I went to Blink Cincinnati, an after-dark lights festival in Cincinnati, Ohio, this weekend. As a photographer, anything to do with light, shadow and form is something I want to engage with. For me, it's research for future ideas. They did a fantastic job- and the downtown was as crowded as I have ever experienced it. Loved it!
Whenever creative people talk about their medium, whether it be writing, dance, painting, sculpture, ceramics, music, film, etc., they always speak for artists in other mediums. This is because creative concerns and methods are essentially universal to all artists, regardless of medium. I read an interview with Sting recently in which he talked about his creative process. Substitute the word "photography" for "music", and this thought is equally relevant:
"Music is like a sea without a horizon and without a reason for being. Making music is a wonderful adventure without borders - exactly like love. You never get to the bottom of the person you love. The closer you get, the more you understand about how little you know of them. That means that there is a lot of work yet to be done."
There are a many thoughtful photographers out there who speak eloquently about their work and photography in general, but few are as inspiring as Jerry Uelsmann and Duane Michals. (I could list more, like Kip Fulbeck, for instance, but will limit myself for now.) Last month I attended the Society for Photographic Education's national conference, where 82-year old Uelsmann was a featured speaker. Here are a few of the more memorable things he said:
"I asked an historian, "What IS history?", and he answered, "History amounts to those things that you choose to remember."
"The camera is a license to explore."
"The viewer always completes the image."
"Art is one of those areas where there is more than one right answer."
"Once you think you know everything, the questioning stops."
And perhaps my favorite: "I don't want this presentation to be a snore-fest with yawn-sauce on the side."
Michals, who is now 85, was equally entertaining and challenging when I heard him speak at the Cincinnati Art Museum in 2000. Here are some of his most memorable lines:
"Do not try to be perfect, please. Perfect is boring. Your humanity lies in your vulnerability."
"Pay attention to your mind. You put crap in your mind, you get crap in your life. You put good things in your mind, you get good things in your life."
"I think about thinking."
"Don't come crying to me because nothing happened. Nothing happened because you didn't make it happen."
"You have 2 choices in life: doing and bullshit. Don't tell me what you are going to do. Show me what you have done."
"Guess when you were born? You were born now."
When golfer Arnold Palmer died in 2016, it was written of him, "People loved him because, in a world of sullen superstars, Palmer radiated joy and delight in the treasures of his life... He had a wonderful time being Arnold Palmer and squeezed every drop of juice from the experience." The same can be said about Uelsmann and Michals, both giants of 20th century photography.
Giving titles to artwork is a challenging but rewarding part of the creative process. Although I am sure that there are many artists out there who have no problem coming up with titles, there are many others for whom it is a difficult or thankless task. I've talked with artists who hate assigning titles, and often default to "Untitled No. XXX" for their work. This is, of course, an option, but one that can work against an artist in certain respects. First, it can make it challenging to figure out which piece a potential buyer or curator is talking about unless you are an artist who has a great inventory system that allows for quickly finding your artwork in your archives. The longer you make art, the harder it may be to identify and find an untitled piece without a detailed and up-to-date inventory database. (I'm speaking from personal experience here.) Second, it can turn off certain viewers and buyers who welcome titles, as they can add meaning or provide insight into the work.
It is this value-added aspect of titling artwork that makes me work hard at coming up with an effective title. Titling forces me to engage with my art in a different way than when I am making technical or aesthetic decisions about it. I title all the artwork that I exhibit, making sure to title each body of work, as well as each piece within a series.
Sometimes titling is really hard. This was the case for the overall title of the body of work that became "Tears of Stone: World War I Remembered". I agonized over what the title should be, making long lists of potential titles, all of which were lame or awful. It wasn't until I was passing by one of my bookcases and my eye fell on a Chieftains CD titled "Tears of Stone" that I had a eureka moment. Conversely, sometimes titling is drop-dead easy. This was the case with each image in the "Tears of Stone" series. Rather than give the pictures metaphorical titles, I knew that many viewers would be very interested in the type of place and the location at which each shot was taken. The location would further indicate the scope of the war's impact the nations that fought in it. Here's an example:
On the other hand, sometimes metaphorical titles can be very effective. Here's an example from "The Primitive Streak" series that functions both literally and metaphorically, and which depicts my nieces as they neared the end of their childhood:
How do you come up with a great title for a piece of art? For me, it varies. Sometimes it comes from an external source like a discussion I have with a friend, a line in a book, newspaper, poem or song, or from listening to a podcast, as happened with the two series "The Wind Telephone" (This American Life) and "The Primitive Streak" (Radiolab). Sometimes a title is suggested by the artwork itself as I work on it. Using a thesaurus can be enormously helpful. I now keep an ongoing list of potential titles, knowing that I may never create a piece that matches up to one of those titles.
The main criteria I use for judging whether a title is effective or notis, "Does it add something to the experience of looking at the art without explaining too much?"
There really isn't one defining formula for creating successful titles for your artwork. Here are three different blogs that make excellent suggestions:
Once an exhibition goes up, it can be difficult for artists to get feedback about viewers' reaction to the work, especially if the venue is not in the place you live. But because "The Thread in the River" is currently being shown at the Weston Art Gallery in Cincinnati (until April 2), I have been able to meet with multiple classes of high school and university students who have shared their thoughts about what they see in the work and how they experience it. This has, in turn, led me to think a lot about how I might proceed as I continue to develop this project. A student asked me why I presented the images that appear in "Twelve Summers" as a video animation, rather than as still images.
My answer was that I had tried out numerous ways of presenting them as still images, both on the wall and in book format. But nothing I tried captured the idea of the sometimes subtle transformation of a child from one age to the next. I was also failing in conveying the idea that our childhood selves are still buried somewhere deep inside us, despite the layers of complexity that we gain as we age into adulthood. Putting these pictures into a video that allowed for layering them with different levels of opacity allowed me to speak to these ideas successfully. This conversation made me ask myself in what other ways I could use video presentations for future work.
Discussing "The Wind Telephone" with students reinforced for me how important it is to not have the work answer too many questions for the viewer, to let the audience ask and answer questions for themselves.
They liked it a lot that this particular body of work didn't explain the answers that my relatives gave me when responding to the questions I had asked of them. The students said that it made them ask themselves what their own answers would be to these questions, and made them more interested in the work.
One series, titled "The Long Arc", consists of many self-portraits that I began taking when I got pregnant in 1995 and continue to take up to the present day. I asked the students what they saw as the difference between my self-portraits and "selfies", as they take them and understand them. One students' reply has stuck with me (and I'm paraphrasing a bit here): "Selfies are all about covering up who you really are, while your pictures are about revealing who you really are."
While talking with these students, I felt like I was learning things about my own work that I hadn't yet seen. Unless I am invited to an exhibition venue to talk about my work, opportunities to talk with viewers in a gallery while a show is up don't happen a lot. Because this is the first time that this work has been exhibited, I'm grateful that I've been able to get this kind of feedback.
I was fortunate to have been able to visit Amsterdam, Netherlands, recently, where I saw an unbelievable amount of art. But the first place I visited after arriving was FOAM, the city's museum of contemporary photography. I discovered that three new shows had opened there only a few days before, and one of them was work by Hiroshi Sugimoto. I have been familiar with Sugimoto's work for a long time, but had never had the pleasure of seeing it in person. The experience left me literally speechless, and I know that I will never be able to put into words what it was like.
In summary, the show consisted of pictures from 5 different series that Sugimoto has created over the course of the past few decades. Each series was represented by 5-7 photographs, which was enough to give the viewer an idea of the concept of each. Each series was in its own room so that the viewer could take the work in without it competing with other pictures. Although the size of the prints varied, they were all relatively large. I would guess that the smallest was @ 3ft. by 4 ft. All were framed, covered in non-glare glass, were lit beautifully, and hung on medium-to-dark gray walls.
The effect was mesmerizing. Sugimoto is a technical master, something that is becoming rare in today's photographic world. But his technical mastery is always in the service of the ideas he has, and these ideas include some of the most basic that photographers can ask (What is the nature of light? How can it be controlled- or not?) as well as some that go far beyond what a lens can record (What is the nature of time?) His approach to photography is spiritual in nature, which is underscored in this interview.
In each series, Sugimoto had me wondering if what I was looking at was real- but "real" in what sense of the word? It didn't matter if what he photographed was a seascape, electric sparks, wax figures, or museum dioramas. I could look at his pictures for endless hours and always find something new in them, as they cause me to ask questions about what I am seeing. The beauty of it is that I come up with different answers each time.
Seeing his work was sublime, spiritual, mesmerizing. His work is about so much more that the actual objects being photographed. If you ever find yourself near a gallery or museum with his work in it, do not miss it.
"If you make art that makes people curious, then people will lean towards it." ~Moby (singer, songwriter, DJ, musician, photographer and animal rights activist) The Thread in the River opened two days ago at the Alice F. and Harris K. Weston Art Gallery in Cincinnati, OH. After working on this project actively for over 3 years, it is almost unreal that it is now out there in the world. The opening itself was crazy- over 400 people came and it was packed from beginning to end.
I have been helped by so many people along the way, and wanted to thank them for the role that each of them played. First and foremost, my enduring gratitude goes to my soulmate-in-the-search-for-perfection, Laura Fisher, whose tireless efforts went well above and beyond the call of duty. Working with her and Alex McClay was pure joy.
I am also grateful to Whitney and Phillip Long for sponsoring the exhibit, and to Dennie Eagleson for her unfailing support and encouragement.
Invaluable technical support and advice was provided by Jon Cone, Walker Blackwell, Cathy Cone, and Dana Hillesland of Cone Editions Press in Vermont. Every artist should be so lucky to have a framer par excellence like Laurie Gilbert. I would also like to thank Michael Everett, Larry Danque, Andy Marko and Charles Woodman for their input and efforts on my behalf.
Finally, my appreciation for my family knows no bounds. Without their patience and willingness to participate in my photographic activities over the years, even when they didn’t necessarily understand what I was doing, this project would not exist.
To say that I have been buried in the preparations for this show the past few months is to make a gross understatement. The pace has been non-stop, but it has all come together without any last-minute disasters, which is a miracle. I went down to the Alice F. and Harris K. Weston Art Gallery today to help with the layout of the work as it is installed. Since virtually none of this work has ever been exhibited before, I am beyond nervous as to the impact it will have once it is all up.
The show consists of 6 different bodies of work. Will all of those series make sense when seen together in the same space? Does the order and presentation of the work help the viewer make sense of it? Is it a problem that 2 of the series are in color and 4 are in black & white? Or that two series are presented as videos and 4 consist of still images? Does anything need rethinking for future exhibitions? What's missing that could make it stronger?
Only about half of the work was up today, and none of the labels were done, so it was hard for me to answer those questions. I'm going back tomorrow to look things over again, and might get a better sense of it then.
I have written a number of posts about how the presentation of artwork can affect the viewer's perception of that art. The other day I ran across a fantastic video that speaks to the same issue as it relates to food. "Tasteology" is a series of four videos that address the issue of why food tastes the way it does. The first three episodes focus on the source of the raw ingredients, how they are prepared, and how they are stored. The final episode, found below, examines how the presentation and environment in which food is eaten affects our perception of its flavor and textures. From the room and the plating to the ambient sounds and lighting, this video speaks to an issue that all artists should think more about when considering how to present their work. I loved it! [embed]https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0CDsifeDf-c[/embed]
Teju Cole is a photographer, author, teacher, art historian, and critic. He is one of today's most complex, thoughtful and articulate critics of photography, and I always enjoy the articles he writes for the New York Times Magazine. They are hugely thought-provoking. He recently published a book, Known and Strange Things, which was reviewed by Claudia Rankine in the Sunday New York Times Book Review in August. In the review, Rankine refers to a section in which Cole has a conversation with writer and critic Aleksandar Hemon. Rankin writes: "Hemon is ... interested in what happens when influences are constantly shaping and reshaping the imagination. For Cole, visual artists, especially painters, are least affected by that anxiety of influence and “know that everything is a combination of what’s observed, what’s imagined, what’s overheard and what’s been done before.” He argues that to acknowledge influence is to let go of notions of “literal records of reality” and cultural or racial ownership of content. All Cole wants is to be “dragged down into a space of narrative that I haven’t been in before.”"
I love that Cole embraces the notion of artists being influenced by external forces. I know so many artists who shy away from, if not openly fear, the idea that their work might be influenced by someone or something else. Young artists in particular, but older artists, too, often want their work to be born only from themselves. They actively refuse to read about others, to go to museums, to expose themselves to anything outside of the narrow parameters of their own lives as they have lived them to date.
It is deluded to think that we can go through this life not being influenced by something other than ourselves. We don't live in a vacuum, even when we try to. I don't think it matters what our influences are as artists. What matters far more is what we do with the influences we have. Do we take that information and create something unique out of it? Or do we use it to rehash what others have already said and done before? I think that the prospect of the latter is what makes people fearful. But if you use that which influences you to create something fresh and new, something that makes people like Cole sit up, pay attention, and say "I haven't seen that before.", then there is no reason to fear your influences.
In 2015, the New York Times ran a series of articles written by a variety of people that addressed the following question: "What cultural work or encounter do you wish you could experience again for the first time?"
The authors wrote about concerts, books and films that had had a profound impact on them, each of which they wished they could experience again for the first time. For me, there have been two such cultural experiences, one of which I blogged about in 2014:
The other experience took place during a visit to New York City in the mid-1970’s. I decided one day to visit the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) in order to see in person some of the artworks that I had studied in art history classes in college. I had no particular agenda for this visit, no works that I specifically wanted to see. After having taken in the art on the first two floors, I started up the flight of stairs that would take me to the next level. Doing so meant going up a short flight of stairs, turning 90˚ to the right, ascending another short flight, then turning another 90˚ to take the final steps up to the third floor. As I ascended that last section, I became aware that a large painting was coming into view with each step I climbed. It was enormous, it was black and white, it was riveting.
It was Picasso's “Guernica”.
Although I had seen this painting in reproduction many times before, I was stunned when encountering it in person. It is one thing to see a photograph of an artwork in a book, or as a projection or screen image, and quite another to experience it in real life. Nothing had prepared me for the violence, the authority, the command of this painting.
I stood there at the top of the stairs, unable to move, not knowing where to begin or even what to think. It was as if all thought had been stripped from my brain, leaving a blank slate behind. I can’t say exactly how long I stayed there examining and thinking about the painting, but I do know that it was a good long time. I left MOMA without having looked at anything else.
I was aware that "Guernica" was going to be sent back to Spain eventually (it was, in 1981), and that this was probably the only time that I would be able to see it in person. So I drank it in while I could, all the while wondering how a painting could evoke such a visceral response in me.
Looking back, I understand that my reaction arose from a combination of things: the way the painting came slowly into view as I ascended the stairs, the powerful content of it, the fact that it was in black, gray & white, the abstract method used to paint it, the relationship of the figures to each other, and my total lack of expectation about what I was going to see as I climbed those steps.
I think of that day often, as it was the first time that I realized how potent and personal art could be, and wish I could see "Guernica" for the first time again.
I have been invited to participate in The Anna May Project, [embed]http://theannamayproject.com/[/embed]
an educational "visual storytelling project that helps women and girls learn to shape and tell their own stories." The Anna May Project was founded by Amy Whitaker, who brings years of executive leadership experience plus degrees in Fine Arts and Art Education to the table. She seeks to empower women and girls to find their own truths and inner strength through the use of photography and visual storytelling.
Some of my photographs will appear in the first edition of Riptide Magazine, being published by The Anna May Project in January 2017. In the meantime, Amy asked me to compose a short essay on "beauty", which will be the focus of that issue of the magazine. Doing so was an interesting exercise, as I never had written anything on that topic before, and I was limited to 200 words. After finishing, I realized that beauty is a topic about which I have very strong feelings, particularly because it runs counter to so much that is valued in today's art world. Here is what I wrote:
"Beauty is strength, resiliency, and conviction. Because I am drawn to these qualities, beauty often finds its way into my work.
Beauty emerges from a combination of elements—the setting, the light, the ambient sounds and smells, the way people move—in the way these elements interact and connect with each other. I thus can find beauty in any setting and in people of all ages, because it is not just about how things look.
Making a picture that speaks to my definition of beauty is never a specific goal; rather, it is a byproduct of how I see and experience the world and what I want to say about it through my photographs.
In today’s art world, beauty is something that is scorned by many. Back in 1981 when I staged my Masters of Fine Arts thesis exhibit, "Dancing on a Wall", a mentor wrote, “(Your photographs are) … an expression of a vital ingredient of creation—the artist’s delight and love for a much maligned, old-fashioned, but everlastingly satisfying component of much of art—beauty.”
He further advised me to never apologize for that, and indeed, to embrace it as part of my creative self—and I always have."
Learning to stand up for who I truly am as a person and artist was one of the most important lessons I ever learned from that beloved mentor, Charles A. Arnold, Jr., known by all as Charlie. Although he is gone now, his lessons resonate and guide me every day of my life.
When asked to participate in the Photo Founders exhibition at the Behringer Crawford Museum as a part of [embed]http://www.fotofocusbiennial.org/[/embed]
I initially thought that I would (of course) show new work. But the more I thought about it, the less I liked that idea. The concept of the show is to celebrate the work of the 5 founders of the university photography programs in the Cincinnati region. So I went into my archives and took a look, the first in a long time, at my Master of Fine Arts thesis photographs, with which I applied to the open position at the University of Cincinnati back in 1982. Since these were the pictures that got me the job that I remained in until recently, and since they had not been exhibited since 1983, I decided to show this work.
I wanted to see them up on the wall in order to reevaluate them, to see how they stand up over the test of time, to see what I can learn from my younger self when I was still figuring out my creative voice. Here are some of the images from that series, which was titled "Dancing on a Wall", and which were printed on Rockland Photo Aluminum:
Photography is now an accepted part of a university curriculum, but that was not always the case. By the 1960's and 70's, the medium had firmly established itself in art and design programs around the US, including those at universities in the Cincinnati Tristate region. I was fortunate to be one of the early professors in the program at the University of Cincinnati, along with Jerry Stratton, who founded the program. The other photography program founders in the region are Cal Kowal at the Art Academy of Cincinnati, and Barry Andersen and Barbara Houghton at Northern Kentucky University. This year for FotoFocus 2016, Cincinnati's biannual festival of photography,
the Behringer Crawford Museum is hosting an exhibition of photographs by us 5 Photo Founders, and it has been fun trying to decide what work to put into the show. I finally decided to exhibit photographs from my Masters of Fine Arts thesis show, "Dancing on a Wall", which has not been shown since 1983. More on the work itself in a later post, but here are a few images showing the final framing of the work, which will be delivered to the museum later this week. The show opens on Friday, September 30.
The project I am currently working on examining, in part, the connections among my various family members. It's fascinating to me that we all know each other so well, and yet at the same time don't know each other at all. What connects us as a "family"? A. Hope Jahren, currently a professor of biogeochemistry at the University of Oslo, recently published an essay in The New York Times titled
"My Father's Hackberry Tree". In it, she describes a connection to her father that arose from her research work:
"...In 1993, my father collected hackberry fruits for me. My task that year was to observe the development of the seed over the course of the growing season, and I had earmarked several trees in South Dakota for that purpose. During a rare visit home to neighboring Minnesota, I saw with new eyes the fine specimen of C. occidentalis that graced the southwestern corner of my parents’ property.
I asked my father if he wouldn’t mind pulling off a few fruits every week throughout the summer, and he obliged. From May through September, he visited our hackberry tree twice each day, carefully recording the weather conditions, and also sampling, first flowers, then green fruits, then ripe, then withered, all placed into small plastic vials. Hundreds and hundreds of fruits — each week’s harvest wrapped in a sheet of paper describing its yield.
... (My) father spent the better part of his 70th summer observing a single tree, and in the end, gave me a hundredfold more than what I had asked for.
My father can no longer write. He is 92 now, and he cannot make his hands work. He cannot walk, or even stand, and he can barely see. He is not certain what year it is, but he is sure that I am his daughter, and that my brothers are his sons, and he treats us just as he always has...
When I visit him these days, we sit in the same house that I grew up in, but we don’t talk about science anymore. ... (We) talk about poetry instead...
As with many Midwestern families, great distances pervade our relationships — both literally and figuratively. We never really talk to each other; instead we box up our hurts and longings and store them for decades, out of sight but not forgotten.
... This year my father and I have spent (the summer) inside, reading...
In the fading light, we offer each other words that were carefully written by dead strangers, because we know them by heart. We also know that children eventually leave. Even when they do come home, there’s always the end of the day, of the week, of the summer, when they fly away to the other side of the world, off to a place where you cannot follow.
This month I am leaving Minnesota, and the United States, relocating yet again, to build a new lab and start over a fourth time. Compared with my previous moves, I am taking very little with me. The dead fruit of my early career has now been discarded. Instead, I carry in my luggage a delicate pile of paper. It is the small bundle of notes written in my father’s handwriting that I recovered from the box of hackberries he collected.
The notes are precious because they constitute proof — proof that my father thought of me every single day and must still do so. Proof that I am his, our shared last name written on every page. Proof that no one in the world knows that tree the way he and I do.
Our hackberry tree still stands, tall and healthy, near the western edge of Mower County. It should outlive both of us, growing stronger and greener even as we inevitably wither and fall. The tree will remain in my parents’ yard, and the notes describing what it was like 20 years ago will go with me, though its fruit will not.
I am taking with me only what I can’t live without, and the utility of these letters is clear. This collection of papers, filled exclusively with symbols and dates and botanical terms, is all of the things that my father and I have never said."
How beautiful that a collection of simple scientific data can make such a profound connection with a loved one. This task that was performed daily for a summer left behind evidence of that love, of the fact that the father thought every day of his daughter, and performed a service on her behalf. The notes that Jahren's father made say "I love and respect you." in a different way than the words themselves, and which is profoundly affecting.
Members of a family sometimes express attachment and affection for one another in such subtle ways that they can be essentially invisible or are not seen for what they are. It is this sideways approach to familial relationships that I am examining right now. What do we discover about our families and our selves when we look for evidence of love and connection in the less obvious places, in the places where links are there, but lie undetected? Trying to answer this question is requiring me to think quite differently than I have in the past about how to portray these issues visually.
Different people have different thresholds for risk-taking. Some find it easy to dive off a cliff into the unknown, while others hesitate before diving, and still others never take the leap. But there is a lot of truth in the axiom: "No risk, no reward". David Bowie makes the case for taking risks with one's artwork in this brief interview:
Someone said to me once that if you are willing to jump off the creative cliff into the unknown, you will spend some time in free-fall, terrified at what you have just done, certain that you will crash and burn. But it's important to remember that you will probably sprout some wings on the way down, which will ease your passage and provide you with a successful landing. This has proven to be true for me most of the times when I have taken the greatest risks in my work.
I have recently started photographing people in silhouette, something I have never done before. It requires using the camera settings in a very different way than I am used to, and assessing the scene in front of me completely differently, too. It's aggravating, scary, and exciting all at once. I am impatient to get great results right away, which almost never happens when I start something new. That lack of immediate success increases my level of frustration. But working this way has pushed me out of a comfort zone that I hadn't even known I was in. And something new will come out of it that I otherwise would never have done.
Taking risks + being uncomfortable = Totally worth it
My current project, titled The Thread in the River, is a mix of photographic media: film, digital, and video. I am creating a number of series, some of which are going to be printed in black and white. My Tears of Stone: World War I Remembered project was printed with Piezography software and inks back in the early '00's, so I knew that that is the method that I want to print this new b&w work with. But a lot has changed since then and I knew that I needed a total reboot. So I signed up for one of the New Piezography Workshops at Cone Editions Press in East Topsham, Vermont, and traveled there last month for it. With participants from China, Japan, Canada and the US, it was a truly international experience. Throughout the workshop, Jon Cone, Walker Blackwell, and Dana Hillesland each filled us in on different aspects of the process, including information about how to prepare image files, how the software works, printer setup and maintenance, and far, far more. We were able to print on a large assortment of papers using 5 different inksets. They did a lot of one-on-one work with each of us, as we all had come there with different needs and agendas.
In addition, I got to see Cathy Cone's photographic work, which is gorgeous and evocative. At the end of the last day, we spent some time at the waterfall nearby, then walked back to share wine, beer, and stories. It was a beautiful summer day and a fitting end to a fantastic experience, surrounded by people for whom craft is important. For anyone who is serious about fine digital black & white printing, Piezography is the way to go.
I had coffee recently with cello-player-extraordinaire Nat Chaitkin. Nat plays cello everywhere in Cincinnati, it seems- with the Cincinnati Symphony, the Cincinnati Chamber Orchestra, and through his music advocacy program, Bach and Boombox, all over the city. Those facts do not begin to do him or his playing justice, though. Nat wants to change the way people experience and perceive classical music, and everything he does is geared towards breaking down the walls between musicians and audience. He tells his students to find the story in the music they are playing, for all music tells some kind of story. Figuring out what the story is requires imagining something that becomes visual. Conjuring up something visual, even if the story is only seen in the mind's eye, is something that visual artists can relate to.
Nat told me about an experience he had had at one of Cincinnati's street festivals with a woman who has synesthesia. Her form of this condition is such that when she hears music, she sees colors that change as the notes change. Nat ended up playing music in different keys, while she drew what she was "seeing" on the pavement with colored chalk. It is just one example of how music and visual art connect.
Here is Nat's full blog post about the encounter:
Most photographers don't consciously think about how the sounds that exist in the environment in which they are photographing might affect what and how they photograph. This is too bad, because of course the sounds (and smells and tactile qualities) that surround us affect our experience of that environment, and thus affect the kind of art we make from it.
Nat's experience is a reminder that visual artists should try to remain aware of all of our senses as we create our work, and not just rely on our eyes or our brains.
I am currently reading a recently-published biography titled The Civil Wars of Julia Ward Howe, by Elaine Showalter. Although Julia Ward Howe (1819-1910) is best known to Americans for having written the lyrics to the iconic song The Battle Hymn of the Republic, she saw herself for much of her life first and foremost as a poet. Indeed, she was a published poet, playwright, essayist, and women’s rights activist, but one whose creative voice was stifled at almost every turn until much later in her life. Because she lived at a time when women were not allowed control over their own financial affairs, when women who married were expected only to have children and keep the household, and when the consequences of stepping outside the lines that society had drawn for them were dire, Howe struggled mightily to write anything, much less get it published. Reading this book has once again made me infinitely glad that I was born when I was, and not back in earlier times, when the lives of women were so different than they are now. The freedoms that women have gained since Howe’s time are so many and varied that I have often wondered how many other creative women we would be familiar with now, had their voices not been stifled back then.
The changes in attitudes towards women in the arts just in my own lifetime have been radical, and I have been the beneficiary of many of them. I came of age during the women's rights movement of the 1970's and the fights that we fought back then have given us momentum towards continuing to change the future. While the canon of the histories of the creative arts is still dominated by white males, and some fields are still male-dominated (architecture and movies, anyone?) the work of females and other marginalized groups is increasingly being taught more in schools, and is certainly being exhibited/published/performed/built. The internet has created public platforms for artists that were unimaginable only a few years ago. It’s my view that the participation of females in the arts is profound and that their work is valued more today than ever.
Is there more to be done in this regard? Yes. Absolutely.
But we shouldn’t lose sight of how far we have come from earlier times, when it was impossible for so many women like Julia Ward Howe to express themselves creatively, much less be recognized and lauded for their efforts.
My last post was inspired by a recent New York Times article about Cindy Sherman's latest body of work. In it, she presents herself in the style of old Hollywood screen goddesses who are past their prime. Rather than looking sadly like they are trying to still look like their younger selves, the women that Sherman portrays have a certain dignity to them. They look like they are older. They look like they have lived a life.
Sherman states that this work, which came after a 5-year hiatus, was the result of she herself getting older and trying to come to terms with it. She says, “I, as an older woman, am struggling with the idea of being an older woman.” And apparently she is using this new series to try to figure it out.
Sherman is now 62, an age which for many is an in-between state — not quite still middle-aged, but not yet old-old. As author Gerald Marzaroti recently wrote of people that age: "You are milling in the anteroom of the aged." The fact that Sherman is professing that this series of pictures is more autobiographically based than her prior work is really interesting to me, as is the fact that her age is a driving force in making it.
Numerous photographers have used aging as a foundation for their work- Anne Noggle and Lucy Hilmer are two who leap immediately to mind—and I, too, find myself very consciously exploring it in my own work at the moment.
I have always been interested in the process and effects of aging. For the “Shadowing the Gene Pool” series, I photographed young children and very old adults, marveling in their similarities and differences. I did the same in the “Birth & Death” series. In my current work, I am looking at my own body, how I am aging, what I think about it, and how I see myself as I age, in addition to looking at how others age. While it is not the only issue that my new work tackles, it is a big part of it.
“…(People are) less likely by middle age to be blinded by ego, more likely to know what it is they actually desire, more likely to get out of their own way, and maybe a little less likely…to care about what other people think.
…They achieve a kind of tranquility, not because they’ve decided to do nothing, but because they’ve achieved focus and purity of will. They have enough self-confidence, and impatience, to say no to some things so they can say yes to others.
From this perspective, middle age is kind of inspiring. Many of life’s possibilities are now closed, but limitation is often liberating. The remaining possibilities can be seized more bravely, and lived more deeply.”