We take heart from form in art because in the last analysis it is a convincing metaphor for wholeness in life. Even when life seems broken.
Robert Adams, Art Can Help
The renown photographer, Henri Cartier Bresson, often spoke of the geometry of the picture, which is another way of saying composition or form. For there to be a convincing metaphor of wholeness, the shapes, lines, tones, contrasts, shadows and color must work in concert to evoke truth and reveal the universal in the specific. The best pictures—those worthy of being called art—point beyond themselves.
Photographs, in particular, remind us of what once was and is no more—the loved ones now gone forever, the places we knew now irrevocably changed, and the shared experiences with friends and family we can never repeat. Photographs exist in the now but are always about the past and future. They help us locate who, what and where we are in our journey, and where we may be going.
Art is not utilitarian like a shovel or a frying pan, but it is indispensable to a life of meaning, awakening, joy and beauty, and it helps make us whole.
“Religion and Art spring from the same root and are close kin. Economics and Art are strangers.” Willa Cather
There is much speculation about how the art world will survive the Covid 19 pandemic. Most of what I’ve read centers on the financial devastation that will be incurred. Many galleries and museums are closing, art events and exhibits are being cancelled indefinitely, many university art programs will cease to exist, and thousands of artists are losing income. When the pandemic ends the world economies will have little, if any, funding left for arts and culture
But art and art making will survive. People made art long before money was conceived; long before the concepts of marketing, finance and economics were thought of; long before art was commodified and artists turned into production workers; long before art became a profession and universities offered Master of Fine Arts degrees.
Art making will remain available as a form of meditation or prayer. It can be a therapeutic practice—a way of expressing feelings—a way for the individual, or a group, to express joy at being alive. It can offer respite or a means of protest. It can be bartered for goods and services. It can be done just for the fun of it. Moreover, one’s artwork need not be sold to be valid and meaningful. Art making is its own reward. Nonetheless, artists should expect and demand fair prices when their artwork is sold. And the serious artist must work with integrity and self respect.
T.S. Eliot wrote that “April is the cruelest month.” and indeed this April is cruel. Yet it is also offering renewal and beauty. Here are some examples I photographed this past Sunday (April 19). I hope they will bring you some comfort and reassurance in this time of uncertainty and fear.
One revelation I take from the Covid 19 pandemic is that solace, meditation and joy may be found in drawing and painting. But for most artists drawing and painting necessitates studio space, tools, materials and storage which can be impossible to acquire or secure in the challenging circumstances we are now experiencing.
For the past few days I have been using the Procreate application on my iPad to make digital paintings and drawings. Until recently I had dismissed the iPad as a serious art tool and medium. But I came to realize it offers an efficient, forgiving, flexible, mobile, economic, and aesthetically pleasing way to work. The Procreate application, combined with the Apple Pencil and the iPad’s touch screen permits the immediate capture of nuanced and pressure sensitive marks and strokes. And there is no paper, charcoal, graphite or paint being consumed. Nor do the resulting jpegs (or Tiffs, PSDs) require a flat file for storage. Moreover, the final art can be shared online or printed out, singly or in editions. It can also be used to make books, presentations and animations.
One of the most difficult decisions for an artist to make is what to charge for her or his work. Let’s consider the following example of a hypothetical painter.
Janine is an experienced but not well-known artist. She has spent most of her adult life living in a small town in a “flyover” state. In the town there is a frame shop that sells the work of local artists, and a member supported cooperative gallery that limps along on membership fees and grants. Janine has a deep knowledge of art history and has honed her painting skills over a period of more than 20 years, but she lacks formal credentials—having not so much as an Associates degree. But she is not a Sunday dauber. And though she lacks formal art credentials and the recognition of the art world, she is, nonetheless, a real artist. When she can’t make art she suffers—like a mother torn away from her child. It is art and art making that gives her meaning and purpose. And though her art brings her joy it sometimes plunges her into despair and self doubt, causing her to question why she follows this path that demands so much sacrifice.
Janine’s paintings are not conventional, pretty, cute or clever. They are non-representational. She doesn’t paint pictures of adorable puppies or stunning sunsets. She does not study what sells and then conform her paintings to the demands and preferences of the market. She does not make a fetish of technique. She does not paint for an audience and acclaim. She is not an entertainer. Janine paints to express feelings from the core of her being. She finds solace in art making. She uses her art to express and share what is otherwise ineffable. For her painting is visual poetry and inquiry. It is a form of breathing; of being.
So asking Janine, the artist, the price of any one of her paintings is to ask her to place a monetary value on part of her soul—something she (or any artist) should never undervalue.
Kate and I were on our way to to dinner at Cin Cin on Quay in Auckland when we stepped into the crossing at the end of Queen street and I seized the moment to photograph the man hole cover in our path.
Nine years later that photo still proffers aesthetic satisfaction and vivid memories of that time and place: what it felt like underfoot, the odor of the sea mixed with cooking smells from nearby restaurants, the beeps and rumbles of traffic, the squawking of the gulls, the waning gold light of the sun about to set and the slight chill of the evening breeze.
My senses were heightened then, as is always so when one is thousands of miles from home and in an unfamiliar place. Everything was interesting: the tallest, oldest, grandest and most humble buildings; the street people; the monuments; the Emirates yacht tied up in Viaduct harbor; the London Transport emblem on the aged, red, double decker English bus parked alongside the curb. Everywhere there were photographs to be made, if I were open to them. Here the gut, heart and eye had to be given free-rein, and I had to know my camera so well that it was an extension of my thought. I was in the flow, photographing what compelled me and showed some essence of the place; photographing details which experience has taught me often result in more personal, revealing and meaningful pictures. This is when I most enjoy photographing and why I do it.
I crossed to the northwest corner at Dewey and Grover streets where sits the house where the Mill’s family had lived in the nineteen fifties and sixties. It had been a beautiful place then.
Mr. Mills restored antique cars and he lavished that same care and attention on his home as he did his restorations. But on this day, more than forty five years later, the place stood vacant. The lawn was overgrown, several of the upper windows were broken and the exterior paint was faded and peeling.
I’d come to Owosso this morning to take photographs of the neighborhood in which I’d grown up. My plan had been to roam about and photograph whatever caught my attention. As I looked at what had been the Mill’s home, I noticed the vintage television antenna on the roof. It was laying on its side and seemed to be reaching up to the tree above it, reminiscent of Michelangelo’s painting in the Sistine Chapel; the hand of God reaching down to Adam.
The tree’s branches were budding with spring’s promise. In contrast the antenna lay lifeless and cold—an anachronism. It was probably the very antenna that once brought into the Mill’s living room the Lone Ranger, Soupy Sales, Sky King, and Roy Rogers, in black and white, in those days of innocence and ignorance.
Looking through the viewfinder I composed to include the antenna, roofline and branches. I made 3 or 4 exposures and was satisfied. But then, I noticed in the distance, the contrail of high flying jet approaching from the east. I thought, if I could make the same photograph, but this time with the contrail included, it would enrich the meaning of the picture.I returned the camera to the tripod and composed for the same scene again. When the long white line came into the frame I made several exposures to be sure I got a good one. And I did.
I made a photograph that day that contrasted the natural and the manufactured, the then and now. I had made a photograph that displayed a pleasing arrangement of shapes, tones and lines—a photograph of good geometry. It spoke to the history of the last century and the one we now live in. It is one of the most satisfying photographs I have ever made. And not once during that process, nor since, did I feel I needed more than the 12 megapixel capability of the Nikon D90 I used.
NOTE: This piece was originally written in 2013 and revised 5 November 2019.
NOTE: The following quote, about the late photographer Robert Frank’s experience of looking in America is taken from, The Art of Looking Sideways, written by the renown graphic designer Alan Fletcher. Those of you with much experience photographing in public will likely have had similar experiences. I know I have. Moreover, in recent years it seems to have gotten worse.
Robert Frank spent 1955 criss-crossing the United States, photographing cafeterias, flophouses, shoe shiners, public lavatories, the abraded faces of retirees, assembly lines in Detroit. In the south a sheriff asked him what his business was. ‘I’m looking,’ he replied. He was given an hour to get out of town and in Arkansas spent three days in gaol for the same offense—observation. ‘To look’ was un-American.
Alan Fletcher The Art of Looking Sideways, page 187
We often see people walking, riding, even driving, with their earbuds in and their heads down, staring into the glowing screen embedded in their palm while relying upon their peripheral vision to avoid the obstacles in their path. We see them thumb-tapping messages, checking and sending emails, setting appointments, swiping for dates, and ordering products as they go. But seldom do we see them look to the sky. If they did they might notice the intestines of our electronic age criss crossing and entangled above their heads and perhaps that might give them pause to think about the overhead costs. They might ask themselves why we humans so readily waste and scar the environment and accept the ugly in exchange for comfort, entertainment and convenience; why with all of our technological advances do we still rely upon poles and strung wires as we did in the earliest days of the telegraph? They might wonder, do I spend so much of my life engaged with glowing screens because it is too depressing to look at the reality that surrounds me?
It’s the one that got away; the one that didn’t seem worthwhile at the time; the one you didn’t think of taking then but years later you wish you had. Every photographer knows this regret.
I was raised by my great-grandmother—just the two of us living in the back apartment of a dilapidated late nineteenth century, two story house, that was said to have once been a commercial laundry. We lived frugally. We had too. Nothing went to waste.
But there was one luxury we indulged. Coffee. Grandma had to have her morning cup and so did I. I don’t remember when I had my first, but I’m certain I was still in the first or second grade. I loved the sound of percolating coffee and how it smelled as it was poured hot into my mug. It was at its most potent just before I diluted it with half and half and sweetened it with two teaspoons of sugar. Still it retained enough caffeine to jangle my nerves for the rest of the day.
Our morning coffee was taken at a white enameled steel table in our kitchen. We had no chairs for that table. Instead we sat on metal Farmer Peets 50 lb lard barrels. How grandma came to have them I don’t know. But they served a dual purpose—storage and seating. Each was filled with sundry items and the lid of her’s was covered with a thin pillow and mine was topped with two stacked Sears and Roebuck catalogs.
Neither of us was ever photographed enjoying our morning coffee. Grandma didn’t own a camera, and I didn’t get one until I was maybe twelve or thirteen years old. But even if we’d had a camera at the ready it would not have occurred to either of us to take such a picture. We’d have thought, no one wants a photo of an old lady or a young boy perched on a lard barrel drinking coffee at the kitchen table. And we’d have been wrong. How I wish I had that picture.
So my advice to every photographer is don’t be quick to dismiss the simple, humble, mundane, discarded, broken, and common. You may miss the picture and regret it.