Good Taste

Nobody tells this to people who are beginners, I wish someone told me. All of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste. But there is this gap. For the first couple years you make stuff, it’s just not that good. It’s trying to be good, it has potential, but it’s not. But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, is still killer. And your taste is why your work disappoints you. A lot of people never get past this phase, they quit. Most people I know who do interesting, creative work went through years of this. We know our work doesn’t have this special thing that we want it to have. We all go through this. And if you are just starting out or you are still in this phase, you gotta know its normal and the most important thing you can do is do a lot of work. Put yourself on a deadline so that every week you will finish one piece. It is only by going through a volume of work that you will close that gap, and your work will be as good as your ambitions. And I took longer to figure out how to do this than anyone I’ve ever met. It’s gonna take awhile. It’s normal to take awhile. You’ve just gotta fight your way through.

– Ira Glass

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I’ve got nothing to add to Ira’s quote, except that I’m finally getting to the point where I’m making work that reflects my taste. For what it’s worth, that comes with a whole new set of fears.

I’m not a photographer, I’m an artist

Last week I got into one of those late-night red wine conversation over dinner. We were talking about the definition of contemporary art within the context of photography, and I was trying to define what I do. After a long meandering “drowning-man” grab for a definition, I said “I’m not a photographer, I’m an artist.”

And then I stopped, and laughed, and realised that will sound awfully pompous if taken out of context. But then again, life is just a bunch of crops, isn’t it? To be clear, my statement was meant as a compliment to photographers.

The Galerie Camera Work opened a large retrospective of the photographer Martin Schoeller over the weekend. It’s a magnificent opus, nicely summarised in a new teNeues book simply entitled “Portraits.” It shows his work over the last fifteen years, including the wonderful larger-than-lifesize portraits of every celebrity you can think of, but also great environmental portrayals. These pictures are shot in kitchens, living rooms, or on location. There are also intricately staged photographs, in which he places his subjects in whimsical situations. The point is, Schoeller has substantial photographic skills. It takes aptitude and experience to walk into a room, find a light set-up, make your subjects comfortable, and to knock out a shoot with limited amount of time. Martin Schoeller is a great photographer.

I am not a photographer, not in the sense that Martin Schoeller is. I know how to use my gear, and I use a camera as my primary tool when I create my work. I don’t believe art is possible without craft. But my work is growing increasingly more conceptual, and my skills are built around what I need to make my art. I usually create my images in my studio, because I know how that works. I have my particular lighting set-up, but will prepare sketches for a lot of the depictions before they ever get shot. The image I make doesn’t simply come to me as I enter the space for the first time, nor is it a location I scout before the shoot. I build my sets, I arrange the styling and the look of the model, and I know which poses I’m aiming for, and all of it is tied to the image being created that day. It’s a very deliberate and pre-conceived process.

Nor can one simply argue that certain photographers only succeed because they’re shooting celebrities or naked super-models. Martin Schoeller and Russell James are brilliant photographers. Would the same images work if they were made using “regular” people in the frame? Absolutely, though it would be harder to get a viewer’s attention. More to the point, the same stars and babes shot by lesser talents would make for some very boring photos. The pictures work so well because they’re good photographers, and great craftsmen.

But are they artists? Where is the transition between photography, and contemporary art? I’d venture a partial definition: Photography is capturing the key subjects as they express themselves. Art is arranging the subjects in way that expresses something entirely different.

My images are not supposed to capture the essence of its subjects, they are an expression of my feelings and thoughts. As an artist I can’t simply captures something, I need to initiate it, and I need to be responsible for the final result. If I rely on circumstance or outside forces, then I’m simply documenting the moment. I realise the word “art” is laden with sanctification, though I find it overblown. After the whole twentieth century reappropriation of “art for the people/by the people”, everybody is an artist, and it seems like that has become an unassailable descriptor, a carte-blanche, akin to “belief.”

I have stated my art manifesto before. It’s been a few years since I first posted it, and I still feel the same way.

Art must have four things to matter: concept, craft, discourse and aesthetics.

Art without concept is simply decoration. The world is filled with pretty pictures, clever drawings, and cool stencils, but without an underlying concept it is meaningless. Conversely, art cannot live by concept alone. The idea must be graspable. Hyper-conceptual art may curry favor within a very select circle of art crit MFA candidates and those seeking to justify the curatorial choices they have made, but it does not stand the test of time.

Out of this concept must arise discourse. The viewer must engage with the piece. It is not enough for it to be clever. Art must be a trigger, it must elicit an emotional response, an intellectual response.

Art without craft lacks respect. The coincidental arrival at a strong piece of work is not a deliberate choice. It reflects the moment, not the artist.

Art must make an aesthetic choice. It should appeal, or repel, or intrigue – on purpose.

I’d love to hear from you what you think. It’s an interesting conversation, and I’m nowhere near finished with it. Here’s an image from a tribute to Christo and Jean-Claude that I shot a few years ago. The idea behind it was very specific and deliberate, but it’s hardly a studio image.

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Own Your Decisions

You don’t need anyone’s affection or approval in order to be good enough. If you live off a man’s compliments, you’ll die from his criticism. When someone rejects or abandons or judges you, it isn’t actually about you. It’s about them and their own insecurities, limitations, and needs, and you don’t have to internalize that. Your worth isn’t contingent upon other people’s acceptance of you — it’s something inherent. You exist, and therefore, you matter. You’re allowed to voice your thoughts and feelings. You’re allowed to assert your needs and take up space. You’re allowed to hold onto the truth that who you are is exactly enough. You didn’t just happen, you are the sum total of the choices you’ve made. And you’re allowed to remove anyone from your life who makes you feel otherwise.

You don’t ever have to feel guilty about removing toxic people from your life. It doesn’t matter whether someone is a relative, romantic interest, employer, childhood friend or new acquaintance – you don’t have to make room for people who cause you pain or make you feel small. It’s one thing if a person owns up to their behavior and makes an effort to change. But if a person disregards your feelings, ignores your boundaries, and continues to treat you in a harmful way, they have to go. But don’t expect them to keep loving you, don’t keep pining for their affection. Stop demanding their attention. Removing someone cannot be a tool to get someone’s attention.

There is a big difference between giving up and letting go. Giving up means selling yourself short. It means allowing fear and struggle to limit your opportunities and keep you stuck. Letting go means freeing yourself from something that is no longer serving you. It means removing toxic people and belief systems from your life so that you can make room for relationships and ideas that are conducive to your well-being and happiness. Giving up reduces your life. Letting go expands it. Giving up is imprisoning. Letting go is liberation. Giving up is self-defeat. Letting go is self-care. So the next time you make the decision to release something or someone that is stifling your happiness and growth, and a person has the audacity to accuse you of giving up or being weak, remind yourself of the difference. Remind yourself that you don’t need anyone’s permission or approval to live your life in the way that feels right. No one has the authority to tell you who to be or how to live. No one gets to decide what your life should look like or who should be a part of it…

But nor does anyone get to judge you for sticking it out. Because beyond giving up and letting go, there is a third option: taking control. Stand up, know who you are, and face the situation. Don’t give up, and don’t let go. Own it.

Start living. You may not have ended up where you intended to go. But trust, for once, that you have ended up where you needed to be. Trust that you are in the right place at the right time. Trust that your life is enough. Trust that You are enough. So stop comparing, stop feeling guilty, and definitely stop seeking people’s approval, love, attention. Its unnecessary, and unattractive. Own your life, and take pride.

Grief, and time spent alone

Two weeks ago my father passed away. He was almost eighty, but anyone who knew him considered him sixty-five years old, if that. He was vibrantly alive. Sharp as a knife, gregarious, opinionated, and he had a huge appetite for life. Human curiosity demands an answer to the immediate question: it was a heart attack. But really all I can say is that he just stopped living. The medical specificity is ultimately irrelevant, though it lends comfort to know he didn’t suffer. And it would have pleased him immensely to have never been seen as feeble or weak.

He was a decorated combat fighter pilot, an honor student, a successful businessman, and someone who loved literature and good conversation. He was also a tough father who expected a lot, and he made his own success look easy. He took great risks. The brave rarely consider themselves fearless, and he was very much alive when he was strategizing his next life-campaign. Some people never live. They move from one safe zone to another, avoiding tragedy, life and the inherent feelings. The small moments of joy are good enough in a life spent avoiding pain and failure. He lived with a risk/reward profile most lack the courage to assume.

I’m beginning to miss him.

One of the hard parts of surviving a larger-than-life parent is the constant contact people seek. Everyone wants to talk to me, all the time. They only have that one topic. Many are reminded of someone they lost, and will project their experience on to mine. Others are pushed into recognizing a mortality they have denied thus far. How can a man filled with such vitality, who made youth seem eternal, suddenly cease? They begin doing their own math. All these people want to talk to me. They’re sharing extremely special memories, but their timing is off. I’m not ready to have these conversations, but I am forced to stand and listen. A very large number of people felt very close to him, who want to be consoled, so I spend my days absorbing strangers’ sadness and making them feel better, while they load more grief on to me.

And they all tell me not to be sad.

We are not allowed this. We are allowed to be deeply into art, or Buddhism, or photography, or music, but we are not allowed to be deeply sad. Grief is a thing that we are encouraged to “let go of,” to “move on from,” and we are told specifically how this should be done. Countless well-intentioned friends, distant family members, bankers, lawyers, and strangers I met at parties recited the famous five stages of grief to me: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. I am alarmed by how many people know them, how deeply this single definition of the grieving process had permeated our cultural consciousness. Not only am I supposed to feel these five things, I am expected to feel them in that order, and other feelings must be reinterpreted to fit the template. Expressing any other feelings is anathema, because all these sad people would look at me like I’m an emotional cripple, or a callous ingrate.

What I want more than anything is time alone. And I just want to spend some time being sad, and I want to mourn the small pieces, the moving parts of a relationship that can now never fall perfectly into their places. I am surrounded all day long by people who want to be closer to the memory of my father, or need some family business issue to be resolved, or who simply want a piece of me. They pull at me, they take energy from me as they bathe in their own feelings, and they’re sucking the creativity and strength out of me. So I feel like a stone, an efficient machine, an executor of a will. But I can find no chance to feel like a son who lost his role model, or a man who will now lead his tribe. I honor my father’s life by working hard. His voice will be in my head forever, especially now as I absorb his responsibilities. I feel incredibly far away from creativity, and all I really want to do is walk around and shoot pictures.

There is a lot of work that remains to be done, and then I will take time for myself. Soon (hopefully) I will begin creating art again – with more effort, more determination, and a hell of a lot more risk. Because that’s when I feel the most alive.

The Easy Life

We have all heard about the casual easy life that artists get to live. Get up at noon, have a long breakfast while re-reading Infinite Jest, then meander over to the studio. Late night work with nude models, organic cigarettes and art-house dub-step…

Yeah, not really.

If you’re serious about being an artist you have to pay attention to the details, and push yourself out into the world. This notion that an artist toils away in a rarefied world of exquisite isolation is a wonderful idea, but it doesn’t work. No one is going to just discover you one day, then lift you out of obscurity. Those days are over, and I’m not sure that ever really actually happened. Unfortunately no one is going to do this work for you, so you have to do it yourself. It is a LOT of work to stay in touch with people in your network, to let people know what you’re working on, and to present your work at the appropriate time in the best venue.

Being an artist isn’t just making wonderfully creative work. The hard part is often the execution. If you paint you better have clean brushes, stretched canvases, and access to good framing. You need your tools to make art, and to present it. The same is true in every other discipline. As a photographic artist, I need my gear to be ready. But the most time-consuming work is printing. It takes inordinate amounts of time to find the right paper, to profile it correctly, and then to fine-tune the images until they look they way you envisioned them.

Preparing the Hanjo book right now is even more difficult, because it is a collaboration between several craftspeople. The printer is helping me evaluate different papers and the way the ink penetrates the surface of the hand-made paper. The carpenter is building the very detailed and exquisite boxes, silk screens are applied to the outside, and a book-binder is assembling the leporellos. The graphic lay-out requires fine-tuning, and the business around it needs to be put in place. Display stand, limited edition certificates, and shipping crates are all being made to get everything to Japan in time for Tokyo Photo 2013. Unfortunately none of these people are even in the same city, so everything needs to be shipped back and forth, or picked up and driven half-way across Brandenburg, before it can get on a plane to Asia.

All of this has me pretty frazzled and stressed. This is how I felt yesterday afternoon…

_U1J8260_web_sRGBJitsuko about to explode in rage and frustration

But I’m not complaining loudly. It’s being managed by my publisher at Galerie Vevais, I’m just high strung and hyper nervous.  And honestly…? This is the good stuff. This is what it means to be an artist in this genre. Yes, we love to create images, to sketch out new ideas, or to pin mood boards to Pinterest. It’s the emergence of the image from a great data file into the physical world that lifts it into a new realm. I envy my friends who shoot Polaroids or Collodions… they end up with a piece of art much faster.

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Red, Arri, and the Daylight adventure

Typically I either write about the creative part of my photography, or I quote poems… so fair warning given up front: this is one of those rare technical posts.

For the last five years I have relied on ProFoto flash gear and digital SLR cameras to capture my images. I like using my lighting gear, I know how it works, and I’ve gotten pretty good at it. About a year ago I moved from shooting with the full-frame Canon sensors to the Phase One system. It’s a digital Medium Format SLR camera, and isn’t particularly different from my previous system except for the sensor size.

My struggle is usually depth of field. I shoot flash, so freezing action isn’t problem. Just to avoid any motion blur I tend to lock in at 1/200th of a second, unless I want to bleed in some ambient light as I did in my Hopper’s American series. I typically use a tripod, which helps me frame my shots. But when shooting a staged set I tend to be relatively close, and capturing a bigger scene means my focal depth is comparatively shallow. The Phase One is a bigger camera, and that means f/8 gives me barely 30cm (one foot) of decent focus when I’m three or four meters (15 feet) away. I’m always dismayed by how much light wattage I need to capture a sharp picture with sufficient depth of field.

One of the frustrations of using flash is that I don’t really see what I’ll be capturing. There’s modeling light of course, but it never struck me as proportional and correct. I end up shooting a few test frames. That’s what’s wonderful about digital photography…  Real-time feedback but no wasted film and no need for Polaroids. I shoot tethered, meaning there’s a cable that runs from my camera into my laptop, where the  screen is big enough to see the light balance. I make the necessary adjustments, and pretty soon I’m ready to shoot. I don’t use light meters, I don’t see the point. I have a histogram on the camera as well as in the software, so I have a pretty good idea of what part of my image needs more light.

The Sacred & Profane series is a long-term project that I’ve been shooting for over a year now. If you scroll through this blog you’ll see some teaser images. It’s very dark and baroque. In the near future I will be shooting some action moments within this series, and I’m concerned about nailing the perfect shot. It’s hard to capture the right frame when it is pretty dark. Also, the Phase One has a very large sensor, but can only shoot at one frame every 1.5 seconds… that’s an eternity when shooting a quick, highly time-sensitive moment. So I decided to test shoot high resolution video. The technology is growing quickly. In a nutshell, you shoot a few seconds of video, let’s say at 30 frames per second. Before you know it, you’ve shot several thousand frames, and then you simply pick the best one. No fear of losing the perfect moment.

That brings up two problems… Different lights, and a different camera. You see where this is going…

A photographer needs to know the gear intimately. Operating the camera or adjusting the lights needs to be completely second nature, or the technical issues begin affecting the creative process. If you’re fumbling for simple things like focus or f-stops, the creative flow stops dead. That’s why new gear needs to be tested and practiced with before a major shoot.

I opted for the Epic Red camera system. It’s being touted as the newest coolest thing. Highly modular, its being used to shoot big budget Hollywood movies, expensive advertisements, and fashion videos. I’ve also heard about some fashion shooters using the Red system to freeze frames for magazine still images… exactly what I was hoping to do. You can use different kinds of lenses on that system, so I took the Canon EF mount, because I still have all the good L-Series primes from my Canon days.

The problem with shooting video is that you need continuous light. You can’t flash thirty times a second… or maybe you can, but ten minutes later everyone is either on the studio floor in epileptic conniptions, or dancing to the B-52’s “Strobelight.”  It’s not going to work.

So ProFoto provided me with their new HMI continuous light system called ProDaylight for a few days of tests. First I tested it with my existing system, shooting with Phase One and the new lights.

It didn’t work. It’s not even close to bright enough. And it’s very difficult to control and fine-tune. Few of the light shapers from my flash system worked, even though ProFoto promises in their advertising that everything is cross-platform. But it isn’t. The lights get so hot that they would melt or incinerate most of the gear. It requires a lot of special light shapers, especially softboxes. The light is hard outside of the boxes. ProFoto’s (really cool-looking) CineReflector comes with all kinds of lenses and scrims, but it’s still a small light source that makes a hard light. and it is incredibly hot. Our system actually came with a set of gloves in case you need to add a scrim or change out a lens… but be prepared to wait. This is a very different way of setting up your lights, not just simply asking your assistant to dial in another half a stop on the keylight via the little twistknob on the Pro8.

It was a lot of light… but not enough. The Phase One needs a lot of light, and the four 800-watt heads could not deliver. Even at ISO 400, 1/60th of a second and f/7.1 I was at least two stops underexposed. The image was dark!

I didn’t want to give up, I was determined to push on. I called my friend Philip who owns Germany’s biggest film light rental company. He set me up with a “tiny” system of 3x 1800 watt Arri lights, and one 4000 watt Arri to use with a big softbox for fill. The situation is the same as the ProFoto gear. It’s very difficult to adjust, requires all kinds of specialized scrims and boxes, a LOT of electricity, and hot gloves.

Well, there was enough light. Barely. But there’s no way that you can “see what you shoot” because everything is brightly lit! Light is bouncing around the entire space, and to the human eye it looks like the inside of an Emergency Room. So once again I’m forced to look at the tethered computer, and finding a relatively dark image… but now my crew is walking around the studio with sunglasses, and everyone feels like they’re getting a tan in the bright heat.

Next we deployed the Epic Red Mysterium-X camera. I know everyone gets weak-kneed at the thought of the Red, and there’s a gear-head lurking inside of every photographer… but I didn’t like it. Its unwieldy, counter-intuitive, and not very good. The sensor is actually quite small compared to my monster Phase One (APS-C vs almost double a Full-Frame). Holding the camera is almost impossible, it has no real handle and was really designed as a component video camera that sits in a rig. There are no knobs, so everything needs to be controlled through a touch-panel. There is no way to adjust aperture or time or ISO without stopping what you’re doing. It’s got a pretty high native ISO, so shooting at 800 is not a problem. But the images are very flat, with little contrast or saturation in the RAW file. That can be adjusted, obviously. But the biggest problem is motion blur. Even at 1/100th of second, there is a softness that isn’t acceptable to me. Of course, at f/8, I was shooting at 1/50th… Everything was blurred. Simply put, there is no way I can print a final file at 140 x 100 cm (60 x 40 inch).

So that’s it. I’ve returned all the gear, and am using what I know. I like my camera, I like my flash system, and I will rely on my abilities as a photographer, as someone who can read movement, and as an artist to direct my models. I have gotten the shot in the past, and I will use my tools. The new gear is not for me.

Constant State of “Not Good Enough”

I saw one of those clever little graphic design exercises on Tumblr today. It was just a simple image that said:

I don’t know what I’m supposed to be doing right now, but I’m pretty sure I’m not doing it.

That – in a nutshell – summarizes exactly how I have felt for the last forty years. It goes hand-in-hand with feeling slightly guilty. It also usually feels like I’m missing something and not getting it right… and that I’m not working hard enough.

I envy the people who get to bask in a sense of accomplishment. Usually I tend to be ass-deep into the next project by the time something finally comes to fruition. So instead of being pleased with what I’ve accomplished in the past, I feel inadequate about what I’m focused on now.

Stoopid, I know.

If you spoke to your friends the way you speak to your self, they’d beat the crap out of you.

Point well taken. There are so many people around me who make me compliments, show me love, and encourage me in my work. I’ve had to learn to accept compliments, and take pride in my work. Admittedly its gotten better as I have grown older, because there’s a wide path of creative destruction behind me, and I can see that I’ve done a number of things right. But that doesn’t make me feel any better or more successful, it just makes it easier to ignore the demons of doubt.

What really helps is having a decent sense of humor about the whole thing. If you take any of this too seriously it will suck the fun right out of life.

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There’s also a good thing about all of this… it keeps me working. And trying. And pushing. I may not sleep much, but it sure keeps me up at night worrying about getting it right the next chance I have.

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And I don’t mean any of this to sound like I’m filled with self-pity. I’ve accepted this about me, and have learned to use it to my advantage. And it gave me a chance to make a cool little poster of my own.

The Sandwich Man

On the subway there’s a couple that can’t stop kissing. They’re standing by the door and devouring each other. Kiss/ smile/ kiss/ smile– it’s kind of sweet but kind of annoying too because they’re so close that it’s hard not to watch them. Kiss/ smile/ kiss/ loooong look, etc. The train makes three or four stops while they only have eyes and lips for each other. But if you look closely (it’s almost impossible NOT to look), the big love is coming more from the girl than from the guy. Her eyes eat him alive and every few sentences she reaches up to peck him on the lips. Finally as we’re approaching a station she gives him even more kisses. You can tell this is her stop but he is staying on the train. Their goodbye is intense and then she’s gone. As soon as the doors close, the guy sits down nearby and reaching into his briefcase, pulls out an enormous obviously homemade sandwich. Tearing off the paper around it, he chomps into it with a delight and relish that’s twice as passionate as he showed for his girl. Thank God she isn’t there to see it. Her big competition is a sandwich.

Jonathan Carroll

…this made me laugh. I’ve been this guy. But I would argue that’s a good thing. A girl that wants a man who isn’t going to wander is well-served by a guy that’s enthralled by a sandwich. It does NOT take a lot to make me happy… Let me photograph you, wear sensible shoes when not going to a fancy place, read a book, give a shit about art, explore sexuality, and understand that real food can take the place of all of it – when done right.

Competitive Analysis

The last few weeks have been difficult. As an artist, you are never supposed to think about what people might think of your work. You’re supposed to work for yourself, and magic will happen. Nor are you supposed to be bothered by what other artists are doing.

This was difficult to maintain while walking around Art Basel Hong Kong. There is a lot of fantastic art there, but the overall effect is one of distortion. At first glance everything seems great, because the good work lifts everything else along with it. In a rather soulless, neutral place like a giant convention center, filled entirely with art solely in the context of more art, everything suddenly looks better than it should. But a second look reveals that much of it is crap. Yet I couldn’t help think that I’d like my work shown there some day soon. And some of the more complex work made me question some of my creative choices. I was – in effect – comparing myself to “the competition”. But I took a lot of inspiration from my competitive analysis and realized that an idea I’ve been working on is exactly the right direction to go. I am energized in this new direction, and I can’t wait to execute it. It’s about the way I physically display the images, and how I will choose to high-light distinct aspects of the image.

Another moment that was initially difficult was a few days ago. The gallery that represents me in Berlin opened a group show, which included an image by an artist they recently signed.

It looked like something I could have created as part of my Sacred & Profane series.

That got to me. At first, it really disheartened me. I felt betrayed by my gallery because they know what I’m working on, and the conflict irked me. But that passed quickly. I am an emerging artist who is currently building up my name, and the artist in question is a successful commercial big-name photographer, someone whose work I respect. The gallery is in the business of selling art, as they should be. It only makes sense that they represent someone with a built-in audience.

Another concern I had was the possible confusion. When I first signed with the gallery, the focus was set on my Hopper’s American series, though I was told that some images would not be part of the initial selection… because they included neon signs. This was a recognizable feature of yet another contemporary photographer’s style who is represented by the gallery. But my work is selling well, and the parallels are minimal. My work evokes more emotion, and is timeless… and frankly, is more sophisticated than the commercial shooter’s fine art efforts. Over a very short time, concerns about two artists using urban elements such as lit signs at night disappeared.

So I was pissed that I am now facing the same issue again… here is a new artist to the gallery – with a more recognizable name than my own – doing work that looks at first glance much like mine. And although I’ve been working on my Sacred and Profane series for over a year, suddenly his work is being shown, and now someone who doesn’t know better might assume I was influenced by him.

But in thinking about it, I see a number of major differences, and I know my work is better. I must say that I really admire his sets and his styling. The way he processes his images is less impressive to me, but that is a creative choice. What matters is that his narrative images are technically masterful, but they lack emotion. I also find the physical presentation to be wrong, and have a good guess as to why the choice was made… one I consider lazy, cheap and ultimately a detriment. I’m going in a direction with my work that is much more emotional in its subject, much more physical in the presentation, and and a lot more conceptual. So I welcome the opportunity to be directly compared to someone whom I respect, because I know my work will “win”… and that motivates the competitive cultural entrepreneur in me greatly.

Disheartenend

If this blog is to have any value at all, I need to have the courage to write honestly. There are phases in my projects where I feel incredibly disheartened. I accept that the creative process is more than simple execution. The Sacred and Profane project has been with me for over a year now, and it continues to shift. What I thought initially to be a very strong direction now turns out to be a simple starting-off point. I mean that technically as well as creatively. The images I hoped to produce were reinterpretations of classic imagery, baroque in language but filled with a contemporary approach. After shooting like this for several months, I have found that I need to go beyond that.

I tried increasingly complex arrangements and settings, but I can’t seem to make that work, because they do exactly what I have always avoided – they are too expository, meaning they leave little room for interpretation; they tell a story, rather than serve as a doorway to the viewer’s own narrative.

But there are interesting details in each of these images. I am tearing them apart now, and pulling out the snippets that distill the idea. These crops are reduced to the essential elements, and lack the broader context of the original image. But my concern remains that I will be misunderstood, and I need to get over that.

There is an incredible desire to let my viewers know about the internal dialog which I find surprisingly intense, and the research I have done into this topic. These are not simple images that play with art history. I have never been able to separate my feelings from my thoughts. This has proven to be as much a strength as a weakness, but it has been the survival tool on which I have based my entire life as part of overcoming addiction, and illness. I need to be aware of my feelings so that they don’t take control of me, and over time I have come to take a certain pride in my emotions. I try to let them enter my images, not as the raw unprocessed vibe that paints every day a slightly different color, but rather the refined results that I’m able to arrive at after sifting through thoughts, concepts, and a general understanding of myself – and the people around me.

Yes, I know what that sounds like, but it works. There’s a reason I shot the Hopper’s American series the way I did at the time – each image reflects a moment just before or after something might have happened, and it’s unclear whether that is a good or a bad thing. That was very much on my mind at the time. The Hanjo story is a reflection of the choices people think they’re making about love when in relationships, and sometimes you have to accept the smaller loss over the bigger one… never knowing whether you will really know which one was the right choice.

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So if the Sacred and Profane images are now veering into sexualized images that focus on parts of the body, it’s not because I want to make fetishistic close-ups of arm pits, breasts, feet and shoulders, but rather because that is exactly where the vulnerability can be found. Those are the Achillian heels, the gateways to what is left of the Feminine in a visual language that to this day has been shaped by patriarchy.

But I need to accept that the images will be interpreted by my viewers as they choose.

More complex is the desire to create work that justifies itself intellectually, while still using a language of beauty. It still seems anathema to a large swath of people that those two elements are mutually exclusive. And a concept which can be grasped easily is suspicious to that same crowd.

I am disheartened right now. I feel like chucking the whole project, because I can’t come to terms with it… I can’t see the final project in front of me – the sizes, the paper types, the production, and whether it works at all. I look longingly at conventional fine art photography… those clever images shot in lonely locations that make me want to go on long trips by myself, or intimate moments caught amongst loved ones that make me wish for people in my life that would allow me to take their pictures. I want to work without large teams that need direction, I second-guess the people around me and wonder if they are committed enough, or creative enough to help me realize the images that are right behind my eyes, but that I can’t seem to articulate.

But that’s momentary. Believe me, these are not rare moments. They stare me down every time I need to select images after I shoot. But… they go away just as quickly, replaced by excitement for the next image and a new idea.

I have some new ideas, and they will be shot a week from now. There will be flowers and butterflies and sex and beauty.

Self-doubt

Self-doubt can be a bitch. I have been working on my new series for almost a year now, and I have gone in a direction that I don’t fully believe in. I have experimented with narrative images that feature multiple characters, often eight or more people, and I find that they aren’t working yet. The images are extremely dense and staged, and they force a story, rather than suggest one. What’s confusing – as ever – are the disparate comments I am getting from my trusted circle. Some tell me the images that I don’t believe in are actually finally the first great images in the new series. Others like images that I don’t, or dislike the ones that I find aesthetically or conceptually good.

But I know what I want… and they aren’t it yet.

I’m looking back, and I’m trying to reconcile these images with everything that has happened. A year ago I was diagnosed with a crippling cancer and it changed how I perceive the world, what matters to me, and what I want to express artistically. My disdain for religion has not abated, but I have softened on it much the same way I will forgive a toddler for wanting to sleep with a favorite blanket. People need their superstitions, and at first glance there’s no real harm in it… while allowing us grown-ups a good night’s sleep knowing the simple ones have their comfort. Except of course that its bad parenting. At some point you need to ween your child off bad habits, and a child can only learn from parents and the people around it. Because on the larger scale these religious habits add up to cultures that are designed to clash, in their quest for growth they become the cause of war and death, and its lords rule as bullies who try to marshal their herds into separate pens.

My fascination remains with the Feminine. Our One-God religions fight to the death over who has the right form of worship of a very patriarchal God, while the Goddess has been entirely scrubbed from the culture. In 9th grade we all learned to quote Marx, we know that religion is the opiate of the masses. Drug addicts will come up with a hundred things that would make their life better. “if only I had a good job, if only she loved me, if only my parents had been nicer…” but the one thing that never crosses their mind to quit is the drug itself. Our monotheist cultures never stop to question the endless duality – Good vs. Evil, God vs. Man, Man vs. Nature, and so on – to realize that we need to quit the teenage-boy God, that we are missing the Feminine.

So I am stepping back a bit and will focus on very simple images. Sometimes a visual-conceptual cleanse is necessary to clear the creative palate. Here’s a test image that I shot on Thursday. I like the light and the pose, but I want a few more elements in the image to give it some visual texture. It’s too simple right now, but I like that it is less narrative. I will reshoot this, the same emotion but a little more set to give the eye something to complement the main element.

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Printing

I am an artist, and I spend as much time in the creative zone as possible. This sounds flip and affected, but that’s not how I mean that. No matter how creative I may be as a person, the world forces me into the logical/rational side of my brain. I really have to carve out large chunks of time to get my mind into a pattern where I can sort out and evaluate the ideas banging around inside my head like so many pachinko balls. There are always problems to be solved, regardless of how minor they may be. It is simply impossible – for instance – to move imaginatively through a particular idea, to feel one’s way through it, while simultaneously installing a new version of Photoshop. Or planning a shoot. Or dealing with taxes. Or evaluating new business opportunities. Or scheduling the kids’ life.

But nothing – NOTHING – sucks the magic and poetry out of life faster than printing fine art images.

It’s exhausting. Paper types, ICC profiles, platen gaps, color management, thickness, ink levels, drying times, archival sealants, etc and so on ad nauseum. I love my Epson printers, and I use great paper – usually Hahnemühle for the important work, and Epson paper for the proofing prints. But even THAT isn’t clear… It took me two hours of research to realize that Epson Management itself now recommends using “Watercolor Radiant White” as the media type when printing Epson Canvas on an Epson 9890… rather than one of their own Canvas settings… Facepalm.

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Running test strips for different kinds of Canvas to see coloration, contrast and saturation. I think I got it. But seriously, I need to find a print guy and make him part of my retouch team…

Banned Facebook Image

This image just got removed by Facebook. I had it as my Cover image. A lot of my Friends – and their Friends – liked the image enough to make the super-minimal effort. It had over 220 Likes and was shared by fifteen people. But at some point someone somewhere got offended and reported the image. The person probably just tagged the image as Offensive, and a community officer at Facebook took it down. I recently read an articles that described the process at Facebook. They get hundreds of thousands of reports per day, and have a large Community Standards team. The members of this team are encouraged to spend no more than one second (!) per images, make a decision, and move on. Usually they remove the image and block the user. In this case I was not blocked from using the service, though I’ve previously had some of my fine art images removed, and was sentenced to several multi-day blocks… which usually makes me quite productive 😉

EDIT:  18 hours later I was blocked. I got a second notice, I was linking inappropriate material. So someone tagged the link to this article, and my blog was registered as spam/inappropriate, and I am on a seven day lock down. Oh well.   /edit

I don’t blame Facebook. It’s not their job to parse the difference between unlucky snapshot, porn, or fine art. They want a nudity-free environment. So they just remove it. Why should they not make their own life easier? This article gives a small but different glimpse of the shit they have to deal with every day. Facebook has decided to leave its social media service clear of nudity to avoid a slippery slope. Remember how bad things got on MySpace? The internet is full of porn. It’s not hard to find. Some of it’s terrible, some of it boring and uninspired, and a little is actually quite good. Pretty much all men watch porn, and there are a lot of women at this point who watch porn as well. And honestly, few things are hotter than receiving a small animated .gif or video snippet linked from Porn4Ladies or WhatIWantToDoToYou from your lover during office hours.

But of course, Facebook’s approach is socially driven. it is impossible to ignore the larger issue, the completely stilted and unhealthy relationship society puts on sexuality. And let’s be honest: more than ever, American Puritanical roots are affecting all of us. Facebook is a company founded, incubated and IPO’d in the United States, and that society – especially through its near-omnipresent media industry – has propagated its values and culture across the globe.

My work is driven by the Feminine, and I am constantly pushing against the patriarchal systems that have led to the Judeo-Christian religion as we experience them now. And make no mistake: Christianity and Islam are simply version 2.0 and 3.0 of the original monotheistic system that began by scouring the Female from itself.

This image… the sleeping Goddess… we need to awaken her.

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The Feminine Magic

Some insight into my current thought process… It’s not clear, so I am trying to parse it out here, and will hopefully elicit some dialog.

I have been reading a lot of Joseph Campbell, and find myself softening ever so slightly on the total disdain I have for religion. To some degree I have always given a lot of people a pass. I understand that Ritual gives people a chance to participate. It also perpetuates a culture, which isn’t always a bad thing. The self-righteous Yoga-Vegans fill their own lives with rituals, which lose their meaning for those who inherit or assume these rituals, but didn’t create them. This is how “organized” religions are ultimately born. Take the laws of Halal or Kasher – they sanctify an action. They remind a person that they make a choice, and that raises them above animals. But it also separates them. At its highest form, that is no different than the smugness felt by the modern shopper leaving a Bio-Organic supermarket. But a choice has to be conscious; the minute you follow rules and rituals blindly they become meaningless, and only benefit the system, not the person.

Religion is filled with stories of heroes, prophets, apostles, and saints. In many ways, people need myths and heroes to describe the magic they invariably feel in their life. But more importantly, myths illustrate the moments of our lives that move us through our changes.

The saints, the apostles, the prophets, the kings… the stories should serve as metaphors. They aren’t literal, but they are true – True in the sense that they reflect back to us feelings that we might encounter as well.

Those feelings – the love, the fear, the anger, the lust – that is where the Divine lies, that is where we become Gods. It is as much in the virtues as in the sins. And the great stories tell those moments, and challenge us to see ourselves in those stories.

So how does that come up in my work?

I’ve photographed women and nudes for a long time. I have had a fascination with the Feminine for years. But I am not interested in just taking pictures of hot naked chicks. I find that absolutely mind-numbingly boring, and the pages of large Taschen books, not to mention the internet, are full of quasi-artistic images which purport to celebrate goddesses and muses. They don’t. They’re just erotica. If I create an image like that, there must be a reason, a place it comes from.

I have been reading the stories of St Agatha, or St Catherine, or St Barbara, or any of the other female saints who were martyred for not submitting to a man in the way he wanted. The story is always the same… A man wants something from the woman, but she refuses. In his anger, he decides to hurt and destroy her. This two thousand year old story is no different than the man spraying acid in the face of a girl in Afghanistan for not marrying him. In the beatific saint stories the woman was always saving herself for Christ, of course. But that is just religion repurposing human tragedy to suit its own narrative.

These stories were tools for establishing the patriarchy in the early monotheistic days. Humanity began losing its magic then, as a very male form of society began taking hold. A religious/societal rule-set created for governance, for expansion, for reinforcement and confinement. It sought to replace the irrational, the inexplicable, the magical, much of what was feminine in nature. We lost our Goddesses then… Astarte, Ishtar, and all the others… relegated to martyred or motherly roles, or entirely re-envisioned as the embodiment of evil and the arbiter of original sin. But magic persisted will into the Renaissance and beyond. Anna Göldin was decapitated for witchcraft near Zurich in 1782, an era when brighter minds were already deep into the Age of Reason. Enlightenment, with its rigor around debate, and study, and evidence, did not defeat religion. If anything, it is the second version of a patriarchal system. It remains a male way of looking at the world, and if anything, has taken us even further from the Feminine. I scoff at religion as mindless superstition, but it occurs to me now that Reason and Enlightenment – though less superstitious and more egalitarian – does nothing to return us there.

I’ll grant that every little bit helps. Maybe those pictures of wannabe soft-core porn and beautiful erotica help restore some femininity into a massively male world, however coincidentally and circumstantially. And maybe life freed from patriarchal religion allows us to sneak the Feminine back into our interactions, into our perceptions, into our lives.

All this makes me want to tell myths, not tear away at the stories of others. It makes me want to bring the Feminine further into my work. Yet my resentment for religion, my disdain for its current popular form remains. The Gods did not make us in their image… we made them in ours. And it is time to make Gods and Goddesses that fit our time. Heroes that illustrate our stories. Saints that give our sacrifices a contemporary context.

I can’t stop right now, and I feel a little out of control. I want to consume information at a pace that is unrealistic, like over-eating knowledge. I’m gorging on books and wikis and video lectures, and I can’t seem to find a way to stir all of it into my images. My “Sacred and Profane” project seems to be changing into something entirely more complex than I set out to accomplish initially, and I am quickly accepting that the overall series may show these thoughts, but I can’t expect every single image to cover every aspect.

…and I need to stop gorging. Because when I get this way, I don’t only over-consume knowledge, i over-eat, too. One part of me says “Fuck It, it doesn’t matter if you’re a little heavier, you’re a Man not a boy…” but then my internal photographer and aesthete walks past a mirror… and is mortified. So keep the Amazon boxes coming, but chill on the Turkish food deliveries. And keep an eye open for Saints and Goddesses.

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One of my many attempts at Goddess… Here the Venus of Willendorf. For more information please visit my website and see the Forest Project.

That rare moment

“What could be more interesting, or in the end, more ecstatic, than in those rare moments when you see another person look at something you’ve made, and realize that they got it exactly, that your heart jumped to their heart with nothing in between.”

Robert Motherwell

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“Hanako awakes from her nap” – an image from my Photographic Novel “Hanjo.”

For what it’s worth…

For what it’s worth … it’s never too late, or in my case too early, to be whoever you want to be. There’s no time limit. Start whenever you want. You can change or stay the same. There are no rules to this thing. We can make the best or the worst of it. I hope you make the best of it. I hope you see things that startle you. I hope you feel things you never felt before. I hope you meet people who have a different point of view. I hope you live a life you’re proud of, and if you’re not, I hope you have the courage to start all over again.

Eric Roth from his screen play for F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

Pretty is not enough

This project I’m shooting goes deeper into me than I thought, and I am grateful for the guidance and friends I have, now that I know how to approach it. There are decisions that come from a part of the soul that is both unknowable and scary. It’s like an Area 51 that is completely off limits to me, yet some of my most important choices are made there. I see how others approach the style or the subject matter, and I know they are failing.

Both my Hopper project and the Hanjo stories are reflections of how I felt at the time. One was a melancholy reflection of what might come next and what has been, and the other was a meditation on love lost in light of doing the right thing. I am more confident in my images than ever, the new series is strong and committed. It is no longer a look back, it is time to make a mark, and to comment on the world that I see. Fear is not an option; my sons need to know that I did more than simply create pretty pictures. There is more to art than technical execution and decorative color schemes, and I’m seeing work in galleries these days that lack depth and courage. I will shoot for more; I promise.

Color Blind

The people who work with me have pointed out that I’m color blind. Fortunately I can tell my greens from reds, so I’m allowed to drive, but apparently I can’t really see the color blue particularly well. This became particularly obvious after that long, angry weekend I previously described. I invited everyone back into the studio and with great pride showed my team The Grey Room, a new set that I had destroyed and then re-sanctified with buckets of grey paint.

Or, as my team pointed out to me… BLUE paint.  I’ll take their word, I guess…

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I just found this wonderful two-part article called the The Crayolafication of the World that explores the naming of colors, how we got there, and how it has affected our perception. The author explores how different cultures have come about naming colors. It is not as analogous as you’d expect it to be. A lot of cultures don’t make a distinction between blue and green, for instance.

How many colors can you name? I can probably get to fifteen, but that begins reaching into purely descriptive terms. (Rust? Eggplant? Egg yolk? Those might describe East German hair colors for older ladies…)

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Part Two of the article gets into the slightly more scientific aspects of color recognition. Children take comparatively long to acquire a nomenclature for the various colors. I can’t recall whether that was the case… It seemed my three sons figured out colors very early, but one thing that I will remember forever was a particular bonding experience with my first son. I’m not sure whether it was simply because I had more time for him than others that weekend, or whether we’re wired to communicate a certain way – we’re both highly communicative… to a fault!  But at that time he was walking around pointing at things and saying “Elmo”, possibly one of his first words. Well, I sussed out that he was only pointing at red objects, and Elmo is a red furry Sesame Street monster… and we just spent the rest of the time walking around the house pointing out Elmo-colored things and saying the word “red.”

The point is that language has a lot to do with perception, because language becomes definition. I am completely bilingual (German and English) and can bullshit my way through a number of other languages. To anyone who speaks more than one language, you realize that straight translation is impossible, that all words are loaded with historic and cultural values, and that they have a distinct etymology. This means that people have different experiences because they don’t just get filtered through a personal matrix of reference points, but that there are distinct cultural aspects that define our experiences.

And maybe that’s why I see the set as grey, and my Berlin teams sees it as blue. People here seem to have more words for grey than eskimos have for snow… which is less than I thought.

Worst Case Scenario

I don’t know anymore when I began using the phrase Worst Case Scenario. If I had to guess it would have been in the late 1980s, when I was selling syndicated television and advertisement in New York. Everyone wanted to be Gordon Gecko, but at least in TV we had real swagger. Or so I thought, going to work in a suit with suspenders every day, while humping it to the Fordham University dark room at night to finish my degree.

I have a lot of other phrases. Some come and go, a few change their meaning, while there will be those that somehow define me.

I laid awake tonight next to my four-year old, waiting for him to drift off to sleep. I was wondering what it would be like if phrases were people. How cool would it be if you could take Worst Case Scenario out on the town for the weekend? A nice French dinner, or some Korean chicken shack in Kreuzberg. Just driving around and hitting a few museums. Do you think Worst Case Scenario would come bearing gifts? Hopefully she’d take me into a hotel room and fuck me like crazy till I couldn’t walk properly. Her tight little body grinding down on me until the neighbors complained… Or maybe we’d just drive through town endlessly listening to Trentemøller. Who knows…

Goodness, I can only imagine a visit from “It is what it is.”

Or “End of Line”.

Selecting images

I hate selecting images. Years ago, when I shot film, I had to be a lot more deliberate about the images I captured because I would run out of film very quickly. But digital photography allows me to shoot for hours without a pause.

Recently I shot three very talented dancers. When I work with dancers for the first time whom I don’t know well it is hard for me to anticipate their moves, or to know their routines. Subsequently I shoot a lot, and this time I ended up with 1,400 frames from one full day of shooting. Ouch.

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I usually wait a few days after shooting before I look at the images I’ve captured. Honestly? I find image selection a battlefield of self-doubt and loathing. All I see is what I did wrong, what I missed, what should have been obvious. The problem is when I shoot I switch into full creative mode, and the technical part of my brain goes out for a long drive to the countryside. I once shot for twenty minutes only to realize I had not focused the camera. Fortunately I could just reshoot because the set and models where still in place. Another time I shot for a while without noticing that my fill-flash wasn’t firing… which led to a much more dramatic lighting. Those were the lucky moments. More often than not I found myself sitting in front of my computer, seriously wondering whom I’m fooling. A real photographer would not make the kind of mistakes I made that day… My self-esteem is not a reliable travel partner on the best of days, but editing time is usually when I get to be completely on my own… no confidence or pride anywhere in sight.

A great musician spends a lot of time listening to all kinds of music, and a good writer reads a lot. So as a photographer, I look at other people’s images all day long. But of course, I am seeing another photographer’s twenty best images that were created in the course of a year or more… But when I look at my pile of raw data, initially I see nothing but shit.

It passes. I usually (though not always) end up with images that work. Over the years I’ve gotten better, and technically more proficient. I trust my gear and my basic skills, and half the time when I shoot I’m just directing the model, and making sure the feet are in the frame. But I still wonder why I didn’t notice the lamp right behind the model, why I didn’t just move a little higher, or why the damn foot is out of the frame after all!

The Coming Storm

Those who know me, or pay any attention, often find me hiding in public. It’s a habit I detest. It may briefly give me an incredibly clever view of myself, but I would much prefer to be out, open and honest about my actions, my health, my relationships. But often I do things to spare the feelings of others, or to avoid consequences I find inconvenient, or simply because I don’t want to hear from most people; there are few things as distasteful as unsolicited advice.

Lost opportunities, lost possibilities, feelings we can never get back. That’s part of what it means to be alive. But inside our heads – at least that’s where I imagine it – there’s a little room where we store those memories. A room like the stacks in this library. And to understand the workings of our own heart we have to keep on making new reference cards. We have to dust things off every once in awhile, let in fresh air, change the water in the flower vases. In other words, you’ll live forever in your own private library.

But a storm is coming, and everything will need to change. When I finally looked in the mirror and admitted that I am an artist, everything else fell out of the cupboard. It was as much an admission of failure as it was a relief. But with it I got to know myself, the parts I have supressed since February 1988. I have tried to push it back in… shoulder to the door, feet firmly planted against the grainy floor… but the beast has taken up residence inside me, making manifest what I did not want to feel or see.

And so the storm has followed me…

Sometimes fate is like a small sandstorm that keeps changing directions. You change direction but the sandstorm chases you. You turn again, but the storm adjusts. Over and over you play this out, like some ominous dance with death just before dawn. Why? Because this storm isn’t something that blew in from far away, something that has nothing to do with you. This storm is you. Something inside of you. So all you can do is give in to it, step right inside the storm, closing your eyes and plugging up your ears so the sand doesn’t get in, and walk through it, step by step. There’s no sun there, no moon, no direction, no sense of time. Just fine white sand swirling up into the sky like pulverized bones. That’s the kind of sandstorm you need to imagine.

And you really will have to make it through that violent, metaphysical, symbolic storm. No matter how metaphysical or symbolic it might be, make no mistake about it: it will cut through flesh like a thousand razor blades. People will bleed there, and you will bleed too. Hot, red blood. You’ll catch that blood in your hands, your own blood and the blood of others.

And once the storm is over you won’t remember how you made it through, how you managed to survive. You won’t even be sure, in fact, whether the storm is really over. But one thing is certain. When you come out of the storm you won’t be the same person who walked in. That’s what this storm’s all about.

Wish me luck in the coming year. It’s about finding what is left of me, and what is best for me.

But who can say what’s best? That’s why you need to grab whatever chance you have of happiness where you find it, and not worry about other people too much. My experience tells me that we get no more than two or three such chances in a life time, and if we let them go, we regret it for the rest of our lives.

Thank you, Haruki Murakami.

Eyes Wide Shut

Eyes Wide Shut

Impossible Realism

Although it may sound like oxymoron, the term “Impossible Realism” makes a great deal of sense when we permit ourselves to look beyond the quotidian and once again open up fully to wonder, like we used to as children. This is why cheesy horror films and great works of the imagination ‘outside the box’ have one important thing in common—when they succeed, both leave audiences wide- eyed, hand slapped over the mouth, and awestruck. They make us whimper, laugh or cheer like we never do on normal Tuesdays, Wednesdays or Thursdays in the middle of our lives. But because at their best they fully engage our imagination, we willingly give up our normal ho-hum to live in worlds where orcs exist, Freddy Kruger sticks his claws through the wall, or Gregor Samsa wakes up one morning and sees a bug’s body rather than his own. Living in these extraordinary realities we are fully alive and engaged, thinking with our hearts instead of our heads, willing to go anywhere the stories go because we are in their thrall.

For many adults however, wonder is a guilty pleasure like reading comic books, karaoke, or eating Hostess Snowballs. It’s something for kids—childish, and beyond a certain age vaguely embarrassing. Not something you admit doing if you want to keep your good standing in the Adult Community.

On the other hand, mention names like Murakami (giant talking frogs), Gogol (detached noses found in loaves of bread), Ionesco and his rhinoceroses, Jonathan Lethem (animal private investigators), the wilder short stories of Hawthorne, Julio Cortazar and his human axolotl, Goethe and Christopher Marlowe (Dr. Faustus, I presume?) and the literati quickly bow their heads in deference.
What is more realistic than a bed? Where do we let our guards down more than when we slide beneath the sheets at night and say okay, I’m done. Then we switch off the light, expecting both us and this hour to fade to black.

Or do we? What about that little engine called the unconscious that never stops working and never stops surprising us with its remix tape of our day? How many times do we wake up in the morning and the first thing out of our mouth is where did THAT dream come from?

I recently read a short tale about a bed that tells the secret dreams of its inhabitants. The author got the idea from staring too long at a beautiful black and white photograph by Walker Evans. The picture is of an unmade bed. It looks like someone just got up from either a night full of dreams or messy passion. You’ve seen that bed a hundred times because it is your bed. But what if you were to wake up one morning and something about that bed was different? What if this thing so normally normal has transformed overnight into something… Impossible?

Academic Art

I have been involved in a master class for photographic artists for some time now, but have decided to terminate my involvement. I must admit I find the conversations very interesting, and I really love the focused dialog between artists that really doesn’t happen in every day life. You need to seek out people working in the same medium, but that alone is not enough. They need to be mentally in the same state, and regular weekend retreats enable that. Even artists have days when they have to do their taxes, take the kids to the dentist and test out new gear… so not all days allow for the freedom of mind to drill into the importance of the work.

But the academic art world, and especially the specialized world of fine art photography coming out of the art schools, tends to be extremely fixated on its own belly button. The last weekend was a combined class with graduates from ENSPA, the École Nationale Supériore des Beaux-Arts in Paris. The students meet every four months, and present their work in relation to a theme that was assigned previously.

Of course there was some highly creative work on view. Some of it was quite clever, and had an interesting take on the assigned theme. But most of it was so conceptual that it required a long essay to be read out loud before the work was presented, and that barely made the images more comprehensible.  It also seemed like most people had the same ideas, including five who used Google Earth as the basis of their project, and several more who recontextualized images by photographing existing pictures or capturing various screens, posters, or paintings. This has been done ad nauseum, and it has been done well. I will admit that one or two of the works were quite smart.

Two weeks ago I attended Paris Photo, the annual pinnacle of photographic art fairs. I am always surprised about the number of galleries that specialize in representing the work of such students-turned-artists. The galleries’ primary business is selling art to large insurance companies, energy consortia, and major banks, who in turn have funded trusts dedicated to building up art assets. These funds are being curated by other art school graduates, who in turn are seeking consultation from other former art school graduates. Outside of the art world this is called a circle jerk. There is an insularity to the art being sold for large sums, but ultimately that art has not withstood one of the tests of art: does it work?

One test that academic art has failed consistently is in the market place. Can money validate art? Its an age-old question, but one fact to consider in whether importance is artificially bestowed should be that 85% of the conceptual work did not hold its value once achieved in previous auctions.

Sean O’Hagan poses some other interesting questions in his article On not answering the Question: what makes a good Photograph over at Photoworks.

So I am terminating my flirtation with academia. It lacks passion, and it lacks lust. And frankly, none of my heroes and role models emerged from academia, and that may say the most.

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Tired of the Fear

I have been working on a new project for months now. I am only really getting started, because I want to take my time finding the right visual language, but also want to make sure the images I create provoke thought. I don’t want them to be provocative without reason, I am too old for that.

The new project deals with religious iconography, but uses the language of beauty and fashion. I don’t do that casually, I believe that models have become our modern-day angels in terms of the visual language. I do not men that as a compliment. They are unattainably perfect creatures that serve to remind us that we are not “good enough” in the eyes of ourselves. The use of fashion models, dancers, and character actors in my work serves another purpose: it questions the viewer, and demands attention. Yet no product or service is being sold, and so the plasticity of the image requires attention beyond the immediate medial digestion system.

I have created about fourteen images so far, and have many more planned. Not all will see the light of day, because as I refine the purpose of the project, and get more comfortable in this visual language, some of the images will simply seem out of place. There will be many images that are simply beautiful… I could never just make message-pictures, that’s not my style… but certainly the project will have some key pieces that set the mood for the series.

Here are two images that I am willing to show right now.

I presented the series for the first time today at a photographic art masterclass in Paris, at the École Nationale Supériore des Beaux-Arts no less, one of the most acclaimed art schools in our time. Although the work was well-received, I was shocked by the childlike expression of fear over possibly angering religious fundamentalists. I will admit that the bulk of the work is provocative, it was created with the purpose of questioning our respect for religious imagery while using the baroque language of art to echo back a contemporary theme. But I was shocked and dismayed to find such timidity amongst fellow artists. Especially the older, more successful ones that were leading the class were mostly worried about the response amongst the ultra-religious.

How much longer must we all live in fear? Why do we – as enlightened people – fear the thuggish religious so much that we are willing to forego our rights simply to appease them? How long are we willing to let mullahs, rabbis, and the Holy Sea dictate to us what is acceptable when they contribute nothing to the progress of society?

Leave me your thoughts, or better yet just write to me at info@roth-photo.com and I will discuss it, though I may not answer right away.

Simen Johan

My father stood in my home office a few days ago, and declared that all my art was “a little scary.” He’s right, of course, except that in truth I hold back from buying a lot more weird pieces. I worry a little about what strangers might say, and I’m a little unsure at what point my boys’ imagination gets too much input.

One of my favorite pieces is a very large print by Simen Johan. This particular piece is from a series called Evidence of Things Unseen. The print is 44×44 inches (112×112 cm) and hangs behind me… thus forcing my kids to study it in detail every time they come into the office to bother me!

He is a photographer, but my understanding is that he works in collages, meaning that he assembles the various components of an image, though he is the one that photographed all the items. However he does it, it works extremely well. Check out his book when you can. He prints large, but his pieces work equally well on slightly smaller scale.