Archive for the ‘Photography as Art’ Category

Adventures in Paradise

Originally uploaded by chris_rutkowski

Adventures in Paradise is something of a visual departure for me; especially for a “beach shot” during a storm. It is very high key – blown out highlights all over the place; barely a dark dark to be seen. But I processed the look in what felt like 60 seconds flat – luminosity, saturation, vibrance– zip, zip, zip. I just did it and knew right away the result was what I wanted; done. So I asked myself the next logical question: “Why?” and had no immediate answer.

Well, next day I was talking with my sister Carol who lives back east, describing the picture to her, going on about how much I love driving on the beach when she said “You remember Uncle Alex’s dune buggy, don’t you?”

My Uncle Alex owned a bait and tackle shop down on Long Beach Island (better known to most folks as a part of The Jersey Shore). I’d long ago recognized the coincidence that I’d spent a lot of time on Long Beach Island in New Jersey when I was a kid, and now spent a lot of time on the Long Beach Peninsula in Washington. But; “A dune buggy?”

“Sure, they used to let dune buggies on the beach when we were kids. Then that hurricane came along and destroyed all those houses and they built jetties and buggies weren’t allowed on the beach anymore. Don’t you remember?”

“Uh… No.”

“Maybe you were too little… Uncle Alex had this bright pink dune buggy called Adventures in Paradise. The name was on the side.”

Then I remembered.

I remember a flamingo-pink jeep-turned-dune buggy with its name in Floridian-sky-blue-script on both sides with rod holders and a half dozen 10 or 12 foot poles rigged up, ready to go. I remember spinners, jigs and spoons with feathery tails hanging from an overhead tackle-board, and the whir and crunch of gears from the buggy’s mechanicals as we wheeled down the beach. And I remember surfing my arms in the rushing-by wind pretending to fly like a seagull that paced us.

Adventures in Paradise. Yup.

Of course, a big piece of why I love this place fell into place somewhere along in here. There are some amazing similarities – or points of congruency – even visual similarities – between this place and what were perhaps the best experiences and times I had as a child. Say 1955-60; pre-Kennedy, pre Nam. Pre the shit-storm of every dimension that was headed the world’s way. This place is like a cultural preserve – they aren’t trying to be fifties, they are fifties.

Places like this will be extinct soon. Portland and Seattle population predicted to double by 2038 or something like that? What if? Somewhere along in there, little pockets of a simpler time like this will cease to exist, gone like cultural passenger pigeons.

Enjoy it while ya got it.


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What is Art?

NOTE: The photos in this post were taken by my son, Weston, for a photography class as a college freshman back in 2001. The text of this post originated as an e-mail I sent Wes in 2001 after reviewing these and other photos he’d made. He wondered if my favorable comments were just because I was his dad. This is what I told him:

My comments are heartfelt – I’ve been a lover of photography for most of my life, and actively studied it as a process and as an art. You probably know that I had books about and/or by just about all the major photographers. Of course you know I favored the work of Adams and Weston – but there were many, many others: Stieglitz, Lange, Strand, Cartier-Bresson, Uelsmann, to name a few. But favoring one or the other is a testimony to taste rather than a judgment regarding craft. The works of the great artists share something(s) in common – indeed the work of all artists in all mediums share these same things.studyinmotionI

For me it works like this: some art, when first viewed (or heard, tasted, etc.) immediately grabs me at an emotional level; It grabs me by the… heart. It is not an intellectual thing. It is not computed. It is not decided. It is experienced, immediately and with no artifice.

However, not everything that bypasses the filters of intellect is art.

We humans, all of us, whether Mother Teresa or Osama Bin Laden, have built into us certain sensibilities, certain standards, certain reservations, taboos, societal limits. When something violates those standards we react at a gut level. As a philosopher once put it: to a cannibal, not eating a missionary is a sin. Thus, to create a gut reaction in a group, all one must do is present something that violates the standards of that group, and you can be assured of a gut reaction. But is it art? That all depends.

Take a subject such as "eating babies." Whether presented with the highest level of craft and technique, or with the crudest and most simplistic of displays, most people and most cultures (with the possible exception of our aforementioned cannibal) would find the topic itself shocking. You probably felt a bit of a jolt when you read it. Virtually any presentation would evoke a gut reaction. So is it art? That all depends.

If its purpose is to shock for the sake of shock then I would argue that if it is art at all, it is of the most banal sort. If its purpose is to expose a part of ourselves – then perhaps it is art.Still_Life

Consider a photograph of a jet flying into the World Trade Center. Does it evoke a reaction? You bet. Is it art? Well, some photographs of the event are "better than" others. Does that make them art? They stand as records, captured memories, moments frozen in time. They may make one wince, fight, or rejoice depending on who one is and where one stands in the universe. Is it art? I think not. And here’s why.

It is my belief that art reveals the unseen, the unsuspected, the unknown. Art illuminates the dark region just below the calm (or turbid) surface of reality and takes us where we’ve never been. The images and feelings associated with the World Trade Center attack are not hidden or unknown. Depictions of the event reinforce that which is already known. A photograph of such an event illuminates nothing. To_Arnold_with_love

Consider by distinction the photo by Dorothea Lang, taken in the early thirties, depicting a dustbowl family (mother and children) displaced, poor, and hungry. The feelings it instills are deep. Yet that moment could be any family, anywhere, any time. It reveals with startling clarity something about all of us; this is what it means to be human. It is great art. Art transcends the event or place which it depicts.

OK. So which of your photos are my favorites? I agree with your prof. The image of the hallway is stunning. So is that of the woman in the graveyard. Both are very worthy. Both grab me at an emotional level. I would be very proud indeed to have taken either shot. One other, the woman in light and dark is almost there. I recommend further examination of the cropping (I many be wrong here, but that is my reaction).

Here’s a question to ponder: how many photographs did, say, Ansel Adams take in his life. Thousands? Tens of Thousands? And out of them, how many are memorable images; images that still make people gasp, and will continue to make people gasp, say, a hundred years from now? Hundreds? Dozens? The point being: even in the hands of a great artist, not every attempt will succeed, but without the attempt there can be no success.

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Sometimes change occurs as a paradigm shift, more often, it’s just one piece of a grand jig-saw puzzle dropping into place. I experienced one of the latter yesterday.

My friend Clay Wells, made a comment about about the preceding post, Making NJ Farmland-Redux, that really set off a cascade of mental sparks for me, and I wanted to share them with you.

Clay said “When I looked at this I got the feeling of riding in the back seat of the car looking out the window.”

I read this and it was for me like “DING! DING! DING!” going off in my head and I said to myself “Yeah, that’s exactly what it is – what I was seeing was the view out the window on those rides my Grandfather used to take the family on,” and with a little pause, “and so is the picture of the lake, and so is the picture of the diner…” 

We’d pile into Granddad’s Oldsmobile and he’d hit every country road in every area he could think of – mostly trying to get my Grandmother lost, I suspect. That field shot in NJ Farmland? Just the type we’d see; soybeans as a rotation crop – they’d be a big draw for pheasants too – come hunting season.

Often as not, we’d stop at some lake or stream somewhere – maybe wet a line, catch some sunnies or catfish, or maybe try to coax a bass to hit a plug as the shadows grew longer. And while I was on the ride where the photos were made I just happened to stop by a lake. Just happened? It’s like I know how to do this “ride in the country” thing – I was taught by a master; automatic water-seeking is part of the program.

So, I “just happened” to strike up a conversation with a guy on the dock in the photo. He thanked me, by the way, for announcing myself from shore before disturbing his reverie while reading. He explained that most fishermen would just walk out and stand a few feet from where he sat and start fishing without saying a word. In the light of self recognition, once upon a time I would have been a kid tagging along, and my dad or granddad would be the ones there striking up that conversation, and respecting the rights of another. And likely as not, the various mom’s would all be back in that cavernous car enjoying the view and the company, just as my mom did on that day.

To complete the metaphor, what then would have been more natural on one of Granddad’s rides than to stop some place for dinner on the way home? This ride with mom happened to stop at one of the landmark modern diners in central NJ.

So, what I was doing was documenting a “ride in the country”. Funny, that. I guess anyone out on a journey; a vacation, business trip, excursion, or a walk to a neighborhood market, who stops along the way to photograph things is in effect making a documentary – making little story-boards for the movie about the event that plays in our heads when those particular photos come to mind. Moreover, I really enjoy telling stories with photos – photojournalism. Look and Life Magazines from the fifties are seared into my consciousness. My work as a pro when I was very young was all of this sort.  So, I guess, why should I be surprised to learn that’s what I intuitively and automatically do today? However, my goals for individual images is infinitely more expressive than utilitarian.

I also remind myself that the name of this blog is “Still Learning How to See”, and this posting is a case in point. I learned a little bit more about me, and seeing oneself a bit more clearly, understanding why I’m making a photograph, helps clarify my vision. Which iterates the most basic point of technique: the most important component in your camera system is you.

So thanks Clay, for the comment that got me thinking… :-) 

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NJ Farmland – Redux

Originally uploaded by chris_rutkowski

I uploaded the contrast corrected version of the original then decided to experiment with the B&W a bit as Jeff suggested. Found that a medium-strong Rose filter effect supports the composition without getting overly dramatic. Yellow filter makes this sci-fi… This version "reads" right; that is the perceived brightnesses are similar between the two versions. This has a nice dimensional effect, which a touch of trapezoidal edge burning enhanced.


Comment Thread from Flickr

Other very minor thread topics have been excised for clarity.

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Jeff Engelhardt   says:

define "overly dramatic" . . . . ?

Not looking for black skies? :). I suppose they do have their place. I do like this as black and white, definitely, but surprised you didn’t push it a little bit further . . for example, I see no "true blacks" here – which a normal levels adjustment is used to accomplish. I’m guessing, perhaps, the intent was more of a "light" feel?

I’m curious along this line, because the clouds in the sky hint at drama, and often good skyscapes over farmland tend to be dramatic (but that’s just how "everybody" tends to do it) – can you talk more about your intent with the picture? Curious the inner workings of your mind (I love to unpack the photographic process) . . . please discourse, and I’ll return soon to see . .

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chris_rutkowski   says:

Actually you hit the nail pretty much upside the head: the intent was indeed more of a "light" feel. Specifically, this is New Jersey. New Jersey has a very different sky than the West: lower, brighter, glarier… (not smog for the sarcastic wits out there. Well, not always). That “very-bright but low-contrast” feel is the NJ I grew up in: this is the early fall when the muggy air of summer has not yet been fully vanquished by the crisp cool air masses that will spill down out of Canada in the coming weeks.

One problem is “scale effect”. What looks good small may not look so good large, and vice-versa. In this case, in smaller versions the tiny amount of black is rapidly lost. If you look at the original size you can about see small black areas of shade in the tree-line and around the house. They are very small. But in a 16×24 print – they’d be pointillist pepper to spice things up and make the tree-line look real.

This rose filter choice was done viewing side-by-side with the color version and homing in on a translation that felt “the same”.

It was in that context that “overly dramatic” came to mind. Effects that would turn the sky black would come by and I’d be saying “no, no, no, no, no…” Definitely not for this piece of New Jersey I’m showing in this shot.

I also admit to a bit of deliberate avoidance. Black skies can be (are?) a cliché – a visual crutch, so I sometimes set up rules for myself like “no black skies” just to make it more interesting. I also sometimes avoid certain places: while on a trip to NM this time last year: no photos of either the St. Francis church or the Taos Pueblo. No Yosemite. No Brice canyon. But a piece of flat land in NJ… sure. At least I can say with some certainty that this is the best photo ever made of this spot :-)

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chris_rutkowski   says:

Mental ruminations:

Subject: Overly Dramatic:

Postulate: All perception is a result of contrast.

Hypothesis: Contrast exists within and/or between 4 visual domains (brightness, shape, color, texture) and 2 emotional domains (content, context).

Dramatic = Strong contrasts among and/or between domains.

Overly = Strong contrast for the sake of strong contrast – any effect for the sake of the effect. Specifically as it relates to the intent of the shot.

Appropriately: No effect is inherently wrong. Even an "effect for the sake of an effect" if that’s the point.

This is based on a "making and viewing photos" rubric I’ve been working on – thinking about – for a while. Initial thoughts on the model?

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chris_rutkowski   says:

This version adds that bit of contrast – Photoshop curves layer with Black input set to 8 and white input set to 249. Crisper, brighter. but it didn’t feel like what I had in mind.

Is this a left over trace of "straight photographer" principles, or a cop out? Giving up before the best possible picture – the strongest visual statement – is achieved? Is it valid to use a single shot to produce multiple visual images which tell a different tale? My brain says yes, but my heart achieves "maybe" at best.

In the spirit of stepping out of my comfort zone (my favorite admonition to others) a "black sky" version will be forthcoming

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