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Ramblings On Photography

Which, because they are rambling, are thoughtfully "cut" to save your bandwidth. To Read or not To Read, forget the question, it's your answer...

I've been looking through a couple books by or about Jerry Uelsmann. I remember the first time I heard about Mr. Uelsmann, in the fall of 1978. One of my house mates discussed him, as one of the professors of photography at the University of Florida. She waxed very enthusiastic about his work, and how he melded multiple photographs into one. My first reaction didn't bother me at the time, but later proved annoying enough that I went to find some of his work. "That's just wrong," I though. One of the challenges of Photography in the realm of surrealism is to find that surreal image in the world, and record it, rather than make it up whole cloth.

This reaction bothered me because I'd already done image manipulation work in the darkroom. Dodging and burning, withholding light or extending exposure to certain areas to even things out, accentuate important parts of the photographs. Also a technique called either solarization or sabatier effect, and attributed at least in part to Man Ray. This involves exposing the entire image to light during the development process and before fixing the image by removing unexposed silver, and results in an eerie almost but not exactly reversal to a negative.

Hence, I myself am guilty of changing the nature of a photograph to achieve an effect. Still, all of these manipulations involved working with a single image, a single negative. I'd achieved a surreal image within the limitations of seeing a single image. Then I thought some more, and realized I'm also guilty of multiple exposures, where more than one image is made onto a single frame of film. Oh, the evil grows; I am a changer of reality. But still, a single frame of film. I felt righteous in my self-importance.

Then a lesson from my Dad percolated through my awareness, that ideas come from many places, and what makes work original is not the idea but the individual approach to express the idea. So I went and looked at several Uelsmann photos, either on display (a local bookstore occasionally featured art by local artists; one of the nice things about this particular bookstore, other than it being independent), or in some books. And I started to think about what it meant to bring a single image out of the component pieces; that I already knew the basics of what I saw here, but hadn't thought about working in this manner with those techniques. Yes, I thought, impressive piece of manipulation, to merge more than one negative into a single photograph.

Because they are photographs; drawings with light on paper.

Some time later, I encountered another Florida photographer who experimented with these techniques, J.D. Hayward. An actual face-to-face encounter at the Santa Fe (as in Community College) Spring Arts Festival, not a disembodied second hand encounter looking at the works thereof in a gallery or book. We spent about ten-fifteen minutes chatting about photography in general, and my interests and desires to begin selling my work. His major (read, repeated) advice: keep at it, but don't quit my day job.

He'd put together his own book, Dramatic Black & White Photography, and I purchased a copy. While vaguely familiar with most of what Uelsmann did (dodging, burning, masking, and such), I'd seen nothing in print by "the Master" himself as to what he did to manipulate the images for the final photograph. Visiting with J.D. provided more insight in ten minutes than the intervening almost 25 years since I'd first heard the name Uelsmann and that he held a position as a professor of art at U.F. That's one of the odd twists in this personal tale; the man lives somewhere within 20 miles of me, and I've never seen him. It's not like Gainesville is that big of a place, when limited to the people who live here longer than four to five years of degree seeking.

Anyway. One of the two books about Uelsmann I picked up is a bit more of a how-to; at least, he discusses his process and shows several examples. Credit is strongly due, because several of the examples shown are images he ultimately decided did not work, and other than in this book will not be shown publicly. The other book looks at work he did while taking part a workshop in Yosemite.

In both of these books, there are sections written by people other than Jerry Uelsmann himself; the usual critic drivel about the work. I skimmed through these, but I rarely read this stuff in depth. I'd read Uelsmann's part already, and he flatly stated he won't discuss possible interpretations of his work, preferring to leave that to each individual viewer.

Which is what brought me to my appreciation for Uelsmann and J.D. Hayward. Yes, I find a number of their pieces particularly interesting. There is, however, a greater impact on me than the enjoyment of looking at a print.

That is: how to see. Not what I see when I look at a photograph of rocks on the end of a playground slide which fades away at it's top into the infinity of clouds and light. Neither, looking at an abandoned mansion perched atop a rock with a tunnel through it, into which a figure is walking. But how to visualize to that final image which is what other people will see. And a validation of my impulse to listen to the simple message from my subconscious that making an image in a particular way will be fun, just fun. I don't generally enter into the making of a photograph with the intent to make some grand philosophical art statement.

This doesn't mean I don't find concepts that could, will, or do carry philosophical aspects, because I know that to deny this is to deny myself. Art is a release of emotions, and without that release there is no art. To achieve that release is to communicate. The message may be simply: "Mountains are beautiful." The message may be more complex: "Breast cancer is a terrible disease with considerable impact on people, and through those people on society."

When the time comes to make the photograph, though, it is time to set the philosophy aside, look to focus and exposure, look to interaction between participants (if I'm working with live models), to go ahead and use that cop-out phrase, "Go with the flow." Just make an image, keep my eye open to what looks cool and interesting and play with a technique to get there.

Because others will see things there I never imagined, and I will grow from their vision.

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