Designer, artist and illustrator Emily McDowell gets straight to the point in all of her work. She says, quite accurately, "My work reflects our shared human experience, in all its different, messy forms, and I feel most satisfied when something I made helps somebody feel like someone else out there gets them." Although her work is totally different than most anything else I have blogged about up til now, it is similar in that it speaks to the truth of the human experience. Her greeting card about being an artist is a perfect case in point: When I first saw this, my only thought was, "YES!!!! YES!!!!" That is exactly what being an artist is like. You rock, Emily McDowell!
"Tears of Stone: World War I Remembered" opened at the Dayton Art Institute today. It is paired with "Call to Duty", an exhibition of United States war posters from both world wars.
There was a Member's Opening a few days ago, which was really fun, and which spoke to my appreciation of detail. Below is an example of the table decorations in the reception hall. Please note that this is an ammunition box with shells draped over it!
The Dayton Daily News (DDN) published an article on my upcoming "Tears of Stone" exhibition in last Sunday's paper. Because the article is only available through subscription on the DDN's website, I have posted it below. Many thanks to Features reporter Meredith Moss for her insightful and comprehensive writing.
My work on World War I remembrance, "Tears of Stone", is being exhibited at the Dayton Art Institute (DAI) from July 4 through October 4. I was able to travel there a couple of weeks ago in order to help train the docents and the show looks fantastic. The walls are painted a deep stone-grey that has slight hints of brown in it, which ensures that they enhance the tone of the photographs beautifully. Many thanks to the University of Cincinnati's Professor Theresa Leininger-Miller for bringing my work to the attention of the DAI and to Curator Aimee Marcereau Degalan, who has been such a pleasure to work with.
The opening is in two days and I'll post more about it after that.
The April 4, 2015, edition of The Economist contains a review about the new book What Comes Next and How to Like It, by Abigail Thomas. The review is unfortunately uncredited, but here are a few excerpts: "Abigail Thomas is not a painter, but she makes paintings anyway. Using oil-based house paint, which is toxic, she drips, flings and pours colour onto glass and then pushes it all around. Failed compositions are scraped away, yielding new and surprising arrangements...
This is not a book about painting. It is about pushing around sometimes toxic material in an effort- sometimes vain, often frustrating- to make something that looks right, or at least to find beauty in the results. This, of course, is what it means to write, and certainly to write a memoir...
As with her painting, Ms. Thomas's writing involves pushing around the colour and then scraping most of it away, leaving sentences that are as sculpted and considered as bonsai trees. The result is a thing of beauty, largely owing to the author's utter fearlessness in the face of the unexpected."
Although this review made me want to read the book, what I love most about it is the way it illuminates the creative process. It doesn't matter whether one is making artwork, crafting a business model, or creating a life- the process of creation is the same. It's often messy and disorganized, bewildering and frustrating. And once we get rid of anything that isn't truly important, we are hopefully left with something of substance, something wonderful, something worthy.
While the advent of 35mm roll film cameras heralded a whole new era in photography, the emergence of digital photography has done the same. One casualty of the ever-increasing ease in picture-taking is the time we spend looking at the scene in front of us before we press the shutter. This hurry-up approach was as true when 35mm cameras were first introduced to the marketplace as it is today. Put a digital camera in my hands, and I'll click away quickly and thoughtlessly with the best of them. (Burst mode, anyone?!) However the benefits of slowing down, of first spending time just looking at what is in front of us before we shoot, should not be ignored. This was brought home to me when I read "The Most Powerful Artwork I Have Ever Seen", an article about cave paintings by art critic Jerry Saltz. Saltz and his wife visited the Niaux Caves in France in 2008, and the experience became a seminal moment for him in his understanding of art. The part of the article that spoke to me about the importance of spending time looking, though, was the following excerpt:
"...we came to what felt like a large, irregularly shaped cavern. I can still feel cool currents on my face. We were in the "Salon noir." Everything remained silent; our guide pointed her light to the ground so our eyes could adjust. After a moment, she wordlessly shined the beam upward. A never-ending clap of thunder sounded inside me; one reality was replaced by another...
Nothing [in the paintings I was looking at] seemed only imagined; everything felt observed, studied, thought about, recorded.
These are the paintings of people who looked at mammals for over 30,000 years - far longer than all of recorded history combined. I was seeing visual wisdom, the hard work of looking and taking the time and trouble to make exact renditions of what one watched. Looking at these images, I began to know things we don't know anymore but still know in our bones. These astounding levels of visual intelligence tell me that had these people wanted to make only symbolic images of their mysticism and magic, they could have...The clap of thunder that sounded for me in the caves was that the world outside and around these people was the same as the world that was inside them."
How odd it seems that today's art students need to be taught to "learn to see", when this was a fundamental requirement for survival for the earliest humans. Observing the color and shape of things, the ebb and flow of weather and tides, the behavior of prey, tasting unfamiliar plants and animals to see if they were edible- doing all of this built up a body of knowledge that enabled Homo sapiens to thrive. They thus gained the kind of innate understanding about their world that most of us sorely lack in the 21st century.
One of the reasons I like working with large- and medium-format cameras is that they require me to slow down. I simply can't work quickly with them. They demand that I consider carefully the scene in front of me, which is not something that happens with smaller, lighter cameras. Sometimes I will spend long hours looking for a shot that eludes me, and I won't make any exposures. But that time is not wasted, for it gives me practice in looking, and, hopefully, seeing. Taking the time to be fully present in the world around me is something I should be doing on a daily basis. And slowing down, regardless of the type of camera I have in my hands, would benefit my work greatly.
Ever since I first learned the meaning of the words "optimism" and "pessimism", I have known that I am an optimist. Even when things are at their worst, I am still, at my core, an optimist. That is why this quote from the great Nelson Mandela resonates with me: "I am fundamentally an optimist. Whether that comes from nature or nurture, I cannot say. Part of being optimistic is keeping one's head pointed toward the sun, one's feet moving forward."
Being optimistic has helped me creatively in two ways: 1.) It has enabled me to harness fear in a constructive way, and 2.) It has given me faith that times of creative drought will eventually lead towards times of fertility. Looking forward while remaining fully in the present is a guiding principle in all that I do.
I am currently in the midst of editing down a large number of photographs into a coherent series. It is an overwhelming task at times, as the sheer volume of images (about 1,300 to be specific) can't be dealt with all at once. This is something that will take time, as my goal is to end up with between 35-70 pictures total. I find that it really helps to edit in small doses, and taking a lot of breaks helps. Sometimes I need to step away from the work for a couple of days in order to recover from the visual overload. But editing, as I've written before, is so important to my creative process that I would never dream of hurrying it up. This was brought home to me when I read an article titled "The Creative Process" in the July/August, 2014 issue of The Atlantic magazine. In it, creative people in a range of fields were asked about "the inspiration and evolution of their work." The whole article was very interesting, but the section that featured short story author Lydia Davis was downright fascinating.
Davis, who won the Man Booker International Prize in 2013, described what her life was like in the fall of 1973 and how she approached her writing early in her career. There followed the first draft of one of the stories she wrote at that time, "In a House Besieged":
"In a house besieged lived a man and a woman, with two dogs and two cats. There were mice there too, but they were not acknowledged. From the kitchen where they cowered in the man and woman heard small explosions. "The wind," said the woman. "Hunters," said the man. "Smoke," said the woman. "The army," said the man. The woman wanted to go home, but she was already at home, there in the middle of the country in a house besieged, in a house that belonged to someone else."
And then appeared the final draft:
"In a house besieged lived a man and a woman. From where they cowered in the kitchen the man and woman heard small explosions. "The wind," said the woman. "Hunters," said the man. "The rain," said the woman. "The army," said the man. The woman wanted to go home, but she was already home, there in the middle of the country in a house besieged."
What grace the final version has! What clarity, what elegance. Proof positive that excellent editing can strengthen the fruits of one's creative labors. In the final draft, there are no extraneous words that could distract from the message of the whole. Davis has cut out unnecessary details so that the point of the piece is more easily comprehended. The final version causes the reader to ask questions about what the implications of the story are, instead of answering every question the reader might have had. When editing, what is excluded often determines the strength and meaning of what is included.
And that is exactly the task at hand for me in my editing work. Exactly how many photographs need to be included in order for a sequence of pictures to be maximally strong? Which pictures should be included/excluded? What order should they be in? Those are the questions foremost on my mind as I work through the task at hand.
there lies the burnished button I lost
upon my seventh birthday in a garden.
Find me that button and my soul will know
that every soul is saved and stored and treasured."
The same could be said for photographs. We take them and put them away somewhere, in a drawer, in a shoebox, on our computers, or in the Cloud. All too often, we proceed to forget about them.
Every once in a while, we happen to come upon these treasures from the past. When we do, our gaze falls upon them and memory is reawakened. Emotions bubble up and time shifts somehow. Going through old photographs is like participating in an archeological dig. We sift through layers of the past, trying to make connections between the history being revealed and the present.
It is inevitable that, in this process, questions will arise that cannot be answered. But by asking those questions, we learn something about our selves, and the past lives again. Photographs are not the only artifacts that have the ability to generate these sensations, but they do it in a way that is unique to the medium.
This has a direct bearing on the creative work I am doing now, in which I am sifting through my photographic archives and discovering much in the process. I'm still editing all of this, trying to make sense out of the thousands of images I am looking at. Stay tuned to what emerges!
I saw a show a few months ago that made me angry. When I realized that I was angry, I stopped to ask myself why. The subject matter of the photographs was landscapes, the pictures were impeccably printed and presented cleanly. Straight photography at its best. At first glance, it seemed absurd that I would get angry about work like this. But then it dawned on me that this particular work belonged to a long and powerful photographic tradition of Modernism that still resonates today. When I first became involved with photography in the 1980's, this approach to the medium was everywhere. It was the kind of photography that got the most accolades and attention from the mainstream media and the public. It was what was (mostly) taught in schools. At the same time, the Postmodern approach to photography was extremely popular in galleries and museums, and that was mostly what art critics were championing.
I didn't feel at home in either camp. The issues that Postmodernism examined were not the kinds of things that I was interested in. But neither was I comfortable with the kind of approach that had made the Modernists so successful in the early to mid 20th century, particularly as it related to subject matter. I found both approaches, with a few exceptions, to be relatively dry spiritually and emotionally. They held no magic for me, and didn't speak to me in a way that I could respond to.
Seeing the exhibit of landscape photographs mentioned above generated anger because it made me realize just how powerful an influence the Modernist male photographers in particular had on me at that time. The show represented everything I don't want to be as an artist. Seeing this work made me realize that I have been constantly fighting off the voices that were most dominant during my photographic coming-of-age. A lot of my creative struggles have sought to inject passion, emotion and narrative into my subject matter, to make photographs that speak to people personally, to make them relatable.
The takeaway? Influences can not only be positive, they can also be negative.
But the fact that they can be negative is not necessarily a bad thing. In my case, it has forced me to define for myself exactly what I want my creative voice to be. I recognize that parts of my process are more Modernist than not, but feel that the content of most of my work departs in large part from that mold.
I read a great article in this month's edition of The Atlantic magazine titled "The Death of The Artist and the Birth of the Creative Entrepreneur", by William Deresiewicz. In it, he states that "the image of the artist has changed radically over the centuries. What if the latest model to emerge means the end of art as we have known it?" He starts his discussion by pointing out that artists were initially seen as artisans. That evolved into the artist as genius, then later the artist as professional. The model that is currently emerging in the early 21st century, according to Deresiewicz, is that of the "creative entrepreneur", someone who acts not only as the creator, but who also markets, bills, advertises, etc., instead of having someone else (ex. an employer) do it for her/him.
Deresiewicsz goes on to suggest how the artwork itself might change as a result of this shift. Having taught a class in fine arts professional practices for many years, and having experienced this shift first hand as an artist, I have to say that I agree with the author's perceptions about the change that is going on for artists today. It is like being on shifting sands all the time, as the way the game is played seems to change constantly, albeit in sometimes subtle ways that are not immediately comprehended.
I was asked the other day what I thought my creative legacy was. Never having been asked that question before, I was stumped for an answer. The next day, I found this excerpt from a novel which resonated for me as it relates to the question of one's legacy: "Everyone must leave something behind when he dies. It doesn't matter what you do, so long as you change something from the way it was before you touched it, into something that's like you after you take your hands away."
I first became aware of the power of art when I was in my early twenties. Prior to that, I of course had seen art before, but I had never thought much about it. But when I started taking art and music history classes, I began to realize that a sculpture wasn't just an inanimate 3D object, a building wasn't just a form that provided shelter, a musical piece wasn't just a bunch of notes strung together, and a painting wasn't just a canvas with paint on it. The idea that an artwork could contain an entire universe of thought and meaning was a revelation to me, and I dove with great enthusiasm into exploring as many different types and eras of art as I could in order to learn more. It's been interesting to see which artists have risen to the top of my own personal list of favorites over the years. One of the painters who rocketed to the top and has stayed there is 19th Century English landscape painter and printmaker J. M. W. Turner. Looking at his seascapes, in particular, is like listening to a Beethoven symphony.
No one else used paint the way he did at that time. Very few painters saw and conveyed light in the way he did. His paintings exude energy and vibrancy- they are almost alive in their shimmering atmospheric presence. Many of his paintings contain historical references, both ancient and contemporary to his time, but in ways that are visually atypical for a 19th Century painter.
I have been thinking a lot about his work recently because a film, "Mr. Turner", has come out that has Turner as its main character and which has been recommended to me by many friends. (Note to self: Put that on my list of films to see when it comes to town...)
"By the end [of the film], we may not be able to summarize Turner's life, explain his paintings or pass a midterm on British history. But we may find that our knowledge of all those things has deepened, and the compass by which we measure our own experience has grown wider. Only art can do that, and it may be all that art can do."
And isn't that amazing??!! That an art object can lead to that kind of self-knowledge??!! It's that kind of knowledge that not only enriches us, but that can lead us to act, and therefore live more meaningful lives. Any artist whose work can do that for others is worth knowing about. And because your work has done that for me, I thank you, Mr. Turner.
For decades, Eric Renner and Nancy Spencer have not only run The Pinhole Resource, they have also collected thousands of pinhole photographs and pinhole cameras from around the world. The Pinhole Resource Collection was recently accessioned to the Palace of the Governor's Photo Archives at the New Mexico History Museum in Santa Fe, and it is on exhibit at the museum until March, 2015. Two of my photographs (see below) are included in the "Poetics of Light" exhibition, which I was fortunate enough to see earlier in the year.
Although I am well-aware of the wide-range of technical and aesthetic approaches to pinhole photography, I was completely blown away by this exhibit. It is educational, enlightening, and awe-inspiring. Beautifully presented, the 40 cameras and 225 photographs made me want to go out and use my pinhole cameras immediately, even though I didn't have one with me. Interestingly, the show had the same effect on the three non-photographers I was with. We were all amazed at the range of possibilities this type of camera has.
I don't know if this show will travel, but I hope it does. Anyone who is interested in photography, analog or digital, should have a chance to see it. Here is a brief article about it in the New Yorker magazine, which includes some of the images and cameras in the exhibit.
Below is a (somewhat blurry) picture of the section of the installation that my work is in, which gives you an idea of what the exhibition itself actually looked like. (The camera displayed below my images is the same make and model that I used for shooting the "Tears of Stone" project.)
If you find yourself in Santa Fe anytime between now and the end of March, check it out. It doesn't matter if you are a (pinhole) photographer or not- it's worth it, regardless!
One of the reasons that I take photographs is because they enable me to express thoughts that words just can't capture. I recently participated in the #fivedayblackandwhitechallenge on Facebook, whereby I posted a different black and white photograph for five days. Initially, I posted photos from my archives that belonged to completed bodies of work. But the last two came from some collaborative book projects I did with my nephew, and which only very few people have seen to date. Why this shift? A boy from my kids' school committed suicide recently, an event that is unspeakably sad. I gravitated towards these two pictures because they express for me something about that event that I couldn't say any other way. And it seemed important to say it.
ÆQAI (pronounced ‘I’ as in ‘bite ‘ and ‘qai ‘ as in ‘sKY’ ) is a Cincinnati based e-journal for critical thinking, review and reflective prose on contemporary visual art. An interview titled "Jane Alden Stevens: Photography in Motion" authored by Laura A. Hobson was recently published in the November, 2014, edition of AEQAI. The article includes images from various bodies of work, a discussion about my teaching career, and covers a number of issues including the role that feminism played in my classroom, mentors, technical changes in the field and my approach to art-making.
Many thanks to editor Daniel Brown for including me in this issue!
In his series "A Natural Order", Lucas Foglia turns his camera towards people who live off the grid as much as possible. He says about his subjects: "They do not wholly reject the modern world. Instead, they step away from it and choose the parts that they want to bring with them." While some images depict the interior or exterior of his subjects' dwellings, the photographs I find most compelling are those of the people themselves. The photos that I am posting here are therefore an edit of a body of work that was obviously already edited by the creator.
Any reader of this blog knows that I find editing to be one of the most creative aspects of being a photographer. Whether it is in-camera editing (done by deciding what to include or exclude from the frame), or post-shooting editing (including deciding which images are the "best, what order they should appear in, what kind of manipulation they should undergo in order to enhance what's already going on in them, etc.), I really like that part of the process. It demands critical thinking, problem-solving, looking very closely at everything.
I think that Luca Foglia does an excellent job at both in-camera and post-shooting editing. His photographs are thought-provoking and powerful.
The Cincinnati Fotofocus Bienniel 2014 happened last month and I spent a considerable amount of time going to some of the exhibits that were up. Among the many that I liked, the show of Vivian Maier's work stood out for many reasons. For those readers who are unfamiliar with her work, Maier was a nanny who worked primarily for families in Chicago. She was also a passionate photographer who would frequently go out into the streets with her Rolleiflex. She was a complete unknown until after she died in 2009, when her boxes of negatives were bought at auction and the images brought to the attention of others via exposure on the internet.
Roberta Smith, in a NY Times review wrote that Maier's work "may add to the history of 20th-century street photography by summing it up with an almost encyclopedic thoroughness, veering close to just about every well-known photographer you can think of, including Weegee, Robert Frank and Richard Avedon, and then sliding off in another direction. Yet they maintain a distinctive element of calm, a clarity of composition and a gentleness characterized by a lack of sudden movement or extreme emotion."
Those sentiments sum up exactly what I was thinking when I saw this show. But I also couldn't help thinking how unique this exhibit was, in that the artist herself had no hand in it. The prints were not made by Maier, nor were they made under her supervision. The curator chose the images, the mats, and the frames, and specified in what order they would appear. It's rare that an exhibit happens under these kinds of circumstances, where the hand of the artist appears solely at the front end of the creative process. (As an aside, E. J. Bellocq's Storyville Portraits series and Eugene Atget's photographs of turn-of-the-century Paris come to mind as other examples of this relatively rare phenomenon.)
In Maier's case, I couldn't help wondering if these images would have been those that the artist herself would have chosen to show us. What would she have picked instead? What themes would she have emphasized? As it was, the show was heavy on self-portraits and photographs of wealthy women in urban settings. It was fascinating to feel that Maier was not judging these women (ala Weegee), but rather observing them and presenting them to us for our own interpretation. I also didn't feel that she was comparing herself to them directly, although the juxtaposition of seeing her in the self-portraits with these other women led the viewer in that direction.
The exhibit was very powerful and moving, and I spent a lot of time there thinking once again about the role that editing plays in creating meaning in artwork.
Yet another entry in the "long-term project" list: The Arrow of Time project by Argentinian photographer Diego Goldberg. Every year on June 17, Goldberg and his family members make an individual head-and-shoulders portrait of him-or-herself and place them on a timeline.
Over the years, the timeline has expanded to include the addition of spouses, children and grandchildren as they were born.
One of the most interesting aspects of this project is that the pictures are presented vertically, thus allowing the viewer to look at the face of only one person at a time through the years. At the same time that the viewer's eyes take this in, one is still completely aware of the other faces on the periphery of one's vision. It's almost as if the others are lurking, daring you to see them.
Another aspect of this work that intrigues me is the singularity of the family members. They relate to each other only because each photograph in any given year is placed adjacent to the others, not because they coexist in the same physical space the way that Nicholas Nixon's "The Brown Sisters" do. Goldberg and his family members each stare out at the viewer, giving us no sense of their connection to each other.
This project is a great example of how the presentation of photographs can create meaning, and how repetition can do the same.
My recent posts on Lucy Hilmer's work and on long-term projects are obvious clues to what is on my mind recently, photographically speaking. It therefore feels only fitting that I write today about "The Brown Sisters" project by Nicholas Nixon, for which Nixon has taken a photograph of his wife and her three sisters once a year for the past 40 years.
I have been aware of Nixon's entire body of work for a long time now, and have been intrigued by "The Brown Sisters" series, specifically, as it has unfolded over the years. The New York Times recently published an article about this series, which will be published in a book in November.
Seeing Nixon's pictures in the Times article and reading the accompanying text make me consider exactly what it is that I am trying to do in my own long-term projects. More specifically, they bring up a question I ask myself frequently: "How are my own long-term projects different from those of other artists?"
Are they really different? If so, in what way? What distinguishes my work from any of the other long-term portrait or self-portrait projects that are out there? It's critical for me to answer these questions, and I'm glad that I have plenty of time to think about them as I work on gathering and editing the various projects that I've been working on over the years.
Do I have answers to these questions at this time? No. Will I ever answer them? Maybe. But forcing myself to at least address them is a healthy and necessary part of my creative process.