Almost Colorless Stairway

Masonic Steps 4824 narrow

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

Jerusalem Hands P1000829

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

Arron 9401c

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?

Venetian Glass 0845

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.”

It’s All Greek to Me!

Winter Tree 0682

I took this picture through the living room window just now. It surprised me. It looks just like what I wanted to shoot. I wanted an image for the kind of day we are having here in Indianapolis. The sky is amorphous gray, featureless so  the eye can latch on to nothing. The air is completely still. Outside, aside from the sky, there is nothing but more gray, a grayscale image going from black to white. No emotion.

But no, even when it’s all gray, there is emotion. As long as the scene is viewed by a human being there is emotion. Because emotion is not in the image, is not in the stimulus that triggers a sight, a sound, a taste, or a combination of sensations. Emotion is generated in the human mind. And to me art involves emotion.

That’s not what everybody believes about art. Artists in the Middle Ages certainly were not thinking of art as involving emotion. What art there was in Europe at the time was to teach unlettered people about Christian belief that they might be saved. In the Renaissance art still featured biblical subjects but the classic images of Greece and Rome began to filter in and artists began to theorize about beauty. Beauty was what they saw in classical art, but with a dollop from each artist’s own personality. Thus Michelangelo with his love for the masculine body would paint even angels and women with the muscularity of men. Art was beauty as the artist saw it, and only a little of what his patron was paying him to produce!

The subject matter of art changed with the times. In the decades following the mercantile success of Florence, other parts of Europe began to enjoy prosperity and wealth. Merchants were now the moneyed class, employing artists to immortalize their portraits, their homes, their ideas. Artists ever more free from canons dictated by church-sponsored works explored other ways of depicting beauty. Over time new canons took shape and became established as dogma. Until the impressionists came and the world of representational art broke into smithereens.  Beauty itself was now insecure. Art didn’t have to be beautiful. It still had to be “true” but what it was true to everybody no longer agreed. In Europe, North America and now in every part of the world, visual artists are seeking ways of expressing their inner visions through a multiplicity of media – oils, acrylics, wood, fabric, photographs and now pixels!

All of that is beyond me, impractical and so much useless chatter. What is it that I want to portray in a mixture of photographic captures and digital editing?

The human being brings a part of himself into the process of creating any work, whether we call it a skyscraper, a Filipino menudo, an Impressionist painting, or a jazz improvisation. His work shows his mark, what Herman Hesse called “the mark of Cain.” Most of us spend our lives becoming as similar to others as we can be. Or we spend our time trying to be the image of a man or woman we have in our heads. But some of us march to an even more essential drummer. The drum beat he hears is not of this world. To hear it he must let go his fears, his reliance on simple reason and his own puny resources. To hear the music of the spheres, he must take a leap of faith, jump off the known into the unknown.

Only when an artist can produce something the world has not seen before can he claim to be an artist. The work has to show its intimate relationship to the world as we “know” it but it must include something of the producing artist or it will be nothing but paint-by-numbers or generic art like the various salicylate products we can now buy without buying Bayer’s Aspirin.

Even as a child I was fascinated by the world around me. The world inside me was even more interesting. No wonder I gravitated to psychology, the study of mind. For 35 years I earned a living using doctrines of Western psychology to help others find a measure of peace or balance in their lives and relationships. But clinical psychology or its medical counterpart that I practiced was not where my passion lay. I did it because I had to.

I paid my dues. Now I can hone in closer to my desire. But do I even know what that desire is? And how do I go after it? Will I recognize it when it appears?

My mind is a jumble of ideas and images, of thoughts, memories and sensations. I am starting to think that none of these matters. Putting together a theory is useful but not to bring our life’s desire into view. Writing up theories is in itself a work of creation. It’s awesome when some part of it appears to work, when we see it work in our lives. But the nagging though remains: there is more.

In 1912, Oxford Professor, Gilbert Murray, wrote a short book called Four Stages of Greek Religion. In 1925 he revised the book by adding a fifth stage, his book now called Five Stages of Greek Religion. It is the 1951 edition of the book with Professor Murray‘s long Introduction to the Third Edition that came into my hands several years ago. One night this week when sleep was playing hide and seek with me I started to read the book again.

Murray’s book contained many ideas that found resonance with my own nearly 70 years of living. He held that what we studied as grade school and high school students as Greek Mythology was the ancient Greek’s religion, as much religion to them as Christianity or Islam or Hinduism is to contemporary men and women. I knew that from the 1980s when I started studying religions other than Christianity. I remember the moment when the insight hit me with a force of recognition that even today shakes my world. What we impute as mythology to our true religion is mythology to someone else, to a serious student of the phenomenon of religion.

Murray also held that the religion a person today believes in and practices contains within it elements of older religions. We throw away some elements irrelevant in our times  but there are elements we doggedly hold on to often without our consciously knowing we are doing this.

Carl Jung created the concept of the Collective Unconscious, some intangible creation of all the human beings who have come before us, a common collection of everything that has passed into the psyche through some person’s eyes or ears or touch or tongue to become Memory.

To Murray religion was about those realms of human activity outside of what we have studied or think we know. “All around us,” he wrote, “on every side there is an uncharted region, just fragments of the fringe of it explored, and those imperfectly; it is with this that religion deals.”

Art may be what religion was to people in our gradually vanishing past. Through their work artists remind others what else there is in the mind of man that moves him, fills him with something more than what the daily news elicit or what he experiences when he completes a deal on Wall Street or Makati Avenue. Art comprises all the works of man’s imagination that comes out of the depths of his being, like Minerva from her father’s head, full-grown and in full possession of the wisdom – literature, music, science, physics, philosophy itself, and theology. Art is the only thing perfect in our imperfect universe!

Murray held that the study of Greek mythology was crucial to understanding not only our own modern-day religions but understanding what it is to be human. From times immemorial (that is, beyond memory) other humans have attempted to understood themselves and the world they knew through their physical senses. Some humans wrought their understanding into objects we can still view today and view with a sense that we are seeing something true, so alive that those who participate in our act of creation see their own Big Bang in a dollop of paint, a page of inert words, a handful of pixels.

More theories.. The mind is relentless as it weaves thoughts and more thoughts. Even so I like this image of a Medusa of branches snaking against a colorless sky! It’s how I feel about this gray undistinguished winter day in Indiana 2013.

One Step Closer

Angelina 1917

I can’t believe it’s more than a week since I’ve posted here. And I cannot write for long tonight either. I’m doing an update.

I’ve decided to split my personal from my photography Facebook page. I’ve been working toward this goal for months now. This morning I pulled the plug. From now on I’ll post my “serious” photography work and what I am doing in photography and video on my Duende Arts Studio page and post personal comments and reflections on my personal page. It is convenient to be able to share files between the two while keeping them separate. Now at  least I have clarity about why I am on Facebook. On my personal page, I post to keep in touch with friends both near and distant and family; on my photography, I post processed images as well as what I am doing to improve my photography skills and production.

I am very happy with my decision to buy a year premium membership at 500px. I have yet to set up the market side of my account so the site can sell my photos. That’s one more thing I need to do soon. I also plan to renew my activity on other photography/art sites that sell your stuff like Red Bubble and Deviant Art. There are many other sites but I have to choose just a few or I won’t be able to keep up downloads. Moreoever, to really make the sites work I need to post, comment, rate the work of other members so they’ll do the same for me! Then there are the two model sites I need to change my portfolio at so it reflects the images I am creating today and the direction they will be taking in the future.

I want to think that by May 2013, five years after I began my sabbatical, I’ll have reached entry level for commercially viable photography! Then it’s more work after that but just to keep pushing my limits. First I need to get to the starting line and I think I can do that by May.

I may have to rethink the reason for being of this blog on photography. A photography blog is part of any Internet-based marketing strategy for the arts but I don’t have to do creative writing on this blog. Creative writing I’ll do on my Orlando Gustilo blog. There, another piece of the pie clarified.

And this maybe is the raison d’etre to blog: at once to keep track of the process we undertake to make our work commercial-grade and meet our own artistic standards which should be, if we’re serious in what we do, constantly moving higher!