized it.  Conceptual art such as Greg has presented us with opens a wide door into the nature of perception and the role of photography in exploring it.

I began this series of shutter speed images with two shots: one, a long view up the harbour from the moving ferry where all is in sharp focus because the subject is far away and any motion (by ferry or waves) is in line with the camera's direction. There is little or no lateral movement. The second, taken with the same settings a second later points down from the upper deck at the bow wave of the ferry, The water surface is closer and is in relative motion to the ferry, ( we see the streaks) and the bow wave is in lateral movement to the camera. Major blur, but interesting visually. The ferry of course, despite being in motion, is sharp because the camera moves with it. Szarkowski makes his major point about Time when he says that the ability of the camera to capture both slow and fast exposures opens a world of beauty and interest for photographers, be it the fleeting expressions of the human face or a speeding bullet ( or the changing and yet continuous form of a ferry wave).

Extra 2

While we get very concerned about stopping accidental blur from either camera or subject motion there are old and familiar ways of reducing the accidental 'fault'. One, as mentioned above, is to shoot in the line of motion, another is to ask our human subject to “hold that pose”thus freeing us to concentrate on depth of field or other concerns. Sometimes we can time our shot to catch our subject at the peak of action, - the diver pauses on the spring board just before the dive.
Last winter I published a Dragongate blog article about Time. You will find it

Extra 3

November's topic will be 'Vantage point' and will also be the last Szarkowski topic we will deal with in our year-long study of art photography. Not that there is not much more to learn about, but that has been our chosen focus for this seminar series.

'Vantage point' is a recognition that the camera takes a photograph from the world of things and because of that advantage/constraint often captures and presents us with an unusual angle or perspective. This seemingly arbitrary and challenging capture is more typical of a photograph than a painting and presents new ways of seeing and understanding the world around us.

We will be examining Szarkowski's modernist perspective: how people grew to accept the camera's 'take' on the world and how it came to influence other branches of the arts. How it came to influence other photographers as well. He writes that “ An artist is a man who seeks new structures in which to order and simplify his sense of the reality of life.” and concludes by pointing out that the photographer works within the context of all photography that surrounds and has gone before him.

Anyway, it should be interesting for me to wander around and seek to understand and illustrate this idea of 'Vantage Point' while you all are working with Time. :)

Extra 4 Life lessons.
We weren't taught techniques so much as attitude. I didn’t know what the teachers were doing at the time, but later I realized that it was life lessons they were teaching: how to be a person. That kind of instruction stays with you for a lifetime.
'The world of Rosome textiles of Japan' Betsy Sterling Benjamin

When I sit down with my Grandchildren to paint and draw I am aware that I am teaching attitude: here is this adult making pictures with so much focus and dedication. Attitude is the core lesson, not how to hold your brush or mix the paints.

For a teacher in North America there is basically one familiar lesson type and that ends up being some version of 'how-to', but the teachers who's influence remains with us throughout our lives are those who presented their passion for their subject and seemed to us to be genuine human beings. In this quote it seems that in Japan the emphasis is more on these intangible influences rather than 'technique' in isolation from our personal development.

When we study photography we naturally seek technique, a set of 'how to's ' so that we can succeed at the assignment. What then, if we recognized that our real assignment is ourselves? 

Monday, August 11, 2014

August Workshop. The Frame.

A hot afternoon, but still folks turned out to see what imagery the other students had produced in response to the assignment on the frame: to produce two images, the second being a crop of the first with the intention of producing a cropped image that 'told a different story'.

And an interesting set they were, with lots of material to discuss and learn from. The major thing we learned from this review was that while a cropped image looses context it can gain in impact. A wide beach scene tells us much about place, gives plenty of detail within which to understand the main subject. Reduce the frame to contain only one tightly cropped piece of detail however, and what we have is a subject which lacks context but is more dramatic in its impact. We also began to understand that cropping from an original image is similar in effect to zooming in for a tighter shot or simply walking closer to take a detailed shot. In fact I would bet that most of us do that as a matter of course once we have established that first contextual broader image.

While for this exercise it was important to find a major difference between first shot and the 'cropped' version we can see that the middle ground is usually preferable: somewhere in between having the main subject surrounded by context to the point where we are unsure what is the subject, and having the subject so tightly presented that we are at a loss to understand what it is all about. Ah, the middle way!

We also thought about frame shapes, how landscape and portrait modes are very limiting once one begins to sample alternate frame shapes, like square, or long and narrow rectangles. Each frame shape brings with it another way of thinking about framing.

As usual in this seminar series, it turns out that what was once thought of as simply synonymous with the viewfinder has layers of interesting possibilities and that in photography, once one glides past the mechanical and various compositional 'rules', things become less clear cut, more mysterious and much more interesting.

Something to experiment with over the next month might be various framing shapes. Remember the 'extas' blog post last month on Klimt and his square cardboard framing devise? While listening to a lecture or reading might be somewhat interesting, it is in practicing it yourself that information can be incorporated into one's own visual 'bag of tricks' and then show itself in your own individual photography.

Next month's preview: Time.

Shutter speed! That must be what this next section will be all about! How to avoid the blurry photo, how to freeze the fast action before us. Great!

Szarkowski does look at the history behind the fact that there is 'no such thing as the instantaneous photograph'. How early cameras had slow exposures and the race was on to speed things up - faster emulsions, faster lenses and shutters. How Muybridge did it. How even today the photograph captures a discrete slice of time.
He goes on to say that this world of blurred movement or snatched thin slices of time were fascinating in its own right, beautiful and interesting, a view into something our own eyes cannot capture but the camera does.

Working with time is not complicated. Like most things we can learn much by simply experimenting with shutter speed, fast and slow, or seeing what will happen when we use a flash to freeze motion. In daylight, in darkness, by moving our camera, panning, or zooming our lens, by photographing moving water or using a tripod for a long exposure... so much thoughtful play which can be much more individually productive that learning it from someone else's viewpoint.

Extra 1
Simon says, that the article I posted  a couple of weeks ago on my Dragongate main blog might be of general interest to the seminar series students. It wanders through the idea that manual operation of the camera has much to offer. I just added another blog post today on making images creatively in camera  and that we might all benefit from a balance between earnest study and playful experimentation.

Find the link to Dragongate over at the top of the right hand column. And to Simon's website also.

Extra 2 
 Here are some of my own images taken to illustrate aspects of framing.

The usual use of cropping is to make slight adjustments, to exclude certain distracting parts and to focus the viewers gaze on the important parts. Notice the change in frame shape and how well the composition works within it.

Cropping as per the assignment. The first contains plenty of contextual detail but what exactly is the 'story' here; the music stand, the window, the spinner? The second crops severely but still contains music and spinner; perhaps the photographer is making a link, a relationship, between the two? The third makes a strong graphic statement, but without the two previous images we might miss what it is a photograph of, it is a mystery.

Summer rain makes an interesting pattern on the sea's surface. I visualize this frame as square, use my regular viewfinder to capture the image and then crop off the unnecessary piece at the bottom, leaving just enough rock and weed to provide scale, weight and context. It is the rain on water, not the general beach scene that I am calling your attention to.

Neither of these images were cropped in the normal sense, but we can see that I got very close. Here the points of interest are very small and only work within a design because of context. And the context is only interesting because of the important detail.

Extra 3

We write poetry because we are members of the human race, and the human race is filled with passion.
                                             Robin Williams in 'Dead Poet Society.'

On Sunday I quoted Andre Gide, “When you think you have gone far enough, go farther.” in the context of cropping. My point being that cropping concentrates our message, sharpens it up and makes it more obvious. What I did not say perhaps was that more photographs fall short of good communication because they pull their punch than because they are not technically 'good' photographs. Gide was writing about play or screen writing, how one really needed to underline the theme, to make it hard to miss, but this transfers well to making photographs as well. As Robin Williams ( who died today) said in his teacher character, we make poetry ( or any other work of art) because we are passionate creatures and we need to feel it first if we are to communicate it.

         "Carpe diem. Seize the day, boys. Make your lives extraordinary."

Friday, July 18, 2014

July. The frame

Take a picture - any picture - in  the way you would normally do...
...then re-frame the picture in a manner similar to that described by Simon.
Do so in a way that changes the feel of the image.
Present both the original and the altered image.

The meeting was somewhat sparsely attended on Sunday, The day was hot and the final football game in Brazil was being played out. Too bad, as the FRAME was an important concept to add to our bag of tricks as photographers. I presented both Szarkowski's 'frame' ideas and expanded them into a broader context of the visual arts than he would have cheerfully accepted. His role as curator of an exhibition of American photographers of a certain sort lead him to stress the differences between photography as he saw it and the visual arts in general and his ideas were influential for many years and still have much merit. However, to cut ourselves off from thousands of years of fellow image makers and what they have to offer us seems to me to be an unnecessary stretch and hence much of my lecture showed the common relationship with painting and sculpture. The brush, for example, is a tool which can be used for many things besides art, as can the camera. It is not the tool used that is ultimately important but the ideas being expressed by the maker of images.

Simon, in his presentation, used his own photographs to discuss the practical and specific problems that we all face when framing, specifically how cropping an image in different ways can alter the 'message' and how when we take a photograph we are selecting significant detail and presenting it within a frame. ( See the homework assignment above) His photography, as usual was both splendid and instructive.

Greg branched away this time from presenting the works of interesting and original photographers from the past and present and showed us his own work ( He will be having a showing of his work at Artspring this Fall) He emphasized how the frame is not simply a design devise but 'frames' our ideas as well, be they a product of the intellect or our emotions. The things of the world, their relevant details and how we frame them are at heart ideas that we dress and present in visual form.

The Frame.   First the Lasso and then the Corral.

At last, we think, this we already know about: an attractive but dangerous assumption. Framing, we think, is something the camera does for us either through the viewfinder or, more recently, on the L.E.D. screen on the back of the camera. We are selecting the detail that interests us: we lasso it and carefully place it within a corral while at the same time sorting its contents out into a set of relationships. And that is what the frame does: as Szarkowski says, “ [The frame] created a relationship... that had not been there before.” There is the wide open Prairie, the cattle are lowing and here is the corral all set up today for branding and it is filled with bawling calves. The corral separates the particular from the general and we are invited to focus our attention on what is happening within those wooden walls. Our Frame.

Framing is not just a concern of photographers, all art has done this for thousands of years. When we look at cave paintings or carvings from ten to fifty thousand years ago in Europe we see a natural form of framing: the cave wall or roof provides the limited surface, or a projecting shape suggests a form that the artist completes in clay or paint. When we today photograph a portion of these ancient scenes however, we are interfering with the context. Our frame can make a lie or refine and identify a truth; its all in how we use it.

What is in and what is out of the frame, and what is going on inside it is the history of art, not only of Europe, but in cultures all around the world. Photography has had a double desire: to declare itself to be part of that long tradition, not simply a mechanical set of operations, and yet to carve out its own special set of qualities. Szarkowki in his book has his own description that incorporates the traditions of the visual arts and yet sets out his modernist ideas about photography as a unique art form.

He describes the photographers 'take' on the world as being like a scroll painting, an endless roll of phenomena from which one makes selections. The photographer draws a line around and directs our attention to a specific area of interest. The two dimensional shape thus created is then a separate thing and is no longer part of the original real world. We must understand it according to its own context. To extend my corral metaphor, we have a bunch of calves within the fence and it is up to us to organize them. The success of our organization within the frame depends on our compositional skills and they determine what the end product will be; a good days work or mayhem; an expressive communication or one that fails to some degree or other. The frame is the all-important organizational device. As Szarkowski writes:

The central act of photography, the act of choosing and eliminating, forces a concentration on the picture edge – the line that separates in from out – and on the shapes that are created by it.

Within the frame, the captured detail must relate to itself, not to something excluded by the frame and outside of what we can see. Like a stage set with its actors, stage props and painted backdrop we must work within the artificial boundaries we have created.

 Here there be cows but no corral. The frame leads us to
 be aware of how the herd actually extends beyond the frame.
( James Wyeth painting)

A photograph can, however, indicate the larger context by carefully choosing and cutting off bits of detail around the edges. This might seem simply sloppy cropping but it is a powerful way of indicating the larger context outside the frame and this was picked up and used by painters when photographs first appeared on the scene.

Photography was invented during a period of rapid change in the art world centered in Paris in mid to late 19th century Europe. The chemistry that enabled it was but part of a larger interest in science; in optics, light and in colour theory. Also, influences from around the world, be they 'primitive' cultural artifacts or the latest imported Japanese woodcut prints, were stirring things up. All those recent black and white photographs were adding to the mix and a 'modern' artist recognized the possibilities within this new view on the world of things. Why would one not use a photograph of one's model rather than pay by the hour to draw from life and what possible new poses were available for the relatively short time needed to expose a photograph? What about the framing that in so many photographic images was interestingly arbitrary and awkward by 'painting standards'? That immediate frozen moment cut out of the scene was novel and gave a sense of action, of reality. Degas himself was an avid amateur photographer and he used 'camera reality' within his paintings. The black and white of photography and casual 'snapshot' poses in avant garde paintings of the time reflected the eye of the camera. From then on the visual arts and photography, melded, not just in technical ways but in the conceptualizing minds of the practitioners.

We have seen that the camera selects rather than creates, it is limited to the real , it must choose certain details and suppress others; and finally that the frame performs a double function: it determines what we are looking at and how that is presented. It cuts out a piece of reality, works out the relationships within its boundaries and becomes a new thing in the world, no longer a three dimensional reality but a new two dimensional one created by the photographer.


Note that the 'confused jumble' of plastic
 has been carefully arranged. 

Extra 1.The doll, versions 1&2.
I took these two photos to illustrate the 'Frame' and to introduce some of the main points I would be presenting in my lecture.
  1. A doll is a stand in, a symbol, for a person and here she is, alone and adrift in a dark world. She is immersed and framed in darkness like an actor on a darkened stage.
  2. Same doll, same pose, very different environment: she is brightly lit and surrounded by a jumble of plastic puzzle pieces. She is framed by them and yet we feel that they extend beyond the frame we have chosen.
These represent two different ideas about the frame: the traditional one where the image is thought of as being in a stage set or box in which the act takes place, and the second, like a Degas painting, where the frame tells us that we have simply frozen a piece of reality in mid flight.
The frame in both photos is both functional in the Szarkowskian technical way of separating in from out ( see the quote in the above essay) and in a conceptual way. By enclosing the doll in a frame I am asking the viewer to feel the doll's life, her isolation, both in the darkness and perhaps even more so amid the glitz and confusion of a busy life. The frame is important in what it contains and in what it leaves out. It is an instrument of visual communication.

Extra 2
I introduced 'the frame' with the following true short short short story.
My uncle Jack drove a herd of cattle up from the United States and ended the cattle drive by herding them down Jasper Avenue.”
I was drawing a parallel between written story and visual image and the relationship with the frame. There is a topic or theme here, there are some selected details, and I have framed these details in a factual sort of way: who, what, where, but left out the why. I left it for the reader to supply an answer based on their own knowledge and imagination. Where is Jasper Avenue and when could this story have happened, who was Jack, what was his life like.....?
We the readers ( or in a photo, the viewers) are invited to participate in our personal version of this story.

Extra 3
The two photographers I used to illustrate the Frame were Cartier-Bresson and Arnold Newman. Bresson is to my mind a superb photographer and although he photographs people in their native habitat we must be aware that these beautifully framed images are far, far beyond snapshot street photography. Here is a quote about his work:
Cartier-Bresson would say that if you want a close-up of someone you have to get close to that person to take it. You can't steal the shot with a long lens.
Don't hide behind the technical capability of your camera by zooming in. Create the frame by your proximity to the person – and that will enhance the psychology of the scene.
Digital Film Making. Mike Figgis

Arnold Newman also takes his equipment to the natural setting of his subjects and photographs them there. He has a knack for placing his subjects in photographic equivalents of the painting styles of the many artists he photographs.
Form, feeling...structure and detail....technique and sensibility: they must all come together.
Arnold Newman

Extra 4.Symbolist painting.
I used some painted images in my lecture because Szarkowski, in his book, 'The Photographer's Eye' spends some time writing about the confluence that occurred in the early days of photography between painting and photography and the influence that photography had on Painting. Once we get beyond thinking of a photograph as a separate thing, we can profit from the ideas and their visual solutions of artists from hundreds or, in terms of cave paintings, tens of thousands of years ago.

I showed as many images, both painted and photographed as time would permit because we are dealing in visual thinking and the best way to experience this is to see as much as possible.

Modern painting, perhaps because photography was seen as supplanting the traditional role of painting as recording, went towards more and more emphasis on the formal elements ( towards abstraction and a focus on the picture surface and away from a perspective recreation of 'reality'.) Which meant in effect that a lot of painting became a backwater for the avant gard and art criticism in general. My point is that a lot of art through the ages disappeared from view, but for the photographer, concerned still with 'reality' as the camera captures it, this neglected body of work has much to teach us, more perhaps that a strictly formalist approach. At the heart of every photograph is the thing photographed. It can be a poorly composed, badly taken image but we still look, we are captured by the thing photographed. Painters of an older tradition combined an interest in 'the thing' and one's emotional response, with a concern for how, in formal terms, it could be best expressed. Many thought of the images they made as symbolic and Szarkowski points out that photographs work best as symbols and poorly as narrative. Just as we do in art photography ( or in any branch of photography, if it comes to that) today.
I mentioned in my lecture the other day that while growing up I was influenced by 'The Group of Seven' Canadian landscape painters. A leader of the group and its chief theorist was Lauren Harris, who took his art training, not on Paris but in Berlin where the old symbolist tradition of European Painting was still in vogue.

Two directions. An abstract painting and a European symbolist painting pre-Group of Seven. Notice how the lines are similar in both, but in the abstract they are self referential while in the lake scene they function as part of a landscape. Both are legitimate. 

Extra 5

The cardboard frame, Gustav Klimt.
I used several painted images as examples. One I called special attention to was a tree painting by Klimt, an Austrian painter from one hundred years ago. He used a cardboard rectangle with a square composing hole cut through it to wander the landscape and find and frame his subject matter. We are so used to the 35mm format rectangle that has become normal that we forget that there are other options from landscape and portrait mode. Each frame shape, be it rectangle, square, oval, circle or whatever brings with it another frame with its special compositional pluses and minuses. Greg, in his presentation, showed us his portraits done in landscape mode. Original, with a fresh perspective. 

Every frame contains possibilities, each one has something to say.
Try making simple cardboard frames in different shapes and wander around trying out frames. On Saltspring Island one need not be concerned that this might seem weird, we all have our idiosyncrasies and this would be milder that many. :-)
Speaking of weird, there is a Gustav Klimt movie DVD in the library. You will see him with his square framing devise (and so much more).