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.

2Q22

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.

Conceptual Awareness – What Is Real

How do we treat the subjects of our photography? Do we seek to express inherent qualities of the object as seen outside of ourselves, or do we use the things we photograph to express something from within us? This is one of the central questions that Minor White asked his students in order to help them get at the heart of who they were as photographers, and perhaps as people as well.

White created a five point framework while he was teaching photography in San Francisco immediately after the end of WWII. He want to give his students a framework for using the work they were creating to self-evaluate. Kind of like an archeological dig, he wanted each student to use the clues found in their own work to uncover truths about the conceptual foundation they were working from.

In this article I am going to spend time talking about the fourth point on White’s list, which talks about the inherent “reality” of the subject in the photograph.

Articles on the preceding three points of the framework can be found here:

We should think about this analysis in the context of a spectrum. How we depict the reality of subjects within our photographs isn’t a clear cut “yes” or “no” binary, but will place each photographer somewhere along a sliding scale.

At one end of this scale are photographers whom White described as using “camera-as-brush”, and were generally coming from an artistic concept in which they were using photography to create an expression of themselves, a photograph as a new art object that had been brought into existence to convey an expressive meaning. On the other end of the spectrum are photographers who use their camera as “extension-of-vision” as he put it, to capture some truth outside of themselves, channeling their photographs and presenting them to the viewer as if a conduit to something from without.

Talking about reality in our current post-modern and relativistic mindset is not such an easy task. Especially for artists, the concept of a single identifiable and agreed upon reality may be restrictive or simply misguided.

What White seemed to be focusing on, however, was something we encountered during the previous post on composition. Do the contents of the image seem to be real objects, or do they seem to have been abstracted? Perceptions of reality will be different for each viewer, which is ultimately how questions like this will be decided over time.

I have already spent some time talking about post-processing and the vast array of manipulations that can be made to am image once it has been captured. In White’s time there were also plenty of techniques at hand for that kind of adjustment. When we are talking about the representation of the subject we aren’t talking about edits or tweaks. We are talking about the fundamental capture, and whether they come across with a sovereignty unto themselves.

Let us focus on some of the essential optical qualities of a photograph, like focus, exposure and tone.

Soap Bubbles, Berenice Abbott, 1946, The MET

Though clearly an abstract image in terms of perspective and composition of the image, this photo by Bernice Abbott demonstrates White’s ideas of reality quite nicely.

Abbott has used the essential optical elements to capture with technical accuracy the elements of the soap bubbles with as much clarity as she could. The delineations between each bubble are points of focus. The tonal range is subtle and smooth throughout the image, reaching contrasting points of light and darkenss but providing a lot of information about the roundness of the forms and the tactile nature of what we are looking at.

The reality of these objects as bubbles, the sense of wetness, or delicacy, is intact. It is the nature of the object which she is seeking to transfer on to the viewer rather than impose her own agenda.

Altering, or masking reality can be as simple as over or under exposure, selective focus or overpowering compositional execution.

Untitled (View Upwards to Fire Escape), Walker Evans, The MET

This image by Walker Evans is clearly of buildings, but the sharp tonal contrasts and inky black silhouettes do not read primarily in this way. Instead, their reality as buildings resides secondary or at best alongside, the striking graphic forms of sky and shadow.

Each of these images is abstract, each is presented without post-processing, and each is arguably within the range of how a human eye would perceive the same subjects without a camera. It is in the viewer’s perception that these images seem to diverge.

All off White’s questions seem to be an exercise in teasing out whether the artist is working most broadly from without, or from within. In the case of represented reality, is the artist seeking to convey a truth that they have seen, or are they trying to communicate a truth they have within?

I think the two example images in this post are excellent representations for how using this overall framework of questions can help a photographer zero in on what is going on when they make pictures. Both photographs by Abbott and Evans fall pretty closely on the spectrum, especially as compared to some of the other aspects we have gone through in previous posts. The ways in which they diverge, and how they diverge, are what help us to see what was going on in the artists mind.

Pretty much the entire drive from Cleveland to the east coast will look the same for each driver, but taking a different exit at the end will mean ending up in Boston rather than New York.

Pretty much the entire drive from Cleveland to the east coast will look the same for each driver, but taking a different exit at the end will mean ending up in Boston rather than New York.

Imagining it from the other perspective, I could also think of a highly abstracted and even edited image in which the elements taken from reality are still preserved in such a way so that they are identified as having come from elsewhere. Perhaps this is the case with some of my own graphic explorations. I did not want to create my own lines and forms, but rather, wanted to retain the sense that there had been an external object, inspiration and link to the natural world, even if it isn’t immediately clear or identifiable.

This image “Meridian” is an example of my work in which the natural elements are not presented as we normally see them, but hopefully retain a sense of their origin. In this case, the color and context have been abstracted and do not reflect how these wild flowers and grasses would normally look, but the rhythms and textures are enough to retain the essential qualities that tie them to the real world. These textures were not hand made, and a viewer would link them back to a real plant from the real world.

In comparison to this is an image by a sculptor, Pol Bury, who cut up photographs to create this dynamic new visual.

Again, the formation of the image and the structure of the building are completely abstracted, and only vaguely architectural in the basic verticality and the base having been placed upon the street.

It is the tonal quality of the structure, the shadows and highlights as picked up in the photograph that clue us in to a scene of deeper reality. Rather than this being a fully constructed and drawn image, we are made aware of the connection to real element that exist in the world outside of the image. This tie to the physical world helps draw a sharp contrast and harmony with the dynamically unreal nature of the print.

In these examples, I hope, it is easier to see how White’s sense of “reality” in the image should not restrict us to seeing it as simply representational in a documentarian style. The way in which the reality of subjects is presented can have just as much flexibility and range as the composition or other factors.

How do your images work to highlight or mask the reality of your subjects? Do you think of yourself as trying to capture some underlying truth of the scene, or are you looking to channel something of your own expression through the objects you choose to depict? Have you learned something new about the way that you see the world, or the images you created?

The next post will cover the fifth and final piece of White’s framework, which discusses the moment(s) of creativity itself in relation to the final picture.

Conceptual Awareness – World Within the Frame

Looking back through images we have created can give us useful insights about how we think about the art we make, if we can leverage the questions that matter. Minor White, an innovative instructor at the California School of Fine Arts during the middle of the twentieth century provided such a framework for his students to use. I am taking each of the five points separately to see how they can be put to use in our contemporary era of changing technology and social norms.

This article will be focused on the third point of his list: how the composition of the image speaks to us about what the artist is trying to achieve, or where they are coming from when creating their work.

Previous articles in this series can be accessed through these links:

Composition, or the arrangement of visual elements within the frame of the final image, may be one element that is not significantly different now than it was when White was teaching. At least, not different from a technological standpoint. Though our cameras have changed, our post processing options have exploded, and the options for how we have our images presented to the world have also multiplied, there will always be the final reality of a frame, and the contents. Entire articles may be dedicated to the ways in which modern technology may actually eliminate this (think Meta, projection mapping and other potentially border-less evolutions) but for now I will focus on a realm in which “photography” still ends in something resembling a photograph.

In all of these thought exercises, Minor White was trying to help his students see themselves as coming from points oriented along a spectrum. On one end of the spectrum White saw artists who were using “camera-as-brush”, or camera as a tool to create images from a tradition of painting, drawing, or fabricating the image in some way to create something new in the hand of the artist. On the other end of the spectrum were those he as as using the camera as “extension-of-vision”, or seeking to reveal an outside truth about the world through their lens, and therefore working to represent it as faithfully as possible to an external “reality”.

A simple litmus test in regards to composition is whether the layout of the final image seems to have been orchestrated in any obvious manner. Has the subject been consciously framed by other elements to be seen in balance? Has the image been staged in a certain way? Are there strong diagonals or verticals that seem “placed”? Is the image seeking to represent itself in any tradition of landscape painting or seated portrait?

Mystery Of The Street, Umbo (Otto Umbehr) 1928, The MET

In the image posted here from Umbo, the top down street view is sharply reformatted into a second scene, seemingly existing in a world other than the one we initially recognize. The strong diagonal formed by the sidewalk divides the image in half, creating a contrast between the figures. The shadows, lengthened in the afternoon or morning light, become the upright forms of humans that we expect to see. Their simplified silhouette forms push them into a realm of generalized meaning and symbol for man, woman and child, though their interactions are unclear. All of this is brought sharply into existence through the conscious framing of the elements within the frame of the image.

A created, or forced, composition will generally make the image appear to be a constructed thing. The viewer will instinctually consider the image itself, the work of art, the message it is trying to convey, and will stand back from entering the image, from seeing it as if with their own eyes.

To use the camera as extension-of-vision, the artist works to compose the image that they see in the world outside of themselves. White saw these images as being composed and dictated by the subjects, rather than the artist.

Rue de la Montagne-Sainte-Genevieve, Eugene Atget, 1928, The MET

In many ways, this is the central point that White seems to try and tease out throughout his five point framework: does the image invite the viewer to look into the image, or at the image.

When I think of photographers who capture images without imposing an artificial composition, I think immediately of “street photographers” and journalists. Those who are out seeking to capture the momentary happenings of the world around them, often with lightning reflexes and their instincts to guide them. In many of these images there is little chance to frame an image, and therefore we naturally see them achieve a sense of spontaneous open layout.

For any other photographer, even when trying consciously to break from what might be seen as a “traditional” sense of composition, there will always be the visual instincts that lead us to create images with a sense of balance, or rhythm or contrast or harmony or other fundamental quality so as to bring the image into cohesion. Indeed, these compositional elements are what help us create strong images which people will want to spend time looking at. Without some of these elements, a viewer is unable to grasp the thread, and will not be able to appreciate what the photographer initially reacted to in his or her own mind’s eye.

This and the following bullet points tend towards a more difficult territory of ambiguity in analysis, and White was quick to acknowledge this.

He came down in the shoes of the viewer, and their perception of the composition. Does the image seem to be orchestrated? Do the elements seem to hang together of their own nature and harmony?

In White’s time, when photography was popularized and graphic images were widely in use for advertising across the American landscape, he still had a sense that viewers would be aware of the classical painterly examples. He was keen to align the photographers who used camera-as-brush with the traditions of composition that belonged to painters. The avant-garde photography using extreme angles and juxtapositions, close ups, forced perspectives and unusual focus of details was probably what he was thinking of when we thought of the opposite end of the spectrum.

The way we frame images may not have significantly changed between his time and ours, but the rolling evolution of artistic movements and the ever more ubiquitous nature of images in all aspects of our lives has certainly changed the visual literacy of the viewing public. It does not seem to make sense of thinking in terms of a painterly tradition. Many of the avant-garde images have themselves created a historical canon for photographic composition that now seems quite normal, or even quaint.

If talking about the specifics elements of composition is not enough, I think the core of his analysis still remains. It is simply enough for the viewer to react either to the contents of the image as a sense of captured reality, or to think about them as elements arranged to create a new point of expression.

How do the compositional decisions impact how you create images with a camera? Are you looking for an outside truth to capture, or is there greater truth in the elements as you are able to arrange and present them? Can there even be such as a thing as an un-composed image, or is this question simply off of the mark?

We continue wading deeper into ambiguous territory with the fourth post of five, in which White seeks to tackle how we represent the truth of the subject before us. This, as has been the case in previous posts, is both more difficult now than it was in his time, and somehow quite simple.

Read the next posts here:

Conceptual Awareness – Fix it in Post

What do you notice when you look at your own work? Minor White created a five point framework for helping his students break down elements of photographs to try and categorize the conceptual foundation that helped create them. Teaching just after WWII he and his students used this method to discover new ways to discuss their work, and often turned up insights about who they were as photographers.

The first element of this framework was developed in my previous post: Compositional Awareness – Surfaces and Presentation, and discussed the physical format of the printed image.

In these second element of White’s framework, he discusses alterations and decisions made about the image during the processing and development stage.

When photography was a purely mechanical process of lens, light and shutter release, the photographer was required to either project the negative itself through a projector, or process the image onto paper using chemicals. There was no escaping the need for some kind of processing in order that the image could be shared with other viewers.

The conceptual framework he was describing was intended to help photographers place themselves within the larger context of a conceptual spectrum. Most broadly described, White outlined to two poles of the spectrum in this way: those whose aim was to process and develop their images in such a way that the image itself would be most clear, most accurate to the image as initially witnessed within the viewfinder, as compared to photographers who were interested in using elements of the development stage to adjust the final image, and in this way push the medium as the creation of a work occurring through further stages of printmaking.

That was a mouthful, perhaps we can even more simply say: those artist who want to leave the image as pure as possible, compared to those who are interested in what they can add or adjust in what we now think of as post-processing.

White described these two conceptual uses as different philosophies towards how the camera itself is being considered. The first type of photographer is seeking to use the camera as extension-of-vision, whereas the second is using the camera-as-paintbrush or drawing tool.

Dark room practices had evolved considerably as the art form matured, but artists from the beginning had been experimenting with ways to alter or enhanced the image on film during the process of actually developing the negative. Some artists adjusted the chemical compositions while others made physical manipulations to the print which White described as handwork.

One excellent example of handwork and aggressive alterations during the dark room process can be seen here, from photographer Sigmar Polke, who was also a painter, but created my photos during the 1970’s. Below is an excerpt from the description of his process for this image which is in the collection at The MET and can be viewed online.

Untitled, Sigmar Polke, 1975, MET online collection

Polke considers the darkroom a sort of alchemic laboratory in which he can explore infinite mutations of imagery. With the negative in his enlarger, the artist developed this large sheet selectively, pouring on photographic solutions and repeatedly creasing and folding wet paper. The resulting abstract organic forms thus issue from and re-express the boozy, convivial energy of the scene.

The MET Online, excerpt from description on piece. LINK

Post-processing, as the practice of making adjustments to images or film using editing software, is a full time profession for many creatives. The suite of tools and technology available since the development of Photoshop has continued to expand.

Some of these alterations bring options to artists who are considering the camera-as-brush which enable them to achieve previously unimaginable outcomes.

The evolution of post-processing as an art form on its own right has created so much distance between the initial photograph and the final image in some instances that it no longer makes sense for us to think about the work as photography at all.

In my own work I have taken many pictures specifically to be used as elements that would later be used in works which have been confused for paintings. My initial creative inspiration while taking the images was with this end goal in mind, firmly placing me on the painterly end of the spectrum.

In my own work I have taken many pictures specifically to be used as elements that would later be used in works which have been confused for paintings. My initial creative inspiration while taking the images was with this end goal in mind, firmly placing me on the painterly end of the spectrum.

This image, “Cloud Mountain” was created in the way described above, using two different digital images, reduced and composited one on top of the other.

When presenting my work I describe the photographic base of the final image, but cannot being myself to call them photography. The label simply doesn’t not make sense to me in this application, though the level of post processing isn’t as far removed from the initial image as it might be assumed.

Ultimately it isn’t the end result, or the label of it, which matters in the context of this thought experiment. It is enough to consider the edits being made and how they are applied. If they are being undertaken as a conscious creative step in the process towards the intended final expression, then they can be classified as a camera-as-paintbrush approach.

Photographers from the mindset of camera as extension-of-vision, may have found the development process a technical challenge in keeping the purity of their images intact. As digital photography came into existence, it was perhaps seen as closer to the reality of the image as envisioned. No longer would it be necessary to go through the technical steps of film processing, and perhaps accidental alteration, of the original image. Beyond even that, mirrorless cameras, cell phones and similar contemporary devices have done away with the optical viewfinder. Now, the image that we hope to capture is what we see on the screen, and therefore, exactly what will be seen in the final image.

This is a rabbit hole that I will spend significant time on when we are discussing White’s fourth point of the framework, but for now, focusing only on post-processing, it is quite clear regarding the “straight” photographers. They will generally reject the use of any alterations to their work after the image has been “created”…or will they?

Many photographers who consider themselves “straight” photographers still have a dedicated set of Lightroom presets which help them dial in the image clarity, sharpness and color balance. If we were to accuse them of changing the original image we might be met with frustration and alarm. These photographers are using post processing in order to enhance the initial image, to bring out the “true” image that they imaged as they looked through the viewfinder.

There are many who fight over the use of post-processing, and argue that any adjustments are impure. They view the “real” photographers, and the “real” art of photography as something that happens within the camera itself. Any need for adjustment afterwards means that the initial capture simply wasn’t done well enough.

What if the edits make the image easier to read, and actually allow us more opportunity to experience it? Focus stacking may be a very interesting development for “straight” photographers who wish to present an image as a scene which the viewer can enter as if using their own eyes.

Focus stacking is the process of taking many exposures at different focal lengths, and then combining them together into one final image. The human eye, and the camera lens, can normally only focus within a selective range when looking at any scene.

Any one image will be able to capture a limited range of focus, which means that the viewer will be able to experience as seeing from their own eyes, within that limited range. A viewer trying to focus on an out of focus area of the image may encounter a break in the fantasy that they are within the image. For the photographer seeking to bring a viewer fully into a scene, the use of focus stacking allows them a hyper-realistic creation. One in which the viewer can focus where they choose, and have the experience that they are able to remain within the scene.

None of these philosophical perspectives are individually the goal of our discussion here. White’s framework is not in place to hold one area of purism up over another. What it does as us to do is to think about what has been done, and why.

If using focus stacking, is the photographer trying to create a more realistic illusion for the viewers to enter and experience, or is the hyper-reality of the image actually meant to act as an alienating factor to set the work apart in its own reality in contrast to our own?

Thinking about the decisions that were made and applied is the way in which he pushed his students to look within.

If there is any value judgement occurring, I believe it is the setting artist intention against happy accidents. For White, the photographer can only be given more tools by understanding the concepts at work behind what they choose to create. We are always in the process of creating from the subconscious and cannot escape harnessing influences which we are not aware of. As much as we can, however, delving into the workings of our individual processes can teach us much about what we value, and give us more tools.

Where do you fall on the spectrum within this regard? Do you eschew post-processing and let the images stand as they do out of the camera? Is there an artistic opportunity that you have found in the manipulation of images that allows you to express your unique vision? Which sort of work do you find yourself gravitating to when looking at the work of others? Has asking these questions helped to tease out an element of your own work that you hadn’t thought about before?

I am currently balancing the highly abstracted work as exampled above, with a turn towards a more “purist” approach of trying to capture as many elements of the final image within the camera as I possibly can. I see this as a challenge for myself, and a way to get closer to expressing (and discovering) the way my eyes tune in to the world around me. For me this is a central question for why I make art at all, and I am hoping that digging further in will provide me some answers.

During the next section, the third of five, I will be talking about composition, and the way in which images are framed.