Saturday, January 26, 2008

Hawaii: Visions of Primal Serenity

I've recently self-published a book of photographs of Hawaii, taken while my wife and I were celebrating our 10th wedding anniversary back in the summer of 2006.

Hawaii is an indelible part of me. More so even than my blood, my skin, or any of my physical possessions, for these are all far more transient and ultimately communicate far less about who I really am. But the depth and timelessness of my affection - my reverence - for these sublime, preternaturally beautiful islands, speaks volumes about the nature of my soul.

I visited the islands for the first time in the early 1980s as a beginning graduate student in physics. As soon as I stepped off the plane, and saw the gentle giant green mountains, the billowous clouds serenely floating over them, the deep inviting aquamarine blue water lapping the ragged shore - its dull roar echoing somewhere off in the distance - and tasted that intoxicatingly sweet scented tropical island air, I knew my soul had found its home. It is sublime, it is mysterious. There is an abundance of raw wild energy; and an immersive transcendent tranquility that subsumes all.

God, Yahweh, Buddha, Brahman, Tao, Ein-Sof, or whatever other linguistic "label" one is comfortable in using to refer to the infinite, attains a physically manifest luminous form in this paradisical oasis. Hawaii is magic.

At the end of the book, I've included a section of much older images, taken during my first series of visits to the islands between 1982 and 1988. The time I took to design the layout of the book, and to select the images for it, gave me an opportunity to compare my "eye" and aesthetics as they are now to what they were about 25 years ago; and to reflect on my own evolution as an artist (as well as to learn something about the creative process in general).

Something immediately struck me as I was viewing my large collection of "old" and "new" shots. The much older shots, which were all taken at a time when I was (possibly) a technically proficient photographer but had not yet matured as a "fine-art" photographer, were technically well executed "depictions of what I happened to be looking at" at the moment, in this case being Hawaii. While most are better than standard postcard fare (at least I hope so ;-), the truth is that, if I give an honest self appraisal of my earlier work, I see "scenes of Hawaii" and little more. Yes, they're pretty; yes, a few might (and do!) look nice on a wall. But they are pictures of Hawaii and little else. It is not false modesty for me to assert that any technically competent photographer, with a requisite skill level, could easily have reproduced (indeed, surpassed) many of my earlier photographs. So how are the new ones different; and in what way do I think they are "better"?

Well - jumping 25 years or so forward in time (and, in my case, about 75 thousand or so more images, give or take a few thousand, film and digital) - what I see myself doing more and more of (at least trying to) is incorporating the scenery "out there" into my bag of photo tools that I use to express what I feel "on the inside" when otherwise looking at the scenery. This represents both a subtle and profound shift.

The scenery, in an important sense, has become an integral part of my photographic toolkit, as important as - and distinct from - my usual assortment of purely technical tools (such as camera, lenses, filters, and so on). The scenery itself is no longer the core "object of focus" for my other tools. It has become an essential part of my toolkit.

It no longer really matters to me, in the deepest artistic sense, whether I am in Hawaii, or here in Northern VA, or Florida or anywhere else, in particular. My "goal" as a photographer is no longer to "show someone what I'm looking at." Rather, my goal is to communicate - express - a bit of "what I felt" when taking a picture to someone viewing the resulting photograph or print. I am much less concerned with whether the viewer "likes" what he or she "sees" - or identifies, objectively - in a photograph; and much more interested in conveying a feeling, a mood, a state-of-mind and/or heart, that persists even as viewer steps away from the image.

What is of lasting value (to both the viewer as an "involved interpreter and recipient" of an art work, and the photographer as its author) is not the fact that a particular photograph contains, say, a recognizable image of a "door," but rather the subjective emotional impression that the image of the door imparts to the viewer both while the viewer is actively viewing the photograph and afterwards, when the physical photograph is transformed (during the act of viewing) into a hybrid objective-subjective memory in the viewer's mind. It is my feeling that I am trying to convey; not the "object" that I took a photograph of to express that feeling.

What the viewer objectively "sees," of course, is the "object" (or objects) in the photograph; just as what I objectively "see" before I press the shutter is the (almost, but not quite identical) "object." Art, when it happens, depends on the simultaneous appearance of two transformative acts: (1) the photographer uses "objective reality" as an implicit tool to craft and communicate certain elements of his own - inner, subjective - reality; and (2) the viewer sees past the "objects" in a photograph and feels something - a residual imprint, perhaps - of what is, objectively speaking, not physically present, but hints at what the photographer felt while taking the photograph.

Of course, the degree to which the viewer "feels" what the photographer does (or what the photographer wishes to express) is impossible to measure. That is as it should be, for were this to be possible, art would be reduced to an "objective" science, which would be a pity. While I would certainly be delighted to know that someone resonates with one of my photos for exactly the same reason as I (or at least, in the same way I remember resonating with a "scene" while capturing it with my lens), it is not imperative that this is the case.

In truth, at this current juncture of my ongoing evolution, what I strive for in all my work is to convey the simplest feelings of calm. I understand that each viewer will take away from my images what he or she is predisposed to feel. Perhaps some find disharmony in what my eyes sees as serene patterns. But even in these cases, if viewers react more on an emotional level to my photos (even if the emotion they feel is different from the one I wish to convey) rather than in some detached, emotionally sterile or empty, fashion, I am still partly satisfied as an artist. For my goal is never the object, but a feeling.

So, getting back to the Hawaii book, why include my old pictures at all? Collectively, these early images define the first real "breeding ground" for my art. For it was in Hawaii that I first turned my camera onto something that I was truly impassioned about. Rather than taking the "same old" tired shots of "emotionally inert" subject matter (that may nonetheless have been a part of an otherwise valuable learning experience in a photography workshop, for example), I found myself taking shots in Hawaii for reasons that emerged quite naturally out of my own soul. In short, somewhere in the mists of time, lost among these old photos, is a magic Borgesian moment - well-defined but impossible to directly point to - during which I was born as a photographer.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Landscapes of the Soul

"The physical object, to me, is merely a stepping stone to an inner world where the object with the help of the subconscious drives and focuses perceptions, becomes transmuted into a symbol whose life is beyond the life of the objects we know." - Clarence J. Laughlin, Photographer (1905 - 1985)

For all those who've expressed, privately and publically, an interest in seeing some of my images in print - apart from my contest-winning Sudden Stillness book, to be published in short order by Envisage Press - I offer the following. A self-published collection of photos, entitled Landscapes of the Soul: Reflected Shadows of Self.

The book consists of four visual landscapes: Water Flow, Entropic Melodies, Spirit & Light, and Micro Worlds. Each offers an interpretation of spirit made manifest, and is introduced by a short essay. There are a total of 120 pages, 52 duotoned images, four essays and a short introduction.

Water flow shows glimpses of dynamic processes at work; though the processes themselves understandably remain hidden.

Entropic Melodies hints at the boundary between life and death. (A few images from this series appeared in a portfolio in issue #41 of Black and White Magazine.)

Spirit & light reveals the physical magnificence and splendor of sacred spaces, as created by human hands, though the spiritual object of devotion lies only in the heart of the observer. (Some of these images were featured in Lenswork Extended Edition #71 (July-August 2007)

Micro Worlds shows the extraordinary resplendent beauty that may be found even in abject banality, but only if the self recognizes that it is its own landscape of the soul. (These are taken from a growing series I'm still working on, and have previosuly featured in an on-line gallery.)

"To the vast majority of people a photograph is an image of something within their direct experience: a more-or-less factual reality. It is difficult for them to realize that the photograph can be the source of the experience, as well as the reflection of spiritual awareness of the world and of self." - Ansel Adams, Photographer (1902 - 1984)

My original intention for this project (when I started a few weeks ago) was to merely find an "easy" way to archive some of my work; for my own records. Indeed, I honestly wasn't expecting much by way of quality, although I grew increasingly intrigued by seeing references to the "quality of Blurb Books" on various forums and chat groups. Having my "test case" book in hand from this on-line publisher, I can now attest to its overall quality. Very impressive, actually.

Compared to the often less-than-stellar quality of books one sees even on the shelves at Borders, I have no qualms about offering the book for sale. While certainly not as good as fine-art prints (even the best books typically fall far short of that Holy Grail of course), nor even as good as the finest pigment-based ink jets I can produce for exhibits, the images in this volume stand on their own as beautiful book-form reproductions. Of course, the subject matter may not be to everyone's taste, nor the images themselves, but about that I have far less control;-)

For those who find my aesthetics pleasing, I am sure you would find this little collection of some of my recent images very enjoyable.

Saturday, January 12, 2008

George Barr's Stunning New Book on the Creative Process in Photography

George Barr's stunning new book - Take Your Photography to the Next Level - is an impressive debut for George in the world of art instruction in book form, and a "must-read" book for photographers at all skill levels. George is already quite an accomplished master of photography in traditional print and Blog forms. Indeed, according to his Blog, the idea for this book, and a bit of its substance (though markedly enhanced and expanded) came about partly from the many insightful entries he's posted on his Blog over the years.

Apart from his obvious writing skill, one of George's great strengths as an artist/communicator is his ability to articulate some of the core - and often mysterious - qualities that describe the process of art in general; and photography in particular. Though he doesn't shy away from philosophical issues (and addresses such questions as "What is a fine-art photograph?" head-on), he has a veritable wellspring of practical advice to impart photographers, ranging from complete novices to seasoned professionals.

That this book is special is immediately obvious. It is neither an all too common "How To.." instruction manual on what f-stop to choose or what lens to put on your camera, nor is it yet another "This is how it is done in Photoshop..." guidebook (though some allusions to both sets of "problems" are sprinkled throughout). What this book does, and does exceedingly well, is address the much more difficult subjective components of fine-art photography: the nature of creativity in the photographic process, where to "look for" images, and what to do when you find them (and when you cannot!), how to compose your shots and why, how to assess your imagery, and to learn to develop your own "style," and the differences between purely technical acumen and aesthetic vision.

Such matters are rarely if ever are given the attention they deserve, and if they do appear in other books - typically as short side-bars or quick asides - do so more as after-thoughts than substantive discussions. In fact, I know of only perhaps three or four other books (none of which are as well-written as this one, by the way) that similarly delve deeply into the creative and aesthetic parts of photography. It is thus a book that is long-overdue; and I am delighted that a photographer of George's unique blend of artistic skill and expository ability has taken up the challenge.

I am also impressed by the utmost care and attention that has been put into the design and content of the book. The image selection is excellent throughout; and (in another rarity for books in this admittedly small genre) include many "don't quite work" photographs simply because George wants to show what works, what does not, and why. Even the captions to the photos show a consistent deliberate attention. Each tells a succinct story about what is being shown, and makes a point all its own that compliments the accompanying text. If all one did was to skim the book reading its captions, and nothing else, one would arguably still learn a great deal of the subject. Another nice feature is that many of the sections include simple but marvelously effective sketches to illustrate the finer points of, say, cropping and composition. While most authors would have contented themselves to include an image example or two and leave it at that, George goes that extra step for the reader. Finally, there is also a generous selection of "portfolio" images, each accompanied by its own "story" of how it came to be, in two-page spreads that appear throughout the book. My personal favorite (and one that, as George reveals, turns out to be among George's all-time popular images) is Windowpane, that appears on page 193. Indeed, it is this particular image, that I first saw in Focus magazine a few years ago, that introduced me to George's photography, and compelled me to become an avid reader of his Blog.

If you are either a budding photographer who wants to learn about the "art" in fine-art photography, or a long-practicing photographer (perhaps even a pro), and are wondering where to look for advice to improve your own vision; or your skill level is anywhere in-between, know that there is no better place to learn, and no better guide to turn to for guidance, than George's superb new book. On the basis of this book alone, I'd say George is about to embark on yet another career track (in addition to already being a physician and photographer); namely that of well-known, accomplished teacher of fine-art photography. Well done George.

Wednesday, January 09, 2008

Physics vs Photography: Which is Harder?

George Barr, on his Behind the Lens blog, posted one of those wonderfully thought-provoking (and ultimately unanswerable) questions about the relative "difficulty" (as an activity) of one's day-job (in George's case, being a medical doctor, and in mine a physicist) and fine-art photography. While I couldn't resist leaving George a stream-of-consciousness comment on his own blog, his interesting question kept haunting me even as I focused attention to other matters.

My "answer" to George was (and remains), though not quite as strongly as when I first composed it, that photography is harder. The really hard part is explaining (if only to myself!) what I mean by "harder" ;-)

So, here are a few thoughts. First, the creative aspects of both professions, for me, are, on a meta-level, roughly equivalent. That is, in their respective domains, both physics and photography tap into the same ineffably non-objective part of our brains; it could take minutes to find a "solution" (to a physics problem or compositional one), or it could take days, I just don't know...but the process by which I search for a solution is, at a deep level, equivalent, and equivalently exhilarating. Indeed, it is precisely this "all but impossible to describe" process of finding a mathematical solution to a problem or finding that "just right" sequence of photographic steps (subject matter, composition, exposure, raw processing and photoshop manipulation, and print expression) to get a "print" that draws me both to physics and photography. So far, so good; and so far, about even.

On a more pragmatic is a fact that physics pays the bills (at least for me; though I understand there are fine-art photographers who make a comfortable living doing precisely, and only, that, as their day job). In my case, I know that while I'm wearing my physics hat during the day, I will have loads and loads of time (for which I am well compensated) to just think and ponder problems (mostly of my choosing). I have that luxury. But in photography, the time I have is the time I both make (by myself) and borrow (and/or negotiate with my family). I therefore know - and am almost always consciously aware of the fact (even as I wander around with my camera) - that I do not have precious loads of time at my disposal; that each moment is that much more precious, and can ill-afford to squander any time.

I would be less than honest if I didn't admit to sometimes feeling that doing photography on "borrowed time" represents something of a small advantage, creatively, since I am compelled to learn to make the "best possible use" of whatever time I get. There is also the implicit understanding that when I am doing my photography, I have no pressure to perform (unlike my day-job); I do it on my time, of my choosing, and lose nothing, really, if a particular day (or week) leads to abject creative failure.

On the other hand (just how many sides to this are there? ;-), I am my own harshest critic when it comes to photography, and I always have to come up with lame excuses to myself about why a photo-safari day came to naught. Over the long haul that too takes its toll (as my standards inevitably creep upwards, even as my perceived "quality" either stays the same or diminishes (as I get lazier, or tired, or just older).

So, which is "easier" when all is said and done; physics or photography? I think I'm still siding with George on this one. Its not that when I'm doing physics I'm "going through the motions" (I certainly hope not!), but my "day job" has the virtue of having much of its substance (and most of its activity) predefined for me. I waste little energy - creative or otherwise - worrying about what problem to think about, or even whether today is a good day to start a new research topic or write a paper. I'm not even speaking of the mathematical techniques and computer modeling tools I'll likely be using. I know what they are, and I know (in most cases) how to apply them to the problems at hand (and if not, I know where to turn to learn about them, almost as though on auto-pilot).

But photography...well, in an important (and to non-photographers, paradoxical) sense, most photographers are happiest when they are enshrouded in the totally unknown (which can make life hard)...we peek around that perpetually elusive corner in hopes of finding something we hope we never really find: something absolutely new that we've never ever seen before, and have little or no idea about what to do with if we find it. We keep looking for the "next best shot" and the "next best processing" steps and/or tools to apply to what we've caught on film (or CCD/CMOS). We both seek the unknown (with a passion!) and are afraid of it (because the unknown always throws you off balance). And there is always the spectre of losing one's muse and no longer being able to produce good work; and simply not being up to the technical task of expressing what one's Ansel-Adams'like "previsualization" of the final print ought to look like.

We want to be tested, creatively, again and again; but the better we are at achieving our elusive goal, the more uncertain we are of our ability to keep going, and the more difficult it becomes to maintain one's focus and connection to the magic muse. Minor White may have said that "Spirit always stands still long enough for the photographer It has chosen," but that - unfortunately - says nothing about the poor photographer who keeps working, hunting, worrying, praying that Spirit never leaves! For that's precisely when Spirit suddenly decides it has better places to visit. It's something all photographers worry about, at some time; and the likelihood of doing so - constantly - only increases as one grows older and yearns to do great things. Needless to say, such worrisome states are not terribly conducive to genuine creativity or works of lasting value. I do not generally find myself thinking or worrying about such almost mystical matters in my day job.

Certainly, in physics, as in all sciences, there is a superficially similar (perpetual even) yearning to "learn more"...but learning is a process that most physicists have mastered long before they stumble upon the "metaphysical" dimensions of yearning (and finally succumb to it). In photography, on the other hand, there is a perpetual and utterly insatiable hunger to "find something new", which is a very, very hard thing to do, much less master.

So, as I sit here, at the "wise old age" of 47, and look back on 20 years as a physics PhD and about 35 years as a photographer (well, 36, if I include that sensational abstract I got of my bedpost with my very first polaroid;-), I'd say that photography is marginally more difficult than physics. The really fascinating thing is, though, that it only seems hard when I ponder the question of how hard it is. When I'm doing it, its effortless; and the same goes for physics, of course;-)

Postscript: The images are screenshots from a presentation (pdf link) I gave at the Smithsonian a few years ago, entitled Nature's Way: The Art of Seeing. Perhaps if there is an interest, I'll post some notes to summarize the main points. What I discussed was the creative dynamics that lies at the cusp of science and art. The last screenshot contains (in the top "bubble") the fifteen properties of life that architect Christopher Alexander expounds upon in his Opus Nature of Order.