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!

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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.

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!

It’s All Greek to Me!

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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.