Sunday, October 18, 2015

Masterful Meditation on Art, Photography, and Life

"It is easy to take a photograph,
but it is harder to make a masterpiece
in photography than in any other art medium."
- Ansel Adams

To Ansel's sage words I can add my own corollary that it is easy to write a book about photography, but it is harder - much harder - to create a masterpiece in this genre than in any other "here are my musings about..." creativity-centric medium. That Guy Tal has not only done so - that is, created a masterpiece of a "book about photography" - but has also seamlessly and additionally woven in a commensurate degree of timeless wisdom on art, creativity, and life, is nothing short of breathtaking.  To paraphrase Martin Gardner's often quoted (essentially one-line) 1979 review of Godel, Escher, Bach ("Every few decades, an unknown author brings out a book of such depth, clarity, range, wit, beauty and originality that it is recognized at once as a major literary event"): every decade or so, a book of such stunningly original beauty and elegance appears that it self-evidently redefines how the essence of a creative life may be communicated with 'mere' words. Tal's book is, arguably, this decade's book, and is one to which I happily give my highest and unqualified recommendation.

With the publication of More Than a Rock, Tal joins a small pantheon of preternaturally gifted guides to the core truths that underlie all aesthetic yearning and creative expression. My personal list includes: Doug Beasley, Nicloas Hlobeczy, Brooks Jensen, George DeWolfe, Freeman Patterson, John Daido Loori, Deborah Dewit Marchant, and (of course) Minor White. Yet, even among even these elites, Tal is unique in his ability to use the simplest intuitive language to express ineffable truths; his graceful style gently leads the reader, never pushes. Even those who have rarely if ever pondered "deep" questions while putting their eye behind a camera's viewfinder will inevitably find themselves eagerly and effortlessly tagging along on an amazing journey of ever-widening discoveries; including ways of finding art (in everything around us), of making art (alongside discovering ways of communicating what we have found and wish to share), and of discovering oneself by losing the ego to the creative process. This is not just hard to do; I had thought it impossible to do, before "eagerly tagging along" Tal's unpretentious, sage-like insights.

A dry recitation of the book's layout and content hardly does justice to what it really contains, but for those interested: it is broken into 4 sections (on art, craft, experiences, and meditations), and each section consists of short essays (most between 2 to 5 pages long) on specific topics, accompanied by a selection of photographs. What you will not find, unlike what typically makes up the vast majority of photography books (including those that purport to "reveal hidden truths") is any discussion about f-stops, lenses, or why Canon is so much better or worse than Nikon. These concerns, for Tal, are (and ought to be) as unimportant to serious photographers as discussions of the proverbial pots and pans are for chefs (and for those who aspire to become chefs). Each essay begins with a short quote - sometimes attributed to a well known artist or photographer, but just as often to a poet or philosopher - which sets the stage for brilliantly concise meditations that simultaneously leave the reader both in wonderment about how much has been said in so short a space, and a compulsion to just keep reading, looking, absorbing. 

My advice is to take Tal's book in slowly, contemplatively; take time to digest and assimilate what it has to offer. Though your mind will initially digest its contents, the book's real message speaks directly to your soul. Of course, the book can also be perused simply for Tal's imagery, which is masterful.

It is no coincidence that Lenswork magazine (perhaps the preeminent fine-art photography publication available today) has commissioned Tal to contribute an essay for each of its bi-monthly issues. He is a unique talent, and this book - and his essay/column in Lenswork - are precous gifts for this, and future, generations of photographers. It is available via Amazon and Barnes & Noble (in both print and eBook forms; though my review is based on the print version); and from Tal's own website, which rewards the customer who takes this last option by shipping a copy of the book that includes the author's signature.

Full disclosure: I have never met Guy Tal in person, though I have (on the heels of purchasing his book from a local Barnes & Noble) "friended" him on facebook. As readers of my blog know, I am also a fellow alumnus of Lenswork, but my mention of Lenswork has to do only with the fact that - as ought to be clear from my review - I am simply delighted as a reader of the magazine that I can look forward to Tal's column each issue.

Saturday, September 19, 2015

Portfolios: 2005 - 2015

A while back, I self-published a mini portfolio on Blurb to use as a self-promotion tool for galleries and prospective clients. The idea, of course, was to keep it small, simple, and enticing. It consists of two-page portfolio samplers, with each spread providing one full-page image and 3 or 4 thumb-sized images on the adjoining page. While my mini-portfolio continues to serve its originally intended purpose, I have been asked increasingly frequently if (when?) I would ever publish a "real" edition that contains a full (or least, a meaningfully more complete) selection of the images I've captured over the last decade. To those of you who have asked for or wondered about such an edition, and for all those who may simply be interested in perusing a wider range of images than appear in the "mini," I am happy to announce the publication of SuddenStillness: Visual Echoes of Timeless Rhythms.

The new book is 440 pages long, includes over 325 images from 19 portfolios (all created between 2005 - 2015, and most of which are introduced by a short essay), and concludes with updated versions of the 10 most popular essays that I have published on this blog on the creative process in photography. Among the images that appear are those that have been published by Lenswork (issues #71, #76, #95, and #105), Black & White magazine (issues #41, #56, #80, #87, and #95), Black and White Spider Awards (2007, 2008, 2009, and 2010), and the winter/2013 edition of Stone Voices (as well as many other on-line publications). Both print and eBook (iPad/iPhone and Adobe pdf) versions are available. 

Here is a 43 page preview:

Monday, March 30, 2015

An "Old" Technology Sparks a "New" Generation

I will dispense with my (by now, probably tiresome) apologies and excuses for not posting regularly, and will simply resume posting as time (and muse) permit. On this occasion, the subject is both old and new, on multiple levels. Specifically, old technology - as in Polaroid cameras and Polaroid-film-like one-step processing - and a new generation of photographers, exemplified by my 12 year old son, Josh, about whose discovery of - and burgeoning passion for - a bygone era of imaging I'd like to wax poetic about as both an admiring dad and "objective" observer.

Before we get to Josh, we need to first take a few steps back in time for context. A telling sentence that I have for years included in my artist's statement reads: "Photography became a life-long pursuit for me the instant my parents gave me a Polaroid Instamatic camera for my 10th birthday." This is indeed where my (now, 44th! year of) love of photography was born. While that old first camera of mine has long ago been relegated to an old dustbin, I have for years been  trying to find another camera I was convinced still existed and to which I have an even deeper attachment. After I moved away from long Island in 1988 to start my post-graduate life in northern VA, I gifted my dad a Polaroid Spectra camera so that he could continue archiving his art in my absence (a blessing that, years later, resulted in the book my mom and I wrote on his life, art and legacy, in the years following my dad's death in 2002). Ever since he died, I have regularly searched my mom's home for his camera, but to no avail; until, that is, my mom excitedly called me up one day to announce that she had finally found it. Miraculously, it had been tucked away in a quiet corner of the top-most shelf in her bedroom closet!

The timing, as it turns out, could not have been better, for two reasons; one technology related, the other very personal. From a technology standpoint, were it sometime in 2008, I would have been crestfallen, since Polaroid - after a sad, tragic even, downfall, in the years after its visionary genius founder and chief scientist, Edwin H. Land, left just before the landmark Polaroid vs. Kodak patent infringement judgment - stopped making new film. Happily, an extraordinary new effort - called the Impossible Project (named after Land's famous aphorism, "Don't undertake a project unless it's manifestly important and nearly impossible") - was founded (by Florian Kaps and Andre Bosman) to recreate polaroid instant film; albeit using a different recipe, due partly to the fact that details of the Polaroid's recipe had been destroyed, and partly to the fact that even had all of the details been retained, many of the required chemicals were either no longer available or, in some cases, illegal to manufacture. Though the young company's challenge was formidable, just two years after the project got going, it started producing reformulated versions of classic Polaroid instant film formats, including SX-70, 600, and Image-Spectra, as well as 8x10. As of this writing, the Impossible Project has announced Generation 2 of its 600-type B&W film, which promises to be even closer to the classic Polaroid film than its first generation recipes: image formation within 20 seconds, and a fully developed photo within 5 minutes!

And so we get to my 12 yo son Josh, who, after waiting patiently for the 30 or so minutes that needed to elapse before a ghost-like image formed after his dad took his first test shot with the rediscovered vintage Spectra (using a Gen-1 B&W film pack from the Impossible Project), stood utterly transfixed with his mouth open and proverbial jaw slackened. "Wow!" he genuinely and loudly gasped, "The image is forming by itself! That is SO COOL dad!" To emphasize how slack jawed I was at Josh's sincere, from-the-heart, reaction, I need to point out that none of the other tens of thousand images I have taken during his young life with my digital SLR (the creation of many of which he witnessed first hand, whether at the instant of capture - and instant display! - post-production in Photoshop, or via the final print) elicited so much as a peep! Indeed, I had surreptitiously probed Josh's possible interest in photography a few years ago by gifting him his own digital point-and-shoot, which he enjoyed for a time but was decidedly less than enthusiastic about. But his reaction to the polaroid was different; very different. 

In the roughly two months that have gone by between Josh's unabashed awe at witnessing what he later described as a small miracle ("I can hold the image in my hand!"), Josh, at his own request and partial payment using his own savings, has acquired a Polaroid Spectra, an SX-70 - the extraordinary SX-70 that many, myself included, consider among the finest art/science/technology blends of the 20th century), a shoulder bag and tripod (well, those were gifts from dad), and enough film to last a few months (though he is burning his way through his store like a photographer possessed). Speaking as a father, it is a joy to see such pure, unbridled passion. Speaking as a photographer (albeit, admittedly not quite an unbiased one), I take an even greater joy in witnessing an unmistakable talent anxiously bubbling up to the surface. The sample images you see sprinkled throughout this page are some early - very early (all were taken using his first 4 or 5 five film packs) - samples from Josh's eye and camera. I am impressed by both his choice of subject matter and composition.

For example, where most people (young and old, doesn't matter) inaugurate a newfound interest in photography with obligatory snapshots of friends, family, pets, and their impressions of the front lawn, Josh almost immediately turned his attention to slightly more esoteric subjects. Case in point, the picture at the top of the page (a "self-portrait of an SX-70"). Recalling a photography-related discussion he and I had about lengths of exposure, sharpness of image, and what is and is not necessarily captured on film, Josh - by himself - decided to set up his SX-70 on a tripod, so that it faced itself in a mirror in a slightly darkened room without flash. He did this so that he could take a long enough exposure so that the fraction of a second during which his hand needed to be in view of the lens (in order to click the shutter button) was too short for the film to record. The result was the beautifully crafted picture reproduced here. It is a deliberately "seen" image, somewhat reminiscent of Ansel Adams' self-professed visualization of "Monolith, the Face of Half Dome" (which is a remarkable accomplishment for someone so young). But I was equally astonished at the aesthetic elegance of Josh's composition. The image is essentially an ode to rectangles and other linear forms; with a beautifully placed Polaroid One-Step camera (my wife's, who is also getting into Polaroid photography in our family as a direct result of Josh's infectious enthusiasm) in the lower left corner, as a quiet echo of the "star attraction" of the overall image. This is just beautifully seen, especially by one who has taken so few pictures in his life. While Josh swears that his sole focus (no pun intended) was in capturing a self-portrait of the SX-70, and not composing a picture, I sense that an unconscious - but confident - will-to-order is in play and am impressed.

I am also impressed with Josh's first "abstract series," two samples of which are seen here. Josh has recently been enjoying the remarkable Space Engine program that is available for free for PCs (Space Engine allows the user to essentially navigate the entire cosmos; I have neither the time nor space ;-) to do justice to this truly visionary work. I encourage all readers with an interest in space to download this amazing simulation and explore its vast potential on their own). Thus, "naturally" (though, perhaps this does not come so naturally to everyone), Josh almost immediately pointed his SX-70 at some Space Engine screens he found during his explorations of the cosmos - and deliberately composed the appearance of specific shots to his liking. His captures show an ineffably beguiling beauty; not to mention a Zen-like compositional elegance. Once again, this is astounding for one who barely two months ago hardly ever touched a camera.

Finally, Josh's sheer exuberance with his new found passion for Polaroid photography is captured by my wife (with her iPhone) as he is unexpectedly gifted his third Polaroid on a visit to his grandmother in Florida. This kind of joy comes straight from the heart, cannot be faked, and just radiates sincerity.

Of course, I have no idea how long Josh's enthusiasm will last. It may die out, it may intensify, or it may transform into some other related art form. But if these early indications are a valid data source, he has clearly been very deeply bitten by his creative muse. May they forever more remain inseparable :-)

References: readers interested in exploring Polaroid's history (and, in particular, the biography of the great Edwin H. Land), can look at any of these sources: (1) history of the SX-70, (2) a 1970s commercial for the SX-70, (3) (short) biography of Edwin Land (at the Rowland Institute, which he founded after leaving Polaroid), (4) (video) Edwin Land's retinex theory of color vision, and (5) Time Zero is a wonderful documentary on the rise and fall of Polaroid, and the recent emergence of the Impossible Project; as of last month this documentary was available for subscribers to Netflix. Some of the better books include: (1) Insisting On the Impossible : The Life of Edwin Land, (2) Instant: The Story of Polaroid, (3) Land's Polaroid: A Company and the Man Who Invented It, and (4) A Triumph of Genius: Edwin Land, Polaroid, and the Kodak Patent War. For those of you who would like to dive a bit deeper into Land's work as scientist: (1) parts one and two of Land's 1959 papers on color vision for the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, (2) a 1971 paper on his retinex theory of color vision, co-authored with John Mccann in the Journal of the Optical Society of America, and (3) a semi-technical paper (in Adobe pdf format) he wrote for Scientific American in 1977. Finally, a wonderful 16-min long film, The Long Walk, made in 1970, that shows Land giving a tour of Polaroid's offices and factories in Massachusetts.

Postscript: it is not a coincidence that Apple has often been called the latter-day Polaroid. At the top of Steve Jobs' (very) short list of visionary heroes is Edwin H Land. As Christopher Bonanos points out in his book, Instant: The Story of Polaroid, and confirms with published photos, the Ikea-like small but stylish tables that Land and Jobs both used on their respective stages (Land, while introducing the SX-70 to share-holders, and Jobs while demoing the iPad) were essentially the same model. Hardly a coincidence ;-) An hour-long talk that Mr. Bonanos gave at Google in 2012 is available here.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Help yourself to a free portfolio sampler

Sudden Stillness - Portfolio Sampler by Andy Ilachinski 

For those of you interested, and for this month only, I've made the iPad version of my current "portfolio sampler" completely free. If you have an iPhone or iPad, please feel free to download, enjoy (I hope), and pass on this "freebie" to anyone you think might be interested. It contains 16 portfolios in all (with shorter previews of a few others). Since photography is ultimately about sharing (one's aesthetic, travelogues, perhaps even a philosophy of life), my "epiphany" on the way home from work tonight, was simply, "So, why not share?"

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Photography, Elemental Forms, Narrative, and Music

"If I were not a physicist, I would probably be a musician. I often think in music. I live my daydreams in music. I see my life in terms of music.... I get most joy in life out of music" - Albert Einstein

In my "Long belated return to blogging..." blog entry a few weeks ago, I alluded to finding a new reverie in the "music" of Kauai's tonal forms and rhythms - something I'm becoming more and more drawn to in general (far transcending what my "eye" saw during my family's trip to Kauai in July, and something I am becoming more and more sensitive to in my photography); but I did not, in that ealier entry, elaborate on what I meant by "music."

Historically, the connection between photography and music goes back at least as far as the oft-told story of how, in his youth, the great Ansel Adams needed a few years to choose between pursuing one or the other. Having obviously chosen photography, Ansel's passion for - and ability to make - music never waned throughout the remaining years of his life. Indeed, it both informed and inspired his art. Some of his best known aphorisms are couched in music-speak; e.g., "Photographers are in a sense composers," he once said, "and the negatives are their scores." The list of accomplished photographers who are also gifted in music (and vice versa) is long (Graham Nash, Ralph Gibson, Milt Hinton, Bryan Adams, and Kenny Rogers, to name just a few); perhaps as long as the one that includes mathematicians and scientists as well (e.g., Bruce Barnbaum, Larry Blackwood, Norman Koren, Charles Johnson, and - of course - one of the co-inventors of photography, William Henry Fox Talbot).

"Even though fixed in time, a photograph evokes as much feeling as that which comes from music or dance. Whatever the mode – from the snapshot to the decisive moment to multi-media montage – the intent and purpose of photography is to render in visual terms feelings and experiences that often elude the ability of words to describe. In any case, the eyes have it, and the imagination will always soar farther than was expected." - Ralph Gibson

But the sense in which I find myself applying "music" to photography nowadays has little to do with this simplest of associations; for I mean it quite literally: images perceived as music! Perhaps spurred by subconscious machinations about my multi-year experiments with "Synesthetic Landscapes,"  I am tending to hear the tonal and elemental forms and structures of images, as though my visual and aural circuits have crossed (which, not coincidentally, is the essence of synesthesia). But whereas my "Synesthetic Landscape" series is admittedly an artificial construct, deliberately crafted to evoke a sense of synesthesia in the viewer (and whose physical appearance actually owes nothing to synesthesia, per se, since it is an almost wholly "cognitive" experiment), inexplicably, my aesthetic "eye" is being drawn more and more to compositions that - synesthestically - evoke real music within me. I hear the images that my camera's viewfinder shows me, and the ones that I seem to keep and decide to print are those whose melodies I enjoy the most. My current favorite "reason" (that I give to those who ask) why a specific image, say, continues to adorn my office wall, when others - even those I have liked in the past - come and go with regularity, is that the keepers simply sing.  But what do I mean by this?

After some deliberation (and with the understanding that these thoughts are still closer to stream-of-conscious ruminations than coherent worldviews), I'd like to offer a hypothesis of why certain images just seem to "sing" - and others do not - and what this may have to say about the general aesthetic appreciation of images on a fundamental level (at least one that I have not previously encountered in academic discussions). I propose that the images with which we most strongly resonate - those that give the most aesthetic "pleasure" - are those whose innate harmonies are entwined on two levels: (1) spatial, in which an otherwise complex morass of visual details and textures may be distilled into a much simpler set of elemental forms and structures; and (2) temporal, in which the relationships among the elemental spatial forms are, in our mind's eyes and ears, experienced as a narrative that unfolds in time. It is when an image harbors an especially acute harmony in both its spatial and temporal dimensions that our gaze tends to linger just a bit longer; and to which we can only say, if asked, "Why do you keep looking at it?" that it simply sings.

"Music creates order out of chaos." - Yehudi Menuhin

The "image" at the top of this entry depicts a 10-frame "narrative" that includes the elemental forms I've deconstructed out of one of my favorite "Kauai music" images (that also appeared in my earlier post). Here is the spatial deconstruction itself:

Each frame of the "narrative" contains just the elemental forms that - at a given slice in time - draw most attention (for me; your narrative will, of course, be different). I first look at the dominant root at near center, as it swoops to the upper right of the composition (frame 1). My eye next goes over to the top left to take in the gentle rhythm of the leaves (frame 2), then moving downward to gaze at the smaller root and the decaying bamboo sheath to its right (frame 3); and so on. The narrative encodes my experience in time of the elemental forms that make up the otherwise static image. The spatial forms are not only pleasant to look at (at least, for me) because they evoke a "harmony of fixed structures" (i.e., the "parts" that make up the distillation at the far right in the triptych above), but also strongly evoke a music-like "harmony of dynamic structures" that are best appreciated as an aesthetic narrative that unfolds in an inner, experiential time. It is as though the innate harmony of inherent forms is so strong that it lifts the otherwise two dimensional image into a higher dimension; one that is best "seen" by having its innate melody heard, and as its elemental notes gently play out, and linger, in our mind's ears. Photographic aesthetics as an experiential union of space and time.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Kauai Bamboo

“A monk asked Ts'ui-wei about the meaning of Buddhism.  Ts'ui-wei answered: "Wait until there is no one around, and I will tell you."  Some time later the monk approached Ts'ui-wei again, saying, 'There is nobody here now.  Please answer me.'  Ts'ui-wei led him out into the garden and went over to the bamboo grove, saying nothing.  Still the monk did not understand, so at last Ts'ui-wei said, 'Here is a tall bamboo; there is a short one!'” Zen Parable

Sunday, August 31, 2014

A long belated return to blogging...with some thoughts on the "music" of Kauai's tonal forms and rhythms

I can look at a fine art photograph and sometimes I can hear music. - Ansel Adams

Having been absent from blogging for a little over a year (!) - due mostly to ill-timed but persistent "day job" responsibilities (as always) - this entry marks a long overdue, though happy, return to musing on this forum. Though long absent from public view on this blog, my photo-related work has not actually suffered much in the intervening time. I have continued "experimenting" with color abstractions, played with a number of promising (and not so promising) new portfolios, and have a number of stories to share relating to photography; I have also continued posting new work on facebook throughout the time I was "AWOL" on my own blog ;-) 

First in queue is a short muse on viewing an old subject with new eyes. The "old subject" in this case being Kauai, the so-called "Garden Isle" of Hawaii, and about which I posted a few entries in 2006 (and which was the last time, before this summer, that I had the great privilege of experiencing this extraordinary land). By way of context, Hawaii, generally - and Kauai, specifically - holds a special place in my heart. It is the "far away land" I have most frequently visited in my life (8 times, including the trip my whole family and I took this past summer), and is the place my soul-mate/wife and I dream of retiring to one day. 

I have "seen" this magic place with eyes attached to a brain that had barely yet learned even the basics of photography, but were eager to "record" each and every "beautiful" sight the Hawaiian islands had to offer (back in 1982); with eyes attached to a brain that was just beginning to "see" that images are best thought of as the words and grammar of a powerful new visual language, but whose "rules" remained mostly mysterious (in trips between 1985-1988); with eyes attached to a brain that finally understood that it is not things the lens is meant to capture, but the effect that things have on the soul behind the brain (in trips during 1996 and 2006); and, this past July, with (somewhat older, and perhaps just a smidgen even more introspective) eyes attached to a soul that now relishes - above all else - finding music in Kauai's transcendent forms and tonal rhythms.

It is a cliche, of course, that we never "see" an old place as before, and that we, ourselves, like a Heraclitian river, are never the same twice. But the deeper meaning of this abused aphorism is that the essence of who we are is not confined to a single time and place, but is spread throughout a lifetime of journeys and learning. I am much less the being that is typing these words, than an infinitely thin snapshot (right now) of a consciousness that was born some 54 years ago and has continued journeying in some fantastically high dimensional "experiential space." Our store of photographs - and/or, just as validly, any other impermanent artifacts that our essential being has "created" along its journey (including, in my case, equations, computer code, technical reports and papers, and even books) - accrued over a lifetime of "seeing," are intertwined, nonlinearly nested visual palimpsests of an ever-evolving / never-complete document of our being; of who we really are. As such, they serve as potent probes, in hindsight - and only after careful reflection - of who we were, at some past time; and offer valuable clues and insights into how (sometimes even why) our essential being has evolved into its current state. More rarely, and with deeper contemplation, these emergent palimpsests can help us better understand and appreciate the forms and rhythms of the journey itself.

So what does my palimpsest say about my ongoing journey, from the perspective of hindsight provided by 32 years of traveling to - and "seeing" - Kauai? Simply that, as a photographer, right now, my deepest yearning has nothing at all to do with finding the next "pretty shot," and is all consumed with "tuning my eyes" to hear some new "tonal rhythm" or form (i.e., to hear a bit of Ansel's "music"); and the discovery of a universal rhythm - that, though it may appear, for example, in some image taken in Kauai (or elsewhere), is not about Kauai, per se (or any other place), but reveals still deeper layers of a feeling of place - makes me the happiest. Perhaps because I have taken hundreds, if not thousands, of images of Kauai during all my past visits, and countless numbers of "I have been here" point-and-shoot documentaries of being in place, that this time my eye and soul were both finally free to focus on Kauai's subtler gifts. While I am not immune to Kauai's majestic Wagnerian vistas... is Kauai's preternaturally sublime quiet music - the kind of visual song that stills one's soul - that now draws most of my attention. What will my soul's eye "see" in another 10 years time I wonder...?

"The voyage of discovery lies not in seeking new horizons,
but in seeing with new eyes." - Marcel Proust