A Photographer to Know: Sarah Moon

In my last post I indicated that I was going to talk about the choice of equipment today, I lied.  Well, not really, it’s just that while I was writing apparently “someone” threw a switch and I ended up writing what you might want or expect to hear rather than what I think you should hear.  As I pondered this, Sarah Moon’s work came to mind and I thought how relevant it would be to present her work before we get into the discussion about equipment.

Sarah Moon is a highly regarded fashion photographer and has been since the 70’s when she stopped modeling and started shooting full-time–that is also when she adopted the name Sarah Moon.  She was the first woman to shoot the Pirelli calendar and has created work for the top fashion magazines and companies around the world.

In contrast to the work of Henry Wessel that I presented earlier, Sarah’s work has a much more organic, romantic and emotional sensibility.  Her work often transcends the subject and can reach us in unexpected ways if we are open to it–it allows the mind to wander away from what is presented on the surface.  Great art does that and while I think Wessel’s work also allows for this, Sarah’s goes different places–maybe more personal, internal places.

To some, it might actually seem she doesn’t understand anything about the technical aspects of photography–her work is blurry, out of focus, blotchy; her highlights are often blown out and shadows blocked; and sometimes the film processing looks totally incompetent.  If you think that way, consider altering your thoughts to the fact that just like Ansel Adams was a master of his process, Sarah is a master of her process–they just have a different aesthetic preference about how they express their view of the world.  I learned Ansel’s process but I absolutely love Sarah’s.

One thing that I read about her somewhere was that she grew up near-sighted and didn’t have glasses.  When she started shooting, she just thought that her photographs revealed how things looked–at least how she had always seen things.  I don’t know how true this is, however, I do know that many wonderful ways of seeing happened because people were just “stuck” with some camera that produced a certain type of image (often less than perfect by modern standards) that ended up meshing with their way of expressing the world around.  The question might be the old chicken and egg, did the camera suit their way of seeing or did it change their way of seeing.  Regardless, the two were happily married and made wonderful babies!

The first video here is narrated by Sarah (an assumption as no narrator is listed in the credits) in a more stream of consciousness way about her process of shooting and is heavily oriented towards her fashion work.  It is extremely interesting, IMO, and if you don’t shoot fashion I still think you could identify with and interpolate her process, frustrations and breakthroughs to a sense of what the artistic process is like.  Even if you have experienced this yourself, it is always nice to see how someone else works and how things are, or can be, different.  This can open up new channels of thought or simply make us aware that we all experience similar things with maybe our own unique twist.

The second video covers a wider range of her work and just has a musical sound track.  I know this one has some nudity–tasteful but maybe not something you can watch at work.  I don’t think the first one had any but you may want to consider watching it where it wouldn’t matter.  I hope you enjoy these as much as I did.

By the way, I do expect to come through with the equipment post on Friday.

Of course, I would love to hear any thoughts, comments or alternative perspective you might have.

 

“A Photographer to Know” will be one of the regular features of this blog. The purpose is to present the work of recognized artists in the field that may not be as widely known to most. Liking or not isn’t the purpose, but rather it is about exposure to what others are doing and/or how others are thinking about or using our medium. By looking at the work of artists in any medium, we can build our own “visual vocabulary” on how visual problems are, or can be, solved.

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The Idea: Part 2

In Part 1, we explored the rationale behind the suggestion that every photograph starts with an idea. That even if we just make a quick snap of something, there was a reason for our taking the time and effort to do that and that we are, in fact, communicating something—an idea.

Once we understand that our images are about ideas, it makes it clear that our decisions, as to both technical and aesthetic considerations, should be made to maximize the clarity of our idea. If we don’t coordinate these things then we can end up with what Ansel Adams was referring to when he suggested a “sharp image of a fuzzy concept”!

Of course when we are beginning or even later on, we might just be trying out some technique and the idea contained within the photograph might be less important than our need to see how a technique works or doesn’t—or just how we get that technique to work. Trying out how things like shallow or deep depth of field are attained or allowing blur or stopping motion are important exercises. In these cases it is important to differentiate between the “idea” of testing something versus the creation of a meaningful photograph. Certainly, we can create a more meaningful photograph doing this, however, often the success is just in what we learned through the process.

In the quote I posted by Thoreau, he suggests that we don’t necessarily see what it is that we look at but maybe something else. Although he is most likely being a bit more philosophical, referring to how we interpret meaning (which should not be dismissed as unimportant in this discussion), there is a direct correlation to what we recognize visually as well. As I mentioned in that post, this can be the reason why we might not even notice something that the person right next to us gets excited about.  Even if we see the same thing, it may have a different meaning or significance to each of us.

I am sure that if you have gone out photographing with others you’ve noticed that although there might be some overlap in what each shoots, others will have seen and photographed things you didn’t. I know that when my wife and I are out shooting together we rarely come back having shot the same things—or even similar things for that matter.

Of course, we might also notice how when we do photograph the same things as others we might have interpreted the scene differently–although we might also note how often some of the most popular, well known places are photographed exactly the same way by, it seems, everybody!

A few years after I started photographing, I belonged to an informal group of photographers who all had met at various workshops with Ansel Adams and were all, primarily, landscape photographers.   We had regular meetings to critique each others prints and went on occasional field trips together.  At a print critique session following one such trip, five of us ended up presenting prints of the same part of a creek we had found at that site.  All of the images were different but by that time, I had started to move away from a more traditional interpretation of landscape and was more interested in metaphor and abstraction.  My image was quite a bit different than the others and reflected what was important to me.Stream, Devil's Punchbowl

Anais Nin put this idea a bit more directly when she suggests that “we don’t see things as they are, but as we are”. This is probably the most critical thing for us to recognize when it comes to our photographs or how we view the photographs of others or other forms of art.

What we photograph and how we interpret things tells us, and others, something about who we are. We reveal ourselves in what we create as well as how we interpret things.

For instance, that snapshot of me as a child in Part 1 suggests what was important to my mother.  While some of you might respond, with various amounts of enthusiasm, “what a cute little boy” –which I certainly was–others might suggest what a crappy, old, irrelevant snapshot, which is probably how I would react if it didn’t have all the emotional and contextual references that I connect with it. We’re just not all going to respond in the same way to everything, which is a good thing!

How we respond to things is directly drawn from what I will refer to as our Core and something that Stephen Shore refers to as our Mental Model in his book “The Nature of Photographs”*.  This Core is the sum of all of our life experiences including our upbringing, education and conditioning and how we responded and interpreted all of those things we were exposed to. This Core can be very different even between siblings who shared a great number of the same experiences. It defines who we are as people and how we think about the world.

CoreAs a visual person, I like to picture things in my mind and this “fuzzy ball” posted above is my, albeit imperfect, interpretation of how our Core might look.

At the center are those things that are most solid and stable and those that are the most difficult to change or dislodge. These might be our core values and ethics as well as other things we KNOW are absolutely true and which are most important to us. But even here, these things can change over time as we gain new insights and information. I think most of us can probably identify things that we were absolutely “sure” of when we were younger that we now think about, or look at, in a completely different way. The size of this solid area will vary with each person and personality.  Often, what resides in this area can make us reject or accept something without further question or analysis–for better or worse.

The more diffuse areas are those areas where things we have been exposed to or learned about are processed and stored. The more strongly we feel about these, the more solid or dense they become while the more diffuse areas might be things we are figuring out or which we have less conviction about.

This area might be where we hold observed current trends and might be the reason we would think it cool to photograph our food and post it to social media, if for no other reason.

What could be cooler than a pile of Texas BBQ and a table set for 4?

What could be cooler than a pile of Texas BBQ and a table set for 4?

As we learn something new or are exposed to alternative ways of thinking, they enter this area. At times, they might just float around without seeming to have any relevance to us or how we think. But then one day, some of these might become more relevant either because of new information we obtain or something we confront brings them into focus and they begin to make more sense to us. This can be a long process or a revelation.

This Core is not only the basis for how we respond and interpret things but it is also what we draw on as the source of our creativity. Creativity isn’t the application of a rote technique or rule but rather our ability to connect things—often disparate things—we have learned into a new form or way of responding. We will discuss creativity in depth later.

In Shore’s book, he suggests how as photographers we are exposed to a visual stimulus as we search out our photographs and that those visual stimuli interact with, and adjust, our Mental Model and that in turn modifies our perception which then interacts again with our Mental Model and further modifies our perception of things and so on—in essence, we learn and grow through the act of photographing.

My own experience is that everything we expose ourselves to will affect our Mental Model/Core and that our growth as photographers is not just through learning technical or aesthetic concerns in connection with our interests in photography but through exposing ourselves to other art, literature, music, movies etc. as well as just allowing for new experiences and exploring other ways of thinking about things—including photography. I know that for me, these were the activities–including much time investigating art/photography I didn’t understand–that affected my photography more than just learning how to make a photograph. This is my reason for this blog and the types of entries I make here.

In The Idea: Part 3, we will explore how Idea can work in various ways and on different levels in our photography. Later entries will also explore some of these concepts further, in different contexts and from different angles.

My next post here, on Thursday, will explore something more practical, the characteristics of light, the one we generally love to hate!

In the meantime, please feel free to leave and comments or questions.

You can find “The Idea: Part 3” here

or “The Idea: Part 1” here.

*This book by Stephen Shore is deceptively simple and can be read in a half hour or so. I have read it several times and it is one of those books that can reveal new things each time we read it and digest more of the concepts he presents.

A Photographer to Know: Henry Wessel

Henry Wessel was introduced to photography during college(early 1960’s) and was immediately hooked on how the camera rendered the world. Within a decade he had already received a Guggenheim Fellowship, had a one person show at the Museum of Modern Art in New York and started and finished a Masters in Fine Art.

His photography seems to me to straddle a few different genres: landscape, street and social documentary. But what really stands out for me is the way he renders light as almost searing his subjects, as well as his sense of the ironic and humorous.

Henry’s work was included in the 1975 seminal exhibition, the “New Topographics: Photographs of a Man-Altered Landscape”, which had-and continues to have– a significant impact on the field of photography– especially landscape photography. This work signaled a shift away from the traditional, romanticized view of the world that we recognize in work by people like Ansel Adams to one of a more detached view of man’s interaction with the land.

Personally, it took me years to warm up to this new work but, then, I had my nose buried in my own photographic interests and there weren’t many resources (no internet) available as there are today, which is a wonderful thing for those interested in learning and developing.

Although I knew the work of most of the photographers included in the New Topographics group, Wessel somehow escaped my radar. When I first saw his work, just a few years ago, I was really surprised that he had been part of that group based on the limited images I had seen. His work seemed to have more of a point of view and personality than often attributed to that group. It was much more like some of the street photographers I was aware of, such as Garry Winogrand and maybe even a little Lee Friedlander.

As I researched his work more deeply, I did find images that were more in line with the New Topographics group, however, even if those seemed more “banal”, the way he used light and shadow was amazing—and different than what we see more commonly.

When we encounter things that are done in a different way than we might do them, giving it our attention isn’t a matter liking or disliking or of our wanting to copy or emulate a style. The value is that in looking and noticing we can gain knowledge of alternative ways of doing things. We see how doing something different can affect a subject and the look of a photograph. This allows us to store this information in our “bag of tricks” as it were and gives us more information to draw on to realize our intent for one of our photographs. Drawing on these resources doesn’t just mean a linear, or direct use of something we’ve learned but maybe we make a more random connection between things that seem unrelated and we end up solving a problem in a unique way.

So, in addition to looking into his work for those wonderful moments of irony and humor, it is worth notice how he uses light in a different way than we might. Notice how he often uses a frontal, or nearly frontal (light from behind his position), light and how he allows his exposure to push the limits of the brightness of the image. His use of flash is on-camera and unapologetic, he wants to “draw” his subject with that searing light.

My initial exposure to Wessel was through the first video below and I really appreciated his passion for photography and his comments on his way of working—as well as the photographs. What he presents here with regards to the “animalistic” response might seem contradictory to some of what we have covered in The Idea: Part I, but we will be addressing how this all comes together in Part II.

These next two videos cover more of his work and his philosophy and way of working. They are both wonderful to watch—I continually return to these and have probably watched each 10 times while preparing this post. There is always some new thought that catches my attention with each viewing—probably because when I hear one, my mind races off and I don’t hear what comes after that until the next time I watch it!

So, “Let me take you on a walk and we’ll start here…”  excerpt from the last video.

I’d love to hear your comments on Henry or any part of this presentation.

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“A Photographer to Know” will be one of the regular features of this blog. The purpose is to present the work of recognized artists in the field that may not be as widely known to most. Liking or not isn’t the purpose, but rather it is about exposure to what others are doing and/or how others are thinking about or using our medium. By looking at the work of artists in any medium, we can build our own “visual vocabulary” on how visual problems are, or can be, solved.