This isn’t a post about food, at least, not entirely.
This is about how we learn, how we find what we like, and how we savor experiences.
Think back, to our ancient history, to an ancient pre-human primate, discovering a fruit they had never seen before, hungrily taking a bite. Upon discovering how delicious it is, our ancestor brings some of this new fruit back to its tribe, offering it to the others.
”I found this. It’s good.”
In essence, this is what the curator and the artist do. The curator finds the good things, and shares what she thinks is the best. She may be a museum director or a DJ spinning vinyl on a friday night. Her job is to develop a nuanced appreciation for what is good, what tastes good to the soul, and bring it back to the tribe.
This is an series I shot several years ago with M, a lover who is herself an artist as well. My goal was to make a personal memento of a passionate romance, with no intention of ever sharing it beyond a few close friends who understand what I’m reaching at with my work. I have been very hesitant to share this work since it is so deeply personal and private, but the friends I have shared it with have been incredibly supportive, and M herself encouraged me to share it publicly as well. Almost a year after promising another close friend that I would post this, I’m finally ready to share it.
Some time ago I heard photographer Bil Brown give a talk about what it means to be an Artist compared to being a Professional.
The gist of it is that the Professional has a set system in place to deliver the images that the client requires, while the Artist follows their own intuition, making what they are compelled to. The Professional is reliable, but the Artist is capable of innovation.
I think there’s some truth to this, even though the line between Professional and Artist is a hazy one, and probably best thought of as states of mind rather than two divisions of types of photographers. When working with a client, be it to cover an event or a boudoir session, I have had enough experience that I can confidently make good photos in almost any situation with almost anyone. That’s not special, that’s the baseline of what it means to be a photographer. The challenge is in shifting gears, getting into that Artist state of mind, where you try things that even you don’t know if it’ll work. Being vulnerable, shooting unfamiliar subject matter, facing what makes you uncomfortable. It doesn’t always work out.
I was recently watching a time-lapse video of another photographer’s work retouching an image. The subject was an incredibly beautiful woman in perfect lighting. The retoucher’s cursor ran back and forth, cleaning up stretch marks, masking blemishes, smoothing skin, adjusting the shape of the woman’s eyes, and finally patching up a section of her eyebrow that apparently wasn’t up to his standards.
It made feel sad.
The kinds of imperfections that the retoucher was fixing were natural, real parts of what an adult human’s skin looks like. It made me wonder if the retoucher had ever been in love, when any flaw is an endearing trait to be cherished and treasured.
Today I was talking to a friend I shoot with frequently, and we got to talking about expressing sensuality in photography. In most commercial media, sexuality is something to be consumed by the viewer. Whether it’s actual pornography, suggestive artwork on an album cover, or an advertisement for deodorant, the message is the same: “Here’s a sex object for you to enjoy.”
The problem is that it erases the agency and personhood of the subject, as well as deadening the experience for the viewer. It’s the equivalent of free junk food— Here’s something salty and sweet, it won’t improve or even satisfy you but it’s easy enough to keep you wanting more.
What’s the alternative?
About twenty years ago, a shift happened in photography.
The automatic exposure and focus capabilities of state of the art film cameras finally got the ease of use provided by digital sensors. Taking a properly exposed photograph and making a print from it had required take years of practice, careful note-taking, and dedication to the craft of making images with light-sensitive chemicals. Now, the camera itself could more or less accurately judge the appropriate settings to make an exposure, and making that image viewable or ready was as easy as plugging in a memory card. Since then, the cameras and their computers have only gotten better, some even adding filter effects to replicate the style of film cameras. Now anyone can grab a camera and take decent photos with no experience.
The baseline shifted. Literally anyone with a modern cell phone can take great photos that would look great printed and framed on a wall. Taking a decent photo is now the expected default.
The photographer’s function now is to bring out the soul of a scene, or to see things in a different way.
Just before or after a New Moon, when there’s only the thinnest crescent of light illuminating the edge of the moon. When you can just barely infer the size of the moon, though its invisible in the twilight haze.
That’s what I strive for in my photography.
For me, doing photography has become instinctive. That is to say, some of my best work I did not think very hard about or pre-plan whatsoever. I see something that interests me, and I try to capture what I noticed before the moment passes. This makes it difficult to talk about my work, because I honestly don’t always know what I’m doing or why. Then, I’ll hear a remark from a friend or observer of my work, who will nonchalantly describe my work more clearly and more succinctly in ways that might not have ever occurred to me. I had thought that this was some flaw in my reasoning or my approach, but maybe it’s a more common thought than I had experienced.
There’s a joke in the photographic community that if you want to make art, take photos in black and white.
Of course, color photography is just as fertile ground for creative expression as black and white, but why does black and white feel more “artistic” to so many people?
If you haven’t read Tom Wolfe’s book “The Painted Word” I urge you to grab a copy at once. He’s an incredible writer, and the book is short enough that you could probably finish it in a day or two.
In short, With the advent of photography, Painting had to become conceptual because it could no longer match Photography's depictions of physical spaces/scenes. With modernist art on to contemporary, the text of the statement *is* the art more than the painting is. Or at least, it is more important to the people who buy and sell art.
That isn’t to say that the artist statement is necessarily fundamental to great art, or even beneficial. I think the best art comes from something else, either the subconscious or some other ethereal realm. However, I would like to get better at writing about art, at the very least. Hence, this blog.