Thursday, March 29, 2007

From a Cubist's Perspective

In every photographer there was a painter, a true artist, awaiting expression. -Pablo Picasso

About one hundred years ago, two visionary painters launched a movement and style that would revolutionize the world of art even today. They collaboratively experimented with a system which sought to totally flatten space, defy the physical laws of gravity and nature, and delight in confusing the spectator at every possible turn. Both Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque introduced Cubism, but my recent visit to the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and the exhibit, "Picasso and American Art", provided the inspiration for this post--so it's Picasso's legacy and work we will discuss and focus on.
Picasso's early Cubist paintings featured an ambiguous sense of space by utilizing geometric shapes to flatten and simplify form and extremely bright colors to express structure rather than emotion. A few years later, "Analytical Cubism" evolved, and Picasso abandoned color for monochromatic tones and he deconstructed objects and rearranged them on the canvas intersecting and interpenetrating one another to depict different viewpoints simultaneously. Traditionally, artists tended to represent one specific viewpoint at one specific moment in time; Picasso felt this was too limiting and wished to portray an object from several angles and at multiple moments in time. This new development led me to ponder Cubism and its application to photography.
Considering the attributes and effects a Cubist work is striving to communicate, I believe a multiple exposure on a single frame of film fulfills most of these qualities. Aside from the flattened sense of space(after all, photography is predicated on illustrating three dimensions on a two dimensional plane), a multiple exposure captures various moments in time with intersecting and overlapping planes. An early example of unintended Cubism in my career is this triple exposure of Tanya Tucker in concert(note: this photo required 108 separate exposures on a 36 exposure roll of film--only one frame proved to be publishable.)
Later on, I realized the most effective way to represent a successful day of angling on the Crooked River(for my photo essay/book project, Fly Fishing Oregon in Black and White), was by using a double exposure of river run and trout. Since then, thanks to my SFMOMA visit, Picasso's visual lessons have inspired me, and now I vow to return with a new body of work from a Cubist's perspective.

Thursday, March 22, 2007

Selection and Control

What use is having a great depth of field, if there is not an adequate depth of feeling? -W. Eugene Smith
We all yearn for selection and struggle for control in our lives. Fortunately, as photographers, we're in command of both of these variables when creating our work. Selective Focus and Controlled Depth of Field are treated separately in the list of the 15 Elements of Composition, but in theory and in practice I view them as complimentary techniques.
An image begins with an idea and ultimately ends by conveying a message--in between, a few decisions and some mechanical processes combine to produce the finished product. Aside from the prevailing(or manufactured)lighting conditions and the choice of a lens focal length, selecting the focus and controlling the depth of field will determine the intent and therefore the success of a photograph.
The focus of an image(i.e., focal point)first attracts the viewer's eye while its supporting details(either enhanced or limited by depth of field)lead them through the rest of the picture. So in essence, the interpretation of any work is consciously selected and controlled by the photographer, not the viewer.
For example, when striving to accentuate or isolate a singular subject from a descriptive background, try focusing on the main element while incorporating a shallow, but discernable, level of depth of field to add detail yet separation to the image. Consider these three illustrations:
Photo #1: Focusing on the "Mickey Mantle" autographed baseball minimizes the player in a N.Y. Yankee's uniform in the background, suggesting he was simply a fantasy baseball camp member.
Photo #2: Focusing on the pair of rare stamps in the foreground, magnifies their importance while still identifying their owner.
Photo #3: Focusing and concentrating on a single video cover with an identifiable but non-distracting background, accentuates its importance as a rental favorite.

Selection and Control--photographers really do own the best of both worlds.

You can't depend on your eyes if your imagination is out of focus. -Mark Twain

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Precisionism or Photography?

The world of art revolves all around us--in a full circle it seems--and often its historical influences remain unnoticed or unrecognized in our creative minds and even in our photographic work. This belief became apparent to me after a recent visit to San Francisco's M.H. de Young Art Museum and a tour of Charles Sheeler's exhibit, Across Media.

Sheeler is considered the archetype of the 1920's Precisionist movement in art: a painting style characterized by exact, hard, flat, big, industrial, and photographic-like subjects. He avoided figures in favor of near abstract geometric shapes, and believed in the "unseen soul" of the inanimate object. His fascination with American industrialization and the progression of modern architecture became an obsession and his work mirrors the displacement of the natural world by the industrial world.

But nevertheless, Sheeler always managed to find some sense of beauty and dignity in this struggle, and for me, that's the essence of his legacy. In the past, I've photographed shadows cast on a series of oil storage tanks and replicating features on the exterior of an exclusive apartment complex oblivious to Precisionist principles--but that won't happen again.

For Sheeler, the subject was the style--photography fed into painting and vice versa--but industrialization was always the underlying theme. Today, in a society increasingly dependant and dominated by technology(particularly in the visual media field), I wonder is Precisionism actually photography, or is Photography really precisionism?