Quo Vadis?

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I’ll be resuming shooting people if plans work out for a photo shoot on Sunday. I’ve shot this model before. He loves modeling and has few boundaries! He’ll do nudes as well as as portraits and fashion shots.

Two days ago I renewed my model website subscription. I plan to start recruiting models again but before I do I need to clarify why I want to shoot models. In my naiveté, when I started doing photography, I shot fashion-type images but I didn’t doing anything to market my photographs or images to magazines, internet or print. I expected the models to get themselves professional modeling jobs using the portfolio I created for them.

I was just learning professional photography. Every shoot I did was a lesson on how to use the DSLR, how to set up lights, how to process photos, how to pose models, for crying out loud, I was learning how to just work with models! The shoots were vehicles for acquiring core skills.

Today, after five years, I have learned enough to be more discriminating about doing shoots. If I continued to shoot editorial spreads I’d have to get serious about breaking into print. Right now I don’t want to enter into the fray; I want to shoot at my own leisure rather than work with deadlines. But can I do this? Can I do superlative work without having to stress about it?

I’ve been doing pro bono work. Maybe it is time I start charging for commissioned shoots. By the same token, maybe it is time I work not with just any model willing to do a shoot with me but work with the right model for the project I have in mind. I need to shoot concepts, not just shoot for the experience. It’s time for focus, for shooting as a professional photographer. If I am good at what I do then maybe it is time I make money! Getting paid is incontrovertible evidence that I possess skills that others recognize enough to pay for with their own hard-won rewards.

I’ve labeled April my “back to basics” month but it’s really time to move on. It’s time to take stock of where I am and where I have been but more important: quo vadis? Where am I going? Where do I want to go?

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Wednesday night I struggled with post-production for four hours before midnight. After all that the images I finished were so-so. After midnight, when I kept thinking I should be going to bed, suddenly I slipped into a creative mode.

Working on a photo closeup of flower buds on the parsley plant in my bedroom window, I altered the hue then added a photo filter and a solid color adjustment layer. I enlarged the canvas but now it took on the color of the color adjustment layer. I played with the opacity of the color adjustment layer and voila! There was the image I wanted! In quick succession, I took the original and once again, with a few deft strokes, I came up with the second image.

They’re not spectacular but working on those images suggested a direction for creating visual art. I want to create images that do not so much represent reality as tell of the inner promptings occasioned by the photographs. Instead of verisimilitude I want to build upon photographs to express my own aesthetic, even an artistic effect through the manipulation of colors, lines and shapes.

Today I only did this one image. Again nothing special but this image of asparagus hit the spot. In England they say, “Blue and green, only on the Queen!” Traditional artists don’t think blue and green should go together. But they do!

I could have done more today – the energy was high and bright – but my archival backup RAID drive suddenly went out on me last week. I could only read the files and couldn’t alter anything on the disk. On my old desktop computer, the RAID was connected via Apple’s Firewire 800 that my MacBook Pro does not support. Copying files from the corrupted drive was taking forever.

Finally this evening I went out and purchased a USB 3.0 external drive. Instead of hours copying took minutes. Shortly after midnight, I finished copying the files on the 3 TB mirroring RAID array. I couldn’t reformat it for RAID but was able to erase the drive and recover the 6 TB. It’s no longer RAID and it is USB 2.0. I’ll use it a third disk backup for my photo and video archive.

So, another day that could have been great for doing production work ended up as archival work. Such is the life of a photographer/artist. As much as I want to do fun, creative work, sometimes I have to use precious energy for grunt work!

What a Beautiful Thing!

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For the past two weeks I’ve been doing David Nightingale’s online workshop on black-and-white conversion. I learned several ways of creating black-and-white images, something I need to do more. Without color,  portraits and landscapes seem to speak to another part of our brains. Unencumbered by the richness of hue and saturation we see other details, our brains pick up other communications.

David introduced Selective Color and Hue/saturation Adjustment Layers along with the insanely powerful Curve tools. I’d always skipped learning these tools whenever I came across them in other tutorials and books before but using them in B&W conversions I realized how they could be useful when processing color images as well.

This was one photograph that I shot this morning towards the source of light, a west-facing window. I processed two copies, added a Solid Color Adjustment Layer and played with opacities and several Curve Adjustment Layers. I was enthralled! The effects you can create with the slightest change in a slider or curve are nothing short of magical.

Others more expert at the use of photography post-production tools may be laughing at my naiveté. I’m okay with that. The novelty shall wear off as I discover more uses of layers, masking and other subtleties of manipulating pixels but each aha! moment is special. It’s what feeds the passion to explore, invent, and innovate.

With these techniques I can layer several images or differently processed versions of one image then “paint” in which parts I want to show. I can work with just colors, letting them create “shapes” from the area they occupy in the image. Come to think of it, this is the way objects exist outside the mind. They are not separated by lines as in comic book strips. Color creates boundaries and a seamless experience becomes distinguished into artificially disparate objects.

I could also layer in more discernible images e.g. portraits, landscapes or still life, use color in the background or foreground to modify the visual effect and add more of a “story” to the final work. The possibilities seem endless!

The more I learn how else pixels can be modified the more inspired I am to capture more daring photographs. The two – capture and post-production – work hand in hand. And each moment of finding an image that works fills me with wonder at what a miracle, what a beautiful thing is a human, how god-like his capacity for invention and delight!

Almost Colorless Stairway

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Even when not outwardly producing we may still be using time well. Maybe there is a need for both fallow and use times, just as the author suggests in several parts of the Torah.

In Exodus 10:23 for instance, he writes: “You may plant your land for six years and gather its crops. But during the seventh year, you must leave it alone and withdraw from it. ..”

The seventh year, shmita, in Hebrew שמיטה (literally, “release”), is to allow less fortunate humans and wild animals to feed from the fallow land while you live off what you have put away for such a time of release.

Our collective sacred writings are rich stores for radicalizing our lives. Everywhere else we see signs to consume: grip the wheel, make the devils jump out of your way and beeline for the mall. A Sabbath year makes sense. We need times to turn off our wills and repurpose ourselves for letting go.

Take sleep, for a metaphor. During the day we thrust our way through words and life, insistent and full of ourselves. At night we live, it seems, another life. In the inchoate dark of our nights, dreams disassemble the structures of our frenzy. They turn them over and out, fluffing carpets, shaking off the dust, re-arranging chairs and tables and lamps that the “room” is fresh and new again for us when we wake up in the morning.

Turning ourselves for the use of others can accomplish a similar miracle. When we turn our gaze away from the carrot dangling in front of our face we might see what’s around us – the shiny pebbles on the road, that little bench under a shady oak, in the field beyond, a lion feasting on a deer, farther down, a snow-bedecked mountain, over it all a design-free sky – and find our footing on the ground.

The quiet hours of the evening and night are some of my most creative moments. In the helter-skelter of the day I get lost in the clamor that I don’t hear my own voice – or hear the still, small voice speaking to me and only me. It’s my lifeline.

Granted there are all species of humans out there. Some have adrenaline pumps for a heart; they live for the sheer terror of almost just falling off the cliff as they ramp up their engines to their vision of a Promised Land. More power to them. For some of us production is more like making love. We reserve it for the quiet times, when everything else has been put to bed, nothing left on the mind to distract us and we are completely alone with the Beloved.

Here is an image I worked on earlier today. It’s a photo I took during a walk about downtown Indianapolis this fall. It looked useless when I first saw it but the vagueness of the image lent itself to “light” work. It’s a play on crazy shades that are not quite colorless or gray. It’s in the innuendoes that I think  an image can be most persuasive, leaving much of the storytelling to whomever is viewing it.

Visual art should be like a page torn from our peoples’ sacred writings, a metaphor for creating anew a stairway of wandering and hope.

A Photographer as a Visual Artist

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What are the limits within which a bona fide photographer must work and how far can he move outside the box and still call himself a photographer?

I have combined images before but not much. It was laborious when using Selection Tools but now that I’ve learned to use masks, combining images is much easier. The image above is one I did today.

Part of me resists combining images. What I’ve done so far in post is alter exposure, contrast and hue. Combining images would be a huge step. It involves structural modification.

With layers and masks, I can use collage to paint not only with color but with images. I have an old Wacom tablet that I have never used continuously. The tablet would enable me to use a pressure-sensitive surface to vary the heaviness of my “paint” brush and thus achieve texture as well as different widths of strokes. Somehow though I am starting to like the difference between painting and photography. They are both visual media but each has its own traditions and history that I rather like to keep separate.

I would be more inclined to use masks to combine images if what I am combining are not recognizable images but patterns or color blends that add depth and complexity to my photographic composition. I still think that a photographer, even a digital photographer, should restrict himself to tools that relate to qualities of light i.e. saturation, hue, contrast as well as color, lines, and shapes. The structure of the image he has to capture from real life. That’s the main ingredient to which he adds emendations as a cook adds spices and herbs to a pot roast!

In this I may be in a diminishing fraction and I question my resistance. All things change and it’s those who can think outside the box who lead the way.

Are we bound to preserve the limitations imposed on film photography? A digital camera captures an image conveyed to its sensor via reflected light. That image is what a photographer works with. But then he uses another gadget to process that image, a computer program to manipulate the pixels comprising his “image.” These two, camera and computer, share equal billing for today’s photographic output.

A visual artist may use matériel like oil, pigments, fabric, found objects from the garbage dump, hair, rope, wire, titanium sheets, vegetable matter, and yes, photographic images. His mandate is not just too keep the brain from going senile early; his mandate is to create a diversion for the eyes, a challenge to the mind behind those eyes to imagine and dream, to think the impossible, to believe.

To remain relevant art has to change with a society’s conventions, with its emerging technology. Maybe to be able to call oneself a photographer is not the point. Maybe we should think of ourselves as visual artists first and only secondarily photographers. The goal is the same for all who use the eyes as windows into the Soul.

Roses or A Different Order of Real

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I enjoy company but there’s a tradeoff. I am not as focused when I am with others. My mind is not as sharp; I don’t see things as clearly. When I have company I do as much of the work before they arrive. Once they arrive I know I’ll be scatter-brained. My sauces are watery, my salad dressing bland. So I learn to do the work that requires precision before the company arrives.

On the other hand, when I am with one person whose company I enjoy, another kind of energy arises. I am more social. I take more risks. I worry less, I enjoy more. I am not as productive but I am more creative in the delights of enjoyment. I think maybe creativity comes in different kinds. Artistic creativity, for instance, may benefit from company because we exchange ideas and compete with each other but the actual work of creating we do in the quiet of our solitude. An artist may be a gregarious person but when creating he withdraws into himself. He becomes antisocial. Company is a distraction as anything is that is not part of the production process. Even preparatory chores like cleaning the workspace or changing clothes or getting a glass of water feel onerous. Creative energy is a monomaniacal master, jealous and unforgiving.

Last night I watched two videos from David Nightingale’s workshop on creating black-and-white images. I still find using curves and masks in Photoshop unwieldy. I get lost trying to understand what it is that I am doing, for instance when I am “erasing” or using a black brush as opposed to using a white one, what I am actually doing to the pixels of the digital file.

I did manage to produce this image of Arron that was encouraging. Using curves adjustment is considered by some to be one of the most advanced techniques in photo-editing because you have to rely on how you see the image. It’s something we learn to use better as we use it more and get a feel for the effect we create manipulating various points on the “curve.”

Processing digital images is very much like painting. I am not trying to recreate “reality” but make the image have a similar impact on the mind and senses as the object I photographed and those are two different things!

Slowly I am getting to grasp this and slowly understand a little more about the so-called creative process. Imitating “real” objects is not what it means at first glance. An artist works with his own mind as much as with the “thing out there” that is inspiring his creation. Art is a mind-to-mind transmission, just as Buddhism says enlightenment is! If it is not then real roses are better than a painting or a photograph of roses.

But roses wither and die while art works stay on and on, preserving their power to re-create the effect of vibrantly alive roses to other minds and they keep doing this into the foreseeable future!

Is Art Product or Process?

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In a sense all art is product art. Plato is said to be the first to verbalize what art was: a true imitation of life. Nowadays art carries different meanings. Two panels of pure color obviously are not an imitation of any “thing” except color and shape, both of which often don’t have counterparts in our workaday world. Even if we hold to Plato’s fifth century ramblings in The Republic, is it enough that art re-produces something we see with our eyes?

Sometimes I think art is best characterized by the quality in a made object that makes us want to own and keep it. In this sense art is intrinsically tied up with memory. We want to remember something why? Because we don’t see it often. Because it makes us hold our breath in wonder. Because it fills us with a rare feeling of awe, of wonderment, of amazement.

One day I was walking around town and I was struck by how images dominate both our sensory experiences and our inner life. Images are not just art that we want to keep, whether they’re Lladro or Lenox figurines or Maserati speedsters. Images are what we want to buy!

Images are at the core of capitalist society, of any society based on money. Money is anymore just one’s capacity to buy images! We watch TV and what we see creates desire. This is how style proliferate throughout the world in this age of internationally disseminated media! From Manhattan to Manila young people dress alike, professionals dress alike, rich people dress alike.

Are images therefor art? Or is it how much people are willing to pay to own an image? Is art what moneyed people determine is art? If beauty is no longer the sole criterion for what makes art, what other criteria or combination of criteria would make an image art?

In people’s everyday life the images that they are most likely to “consume” are images that appeal to their contemporary sense of values as much as to traditional concepts of beauty of utility. Apple products sell not so much because they are efficient but because they are beautiful!

Oh, the early prototypes broke the mold for how we consume but it’s the absolute perfection of the form that keeps people buying Apple products. It’s the image that sells. No wonder that Apple keeps the photos of upcoming products under wrap. They want to create drama and emotion to launch the image into the world and create desire.

So maybe art after all is cognate with desire. We’re back in the realm of desire. Craving we use what represents industry, life energy we apply to a chosen purpose – money – to “own” something that ultimately defines the image we have of who we are, of what we are.

Of all things a woman owns, jewelry is perhaps the most personal. It is intimate too because she wears it next to her skin and after a house, a vehicle (because modern woman now works in the wider world outside the house), it is jewelry that represents her most expensive property. In a sense though jewelry is a woman’s ultimate indulgence. Unlike a house or a vehicle, jewelry is not essential to life. It is there simply to adorn her.

Is art adornment that allows a more extravagant display of luxury and wealth? Painting and craftsmanship used to be how artisans created images for adornment. These are not essential to life (unless we consider sacred images essential to survival) but items we crave for more ethereal reasons. Art is the jewel with which we say to the world, “I know who I am. Here is who I am!”

But is that art? Art, too, maybe, but this won’t account for why artists create art. I like feeling productive and having a finished product makes me feel I have not wasted the day. But the product is mostly a side effect for something else that drives me. I like challenging myself to draw from deep levels of my being, my subconscious, that I feel I am full-throttle alive.

Federico Garcia Lorca says this of “duende”:

“The duende’s arrival always means a radical change in forms. It brings to old planes unknown feelings of freshness, with the quality of something newly created, like a miracle, and it produces an almost religious enthusiasm.”