Thursday, October 11, 2007

Art-Science

I've been envious of my friends who were musicians or drawers or painters for a long time. They were artists, and I wasn't. They could create and express on a level that I was not invited to.

On my Oxy application I talked about woodworking as my only creative outlet, but in reality, that wasn't true. It wasn't my window to expression. Isn't. Woodworking has always felt like a glorified craft to me. It's creative but not expressive. In fact, one of the reasons I liked it was exactly because it was less expressive. I had a really hard time knowing what to paint or sculpt in classes. I was mortified. Even with all my loud mouthery and opinionated pontificating I was unable to think of anything to express in my sculpture class at Oxy. All I wanted to do was build.

I've found that images are the most meaningful form of input for me. I can feel my gut reaction to images much better than I can to sounds or words. The only thing I like more than seeing is touching. But touch is shallow to me. It's one dimensional, hedonistic. Images are both pleasurable and meaningful. They can express and please simultaneously. That's what I think "artists" want to be part of.

I took a photo class in high school because I wanted to touch things. Thats what electives meant to me. Cooking, wood working, painting, journalism. Required education involved only intellectual stimuli. No sensory input. Specifically no touch. The less touch, the less I was interested. I always wanted to play with paints and instruments more than I wanted to create music or paintings. But I knew the romantic glory of art, and didn't want to dabble in the superficial elements of craft without achieving any of the philosophical depth of a medium.

So, I went for photography. It seemed easy. My dad did it all the time, I'd seen more pictures than I had paintings or songs or sculptures, and I didn't have to think too much about what I wanted to say. I could shoot what I thought was interesting, and wait to blow intellectual smoke up someone's butt later. (I've learned since that this is in fact what many artists do a good deal of the time, in all media. I even had art teachers telling me to do this without realizing it. "Everything you create is an expression of who you are, even if you don't know what that is.")

So, I borrowed my dad's camera, had a wonderful time touching it, the paper, the development equipment, and tried to take pictures of things I wanted to touch. I found the most pleasure taking pictures of things that were too big or too intangible to actually touch with my hands. The results were mediocre at best. Very forgettable, very thoughtless, very novice. I wasn't frustrated though, because I didn't have any plans to say anything with the lens. I at best hoped to create an image that was neat looking.

I got a very cheap film camera from a thrift store my second year at Oxy, and pretty much just played with it. My interest has grown steadily since, and I think with this class I'm taking I finally have a grasp of what the medium means to me.

Photography's strength, as with all art, is communication of things otherwise noncommunicable. Photographers depict the invisible that exists beneath the immediately visible. This can be two fold. They can show emotion, ideas, relationships. Actually show what a poem describes, similar to the way a painter might. And/or they can reveal things that are visible but are often overlooked; present that which the photographer thinks is important, but is not usually noticed. If you can do both, you're doing well.

The second has been my only interest up till now. Well, I shouldn't say that. It's been my primary interest, and the only thing I could do half way decent. My desire to "touch" comes from a fascination with texture and pattern, I think. Shooting objects and abstracts lets me touch those elusive invisible things, and lets my try to explain my desire to do so. If I can take a picture of peeling paint and make it seem engaging and elegant, then maybe you will understand and sympathize with my desire to absorb it into myself. Not to mention my frustration when I discovered that actually touching those things ruins them.

Thats one explanation. The other lurking truth is that taking objects absolved me from doing what's really scary in photography. Shooting people and time.

I'm still drawn to the images of William Eggeleston and Edward Steichen for the above reasons, and I've always been frustrated by the artistic and popular acclaim for Walker Evans, Dorothea Lang and Eugene Smith. Their art was always hailed as the greatest contribution to photography, the value of the medium and the true integrity of the artist's heart. And I never liked their work! They were of people, they were emotional and tragic, but ultimately unfulfilling. The objects were not textured and palpable. There were no patterns that I could drink or shapes that excited me. I think now I'm finally starting to get it. They are photographing the intangible and telling stories armed only with what actually exists. They are telling a story with an image that only exists for one instant.

I'm sure I understood this before, but I didn't really have a frame of reference. Well, now I do. Somewhat, anyway. Having been in this class I finally feel like I'm able to (albeit not very competently) see the intangible in the tangible. And I'm learning to draw it into the lens. The reason I think this sort of photography has been elusive up till this point is that it requires me to put myself in the scenarios that I want to depict. I have to engage with the subject and the environment the a way I don't when shooting objects that aren't going anywhere. I've always imagined photography and art production in general to be a very personal, relatively solitary process. Having to be social and outgoing toward strangers is sort of uncharted territory. Thankfully, it ads another element of pleasure to the whole process. It's scary, but when it works, it makes the whole process more personal.


There's a texture and a pattern to emotion and temporality that I want to show. I can't capture it yet, but I can finally see it in other artist's images. That's a start I think... For the time being I'll have to be satisfied with telling simple stories and capturing ideas in an image. I think that's worth my money.

1 comment:

Nico said...

It's easy to bullshit you and say that "everything you do with artistic intent is art," but the right perspective can legitimize almost anything.

But it isn't difficult to legitimize photography, which is why I think it's good to hold that it is already a default artistic expression. I'm surprised you didn't bring up that photography has timing like music does, and that it is the manipulation of images like pencil and paint are. I think those elements are some of the things that lend to it being qualitative - in that someone can be considered "good" and "bad" at it depending on how they utilize their interaction with those elements.