Friday Inspiration: Stephen Shore

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I’m continuing to dig deeper into the work of some of the photographers that were part of the New Topographics exhibition curated by William Jenkins in 1975. These were a group of photographers working to find ‘beauty in the banal’, making ‘photographs of a man-altered landscape’. In many ways it’s easy to dismiss this work as having a ‘snap-shot’ aesthetic and for some of this work I really struggle to connect with it. This week’s project has been Stephen Shore. If you read his biography one of the first things that is pointed out is that he sold his first photographs at age 14 to Alfred Steiglitz and that at 24 was only the second living photographer to have a solo show at the MoMA.

His work in the New Topographics exhibition was in color whereas the other 7 photographers were shooting in black and white. It’s interesting to reflect on the fact that at that time in the early ’70’s shooting in color was not what you did if you wanted to be taken seriously as an artist. Color was okay for magazines but not for ‘art’. Perhaps this further adds to the sense of these photographs being snapshots. In looking over this work and some of the subsequent work that arose out of these early projects I can’t help but think that this would be a great instagram feed and indeed you can find Stephen Shore on Instagram although I was surprised to find that I don’t connect with these photographs in the way that I do with the images in his books.

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I often feel like I’m missing the joke when I look at contemporary photography and so it’s been useful for me to listen to Shore talk about his work in the videos below and lift the veil, at least a little.

Stephen Shore American Surfaces from Spike Productions on Vimeo.

Stephen Shore Uncommon Places from Spike Productions on Vimeo.

Stephen Shore in Conversation with Peter Schjeldahl from Aperture Foundation on Vimeo.

Being Creative Means Making

Sometimes I catch myself and otherwise others give me a helpful prod but if you’re going to use the ‘creative’ moniker then that means, or at least should mean, actually making things rather than thinking and talking about the creative act. I’ll give you that pushing the button and making the image could be the creative act but for me the end product of creative has to be some tangible thing. To keep my feet to this fire I have been using my iPhone more than ever before to play and make images. I’m pairing these experiments with Artifact Uprising’s printing service to make little prints and now books all without leaving the iOS environment.

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I was very happy with my little book part one of what I hope will be a four part series, one book of images per quarter, and perhaps a ‘greatest hits’ compilation at the end of the year. And perhaps I will pair the images with a collection of essays that describe the journeys and experiences and maybe make a slipcase to put them all in and, and, you know how it goes. I have to remind myself one step at a time. Small doable chunks.

Around the same time I got my little book I got Magda Biernat’s little book ‘Adrift’. Biernat’s project Adrift begins a dialog about climate change in the pairing of images of icebergs in antarctica with abandoned hunting cabins of the Iñupiat eskimos in the Arctic. The natural and the man made are both adrift in increasing numbers as the poles warm, causing more icebergs to be cast off and the hunting cabins to be abandoned as the animals the subsistence hunters pursue either dwindle in number or their migration patterns change.

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What blows me away about the book is how creatively well done it is. There are a number of ‘what if’s’: What if we prepare the book as if it were a Japanese accordion book? What if we have the accompanying essays bound as a separate text block. What if the book opens on the horizontal, bottom to top, rather than the vertical right to left? All of which work and all of which serve to draw me in further.

It’s worth keeping these things in mind when you’re working on your own book projects, perhaps using templates from some of the big on demand publishing services, that you’re getting locking into a standard format. How can you work within that box and yet break it so that you have something that better serves the work and that is uniquely your own. Daniel Milnor photographer at large for Blurb continually is pushing at the edges of what is possible with the Blurb format and is well worth paying attention to as you think about developing your own projects.

Friday Inspiration: Robert Adams

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I first came across Robert Adams when I was looking for the answer to the question ‘why do people photograph’ and found his book ‘Why People Photograph‘ and then later I came across his book ‘Beauty in Photography‘. These small books are collections of essays covering topics such as collectors, humor, teaching, money and dogs and discussions of Photographers such as Edward Weston, Paul Strand, Laura Gilpin, Judith Joy Ross, Susan Meiselas, Dorothea Lange, Ansel Adams, and Minor White. I have enjoyed reading these books and get something new out of them as I reread them with a deepening understanding of photography as an art.

Why People Photograph must have been on my bookshelf for almost as long as I’ve been taking photographs, almost 10 years now, and yet it was only last year that I realized that Robert Adams can not only write but he is a well know photographer too! How many other holes in my appreciation of the history of photography could you drive a truck through?

I’m at my beginning of my exploration of his work, and I’m doing so by starting with his most recent projects first. Photographs taken around his home near the Oregon coast of the forests, coastline and meadows, very different subjects to the photographs of the American west increasingly spoiled by the urban sprawl that brought him to prominence. This work can be found in ‘The New West‘ a new edition of which will come out in the summer.

Check out the interview of Robert Adams on Oregon Public Broadcasting here and the interview below from 2006 that supported his exhibition ‘Turning Back‘. Also below is a profile of Adams by Joshua Chang, curator of the retrospective exhibition ‘The Place We Live‘.

http://video.pbs.org/viralplayer/2365178810

ROBERT ADAMS – JEU DE PAUME from Terra Luna Films on Vimeo.

http://video.pbs.org/viralplayer/2365178810

Looking Back, Reaching Forward

I’ve been taking a dive into the world of JMW Turner in recent weeks. I still have not managed to see the new film although hopefully I’ll get to see that soon.

I’ve seen Todd Henry of ‘Accidental Creative’ fame discuss a model that describes the phases of creative growth – discovery, imitation, divergence and crisis. The phases are just what you would expect: A growing awareness of an interest in an area; copying of the masters; making work that is their own; and finally a recognition that to move forward the old techniques will need to be abandoned.

There are clear echoes of this pattern of growth in Turner’s work. A major inspiration for Turner was Claude Lorrain, born Claude Gellee, 1600-1682, and sufficiently famous to be known just as ‘Claude’. John Constable described Claude as ‘the most perfect landscape painter the world ever saw’. The book ‘Turner Inspired – In the Light of Claude’ explores the relationship between the work of Turner and that of Claude from a century or more earlier and provides many examples of Turner’s recreations of Claude’s images.

There is a distinct evolution in Turner’s style with time. His early work closely resembles the paintings by Claude but slowly he drifts away from the precision embodied by Claude to something much looser. Eventually of course Turner’s work becomes very loose indeed, perhaps the result in his passing into the crisis phase?, which gave us work that was in turn to inspire generations of artists to come including the Impressionists and the case is made in ‘Turner, Monet, Twombly’ that the reach of Turner extended to Cy Twombly.

In this dive into the work of Turner I was struck by some of the comments on his use of color and in particular incorporation of ‘new’ colors into his work that gave it a sense of vibrancy bordering on gaudiness. As an earlier adopter of new paints that set him apart from his contemporaries I couldn’t help but wonder whether Turner over did it a bit with these paints in the same way that early adopters of HDR technology did initially (and still do in some cases!).

I do find it amusing that for someone like me who has largely ignored history I’m finally coming around to the recognition that there is much to be learned from those that have gone before us. Spending time looking back at the work of the masters can indeed help to propel us forward. Or as Mary Oliver put it in ‘A Poetry Handbook‘:

‘To be contemporary is to rise through the stack of the past, like fire through the mountain. Only a heat so deeply and intelligently born can carry a new idea into the air.’

On the Road Again

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I’m traveling again this week which is unfortunate on a number of levels. I’ve been pursuing a winter tress project over the last couple of years and have been looking forward to extending that project this winter. Unfortunately we’ve had very little snow so far this winter. It looks like that is about to change in spectacular fashion when Juno passes through the area later today and tomorrow.

We’ll see what that does to my travel plans!

Friday Inspiration: Gregory Crewdson

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I had a chance to look at some of Edward Hopper’s paintings of scenes from small town America over the Christmas break and couldn’t help but be reminded of the work of Gregory Crewdson. Like Hopper’s paintings, Crewdson’s photography shows scenes from small town America. They are vignettes that raise questions, that invite you in to wonder what happened before and what will happen next.

Many people will talk about their photographs being ‘cinematic’ but Crewdson’s images could really be stills from a movie. The work that goes into setting up each of the shots is not far from what you might expect for a cinematic production. You get a glimpse behind the scenes in the videos below. The second video is a trailer for the documentary ‘Brief Encounters‘ filmed over a 10 year period it gives not only an in depth look at what goes into the making of the work but also a sense of the events and experiences that shaped Crewdson the man.

Beware The Sleepers!

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I was photographing along the California coast last week, something that I’d wanted to do for a while but had never managed to connect the dots and make happen. Unfortunately I didn’t pick a good week for the trip, given that Northern California was experiencing the worst storm they’d had in 5 years. I was hoping to tick off one of my photographic goals and get some good photographs at Bowling Ball beach. Unfortunately that didn’t happen. I did learn a lot and got a few images that I thought were okay given the circumstances.

One of the things that threw me a little was the unpredictability of the waves on the coast. Normally I like to get close to the foreground element with a wide angle lens which often puts me in the water. Not a big deal, I’ve been around the ocean my entire life I know how the game works and respect the ocean like I would a wild animal. You have to pay attention at all times otherwise you may get bit! Here on the East Coast the waves seem to be generally predictable this was also true on the California coast in that every 5 th of 6 th wave would be huge and where there was rocks or beach for the previous few waves there would be a foot or more of water. It was quite unsettling and I eventually retreated to the relative safety of the cliffs and a long lens.

I thought that this was something related to the storm and an unusual storm surge until I spotted I sign that described ‘Sleepers’ – waves that were much larger that the previous ones which could easily knock you off your feet and cause you to be swept out to sea. Reading the sign you could easily think that it was a little alarmist but have experienced the waves up close and personal there’s definitely cause for concern when photographing at the beach in this area.

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.

Friday Inspiration: Michael Fletcher

Amberay from Michael Fletcher on Vimeo.

Michael Fletcher is the film maker behind the documentaries that support the Ninety Degrees Five projects. The twin brother of photographer Christian Fletcher he turned to film making in an effort to differentiate himself from the stills that he’s brother was making. I’m quite glad that he did since I really enjoy his style of film making. I wish that he had a fully fledged website of his own. Instead I’ll point you to the video section on his brother’s website here and to his page on Vimeo.

Enjoy a few of my favorite videos above and below from the over 70 that Michael has posted.

Lofoten – A Photographic Adventure In Norway from Michael Fletcher on Vimeo.

Born to Fly – Canon 1Dc from Michael Fletcher on Vimeo.

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.