Some years ago I was snooping through a gallery operated by a local (Chico, California) arts organization. The blue-haired lady behind the counter asked if I was an artist to which I replied “I am a photographer.” Her dismissive response was that they didn’t regard photography as art. I usually think of something good to say about 15 minutes after it is needed but this time I got it out straight away. “Oh I agree – but neither is painting or drawing or sculpture. However, some photographers and some painters and some sculptors are artists.” Taken aback she wandered off to annoy somebody else.
I believe that it was Robert Frost who said that “poet” is a gift that must be given to you – that you cannot claim it for yourself. I would add “artist” or “novelist” as similar gifts.
So I am uncomfortable to self-identify myself as an artist. If somebody else wants to identify me as an artist that’s fine by me.
However, nobody can disagree that I am a photographer. I make photographs. Most of the time the result of doing so is rubbish. Sometimes it is a product. Once in a while it may be art.
Nobody always gets it right. I suspect that even Picasso had a full trash can. Mark Twain burned a lot of his drafts so that nobody could pick through his rubbish after his death. Photographer Brett Weston similarly destroyed most of his negatives before his death.
How often to you need to get it right to deserve the honorific? John Nichols wrote one terrific novel, The Milagro Bean Field Wars. That’s all folks. The second and third books of his hastily devised trilogy after its success were just awful. Is that enough to earn “novelist”?
I likely have a couple of dozen prints that I would hang on a wall alongside those of Henri Cartier-Bresson’s – but he could muster up several hundred.
I’ll continue to self identify as a photographer.
As a kid I drew incessantly. By the time I was in middle grades I was doing it pretty well. However, the schools in small-town Illinois had 0.00 support for visual art but did have minimal support for music. In 6th grade music rared its head and I leaped in headfirst. Any interest in visual art went away. Through college and beyond I played in dance bands of more-or-less reputable dance bands including a summer tour in Germany with a USO troupe.
Time passed. As a young professional I decided that I couldn’t have a day job, a night job, and a family so I put my horns “under the bed”.
Well, of course I had a camera and enjoyed taking family and vacation slides but nothing beyond that. A couple of co-workers did black and white photography and they had such a good time that I had begun to dabble in it.
More time passed. We were living in Buffalo New York and a friend told me about the George Eastman (founder of Kodak) museum in nearby Rochester. Okay, I’m up for art museums so we visited it. At that time the main building was in the mansion that had been George Eastman’s home. On a landing halfway up the “grand staircase” was hung a large print – probably 20x24 – of Ansel Adams “Moon Over Half Dome.” I was mesmerized, I was dazzled. I nearly fell backwards down the stairs. I had never seen a photograph – or any other piece of visual art – that hit me that hard.. I started haunting the public library for books of photographs and discovered a whole new world.
It took me a while (quite a while actually) to figure out what kind of photography I wanted to do but I knew it was out there somewhere. It took even longer to gain the skill to make my prints look the way I wanted them.
Do I miss making music, or drawing or would I like to paint or sculpt? Sure. But there are only 24 hours in my day too.
In a recent conversation (I believe it was at a board meeting) Tom Fletcher noted that the farmer’s market was no place to sell “fine art”. Now I know exactly what he meant – “you are unlikely to sell a piece for $500.” However, that sent me down one of my favorite rabbit holes of thought.
First, I don’t even know what that term means. If there is fine art does that imply that there is ok art, so-so art, bad art? Or is it graded like sandpaper extra fine, fine, medium, coarse? Moreover, who gets to decide? But I digress.
My friend Katrina formerly did spectacular underwater photography. “Formerly” because of a rather unnerving episode at a couple of hundred feet down with a shark a good deal bigger than she is. After a certain amount of soul searching she turned to making jewelery and she’s good at that, too.
She is the only artist that I know personally who made a significant part of her living selling work at sundry street fairs. She always had a few stunning prints up in her booth – 20x24 or bigger, beautifully framed and priced to match. She had smaller work priced to sell --loose and framed prints, refrigerator magnets, greeting cards, and bookmarks. The highest margin items were the cards and bookmarks – very cheap to print and priced at the impulse buy level. Refrigerator magnets were also good sellers but not so high a margin. Smaller prints in the $20 or so range did ok, too. And sell they did – they were the bread and butter of her sales.
Did anybody ever take one of her stunning, large, expensive prints home from her booth? No. But they sure drew lookers into her booth. She also regarded them as advertizing. More than once she got a call or email of the “We saw your work at… and want to buy a print.” She did a series on eyes – octopus eyes in particular. A veterinary opthalmologist bought a couple of giant prints for his office. Paid her booth fees for a couple of years.
without passing through pretty good.” (Bill Withers, songwriter, singer)
A while back (I decline to be more specific since it was quite a while) I was going through prints that I had made a decade or so earlier. One after another I was saying to myself “That print is terrible! Why did I print it that way?” Since I’m pretty organized about such things I looked at the negative number on the back of one of them, got that negative out for another try. Dang! What a difference – that print sings!
When the pandemic closed things down I was going through prints that I had made a decade or so earlier. (Can you hear this one coming?) Yep, the print I made a year ago made the one that “sings” look pretty tuneless.
You can’t get to wonderful without passing through pretty good. I don’t know if I’m “wonderful” yet but I’m fairly certain that “pretty good” is in the past. It clearly paid me (and I’ll bet it will pay you) to keep plugging along at whatever you do.
Found this article on The History Press Website. (Street photography captured my attention when I first got into photography but I don't shoot as much of it as I should.) Hope you enjoy the article!
The history of street photographyThe saying goes, ‘A picture is worth a thousand words’ and street photography certainly lives up to this reputation. Since its inception in Victorian times, humankind has had a fascination with capturing not only the real, raw and gritty but also the mundane.Forms of photography have been around for millennia with the camera obscura (latin for ‘dark room’) where the image is projected through a pin hole into a dark room or screen. It wasn’t until the 19th century that a process was invented to ‘fix’ the image onto metal and glass plates (and later paper) to keep for posterity.
What we take photographs of in the 21st century is virtually the same as what the Victorians took photographs of - streets, landscapes, people, sports, stills etc. The first known photograph ever taken was of a Parisian street scene in 1826 by Joseph Nicéphore Niépce, the first known portrait was taken in 1839 by John William Draper of his sister Dorothy and the first selfie was taken in 1839 by a young man called Robert Cornelius. The innovation of shutter speeds a few decades later enabled freeze motion, which meant portraits could be taken in a matter of seconds rather than a person sitting absolutely still for tens of minutes (hence portraits of Victorians tended to be somewhat stern looking) and also meant action shots could be taken without blur.
The first photograph ever taken in 1826 by Joseph Nicéphore Niépce in the Burgundy region of France.
The first street photograph. The image of a man has been captured as he stood still long enough whilst having his boots shined in 1838 by Louis Daguerre in Paris.
The first 'selfie' by a man called Robert Cornelius in Philadelphia 1839.
The first photographic portrait of a woman by John Draper of his sister Dorothy Catherine Draper in 1839/40 in the USA.
A Victorian photographic studio in 1893. Note the metal headrest to hold a person still for a given length of timeSo what is street photography exactly?From exclusivity to ubiquity, street photography’s definition has evolved alongside the opening up of the medium to all people of all backgrounds in conjunction with its technological advances from its origin of metal and glass plates to film to digital.
The definition of street photography (or photographer) is also different from 1918 to today. In Edwardian times it used to be a photographer who would take portraits on the street for a fee. During the two World Wars, the format could also have been argued to be under the umbrella term of ‘war photography’ and possibly photojournalism. Aside from journalists, ordinary people and hobbyist’s priorities did not tend towards luxuries such as film for their cameras (if they could afford one) during these tough years.
Post war saw the growing affordability of cameras and the consequent boom in candid and social documentary photography. Photographers such as Henri-Cartier Bresson and Diane Arbus who documented the everyday weird and wonderful in the 1950’s were probably the pioneers of what we are familiar with today.
The photograph becomes a type of ‘Memento Mori’ for bygone times and can elicit a powerful psychological response. Every minute and moment of life can be photographed and kept for all time. If we look at photos of a street scene in 1980s New York with the Twin Towers in the background, we immediately remember the tragedy of 2001, where we were and the other haunting images of that day. Another example would be those from Shirley Baker, images of kids playing in the streets of Salford in the 1960’s. If the viewer recognises the clothes, hairstyles etc, they would reminisce over their own childhood memories. It uniquely indulges the nostalgia within us.
It can be said that the pace of change in social and cultural demographics has picked up during the 20th and 21st centuries and street photography provides a wonderful (and at times, discreet) way of documenting our way of life for future generations. Anyone with a phone in their hand has the ability to take a street scene photograph. It’s the age of the ‘happy snapper’, instagramming every moment of life.
Check out this link for the article if you want to see the photographs mentioned in the article.
Our club offers many opportunities to "create new masterpieces" with other club members.
Of course you probably know about Debra Valpy's "arting parties" on Thursdays, and Honey B has also been hosting "paint and sip" on Zoom.
But did you know that Paul Illian has been hosting and painting "plein air" every Tuesday at 9am until "whenever" at the North SeaTac Botanical Gardens and Seiko Japanese Gardens? As of this writ- ing, Paul has been by himself painting except for the morning l came to snap photos. l have been there a few times this spring, and every time l walk in, there is something new to photo-
graph. This time l decided to come in when the light is best to hang out with Paul. He invites you to come out and paint with him.
For those of you unfamiliar with the term "plein air"... plein air painting is about "leaving the four walls of your studio behind and experiencing painting and drawing in the landscape" (l got that off the internet).
As our club's goals are numerous and each artist within our club wants different things from the club, we want to reflect that in the activities we offer. We are a social club that loves to talk all things art, we do watch and learn from other artists, we want to promote and sell our art, and of course we want to create more and more artwork. Plein Air at these gardens fulfills all of those goals
1) Get out in the fresh air, invite a friend and get to know your fellow artists at one of our beautiful local gardens. You may even make a new art buddy in the process.
2) You can watch and learn from other artists while you create your own art.
3) Paint some beautiful scenes from this garden. There is a lot of variety in these gardens, including a nice Japa- nese garden. Each week you can paint a different scene.
4) Promote your art. People sometimes come up to talk to you and watch you paint.
5) Before or after you do plein air take a brisk walk around the beautiful gardens to scope out your next "plein air" out- ing, or just come and paint with Paul.
6) Not a painter? Drawers and photogra- phers will also love this place.
There is a multitude of flowers, foliage, water features, walking trails, and trees in the gardens, and as mentioned...the Japanese garden is beautiful. The large nearby duck pond is often filled with birds. As of this writing, the lilacs are in full bloom, the iris gardens are blooming, and the Rhodes are in various stages of flowering. Spring is a fantas- tic time to do plein air as the budding foliage is all shades of green.
Come out and do "plein air with Paul, Tuesday's 9-11, or leave whenever you decide you are done.
I think about camera portraits a lot – thinking about them is a lot easier than doing them. It’s easy to take a photograph of somebody – click, a wash and brush up in a photo editing program and you’re there. Making a portrait with a camera is a lot harder. The great Henri Cartier-Bresson said that “Portraits are the most difficult. You have to try and put your camera between the skin of the person and his shirt, which is not an easy thing.”
Moreover a drawn or painted portrait (from a live model – not from a photograph) contains time. The sitter and the painter see a lot of each other and the result is not an instant in time. A photograph is – sort of.
The idea of time in a portrait came to me several years ago at Bumbershoot – when Bumbershoot was really an umbrella festival for all kinds of art and performance. Gage Academy sponsored a “drawing slam” – bring your own materials, they supplied several models and their faculty was roaming about giving advice as requested. I wandered through the drawing slam and was drawn to one of the models, a not-young-but-very-attractive woman in sort of Italian peasant costume. She was present – beyond the literal sense. Perhaps better described as “belonging” to where she was and why she was there. She was there to be seen and a drawing or a photograph of her would have been a portrait. Sitters like that are few and far between. I have worked with perhaps three.
What brought this to mind recently was a presentation by Robert Kalman, a photographer who does “tintypes” (more accurately wet-plate collodion) portraits. The exposure time for a tintype is 4 to 10 seconds depending on the light. Nearly nobody can hold the “say cheese” kind of expression for that long. Before the photographer opens the shutter the sitter has time to become rigid and suspicious or to become composed, relaxed, and present. Kalman’s portraits (the latter) contain, to my eye, the same feeling of time that a painted portrait carries. One of his sitters told him that was the only picture she had that “looks like me”. Well, a tintype is a mirror image – what the sitter saw was what she sees looking in a mirror.
Now there’s an idea! I recently did a portrait of a lovely 12 year old girl. I sent her two prints one of which was reversed left to right to make it a mirror image. I asked her and her mom to tell me which one looked more like her. Mom chose the “normal” girl the “mirror image”. I’m still figuring out what to do with that bit of insight.
I haven’t done many portraits in the last year. People wearing masks are not exciting subjects.
Who hasn’t heard about the Bayeux Tapestry? It is a 70-meter-long story of William the Conqueror’s conquest of England? The tapestry, which is technically an embroidery and not a tapestry, features 600 characters, 500 animals of all kinds, 200 horses. 50 trees – and so much more. It illustrates the conquest of England in 1066 by William of Normandy. It was probably commissioned by William’s half brother Bishop Odo. According to Wikipedia it depicts the events leading up to the Norman conquest of England, concerning William, Duke of Normandy and Harold, Earl of Wessex and King of England. The Tapestry culminates in the Battle of Hastings. It is thought to date to the 11th century, within a few years after the battle. It tells the story from the point of view of the conquering Normans but is now agreed to have been made in England.
Well, if you’ve never seen it in person, you
can see it on-line at https://
explore-online/. It is rather spectacular.
The site also has lots of information about how the tapestry survived throughout the centuries, what happened to it during WWII, and how it’s been refurbished and put on exhibit.
According to the website: For the first time, you will be able to freely explore the entire Bayeux Tapestry with a never seen quality of images! This project has been led by the City of Bayeux and the DRAC Normandie (Ministry of Culture) with the assistance of the “Fabrique de patrimoines en Normandie” who photographed the embroidery. The high-resolution images were then reconstituted by the University of Caen and the CNRS. This panorama is the reference image of the S.D.I.S tool (Spatialized Documentary Information System), produced to assist scientific research on the work, and to give access to a rich documentation to the public.
Check it out.
Cranky Letter Department
I hate Zoom.
This nonsense of sitting in front of a com-
puter and staring at artwork on a screen instead of staring at the real artwork is getting pretty old.
While I’m at it, I hate sitting in front of a computer looking at a face in a little box instead of looking at a real face .
Moreover I hate looking at art on a screen, Zoom or not.
One of the pundits said that the history of art as you see it in a textbook is really the history of artwork that will reproduce well in a quarter-page illustration. Michelangelo's David is the same size as a Japanese netsuke. My addition to that is that all artwork looks the same represented by a 1024x960 pixel jpeg on a computer screen with unknown color balance.
All that said, just today I watched a lecture by Todd Hido (photographer in the Bay area) arranged by the art gallery of the University of Kentucky. About 100 peo- ple attended from all over the western world. I regularly attend a critique hosted by a Portland (Oregon) photographer — with attendees from upstate New York, Tennessee, Burnaby BC, northern California, Chicago, Calgary.
I guess that Zoom and it’s ilk have a place, an important place. But, dang! It’s not the only place.
Back to the real world ASAP
Here is an interesting article on artdailys website by Issam Ahmed