Original Sin and the Artist

“All means are sinful if they did not spring from the source of internal necessity”

Wassily Kandinsky, Concerning the Spiritual in Art, 1912, p.176

In my search for interconnecting roads between art history, abstraction, spirituality, philosophy and art theory, I have come across a shrine hidden in plain view. Wassily Kandinsky, often cited as the first true “abstract” artist, wrote a seminal work at the beginning of the twentieth century which dives deep into the heart of pretty much everything. It is titled Concerning the Spiritual in Art and can easily be found in translation.

Aside from lucid predictions for the direction of art which have largely come to pass, he also outlines key language and concepts for dissecting and and talking about visual art. There is much here for the artist, art historian and philosopher. I would also argue, and plan to dig into with future posts, that this is also a work of profound spirituality.

What I want to draw out here is something which he couches in religious terms and can be useful in discussing artistic vision, style or voice.

Kandinsky believed that each artist must honor the internal necessity of each work the is created. This concept is to describe the unique expression of the piece as created through the relationships of color and form to each individual element and those elements to the whole. What a work of art ultimately says to the viewer is very complex, and will change over time. It will be affected by the culture in which it is produced, by the culture at the time it is being viewed, by what has gone before and what has come after, and the internal orientations and contextual baggage of the viewer.

All of this is to say that the artist can never be in control of how the work will be perceived by any other person. This is true as soon as the piece is finished, and remains true throughout all periods of time. There is no way for an artist to express the specificity of their internal view with a 1:1 translation. No matter how carefully we try to game out the relationships of form and color, or pay attention to the undertones of the cultural zeitgeist, our art will at best be an resonant echo of the idea we are trying to convey. As time goes on even a clear echo will fade and gain distortions.

We shouldn’t think this as a failure of the artist either. Kandinsky was clear about the underlaying theory about how form and color interacted. He was very interested in gaming out the relationships between elements on a canvas, and he advocated for the artist to be aware of these relationships. There is a science beneath it all, he would argue, which could be used to describe how the pieces of a work came together to provide meaning, or music. He found it very useful to describe visual elements in terms of musical elements. As he notes below, the form and color of a painting are what produces its sounds, harmonies and dissonances.

“…the same form always produces the same sound under the same conditions. Only the conditions always differ.”

Kandinsky, p. 170

The carpet moves out from under us even as we splash paint on the canvas.

The act of creation itself holds the key. Art, for Kandinsky, isn’t about the final product per se, but the act of expression, the coming into being of the work. The artists charge is to channel what it is they resonate with out into the world. That act, while it will necessarily take shape and ultimately be described in the language of forms and colors, must adhere to its own nature as a unique work.

When he speaks of “internal necessity” he is describing the unique character of a given work or art. Seeing it once completed, and through the lenses of our own time and place, we have to talk about it by describing what we can see. We can break down each piece into artistic school or movement, and describe it in terms of the social situation under which it was created. We can talk about influences on the artist, training and places that the artist travelled. We do these things and categorize works because it is all that is available to us. We, who did not create the work, are forced to look on from the outside like examining a crime scene. These elements have their uses and can provide their own insights which are valuable, but they are not themselves the character of the work of art. Just as a collection of anecdotes, a eulogy and an obituary are not a person who used to live and breath.

The artist is not bounded by these forensic tools when making the art in the first place. For an art student to learn from those who came before is one thing. It is very useful to understand how colors mix, how certain optical effects are achieved, and how similar visual problems have been solved. To copy those techniques in the hopes of achieving one’s own vision, however, is a fool’s errand. Again, Kandinsky talks about the sound of a piece of art. When we are trying to capture something that another artist has tapped into before us, we should be cautious of doing it in the way that they did it:

“…it is perhaps easier to achieve expression of the same sound by the use of different forms than by the repetition of the same form: a really exact repetition lies beyond the bounds of possibility.”

Kandinsky, p.170

Rather, he urges each artist to follow the unique thread of each piece. Instead of painting in the method of one’s teacher, an artist should follow the pull of the work of art itself that wants to be created. This will likely mean breaking from what has been done and trying something new.

“The artist should be blind to ‘accepted’ or ‘unaccepted’ form, deaf to the precepts and demands of his time. His eyes should always be directed towards his own inner life, and his ears turned to the voice of internal necessity. Then he will seize upon all permitted means and just as easily upon all forbidden means.”

Kandinsky, p.175-76

This brings us to our sins as artists. Rather than listening to our own ideas and the pull of the work as it struggles into being, we often try to wrestle it through the art that has come before. Here we are again, with the expanded version of the quote at the top of this article:

“All means are moral if they are internally necessary. All means are sinful if they did not spring from the source of internal necessity.”

Kandinsky, p.176

This may come from a place of fear, or insecurity. It may come from a lack of modelling and role models. For Kandinsky this version of sin is black and white but fluid. There are many reasons why a piece was not realized into the fullness of its being. Often this is because the artist has not had enough exposure to the appropriate ideas, or has not been shown what other avenues are possible.

In this way the sin of the artist is not a brand to be worn in shame, but a continual struggle which should push us to continually get closer. Like catholic original sin, I would argue, it is less the condition of being doomed from the beginning, and more the ongoing charge towards which we strive.

It is in the making of the art, the expressing what is already contained within the concept as it exists within each artist, that we are able to come into contact with creation and expression itself. Every piece is a new chance to come into contact with something greater than ourselves, and to learn something about that relationship.

To focus on the end result, the perception of our work, and our place in history, is to be caught up in a losing game. To try and grab hold of the river as it flows by, or to stop its progress by throwing masterpiece-anchors into the waves, is fruitless. It is a lesson in frustration.

If we can embrace the act of making and follow the unique threads of creativity which pull at us, then we can appreciate that this process is what is valuable. To be in touch with one’s own creativity, I would argue, is an irreplaceable blessing.

“And we see the common relationship between works of art, which is not weathered by the passage of millennia, but is increasingly strengthened, does not lie in the exterior, in the external, but in the root of roots – in the mystical content of art.”

Kandinsky, p.175

The Art of Anything

Art is a complicated word pretty much any way that we try to slice it. In this post I want to talk about a specific usage of the word “art” that I have recently come to reconsider, or perhaps more accurately, consider carefully for the first time.

The “art” of accounting, the “art” of basketball, zen and the “art” of motorcycle repair…we have a use for this word which is applied when we want to talk about the execution of a trade or skill that is not normally regarded as creative or artistic.

This usage might be defined like this: “the skillful execution of a trade which integrates more than simply successful application of technical knowledge” or perhaps more poetically “the execution of a skill which makes use of internalized knowledge in a way that is not perceptible to the outside observer”. These definitions will give us a starting point, but I don’t think they quite include what I am looking for.

Talking about the “art” of a trade seems to imply that the tradesmen is making judgments based on a history of internalized knowledge. It speaks to an application of skill that is not based solely on measurable data. The implication is that not just anyone with the proper skills could solve the problem in the same way, or with the same solution. Given two practitioners of a certain skill who are presented with the same problem to solve, we think of the one who uses either their long experience with previous encounters, or one who is able to intuit novel solutions, as the one who raises the skill to that of an “art”.

This word came back to my attention through the clever use of abstraction in a conversation between two educators working across the borders of medical education and museum education at the University of Rochester. Part of the challenge that spurred this conversation was around the diminishing “art” of bedside manner. The history of medical education and the issues surrounding it have been wonderfully summarized and presented at the link below, along with the developmental offspring from their conversation.

Specific to the conversation was their description of how bedside manner used to be taught, especially in the nineteenth century, before the advances of science brought many more metrics and observations to bear on the practice. The education used to be comprised solely of time spent shadowing other medical practitioners who had to carefully observe their patients at the bedside. They had no tools to measure blood pressure, oxygenation, acidity or the like. What they did have were their own powers of observation, and the backlog in their minds of patients and treatments that they had encountered before. As medical science began to produce reams of quantifiable data about a patient, the doctor’s education began to shift away from personal observation of the patients themselves. Instead of spending many hours observing and interacting with patients, doctors were spending more time learning how to analyze data.

The “art” of medical practice seems to be strongly linked to this internalization of information through careful observation. This way of talking about the “art” of any trade rings very true for me, and pulled me in to writing this article. Perhaps the core foundation of any trade being executed as an “art” is the application of personal knowledge supported by close observation of the technical issue at hand. This sort of “art” isn’t about creativity in the way that we traditionally think about it. It certainly isn’t about aesthetics, or the outward appearance of the activity. It seems to be about time and experience, coupled with attentive presence of mind in execution.

Maybe we could say: “the application of lived knowledge as adapted to a unique scenario”.

This makes sense in many cases, and certainly passes a basic sniff test when we think about why we use the word in contexts for technical trades. After all, we would never say that a robot arm in a factory is applying the “art” of welding car doors on. We might, however, use just that phrase when dealing with a human whose work is to refurbish antique vehicles. In one case the correct technical application is enough. In the other, an individual is using their perception and experience to successfully apply their technical skills to a unique problem.

Okay, we may have something of a definition, and we may have outlined how this terms is being used, but why is that important?

Well, what happens when we turn the conversation around again? What does it mean to think about the “art” of fine art? The “art” of painting, or sculpture or modern dance? Perhaps it is simply a redundancy, or perhaps it relates to a mindset undertaken in the production of the work. Certainly, by the definition above, it simply means creating the work mindfully using ones gained experience. That, however, doesn’t capture the use of the word “unique” in the definition. This is a key piece for me. To use ones gathered knowledge and skills in the solution of a unique (read perhaps ‘new’ or ‘novel’) solution, then we are into territory where one is pushing the limits of what they have done before. It isn’t enough, in this definition, to simply use one’s experience and skills to churn out paintings, or sculptures, or whatever the chosen medium might be. There must be an application of skills towards something untested. It isn’t in this sense “art” if it isn’t challenging and it isn’t “art” if it doesn’t provide opportunities to grow and develop.

There may be a tendency here for people to try and relate this to the war over labels between what is art and what is craft. It might be tempting to say that this idea is exactly where the line is drawn between the two, and that those who create crafts are merely churning out works that do not meet these criteria. I would challenge this line of thinking immediately. Indeed, of the many artists I have seen who are involved in craft, they are often most decidedly challenging themselves with a very specific goal aimed at pushing the limits of their skills. Many craftspeople undertake projects solely because of the novelty and the challenge. Partially this is due to the linkage between crafts and “hobbies”. Many people take on a hobby with the specific intention of honing or learning a skill and are therefore involved in the definition I have set out that is executing “artfully”.

Where does this leave the traditional artists? Certainly many are working with the same diligence and focus, and truly executing their work “artfully”. It seems to me that there are many, many more than might like to admit it, who are trapped in an awkward and negative cycle with their art. Many artists work within their comfort zones, rather than pushing them. Many create what they think others want, whether to gain likes and attention, or to mimic the popular styles of the moment. Many have found something that seems to work and are simply rehashing the idea over and over again with slightly different trappings. This isn’t a situation that is unique to the fine arts by any stretch, but I do think that many artists are caught up in a particularly interesting conundrum, partially accounted for by the terminology within which they work.

The use of the word art as both process and product has perhaps diminished the particular qualities of each usage. Anything that is labeled as an object of art broadens, and perhaps makes shallower, the total pool of potential art. Famously this includes the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel as well as a mass produced urinal and works of art including human feces. I am not interested in debating the use of the word as it accounts for the end product. I do think, however, that there is something very interesting that happens as we talk about the use of the word as it pertains to the act of creation, the process of working “artfully”. Again, this usage does not rely upon an outcome, and the result of working “artfully” does not necessarily create a work of art.

What does it do for us to draw out the process of working “artfully” as its own defined process? How does it help anyone to create a more crystalized definition for language that has been traditionally used as a flavor-adding descriptor?

If we focus only on working with “art” or “artfully”, then we are suddenly talking about entire spheres of activity across all walks of life, social situations and industries. Indeed, suddenly we are talking about nearly any human activity. It is a fundamental shift that moves the focus from result to process. It liberates the discussion of art and makes it accessible for anyone to partake in. What would it mean for those who currently think that they are not in creative positions to think about the “art” of their jobs? If anything can be done in a manner which encourages us to engage at a deeper level, then we might reframe our thinking about many other aspects which are related.

What sort of education changes might be required in order to help children prepare for discovering the sorts of things that they find engaging? What sort of value changes would occur if we came to expect that someone would approach their work in an “artful” manner? Success might be regulated on employment happiness and fit, rather than output.

I know from my time in the corporate world, that those who were engaged and interested in their jobs did not need outside motivation in order to perform. What they needed was support so that they could pursue their jobs in the ways that they wanted to. Sometimes I could give perspective, and help them to find different ways to think about how their skills fit into the structure, but I could never force them to become more engaged. In fact, some of the most talented people I met were the ones who moved on to other fields. Often, this was a personal choice, it was an end result of bad fit between what engaged them, and the work that they happened to be doing. Rather than try to break people like this down so that they will fit into the mold, I can imagine companies actively working to shift talent around internally and even encouraging employees to seek elsewhere, with transitional support.

What would this mean for the people who currently call themselves artists, if suddenly everyone began to seek the “art” in their own industry? I imagine it might be liberating. Unlike those who are in more standardized industries, the artist would be limited only in their own curiosity. Artists might feel more comfortable breaking out of their self prescribed medium in order to fully follow their internal compass, without fear that they are straying too far from the center of “fine art”. Those who were interested in mass manufacturing and consumer work would be able to enjoy knowing the process that the process they follow is as fulfilling as sales of the end result.

These things can, of course, the true no matter what labels we use. The words themselves are not revolutionary enough that a shift would move the world. What is important is to remember that our concepts, beyond the words, need not be solidified into the forms in which they currently exist. It is difficult to shake up the current shape of our thoughts.

I offer this thought experiment as a way to look back at something we think we know in order to gain a new perspective.

As one final thought, I find it especially poignant that shifting the focus from output to process is something that resonates very well with many mindfulness traditions, including Buddhism and Taoism. Working “artfully”, no matter what the activity, is the way of the sage. To be able to find engagement and the challenge of growth no matter what one is doing, whether that be sweeping the floor or coding databases, is the way to finding value and center purposefulness in one’s life. If we were all able to engage with our work and activities artfully it would have much more profound implications for how we structure the values within which we live our lives.

Touch and Understanding

We tend think about what we know in terms of language and the world of words. When we speak about what we do we explain in with words. When we need to communicate knowledge to others we rely upon our words.

Our culture is drowning in textual information, especially as it relates to how to “do” things. There are manuals for pretty much everything, from how to build a model airplane, to how to distill whiskey, to how to manage failsafe routines on a nuclear reactor.

Along with these words we are often presented with illustrations and photographs, depicting complicated steps which are difficult merely to describe, or showing us elements which can be described but need to be unmistakable in recognition.

Our virtual existence thrives on these methods. We can transmit words and images more efficiently than nearly any other form of information, and so when we think of the internet, social media and indeed, our modern existence, it is words and images.

It is easy to mistake the form of communication with the knowledge itself.

It is easy to believe reading words in a textbook is the same as gaining knowledge about those things.

Our existence in the world encompasses many dimensions broader and deeper than what we take in with our eyes. Our bodies have developed in order to interact with and gain information from the world around us on many varied spectra.

One of these is the physical knowledge that resides within us, transmitted through touch and the tactile receptors, the language of hands and muscles, skin and bodily orientation, below the realm of words or descriptions. The sort of knowing about a craft, woodworking for instance, that comes from handling a plane for many long hours in the shop. The sort of knowledge about how to ride a bike, a knowing that lives in the bones and muscles. It isn’t just muscle memory, it is a feedback loop of haptic information and bodily awareness.

Every physical task has its own set of unique motions and sensations. Handling a piece of sandpaper allows us point of contact sensation about the surface we are working with. A painter understands the quality of their medium partially by feeling the viscoscity and the way in which it is being affected by the substrate.

Take the handling of a camera for instance. Though this may not be what we initially think of as a highly tactile initiative, the use of any physical tool allows for layers of additional information that cannot be gained by the click of a button on a screen. Manually adjusting focus and controlling the aperature allows for the process of seeing to include unique inputs.

Handling any physical tools requires a learning curve. The path to gaining physical knowledge passes through phases at different rates depending on the complexity of the tool, the physical capabilities of the user and the tasks being performed. Initially the movements feel foreign, forced and generally awkward, no matter how well ergonomically the tool has been designed. Our bodies, however, are fine tuned to quickly absorb and account for new inputs. The sustained use of a tool for even a short amount of repetition will quickly reveal efficiency in terms of how the tool can best be held and handled.

Basic competency comes hand in hand with physical development of the user, and can quickly plateau, especially if the tool is not regularly used. With even moderate continuation, however, new levels of knowledge become apparent. The efficiency of the user raises to a level at which new skills become available. It no longer becomes an issue of whether or not the image is in focus and correctly exposed, for instance. It becomes an inner fine tuning of where the focal point is, depth of field and what different levels of exposure will do to highlight or obscure elements within the viewfinder. The level of nuance available begins to broaden dramatically.

At some point, with regular use, the motions themselves become unconscious, and begin to occur without thought or effort.

Aside from the utility of being able to operate physically without needing to constantly think about what one is doing, there arises something quite remarkable.

The individual, mind free, begins to take in additional layers of information, and has the opportunity to essentially run parallel processes. The operation of the tool becomes coincident with the users ability to rhuminate about the contents of the image, the artists considerations, the way in which this image relates to other images that were taken recently, or any number of second-layer conceptual considerations, which are themselves being constantly informed by the physical operations being executed.

It is difficult for me to describe how my thoughts are coming together on this topic, much like the difficulty of translating how it feels to operate a lens rather than simply describing how to rotate the lens.

I think about how important it has been for me to be engaged with meaningful physical operations. Gaining competency in a skill is like gaining a new set of eyes, a new channel of information coming in. My connection to the physical world feels more nuanced, increased, or vibrant, depending on the moment and the inadequate words that must be used to describe it.

I also find myself in a mental space where thoughts can flow freely, combine and recombine, forming new connections and perspectives, without the need to remain anchored on my immediate task. It is a form of meditation, an unbinding of the mental space that only seems to occur while other modes of intelligence (physical) are at work.

It hardly seems a stretch to argue that the super-focused image/word world in which we live is serving to cut us off from layers of information about our place in this world, and our ability to interact with it.

Along with the loss of information, we also find ourselves needing artificial physical outlets for bodily energy with nowhere else to go. Perhaps this is a significant reason for increased rates of anxiety, depression, ADHD and other mental challenges. We are denying ourselves outlets of energy and inputs for which our bodies and minds were developed.

Perhaps this is why many of the middleclass colleagues and acquaintance I know have some sort of physical hobby, craft or activity. It speaks highly of our need to interact with the world on a physical plane that we spend our time learning crafts like woodworking and pottery, where tactile information and nuance is quite high.

As with much of my thinking recently, it seems extremely valuable to identify the aspects of our lives which provide us with a strong connection to some inner value, some inner connection to meaning and purpose. Though our society looks down on physical labor, and we tend to think of hobbies as trivial diversions, I believe that it is within these areas which we can find extremely important underutilized connections to pieces of ourselves which may be struggling impatiently in the dark. Can we bring a new dignity back to interactions with our physical reality? Would it be possible to recognize that someone who has learned to tend a garden, wield a paintbrush or fold paper has a significantly different relationship to the world than someone who programs code as their only “occupation”?

If even one of these physical tasks can open up information about how we can exist within and interact with our world, then what might we think about someone who lived in a world in which they must master many of these skills simply to survive? What might their perspective be on the relationship they have with the land around them? Which one of us is the richer for our understanding of place in the world, and which of us feels more content within our skin?

Resource: Fotostiftung Schweiz

This Swiss photography museum is host to a significant collection of online-accessible photographs which mainly come from the mid-twentieth century, and feature work from photographers working in and around the central European region during this time of significant culture and technological change.

Link: Fotostiftung Schweiz Online Catalog

I have only begun to dig into the archives more than 34,000 images, but my general interest in photography of this time period has only deepened with the images I have seen.

Specifically I seem drawn to those photographers who were using the medium to see their worlds differently. Their work is both documentary and exploratory. These are images I might have wished to take myself. Part of what I like about this kind of photography is that the intention seems clear, a desire to represent something seen so as to point it out to others. The images stand not only as a representation for something abstract, but essentially as a signpost for the photographer’s curiosity itself. These are what artifacts of curiosity itself, the moments and ideas that sparked something seen or felt.

Here area selection of images that I have found interesting during my initial explorations, and I can’t wait to dig deeper to see what else is there. I encourage everyone to take a few moments and explore this rich resource.

A Peek at Transformation

Greek photographer Yatromanolakis Yorgos has poetically documented his unintentional return to a painful past, both geographically and emotionally. His photographs capture an unintentional alteration of his perceptions, in which the nature of his preconceptions, and the borders of his nature itself, become fluid.

Yatromanolakis Yorgos, “The Splitting of the Chrysalis” pg 37

His project has been collected into a photo book that he has titled “The Splitting of the Chyrsalis & The Slow Unfolding of the Wings”. Below is the abstract excerpt which he has provided for the project.

Returning to the same place. I felt lost. Within a strange tranquility, something destructive arose inside me. I had sunk into a quiet desperation. I denied my past. I tried a hundred times to erase my memory. I was craving change. Flowing into the night, I became a wild animal. I confronted nature and death. I wanted to live. Feel every moment. Walk against the whistling wind. Breathe and dive into the cold sea. Harvest moon. Everything caught in fire. I walked with her in the blue dusk. Following my heartbeat. I lapsed into a transformation, an unexpected alignment with the stars.

Yatromanolakis Yorgos, Exerpt from project statement for “the splitting of the chrysalis & the slow unfolding of the wings” photo book.

I see in this work a stirring depiction of nature’s dual reality laid bare. A world in which opposite aspects exist simultaneously and the identifying inner qualities are able to take on a visible nature of their own.

The photographer’s words intrigue me as much as the images, pairing with them in a quiet harmony to crystalize the experience. I am left with many questions about the experience itself that all point to a strong connection of themes that I am already interested in. This includes the idea that being left to our own devices in nature, and therefore to our own inner nature, is a way to gain much needed insight.

There is also a wonderful description of the emergence from this trial, the destruction bringing growth all while the photographer was led by his own heartbeat, the inner pull of core values that pushes us forward towards what we are becoming. For all my interest in conscious introspection, I was taken aback by this reminder that the waves crash ever on, that we will follow our inner heartbeat wherever it takes us whether we know it or not.

Yatromanolakis Yorgos, “The Splitting of the Chrysalis” pg 45

Though unsettling to our preconceptions of a dictated and documented world, this project ultimately highlights the underlaying wellsprings of growth and fluidity of our existence with an emphasis on hope.

The book project can be viewed in full on the artists website here – Yatromanolakis Yorgos Books, The Splitting of the Chyrsalis – and can be viewed as an audio-visual experience as an online exhibition hosted by the Foam Museum in Amsterdam.

I encourage everyone to take a moment and flip through this project as a rare chance to tag along for an intensely personal journey of universal truth and growth.

Ferocious Harmony

As the wild winter winds blew snow sideways and shook the streetlights, I found myself travelling with incongruent balance those same chill streets.

On the intellectual level, it was a perfect example of core Taoist principles at work. Taoists understand that everything has its season and its nature. To work in accordance with the flow around you is to be successful with little effort. To work against the nature of the flow around you is to invite disaster and create difficult path for yourself.

I knew there would be rough weather and that I would be travelling by bike in the midst of it. I wore my layers and hood and extra hat, my heaviest coat and best gloves. I didn’t expect a quick or an easy ride, and brought my heavier slower cargo bike with the wider tires in case there was ice.

Instead of fighting the wind, which I had done on the way to work I found myself going in the same direction on my way home. In this situation, with the wind whipping around me and the glow of the streetlights dancing off of the freshly formed ice, I found myself warm and comfortable, barely feeling the wind as it gently helped me continue forward towards home.

Only in retrospect do I think back on it with an eye towards the lessons of harmony and going with the flow.

While I was in it, carried by the winds and surrounded by glittering trails of whipping ice crystals, I was allowed to be a center of awe and calm, an eye to this winter storm. This is the difference between knowledge and understanding, of dogma and experience. I will carry those images and feelings with me.

Developing Taste and Value

What we enjoy, what we appreciate and what we choose to consume constitutes our taste. The journey to developing taste mirrors the larger process of how curiosity can shape our deeper values.

I grew up in a family where music was an afterthought at best. My parents seemed to have little interest in music from their or any generation, and the only radio we had on in the house was NPR programming. It was up to my brother, a worldly two years older than I, to pave the way into pop culture and introduce me to what he thought was good music.

From those early days, especially post-access to a car, radio and time to drive and listen, I was painfully aware that opinions about what music to listen to were strong and somewhat influential. My perceptions, however, of what other people enjoyed was extremely tenuous. My ideas about why they liked what they did were completely absent. The first goal for me was to listen to something that other people wouldn’t find uncool.

That, of course, went sideways as soon as I was exposed to Andrew Lloyd Weber’s The Phantom of the Opera. My group of friends embraced musical soundtracks and provided a buttress against the rest of popular culture, but I was quite aware that this particular taste in music wasn’t mainstream.

Later, after relocating to the east coast out of college, while working in the aisles of a Whole Foods Market, I was surrounded by individuals who were musicians at heart. I thought that I had learned enough to keep me out of trouble, but alas I found myself completely out of my depth. Not only had I not heard of their favorite musicians, I found myself in the awkward position of not actually enjoying the music they purported to be “good”. It perhaps didn’t help that they were into things which I think were spoken of as “noise rock” and “industrial”. I know that one of my colleagues played an electric saw on stage, and another one was known for spitting on fans who stood close enough to the stage while screaming at the top of his lungs. Still, they were musicians and supposedly knew what they were talking about. What was my opinion compared to theirs? I mean, I thought top 40 was just fine.

Bokeh experiments, March 2020

There are two was in which taste is misunderstood and treated incorrectly in our culture. First, taste is used as a means to categorize people into different camps and tribes. Second, taste is thought of as being an established factual truth that, once set, does not significantly change. These two ideas create a negative spiral which works against the very mechanism by which we can grow and develop our own tastes.

Taste is, in fact, a relatively simple matter of exposure and reflection. The more that we encounter something, the more perspectives we have in which to contextualize it and form opinions about it. Without spending time exploring a genre of music there is no way for us to allow ourselves the space to react to it, to see how we resonate with it. Spending the time to broaden our experiences and develop our context for taste is to embrace our inner curiosity and deepen connections to inner qualities which go far beyond what music we enjoy.

Postmodern theory has trickled down to form a bedrock of our cultural paradigm, and it argues against the established “grand narratives” of our past. We are encouraged to be skeptical of any establishment telling us how to think or what to believe. Religion, politics and even truths of science are crumbling around us. In a reality where people try to avoid labels, we struggle with ways to identify and categorize individuals. Taste has become one of the social cues many people use to quickly make determinations about one another.

Aside from being an inaccurate determination of what someone is actually like, categorizing someone by their taste is to falsely assume that taste is a somewhat static element in a person’s character. I don’t think that this is the case. Taste develops, it is a process, and it is a journey.

If someone introduces you to a new genre of music, your appreciation for and understanding of that genre has everything to do with the process of your exposure.

I have been slowly wading into the vast pool of classical music over the last few years. I had been exposed throughout my life in an unstructured way, picking up snippets of famous songs and hearing most of what I thought of as classical through the lens of film soundtracks and loony tunes orchestrations.

Each of us carries with us an internal map of the way we think the world operates. It is necessarily incomplete, but functions to give us a means for formulating plans and predictions. This map is our inner gestalt. It is only as complete as what we have experienced of the world.

Before we take the trip to a new location we are often first piqued by curiosity. It isn’t enough to know that there are other places to explore, there must also be something drawing us in. For someone to thrust their tastes upon us is to be dragged kicking and screaming out of the place we know into unknown territory. If we don’t find something there that sparks our curiosity, it is likely to be an unpleasant, even off-putting, experience.

Encountering classical music was like making an international trip to someplace that I knew existed, but was only listed at the edges of my gestalt map. Like other travelling I have done, landing in a new country instantly shatters any previous sense of understanding. What I thought I knew becomes only a sliver of the reality I begin to encounter.

Being exposed to such a vast new territory is often overwhelming. To think about the storied history of classical music through what is being created by contemporary composers is like diving into all of poetry, or thinking about how to start draining a swimming pool with a tablespoon. Perhaps this is one reason why we think of tastes as static: the effort required to truly branch out and expose oneself to new material can be daunting.

Here is where the negative feedback loop of taste sits as insidious gatekeeper. Believing that my taste determined in part who I was, and that what I enjoyed was a marker on my social status, I was anxious about trying to listen to anything other than what I already knew. What if I jumped into classical music and listed to the wrong things? What I found that I only liked the terrible stuff, the material that would get me laughed at by other people who knew more than I did? Opening up new territory on my gestalt map was a liability for me, and I think for many people.

The first step is certainly the most difficult. Purchasing the ticket, boarding the plane, stepping out onto new soil, if we can do those things then we have achieved something magical. We are now outside of the map, charting new territory, and providing the opportunity to develop a stronger sense of who we are and what matters most in our lives.

Curiosity may be a useful entry point, but it doesn’t cease to be important to the process. It is certainly possible to be a dethatched tourist, just visiting the places we have been told about, taking a few pictures and then heading home. Perhaps we enjoyed it, perhaps we thought it was overrated, but if we don’t actively engage then our trip is doomed to be brief and unrepeated.

Developing taste must be a continuing process and an active process. Curiosity continues to drive us, but it asks us to be vulnerable, to have opinions. What did we like? What did we find strange or unique?

I started with some heavy hitters; symphonies of Beethoven, Brahms and Dvorak. I caught the thread of some musical themes and textures that I liked, and shied away from others. Seems there is a romantic streak within me, and as much as I enjoy Beethoven’s rollicking energy, I would rather sink deep into Brahm’s 3rd or 4th.

Finding guides can be useful. We exist in a wonderful time full of diversified podcasts and in depth interest pieces which can provide useful context and hints at where to look next. Learning even a little bit about the history or context of a piece can help us begin to develop a vocabulary.

At each step of the process curiosity will continue to be the guide. Each new piece of music contributes to the whole of our experience, and as long as we continue to follow the questions that arise we will continue to deepen our perspective.

At some point I picked up on themes from folk tunes that had been used by composers to enrich their concepts, and following that thread, I came to realize that those core ideas had more to say to me than the capital “C” classical concertos or symphonies to which they had been adapted. Some of my favorite works now are string quartets performing traditional music from northern Europe and Scandinavia.

I understand the need to find connections with others, and the instinctual reaction to look for members of our own tribe. Taste will always play a role as short-hand, and can certainly point us in the direction of common experiences, but to dismiss someone for their taste is absurd.

If we have done the work of actively developing our own sense of taste, then the opinions of others won’t impact us. To feel threated in one’s opinion based on how someone else feels about it points to shallow taste, which has been developed solely out of the opinions of others and has no roots of its own. To deny someone else a place in our tribe because their taste isn’t deep enough is far more damaging to them. None of us arrive fully formed into a tribe, to deny them access based on their stage in the process is to alienate someone who might truly be interested. Someone who is honestly seeking will surely bring more interesting perspective to a tribe than those who claim attendance but would rather not be scrutinized. Here is where advocating for compassion comes into play. We have the choice to be guides, welcoming newcomers into a world that they want to learn about, providing them context that we ourselves have discovered, and supporting them through the complicated journey of developing their own tastes. It will make our tribes stronger, richer and much more interesting.

Taste is much more than belonging to a tribe.

It is through our experiences with the world that we come to understand who we are. Art in all of its forms and genres, as a manifestation of the human soul, provides a very special mirror for our internal character. The journey of developing taste is linked very closely to the development of our core values.

Seeking taste is a parallel to seeking ourselves.

It is through the same process of embracing, following and analyzing our own curiosity that we come to understand what matters to us most in this world. The more nuanced we can become, the more clearly we will be able to live our lives in accordance with the things that matter.

Each person could be pursuing this journey of self-discovery. We know it is a difficult one. If we can extend a sense of compassion to others it does not cost us our place in the tribe, but it might open us up to new relationships with like minded people who are at different stages and who come from different places. Sharing ideas with others is one of the best ways to refine our tastes and values once they have begun to form. Compassion is a necessary step to fully realize where we ourselves actually stand.

I think that using this model of developing our tastes and values is vitally important in our current landscape. As grand narratives continue to dissolve, and the popular rhetoric takes aim at anyone purporting to advocate broad systems thought, the only place in which we can turn to find bedrock is within ourselves. What might it look like if everyone spent some time thoughtfully considering and developing their own tastes, rather than taking what has been handed to them? What kind of decisions might we begin to take in our daily lives, and therefore for the country as a whole? Hopefully this thought experiment can provide a bit of framework for how this kind of work can begin.

Critical Compassion

My daughter brought me a wonderful piece of art that she had created titled “When the Birds Graduate From High School”. It contains no birds and no evidence of their school. Pine needles and dried flowers lay across the page against a blue background, the scattered remains of a party taking place higher up in the branches as the birds celebrate their passage into a new phase of life.

Taoism describes each unique aspect of our world as an expression, a manifestation, of a singular source. Each person, plant, object and phenomena stems from this source. We are not separable from it, so much as we are difference frequencies, or facets. At the core of it all we share the same substrate and origin, the same vibration and wellspring.

In this explanation of our existence, the source is constantly recreating itself, seeking to express itself in a variety of ways. It could be said that all of existence is itself creation. Each unique version of creation is following its own path of unfolding and its own undercurrents, seeking to be the most true version of itself that can possibly be.

As artists, working in such a world, we are necessarily meta creators. It is in our nature to express ourselves and our experience as truly and honestly as we possibly can.

I can’t see with your eyes or hear with your ears. The moments that inspire me to capture an image come into existence as a work of art behind layers of intangible decision-making. We must accept that the work of other artists is necessarily incomplete. That our understanding will require an acceptance of the inherent mystery.

Rebecca Solnit, a wide-ranging culture essayist tackles this issue as it relates to art criticism as one piece of writing from her book Men Explain Things To Me. She argues for a form of criticism that seeks to expand the works rather than reduce them. This is compassion at work, the act of injecting energy, hope and excitement into the dreams of others.

“This is a kind of criticism that does not pit the critic against the text, does not seek authority. It seeks instead to travel with the work and its ideas, to invite it to blossom and invite others into a conversation that might have previously seemed impenetrable, to draw out relationships that might have been unseen and open doors that might have been locked. This is a kind of criticism that respects the essential mystery of a work of art, which is in part its beauty and its pleasure, both of which are irreducible and subjective.”

Rebecca Solnit, “Woolf’s Darkness: Embracing the Inexplicable” from her book “Men Explain Things To Me

This is a wonderful expression of my belief in the power of curiosity and compassion. In a world where postmodern cynicism, irony and skepticism has been weaponized by those in power, and has trickled down as incomplete fragments to the general public, it is common for us to think about the work of other people as competitive. We have been trained to think of our world as a zero-sum game in which one good idea must rise above another in order to survive.

The world is complex enough without our help, but humans have done an amazing job adding layers of technological and social nuance over the infinite depths of basic biology, chemistry and physics. The Taoist perspective of our existence is that we are distant outposts from the core of the source. Like living our lives on the tips of a porcupine’s quills, we are all just trying to figure out what our world, and our place in it, is really like.

There is enough reality for everyone, and if any one of us thinks that we will be able to get our hands around it without the help and perspective of others, then we are sorely mistaken.

Solnit’s model of criticism isn’t simply a matter of giving the artist the benefit of the doubt. Compassion requires active engagement and vulnerability.

If I were to have seen my daughter’s picture without her description, I wouldn’t have been able to appreciate what was actually happening or the complexity of her thought process. Knowing what she saw when she was creating it I can open up new possibilities for engaging with the image and new ideas that it can inspire.

Compassionate criticism does not mean that we change our views of what is beautiful. It does not require that we deem everything successful or compelling. It asks us to engage openly with the work and be open to a new perspective. It offers us a chance to find something extraordinary by looking for what the artist is trying to show us. We do not need to deem it beautiful, or hang it on our walls at the end of the day. The work’s success or failure does not imprint upon us. Enjoyment of a work of art does not alter our character, no matter what the exclusionary critics might say.

It is also not the artist’s responsibility to convince you or to “grip” you with their work.

Viewing art is not a passive engagement. It is an opportunity for us to gain a unique perspective on existence through a set of eyes that are not our own. Our inability or unwillingness to explore the pieces and seek deeper truths is a denial to ourselves, a missed opportunity, like spending time glued to a smartphone screen while walking through a national park. You certainly don’t have to enjoy the scenery, but if you don’t take the effort to engage with it, you will be missing an opportunity to experience a view of our world that you can’t find during your daily routine.

Those who are willing and able to seek inspiration from others will be living in a richer world with more opportunities for a nuanced perspective. Here’s to a bit more compassion in our criticism.


What do we call a hero who ignores, abandons or refuses the quest?

In Haruki Murakami’s seminal work, his main character finds her self in a world that she suspects is no longer the one she knew. As a way of noting for herself that she is now a stranger in a strange land, she changes the current date from 1984 to 1Q84, and sets about finding her bearings.

Many of us may feel similarly out of place in the world that we find ourselves in at the beginning of this new year. For most of us this didn’t happen at midnight New Year’s Eve 2021, and for some it has been coming for decades.

This isn’t about COVID, and it isn’t about any specific political or pop culture shift. It is about the more general way in which the narratives have been breaking down around us.

As early as the mid twentieth century there was talk about a shift into post-modernism. Discussion started in the realms of literary theory, but spread through the following decades to describe what was happening in many spheres or discourse.

In broad terms, postmodernism is the breaking down of grand narratives, the stories we have told ourselves about the way things work. As these once-secure footings began to dissolve we entered a reality more focused on subjective experience and riddled with skepticism about how one “should” think, feel or behave.

In the novels of Murakami, the characters are faced with strange twists of reality, and situations that make them question fundamental truths that they have told themselves, or absorbed from others. It is in their discovery and navigation of the places in which their worlds seem to dissolve, that they play out their heroic roles.

Photography has been a way for me to make note of the strange within my world. I perhaps wouldn’t have described it this way a decade ago, but it is becoming clear to me that what I take pictures of if often what I find a bit odd, or seemingly out of place.

A deep part of me has always embraced the skeptical nature of post-modernism. My early photography especially seemed to focus on pointing out spaces of the city that were not intended to be focused on. I focused on the back staircases of apartment houses, the alleyways and awkward architectural features of buildings that had not been designed to go together. Perhaps my subconscious was attempting to draw my attention to the places which society’s narrative didn’t account for.

At first my ability to see behind the veil was a call to action, a charge to challenge the faulty narrative at work. I felt cheated when I saw something that didn’t add up. I felt as if I had been lied to, that surely someone must be held accountable.

Fiction places heroes into the grand narrative. It asks great things of them. We are accustomed to heroes who must save the world from great dangers. Sometimes this same unfortunate hero must save the world over and over again, perhaps upping the ante each time.

Murakami’s heroes also find themselves in the middle of dramatic events. There is often a disturbed undercurrent of supernatural power at work in the world because the world has been cracked open, laid vulnerable, crying out for repair.

More recently, as the perspective on my own work, and my own place in the world, continues to develop, I see a different place for my photography. Far from speaking to the world at large, my images seem meant purely for myself. Rather than showcasing injustice, or highlighting hypocrisy, or even drawing much needed attention to situations that were overlooked, it remains inwardly focused, speaking only to me.

The moments of strangeness that I seem interested in look more to me now less like failings of society, and more like accidents, easily forgiven in context of all that is taking place around us. Like Tolkien’s wonderful description, the world in which we live has been spread too thin, like too little butter over too much bread. There is so much complexity and ongoing development that no one can possibly comprehend or begin to approach an understanding of it all. Not that we ever really could, though we did a wonderful job convincing ourselves.

Postmodernism has been a blessing, a liberation from outdated models of thinking that might have tied us down artificially to a world that no longer existed. It has given us tools to free us up for new development and evolutions. All change requires conservation of energy, and the destruction or transmutation of what exists before it can become something new.

Like any tools, however, the ability to criticize and tear-down a grand narrative can be turned loose where it is not helpful. Like any tool, it requires the proper training, or at least a passing glance at the manual before operation. It seems that the disintegration has gone rampant in our time, accompanied by the escalation of complexity in our world. We are confronted by a civilization in which the landscape is changing daily, and we are simultaneously working to destroy the maps we have used up until now, no matter how imperfect. What is more, anyone who tries to present a new map is immediately pulled down and silenced.

Murakami’s heroes often disrupt what we expect of them. Sometimes this means abandoning the “main” quest altogether. Often this means making decisions which place them into unique consequences many of us would not be willing to live with. For each character the real story becomes about how they orient themselves to the world around them, and what they ultimately choose to strive for as an individual, rather than looking outwards at the values, expectations and judgments of other people. The reader is often left feeling harmoniously adrift as the world-building and the characters part ways on the page.

Looking at the world through a lens has been a way for me to identify where my resonance is with the world around me. Reviewing the art I have created across a variety of media during the last couple decades, I can see what carries meaning for me, and where the questions are that I have been working to tease out.

Photographs of nature dial in on dense foliage, intricate textures and layered compositions. Nature has been my refuge and my inspiration for a while, but I find myself returning to images of what humans have built. Still, it is those accidental moments, the awkward juxtapositions, the unintended consequences of what we have created which interest me. I seem to enjoy the beauty within the chaos and the idea that everything has a life of its own, especially in concert with everything else.

These conversations continue in all areas of my life, and it has become easier and easier for me to recognize where I feel most activated and whole, and what situations seem unnatural and toxic.

Taoism has helped me focus these ideas, that everything is living out its own unique character. That to express oneself fully, to be most fully who you are, is the most natural and important way for us to try and be in this world.

Stoicism urges us to ground ourselves in values. A life lived in congruence with our core values is the way to live honestly, openly and fully, without regrets.

In order to be most fully ourselves, we need to do the work of getting to know ourselves, of testing our value systems and challenging what we think we ought to be doing. Murakami’s characters remain true to themselves, and their abandonment of the quest that they have been thrust upon is of no concern to them. Their purpose lies within, their quest is not open for us to see. We may not be able to describe the what or the why, but we all recognize someone who is being true to themselves.

Now that we are in the deep throes of tearing down the narratives around us, it is time to starting thinking about the next steps. Destruction is useful to clear the way for something new. The onus looms large that we begin the work of reconsctruction. I believe it must be a hyper-grassroots effort, in which each individual concentrates inwards. Like a substance breaking into basic atoms, we must start from the bottom up.

When living in accordance with our own nature we are learning to define ourselves on our own terms. It may be awkward and it won’t always be comfortable, but the result is there for anyone who does the work. Live life according to your own values and no matter what is going on around you it can feel like an authentic life.

Murakami’s characters use the strangeness of their situation to spark this transformation. The fact that the world is broken isn’t their charge to go and fix it the world outside, it is a reflection of what is happening within. The quest they ultimately undertake brings them into a new world. Not one in which the outward reality is back to “normal”, but one in which they are free to live a whole life no matter what else is going on.

Art, curiosity and compassion are tools that we can use to discover ourselves and test our values. These attributes can be combined to tease out a life in which we can feel more whole. It may not seem like much, but I think it has to start here.

In a world where the grand narratives have been torn down, it is on the individual to create their own roots.

That is my charge for 2Q22. Not to change the world, but to change ourselves. Follow your curiosity, support others with your compassion.

Wishing everyone the best this year, thanks for reading.

Conceptual Awareness – Moment of Conception

At what point within the process of making the photograph, did the photographer understand what it was he or she was trying to capture? It is tempting to look at a photograph and think, as a viewer, that we understand what it was the photographer saw or was trying to show. The final image is only one clue to to its origins.

Minor White, a photographer and teacher at the California School of Fine Arts during the mid-twentieth century, want his students to spend time thinking critically about the decisions they were undertaking during the process of image making. He felt that for an artist to grow and develop their work consciously, they needed to spend time looking closely at each aspect of the work they were creating.

In order to support this effort he created a five point framework from which images could be dissected and evaluated. This post covers the fifth and final point of his framework; considering exactly when the idea of image was formulated, and at which point the creative process ceased. There are several interesting aspects of this which were diffiult to nail down, even in the time that White was teaching. As our technology has evolved the complications of this specific question have increased exponentially, though that might not change it in essentials. I would like to spend some time reviewing how White envisioned the question, and how we may no longer be able to judge it for our own evaluation given the changing world.

The first four points from his framework have been discussed in the posts linked below.

White’s framework is meant to be used by his students to help the envisions where they sit along the span of a conceptual spectrum. On one end he described photographers whose use of the camera seemed to come from a conceptual framework of “camera-as-brush”, describing how they intended to express themselves through the creation of a new work, which could be judged on its own and could itself be thought of as an art object. On the other end he describes those who use the camera as an “extension-of-vision”, or whose work aims to capture the truth of something outside of the picture frame, acting perhaps as a channel for expression of something external.

When discussing creative conception, he describes the spectrum quite simply like this: those who are working from a concept of camera as “extension-of-vision” execute the full creative energy of the image during the staging of the shot, the set up of the camera and the time looking through the viewfinder. For them, the creative process ceases as soon as the shutter is released. Each stage occuring after this point (processessing of the film into a final print) was undertaken so as to preserve as accurately as possible the photographer’s vision from that initial capture.

In contrast, those working from a conceptual standpoint of “camera-as-brush” may see the initial shutter release as one step along the creative process. Each subsequent stage might bring new creative opportunities and inspiration that could contribute to how the final image comes together; one process contributing to the next as the artist crafts the desired final outcome. Easy examples of this might be images with post-processing edits, double exposures or “handwork” adjustments to the captured image. Creativity, however, is always going to be known only to the artist, and therefore can never truly be teased out.

This isn’t where the step ceases. It isn’t enough to look at one’s own work in a void, thinking about what decisions went into each piece without relation to the work of other artists. White included this criteria because of the challenge it imposes and the opportunities it provides, not in spite of the futility. Like archeologists, we must use the clues we have available, and make the best guesses that we can. Even if we cannot be sure of our results, the pursuit itself is where we will learn what is most helpful.

Several photographers working in the early twentieth century were gracious enough to speak or write about their process so that we can use them for perspective.

Ansel Adams sits near the purest end of the “extension-of-vision” range of White’s conceptual spectrum. He is famous for developing what he called the “zone system” of taking pictures, which placed significant emphasis on previsualization of how the image would look before taking the picture. His was a process of having every aspect set up ahead of time. He knew how the lighting would appear, what the tonal range would be and how the final outcome would be framed, and only then did he actually release the shutter.

This sounds like science, and there is certainly some of that to go around, but it must not be overlooked that each photograph is still a vision.

The layered graphic images I have been creating certainly fall onto the other end of the spectrum. Each begins with a single image that takes on new life after creation with the camera. It is in the process of juxtaposing images that relate to each other, that I begin to develop what will become the final creation. The process of creation continues well beyond the camera, though I respect the essential properties of that step.

Though it seems easy to think about the poles of photography on a scale such as this, things have changed in regards to technology as well as visual culture, which make this scale quite a bit more complicated. Take what seems to be a simple litmus test for White: whether creativity stops at the click of the shutter or not.

In the beginning of the twentieth century there were certainly ways to create photographic images without using a camera, but they were not the norm. The conceptual benchmark of creativity that stops with the camera itself would have resonated as a mechanical and optical truism. Once the film has been exposed, everything else done to it as sort of “after” the act of taking a picture.

Nearly as soon as digital camera technology came into existence, this simple act of pressing the shutter release became more complex. The DSLR camera retains some of the optical elements of film photography by reflecting light through the lens, over the protected sensor and through viewfinder. The film itself is digital, but much of the optical effect of composing an image using pure light, remains. Mirrorless cameras are one step away, eliminating the optical through-put. What the photographer sees on either the digital screen, or through the viewfinder (also digital) is what the sensor is seeing. Immediately the photographer is one step removed, for they are already seeing a potential “finished” result of the camera before they click the button.

In one respect, this aides in the purism. No longer is there a chance that unintended consequences of the darkroom process can alter the outcome that was initially envisioned. For many photographers at the beginning of the art form, this was a huge part of their process and their outcome.

What come with it, however, are a suite of adjustments which are being applied to the image in real time before the image is captured. Many of these are simply there to aide in the usual optical balancing which goes into any photograph. Others provide effects that would never have been achieved with a mechanical film camera, and blur the line between the artistic intent, and the actual return.

For instance, my Fujifilm X-E1, the first generation mirrorless from that company, allows for several different types of film simulation, such as monochrome, sepia or a range of color adjusted films which the company creates for traditional camera. When these effects are live, the camera is showing me something other than what it sees. It records the full RAW spectrum of data, including color, but shows a monochrome version on the viewfinder. Another option is for bracketing, which is the successive capture of multiple photos, usually three, in which some factor is adjusted for each one to capture a range. For instance, if I wasn’t sure whether my image was properly exposed I could have it take three pictures at different exposures, giving me the option to pick the best one.

This isn’t even to discuss the fact that digital photography allows us thousands of instant feedback photos without worry that we will run out of film. Photographers no longer need to spend so much time framing each shot so selectively when they can get real time feedback and make adjustments on site with a few test pictures. If a photo is developed over the course of thirty test shots, or selected after coming back and combing through hundreds of similar ideas captured during a photo shoot, does that mean that creativity continues?

My camera was out-dated when I purchased it used, and I am not familiar with some of the current software updates which might be available on other models. Looking at camera phones, and the expanding suite of apps available to filter and pre-adjust photos being taken it is quite clear that the purist ideal of pre-visualization can no longer be traced to the click of a button.

Perhaps, in keeping with the spirit of White’s framework, it is best to step back from the details of the technology and try to look at the spirit of intention. Even those artists who work with camera phones filters and taking hundreds of test shots have a process during which they are expressing their creative goals. Some will be able to express that their goal is to take the “final” image through the camera as best as possible, rather than make any adjustments after the fact.

Harry Callahan, who was teaching and creating photographs through the middle of the twentieth century, provides a more complicated and nuanced perspective on this question from White’s framework. The two images shown below were taken by Callahan in and around Chicago during his time teaching there. Many of his images used double-exposure to layer pictures on top of one another. This process was clearly showing how his creativity and expression were continuing beyond the camera, and extending into the “camera-as-brush” realm, in trying to create an image from photographic material that could tell the story more effectively than a scene which he could capture through the lens.

Chicago, Harry Callahan, 1947, The MET

During the next year he seems to have found a building, and framed an image, which tells a similar story, but without any post-processing or external adjustments. The spirit exits in both, but the creative process has been executed differently, this time feeling much more like White’s description of camera as “extension-of-vision”.

Chicago, Harry Callahan, 1948, The MET

Thankfully we also have written resources from Callahan in which he discusses more about how he thought about the creation of the images.

He had a difficult time explaining why it was he took the photos that he did. Something outside of himself seemed to be calling to him, and he was trying to capture something which had piqued his interest visually out in the world, even if he wasn’t able to explain what it was, even after the image was taken.

This may sound like the purist end of the spectrum, but he was also vocal about how he did not practice pre-visualization. He seemed to take his pictures instinctually and perhaps leaving open some of the results to chance in the development process. Clearly, some images spoke to him later on in exploring how to further push their underlaying elements.

What are we to do about someone who seems a bit unclear of their own conceptual station?

As viewers looking in we will never be able place words in the mouth of another artist, but when instinct is at play within the process it may be easier to assess the situation from the outside. Perhaps the artist is simply too close to see the larger trends at work, but for others the underlaying concepts will be more clear. Creating work instinctually based on some kind of deep-buried internal compass is surely of a different inherent quality than shooting randomly hoping for an interesting picture. Callahan wasn’t able to express many aspects of his work, but he was clear about what he was trying to achieve. He was trying to show the world the unique things that resonated with him in a way that brought them to life, brought them to our attention fresh of any preconceived notions. He was trying to be true to himself, no matter what that looked like, and no matter what the process itself required.

I think that is a key for this framework, and what White was ultimately trying to provide to his students. Placing oneself upon the spectrum is only helpful in the perspective it provides. Artists can use the information to create a bit more consciously. As with any label, the temptation is there to put things in boxes, but that was not the intention. White himself created work across the spectrum of conceptual camera use throughout his career.

Like Callahan above, for most artists, we are resonating with something, trying to express something which exists intangibly outside of our grasp. Our attempt to capture it may take many forms, but it can be enlightening to think about how and why we do it the way that we do.

I encourage any creative to see if these questions provides feedback on how the creative process exists within themselves.

Where does your creative impulse end? Do you feel like capturing the image is the end, or are you constantly seeing new prospects and avenues all the way until the image is complete? Is this really something we can see in the work of another artist, or are we simply fooling ourselves?

Thank you for reading through these exercises and I hope that you find something useful to take away when thinking about your own work.