Friday, March 31, 2006

Ten "Epiphanous" Photographs: #10

The tenth (and last) "epiphanous photograph" - in a hand-picked series of photographs as defined in an earlier Blog entry - is...

Epiphanous Photograph #10: Josef Sudek's At the Janaceks (1948)


Josef Sudek (1896-1976) was one of the great photographers of the 20th century, and perhaps the best-known Czechoslovakian photographer. Sudek was already an accomplished amateur photographer when he was called up for combat in WWI, and continued to photograph during his military service. Having lost an arm in the war, Sudek was able to get a free scholarhip for a photography course, from which point his life's course was essentially set.

Like Andre Kertesz, Sudek's photography is subtle, and intensely poetic. Though the works of both artists reflect a deep inner meloncholy, where Kertesz focuses (though not exclusively) on daylight scenes and subject matter than spans his travels, Sudek's images are confined mostly to Prague (indeed, to his own studio!) and are often dark and charged with a palpable mystery; few, if any, of Sudek's images would appear out of place as "illustrations" of a Kafka novel!

Consider my tenth, and final, selection as an "Epiphanous Photograph," Sudek's At the Janaceks. Using the simplest of aesthetic primitives - a chair, a window, light and shadow, and diffused light - it simultaneously evokes mystery (of undefined, hidden, meaning) and intensity (in the tangibly psychological presence of the "life" that pervades this room); a seeming paradox of clarity and ambiguity!

It is precisely because of the ambiguity of visual cues and delicate nature of the image - the hint of a yard and fence outside the window, the subtle suggestion of either a candle or small light bulb as an additional source of room light, the small, but otherwise distinctive "peeks" of furniture and a picture (?) in the corners - that the image is able (as so many of Sudek's photographs are!) to strike such powerful emotional chords in the viewer. In Sudek's hands, the camera (with help from Sudek's artistic eye!), becomes a magical tool to capture, probe, and ask what are ultimately unanswerable questions of the meaning and purpose of everyday life.

Sudek once said of his own work, that...

"...everything around us, dead or alive, in the eyes of a crazy photographer mysteriously takes on many variations, so that a seemingly dead object comes to life through light or by its surroundings....To capture some of this - I suppose that's lyricism."

To which I can only add that - if one spends even one afternoon gently immersed in Sudek's work - one can only conclude that in the eyes of a crazy but preturnaturally gifted artist, no part of the world is ever devoid of life and inner radiance. Although this is surely a basic lesson that all photographers, to one degree or another, teach, an examination of any of Sudek's best works makes this "lesson" almost obvious. I am humbled to know that on those rare days on which I dare call myself a "photographer" I at least share a common vision (if not divine gift of expression) with a true genius by the name of Josef Sudek. There is no question that in the right hands, photography is art.

Indeed, perhaps the shortest answer I can give to the original question that led to my soul-searching selection of ten personally "Epiphanous Photographs" - rephrased to read "How can you demonstrate to a non-photographer the nature of fine art photography and why you are so passionate about it?" - just look at any of the photographs by Josef Sudek! (More of Sudek's work can be seen here (#1) and here (#2).)

Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Ten "Epiphanous" Photographs: #9

The ninth of ten "epiphanous photographs" - a hand-picked series of photographs as defined in an earlier Blog entry - is...

Epiphanous Photograph #9: Aaron Siskind's Jerome (Arizona, 1949)


Aaron Siskind (1903-1991), an American abstract expressionist photographer, began his career on his honeymoon, after receiving a camera as a wedding gift. Originally an English teacher, he later taught photography (with Harry Callahan) at the Institute of Design at the Illinois Institute of Technology in Chicago (from the 1950's into the 1980's). As an artist, he started taking documentary photographs of Harlem in the 1930s when he was a member of the New York Workers' Film and Photo League, but later evolved into a deep abstract impressionist, focusing his attention on cracked walls, peeling paint, fences, and graffiti. His own transition from documentary-style photography, and its strict adherence to the primacy of subject matter, to abstraction, as a conceptual and artistic vehicle for individual expression, marked a general turning point in twentieth-century American photography.

His Jerome, Arizona image is a good example of his unique artistic eye; it is also the very first image by Siskind that I can recall seeing (and being mesmerized by ever since!) While it shares the same basic abstract impressionistic aesthetic space as Weston's Pepper, Minor White's Capitol Reef, and Harry Callahan's Ivy Tentacles on Glass, it (and Siskind's whole general approach) represents a subtle departure from those other photographers.

For Siskind, the flat two-dimensional frame of the picture surface is the sole frame of reference of the photograph. As Siskind describes in an exhibition catalog of his work in 1965,...

"...The experience itself may be described as one of total absorption in the object. But the object serves only a personal need and the requirements of the picture. Thus, rocks are sculpted forms; a section of common decorative iron-work, springing rhythmic shapes; fragments of paper sticking to a wall, a conversation piece. And these forms, totems, masks, figures, images must finally take their place in the tonal field of the picture and strictly conform to their space environment. The obejct has entered the picture, in a sense; it has been photographed directly. But it is often unrecognizable; for it has been removed from its usual context, disassociated from its customary neighbors and forced into new relationships."

Weston, White and Callahan all taught (me) that "ordinary things" may be viewed (and understood) as symbols of abstract "otherness" (and, in White's case, of one's "inner state"); Aaron Siskind has taught me that when the last vestiges of all conventional reference frames are removed from a composition - deliberately, so as to force the viewer to rely on a more primitive language of context-less shapes and tones - a even deeper, ineffable beauty emerges. And Siskind's Jerome, Arizona is another reason I love fine-art photography. (More of Siskind's photographs can be seen here (#1) and here (#2).)

Monday, March 27, 2006

Ten "Epiphanous" Photographs: #8

The eighth of ten "epiphanous photographs" - a hand-picked series of photographs as defined in an earlier Blog entry - is...

Epiphanous Photograph #8: Galen Rowell's Rainbow over the Potala Palace, Lhasa (Tibet, 1981)


Galen Rowell (1940-2002) pioneered "participatory (wilderness) photography," in which the photographer becomes an active creative participant in fine-art image making. An accomplished outdoorsman and adventurer, his deep emotional connection to nature pervades virtually all of his photographs. Another signature characteristic is his vivid use of color during the "magic hour" (at sunrise and sunset); indeed, it is arguably true that Rowell was as much a "master of color" as Ansel Adams was a master of black & white. (It is fitting that he received the Ansel Adams Award for his contributions to the art of wilderness photography in 1984.) The life of this extraordinary artist was cut tragically short in 2002 when the plane carrying Rowell and his wife (Barbara Rowell, herself an accomplished photographer) crashed as they were both returning home from a Workshop in the Sierra Mountains.

Rainbow over the Potala Palace is, according to Rowell himself, one the great photos of his life. I have selected it as one of my own epiphanous photos for two reasons: (1) it is a magnificent Wagnerian-like "epic" photograph, that is jaw-droppingly beautiful as a print and even more so as a symbolic synergy of aesthetics and spiritual meaning, and (2) it is a quintessential example of Rowell's lifelong practice of participatory creation.

According to Rowell (see The Power of Participatory Photography in Inner Game of Outdoor Photography, pages 41-43), this image was captured not long after a trekking group (consisting of about 15 people) that Rowell was a part of in Tibet was called to dinner. A rainbow suddenly appeared in a field below them, though not (from the point of view of the trekkers at that particular moment, as they were all settling down to dinner) in the spot that it appears in Rowell's subsequent photograph.

Rowell, relying on his years of experience with optical phenomena in diverse environments, imagined in his mind's eye the precise spot he must get to from which the rainbow would appear to emanate from the roofs of the Dalai Lama's Potala Palace. Dropping his dinner, and running into the fields as fast as he could to get to where he knew he had to position himself, he managed to capture this incredible photograph.

None of the other trekker/photographers budged an inch; although many later "claimed" to have captured the same image. In fact, none of the other images even came close to having the same drama, with the rainbows in other "versions" (having been captured from obviously wrong angles) either badly missing the Palace or invisible altogether. Only in Rowell's photograph does the rainbow rise majestically out from the Palace. Only Rowell had the forethought, intuition and strength of will to get himself, his camera and his "eye" into the right place at the right time.

Rowell, in his essay (see above), quotes Jacob Bronowski, who finds a similar pattern in the history of scientific creativity: "The mind is roving in a highly charged active way and is looking for connections, for unseen likenesses...It is the highly inquiring mind which at that moment seizes the chance...The world is full of people who are always claiming that they really made the discovery, only they missed it."

Rowell's Rainbow over the Potala Palace taught me that a great natural scene is not always (perhaps even rarely!) enough, by itself, for a fine art photograph. It is not enough to be properly attentive, but then sit patiently, passively, awaiting the right confluence of light, tone, texture and form to present itself; one must imagine the exact space-time-soul point where that magical confluence will arise, and then act swiftly, and decisively, to grab it!

Friday, March 17, 2006

Ten "Epiphanous" Photographs: #7

The seventh of ten "epiphanous photographs" - a hand-picked series of photographs as defined in an earlier Blog entry - is...

Epiphanous Photograph #7: Bruce Barnbaum's Circular Chimney, Antelope Canyon


Bruce Barnbaum, as he reveals on his website, entered photography as a hobbyist in the 1960s; he is still at it today, though his "hobby" has turned into a life's work. His photographs typically contain ambiguities of scale and perspective, inviting the viewer to actively participate in the recursive creative process.

Earning Bachelor's and Master's degrees in mathematics from UCLA in 1965 and 1967, and spending a few years working as a mathematical analyst and computer programmer, Barnbaum quit the field and turned to photography full-time in 1970 (though his "eye" retained much of his mathematical training; the importance of which I can attest to as well, speaking as both photographer and physicist). Bruce Barnbaum is widely regarded as one of the world's finest living photographic craftsmen and darkroom printers.

I confess that my seventh "epiphanous" image, Barnbaum's Circular Chimney, proved to be a particularly hard choice to make, because it is, in truth, but one example of an entire gallery of exquisite Slit canyon photographs, any one of which most photographers would be proud to call their own masterpiece!.

It is also but one of the many spectacular photographs my eyes first fell on in 1987 as I was slowly (in rapturous awe really!) thumbing through my then newly purchased copy of Barnbaum's first book, Visual Symphony. The book is organized into four movements - The Landscape; The Cathedrals of England; Urban Geometrics; and The Slit Canyons - and contains images that are so beautfully composed and exquisitely toned and rendered, that (certainly up until that point in time) I had never seen anything approaching that standard. This book remains as one of the most remarkable collections of photographs ever to grace the covers of a book.

While Barnbaum is not the first photographer to photograph within the often claustrophobic confines of Arizona's slit canyons (nor the first to cast an artistic "eye" on the sanctified spaces of Cathedrals), he was the first to elevate their light and form into fine art. What is even more remarkable, is that in this one book (now, sadly, long out of print and unavailable) - Barnbaum does the same for each of his chosen subjects. Matching (maybe surpassing) Weston's compositions for clarity and purity of expression, and with tonal ranges that sometimes exceed Adams' finest efforts, Barnbaum's photos reveal an almost supernaturally transcendent beauty no one had imagined lurked beneath the surface of canyon walls, cathedral pillars, architectural forms and landscapes.

To be sure, photography generally works best, as an art form, whenever it reveals the hidden beauty of nature; and there are many gifted artists who manage to do this time and again. But what Barnbaum's photography revealed to me back in 1987 (a lesson I have carried with me ever since), is that there are even greater depths of aesthetic, even spiritual, beauty to be plumbed in what otherwise, and to others, may appear to be "old themes" and "tired" cliches.

When I first saw Barnbaum's Circular Chimney, I could not help but feel that I was somehow looking directly at the face of God; it was that powerful, as a photograph, and as a visual, and spiritual exprience. I learned that photography, if practiced in a dedicated, empassioned soulful manner, can indeed elevate the utterly mundane (rocks and light) to the highest planes of spiritual understanding, and communication (as art).

The possibility of this magical transformation from the ordinary to ethereal is what drives much of my own photography, and is another reason why I love fine art photography.

Tuesday, March 14, 2006

Ten "Epiphanous" Photographs: #6

The sixth of ten "epiphanous photographs" - a hand-picked series of photographs as defined in an earlier Blog entry - is...

Epiphanous Photograph #6: Harry Callahan's Ivy Tentacles on Glass, Chicago, 1952



Harry Callahan (1912–1999) - a renowned, self-taught American photographer, born in Detroit, Michigan - bought his first camera in 1938 and was appointed in 1946 by László Moholy-Nagy to teach photography at Chicago's Institute of Design. He taught at the Institute until 1961, after which he continued teaching photography at the Rhode Island School of Design, until his retirement in 1977.

Callahan was best known for his dedicated experimentation with subject matter, theme and the printing process. While his subjects varied from landscapes, to street scenes, to pedestrians, to parks, and to intimate portraits of his wife (Eleanor), all of his photographs are marked by a strong sense of elegant design and gentle simplicity.

His Ivy Tentacles on Glass, which he took in 1952, illustrates one kind of experimentation with extreme contrast. Callahan had been heavily influenced by Ansel Adams when he took a workshop with the master in 1941; so much so that the experience compelled him to trade his 35mm camera and darkroom enlarger for an 8-by-10 view camera. After mastering the fine art print, with its great tonal range (following Adams' well known example and lessons in the "Zone System"), Callahan took his first steps toward a lifetime of constant experimentation, in which he sometimes turned expectation and convention on its ear.

This particular photograph is a wonderful example of an extrememly high contrast print where the only "tones" as such are the colors, black and white. Indeed, at first glance, a viewer may be forgiven for mistaking the photograph for a minimalist cartoon!

For me, this photo contains the seeds of two important lessons (mini "epiphanies"): (1) that constant, playful, experimentation fuels artistic growth; that, as an artist, I must constantly seek ways to go beyond the conventions my own past work has already set in stone, and to seek ways to deform my own artistic landscape; and (2) that there is sometimes great promise in seeking abstract tones and forms without the added conceptual and emotional burden (as one senses underlies most of the works of André Kertész and Minor White) to infuse the photograph with hidden layers of symbolic meaning. Callahan is here simply having fun with abstraction for abstraction's own sake; simply because the ultra-minimalist high-contrast composition looks beautiful when rendered this way! In contrast to Kertész's photographs, almost all of which seem to exude Kertész's deep meloncholy toward life and station in life as an artist (indeed, Kertész's meloncholy is what arguably drove all his photography!), Callahan's photographs seem to be bursting with a playful - joyous even! - energy.

"I think nearly every artist continually wants to reach the edge of nothingness - the point where you can't go any farther." - Harry Callahan

While this basic lesson may seem obvious to some, it was not obvious at all to a much younger version of myself when I first encountered Ivy Tentacles on Glass so many years ago! I often recall its whimsical energy - and Callahan's tireless artistic experimentation - whenever I feel like I'm slipping into a creative rut. It is also one of the ten photographs that collectively define what I love about fine art photography.

Monday, March 13, 2006

Ten "Epiphanous" Photographs: #5

The fifth of ten "epiphanous photographs" - a hand-picked series of photographs as defined in an earlier Blog entry - is...

Epiphanous Photograph #5: André Kertész's Mondrian’s Glasses and Pipe, Paris, 1926


André Kertész (1894 - 1985) captured his first photograph while working as a clerk at the Budapest stock exchange in 1912. A member of the Austro-Hungarian Army during WWI, Kertész photographed his experiences of the war until he was wounded in battle in 1915. Unfortunately, many of the images he captured during this time were lost during the Hungarian Revolution of 1918.

Thereafter, this preturnatually gifted poetic soul traveled to Paris (in 1925), where he worked as a freelance photographer and published three books of his images; and on to New York (in 1936), where one of the 20th Century's most gifted photographers was effectively cold-shouldered by the photographic "establishment" and relegated to taking pictures of architecture and home interiors for House and Garden. In what must be one of the most egregious oversights in photographic history, not a single one of his images was selected for Steichen's famous The Family of Man exhibition in 1956! It was only after Kertész retired from commercial work (in 1962) that he was again able to devote his considerable powers of observation and feeling to the same "simple" everyday subjects of his "amateurish" youth. Kertész left behind a legacy of beautiful, meloncholic tonal poems for all future generations of aspiring photographers to marvel at; and to marvel at the breadth and depth of his feeling for the human condition.

I have selected Kertész's Mondrian’s Glasses and Pipe as my epiphanous image #5 for two reasons: (1) it is a wonderful example of his visual poetry, with the gentle perfection of the geometry of the composition (that slightly evokes the "Decisive Moment" component of Henri Cartier-Bresson's approach, though with a decidedly less-fast-paced subject!), and (2) it is also an example of how subtly Kertész is able to fuse the everyday with the abstract. On one level, the photograph is about nothing more than glasses (and a pipe); on another level, it is an "abstract" in the spirit of Minor White (in the way it uses the objective image to reflect the inner meloncholy of the photographer).

However, Kertész's fusion of the everyday and abstract features an important additional dimension (as does much of his life's work); a dimension that makes this one photograph so memorable to me (and places it firmly on my list of personally epiphanous photographs): the tonal forms of the photograph are used not just as a symbolic language of the inner emotions of the photographer, but as a language that speaks directly about how the photographer relates to humanity.

Where Minor White deliberately used essentially unrecognizable abstract forms to communicate inner states, Kertész instead used immediately recognizable shapes and symbols to convey the nature - and feeling - of his connection (or, more often than not, dis-connection) to the world around him. The fragile interconnected bond between artist and humanity was the real "subject" of Kertész's poetic gaze; and we can all feel it, as we look upon the shapes and tones of Mondrian's glasses and pipe. His work is less about the traditional subjects of photographs (people, places and things), even as the traditional subjects populate his portfolio, and more - much more - about his feelings about his relationships with the traditional subjects that came within view of this gentle artistic soul.

"The moment always dictates in my work. What I feel, I do. This is the most important thing for me. Everybody can look, but they don't necessarily see. I never calculate or consider; I see a situation and I know that it's right, even if I have to go back to "get the proper lighting." - André Kertész.

Kertész's work in general, and this one picture in particular, made me appreciate the fundamental role the capture of one's raw, emotional attachment to the human condition plays in shaping the communicative power of photography. It also intensified - immeasurably! - my love of fine art photography.

Sunday, March 12, 2006

Ten "Epiphanous" Photographs: #4

The fourth of ten "epiphanous photographs" - a hand-picked series of photographs as defined in an earlier Blog entry - is...

Epiphanous Photograph #4: Edward Weston's Pepper No. 30, 1930


Edward Weston (1886-1958), was one of the masters of 20th century photography. Working primarily with large-format cameras and natural light, Weston elevated the photography of "common objects" such as rocks, sea shells, and vegetables to an artform. Through impeccable composition, masterful attention to tone and design, and consummate printing skills, everyday things became works of art. Ansel Adams wrote that "Weston is, in the real sense, one of the few creative artists of today. He has recreated the matter-forms and forces of nature; he has made these forms eloquent of the fundamental unity of the world. His work illuminates man's inner journey toward perfection of the spirit."

Weston's Pepper, No. 30, is a perfect example of Weston's artful perfection and unique eye. It is, in fact, a "mere" pepper; a "thing" we have all seen countless times, mostly without ever really looking at any given pepper's unique, and uniquely beautiful, curves and tones. But the world had to wait for Weston to show us how magnificent a humble pepper really is; and by so doing, to also show us all how all things, if seen - and displayed - with the proper eye/I, possess a resplendent inner glow.

The existence of Weston's Pepper, No. 30, has made it impossible for me to look at anything -however outwardly and objectively "ordinary" it may at first appear - as devoid of photographic opportunity and potential latent beauty. In short, this one photograph (which I first saw when I was about nine or ten) instantly transformed the banal landscape of the "everyday" into something wondrous, mysterious and beautiful. It is also another reason why I love fine art photography!

Saturday, March 11, 2006

Ten "Epiphanous" Photographs: #3

The third of ten "epiphanous photographs" - a hand-picked series of photographs as defined in an earlier Blog entry - is...

Epiphanous Photograph #3: Henri Cartier-Bresson's Siphnos, Greece, 1961


Though definitive statements of the following form, particularly in an aesthetic medium, are as a rule at best controversial and at worst meaningless, one could nonetheless well argue that Henri Cartier-Bresson (1908-2004) was the most prodigiously gifted photojournalist ever to use a camera.

Paraphrasing what the mathematician Mark Kac once said of Richard Feynman (the great 20th Century physicist), one can say of Cartier-Bresson that "there are two kinds of geniuses: the 'ordinary' and the 'magicians'. An ordinary genius is a fellow whom you and I would be just as good as, if we were only many times better. There is no mystery as to how his mind works. Once we understand what they've done, we feel certain that we, too, could have done it. It is different with the magicians. Even after we understand what they have done it is completely dark. [Henri Cartier-Bresson] is a magician of the highest calibre." (see Wikiquote entry on Feynman for original quote).

Cartier-Bresson is most famous for introducing the idea of the "Decisive Moment" into the photographer's lexicon, which he described in his celebrated book of the same name in 1952 as "...the simultaneous recognition, in a fraction of a second, of the significance of an event as well as of a precise organization of forms which give that event its proper expression."

One can see the "Decisive Moment" at play in virtually all of Cartier-Bresson's photographs; there is no "one best" representative of it, and which images illustrate the idea better than others depends more on context, mood and the temperament of the observer than innate quality. The first Cartier-Bresson image that I can remember having a profound influence on me was his Siphnos, Greece shot reproduced above.

I was struck (when I first saw it as a young photographer, and even more so now, after trying, mostly unsuccessfully, at capturing that stubbornly elusive "Decisive Moment" for a few decades!) by the perfectly seamless (and, seemingly effortless) blend of geometry, time, and dynamics.

The geometry is exquisite in its "imperfect" precision; the buildings are old and withered, the road is well traveled and decaying, but together there is a deep harmony. The harmony is only enhanced by the deep contrast, with the shadows - falling just so, at this precise moment - adding an almost surreal virtual dimension to the physical architectonic shapes. As if all of that were not enough to yield a magnificent moment, the girl racing up the stairs is positioned in exactly the right spot to give life to the entire picture, and with a body posture whose geometry exactly matches that of the surrounding forms and shadows. Masterful, is not the word! You can feel her energy; you feel her heart racing as she makes her way up the stairs; the coolness on her skin as she is momentarily embraced by the precise shadow. And then, as a final reward, as the eye slowly pans around the scene, small details to savor are revealed: the texture of the road, the detail on the door on the right, the architectural "accent" on the otherwise featureless wall at the upper left. The ineffable transience of space, time, geometry, dynamics, and the natural flow of human life, is captured at the Decisive Moment. And then, Poof!, the girl is gone, the shadows pass, a cloud moves in overhead, and the moment is gone, forever.

I have been chasing decisive moments ever since; and it is the third reason I have always been passionate about fine art photography.

Friday, March 10, 2006

Ten "Epiphanous" Photographs: #2

The second of ten "epiphanous photographs" - a hand-picked series of photographs as defined in an earlier Blog entry - is...

Epiphanous Photograph #2: Ansel Adam's Monolith, The Face of Half Dome, Yosemite National Park, 1927


Apart from its aesthetic appeal, what makes this photograph so special to me, is what I learned a few months after I first saw it a book (when I was still in my teens) about how Adams made it. I subsequently learned that Monolith was the image that taught Adams the art of previsualization; that is, the ability to previsualize, in one's mind, what you want the print to look like, and to then use whatever filters (in Adams' case, a deep red filter to properly render the sky deep black) and exposure are required by the previsualized print. Adams had to work fast, and, as I recall, had only a single plate of film left to expose (after a long day of photography).

This particular image, and most importantly the way this image was conceived, previsualized and printed, marks a cornerstone in my own photography in two ways: (1) I have never approached a subject since without first previsualizing what it is I want the final print to reveal about the subject, and (2) it was the first time that I truly appreciated that a photograph need not exactly recreate a scene (as might be observed by a passive "viewer" at the scene); rather, it can - sometimes must - depict the scene in a way that best communicates what the photographer saw and felt.

In the case of the Monolith, Adams' epiphany (and thereby the epiphany for all succeeding generations of fine art photographers!) was that a filter was needed to convey how awe struck he was, as observer/as photographer, by the Monolith's shear magnificence. I, in turn, was awe struck, by the resulting print's power to communicate Adams' moving experience (just as he was sure it would when he previsualized in his mind's eye how a red filter would render this scene). And it is another important reason why I am so passionate about fine art photography!

Wednesday, March 08, 2006

Ten "Epiphanous" Photographs: #1

In Lenswork Issue #63 (March-April, 2006), editor Brooks Jensen has a wonderful essay that begins with the question: "If you were going to demonstrate to a non-photographer the nature of fine art photography and why you are so passionate about it, which ten photographs would you show them?"

What a provocative (and deceptively difficult) question! Naturally, it prompted me to reflect on what my own choices might be at this time and stage of creative life. Of course, I realize that what my 45 year self currently believes are the "epiphanous" photographs that have helped form and shape my photographic I/eye's evolution are likely representative of neither what my I/eye most deeply cherished ten or twenty years ago (though the overlap is large) nor what I may cite as my first inspirational visual stepping stones 20 or 30 years from now.

Having done away with this obvious, but important, caveat, I offer the first of ten photographs that were - each in their own way - epiphanous to me, as an ever-evolving photographer, and my best "explanation" (as per Brooks Jensen's question) to others why I am passionate about fine art photography...

Epiphanous Photograph #1: Minor White's, Capitol Reef, Utah (1962):


Minor White (1908-76), who taught at MIT from 1965 until his death and was one of the founders of Aperture Magazine (in 1952), was arguably one of the most gifted "spiritual" photographers of the 20th century. By that I mean that White's lifelong approach to photography was predicated on the notion that a photograph - in particular, a fine art photograph - must transcend its merely physically manifest form and capture something of the timeless inner presence that defines the soul "taking" it.

White's Capitol Reef (the exact date of my first viewing of which I cannot recall) is the very first photograph I remember seeing that absolutely stunned me, rendering me virtually speechless; all I kept saying for days afterward was "Wow!".

The reason for my reaction was (and still is) how subtly it enfolds objective and subjective realities. What at first site appears to be nothing more than a "mere" beautiful pattern of stone, quietly, almost imperceptively, shifts into an unrecognizable, and - almost paradoxically, even more beautiful - subjective pattern of shapes, textures and tones. Reality, in short, has simply dissapeared, and has been replaced - by what? - anything the viewer's eye/I happens to see at the moment of viewing.

Outer objective reality blended, and enfolded, into subjective, inner truth and vision; and a "mere" representational photograph transformed into a glimpse of a transcendent dynamic reality. It is also the photograph that made me fall in love with fine art photography.

Tuesday, March 07, 2006

God is at Eye Level


I saw this wonderful book at a local bookstore and was very moved by its sincerety, elegance, and depth (not to mention its fine photography!).

The book is a sublime gem that anyone who is interested in what photography is really all about, what life is all about, and what their soul is all about, owes it to themselves to keep it by their side! It will enhance and broaden your sense of the world, and deepen your interconnection with it.

The author/photographer, Jan Philips, is a rare creature who is equally well proficient (indeed, gifted), in being able to both effortlessly capture the timeless beauty and spirit of nature in her photos and provide an eloquent written context for those images to help others find the sacred in the ordinary. Spending time with even just a few pages leaves one with feelings of peace and tranquility; reading over the entire book, a few times perhaps, depending on mood and temperament, cannot fail to leave even the most downtroden of souls feeling joyful at simply being alive and having the privilege at marveling at life's beauty. The book, in short, is all about how everything that one looks at - and most of all the inner "I" that is always lurking somewhere in the mysterious depths of our souls looking outward through our "eyes" - is nothing but God looking in.

Phillips book is a small treasure of a book that is now on the short list of books I will never part with. Highly recommended. (Readers for whom this short description is enough to arouse their interest, should also look up Nicholas Hlobeczy's A Presence Behind the Lens: Photography And Reflections and Volume IV of Christopher Alexander's four volume opus, Nature of Order).

Readers are also strongly encouraged to visit Jan Phillips' website, which has information about her many other books, music CDs and workshops schedules.

Monday, March 06, 2006

Kwanon (the original Canon Camera)


I have been a devoted Canon Camera user ever since my purchase of the venerable AE-1 35mm SLR when it first came out in 1976. For fellow Canon afficionados, here is a great site that chronicles the entire history of the camera company.

The company was founded by Saburo Uchida (1899 - 1982) and Takeo Maeda (1909 - 1975), who called their prototype camera the Kwanon (after the Buddhist Goddess of Mercy). The prototype was never marketed, however, and the name "Kwanon" was soon changed to "Canon," which means "standard for judgement or biblical scriptures." The first official camera release by the new company, the Hansa Canon, was released in 1935.

Here is the announcement, as it appeared in the October 1935 issue of the Asahi Camera: "Hansa Canon camera… Canon is a Leica imitation made in Japan. Although some influence of Contax is found, the majority of its features are modeled after the Leica. The dimensions of the camera are 13.5cm x 6.8cm x 4.5cm, while its weight is approximately 650g. It uses a special magazine and the lens is Nippon Kogaku’s Nikkor 50mm f/3.5. The lens is removable… The viewfinder is a box-type, and is designed to pop up to a specified position by pressing a button on the back. 275 yen with a snapshooting case included."

Highlights of this impressive sight include separate histories of film cameras, digital cameras, and an overview of the entire design process. Here is the Museum Site Map.

Appearance vs. Reality


The checkershadow illusion is one of the more remarkable "illusions" I've encountered, that goes to the heart of how we (as visual information processors) interpret and categorize the world; it also goes to the heart of the question, "Are you really sure of what you are looking at?"

Believe it or not, the squares marked A and B are exactly the same shade of gray! If you do not immediately believe your senses (as I suspect you won't!), just copy/save the image to a jpeg file and use any image processing program to sample the actual luminosity of each square...truly amazing!).

The "explanation" is that our visual systems require more than just luminosity to assess the shade of grey to be assigned; it also needs such features as local contrast and boundary effects. A complete explanation is provided here.

The checkshadow illusion was devised by Edward H. Adelson, Professor of Vision Science in the Dept. of Brain and Cognitive Sciences, Massachusetts Institute of Technology. His site includes many other startling illusions that explore the nature of perception and interpretation of reality (see his Illusions and Demos), as well as technical papers explaining his theories and findings. Adelson's site is a must-see for all photographers who "believe" they know all there is to know about appearance, reality, and the true nature of tonal gradations.

Additional references (and illusions) appear on the Perceptual Sciences Group homepage.

Friday, March 03, 2006

Cymatics: Revealing Nature's Hidden Patterns


Cymatics (from the Greek kyma, meaning "wave" and ta kymatica, meaning "matters pertaining to waves"), is the study of wave phenomena, pioneered by Swiss medical doctor and natural scientist Hans Jenny (1904-1972). Over the course of more than ten years, Jenny conducted landmark experiments pumping acoustic energy into, and animating, otherwise inert powders and liquids into life-like, flowing forms that mimic patterns found throughout nature, art and architecture. All of these patterns are a direct physical manifestation of pure tone vibration: dynamic form induced by material vibration.

His work is documented in a remarkable book, Cymatics: A Study of Wave Phenomena & Vibration. A few videos are available as well: (1) Cymatics: The Healing Nature Of Sound, and (2) Cymatic Soundscapes.

Jenny's work builds upon much earlier work by Ernst Chladni who, in 1787, published "Discoveries Concerning the Theory of Music." This work introduced the basic physics of acoustics (the science of "sound"). One of Chladni's many practical (and aesthetic) discoveries was a way to make sound waves visible . By using a violin bow, stretched perpendicularly across the edge of flat plates covered with sand, he produced the patterns and shapes that today go by the term Chladni figures.

Jenny's work also overlaps a bit with the work of mathematician Nathaniel Bowditch, who was among the first to study the patterns generated by parametric sinusoidal waves called Bowditch curves, but are more often called Lissajous figures.

Apart from the incredible innate beauty of Jenny's patterns, there lies perhaps an even deeper, and deeply mysterious, "beauty" that has to do with the underlying patterns of nature. As Cathie E. Guzetta puts it so eloquently in "Music Therapy: Nursing the Music of the Soul"..."The forms of snowflakes and faces of flowers may take on their shape because they are responding to some sound in nature. Likewise, it is possible that crystals, plants, and human beings may be, in some way, music that has taken on visible form." You can read more in the article Cymatics: The Science of the Future.

More recently, work on oscillons has revealed many of the same mysterious features, including that of effective atomic and crytaline structures. The physics of "small" granular media (sand, powder, BBs from a toy shotgun,...) that sit between the microscopic (atomic) and macroscopic (and cosmic) is in its infancy. Two more articles on oscillons: (1) From waves to particles: the oscillon, and (2) "Localized and Cellular Patterns in a Vibrated Granular Layer" (Tsimring & Aranson, Phys. Review Letters, Vol. 79, No. 2, July 1997).

Wednesday, March 01, 2006

Camera Obscura


The camera obscura (Lat. dark chamber), the basic principles of which have been known since antiquity, is essentially just a box (which may be room sized: see discussion below) with a small hole on one side. Light passes through the hole and forms an image on the opposite wall (the sharpness of which depends on the size of the hole, and with very small holes leading to problems stemming from diffraction; as the hole becomes smaller, light sensitivity also naturally decreases).

The camera obscura has long been a favorite of artists because the artist can use the projected image as the base on which to draw; since the image is in perfect perspective, the realism of the rendered image is thus hightened. Pinhole cameras are camera obscuras with light-sensitive film.

Now we come to the reason for this Blog entry: to highlight the work of a master photographer - Cuban-born Abelardo Morell - who uses a room-size camera obscura to record wall-size images of Manhattan, New York, San Francisco, CA, and the cityscape of Havana, Cuba (among many other locations). Interested viewers are encouraged to explore Morell's complete Camera Obscura gallery.

His full (and extensive) on-line gallery of photographs (including some of his early work) can be viewed here. His most recent publications include Camera Obscura, and A Book of Books. See also Abelardo Morell (by Richard B. Woodward).