Thursday, May 25, 2006

The "Ordinary" Transformed into Something Else...

One of the most magical properties of photography is its ability to transform the ordinary - by which I mean common, everyday things and places - into something else: sometimes this "something else" is the same ordinary object(s) but with a subtle uncommon twist; sometimes it is the same "ordinary" object(s) but observed from an unusual perspective with less-than-common lighting; and sometimes (in those improbably rare but magical moments!) the photograph captures something that at first sight appears to be the same as something you recognize as utterly ordinary and uninteresting, but which upon further reflection shines radiantly with an ethereal glow, as though a portal into a hidden dimension of beauty has been revealed, if only for an instant. The "image" - in such rare instances - points to something that is simultaneously obviously of this world, and just as obviously not! Sadly, I have no examples of the latter category to show you, though each time I go out with my camera, a part of my soul waits (yearns, hopes, dreams...) expectantly, for the world to bestow this joyous gift; I know it exists, for I have seen it - many times! - if only in my mind's eye as I slowly bring my finger to the shutter, so as not to disturb the magic, and whisper a short prayer as I press it that the camera has captured what I see. Alas, it has not yet done so; but the beauty is too great to ignore and not share with others. In the meantime, however, I do have a few humble samples from the first two categories... The "ordinary" objects depicted here are commonly known as mud, rock, tree, old glasses, a reflection in a puddle, and a fence on the beach. Oh, and the image at the top of this entry, is a view from an "ordinary" hiking trail at a local park (Great Falls, VA side). How uncommonly beautifully "common"! ;-)

Sunday, May 14, 2006

Previsualization ...or... Why Ansel Adams Could Never be Happy With a Point & Shoot Camera

"You don't take a photograph, you make it." - Ansel Adams

Ansel Adams introduced the idea of previsualization into the photographer's lexicon (see my earlier Blog entry on Adams); a term he used to label the importance of imagining, in your mind's eye, what you - as a "photographer" (not just a snapshooter) - want the final print to reveal about a subject (and to communicate of your artistic vision). Without this preconception, wherein much of the artist's creativity resides (specifically, in the implicit steps that must be followed, starting with composition, focal length, shutter speed, filtration, and so on, in order to achieve the previsualized image), the resulting "photograph" is at best a product of inspired "luck" (or intuition) and, at worst, shallow and unable to communicate meaning.

A common "lament" of many of today's amateur photographers - particularly those who fancy themselves as following in the footsteps of pioneers such as Adams - is that their point & shoot camera (or, worse, their super-duper-sophisticated, modern digital single-lens reflex, or DSLR) simply doesn't produce the kind of pictures they want; or, though it is rarely stated this way, doesn't produce what they see in their mind's eye!

The reality, of course, is that no camera, however sophisticated, can "guess" what is in the artist's mind, and then, having correctly guessed, perform whatever digital prestidigitations are required to produce the "perfect" digital file; a file that, moreover, must then also be printed correctly on some chosen combination of printer and paper. It is ironic that as the power of our tools (including cameras, software and printers) increases, and becomes more affordable and user-friendly, the desire to use our tools (to convert a simple point & shoot image into a photograph that more closely resembles an inner vision) generally declines. We expect more out of our cameras; and when the camera (through no fault of its own or its manufacturer) inevitably fails to deliver what we demand, we just as inevitably blame the technology.

The simple lesson of previsualization - that is as applicable today as when Ansel Adams was capturing his spectacular images of Yosemite National Park - is that while one might get lucky, and capture a fine image, the far more likely result of approaching a subject without an idea already in mind is disappointment.

Fine art does not just happen; it requires a (sometimes prodigiously willful) act of inspired, participatory creation. The artist must be a willing and active participant in all of the steps leading up to the image's final (typically print) form; including the act of capture (see my entry on Galen Rowell's participatory photography) and the (often elaborate) digital equivalents of analog darkroom tonal manipulations.

Case in point: consider the two images at the top and immediately below. Arguably, neither the before (straight out of camera) image shown above, nor the after (digitial darkroom manipulation) image that appears at the end of this paragraph belong to the lofty heights of fine-art photography as practiced by Ansel Adams. Indeed, depending on one's aesthetic tastes, neither image may even be terribly "interesting" to look at;-) However, despite the fact that the two images are visual imprints of the same thing (a broken window), no one will argue that they are very different!

I can confidently assert that the after image is precisely what was in my mind's eye when I pressed the shutter. More to the point, the objectively rather bland before image of the broken window was very faithfully rendered by my DSLR. But it is emphatically not what I wanted the print to look like, and which I knew I could create by having previsualized the process necessary to get there at the instant I pressed the shutter. The bland before image simply needed a "bit of work" to get it from its "faithful" form, into a state in which I, as photographer, am satisfied that it (at least) stands a chance of communicating a bit of my aesthetic vision.

If you, like me, are moved by the mysterious power of the after image, in which a subtle, ethereal "glow" seems to radiate from the black void (the "existence" and communication of which required the digital equivalent of selective dodging and burning, and an attention to the distribution of tones in the RAW image), you must agree that it would have been a great shame for me to have glanced at my DSLR's output, see the "uninteresting" recorded image, and, with perhaps a sad sigh for emphasis, conclude, "Well, better next time," before deleting the file from my compact flash card!

A nice way to summarize these musings, and as an homage to another of Adams' favorite sayings, is to think of the DSLR's RAW output as an "equivalent" of a musical score (the image "exists" but in an essentially latent, as-yet-unrealized form); what the photographer subsequently does with that RAW file in the digital darkroom is analogous to a performance! (The "performance" can - indeed, undoubtly will - change in time as the photographer's own skills, tastes and "eye" evolve. If there is a single deep lesson that photography teaches us, it is that there is no such thing as the one "true" objective reality ;-)

A few older examples of Before and After images can be viewed on this page.

Monday, May 08, 2006

Homage to Aaron Siskind

In my recently completed list of "10 Epiphanous Photographs," the ninth image was Aaron Siskind's Jerome Arizona; more colloquially known as Siskind's "peeling paint" masterpiece. While I cannot recreate Siskind's genius for abstract expressionism, it is hard to avoid navigating (or, more precisely, trampling upon;-) some of the same regions of his carefully defined (and pioneering) artistic landscape.

An aesthetic prompt for following in Siskind's "camera"-steps was provided by the many unique compositional opportunities living in what is rapidly turning into one of my favorite local haunts: Forest Glen, a park (near Silver Spring, Maryland) that consists of a half-dozen or so old, abandoned buildings that (dating back to the 1880s) were used, in turn, for a tobacco plantation, a hotel, the Norfolk College for Young Women, a seminary, and, in 1942, an Annex of Walter Reed Army Medical Center (see my Kafka's Door blog entry). Among Forest Glen's veritably unlimited scope of visual delights, is a seemingly endless parade of crumbling walls with layers upon layers of peeling paint.

Thus, I present for your viewing pleasure a small selection of unabashedly Siskind-inspired (but distinctly Andy-esque) "peeling paint" abstracts (the one at the top is also mine, as is the one highlighting my last blog entry, Ergodicity & Art)...

Monday, May 01, 2006

Ergodicity and (Abstract) Art

I am both blessed and cursed with a need to simultaneously nourish two complementary sides of my soul: physics and art. So, typically, even as my camera and I happily enter an otherwise ego-less state of tranquil communion with nature's sublime forms and patterns, the "other" half of my soul inevitably intrudes - albeit gently - with somewhat more cognitively-inspired thoughts and impressions (and an occassional impromtu equation or two;-)

Thus we come to the subject of this Blog entry, which has to do with what may be a curious conceptual overlap between ergodicity and art (fused, I will argue, by a conscious act of selection). "Ergodicity" is a technical term used in stochastic physics, that, roughly speaking, refers to any process whose "time average" (taken over a single realization) converges to the corresponding "ensemble average" (taken over many realizations). At the risk of oversimplification, think of an ergodic process as one in which one may understand what happens at a single point (in a system's phase space) by either averaging over what happens at that one point over a long time, or by averaging over what all of the points are doing at a given instant in time. In other words, for an ergodic process, a spatial average at one time is equivalent to a temporal average at one spatial point.

What does this have to do with art, photography, and abstraction?
Well, one way to characterize the difference between what a traditional artist (such as my dad) does and what a fine-art photographer (such as what I am slowly trying to teach myself to become) does - assuming each is exploring, in his/her own way, the conceptual equivalent of an ergodic artistic landscape - is to look at how the two respective types of artists arrive at their art; or, more precisely, to look at how artists and photographers go about creating the physical form of their art (a painting or a photograph).

The traditional artist sits at his easel (either in a studio or "in the field"), which thus defines a physical space-time "region" for his brush, and actively creates the art on a canvas. To fully "understand" this traditional artist's art - of which each individual painting is but one example - one can imagine taking a time-average over all possible art-works that the artist's brush can "create" over the artist's lifetime; or, equivalently, one can sample over all possible "mind states" that the artist traverses over his internal artistic landscape (while sitting at the same easel at the same physical location!).

In contrast, the photographer wanders over (sometimes enormous stretches of) the physical landscape in hopes of finding an exemplar or two of what it is he/she wishes to express though his/her photographs. The photographer's equivalent of the traditional artist's "brush" (which sits roughly at the same "point" in space and whose subtle movements reflect the artist's inner world) is the camera, which roams over the physical landscape in search of what is, effectively, an already completed canvas. While one can argue that the photographer also has a "brush" of sorts in the guise of a "darkroom" (analog or digital), the most important element of the photographer's "art" is also arguably the moment of "capture." In order to fully understand the photographer's art - of which each individual photograph is but one example - one could imagine taking an average over all possible photographs that the photographer will choose to "create" over his/her lifetime; i.e., an average over all possible "physical states" that the photographer traverses in his search for exemplars of his inner artistic landscape.

Note that while both kinds of artists select their work (out of all possible realizations in a huge multidimensional "art" landcsape), they do so in complementary ways. The traditional artist selects by sampling over an inner landscape of the mind/soul, commiting only those images to his/her canvas that communicate a desired vision; he "selects" to use one type of brush instead of another, and this color and quantity of paint instead of another, and so on. The photographer's selection is also born of an inner vision (as is true for any art), but the selection is not made incrementally, as though the photographer has individual control over which pixels (on a digital camera's CMOS or CCD ship) will receive which signal; rather, the selection is made all at once, when all the tones and textures and forms of a scene are just right for the finger to press the shutter. The photographer selects his art by literally finding it, or, more precisely, by finding some worthy exemplar of the message the artist wishes to impart via his art.

Toward the end of his life, my dad (who passed away in 2002) created some truly extraordinary art that might conventionally be "labeled" as abstract expressionist. A generous sampling of his later work can be viewed here.

While my own art also leans heavily to the abstract, I have not been blessed with my dad's gift of expression with brush and paint. I must instead rely on my inner eye to guide me (and my camera) to examples of "abstract art" as they appear in the world. Out of all such exemplars that I thus discover, I "select" those that come as close as possible to what I would have created myself, if only I had my dad's ability. Such is the photographer's art.

While my dad looks inward to create such works as...

...I must instead hope to stumble across some composition, somewhere out there in the real world (whether by chance alone or enlightened synchronicity!), that captures - in an abstract form - what is in my mind's eye (that I cannot express nearly as well with my camera as my dad did with his brush). I must thus content myself with images such as these...

While I have not "created" any of these images, in the strictest sense of the word, I do take responsibility for carefully - and, I hope, artfully - selecting precisely those ineffable points in time and space that, when rendered by my eye and camera, communicate essentially the same message I would have communicated had I had my dad's artistic genius (and substituted a brush, paint and canvas for my camera, lens and compact flash card.)

Ultimately, the purest form of art, whether it is manifest in painting, photography, sculpture, architecture, or dance - or all of these things, at different times of an artist's life - resides in the life and soul of the artist. Art is seldom found "in" (or confined to) the work that an artist produces, but can readily be observed - even by non-artists - by looking closely at how the artist creates his work (and lives his life!): art is a soul's meta-pattern of willful creation.

I know this to be true, because I saw first-hand how "art" is lived (by a soul known to others as Slava the artist, and whom I simply called "dad"). To help heal my heart after my dad's passing, I sometimes imagine that, somewhere on my multidimensional ergodic artistic landscape, my photography and his art have finally brought the two of us together to some magical space-time-averaged "point" where we are each able to see the beauty of the world through the other's "artistic" eye.

Finally, how does all of this connect back to "ergodicity" as defined at the start of this entry? My "theory" is that just as one can get "to know" a traditional artist (his "style") by looking over a lifetime's worth of work (i.e. by taking a time average over all the works the artist can produce while sitting in roughly the same point in physical space), so one can get "to know" a photographer by looking over all possible images the photographer can take from all possible vantage points in space (i.e., by taking a spatial average over all possible images the artist can take at one time). Of course, this leads open the possibility (even likelihood) that the "styles" of artists change, and evolve, in time. But as a crude conceptual characterization of the fundamental difference between how traditional artists and photographers "create" their work I think it offers an amusing stepping stone.

At the very least, such musings (what might be called ramblings by some;-) beg questions such as "What does an "artistic landscape" look like?", "To what extent does it characterize an artist's unique style and vision?", and "How do different artists traverse this landscape in search of their art?"