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.
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.
I have not lived in Owosso for more than forty years now, but on the morning of 9 October 2012, I came for a visit. While here I walked around the old neighborhood I’d grown up in. As I approached the corner of Park and Comstock streets I saw beneath an American flag an A-frame sidewalk sign that read, Shane Thanks For Your Service—the wordsspelled out in upper case, unpunctuated, sans serif, plastic letters of mixed size—a humble and poignant scene. PFC Shane Cantu had been killed in Afghanistan six weeks earlier.
As a photographer I saw a pleasing composition—the curving yellow curb, Old Glory waving against an azure sky and the flag’s shadow framing the sign. But there was more in this picture.
The sign stood in front of 123 East Comstock street, the current location of Sunnyside Florist. But, in 1948 this was the building in which Clay Reeves began Reeve’s Wheel Alignment. As a Marine Clay had fought on Iwo Jima and was wounded three times. For his heroism he received the Silver Star, two Bronze Stars and three Purple Hearts. And just a few yards up the street, but not visible in the photograph, sits the Indian Trails Bus station from where hundreds of young men and women have left for service in: World War Two, Korea, Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan. In 1968, I was one of them—on my way to Marine Corps boot camp in San Diego. So it is fitting that Shane was remembered in this place.
When I look at this picture I remember how I felt that August morning in 1968 as the door closed and the bus lurched onto Comstock street. I remember those last glimpses through the window of the quiet town and life I was leaving behind and thinking I might never return.
For me this photograph is a reminder, warning, evocation and image of hallowed space.
It is not for me to decide the value of my art except in regard to my personal standards of art and art making. I will know what I think of the work—whether or not it satisfies me. But I cannot perceive what other people perceive. I do not see with their eyes. I cannot feel their feelings. I have not lived their experience.
So it is pointless to think of myself as a success or failure as an artist. Perhaps one day, after I have died, my work will hang in prestigious collections and museums. Perhaps it will all end up in the landfill. I won’t be here to know and it doesn’t matter.
What does matter is that my art making is a testament to my decision to mean—that it asserts my existence and brings me solace.