Saturday, December 26, 2009

The Wisdom of David Brooks

David Brooks had a wonderful and insightful column in the New York Times on November 26 entitled "The Other Education." In the piece he discusses knowledge that we acquire indirectly through our life experiences rather than through formal training.

This knowledge "comes indirectly, seeping through the cracks of the windowpanes, from under the floorboards and through the vents. It's generally a byproduct of the search for pleasure, and the learning is indirect and unconscious."

I was particularly struck by this column because I think it applies to the arts in general, and photography specifically.

For a number of years I have given a lecture entitled "Learning from the Masters." It was a lecture put together by my good friend Professor David Carter and me to educate photographers on what they could learn from studying the work of the great painters. David and I gave it together for many year until his death several years ago.

Over the years of giving the program what frequently struck me was how few photographers, who profess to want to be "fine art" photographers, actually go and look at work. It's not that they don't go to see paintings, they don't go to see photography exhibitions either! In doing so, they are cutting themselves off from this indirect learning that will potentially seep into their vision.

I am a big believer in going to exhibitions, the good, the bad, and the ugly. Often there is a fine line between work that is truly wonderful and that which is awful. Where this line is drawn is different for each individual. However, denying oneself the opportunity to draw the line is a mistake.

Photographers, and all artists for that matter, should challenge their vision and understanding. It may be more helpful to determine why we don't like something than why we do. In failing to explore we fail to grow.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

The Beautiful Photograph

I got into a discussion the other day with my good friend and fabulous photographer Craig Sterling. ( Craig posed the question, "what ever happened to the beautiful photograph?"

This led to a discussion of what is going on in photography today, the role of conceptual art and its influence, and whether or not too many critics are afraid of saying that a lot of what passes for current "fine art" photography is "the emperor's new clothes" school of photography. So much of contemporary photography seen in museums and galleries is just plain boring, ugly, shocking for the sake of shock, and/or some meaningless drivel where someone has confused access to a subject with talent and has tried to pass it off as "important' documentary work.

I'm not sure we came to any conclusions but it seemed like good topics for discussion. As such I'd be interested in what others have to say on the subject.

Friday, December 18, 2009


As a black and white, rocks, trees, and figure photographer most of my life I have always been very skeptical of color. Did a lot, never liked what I'd done, so stopped doing it.

Even when I was shooting a lot of color I firmly believed that if the image was in color then color should be integral to it's success. Otherwise shoot in B&W. Maybe that's why there are so many boring color images but that's a topic for another time.

Along comes digital. Most who do serious black and white digital work shoot in raw and convert to black and white in post processing. When shooting in raw the images is always captured with all the color information.

At first I immediately converted everything to black and white to evaluate the images. However, over time I found that occasionally images that I had taken with my "black and white" photographic vision looked better in color. What I'm finding is that as I shoot more digital my color vision is developing. I can't say it's returning because I'm not sure it was ever there to begin with.

While I am starting to explore color, very little of my color work today would I call "conventional." I am much more intrigued by color that really makes a statement whether it is extremely subtle or over-the-edge, off-the-reservation color.

If you want to see a small example of my color work go to Gallery X on my website at

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

What and Why?

I got into a conversation the other day about what I photograph and why. This started me thinking about other photographers and wondered why they photograph what they photograph?

So, why do you photograph what you photograph?

Great Show at the National Gallery of Art

For those of you who haven't had the opportunity to see "In the Darkroom: Photographic Processes before the Digital Age" at the National Gallery of Art, go! It's a fabulous exhibition of photography and quite educational about traditional photographic processes. You can find out the details at

I'd like to see them follow up with an exhibition of what I would call, "On the Computer: Photographic Processes in the Digital Age." It would make a nice comparison.

Speaking of the digital world, another exhibition at the National Gallery is "Robert Bergman: Portraits, 1986–1995." One of the interesting things about the exhibition is that all of the prints are inkjet and the National Gallery labeled them as such. No "archival inks on paper" or "pigment prints", just "inkjet." Maybe the legitimacy of digital processes is finally taking hold without the need for euphemisms if a museum with the prestige of the National Gallery feels comfortable with the term "inkjet."

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

The Photography Clan

One of the most articulate writers in photography today is Brooks Jensen, editor of Lenswork magazine. In the latest issue he discusses something that I have observed for a long time but couldn't get my mind around what was going on and that is the clannishness of photographers.

Coming from a very traditional black and white, medium and large format, darkroom background I always found it interesting about how folks of my persuasion often looked down their respective noses at photographers who did color. True fine art photographers only did black and white. We were the purist even though we abstracted the world around us by shooting in black and white!

A version of the same phenomenon has happened over the last few years as digital technology has woven itself into the fabric of photographic processes. Does a new/different workflow make us less of a photographer.

I used to have the most wonderful philosophical discussions with a good friend over whether or not a digital photographic print was actually a photograph since it wasn't created with light-sensitive materials. Another equally articulate friend said, "
Who cares? It's photographic art!"

In the end, the image either works or it doesn't. If it works it doesn't matter how I got there. If it doesn't, it doesn't matter how I got there. It's not about the process, it's the image. Craft may be the language of the arts but it is not the art. Craft is not a substitute for vision.

And, to those of you who think your friends have deserted you when they start to explore workflows different from what they have traditionally done and of no interest to you, get over it.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Best kept secrets

For a long time I've felt that two of the best kept secrets in Washington for photographers are the National Portrait Gallery and the National Building Museum. I'm amazed at the number of people who come into my studio at the Torpedo Factory and say they've never heard of either museum.

The quality and scope of the photographic portraiture at the National Portrait Gallery is phenomenal. Everything from traditional to modern is on display and the gamut of photographic materials from the early days to the most current digital imaging is represented.

As an aside, the National Portrait Gallery also shares the same building with the Smithsonian's National Museum of American Art. While you are at the Portrait Gallery I would encourage photographers to look/study the wonderful works at American Art, or other major galleries for that matter, to learn from the master painters. Too many photographers only look at photography. Too many photographers never look at the work of other artists regardless of media but that is a topic for another time.

The National Building Museum not only has one of the most beautiful and spectacular interiors but often shows fine photography. They are also photographer-friendly and it's a wonderful building to photograph.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Back from Austria

While in Vienna, Austria recently I had occasion to see the major retrospective of Cy Twombly's work at the Museum Moderner Kunst (MUMOK). While I come out of a rather traditional background in the arts and photography in particular, I have always liked abstract and non-objective work as well.

A week later I was sitting in the Cafe Bazar in Salzburg (great coffee and apple strudel, but that's for another time) where they had a small table with crayons and poster paper set up for children to occupy themselves while adults chatted and partook. One of the pieces of "art" had been taped on the wall behind the table. I was struck that the only real difference between that and some of work I saw of Twombly's in Vienna was "Cy" at the bottom of the image.

Makes one wonder if the child who did the drawing is a genius or if Cy has returned to his childhood? I have heard that prodigies only exist in math and music. I guess I'll have to reevaluate the truth of that idea.