The triumph of the ordinary

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Broken Rake by Richard Keeling on 500px.com

In many ways I am the stereotypical amateur photographer.

An older white male. A collector of camera equipment.  Compensated sufficiently elsewhere that I never have to rely on my photography to generate an income. A potential dilettante who takes just enough interest in the art to move me out of that category yet not really enough to move me into the photographic artist league.

Just like thousands, I might say, tens, even hundreds of thousands, of my fellow photographers.

Is this a bad thing?

Yes, if I really want to be taken seriously as an artist. No, if I simply want to enjoy what I do with a camera.

That’s the issue. I inhabit the borderline between these two options, never really settling into either.

Why is this? Why does this divide even exist?

Much of it has to do with how I, or others, define an ‘artist’. An artist has a vision, something to say. Something, moreover, than can be articulated and placed into the context of a philosophy of art.

But there’s more to it, isn’t there? There’s the problem of audience.

Art is requires a creator and a viewer (or listener, or any other sense). Without that audience, is it art at all (a corollary to the famous ‘tree falls in a forest and no one hears it’ conundrum’)?

These days, thanks in large part to the internet and photograph sharing sites, it’s almost laughably easy to get an audience. This ease is seductive. The problem is that this audience, as measured by number of visits or likes or comments, is such a pronounced source of ‘strokes’ (to use the language of transactional analysis) that whatever art you produce becomes biased towards the accumulation of this acclaim. And in doing so, it becomes homogeneous, lacking in differentiating qualities, accumulating instead an abundance of trigger aspects that ultimately speak far more to the audience’s expectations and preconceptions than to any vision derived from the artist’s own imagination.

But strokes are important. We all desire them. The question is – how much? I’m fortunate that other aspects of my life, work, family, other hobbies and interests, provide plenty of satisfaction. I feel no overriding compulsion to be praised for my photography. Yet – naturally enough – I still like it when I am.

It’s this psychological conflict – the twin yet often opposite desires to be liked and to be true to a certain way of looking at the world that I find meaningful – that can derail my motivation when it comes to photography. A tortured artist sounds romantic but most often it simply means an unproductive artist.

So how do I – or you – overcome this?

Firstly, you really have to decide which side the equation really motivates you. Are in the game to be praised or in it to express some idea or concept that really concerns you? Ironically, it’s actually much easier to go the ‘praise’ route – all you need to do is find the paradigm that generates the most popular acclaim and milk it for all you are worth. If you are technically accomplished, it comes even easier. Of course, the price you pay is the loss of originality and an outlook that you might consider to be truly personal, but that may not matter.

The other approach is just as likely to leave you in the wilderness as it is to gather acclaim. Ironically technical accomplishment is largely irrelevant here; what matters far more is imagination and a creative impulse. Skill with a camera will help you fine tune your vision, but without the vision to start with it’s not going to substitute for substance. Furthermore it’s only sustainable with a very healthy ego, a strong belief in the rightness of what you are doing.  Not many of us have that to begin with, let alone the strength to sustain it over a lifetime of creativity.

Maybe that’s why out of the thousands or even millions of photography enthusiasts worldwide, there are really not that many that one might call artists. For every well-known and successful art photographer, there are hundreds languishing in obscurity. Deserved in some cases, perhaps, less so in others.

But even the undeserving (through a combination of lack of imagination, vision, skill and originality) get credit for trying. Their results may only please their creators – and that’s enough. It’s easy to get caught up in the intellectual analysis of art and forget that photography is functional too. As a record of people, place and events. A visual diary of people’s lives. That is important – maybe more important, in truth.

And therein lies the true significance of the title. It’s worth remembering when I find myself getting too involved. Sometimes art need to be artless.

 

 

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While recovering from norovirus

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End of the line by Richard Keeling on 500px.com

I haven’t been sick for a long time so it’s been a bit of a trial this. Vomiting and all else. Not pleasant at all. That part might have passed but I still feel achy and cranky as all heck. Funny how quickly patience and consideration evaporate when you ache.

Not to mention things you want to do being passed by. The irritation of being house bound.

I know, things could be a lot worse.

One thing it does do, though, is to strip a lot away from your thinking. Irritation is a powerful abrasive. It rubs politeness away. I guess I’m getting somewhat close to all the loonies who relish conspiracy theories and live as internet trolls. Of course, those poor sods are at it twenty four hours a day and are nowhere near any sense of self-awareness that might break them out of their home-built purgatory.

Sad! – to use a regrettably overused epithet.

Anyway, all this crankiness is having the delightful effect of bringing to the fore the always-present but mostly suppressed notion that I believe I am as good a photographer as I need to be – right now. Amazingly, this has always been the case ever since I began. Even though, looking back, I do see plenty of evidence of misplaced confidence but it certainly wasn’t clear at the time.

Well, that’s the result of experience and practice. What I do realize now, and should have realized right from the beginning, is that I don’t need to copy or emulate anyone else and my general disgust with 99% of popular photography isn’t something to hide or somehow explain away.

The truth is that 99% of all photography, including all those over-processed color saturated grandiose landscapes or those tasteful, Photoshop-cleansed nudes or anything else that a whole class of photographers regard as the be all and end all of the art is utter and complete garbage. Mind rot. Empty of purpose (except to fool the unthinking) and bereft of artistry.

With such an attitude it’s a wonder that I pursue the art at all, but the reality is that the 1% that comprises the good photographs is constantly and swimmingly inspiring and, more importantly, reassuring that real art can come out of the medium. ‘

So every time I groan at the popular crap floating to the top in 500px or fstoppers or anywhere else, I can flip open my copy of Cindy Sherman’s ‘Untitled Film Stills’ and be brought right back into a state of bliss.

Curiously, when in this state of bliss, my own work takes on a value that makes me feel, once again, like a perfect photographer. Something I never feel in the presence of the 99%. When there I feel dirty, ashamed to be associated with such drivel through the shared label of ‘photography’.

Well, that’s what great art does. It brings out the humanity and the very best in you. Wouldn’t it be nice to keep that feeling permanently in place. Sadly, we live in a corrupted world and there’s no getting away from that. But I can try.

 

The Divide

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Graves at the Church of Sophia, East Berlin, by Thomas Struth. St. Louis Art Museum.

I find it fitting that a photograph I use to illustrate a concern of mine represents a city that was split in two. This photograph of Berlin dates back to 1992, two years after the reunification of Germany and acts as a commentary on that divide. Scenes such as this were denied to Western photographers in the years of the Cold War.

It’s a strange photograph. I found it today hanging on the wall of a modern art gallery in the St. Louis Art Museum. On the surface, it seems little more than a snapshot. I would very surprised if it, entered in the St. Louis Photography Club competition, made the final 100 (out of 400) entries. My entry into that show, a pretty but essentially a jigsaw or chocolate box cover, did get into that final.

Forest Park in autumn by Richard Keeling on 500px.com

As I say, it’s a pretty picture. But I would not call it great art, and I would never expect to find it hanging on the wall of an art museum.

This is the divide that concerns me. Many photographers I come across make technically highly proficient images, images that in many cases fulfill the conventional aesthetics of what make for a beautiful picture, yet, again, these photographs are not great art.

Why is this?

Ultimately, it is always about context. Most photographers, including myself, are content to follow conventional paths. Sunrises, sunsets, seascapes, landscapes, portraits of beautiful women, still lives of pretty things — subjects that work to make for an attractive image. An attractive image that, in most cases, is context irrelevant.

What do I mean by that?

I mean these pictures fail to provide any sort of context beyond the simple surface attraction of the photograph. There is no commentary. You could swap out and replace the subject, landscape, person- whatever – and end up with essentially exactly the same end result.

Great art works differently. It is intensely concerned with the moment, and better it comes to capturing a moment, the better the art becomes. That’s why the Struth photograph, deliberately set in a specific time and with a specific mood that reflects or comments on that time, is hanging in the St. Louis Art Museum.

It’s ironic, really. Photography on the surface is always about capturing the moment. For some photographers, Cartier-Bresson for example, that ‘decisive moment’ is ultimate goal. Yet very few of us really do it. What we do instead is capture a faux-moment, a readily recognizable frame, that appeals to generalities and not to specifics.

I feel this intensely. It’s the reason why I find so much photography to be empty of meaning. Including much of my own. I’m trying to change this, to look for photographs that embrace context. Even if that context makes little or no sense without some real work by the viewer. Photographers who are acutely aware of how their work comments on the world around them appeal to me enormously, perhaps my favorite being Cindy Sherman.

I’ll never aspire to that level of artistry. But I am aware of it as a goal. What distresses me is how so few of my fellow photographers seem aware at all of these concepts. Is it really that hard?

 

Ordinary

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Something has been happening both to my outlook and to my photography.

Partly this is a result of my upcoming retirement. I am adjusting to a world where work no longer plays a paramount part. Even now, some months before I leave, I feel a tangible loosening of the bonds of responsibility.

Partly it may just be age and experience. It may also have more than a little to do with the cumulative effect of the many of the issues and thoughts I’ve detailed here on this blog. Philosophical growth, I suppose I could call it.

Whatever the blend, the result is a fairly radical reevaluation of what is meaningful to me in terms of my photography. Long gone are the pretty or technically dazzling shots that used to preoccupy me. Instead, I celebrate – and I use that word deliberately – a certain kind of ordinariness. Scenes that I wouldn’t have given much a look to in the past.

Such as this stairwell.

Scene from a Stairwell by Richard Keeling on 500px.com

It’s one of the access stairs in the St. Louis Art Museum. Unlike almost everywhere else in the building there is no art here. Just a cloakroom attendant and a fairly ordinary staircase.

I took it after collecting a number of art work related photographs. Those came out fine, but not in any exciting way. This, somehow, did.

I like the angles and the shading. The attendant serves as a far point focus of interest, the light shimmering off the bannister as a near point. They balance, yet none of the other lines and angles really do. Asymmetry seems to dominate, partly a consequence of the lighting and partly a consequence of the camera angle. There are large areas of dead space. The photograph draws you in yet leaves you unbalanced. It’s unsettling.

This is the type of photograph that appeals to me now. Ordinary yet unordinary. I intend to follow this path for a while.

 

Up Your Photographic Game

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Flood Plain Sunset by Richard Keeling on 500px.com

I just received an email invitation to ‘Up my photographic game’ from Nikon with a tour through Chile and Easter Island in the company of some photographers. Price not specified (that I could find) but doubtless several or more thousand dollars.

As a travel expedition, yes, I can see merit in this. But as to ‘upping my photographic game’, well, put anyone with a good (presumably Nikon) camera in a fairly remote yet scenic destination and you’ll end up with some ‘ooh and aaah’ photographs much admired by many.

But will that make you a better photographer? Unlikely. The premise of such expeditions is off base. Implied is that it’s the location that makes the photographer, not the photographer him or herself. It’s also a good way to make money for photography tour guides and travel companies. And that’s fine – as long as you are well aware of just what you are getting and just what you aren’t.

So I’m not going to follow up with this. I just need to travel a few miles from my house to find spots – like this view of Columbia Bottom Conservation Area – that give me all I need to improve (or not) my own photography.

Given, too, that I am inherently a solitary photographer who finds the company of other photographers actively inhibiting, the attraction of a shepherded tour diminishes yet further.

Photography can be an irritating hobby. In every direction there are people wanting to take your money. Again the promise is that you can somehow buy yourself into being a better photographer.

You can’t.

Yet many seem to fall into that trap, the most insidious being the equipment trap and the deliberate marketing of expensive gear as somehow ‘professional’ and thus desirable for your photographic growth. It isn’t. It’s only desirable if you are looking for rugged and long lasting equipment that is less likely to fail you than flimsier stuff. Again, nothing wrong with that. But be aware.

No, to be a better photographer you need become a better artist. To do that you need to develop a style and vision that is meaningfully yours and is always beneficially informed by knowledge of the works of great photographers. And you do that anywhere.

 

 

 

What Counts?

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Girl and Seagull by Richard Keeling on 500px.com

I’ve been taking photographs for a long time now.

Decades.

Sometimes seriously, sometimes less so. But it’s only been comparatively recently that I’ve spent much time exploring the work of others.

I’ve looked at a lot of photographs. It’s easy to do so when so many are up on the web. Many of mine are too.

Lots of the pictures I’ve looked at have been technically superb. Lots have garnered considerable praise. But the awful truth is – if it really is awful – is that I don’t like almost all of them.

In this era of freely exchanged ‘likes’ and ‘loves’, it feels heretical to make such a statement. But it’s true.

This doesn’t please me. To find myself as some sort of photographic misanthrope isn’t really where I want to be. Yet – I look at these pictures and all I feel is an indifference and coldness. They don’t speak to me.

Perhaps if nothing spoke to me, I would worry. But the work of the greatest photographers does. Not perhaps the readily trotted out Ansel Adams’s of this work, but renowned but maybe lesser known artists such as Cindy Sherman and Garry Winogrand. Looking at photography books by these artists (Sherman’s “Untitled Film Stills” usually tops my list) is reassuring. Reassuring not least because many of these photographs would not fare well in today’s online ‘like and love’ environment.

I need thoughts like these as a kind of backup. A backup for a certain sense of disappointment that I get when I put up a photograph (such as the above “Girl and Seagull”) only to find it to be ignored or treated with indifference on the ‘like and love’ websites. Because part of me really wants that kind of recognition, shallow though it may be.

For “Girl and Seagull” remains one of my favorite photographs ever. One I regard as one of my very best. A feeling that has not wavered in the face of indifference over the years since I took it.

It counts.

I need to remind myself of this from time to time. I’m only human after all.

The Total, Complete and Overwhelming Irrelevance of Camera Equipment

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Maybe I needed to fill my basement with dozens of cameras and lenses to learn this lesson.

Maybe.

Maybe it’s just age and experience and the niggling realization that my best photographs are completely independent of whatever I used to photograph them.

But at last it has sunk in. Good photography is totally, completely and overwhelmingly independent of whatever is used to make the image.

All that counts is what you do with what you’ve got.

Still – I hanker after and buy more equipment. Use it too. But that’s simply for the pleasure of a new toy. Often without planning it, I squeeze out a good photograph if I’m feeling and acting sufficiently inspired.

This is what I need to concentrate upon.

Two Trees in a Cornfield II by Richard Keeling on 500px.com

 

 

The Prompter Room

magiclampedits

(It’s been a while since I’ve added commentary to these regular prompts, but this week’s unprecedented political actions by a certain president and/or his administration have elicited a visceral response that, as a writer, I must write about.  So that’s your heads-up: some might consider what follows a rant, but it’s really more of a call to action.  I apologize in advance if it’s a little disjointed.)

The First Amendment is not an accident.  My deeply held conviction, supported with a lot of evidence, is what might do this country in to where we cease to exist as a vital democracy, as a Constitutional democracy, is not terrorism or a weak economy but what will do us in is a secret government.

Bob Woodward

This is hard to write.  My thoughts and distress are swirling so swiftly in my brain it’s hard to corral them into some semblance of written sense.

Never…

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On the floodplain

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Pylons on the floodplain by Richard Keeling on 500px.com

Last Saturday after an invigorating morning marching with the Women’s March in St. Louis, I headed out to more sparsely populated regions.

Mostly it was to enjoy a natural area and get that reassuring sense of gravity that such places always provide even in the face of a clearly provoking political situation such as we have now.

For I have been disturbed, sleepless even, at the thought of how low the Presidency will be brought and how much respect the institution will lose. For this will happen. It’s already happening.

But I can forget this, for a little while at least, while walking the floodplain. The ground beneath my feet will survive as it has already through the massive river flooding that at times put everywhere I stood and looked at beneath water. There’s a pole at the confluence about 20 feet high that represents the 1993 high water mark. Yet the trees survived this and thrived anew in the silt enriched earth once the waters receded. Thinking of these things adds a little perspective. People can deny reality, but reality has a sneaky way to catching up with you sooner or later. The earth endures and will do so long after I’m gone just as it did before I was born. I find this thought reassuring.

A Pointless Journey

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So I finally got around to watching the complete trilogy of movies comprising “The Hobbit”. This after numerous – and I mean dozens – of viewings of “The Lord Of The Rings”, a set of movies that continues to captivate and enthrall.

I’d read enough to be forewarned that “The Hobbit” films were not up to that standard. What surprised me was how far below they fell.

On the surface, everything seemed to be in place. Martin Freeman is a fine actor and well suited to the young Bilbo. Many of those who had done well in the Rings trilogy returned. The story itself from the book was alright. Not a carefully constructed epic, but enough for perhaps a good movie.

Instead we got three, and, much in the manner of butter scraped too thinly on bread, a description Bilbo used in “The Fellowship Of The Ring” to describe the effect of the ring’s possession upon him, there is simply not enough sustenance to carry the set.

Furthermore, far too much of the “Rings” trilogy’s script is recycled, sentence for sentence, in these newer movies to far lesser effect. Plot elements alien to the book are introduced, mimicking those of the “Rings” to the point of parody. The engagement with Sauron is perfunctory, falling into cliche and pastiche and wholly unsatisfactory. Indeed, it was at this point in “The Battle Of The Five Armies” that I gave up on my second viewing of the set deeming it simply uninvolving.

Uninvolving. Sad really. The entire exercise was a waste of potential. Perhaps a single feature length film could have been put together that would have satisfied. Some of the scenes, chiefly those involving Smaug the dragon, were well done, although elements (such as the melting gold dwarf king) were simply ridiculous. The special effects were technically superior to those of the “Rings” trilogy, yet came across as somehow less satisfying through overuse and frankly absurd situations.

Some have compared the failure of “The Hobbit” to Lucas’s similarly poorly regarded “Star Wars” prequel trilogy.  This is valid. Similar faults plague both sets of movies. Less interesting characters, less charismatic and convincing acting performances, story lines that sprawl and dissipate dramatic interest.

Shortly after I’d viewed “The Hobbit” trilogy, I watched the latest “Mad Max” movie, “Fury Road”. The contrast was stark and wholly unflattering to Jackson’s films. Here instead was a tightly edited, focused, and completely enthralling fantasy film that managed to be both viscerally exciting and thought provoking at the same time.

“The Hobbit” turned out to add nothing to “The Lord Of The Rings”. Fortunately, the first set of films is strong enough that nothing was taken away. That is a relief. But I can’t help but wonder at what might have been.