New York Times

Acknowledging Influence in Your Art

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.

Reliving Cultural Moments That Change Your Life

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:

[embed]http://janealdenstevens.com/?p=1382[/embed]

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”.guernica_all-1

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.

Tracking Family Connections

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

https://www.nytimes.com/2016/08/07/opinion/sunday/my-fathers-hackberry-tree.html?_r=0

"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.

Portraits, Self-Portraits, Cindy Sherman & Aging (Part 2)

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. Photograph by Cindy Sherman

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.

New York Times columnist David Brooks wrote a column back in March that speaks to how being older can enrich one’s work. Here is an excerpt:

“…(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.”

Portraits, Self-Portraits, Cindy Sherman & Aging (Part 1)

The New York Times recently  published an article on photographer Cindy Sherman that focused on her most recent work, which is being exhibited for the first time in New York City this month. Throughout her 40-year career, Sherman has made photographs using herself as a model. At the time that her "Film Stills" series was catapulting her to fame, she stated that these portraits were not “about” her. By this she meant that they did not contain any autobiographical content, and that the viewer should not expect to understand anything about her as a private individual by looking at the pictures. Up to now, she has always maintained that stance about all of her work.

But the New York Times article raised my eyebrows when I read the lines, "...she is now willing to see aspects of herself even in her early photos."

This shift is significant, and I’m sure will lead to much discussion among critics, art historians, and students of her work. Sherman herself attributes this change in her own assessment of her past work to the fact that she is now older (62, to be specific) and looks back at that work from a different perspective than she had when she was younger.

This makes sense to me. As we age, there is often a natural evolution in how we see ourselves. We look back at our own history and ask ourselves, “How could I have been so naïve/courageous/stupid/bold? Why did I do that? Why didn’t I do that? What was I thinking?!” and myriad other questions.

In the case of art, one of the most valuable actions I have taken in recent years has been to look back through my archives every once in a while and try to understand my older work in a new way. With the passage of time, new life experiences help me to understand my younger creative self better, and in different ways that were invisible to me before. I’m glad that I have kept a lot of my early work so I can study it in this way.

I would encourage any artist to do so. If you don’t have the space to keep a lot of original artwork, then keep what is most important/significant to you and digitize as much of the rest of it as you can. Looking at digital reproductions of your artwork is not even close to being the same as looking at the originals, but it is the next best thing, and certainly better than nothing. In this way, you can haul out as much or as little of your past creative history as you want, whenever you want, and learn from yourself about yourself.

The older you get and the more you have to look back on, the more threads you will find that connect the various bodies of work that you have done and the better you will understand your creative voice as it has evolved.

My Photographic Archives- What to Do With Them? (Part 2)

My last post addressed the fact that I have been thinking a lot lately about what will happen to my photographs after I am gone. I have not come to any firm conclusions yet, so stay tuned. But there was an article in the New York Times recently about Bob Dylan's archives which interested me. It didn't provide me with any potential solutions to my own problem, but it was great food for thought.

The Dylan archive, which was recently acquired by a group of institutions in Oklahoma, consists of over 6,000 items which include lyrics, notebooks, correspondence, recordings, films and photographs. Apparently no one had known prior to this that his archives were so extensive, and the Times' article discusses what a treasure trove it will be for researchers:

"With voluminous drafts from every phase of Mr. Dylan's career, the collection offers a comprehensive look at the working process of a legendarily secretive artist. ... The range of hotel stationary suggests an obsessive self-editor in constant motion."

Apparently, the archives were formed by simple accumulation over the years, and then placed in storage. Dylan eventually hired an archivist, who started the process of organizing everything before it was offered for sale.

One of the most intriguing questions posed by the article was whether other rock artists of the 60's and 70's will follow in Dylan's footsteps when it comes to their archives. Jon Landau, Bruce Springsteen's manager, noted "the disconnect between the needs of professional archivists and the culture of rock in the 1960's. "Was anyone sitting around worrying about this kind of thing back then?", he said. "We were living in the era of 'Hope I die before I get old.'" It's my guess that very few of the giants of rock from that era would have such an extensive collection of items as Bob Dylan has. And I wonder how many artists from all media think about something like this?

Finally, the article mentions that, despite the large volume of items that make up his archive, it reveals very little about Dylan the man that is not already known. Since Dylan is known for being obsessively private, that does not surprise me. It makes me wonder if he edited out anything that referred to his personal life so that it would never see the light of day.

All of this brings up the question of what exactly would be valuable to include in one's archive. In my case, just "final" photographs that were published or exhibited? All of my negatives and contact sheets and RAW digital files with nothing edited out? Technical notes? Work prints? Correspondence with galleries, curators, museums, fellow artists? Personal journals? Bob Dylan is a seminal artist in his field, who has influenced his medium in profound ways. I am not such an artist in my field. It makes sense to me that what would be included in a valuable archive of an artist of Dylan's stature would be quite different from what would be included in mine. But.... maybe not?

The question of what to include is an challenging one because it of course means that you would be editing the items, unless you were to include absolutely everything you ever created or did. And in editing the items, you would be creating a specific picture of yourself as an artist that might be different than the one others would get if left unedited.

And, if you are not a Bob Dylan or an Ansel Adams or a Sally Mann, then who are you creating an archive for? Where would it be housed? Who would have  access to it? Who would be interested in it? Why create one at all?

So many questions, and so few answers, at least for now.