Play, Write, Photograph — The Interaction Of Creative Endeavors

Photo by Jörg Wüstkamp
In my article “The Narrative And The Photograph” I have written about how in my opinion stories and imagery are very much connected and this being said it doesn’t surprise that many photographers are or have been writers. Be it to pen instructional books or more prosaic works as Edward Weston’s Daybooks, which I can’t seem to stop mentioning.
But of course, there are more creative disciplines and this here article deals with the interaction between those disciplines when a person devotes herself with more than one.
I will try and describe this for two disciplines that don’t seem to connect that easily — music and photography. I have been playing the guitar off and on for 30 years and after Funk and Rock finally settled with Jazz, playing in a trio with a bassist and a saxophone player.
The output, of course, is very different in both cases. One creates a piece of music, the other a print or at least an image we can look at on a screen. In the creation of these, I play an instrument to produce the first and operate a camera and a computer for the second.
So how do these two interact? It is not in the most obvious way, it is about the attitude, about the way of thinking. And I think it provides a very good way to reflect on what we are actually doing and how we do it.
As an example: A lot of Jazz musicians hum along when they are improvising. Both Barney Kessel and Herb Ellis (two old-school jazz guitarists) strongly recommend in their instructions to do the same. Is this something that I can use for photography?
First I need to think about why the jazz musician would do the humming in the first place. It is a means to get out of the head and into the “real” world what the musician hears internally, as it is much easier to play what you actually hear than what you “only” have in your head. It almost sounds like you’re humming along with the melody, but the humming ever so slightly happens before the actual plucking of the string (or whatever you do to produce the sound on your instrument), and it really helps to keep you from playing patterns and scales you visualize on the fretboard.
So it is about hearing what you will play before you actually play it. The next thing I will have to do is to figure out what the equivalent in photography might be. Which I think, would be visualization. According to Ansel Adams in “The Camera”, it is a concept, that “… includes the ability to anticipate a finished image before making the exposure, so that the procedures employed will contribute to achieving the desired result.” Translated for jazz, this would read: “ … the ability to anticipate a sound before playing it so that the procedures employed will contribute to achieving the desired result.”
Now you might ask, what does that do for your photography to know that there are these similarities? I think first it opens your mind so you don’t just dismiss concepts or ideas from other disciplines as useless, to begin with just because they are based on sound or creating three-dimensional objects or stories or what have you.
I have been playing music much longer than I have been making photographs. So in transferring the truths, I found in music, I can maybe accelerate my development as a digital artist in photography. And as I am using concepts and ideas from my other disciplines (writing and music) and can embrace their interaction, I can think, feel and live neither as a writer, musician or photographer, but as an artist. And since my creativity flows in all of those three directions and they feed off each other, I not only amplify each but also make them more unique, more my own because they are also influenced by the two other components.

Are We There Yet? Photography As An Art Form

The other day I again watched the PBS’ American Masters Special about Alfred Stieglitz and I realized that was being said about Mr. Stieglitz’s struggle to have photography accepted as an art form is still true today, for photography or to take it a little further, for digital photography.
In “The Salon of 1859”, first published in the Révue Francaise, Charles Baudelaire argued that “Photography has become the refuge of every would-be painter too ill-endowed and too lazy to complete his studies … By invading the territory of art, photography has become art’s most mortal enemy.” An uncredited critic wrote: “The photographer has discovered a machine to make his masterpiece of art for him, by sticking his head into a black box and letting the machine do everything.”
In the late 19th and early 20th century, the dominating style in photography was pictorialism. Those images were somehow manipulated by the photographer, so they were not just recorded, but created and interpreted. Which in itself wouldn’t be a bad thing, but the editing was more often than not meant to make the image look more like a painting, drawing or etching as in those times only paintings were really considered art and a straightforward photograph would be nothing more than a representation of reality.
In 1888, George Eastman introduced the first handheld amateur camera, the Kodak camera. From then on, millions of images would be produced every year by professional photographers and amateurs alike.
So isn’t the situation pretty much the same as today? The Kodak camera is gone, but the phone camera has the quality of pro or prosumer cameras of not so many years ago and is only limited by size. These cameras can now also take RAW images. And again, millions and millions of images are taken with these devices every year.
And we as photographers and digital artists are doing the same as pictorialists back then — we edit our images, sometimes to the point that they don’t look like photographs anymore. A certain amount of editing is necessary as the RAW photo straight out of camera are not mostly not considered usable. But how are the reasons for editing now and then different? And why do I have to have that discussion about art again and again when I am telling someone the price of my prints and they go “Anyone could have taken that picture!”?
Why is everyone accepting that a painted picture is art although they didn’t see how it was done and yet there is still doubt that digital prints can be art although they also didn’t see me take the image, edit it in Photoshop etcetera and print it, meaning they have no idea how much effort and knowledge goes into that?
Is it all about what was in the Kodak-Eastman ads at the end of the 19th century: “Anybody can use it. No knowledge of photography is necessary.”?
The English photographer Henry Peach Robinson wrote in 1869 about a technique he had been using for some 20 years by then combining individual elements from separate images into a new single image (not unlike blending multiple images in Photoshop) and considered the final outcome “art through photography” as the final image had only come about by him working on the images.
Other artists and critics shared the belief that straight photography was only representational and had no artistic interpretation whatsoever and that the “usually accepted limitations of photography had to be overcome if an equality of status was to be achieved”.
Photography as an art form has sure come a long way, but with all the above in mind, I think there is still a lot to do for that “equality of status” to really happen. Still, the painters and sculptors are considered to be the somewhat more serious artists. With the tools (camera and software) being very affordable today, the flood of images is enormous and especially the up and coming artist has to prove himself time and time again. But the fact that this art form is a very young one is also reason to rejoice — there are so many things that haven’t been tried or done and with technology developing at a breathtaking pace the possibilities seem endless. You just want to find your place in this development of digital art.

The Narrative And The Photograph

“The greatest ride in my life was about to come up, a truck, with a flatboard at the back, with about six or seven boys sprawled out on it, and the drivers, two young blond farmers from Minnesota, were picking up every single soul they found on the road — the most smiling, cheerful couple of handsome bumpkins you could ever wish to see, both wearing cotton shirts and overalls, nothing else; both thick wristed and earnest, with broad howareyou smiles for anybody and anything that came across their path.” And so begins Jack Kerouac’s description of his ride from Gothenburg to Cheyenne in the summer of ’47 on his way to Denver in my all-time favorite “On The Road”. The two farmers and some of the characters riding with him — Montana Slim and Mississippi Gene, the stop in North Platte, the truck zooming over the plains and through the crossroads towns at night with the stars so pure and bright in the thin air and no trees obstructing low-level stars anywhere.
This always was and always will be one of my favorite pieces of writing because it made me feel a certain way. It conveyed the feeling of adventurous travel, of meeting real characters and feeling so darn alive doing all that. Just as I had felt on my travels. And all this left an image in my head. Then take any image you like, I for one happened to think for example of Walker Evans’ picture of a roadside stand near Birmingham, Alabama from 1936. There is a mood, there are stories. I think about the five-digit phone number of F. M. Pointer, about the boys out front and the girl inside the store and even the woman (which in my story is the mother) coming from the house behind the stand. What they offer and how sad the fish painted above the door looks. And then there are more details, thoughts, and feelings that make these stories mine.
The average human has about 60,000 thoughts on any given day, give or take. Now we could go on trying to define what exactly constitutes a thought, but let’s not and just assume we do think a lot. Or actually, we are being thought as a majority of those are associations. These are thoughts that are triggered by principles of association as similarity, contiguity, and contrast (numerous other principles have been added in philosophy and psychology). So each and every one of us will have his personal story when viewing an image and an image when reading a story. You might not be totally aware of it all the time, but there is something going on in your head when you are presented with an image and/or story and I do believe that these two belong together. That an image will always start a story in our minds and a story will always create an image before our inner eye. So when you are a writer, photographer, painter or let’s just call us storytelling artists you should be aware of this I think as it will be beneficial in the creative process knowing what you are going for and realizing for oneself what in your work can actually do that.
I once had a woman come into my studio and after she looked around, she came to me and said that she had looked at a print for quite some time, lost in thought. And that was the nicest thing she could have said about the photograph. When your photograph, your painting or your words are strong enough, it will cause a reaction the viewer/reader will actually feel and undeniably connect to your work. And that’s really why I do this. I feel that this falls into the category “Why we came down from the trees in the first place.”.

Photographing Reality

There was a time when everybody thought that if an event was captured in a photograph it was supposedly true. The photograph was the ultimate proof it really happened. Even the internet knows the saying “pics — or it didn’t happen” and mind you, that stems from a time when Photoshop was already around.
I’d say that time is long gone, but still, it is very deeply rooted in people’s mind that a photographic image represents the truth. Despite the fact that they know an image can be easily manipulated, anyone can do it on their phone. Despite the fact that the reality is three-dimensional. Despite the fact that Santorini doesn’t look like the over-saturated HDR image everybody and their mother posts on the web.
So I think we can agree on this — a photographic image is an interpretation of the reality the photographer saw. Even without post-production. Already the choice of parameter settings, the choice of lens, the choice of from where to shoot the subject matter is an interpretation.
But here is something else, something the photographer/artist needs to think about as well, at least in my humble opinion — what is the reality?
Reality itself is not a set truth that is the same for all of us. I think reality can be interpreted, I myself am the only one to define reality for me. Let that sink in for a minute.
What I am saying is that what is real for you and me depends on our perception of things and of what we associate with these things. And then we might end up with more or less different realities.
“It seemed to me, ‘said Wonko, the Sane, ‘that any civilization that had so far lost its head as to need to include a set of detailed instructions for use in a package of toothpicks, was no longer a civilization in which I could live and stay sane.”
— Douglas Adams
As an example: Just as Wonko, the Sane (what do you mean you don’t know Douglas Adams?), I live in a place called “Outside of the Asylum”. Out there, people clearly went section 8, meaning all-out nuts. We have built a reality that covers the earth with concrete and tarmac, houses and malls, parking lots and airports and join in groups called nations and think of our group as being superior to another and in general kill others and the planet we were given to live on.
I accept as real the trees and clouds, the deserts and oceans, animals and human beings, the greatness of nature I cannot begin to understand and let alone explain and I think the only way to live right is in awe and respect of that nature of which I am a part. That, my friends, is REAL. And that is what I want to photograph and interpret and show over and over and over again, hoping you’ll see what I see and find your own reality. In my images and out there, in the asylum …

Time Doesn’t Live Here

Robert Graves’ study
Just outside Deià, by the road to Sóller, you’ll find the house of Robert Graves, the English poet and critic. I was told a visit there would be definitely worth my time and if it was only to find out about the muses.
A short ride from Deià, i found the house and the parking a bit up the road from it. Leaving the car on the parking lot, i walked back to the house and bought my ticket from an elderly British gentleman who I assume was Graves’ son. He opened the auditorium for me and started the 15-minute-video about Mr. Graves’ life. I was the only visitor at the time.
After the video i left the auditorium and walked through the beautiful garden to the house, up the stairs and into the recibidor, the entrance hall. What i loved about all the rooms was the simplicity. It wasn’t packed with stuff. Some pictures on the walls, flowers on the windowsills and candlesticks on side tables. The whitewashed walls and the dark wood of the tables and beams. The fact that they had a printing press there. They actually used to publish a literary journal and letterpress books, among other things.
But there were two rooms that had an atmosphere so dense that I would just want to sit there. Doing nothing. Saying nothing. Just taking it in. Looking at it like a piece of art. Those were the kitchen and Mr. Graves’ study.
The kitchen in the Graves house
Through the kitchen window the sun shined on the still life that was set up on the table, consisting of fruit, nuts, bread and olive oil. The oil carafe was literally breaking the light like a prism adding to the mystic quality of the scene.
In Mr. Graves study, his jacket was still on the chair, his glasses on the desk, next to a cup and a clipboard with sheets covered with handwritten notes and a text edited with a paintbrush. The only things running on electricity in this room were the two light bulbs and a small radio in the corner.
I don’t know whether it is true, but I can’t remember hearing anything. Not even a clock ticking away. And that’s how it felt that time didn’t live there. It was not only that his things were there like he was just out to get something from the village. It was that the place was stripped down to essentials. All you need to create, which was in his case prose and poetry.
I took pictures of those rooms. So I can still sit there and look at it long after I left. So I can find out what contributed to that atmosphere. So I could recreate it in a print and maybe in a place for myself that I have yet to find.
Mr. Graves had come to Deia to find peace. Here he had sun, the mountains, the sea and the laid back attitude of the mallorquin people. He could walk down the path near the house to the beach — a wonderful place to sit and meditate. Later that day I was drifting in the sea on my back, looking at the clouds thinking again that I wanted a place like that. That was peaceful and timeless. That healed whatever needed to be healed. And that made it easy for the muses to visit me. Where there was nothing to scare them off. And nothing to distract me from their voices whispering in my ear: “Grow, grow …”.

The Picture I Almost Took

Lone Pine (iPhone 5s, Basic adjustments in Lightroom, Color Efex Pro, Topaz Simplify oil painting filter and Silver Efex Pro black and white conversion added as layers in Photoshop.)
I missed a shot and then again I didn’t. And now I have the choice to be frustrated with what I don’t have or be grateful for what I have.
In October 2017 I visited Mallorca with my fiancee Christina and since we had rented a car we could go to all kinds of places like the house of British poet and critic Robert Graves, a visit I wrote about here.
Anyways the day before we left the island, we went to the monastery of La Victoria on the Alcudia peninsula. At the western end of the parking lot, some steps led up to a small hilltop with some pine trees looking out over the Baja Pollenca.
Walking up I saw a lone pine standing at the top framed by some trees on the left and right lower on the hill. Everything was leading up to that one tree and some really nice clouds took care of the background.
Christina was walking in front of me and when she saw the view, she counted down to the exact moment when I lifted my camera. She knows my images and sees what I see. She knew I would be drawn to this image.
So I took this iPhone image and started taking more with the Nikon. With the 35mm prime lens, I moved back and forth, left and right to get different angles. All good and well.
But I made a major mistake — I didn’t take the frame I had previously done with the phone camera. The one that leads the eye straight to that lone pine. Missed it. Didn’t do it. Don’t know why. But I was sure I had it.
When I came back home, I imported all files to Lightroom, made a cup of tea and got ready to work on the image. I had fiddled around with Snapseed on the phone and already had a look in mind.
iPhone image edited using Snapseed on the phone.
A strong vignette so the focus would be on the single tree even more. Some more structure for the cloud background, but not so much that it would take away from the main subject. And maybe add some oil painting filter to the leaves and grass using Topaz Simplify. I had it all worked out and then … it wasn’t there. Just wasn’t there.
iPhone image with oil painting filter painted in on leaves and grass using a layer mask in Photoshop.
I couldn’t believe it. How on earth could I have missed that? First I was so disappointed I just wanted to shut down the computer and go do something else. But then I thought I still have something. I can edit the iPhone image. I can even print that in about 11 x 8 inches and it will look good. And I can go back next year and do it again. Maybe even better.
So I worked on the image and came up with something I liked and had learned something along the way. So I messed up. I could have just got all irritated about it. Or I could choose to adapt and work with what I have. I have a set of lower resolution images taken with the phone or smaller cameras for images just like this one (i call it “The Tiny Collection”). So I added it to that. And the more I look at it, the happier I am with it.
The circumstances may be the same, it is just our choice, our way of looking at something that makes us feel miserable or good about it. And the best thing about it is that it doesn’t just apply to missed photographic opportunities. I’ll try and remember that the next time something goes wrong.

The Photographer’s Patience

The Fields. The Sky.
It seems quite obvious that if you are serious about photography as an art form, you have to be patient. For all kinds of reasons.
The first thing that comes to mind is the patience you need when you are out there in the field. (I am talking mainly about landscape photography here, but the principles apply to almost any kind of photography I guess.) Once you are out there, you wait until you find the right spot, the right angle, until that cloud moves, the fog settles or the sun comes up. Whatever it is — you are waiting patiently for that moment, when everything seems right for you, when it feels like the right moment to take the picture. And it needs to be that exact moment that feels right for you and you only.
But even once you experienced that excitement that is typical for that moment you feel you got something there. When you are totally sure you have the material you need. When all the exposures are made, all angles covered and you just want to head home and start working on what you just photographed. Even then you’ll still need to practice patience.
Home Office
If you start developing in the exact same way you have developed other images; if you use default settings without even trying something new; if you skip experimenting you don’t grow and you are not treating your image as the unique potential piece of art it is. Be patient and try something new. Take as long as it takes and then some.
And if possible, make a print. Making a print will teach you to be even more patient and if it was only for the wasted paper and ink if your print isn’t good enough. This, of course, assumes that you want the best possible quality for your images, technically and aesthetically.
The thing is that in this day and age we take pictures with our phones, use the same filters on them as millions of others do and then post them. Which is totally okay for those snapshots, but if this kind of workflow; this quick fix for our need for immediate gratification also find its way into our workflow as an artist, we’re doomed to get stuck in our growth as an artist and human being. Or we might even stagnate.
If we publish images prematurely, unfinished and not conveying something (which was hopefully our intention), it is like something we said in a discussion without thinking it through. It is said, it is out there and has left its mark. We can never really completely take it back. The impression is made.
I am guilty of all of that. Of having been too impatient. Of not having been careful enough with those moments I was lucky enough to witness and record. Of not realizing that I had a responsibility for my artistic integrity if you will. To try and give it all you got each and every time.
“Twelve significant photographs in any one year is a good crop.”
— Ansel Adams
It is and cannot be about quantity. Then that’s the need for gratification speaking. It is about the technical quality of course, but even though this is important, this is secondary. It is all about meaning; about a personal vision; about maybe touching someone who looks at your image and for some reason even that person might be unaware of, it moves something inside him or her. That happens rarely enough, but it will be even more unlikely to happen if we get sloppy and try to take shortcuts.