Traditional vs. Alternative

Most of you know that my work is curated traditionally, that is, printed on fine art paper and matted with the intention of it being put in a frame.  However, many photographers are printing on all sorts of materials that are not necessarily intended for traditional framing.  These include canvas wraps, aluminum, even glass.  My question for you today is:

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Sight & Sound

 

I enjoy piano music.  Growing up, my sister became a very good pianist and I always heard her play the classics – Bach, Beethoven, Tchaikovsky, et al.  I suppose piano music connects me to my childhood as it brings back memories that may otherwise be lost.

During my childhood I both painted and played the piano, having been trained in both for a few years, but I never made the connection between the two.  It was only when I studied photography that I discovered that often a great photograph will take on the characteristics of music.  It becomes music for the eyes.

SheetMusic

Often, a great photograph will have a visual rhythm to it.  It will have some repetition – some pattern that can be recognized.  But within that repetition, are subtle changes that can be thought of as musical notes.  Consider one of my latest releases, Guadalupe Foothills.

Guadalupe Foothills

Guadalupe Foothills

Notice how the eye can start at the bottom left and follow the line of light across the rolling foothills and toward the middle-ground, to the main peak, which is the brightest area of the photograph.  The light touches each area with increasing intensity in a repeating pattern, until you get to the climax of the tallest feature.  There is an undulating pattern. Bright foothill, dark background, brighter foothill, slightly lighter background, even brighter foothill, then brightest peak.  It’s not a perfect and obvious repeating pattern like a picket fence, but the interest lies in its subtlety and assymetry.  You can also see a certain reptition in the clouds above, and in the very distant background area where the light is grazing the cliffs, although it is difficult to see at this size.

hummingbirdBecause a photograph often shares this “visual music”, visual art and music go together very well.  Often, when I am working on my art, I will listen to piano music, because it creates the same emotion that my artwork creates.  The music puts me in the right frame of mind.  Sometimes when I’m driving and I’m listening, I’ll assign the music that I’m hearing to fit the same emotion that one of my photographs also creates for me.  This is a great creative exercise, but it can be fun as well.  The last time I played this game, my wife was with me in the car and we were listening to a slow, solemn melody – beautiful but somber – and I suggested that it would fit nicely with Hummingbird in Flight.  She agreed, but then suggested it would also go well with Waiting to be Seated.

waiting_to_be_seated

That brought on a good laugh, thinking about the poor dog’s plight.  You can almost hear the violins crying for this dog’s broken heart.

Photography.  Music.  Sight and sound.  Enjoy them both simultaneously.

Photography is hard!

At every show, a handful of people, upon seeing my work, ask me what kind of camera I use.  I suspect many of them really mean to ask “Why don’t my pictures turn out like yours?”  The simple answer to that question is that there is a lot more to creating a fine art photograph than having a good camera.  In fact, a good camera is not necessary at all!

It starts before you even pick up the camera.  You first have to learn how the camera works and what creative control you have over it.  Must must also learn your particular camera system’s strengths and weaknesses.  That is a result of studying.  Lots of and lots of studying.  And yes, reading and understanding your camera’s manual!

Once you have a good understanding of the technical aspects, you need to learn the artistic aspects such as color coordination, line, contrast, balance, etc.  This takes more studying.  And when I say studying, it typically involves a combination of reading, watching and practice over several years.

This is the part where I would say you need to go out and spend ten thousand dollars on camera gear, but usually people just want better vacation or family shots.  Gear sometimes makes the process easier, but it is usually not the reason why pictures fall flat.  So until you know for a fact that you are up against a technical issue which your current gear cannot accomplish, only then should you purchase new gear.

Actually capturing the photograph with the camera requires making very important artistic decisions.  Perhaps the most important and often overlooked is “How do I translate what I am feeling into a visual two-dimensional photograph?”  There are many answers and they are all important.  Where to frame the subject?  Is the light right?  Do I need to move three inches down and two inches to the right?  How is that dark area going to render?  Do I want that area in focus?  How do I get it in focus?  There are hundreds of these questions, many of them are answered subcounciously.  But if you watch me work, you’ll often see me just leave the camera in my bag and walk around, often crouching, moving my head around, trying to see if I can line up the elements the way I want, just with my eye.  Sometimes I can’t and the camera doesn’t even come out.

Or sometimes the light isn’t right and it’s better to come back later, or earlier.  Yes, early.  If you are a serious photographer, you might be on the road well before sunrise, particularly if you are creating color photographs.  Natural light is outside of our control for the most part.  We must adapt to it.

Once I get back home, the creative process is barely half-way complete.  Then I move the images onto my computer where I transform the image from something the camera created, into something I created via software editing.  There are photographers out there who proudly claim that their photographs are not digitally manipulated.  I find that hard to believe for many reasons which I may write about at another time.  But let’s assume they are accurate.  There is certainly nothing wrong with that, but I want to create the best artwork I can with the tools that I have.  And I want it to be my personal style.  I make no claims to be representing reality.  And I certainly don’t want my camera or my software to make creative decisions for me.  It is only through this full control, and the freedom I give myself to use it, that I can create the finest artwork that adheres to my style.  I proudly manipulate the image that camera has handed off to me!

Gateway to Manzanar straight from camera.

Gateway to Manzanar straight from camera.

Gateway to Manzanar final version.

Gateway to Manzanar final version. Notice the differences in the detail of the sky and mountains, and the overall contrast difference. A lot of work went into these subtle but powerful changes.

For many, that is the last step.  Because much of our social interaction now happens electronically, most will not print and curate their photographs.  But if you do, that is a challenge all to itself.  It takes a lot of work to get the colors and tones that you see on your monitor to match what your printer puts on paper.  Heck, it takes a lot of experience just to get to the point where you can recognize that your colors and tones aren’t right!  But the final reward is a tangible, high quality, fine art piece that you can hang in your home or office for everyone to see.

I just wanted to touch on some of the most fundamental of things that go into creating a fine art photograph.  For the most part, I don’t believe taking unsatisfying photographs is an issue of talent.  And it certainly isn’t an issue of what kind of camera you have.  It is instead an issue of misunderstanding how much time and work go into creating fantastic, high quality, fine art photographs.

Thank You

“This is it.  Don’t get scared now.” – Kevin McCallister

I’ve taken the step into the dark and murky waters of self-employment – into uncharted territory.  I know where I want to go, but how do I get there?  I will find a way.  I have to make this happen, because it’s just too good to pass up.

I believe most of us need to be recognized for our accomplishments.  And I also believe that confidence breeds self-worth.  Every job I’ve ever had has left me lacking those things for one reason or another.  But creating, exhibiting, and selling my artwork is different.  I truly believe in my work as an artist.  What it says about me, I could not say with mere words.  I communicate with light, line, form, and contrast.  And my collectors, those of you who appreciate my subtle message, my unique vision, have affirmed this by taking my artwork into your homes and offices, or by giving it as a gift.  I could not and would not do this without knowing that you are on board with me.  Thank you for giving me the courage to embark on this gratifying journey.