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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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The Americana Diner in Hightstown, NJ.

Gleaming stainless steel, bright neon lights – cases full of goodies…

5 shot HDR handheld.

Making the photo

Saying “HDR” in a note on Flickr might be called “trolling for pixel-peepers”. But this shot begged for HDR. The contrast ratios were extreme – we’ve got direct line-of-sight to both the neon signs and the fluorescent bulbs in the goodies case, and bright reflective shiny areas from a multitude of highlight spots and floods. But we’ve also got areas of important detail in dark shadow. Furthermore, the “spread spectrum” effect – the smear of light that can be had with HDR is effective in portraying an “old time” look, appropriate for the subject.

The problem of course is that I’m in a public place, with no tripod or lights, and although this was before the dinner crush, there were people scurrying about. So, there are two photographic problems to solve; how get that shot – adequately sharp – without a tripod, and how to control the scene – at least enough to get the shot I visualized.

As for steadying the camera, I  was able to lean against a half-wall to help steady my body, but above the hips it was “photographer as tripod”. Now, there are a multitude of sites that describe proper camera holding, and everything applied here; elbows close in, camera held firmly, shoot on the exhale…and of course my camera/lens combo has built in anti-shake – without which getting a sharp single shot, let alone a HDR series, would have been pretty well impossible for this old photographer. But here’s the tip of the day: HDR software, the software that assembles individual images into the HDR master, is pretty good at aligning images which are displaced laterally and horizontally. Got that? it can automatically align left/right or up/down shifts. The anti-shake in most cameras does exactly the same thing. Together, they really push the odds of success with hand-held work  But neither the software nor the hardware anti-shake can do much if anything about pivots and twists. i.e. HDR software can help with shake. But it doesn’t help much if at all with camera twist or pivot because those things alter convergence – creating apparent changes in size; different parts of the image will be zoomed relative to each other. Displacement the software can deal with; differential zoom it cannot.

So, let the software and the built-in anti-shake deal with the displacements, and you concentrate on minimizing rotations. Combine the two and with a touch of luck you can get a good HDR shot (and by "good" I always mean; satisfactory for your purpose).

Of course it’s better to use a tripod; but even if you have one with you, you can’t always use one, so knowing how to make the most of what you’ve got will enable you to make shots you’d otherwise miss.

Scene control can be much more difficult to manage in an ad-hoc shooting environment. If you’ve recruited people to be in the scene you can give some direction, but in a totally candid scene such as this one must pick the critical moments as carefully as one picks the timing of a wave crashing to the shore. But for all of that, getting people to stand still for most scenes is challenging. But there is a solution.

Trey Ratcliff, arguably one of the modern masters of HDR, wrote an excellent tutorial on the subject which you can find on his blog here. In essence, you take the best single shot, process it to match the HDR tonally, then layer it and the HDR in Photoshop and mask the HDR over the single shot, allowing various pieces of the single shot(s) to be visible. The result is that certain elements, in this case the head of the waitress in the shot, can be rendered as sharp as your single shot allows.

You have a choice of what elements to emphasize in the final image. You can combine as many layers as you like, highlighting blur in one part of the final image, emphasizing tack-sharpness in another, until you arrive at the result which best satisfies your intentions.

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Chillin’

Originally uploaded by chris_rutkowski

This is Dennis. Dennis is reading a book, waiting while his wife rides her horse around the wildlife preserve surrounding this lake in central NJ.

I rode my bicycle within a half mile of this spot a hundred times when I lived in NJ and never even knew the lake was there. I found it while driving my mom around, just to get out and see some country, buy some tomatoes and corn at a roadside stand, etc. Off far to the right of this shot, near the opposite shore, a large flock of swans was doing what swans do. Several fishing boats were working the shoreline. It was, as you can see, beautiful. Then across the parking lot I saw Dennis (I didn’t know his name at the time) walk into the parking lot from the road, chair in hand, then out onto the pier, and sit. And I knew I wanted this shot.

I walked over and struck up a conversation, and learned that he comes here often: he parks the truck and horse trailer out on the road, his wife rides, and he comes here to read. By and by I asked if I could take his photograph to which he readily agreed and asked "What do you want me to do?" I said "Nothing. Just read your book." He smiled and said "That I can do." This is the result.

Making the Photo:

In non-public communications a "Straight photographer" lambasted this shot, lured in at first by me mentioning that this photo was done 5 shot HDR, hand-held. His first response was accusatory; "no one in the world can do 5 shot HDR handheld." Then, observing overlap images in the water and pixel-sized doubling in the trees, chastised me for using HDR at all on water or trees, as well as for wasting my time doing it handheld when a single shot would do, yada, yada, yada…

To quote Peewee Herman, "I meant to do that."

One of the curious and basic techniques in photography is that shutter speed can be used to freeze or enhance motion at the whim of the photographer. What constitutes an "instant" in life is variable. The mind accepts this because that’s the way the mind works; by integrating individual data elements into a set containing more detail than any one original perceptive moment. HDR achieves a similar effect by providing different images in which the motion is recorded in a strobe-like stop -motion effect. Get it? Think of "stop motion" as an effect rather than as a problem and it makes a lot more sense. And as with any other effect the question becomes "is the effect being used properly" rather than "is it good or bad".

In the case of moving water – or moving anything for that matter – if the motion is linear (as in a moving river or stream, a wave coming in to shore, etc.) the stop-motion effect can be plainly visible and hard for the mind to reconcile. There are ways to fix and alter some of those doublings that certainly don’t rule out the technique, but it is not straight forward. However if the motion has a more random characteristic – such as wavelets breaking the surface of a lake, then the doublings appear as just more randomness, which the eye gratefully accepts. In fact, by increasing the “random” in some parts of a scene you can create greater contrast with parts that are motionless. Get it? That’s the same “kind” of effect you get by blurring things with longer exposures.

Ghosts of Champions Past (aka Neglected Ski Jump - Cloquet, MN)

For another example of how stop-motion can accentuate a feeling of motion and power in a shot, take a look at this photo from my Flickr site. The trees are blowing around – and it feels right. The eye happily integrates the doubling of the trees into “one which is moving”.

The point here is not whether these are good photos or not – it is that there is a distinct “effect” here that can be used to advantage. When you have lemons, make lemonade.

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Edward Weston was a blogger. He didn’t call it blogging of course. His blog entries were private notes to self, kept in journals called his daybooks. Over a span of decades, sometimes frequently, sometimes sporadically, he wrote about the inner workings of his life; his loves, money, friends, adventures, and most importantly, photography and art – both his own and others.

I first read Volume I about 1964, and received Volume II as a present from my dad when I was a Senior in high school. Both became well worn; I read and re-read each many times. Simply put, they changed my life. Not just my photography, my life. Weston’s daybooks showed me that art doesn’t spring whole cloth from the lens of a camera. Nor is it a matter of sitting down and saying “Well, ok, I think I’ll do some art now.” Art flows as an extension of self; an actualization of the dynamic forces at work in life. Art externalizes inner reality. Heady stuff for a high school kid…

I won’t attempt to review Weston’s Daybooks nor his photography here (rest assured I will refer to them often). But if you’re really interested in getting better at this, at being a better photographer, stop whatever you’re doing and run off and find copies of his Daybooks. Now. Not only will you obtain a collection of photographs generally acclaimed as “great art”, to both study and enjoy, you will also have the rare, perhaps unique opportunity to “see” the life of a great artist, foibles and all, and from this perspective perhaps better understand your own way of seeing.

Edward Weston’s daybooks were a jumping off place for me – an embarkation point – from which I set forth on a lifetime of learning how to see. Not just as a photographer, but in every aspect of my life. What I learned from the Daybooks was this: The most important part of your camera is you. You see with your heart, but the mind is the lens that brings life into focus.

I can think of no more appropriate place from which to commence this blog.

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