Art and craft

Geese were gathering in fields along the Susquehanna and their numbers increased over the weekend. I drove into town yesterday before sunrise and returned along the river in the bright light of day. To my surprise, the number of birds had increased dramatically so I took a look in the rear view mirror and pulled over. I grabbed the HX9V and thought, at first, that the increased height of the truck bed might provide a good vantage. I was wrong. I jumped down, walked across the road and approached the birds in a wide arc to the east and along the boundary between an obliging corn field and someone’s backyard. Working with the image below and seeing it now, as it is presented here, has caused me to reflect on the nature of my photography. I have been struggling with the fear of not ever being more than a guy who happens to be able to take a good snap shot. Simply reading that sentence makes me shudder. I want to be very good at this and would rather jettison the endeavor than limp along as an entirely mediocre photographer. When I was quite young my mother realized that I was a high-energy child in need of ways of dissipating excess ATPs. To that end she worked very hard to keep me busy. In addition to school and homework I can remember dabbling in magic, hockey, baseball, wrestling, skiing, tennis, sailing, SCUBA, model building, piano, photography, and the saxophone. Joanna has been every bit as smart as my mother in this regard and realized, even before we were married, that my excess energies needed an outlet. The farm has very effectively channeled, diffused, and otherwise made safe those energies for more than a quarter century but now that things on the farm have slowed somewhat, the need for additional outlets has become necessary. Joanna has always been supportive of my interest in photography. I understand that we all need a preoccupation, something to keep us busy, but I don’t want this interest to become just another saxophone.

This is not a call for gratuitous accolades (for those cannot help), it is simply my attempt to make sense of what it is I have been trying to do with my photography and my aspirations for it. If you follow the comments which appear on this blog you may have read this recent reply of mine … Photo Seminars, Photo Courses, Photo Field Trips, Photo Lessons, On-Line Photo Coaching, Photo School, Photo College, Photo University, Photo Camps, Photo Books, How-To DVDs, Photo _____ (fill-in-the-blank), are absolutely, and totally, NOT MY STYLE. I’m not saying that they can’t work for certain people, but they are not for me. In any case, I wouldn’t want my images to be modeled after or in any way to mimic the work of others, and I think that’s what happens when someone tries to teach you to be a better photographer. I truly believe that one becomes a better photographer by taking lots of images and seeing what works and what doesn’t. I know what I like and I know what I don’t like, but that is not nearly enough. I need a more critical, unbiased, and artistic eye to critique what it is I’m doing. I don’t want to take pretty snap shots. I want to create art, but I’m not sure I know how … and I’m not sure I would know it when I saw it. Some would say that art happens and that lessons cannot reveal its secrets; lessons can, perhaps, effectively teach craft, but not art. Some say that art is magical, elusive, such that the more one pursues it, the more it fades from view. Joanna would say I need to exercise a bit of Patience and Perseverance, perhaps she is right … once again?


24 thoughts on “Art and craft

  1. What a joy to be able to spend this morning reading some of your posts again! The topic of this post is exactly the head space I’ve been travelling the past few months. Part of the reason I embarked on that creative recovery journey of Julia Cameron’s was to explore the anxiety that surrounds the things we love to do. I know very well the impulse to sink my beloved projects rather than suffer the failures of achieving certain standards I set for them (lots of pressure!). It seems to be a common impulse of us all. Since Christmas I’ve been returning to creative writing, and since leaving that time-sucking job I’ve been writing full time on my own projects, which means not only a lot of time exploring creative dead-ends, false starts, and crappy work, but achieving moments of clarity and insight, and gaining a better understanding of what works and doesn’t. As a writer, I have a few “craft” books that help, but the advice even within those is that creative work is learned by doing, and by immersing ourselves in the work of the masters. I suspect this arises from the dual demands of art, to be both original and universal. Our awareness of the good work of others opens us to the universal, but I fully agree with you that the work needs to avoid mimicry and retain some of our original voice/vision.

    But more than sharing this perspective, I really want to say thank you. Our conversations during Christmas break about narrative, memory and truth helped me push through some difficult questions that I needed to explore. The result has been that I’m mid-way through a new draft of a manuscript. This one has the settled feeling of being the last significant rewrite that I’ll do here. (Editing will come later.) Not only have our blogging conversations helped reveal to me the central question of the story, your posts have given me amazing inspiration. Your photos have done two things for me: given me fresh insight, something new to consider, while providing reminders of things I already know and feel and a means to reconnect with that. Pieces of this inspiration have been scattered among all my writing projects since I’ve become one of your readers.

    While I whole-heartedly agree that as creatives we need to be constantly restless about our exploration, I also say that to me your blog achieves my label of ‘art.’

    • Wow! How should I respond? How about a simple word of thanks? I am so pleased that you are on course and sailing that strong and constant wind toward your creative bliss. As far as my reaction to your observation that I have, in some small way, contributed to this new and liberating direction … how about a line from Othello (Act 2, Scene 1) which I will modify to the purpose … If it were now to stop blogging, I would have achieved my goal; for, I fear, I have a delight so absolute that not another comfort like to this succeeds in unknown fate. I am pleased that you are pleased and, once again, productive. I was so glad when you dropped the ‘day job.’ Although I do not, at present, have the strength which allowed you to do so … I am working on it. But dramatic change comes to me but slowly. I am excited that the avenue you have chosen to walk is that which examines, at least tangentially perhaps, memory … fascinating stuff, and so full of potential.

      I should have begun this reply by saying that I was delighted to see your name in among my comments. Each time I see those tuning pegs I know I am about the enjoy a well written and well expressed treat! Thanks for the very, very, kind words. They were, and are, very much appreciated. I have taken them to heart.


        • Ugh! We have finally moderated a bit here down ‘south.’ I saw the first flower blossom today! Working on a colorful image of it that I hope to post shortly. Your spring will come … eventually. And, when it does, just think how wonderful it will be. D

          • I’m looking forward to temperatures warm enough that the camera can go out. It hates the cold. Looking forward to seeing flower blossoms, and will gladly borrow parts of your spring until ours arrives. M

  2. I think art is something that has been created with the intention of evoking basic human emotion … whether it’s your own, or that of an external viewer. By this definition, the same image could either be art or not-art, depending on the intention behind its creation.

    Also by this definition, your photographs are Art with a capital A. Not just because they are technically excellent, but also because they have been created as an invitation to your viewers to experience awe, curiosity, appreciation, puzzlement … etc. etc.

  3. From a person who takes hopeless photos. Scrolling down the page, the photo catches your eye because it so textured. I thought it was a charcoal drawing. The geese are a lovely surprise. My stepdad was an artist and he talked about a rule of thirds. If the geese and the water comprised one-third of the photo it might be a bit more balanced, but I am certainly no expert. I think it’s lovely.

  4. Dave! Oh, wow, can I relate to your struggle! I could especially understand what you said in your recent reply that you’ve quoted above about how-to seminars, books, etc., not being your style. Like you, I prefer to learn by doing. By trying this and that, and experimenting when opportunity arises. That’s what makes all of this so fun! And we can do it in a wonderfully supportive environment like this, with others who are struggling and experimenting, too. I’ve been blown away by some of your images, and whenever you put together your retrospectives, I’m amazed by the body of work you assemble. One of your strengths in your photography, to my eye, is your perspective. You always seem to place yourself in the most interesting position (as you did when you realized here that you needed to get down from the truck). This shot of the geese is very striking with the softness of the trees in the background, such subtle, beautiful tones, counterbalanced by the unexpected brightness of the snow and the gathering of geese. Tell me, what do you think of this image? One of the things I wonder about it, the more I look at it, is if the softness of the background and the vivid textures and brightness of the foreground are too much in contrast, almost as if of two different scenes. I get two very different feelings looking at the image, one for the scene of the geese, and one for the moody, softness of the background. This contrast is interesting to me–almost unsettling, but it’s not the actual effect of the image as a whole. I’ll have to think about that!

    • Thanks for such a (literally) thoughtful, generous (of your time), and honest reply. And thank you also for your thoughtful reflection on the image of the geese. It was quite cloudy on the afternoon that the image was taken and when I first viewed it on my monitor it appeared quite washed out, thin, and with little contrast or depth. I liked the bold, and contrasting, horizontals of the darker treeline and woods and the lighter field in the foreground. So, given these natural preferences, I proceeded to darken and reduce the clarify of the already minimized background and to enhance the clarify and sharpness of the geese in the lighter foreground. I didn’t want the final result to render as a snap shot or as you might see it with your unaided eye. My intention was to increase the drama by pushing the whole thing a bit toward the abstract. The background as sort of a dark curtain, raising to reveal the brightly lit collection of birds. I don’t know, perhaps I’m totally misguided. I don’t like scenes to appear washed out … perhaps I err in that I go somewhat overboard when trying to enhance the drama of already contrasting lines? So, there you have it. The ‘artist’s’ perspective. Now … be honest … did this work … does this work … am I a bit overzealous in what I’ve done? Be honest and only get back when you have a minute or two (I would hate for you to unfollow or to ignore because I’ve become a bother). D

      • Dave, it’s a pleasure to have this kind of conversation, not a bother at all! I enjoyed reading about your editing process, and also about the preferences you wanted to enhance within the image. I like your description of your intention, and I think you’ve achieved it! In fact, when you mention the idea of the background as a curtain raised to reveal the drama of the scene, that really works for me. One of the things I should mention is that I have a visual impairment that affects how I interpret images: I have faulty depth perception, so you and I are not seeing this image the same way (which can be pretty interesting). Keep this in mind when I give feedback. 🙂 That background could easily be in the foreground for me, like a curtain at the front of the stage! I think that’s what I wondered about when I looked at it yesterday, was that it didn’t appear “in the depths” to me, at the back of the image, but more on top of it. I don’t think you’ve gone overboard. When I relax my gaze, I can definitely deliver myself into the abstract drama of the image. I find it fascinating!

  5. For the first thing, I am the most amateurish art critic you can imagine but nonetheless I state confidently that your images are art. I prefer art, both visual and literature, that invokes feelings or thoughts that I didn’t know I have or that I had forgotten. I am intrigued by the power of looking at so-called small and mundane things. And I think you have a talent in looking at “mundane” things and invoke stories inside the viewer’s mind.

    In addition, I am not into art that is provocative only – and in particular with respect to photos or paintings they better be beautiful. I might be moved or disturbed by an award-winning photo taken at the battlefield but I would not put it on my wall or use as a desktop background image (Sorry, if “desktop background image” is probably not the right way to use artistic images – but I can’t help it … I feel this image really matters to me as I see it so often so I pick it carefully).

    When I skimmed your post in a first run I misunderstood your comment about photo seminars and photo somethings. I figured you ponder about offering such courses yourself. Now I have understood that you talked about being a student attending such a course. This is really not intended to be a “gratuitous accolade” but I found it absolutely realistic that you would teach others photography.

    I only have some anecdotal second-hand “experience” of friends and acquaintances who are moonlighting photographers but at a professional level. One of them took a course in artistic photography (here in Austria we had a long tradition of distinguishing between professional photographers who need vocational training and a license, such as the ones taking photos and weddings, and artists who can do whatever they want as long as they only sold “unique artwork”. Fortunately, beurocrats have finally given in and everybody can become a photographer – let clients decide instead. Sorry for the digression.
    I cannot judge the value of such courses and technical knowledge or “artistic finesse” you might acquire. What I understood that these courses can do, they provide “networking opportunities”, unlock doors to exhibitions etc … I believe this is very similar to all sorts of post-graduate education – from MBA to the engineering degree I finished last year. You get to know other students and teachers who are established in a field you might want to “get into”.

    • Thank you Elke for taking the time to thoughtfully explain your thoughts and your position. Both are very much appreciated. I value your opinion … because I can trust you to be honest. I suppose yours is a call for me to keep at it … I will. Thank you. D

    • As is generally the case (probably the physics background – who knows) I am in complete agreement with Elke. I came across your blog because it is truly of value to me (same with Elke’s blog). The thoughtful reflections and meaningful images are something I appreciate. I am also in agreement with your own assessment, take many and learn each time you look at the result. In so-doing you will find that which is you – at the time. And “that” will constantly change as you do. Haha … and in the meantime I’ll just enjoy the ride.

      • I knew I could count on you for an upbeat analysis and distillation Maurice. Much appreciated. Full steam ahead. I’m sort of afraid to ask how you are handling this second winter blast? We’re quite cold but seem to be hanging in. Actually … not true. We are without water! The pipe between the house and the spring seems to have broken (cause unrelated to the weather and probably due entirely to old age). It’s good we have lots of 5-gallon buckets around to haul water from the Barn. No showers, no laundry until we drill a well … ARGH! Why do these things always happen to me … and at the most inopportune time of the year? Stay tuned … there might be a post in here somewhere? D

  6. I think I have often described some of your shots as very arty 🙂 You capture beautifully what your mind and eye see, and many of your photos are truly stunning, so I think you are already far better than you are imagining David. It’s that old perfectionist peeping out to cause trouble again! This is beautiful with its soft muted palette and winter textures.

  7. Everyone has a different opinion about what art is. I would continue to do what you’re doing so that the images please YOU. You can’t be in the business of pleasing others because you never will. I’ve been enjoying what I’ve been seeing. Have to say that I think you’re on the right path! One that is always striving for improvement. This is another beauty. Those geese provided some lovely symmetry!

  8. You are correct in your assumption that no one can teach you how to be an artist. It has to come from within, and you definitely have that je ne sais quoi. It cannot be learned, it is or it is not. Sensitive and beautiful pictures such as this acknowledge your soul as an artist. This beautiful picture deserves the “like” button.

    • Thanks Lynn. As I indicated in the post, this is something I think about quite a bit. Just this morning I realized that just about anything can be considered to be art. If the artist says it is so … so be it. I suppose what I am really saying is that I want to be able to create images that are pleasing to the eye … and not just mine. I want folks to view my images as being beyond mere snap shots. It is that ability to create an image which (as you suggest) takes one’s breath away that I pursue. One wonders, given two photographs, what is it about the one that is able to take your breath away? Is it the photograph? The observer? Or the combination? Whether the first or last … what is it about the nature of the photograph that grabs you? Color? Lighting? Perspective? Subject matter? I’m so confused. But thanks, as always, for your support. D

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