The Idea: Case Study #2

Into the Night

Into the Night

In the first case study, we looked at how my personal purpose, or framework of meaning, changed over those first few years of my journey into photography. Starting with a more common interest in just making a successful image other people would like and then moving towards using photography as a more personal form of expression. In fact, I might even consider it having moved towards being a form of personal exploration, something directed more inwards than outwards.

The image I posted in Case Study #1, Hogan, is an early example (1984) of where I was combining a more objective view with my interest in the spirit of the land, the sense of the metaphysical.  The inclusion of the Hogan itself, a sacred dwelling, combined with the power of this place was the focus of this work. (Unfortunately, although my visits in 1981 and 1984 were incredible, returning there 30 years later, I found that the development and commercialization of the place, along with the incredible amount of haze that now hangs over the canyon, made it much more difficult to connect with the place as I had so automatically done on those earlier visits.)

But as I mentioned, I began to develop a desire to move away from the more objective image to something that would be more abstract.  It isn’t that I hadn’t created abstract images all along, however, my interest in moving completely away from the objective image became more important to me.

Up until this time, I hadn’t really worked in series or bodies of work*.  The work I had been doing, in my opinion, was all related and confining the work to a series just seemed redundant.   I think it was the summer of 1988 that I actually determined that I needed to focus on a specific series of abstract images that was emerging from what I had considered more general work.  While that work could certainly fit within my larger body of work, I was seeing how it could be more effective as a cohesive body that focused on a more specific set of concerns I had developed.  These were not just the need to eliminate reference within my photographs but also my sense of how the land could mirror our human condition.  This Idea, of course, was layered over my more deeply held purpose/Idea for my photography, to explore more deeply into the psyche through images that created metaphorical and/or metaphysical stimuli.

* Yes, I did create a series fairly early (1982-4), however, that was really an anomaly and the result more of those images just not fitting anywhere within my other work.  But I will discuss that further in another case study.

The work, which the top image here is part, was completed in mid-1990.  I actually thought the work was done in 1989.  I should say here that it isn’t uncommon that after one completes a body of work or mounts an exhibition, that there is a time where things are not focused as one regroups.  In this case, I was making another trip to photograph in early ’90 and had no idea what I was going to do–except not to work on that now done series.  The exact opposite happened and I suppose with the release that came with thinking I was done, I did some of the best work on that trip.  I tried to fight it at first but gave in after a few days where it was clear that what I was seeing couldn’t be ignored.  Many images included in the earlier version of the series were replaced with the new work.

I had already, based on the ’89 version of the series, booked a show at a gallery that was to happen after that last trip.  After seeing that show, the curator of photography at the Portland Art Museum called with an interest in acquiring several pieces for the collection and the inclusion in an upcoming show.  He asked me if I had purposely sequenced the work in that order–a linear presentation–as he felt that the work traveled into a darkness in the first half and then emerged into a lightness and release through the end.  I always curate how my work is presented but hadn’t thought of it in that way until he mentioned it.  The work, in fact, had been done while I was debating, with a good deal of stress, whether to leave my career of 18 years and pursue photography full-time–which I had just done when the show was mounted.  The series name, “Under Perfumed Skies” was something that came to me in recognition that the work was about a journey, one I felt to be somewhat intoxicating.

The entire series can be seen by clicking on the image above–or here– proceeding through by clicking to the right.  The order here is how it was presented in that show and, later, at the Maryhill Museum in Washington, where the series was, again, shown in its entirety.


The Idea: A Case Study #1

Water's Edge

Water’s Edge

Now that we have explored the way “Idea” works on many levels in our work, I thought I might present a series of examples of how the layers of Idea have worked in various ways for me.

When I started in photography,  my work was pretty much all over the place.  I didn’t really have any real framework of meaning that governed what I did but rather defaulted back to what we might consider a more simple, naïve aesthetic–things like flowers, ducks, sunsets or whatever was just nice and pleasing–and dare I say “cute” (although I don’t remember photographing Kittens!).  There wasn’t a whole lot of thought behind what I was doing just the attempt at creating a pleasing, successful photograph that others might “ooooo and “aaahhhh” over.  Certainly, this is a very normal beginning approach to photography and one that can give many hours and years of satisfaction to many.

(digression)This morning, I had the thought about this and how it affects the way we look at photographs, which is to quickly scan for subject and then whether we react favorably or not. (Not wholly different from how we navigate through our daily lives, only taking notice of those things that affect us in some way and moving past those that seem irrelevant to our immediate need–a topic for later discussion by the way!)  When that response is favorable, we might look a bit longer.  If it isn’t favorable, we tend to just walk on.  What came to my mind here was how, on the other hand, we will stand around and stare for a long time waiting for one of those abstract, color scribble-y images we see in the Mall to reveal itself, its meaning, what’s hidden there.   Some will eventually render those patterns into an actual picture–maybe even in 3D, I don’t know, I have never solved even one of those!

The point is that when we see an objective image or one we feel should be–particularly a photograph but it probably applies to most forms of art–, we don’t necessarily consider that there may be a puzzle hidden there but make a quick decision and only linger if it immediately elicits a positive response.  I realize that this is a matter of degree and is more individual than the generalization here, but maybe applicable to some degree to many of us or in certain circumstances.  Anyway, I just thought this was something worth considering.(/digression)

But, photography had ignited something inside of me and it became the means for a more personal form of expression.  As I recognized this, I moved towards a form of work that touched me more deeply inside than just the objective, grand landscape which I had evolved towards.  I found this happened for me when I saw the work of many of the Abstract Expressionist painters as well as in the work of a group of photographers that included Minor White, Aaron Siskind, Paul Caponigro (not John Paul), Frederick Sommer etc..  Minor White, as I posted yesterday, may have expressed it most succinctly as to what I became interested in creating when he said “One should not only photograph things for what they are but for what else they are.”

The image below is one I made in the early 80’s and may be seen more as a “crossover” piece in the sense that it still has a strong foothold in the tradition of the grand landscape but I was actually more interested in how it acted on a deeper level, more as a meditative piece, one that dug down into the psyche.  But, as I said in The Idea: Part 3, when one starts to work in a more personal way, how others might respond to one’s work will be less predictable.  And then, the audience for the work might be more limited as well.

Although the “framework of meaning” that I had developed didn’t–and maybe hasn’t to this time–change much over the next few years, I started to be more concerned with the elimination of any reference to “place” from my images–and even any sense of what it was that I had photographed.  There were many reasons for this becoming more of a consideration not the least of which goes back to the topic of my “digression” above.  I was just feeling that more people were interested in “where” I created the image than what the image was communicating, what its own puzzle was.  (I should say here that I don’t fully understand these images myself, which I like, as they continue to be fresh and give that way–even 30+ years later.)

Maybe it was my attempt to “force” the viewer to confront the image in a different way, but whatever the reason, it changed what I was doing in a positive way at that time–with the unintended result of  actually increasing the questions, which now were not only where but what!  The image above was made 5 years after the one below and around the time I was also working on my first major landscape series, which dealt with some of those same issues.

Hogan, Canyon de Chelly

Hogan, Canyon de Chelly

Tomorrow, I will look at a couple of series of work and how their idea and my more overall conceptual framework worked together.

As usual, comments and questions are more than welcome!

Quotes to Ponder: #0006

“One should not only photograph things
for what they are
but for what else they are.”


~ Minor White


With our exploration of the Idea complete, I thought I would start a series about how Idea plays a role in my photography, both personally and commercially–a series of case studies, if you will.

This quote from Minor White expresses a good deal about my own objectives with photography and how I look to find something beyond just subject or documentation.  In fact, I am often less interested in what something is than what it becomes when photographed–and then how it digs down inside of the psyche.  We will look at how this can translate into various work, even when there is a primary focus that might seem at odds with such a personal interpretation of what one’s photography is all about.

Tomorrow I will post the first case study.

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(“Quotes to Ponder” will be a regular feature here. My philosophy about quotes isn’t that they prove any point as they are often taken out of context or they may have been said in response to something we have no way of knowing about. But they generally do embody some sort of opinion or thought that can often be worthwhile pondering. I expect that in many cases, they will be the teaser to a longer discussion of their idea in a later post!)

The Idea: Part 3

4584171-Waterpocket-WashIn part I, we discussed how idea was the basis for every photograph and in Part 2, we looked at the source of those ideas, our Core. In Part 3, I want to explore how the idea works in the creation of a photograph beyond just the immediate response.

I think that most of us will recognize that as we progress with our photography, our choices as to what we photograph start to become more selective. While there might be several reasons for this, one of the primary factors is that we are developing a system of priorities as to what we find of interest to photograph. Another way of saying this might be that we are finding some things more important to us than others. We are beginning to refine our idea of what photography is for us and what we want it to express to others.

As an example of what I mean here is that maybe someone interested in street photography might decide they are most interested in social issues while for another it might be odd and humorous juxtapositions. One landscape photographer might be interested in the grandeur of nature while another the environment. These same concerns might translate across genres but one might also develop criteria that are more universal in nature. The point is that we end up developing a framework from which we photograph and then evaluate what we photographed. And, depending on our criteria, our photographs will look different from those who are working with different concerns/ideas even if we shoot the same things.

This refinement of our idea about photography will vary in its depth as to how personal and specific it becomes. We each find a balance that works for us and the way photography fits into our lives. It should also be recognized that this is a process and we might find that our criteria develop and modify over time.

As mentioned above, how personal and unique those things of meaning are will be part of what determines how our photographs look and maybe even how well others respond to them. The more personal our criteria and ideas, the less likely others will immediately understand our images. This is the reason that we often will look at an artist’s work and not connect with or understand what they are doing. This could be a topic for an entire book, however, the important thing here is that we recognize that as photographer/artists we will develop a framework, one with a hierarchy of considerations, for determining what a meaningful photograph is for us. It should be noted here that this doesn’t preclude us from creating a variety of images and ones that don’t fit into this framework. It is just that those that are more important and rewarding for us will generally fall within the criteria we have developed for ourselves.

One of the reasons that I introduced Henry Wessel and Jeff Wall is that while both are well-respected photographers we have also heard, in their own words, how different their approaches to creating a photograph are. This will give us a look into how this framework of meaning can work in different ways within the creative process. Wessel works in a more “animalistic” responsive way to what he sees whereas Wall suggests that while he might see something of interest, he doesn’t photograph it but walks away to contemplate the photograph he will later make to recreate what he saw. My suggestion here is that these two approaches are more similar than it might appear on first glance. Both rely on a strong, personal framework of what is meaningful in a photograph. (The videos where they express there ways of working, in case you missed them, are here:  Henry WesselJeff Wall)

So, the first thing we should recognize from their description of their process is that both create photographs due to their responses to a visual stimulus—a response seeded in their framework of meaning. It might be easy to see this in Wessel, as there is the direct response of lifting the camera and shooting. But isn’t it also a direct response to notice and take note/remember/catalog the idea? Both will return from an outing with things they need to edit and evaluate. Wall evaluates the ideas he has captured for creating photographs in the future while Wessel evaluates the ideas he captured in his photographs—both are determining if those ideas are worth pursuing to the next step. Neither is guaranteed that any image will ultimately be successful although Wessel is certainly closer to that determination. As Wall later creates his photograph, he will revisit all of these same steps.

How each of their photographs look and what ideas that they convey are due to the fact that both of these photographers have highly personal views of what is meaningful to them and what they want to express through their photographs. It is important to understand here that it isn’t a matter of this framework determining the specific meaning of an individual photograph but rather that the photograph’s meaning measures up to the standard set by that framework.

When I am photographing for myself I work more like Wessel, as do most of the photographers I know. Creating an image on a commercial assignment is more like working as Wall does, although commercially the idea or parameters for the photograph are generated externally.  (But it should be recognized that the reason an art director or designer will hire someone from across the country or world is because of that photographer’s artistic sensibilities, which are a direct result of the framework of meaning they have developed. There would be no reason to look beyond one’s own city if all photographers, all other things being equal, looked at things in the same way.)

My own development of what is meaningful and thus my framework of meaning came largely through my digging more deeply into what the possibilities in photography were as well as my interests before I ever picked up a camera. When I started to photograph in the late 70’s, I merely wanted to document the wonderful things I saw when I was backpacking. But the first framework for my photographs was simply one dominated by the process of making an image. I shot everything and was amazed at my creations! Eventually, my framework morphed back into the more specific interest in the grand landscape and the beauty of the natural environment that made me buy the camera in the first place. But this also came after searching out different ideas, such as wildlife photography etc., which I determined didn’t hold as great an importance or interest to me. After some time pursuing the grand landscape, I felt that I needed to do more and use photography as a deeper form of self-expression. This was in response to things already in my Core but was also stimulated by a greater awareness of what others were doing with art and photography as well as various things I was reading at the time. My framework became more in line with the tradition of the Equivalent and seeking images that were more metaphoric than documentary. Of course, I developed my own sense of what this meant as I didn’t seek out images that were equivalents of my emotions but rather ones that were more contemplative and maybe less resolved as disconnects from reality or what the subject was.

So, when I go out to photograph, the types of things that I respond to generally come from that well-defined system of what is meaningful to me in an image, my reason for photographing. When I am working on a series, I am generally drawing on those same criteria, however, I may overlay some additional criteria when determining which images will work or not in that series. Generally, that is some more specific idea that I wanted to explore and the work needs to support that idea to be included in that body of work.

Of course, this doesn’t mean that I wont or can’t create images that don’t fully meet this more foundational set of criteria but they might meet the need or criteria that the specific photograph was intended to fill. Shooting commercially, this might be the client’s need. For personal work, I might just want to document something that I see without further consideration. There might also be the occasion where I see something that sparks an idea that may be outside of what I might normally consider as important. If I find there is merit in that new idea, then I will adjust my criteria for what is a successful photograph for that body of work although that criteria will probably share much with my more foundational set.

This might all raise the question as to what your framework of meaning is and why is it what it is. The depth of that framework, how personal and individual it is, will largely be a function of where photography fits into your life as well as how you use it-your purpose or reason for photographing.

This is certainly something we can ponder but also might open new ways for us to look at others work, especially the work of others that we don’t understand or respond to immediately. Maybe they are working in a realm we aren’t aware of or have been exposed to before.

I’d love to hear your thoughts and perspectives on this, so feel free to leave a comment.

Quotes to Ponder: #0005

“I begin by not photographing”

~Jeff Wall

In our discussions about The Idea: Part 1 and Part 2 we have focused on how idea plays into our immediate response to things we see.  Here, Jeff Wall presents a different way of approaching the creation of a photograph, one that is not too different from how a commercial photograph is made.

In Part 3 of The Idea, which will be posted later this week, we will be exploring various ways idea plays within the photographic process and reconciling the “more animalistic” approach Henry Wessel described to this seemingly contradictory style that Jeff Wall employs.

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(“Quotes to Ponder” will be a regular feature here. My philosophy about quotes isn’t that they prove any point as they are often taken out of context or they may have been said in response to something we have no way of knowing about. But they generally do embody some sort of opinion or thought that can often be worthwhile pondering. I expect that in many cases, they will be the teaser to a longer discussion of their idea in a later post!)

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.

Quotes to Ponder: #0002

“It’s not what you look at that matters,

it’s what you see”

~Henry David Thoreau

Honestly, I don’t expect to make a posting each day, but when I ran across this quote I just thought it fit so well with the last post and where we will be going when we get to The Idea: Part 2.

In the last post, I talked about responding to what we see and I think it is important to remember that we don’t all see things the same way.  This isn’t just with more abstract ideas, but we often don’t interpret what we see visually in the same way as another.  In fact, we often don’t even see something that the person standing right next to us might get very excited about.  This whole mechanism is very human and is something we are going to probably talk about a lot as we go along–it is certainly something worth thinking about as photographers–or even just as mere human beings!

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(“Quotes to Ponder” will be a regular feature here. My philosophy about quotes isn’t that they prove any point as they are often taken out of context or they may have been said in response to something we have no way of knowing about. But they generally do embody some sort of opinion or thought that can often be worthwhile pondering. I expect that in many cases, they will be the teaser to a longer discussion of their idea in a later post!)