Permission to Play

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I’ve been feeling overwhelmingly stuck and uninspired over the last few months, perhaps longer if I’m being honest with myself. That’s not to say that I haven’t had my moments but it’s been and continues to be hard going.

The usual advice that you get in these circumstances is to keep going. Work yourself out of the funk, make a lot of work and see where that leads you. My advice to myself was to play more.

After a bit of digging I realized that I was working within a particular sent of constraints that had provided a useful framework at one point but now were stifling. I needed to step back and break the rules that I’d established for myself.

Playing the camera on my iPhone has been enormously helpful in breaking one of my rules – always shoot on a tripod – it also forced me into using a single lens which made me move around and change my point of view to get the shot that I was interested in.

I also pushed beyond the boundaries that I am comfortable with in processing these images, often adding a lot of contrast, a texture, a tilt shift look, really piling stuff on until it was in a realm that was totally alien to me. I think that Brian Eno would do similar things in music production push beyond the limits but then retreat to a useful and usable position.

I’ve been enjoying playing and continue to do so. Here’s a question for you:

What ‘rules’ either acknowledged or not do you follow? How could you systematically break them.

I’d love to hear what restraints you impose on yourself.

Friday Inspiration: Hiroshi Sugimoto

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Over the last week or so I’ve been making a list of my top 12 influences, visual artists and their work that influence and inspire me. Consistently over the years Hiroshi Sugimoto has made this list. Born in Japan, Sugimoto moved to the US to study in the mid-70’s eventually settling in New York. While he’s returned to a number of subjects repeatedly over the years, including ‘American Theatres’ in which he photographs old movie theaters and drive ins using long exposures in an attempt to show time in his photographs; ‘Dioramas’ which are beautifully executed photographs of exhibitions in natural history museums and more recently of wax-work figures; ‘Architecture’ in which he photographs structures slightly out of focus which gives a sense of the form that the architect had in mind without you getting lost in the details and my personal favorite ‘Seascapes’. His seascapes, such as the one above, give a real sense of the vastness of the ocean that particularly appeals to me.

Check out the documentary below for more about Sugimoto’s life and work.

Be Water My Friend

I was reminded of the Bruce Lee quote ‘Empty your mind, be formless, shapeless like water if you put water in the cup it becomes the cup and water can flow or it can crash’ last week. I was in California and had expectations of what I was going to photograph. I believe that it was Ansel Adams spoke about previsualization, having a sense of what the image is going to be before you make the exposure. I think that Ansel was probably previsualizing as he stood in front of what he was going to photograph. I on the other hand was guilty of previsualizing from thousands of miles away.

As I stood looking at the pounding surf, 3 feet above a normal low tide, that hid the rocks that I had imagined photographing for the previous 2 years it would have been a natural reaction to be frustrated. I’m not sure why I wasn’t but I just let it go, enjoyed the magnificence of the fury of the Pacific Ocean, and then moved on to photograph other things. I don’t think that anticipating and being prepared to get a specific shot is a bad thing but it is bad not to be flexible enough to recognize other opportunities that come your way. While they might not be what you’d prepared for they could be equally, or more, enjoyable.

Friday Inspiration: Arnold Newman

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I was prompted to look at Arnold Newman’s photographs this week. Arnold Newman is widely thought of as the ‘Father of Environmental Potraiture’, contributing photographs to all major publications from Life to Scientific American and everything in between. He got his start in portraiture by taking photographs of artists. At the time the artists he photographed were neither rich nor famous and Newman himself was an unknown, honing his craft. His approach of using the camera to explore the world of the person he’s photographing, to show something of their character by placing them in their surroundings began with his work with the artists.

He has said that a good portrait must first be a good photograph. For me the most iconic of his photographs is that of Stravinsky shown above. Stravinsky propping his head on his arm neatly echoes the way that the lid of the piano is propped open. It is a strongly graphic, minimal image that appeals to me greatly. Looking at many of his other portraits you start to see how he has stripped away all but the essentials that he needs to tell the story of the artist, celebrity or statesman.

An exhibition of his work ‘Arnold Newman – Masterclass’ is now showing at the Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Fransisco. If you’re not able to Make it to the show you can watch a gallery tour given by the shows curator William Ewing here. There’s also a catalog to accompany the exhibition that can be had here.

Finally check out the interview with Newman below for insights into how he worked and a behind the scenes look at how some of his most famous images were made.

Looking at Looking

After talking about what’s behind the creation of work and understanding where it fits into the universe of other creative works I started to think about how I look at images. It’s one thing to be told the secret and another to be able to unlock the secret yourself.

I’m sure that there are ways to look at images in a meaningful systematic way, I find that I’m systematic, I do the same things over and over again, but perhaps not meaningful. In essence I’m running through a mental check list, a process that happens quickly:

  • What’s this a photograph of? What is the photograph about?
  • Have a seen something similar before? Where? By Whom?
  • How was this created? What was the pov? What lens was used?
  • Any other creative effect? Filters? Shutter speed? Depth of field? Focus?
  • How has space been used in this image? Foreground, middle and distance?
  • What about balance? Where is the visual mass, how does this draw the eye?
  • What about light? How does it contribute to the information in, or impact of, the image?

When I’ve eventually exhausted the initial run through I then turn to what has been churning away in the background:

  • What does this make me feel? What are my thoughts? What associations does this image bring to mind.

How about you?  Do you have a way that you look at images?  What works for you?  I’d love to hear about it.