I was assigned a photographer to 'blurb' about in a FaceBook game on 'Keeping Art Alive.' It is a game that works like a chain letter (for those that remember such grade-school things), or as a meme (now that I'm a scientist and understand these things ;). Or, to use a more common metaphor: a snowball rolling down hill.
This introductory content is posted with each participant's entry:
This is a game to keep art alive. Click "like"
and I will assign you an artist. Doesn't matter if you don't like them.
Google them, choose an image you like most, reflect on it, and post it
to your wall along with this message.
A friend was assigned Diane Arbus (b.1928- d.1971), whom I was introduced to by my father and my ex-husband, both being free-lance photographers. Arbus was a controversial photographer because of her subjects, and because she was a woman that dared to cross the cultural boundaries in many ways. Her subjects were usually the 'invisible' people; those that lived and existed under our conventional societal radars: "deviant and marginal people or of people whose normality seems ugly or surreal".
The famous photography journal, Aperture, commented a year after Arbus committed suicide that "Arbus believed that a camera could be "a little bit cold, a little bit
harsh" but its scrutiny revealed the truth; the difference between what
people wanted others to see and what they really did see – the flaws." My ex had the original journal issue and I remember reading that article in the 1980's. And then revisiting again years later with a friend who had an inherent kinship with people on the fringe of society, often telling me that these people are the true measure of our humanity.
My FB friend's reaction and commentary to Arbus' photographs demonstrates how artists and their work can affect us. And this is one trait of photography that most people don't or won't acknowledge: That it is more than just capturing a pretty picture.
something about myself looking at this artists work. I will admit I had
to force myself to look and as I did, it became easier and more
interesting and finally filled with appreciation for human life.
Something like learning to be comfortable in your own skin. However, it
was the children I was truly drawn to.
Art is a representation of so much more than a superficial view of one point in time and space. Unlike painting and sculpture, which are more malleable in the artist's hands, photography is capturing realism, whether it is unmanipulated or contrived, and presenting a spatial-temporal perspective. A photograph can be a narrative telling a story; reaching into our minds with a gazillion signals touching all the areas of our brain. Fear, loathing, anger, sympathy, joy, love, beauty, sorrow, peacefulness; the entire gamut of human emotion. It can represent a thousand words in one photograph, covering a myriad of emotions but with a common denominator.
This is what art is, and what photography can be. A medium to elicit response in the viewer.
My assigned artist was one I was unfamiliar with, and a challenge to my preconceptions about portraiture. I was never interested in portraits partly due to my inherent lack of interest in people (I pursued a career in field biology for a reason ;). However, I realized over the past three decades that it was an interest in understanding people that teased me out of my introverted and relatively hermit-like life. Still, portraits never interested me until I discovered Arbus' work. But I never equated her photography with portraits. To me, portraits didn't tell stories. Until recently.
My turning point was last year when I saw a portrait of a Native American elder. His entire face filled the frame; the web of lines etched in his face took me on a journey of his life, the life of his people, and the lives of all indigenous peoples. It propelled me into not only this man's personal life and experiences, but into the history of colonialism and imperialism around the globe. It caused me to ponder the meaning of being human. It touched me, and I still look at that photograph with such an empathy that I almost feel as if this is my own grandfather, literally and figuratively.
That turning point was expanded again shortly after my father's death this past summer. I found many family portraits, both candid and professional, explicit and implicit. My favorite one is of my grandfather (father's father), where his face is barely exposed in light. The photographer knew how to use the interaction of light and subject to elicit a response in the viewer, more so, that of one related by blood. The use of shadows and light have a subliminal effect on the viewer. Especially on this man's grand-daughter that knew him for only a few years of her life, and all she has are early transparent memories.
My assigned photographer is Michael Greco. A modern photographer whose primary subject matter has been celebrities, I was uninterested at first. We are hammered with media that revolves around celebrities, especially those in the entertainment industry, as if these people are our American version of a 'monarchy'. I quickly glanced at his gallery of famous people and nudes in poses, which seemed more contrived than I cared for. 'Where are the stories?', I thought.
I then read more about Greco and his approach to his subjects. This short piece
on Greco's art caused me to go back and review some of his work.
“I immediately started to request more opportunities to take portraits,”
he says. “I’ve been attached to the portrait ever since I was a little
kid, but when I started to shoot serious actors, there was a whole new
added depth of expression that our collaboration would provoke that was
exciting. Actors certainly raise the bar of every shot.”
Greco's portrait of the late comedian Chris Farley exemplifies his philosophy about portraiture. The photograph chosen to accompany the article linked to above communicates the man behind the comedy. This statement by the photographer explains how he develops an empathy with is subjects:
“There are so many publicists today driving the image machine of their
clients,” explains Michael. “That’s why I will sit in hair and make-up
and chat with talent in order to get to know them—in and out, what
they’re about and what they are personally into.”
However, not all of Greco's interests and subjects revolve around celebrities and human subjects. His gallery
on the marketing website, 'Vision Light'
, reveals an interest and eye for animals and still life. His animal photographs could be considered 'portraits', too. I must admit my favorite one is that of a Friesian stallion. Greco captures the power, magnificence and beauty of this horse in a small snapshot of time and space. The viewer can almost feel and witness in his/her mind's eye this power and grace in motion.
Greco's adept use of shadows and light was quickly apparent to me. Sharing this fascination and attraction with light-play, I admire his ability to create mood and attract the viewer's eye and attention to detail or general focus. Illuminating the gentle curves of the human body elicits a range of emotion from artistic aesthetics to sensuous glamor to subliminal erotica. But his use of light extends far beyond this.
His portraits of people in their environment without the staging, and his manipulation of background, is what captures me. Mostly because these portraits tell me a story I am more interested in. An example I particularly like are the two participants in a pow-wow. I love the sepia tone treatment that suggests an overlapping of history and modernism. The blurred background hints at how we view this activity, challenging our tendency to see the Native American in our dominant historical perspective and how they see themselves as both modern and historical peoples, merging the two cultures into one; one that is blurred to non-Native people.
I do not know if my perceived views of this photograph was Greco's intention. But that is the beauty of artistic expression. Ten viewers of this photograph may result in ten different interpretations.
Greco is a self-professed fan of using light to express his perspectives of what he sees in his subject matter; be it people, reflections, animals. I reacted with surprise and empathy to one of his comments on how he came to view his photography as art.
I have been a photographer for over
forty years. My main subject matter has been people in the
entertainment industry, but it always amazes me how even the most simple
things in life can make a beautiful piece of art. It has only been the
last several years that I have looked at my work as art. I guess
sometimes we become so rapt up in the concept for the campaign that the
only question is, does it suit the client? Often, I have had an art director tell me that this shot would
look good over the fireplace, and always I would look at them puzzled. I
don't look puzzled anymore.
It reminded me of how I reacted to some readers' comments regarding my writing. After years of mostly technical writing (manuscripts, manuals, R&D documentation), I began writing for the general public and then sharing my own personal writing online. I was puzzled at comments that shared how my writing personally affected them, often eliciting empathy and a myriad of feelings. I never equated my writing with artistic expression. Nor with intent of eliciting empathy; what they read is how and what I am and feel.
Although photography has its share of purists (of which I was once a 'subscriber'), it is more than just capturing a pretty picture. Like a painter mixing colors and taking liberty to blur the lines, photography is also an art form in which to express one's views. Learning to use a variety of tools can enhance a photographer's understanding of the fundamental factors that influence any photograph. This concept was impressed upon me recently by a good friend and amateur photographer who taught me the essentials of using artificial light. His final statement almost exactly paralleled Greco's advice to novice photographers (see quote below). This enlightenment prompted me to share with other novice photographers and I invited my friend to teach a workshop in using artificial light for our local photography club.
There are two ways to make a photograph, one is to capture the
moment and the other is to create the moment with artificial lighting. Many times I will tell a young enthusiast, go learn how to use those strobes and tungsten lights, and then the natural light will be more vibrant then ever. The best way
to learn how to drive a car is with a stick shift , and then the
automatic will be a breeze.
Although I was once a purist, in both photography and writing, breaking out of that mold has given me a freedom in expanding my artistic expression. And I often play the Trickster in both mediums to challenge viewers and readers to also break out of their own boundaries. To see a story in a photograph or to feel or think beyond the words on their screen. And sometimes to just express myself even though no one else really understands. :)
Labels: photographing, writing