Tuesday, January 26, 2010

It’s all about content?

A couple of years ago I had a few prints in a group show along with a gaggle of other local photographers, several of which are friends from Group f/5.6 (www.groupf56.com if you are interested – or even if you aren’t.) One of these friends, looking through the show, said to me “Well, your photographs are all about content and not print quality.” I was rather taken aback since I happened to think that the prints I had hung were pretty well made. However, when I looked carefully at his prints (he is a very good printer indeed) I believe that I understood what he meant.
To me, print quality is a means in the service of better expressing what I want the print to show. To him, print quality is an end – his goal is to produce a print of eye-popping quality and stunning size. The content is secondary.
Barbara and I saw the traveling show of “late” Edward Weston prints at the Art Institute of Chicago. Frankly, many of his prints strike me as kind of sterile – though spectacularly well printed. Brett Weston printed many of the prints in this show under his father’s supervision. [How two such towering egos could work together so closely and seemingly so amicably has always been a puzzle to me.] One such featured the surface of a shallow salt-water pond. Brett Weston had rendered the surface of the water with such skill that it seemed as if it would drip off the bottom of the frame. The surface itself, the leaves floating upon it, the aquatic weeds growing beneath it were all in their places. The bed of the pond was “zone I dancing with zone II” as Ralph Gibson says. I was dazzled. Barbara caught up with me, looked at this print, muttered appreciatively – and walked on. Talking about it later, we concluded that you have to know how hard it would be to do that before it is dazzling.
There is music like that. The Rachmaninoff 3rd Piano Concerto (known as Rack 3 to pianists) is a technical tour-de-force but at least to my ear not as emotionally engaging as numbers 1 and 2. Not that any of them are within reach to most pianists. Perhaps we’re back to the Barth quotation about PASSIONATE VIRTUOSITY.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Passionate Virtuousity

Barbara and I attend the monthly art history lecture by Rebecca Albiani at the Fry Art Museum in Seattle. My first contact with her was when our daughter-in-law Shannon was a student at the local community college where Ms. Albiani then taught. Shannon came to me, eyes sparkling, and said, “You have got to hear this woman who teaches my art history class!” She was right. I tuned in to the college TV station for a couple of her lectures and, even faced with an auditorium full of nearly art-illiterate teens, she was magic.
Her lecture at the Fry this month was on the feast paintings of Paolo Veronese (1528-1588). In the spirit of full disclosure, that is by far not my favorite period of art and Veronese’s paintings had left me lukewarm – both in books and in person. However, if Ms. Albiani is going to talk about them, I’m more than willing to go listen.
Magic, again. She brings so much information to the lecture that it, too, is a feast. She wove the work into the then-contemporary art scene, the artist into his culture and contemporaries, and both into the political, religious, and cultural environment of the time and place. Her discussion of individual works becomes a grand tour.
Speaking as one who has done a good deal of stand-up teaching, her lectures are incredibly well organized. I would suspect her of reading them from a script – but her answers to questions from the audience are equally well organized and articulate. She just knows the territory.
The icing on the cake (keeping the feast theme) is that she seems to be having such an impossibly good time – her manner suggests that there is absolutely nothing she enjoys more than telling people about some aspect of art that she finds fascinating. One of my favorite quotations is by John Barth: "My feeling about technique in art is that it has about the same value as technique in lovemaking. Heartfelt ineptitude has its appeal and so does heartless skill; but what you really want is PASSIONATE VIRTUOSITY." That’s her. Just being around people who show PASSIONATE VIRTUOSITY about their art – or science – or craft – or life -- charges my batteries.
I’m still not ready to put the Veronese paintings on my favorite list but the next time I see one in a museum I will certainly look at it more closely. Ms. Albiani is going to do a series on Vermeer beginning next month. I can hardly wait.

Friday, January 15, 2010

Seeing with two sets of eyes

Alex is another of the small group of photographer friends with whom I meet every other Monday. He, too, is mostly a people photographer so we have a lot to talk about. Alex is a city kid – born, raised, and lives in Seattle. Moreover, he and I are also from pretty much nuclear families. I have no siblings, he one much older brother. His wife, however, is from a large, extended family that has been on the ground in very rural Kansas for over a century. His wife’s family has made him very welcome and he thoroughly enjoys being in their midst – he quickly became the staff photographer, as it were. Alex still regards Kansas and the warmth and goofiness of large family gatherings with a mixture of curiosity and amazement. This set me to thinking of a show at Benham Gallery some years ago – I believe 1999 – by Concha Navarro and Kevin Bjorkland.

Ms. Navarro is originally from a small agrarian village in Spain, Mr. Bjorkland is, I believe, originally from Salt Lake City. They visited her home village in Spain and both of them photographed extensively while they were there. Their joint show was very successful – it even got a rave review (getting any review at all is rare) in the Seattle Times. Both of them were photographing the village and its people: both were there long enough that their work was not a “drive by shooting.” [Isn’t that a wonderful description of what some tourist photography looks like? Amanda Koster, www.amandakoster.com, used it in a recent lecture and I shamelessly appropriated its use.] Both of them are excellent printmakers.

What Barbara and I both found most interesting was that we could stand back and look down the row of prints on each wall and guess which were hers and which were his – not subject matter, not shooting style, not technical skill but something else. We finally concluded that the difference was in the reaction, or lack of reaction, of the people in the photographs. He was a visitor, a welcome visitor to be sure but still a visitor. The people of the village noticed him and he was seeing them as an observer. She was Senora Navarro’s little girl. They could remember when she was six years old and had black braids and they were seeing her as part of the village. I wished then and wish now that they had done a book of the prints in that show. I’d sure buy one. We did buy a single print.

Neither of them appears still to be active as photographers. At least I can’t find any recent traces of them on the web. That’s a shame.

This, in turn, led me to thinking about a project I did several years ago. Before I retired I traveled a good deal on business. When in the midwest I would spend a weekend with my parents in the small, agrarian town in Illinois where I grew up – a small enough town that, even though I was only there once or twice a year, I couldn’t walk into the hardware store or the one local restaurant without having somebody ask me how my dad was doing. If the weather wasn’t exceptionally dreadful I would almost always take a roll or two of film. After a couple of decades there was quite a bit of it and I decided to see what I could do with it. I made a thick stack of 5x7 work prints, likely a couple of hundred, but couldn’t get an idea to jell. At the time I was studying off and on with a wonderful local photographer/teacher Nick Hanson so I showed my stack of work prints to him. He spread them out on his floor, stared at them for about 15 minutes and then began to shuffle them. When he finished he told me that it was obvious that I didn’t have a project here, I had three projects. In one of them, I loved this place. In the second, I hated this place. In the third, I was just an observer. In a sense, I sometimes I was Concha, sometimes Kevin. (I don’t know who I was in the “hated this place” stack.)

It’s too bad that Alex’s wife isn’t a more dedicated photographer. I would enjoy seeing a “Concha and Kevin” show from Kansas.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Conceptually I Usually Don't Get Conceptual Art

I have a lot of problem with conceptual photography – it seems to me that a photograph is very good at showing what something/somebody looked like at a particular time and place. It also seems to me that a photograph is very bad at expressing a concept or idea – especially without accompanying words.

Conceptual art is a lot like a joke. If you “get it” then you think it’s funny or you don’t. If you don’t “get it”, well, then you don’t get it – it isn’t funny and you can’t figure out why it should be. If somebody explains the joke to you then the most likely response is a shrug and “Whatever.”  Conceptual art is often like the joke that I don’t get.
Conceptual art is hard for any artist. The artist always “gets it” but has to provide enough clues so that some segment of the viewing public will “get it.” Or maybe not. A respected colleague speculates that some conceptual artists aren’t interested in having just anybody “get it” – their art is aimed at an in-crowd. There are jokes like that, too. I don’t understand wanting to make art only for the in-crowd. A poet acquaintance once told me that she would be happy if she could spend her time writing poems that nobody but her could understand. I don’t understand that, either. I once attended a concert of new music at which one piece consisted of a solo violin playing music based on the EKG of a laboratory rat on LSD. The vocal accompaniment was based on the scientist’s notes. I didn’t understand that, either.
Conceptual art is especially hard for a photographer. It’s hard to photograph an idea. I recently heard one of the luminaries of conceptual photography say (not quite verbatim) that a photograph is not a collection of shapes and spaces that somehow relate to one another but an image of a collection of objects. What is important is the relationships among those objects and “composition” only is important inasmuch as it helps the artist show those relationships in the way intended. (I can’t see any evidence of this statement in the artist’s work, by the way.) Working an idea into that framework is a pretty formidable challenge. I don’t know many photographers who can do it.
You can certainly argue that all art is based on some idea, some concept, that the art is supposed to illuminate. At one extreme it’s “I find this (collection of objects in some kind of relationship that my photograph illustrates) to be [beautiful, ugly, appalling, amusing,…]. I hope you do, too.” At the other extreme, there is the very intellectually crafted and idea-based work of Ralph Eugene Meatyard, Parke-Harrison, Joel Witkin, Duane Michals, ... Somewhere between these extremes the work becomes “conceptual”.
Conceptual art is hard for the viewerm too. It forces the viewer to intellectualize about the piece in addition to processing it visually – to see it in the context of personal background and experience. If you aren’t hip to the conventions of B-movies then the “Untitled Film Stills” are pretty mysterious. Reading the subtitle text generates a “Whatever.”. At the visual art show at Bumbershoot a couple of years ago there was a bigger-than-life-size head and shoulders portrait of Benjamin Franklin made out of various sizes of keys. After a pause – “Oh, I get it. He’s riffing on Franklin’s kite-string and key experiment.” The artist had left enough clues that most people who were educated in the U.S. could “get it”. I still found it pretty dull. The makers of a lot of conceptual art don’t leave enough clues to allow me to “get it.” I’m sure that the artist would maintain that is my problem and that’s likely true. Whatever.

Monday, January 4, 2010

Blowing in the wind (or even slight breeze)

Barbara and I went to see the Calder show at Seattle Art Museum yesterday. Our goal was to see both it and the “Michelangelo Public and Private” show but the latter was so crowded we gave it up for a bad job after a quick look and will go back on a weekday before it closes. My initial impression was that it wasn’t as spectacular as I had hoped. There are a few studies and sketches from Michelangelo’s own hand and a spectacular, full-scale photomural of “David”. I was hoping to see some more completely worked up drawings. It seems like the show is more interesting from an art-historical view than from the art itself.

The Calder show, however, was a delight to the eye. There are several of his full-scale works showing, including several of the ones you see in the books. None of them is as big as the giant piece that hangs in the central hall of the National Gallery – but that on is in a class by itself. There is a possibly apocryphal story about Calder that I love. The story goes that a collector/patron wanted to commission a mobile with the vanes made of gold sheet. Calder agreed to do it only if he could paint them flat black. I hope that’s true.
As appealing as the larger works are, my eyes were on the smaller pieces and the wire sculpture. The latter remind me of the very sparse drawings – only a few lines – that Matisse did, or maybe Hirschfeld. With only a piece of bent wire they define both shape and volume. Besides which you have to smile at them, especially the cow and the “standing woman”. Some of the small sculptures were made as maquettes of larger pieces but some must have been made just because he wanted to. In fact, my impression is that he did a lot of his work just because he wanted to.
The show also has quite a few photographs of Calder in his studio and a delightful video of Calder and his toy circus. For a man with such a forbidding appearance, he seems to have been extraordinarily light-hearted and able to keep his sense of play alive -- to become older without ever growing up. Joan Miro must have been like that, too.
Many of the works in this show are from the collection of John and Mary Shirley. They certainly have good taste.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

No Man's Land

My friend Craig and I are both members of a small group of photographers that meets every other week to discuss work in progress and keep each other motivated. He, among other admirable traits, is a skilled and meticulous printer. Like me, he tends to work in projects – aiming at a body of work rather than at single prints. When one of his projects is finished, it is really finished. He selects the size, materials, process, toning, and mat board to suit his vision of what the specific project should look like.
Craig does both silver and platinum/palladium printing. His platinum/palladium prints are mostly from in-camera negatives but he sometimes makes them from digital negatives enlarged from 35mm film.
He is beginning a series of photographs of early 20th century gravestones. Many of these, especially in the decade during and after WWI, were adorned with small, usually oval portraits of the deceased. The portrait was covered with glass, often slightly convex, to protect the image. The glass has cracked or shattered on some of these gravestones so the photograph has become stained or damaged. His photographs are of the portrait itself and enough of the surrounding stone to give it context and surface texture.
Craig has been playing with ideas on how to print and present these for some time. Last Monday he brought the first one of the series to our regular meeting. He scanned the 35mm negative and surrounded it with an ornate border scanned from a framed portrait from the same era. The platinum/palladium print, made from a digital negative, is about 6x8 inches so that the original oval portrait is roughly full size.
The portrait is of a young man in WWI uniform with campaign hat at a jaunty angle. His expression is the straight-ahead, uninflected one that you often see in photographs from that era but his eyes are those of a man who has stood on the edge of the pit and looked in. There is a David Duncan Douglas portrait from the Korean War “Captain Ike Fenton, USMC” that has the same eyes and Craig’s print haunts me in the same way.
Craig is still playing with ideas on how to present this project. My fantasy is that of a small show, maybe 20 prints, with each print accompanied by a short poem in the manner of the Spoon River Anthology and a recording of Tommy Makem and Ian Clancy singing “No Man’s Land” in the background. (Nothing is hard for the person that isn’t going to do it.) No matter how Craig decides to present this work, if he can come up with a few more prints with the depth of this first one (no doubt in my mind that he can) he is on to something really good.

Friday, January 1, 2010

A brief postscript

I also know the king of the alternative to waiting for retirement to kick in. Fritz is a very good violinist, concertmaster for a very capable semi-professional orchestra and leader of a very competent string quartet. He made the conscious decision while still in high school that he didn’t ever want to become jaded and bored with music like some of the professional musicians he had met.
He studied mathematics and became a very competent mathematician – he has made a very satisfactory mark applying his mathematics to computer algorithms. He has the remarkable and admirable ability to throw a mental switch into the “mathematics” position or the “musician” position – to completely focus on one or the other.
This approach didn’t work well for me. Before retirement kicked in I was just as likely to waken in the wee hours thinking of software or of art. This led to a certain amount of cognitive dissonance, as they say.

Wait for retirement to kick in

Ted Orland suggests several strategies for sustaining yourself while doing art. [“The view from the studio door”, Ted Orland, Image Continuum Press, 2006. Available from his website www.tedorland.com. This is not a paid advert. On the other hand, it is a book that I highly recommend and that I read about once a year just to keep my perspectacles on straight.] One strategy is to find something other than art to do to make money. Below this there are two sub-strategies: pursue your art simultaneously or do the best you can and wait for retirement to kick in. I recently met the king of the latter path, Charles (Chuck) Guildner.
Chuck is a mid-70ish fellow who retired 20 odd years ago and jumped full time, headlong, no excuses accepted, no delay tolerated into his photography. He went back to school to study photography as a craft and as an art. He photographs, he makes his own black and white prints, he teaches, he inspires (well, he inspires me for sure). I have not seen any of his pre-retirement work but I’ll bet it isn’t bad either. I have seen his post-retirement work and it is spectacular.
He is also the king of the notion of using your art to explore people, places, and situations about which you are passionate – as opposed to latching on to a technique or medium and then finding something to use it for. His website
www.guildner-photo.com will convince you of that.
Current theory dismisses the notion of art as a precious object, of craftsmanship as an essential part of art making, of beauty (whatever that means) as a necessary or even desirable characteristic of art. Not in his universe. His prints are a reminder of how beautiful a silver print can be.
His landscapes are, well, beautiful. My immediate response was “Boy, you sure get a beautiful print when you start with a large-format negative.” Some of them are from large-format negatives – even a few 8x10’s. However, some of them are from medium-format negatives, too. At 16x20 or 20x24 it takes careful examination to see the difference.
I am especially moved by his portraits – straight-ahead, no frills, no Avedon or Penn artifice, no Newman carefully controlled environment (I admire all of these photographers, by the way.) I compare his portraits to those of August Sander. They have a similar feeling of just being there. In the “Buck Buckles and His Team” portrait, Mr. Buckles is leading two of his enormous workhorses out of the barn. The two horses seem to me to just about as camera-conscious as their boss.
Sadly, Chuck is no longer making silver prints. He is scanning his negatives and then sending them to the state archive in Nebraska. His digital prints are beautiful too but …