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The Creative Process
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 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.
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.
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.
Many thanks to director Kathy Mola and the Dayton Theatre Guild for their thoughtful and moving use of photographs from my "Tears of Stone" project in their recent production of "All Is Calm: The Christmas Truce of 1914". This moving musical interweaves songs from that era with excerpts from poems and journals by soldiers from both sides of the trenches who experienced the Christmas Truce in December of 1914. It deserves to become a staple for theater companies around the world during the annual holiday season. Kathy decided to project my images onto the backdrop of the set so that the characters appeared to actually be in the battlefields and cemeteries themselves. It was very creative and remained truthful to the spirit of the images. It was a great experience to collaborate with her in this way and a nice opportunity to have these pictures "speak" in a different kind of way to an audience that otherwise would not have seen them.
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!
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!
Although I believe I am a fairly articulate person, I always seem to stumble when someone asks me what my work is "about", or what kind of artist I am. I inevitably end up using far too many words to answer those questions. In the January/February 2014 issue of Intelligent Life magazine (which is published by the Economist) author Christina Patterson describes how Nobel-prizewinning poet Seamus Heaney used words to create maximum impact. There was a sentence in that article that is the perfect description of what I attempt to do with my work:
"He takes the familiar and makes it strange."
That sums it up perfectly, particularly in regard to the project that I am currently working on. Here's an example of my most recent work-in-progress that I feel effectively does that:Now I just have to drill that sentence into my head: "I take the familiar and make it strange." and use it whenever I'm asked what kind of work I do. If only I could do that to the degree that Seamus Heaney could!
In the mid-1990's, I was invited to exhibit images from the Stargazing project in Sao Paolo, Brazil. A catalog was published that included an image from that work. Fast forward to two days ago, when I received the following message from someone in Brazil through my Facebook page, which I have edited somewhat:
"A few weeks ago, while looking for references material to start drawing the graphic design of my first EP (CD) - I'm an actor, singer, producer (former MTV latin america) and performer, born in Sao Paulo - came to my hands, the book "Fotografia Pensante" (edited by) the valuable and genius Luiz Guimaraes Monforte!"
He goes on to say that he found my photograph in the book as he leafed through it. Then he wrote:
"The impact that this image generated in my heart was so intense, that there is more than one week can not sleep! Seriosly!"
The idea that someone couldn't sleep for a week because of an image I made was.... well, way cool!!! But what struck me most about this is that once you put your work out into the world, you never know who will see it, when they will see it, or if it will resonate in any way with those who do see it.
It reminds me of the seeds of desert wildflowers that lie dormant for decades until just the right conditions occur that cause them to finally germinate and bloom. So plant the seeds, just get your work out there, and see what happens.
I was recently interviewed about the Seeking Perfection project for the PhotoEye blog. Here's a link to the interview. It's always a struggle to put into words the thought processes behind my work, but always a rewarding experience. This is because I find that I learn something different about my work and about my approach to making pictures when I either talk about it or write it down, than when I simply think about it. I really enjoy that sense of discovery as it helps to move me forward, even when I have long since completed a project.
Here's an excerpt from an article by author Mark Slouka in the Sunday New York Times from August 25 that I found totally relevant to any artist. Although Slouka is talking about writers, just substitute your media/field, and I think it will speak to you, too: “If writers agree on anything—which is unlikely—it’s that nothing can damage a novel in embryo as quickly and effectively as trying to describe it before it’s ready. Unfortunately, because we’re writers, aka bipedal nests of contradictions, avoiding the temptation to share is never as easy as simply keeping our mouths shut.
Why? Because we’re unsure—about very nearly everything. Because in our hearts we’re only as good as our last paragraph, and if the new book isn’t going anywhere, maybe we’re no good at all. Because we’re running on faith and fumes. In the early stages, before that magic moment when the voice of the story begins to speak, we want—no, crave—validation, someone on the outside who will say, preferably with godlike authority and timbre: “It’s brilliant. You’re on the right track. Just keep going.”
The problem, of course, is that our inner critic, the I.C., is whispering in our ear that we’re not even remotely on the right track—that we’re blundering around in the wilderness, in fact."
This article speaks to me because every time I am in the beginning phases of a new project, my experience is exactly like that. My normal confidence seems to desert me and I am filled with insecurities about the value/success/relevance of my new endeavor. Can you tell that I am embarking on not one, but a few new projects right now??!!!
I've completed the final editing for the show that will be at the YWCA Gallery in Cincinnati in October as part of the Fotofocus Cincinnati photography festival. I was at an impasse until I went to the gallery and was able to see for myself the layout and lighting of the space. Once I did, the final edit just fell into place. I'm once again struck by the difference between seeing something in real life, or experiencing it through other means, like in a photograph, a map, or the written word. Prior to that visit, I had had a map of the space and had tried to imagine the work there, which worked to a degree. But it was totally different to actually stand in the space, absorbing its ambiance, sounds, and look.
This was the same kind of experience I had had once in an art history class, when we were looking at The Hunters in the Snow (Winter) (see below), by Pieter Bruegel the Elder, initially in books and then via projected images. Then later we went to a museum, where we saw his works in the flesh. It was like night and day.
Always opt for the real thing, whenever possible!