Jeff Wall is a photographer from Vancouver, BC. He is exhibited, represented and respected around the world for his unique art. He will serve us as a deep dive into the far reaches to which creativity might lead. Jeff Wall is not your average photographer in any sense of the word. His 25 year career produced, so far, only about 130 images, sold in extremely limited editions for around $1 million each.

Please note: This post has been updated.  Follow this link to the update “On Reality 6 Rev. – Jeff Wall Magic Revisited”. Thank you and enjoy. 

  • Jeff Wall uses state-of-the art photographic and computer technology to create images that share the composition, scale and ambitions of the grandest history paintings. His works often have the formal clarity of documentary photography. He exclusively stages his scenes, sometimes reproducing or interpreting paintings or specific events.
  • He does not seek the decisive moment or the picturesque scene. Nor does he create symmetry, lyricism, formal perfection or abstraction. He does not deceive you, hide his intentions or use the work of others except as visual inspiration. He avoids pop culture images and enjoys some irony.
  • Each of his images is the result of immensely elaborate creative explorations. He may spend from weeks to years on completing a single finished image. He never repeats himself and is always unique. He tells the obvious story or none at all.
  • The subjects range from very complex to surprisingly simple, even banal “every day” slices of life. He moves from landscape and street photography to still life and genre painting, to Japanese woodblock prints and medical illustration, to Impressionist and Baroque painting.
  • He views himself as part painter, part movie director and part photographer, all three being part, in his opinion, of a single pictorial tradition. Some images are shot on location, others in his studio. The process may include paid actors and consultants such as marine biologists, stage builders and Hollywood special effects experts.
  • His images are very large even considering his frequent use of large format cameras and medium format Hasselblads – often in the order of 6 feet by 6 feet or 2*2 meters. Some measure 10 feet by 16 feet. The people in the images are often life-size. He can combine hundreds of images into one. The images may be prints (traditional or inkjet) or transparencies mounted in light boxes.

This post is part of my Mysteries of Photography series. Among many other subjects, I explore the mystery of creativity and visions in photography. Studying the work of Jeff Wall certainly is a very worthy endeavor if you care about photographic creativity. So I offer this post as yet another preview to the upcoming main essay “Mysteries of Photography”. Here are links to other photographic posts on this blog.

Here is a sample of Jeff Wall’s art – “A View from an Apartment (2004-2005)”:

Jeff Wall View From An Apartment

The present material partially depends on an outstanding article, dated 2007-02-25 and titled The Luminist, published in New York Times by Arthur Lubow. This original article is outstanding. I hope my summary, additions and reorganization hasn’t completely destroyed the spirit of it.

First, here is a simple Table of Content for this post. You can reach the TOC through the “TOC” buttons throughout the post.



The Destroyed Room 1978

“The Destroyed Room,” shows an extensively vandalized bedroom, made in 1978 as his wife, Jeannette, had left him temporarily for another man. The ransacked room contains a strewn heap of women’s clothing. This tableau of violence, directed against a woman’s possessions, acknowledges feminist art criticism. Wall used Jeannette’s clothing to construct the scene. “I borrowed her clothes because we were still on good terms and she had the good clothes,” he said. You can easily detect the scene is staged in a studio.

Jeff Wall The Destroyed Room

Wall based the image on a 19th-century painting, “The Death of Sardanapalus” by Delacroix. Sardanapalus, an Assyrian king with his armies defeated, preemptively destroys his court and harem. The influence is obvious in the diagonal lines and the rich, red palette. Wall wants you recognize the reference to the painting. He pushes his claim to belong to the great tradition of Western art as hard as he can.

Delacroix The Death of Sardanapalus

In spite of the allusions to Delacroix and feminist art criticism, did the image revolve around a spurned husband’s rage? The question doesn’t shake Wall. “I don’t find my own experiences very interesting. I find my observations interesting. Maybe that’s why I’m a photographer. Maybe an observation is an experience that means more to you than other experiences.”


Picture for Women 1979

“Picture for Women” (1979) interprets Manet’s masterpiece “A Bar at the Folies-Bergère” by changing the setting to a photographer’s studio. In Manet’s painting, the central figure, a barmaid with downcast eyes, is the object of a gaze from a male customer who is seen reflected in the mirror behind her. The customer is located in the upper right corner in an impossible perspective that simulates the one occupied by the viewer of the painting. The key features are the male gaze by itself, the relationship towards the female and the viewer as an active, involved onlooker.


When Wall composed his photograph, he set his camera, seen as a mirror reflection, at the center; the woman stands at the left, coolly studying the camera and the photographer beside it. The camera and its operator become the central subject of the picture and the object of feminine scrutiny. Wall converted the receding globe lights of the Folies-Bergère bar into regularly positioned overhead bulbs, deepening the space in the photo as Manet did in his painting. The beauty of the seven-foot-long glowing image enthralls even viewers unfamiliar with the art-historical allusions.

Jeff Wall Picture for Women


Dead Soviet Soldiers in Afghanistan 1992

Wall created an elaborate battle scene based on the Soviet Union’s conflict with Afghanistan in the 1980s. The image has a strangely old-fashioned look, as if just exhumed from a war museum. Until you notice that this is a macabre vision: the dead Soviet soldiers strewn about are all awake — laughing, crying and fingering their gruesome wounds.

Jeff Wall Dead Soviet Soldiers Afghanistan


A Sudden Gust of Wind (After Hokusai) 1993

“A Sudden Gust of Wind” is based on a famous Hokusai print in which several travelers are buffeted by unexpected turbulence that sends the sheets of a manuscript spiraling through the air. He used more than a hundred shots in the painstaking composition of the final 12-foot-long picture.

Jeff Wall A Sudden Gust of Wind

Here is the Hokusai wood print:



Diagonal Composition 1993

Documentary-style photographs of old, ordinary and neglected spaces and cleaning areas are an ongoing theme in Wall’s work. The works entitled “Diagonal Composition” explore the still-life genre with inspiration from early twentieth-century art, particularly the abstract images of artists such as El Lissitzky, Theo van Doesburg, and Alexander Rodchenko, whose paintings typically comprised grids of horizontal, vertical and diagonal lines.

Jeff Wall Diagonal Composition (Original)

They also invite a social reading. Capturing the long passage of time that has scarred and degraded these surfaces, they evoke traces of lives lived by unknown inhabitants. Wall focuses on ‘the un attributed anonymous poetry of the world’.


Diagonal Composition No 2 1998

Simple as this image is, perspective, composition and staging is as elaborate as in any of Wall’s works. This is a relatively small and bare picture of the corner of a sink, some sort of rough wooden shelf next to it, and a pale green wall. On the extreme right a small finger of 1/4” plywood lays on top of a white rubber glove. It is placed at an acute angle to the main thrust of the sink. Just left of center, the dark side of the sink produces diagonal lines. The beige linoleum above has traces of glue around it, breaking up the straight lines dominated by the pine molding, the diagonal trend of the work top, the shelf, the linoleum and the plywood stick.

Jeff Wall Diagonal Composition No. 2


The Flooded Grave 1998-2000

Unrivaled in its technical complexity, the “Flooded Grave” is the product of nearly two years of work. The strange, poetic, hallucinatory and surrealist image shows an open grave in a sodden cemetery filled not only with water but also with orange starfish and sea urchins. It comprises images taken in two Vancouver cemeteries that are seamlessly merged with photographs of a living aquatic system created in his studio.

Jeff Wall The Flooded Grave

Wall clearly enjoys going to extraordinary lengths. “The artistry of doing something is just fascinating,” he says. “If you don’t like the artistry, why are you an artist? It’s fun.” For “The Flooded Grave,” he kept an oversize custom-built aquarium in his studio for more than six months. The concept of the photograph was to depict a watery world within a freshly dug grave. Wall retained two marine biologists who fished out sea anemones, sea urchins and octopuses from a single offshore spot. “I wanted to make it just like a moment in time undersea, not a compendium or display,” he explains. “I wanted to make it as real as I could.”


After “Invisible Man” by Ralph Ellison, the Prologue 1999-2000

Ralph Ellison’s 1952 novel “Invisible Man” centers on a black man who, during a street riot, falls into a forgotten room in the cellar of a large apartment building in New York and decides to stay there, living hidden away. The novel begins with a description of the protagonist’s subterranean home, emphasizing the ceiling covered with 1,369 illegally connected light bulbs.

Jeff Wall The Invisible Man

The image is an over-the-top re-creation of the light-festooned basement dwelling of Ellison’s character. The use of photomontages is invisible without being truly hidden. There is much detail and position is everything in “Invisible Man”. Its incredibly cluttered and overcrowded nature gives a claustrophobic sense that the whole place is caving in. Yet the creation provides an odd feeling of space and room within the restricted confines. Some viewers felt the picture has a racist aspect since the man is Black.


Outside a Nightclub 2004-2005

Wall devoted a full year to “In front of a nightclub” — a picture of young people standing outside a Vancouver club at night. The shoot took so long because the club Wall found, on a heavily trafficked thoroughfare, could not be photographed as he wished. There was no place for him to stand with his tripod and large-format camera.

So he had the club exterior – the columns and grille, the facade, gum-spotted sidewalk and concrete curb – reconstructed in a studio. One assistant worked for six months constructing the set. “Of course, you can’t see everything he did, but that doesn’t matter,” Wall says. “There is dirt and moss growing in the cracks where the bottom of the building is crumbling, but you can’t see it. The discoloration of the sidewalk is extremely accurate, and it took many layers of application. Wall placed his strobes in the precise locations occupied by the street lamps and other lights that shine opposite the real nightclub.

Jeff Wall Outside a Nightclub

Concealed in a van with blacked-out windows, he and his assistants parked outside the actual club on several nights and, using a telephoto lens, took 300 or 400 snapshots of the kids gathered there. Wall scrutinized the photos for characters and clustering he liked and then hired 40 extras from a casting agency. Dividing them into two groups and giving them general directions, he photographed them over the course of a month on alternate nights. (“People’s metabolism is different at night, their coloring is different,” he explains.) For each group he finished with only one frame that satisfied him. “You only need one,” he points out. Using digital technology, he combined the two photos of the crowd with a third one of the building into his final picture.


Men Waiting 2006

Here is how the story goes: On a damp winter morning, 20 weather-beaten men waited at a bleak corner in east Vancouver. Jeff Wall stands behind a tripod-mounted camera, patiently waiting for his vision of men waiting at a cash corner to come true. He had hired the laborers at an actual cash corner where the men normally hung out and bused them to the shooting location, a cash corner stand-in. The men were waiting for Wall to determine that the rain had become too heavy, the light too bright or the prevailing mood too restless for him to obtain the feeling of suspended activity and diffused expectancy that he sought in the picture.

Jeff Wall Men Waiting

He was prepared to come here, day after day, for several weeks. On any given morning, typically after three hours elapsed, he would adjourn until the next day, authorizing the men to receive their paychecks of 82 Canadian dollars and get back into the bus. “Men Waiting” is a small-scale Wall production in spite of its cast of 20 laborers plus Wall himself, assistants and equipment, its two-week shoot and on-the-street location.


Jeff Wall The Overpass

The risk in these “cinematographic” pictures is that Wall will overly manipulate the laborers, transforming them into lifeless puppets. Asked how he related to the day laborers, he revealed: “My pictures are obviously related to my own life. Why would I be interested in them otherwise? I’m not a sociologist. I must identify with these figures, even though I often don’t like them, I don’t even feel that sympathetic to them sometimes. But I must identify with them in some way because they keep coming into pictures that I want to make.” Wall was fascinated by “the physical animal energy that is present on the street and waiting to be disposed of.”

The Storyteller:

Jeff Wall The Storyteller

He likes to plan for all contingencies and command a situation start to finish. Yet he has chosen an art form that is not controllable. Unforeseen events will occur. Some events are beneficial, such as the recompose of “Man Waiting”, which, even so, took several days to create:

  • In spite of his elaborate planning, he changed the frame of the picture. One of the reasons he liked the location he had selected was a scraggly little tree (in the middle right of the final image) that had shed its leaves for winter. Further down the street was another tree, a giant fir (in the extreme right of the final image). After taking five days to find his camera position, he concluded that he couldn’t eliminate the unasked-for fir from the picture, but by including only part of the trunk, he would minimize it.
  • On one of the first days of the shoot, the rain increased, and several of the men huddled beneath the evergreen for shelter. When that happened, Wall realized that the fir had a role to play in the picture after all. He changed the camera setup to encompass the entire trunk, allowing the crowd of men to continue to the edge of the picture and, by implication, beyond. “That tree bothered me all along,” he told me. “If it hadn’t rained hard, I might never have noticed it. Now I’ll just include it. It’s stronger for it.”

Throughout the shoot, he would perceive undirected movements — an umbrella stuck in the mud, a hooded head lowered — and choose to keep them. Speaking softly on a walkie-talkie, he would ask his three assistants to adjust the position and behavior of the waiting men. The final picture was structured by his artistic sense, but it was also animated by the unpredictability of his living subjects. “You can’t make these things up,” he said.


Jeff Wall The Mimic




He aspired to make photographs that could be constructed and experienced the way paintings are. “Most photographs cannot get looked at very often. They get exhausted. Great photographers have done it [their masterpiece] on the fly. It [the on the fly opportunity] doesn’t happen that often. I just wasn’t interested in doing that [the on the fly shooting]. I didn’t want to spend my time running around trying to find an event that could be made into a picture that would be good.”


Jeff Wall Insomnia

The art that he liked best, from the full-length portraits of Velázquez and Manet to the drip paintings of Jackson Pollock and the floor pieces of Carl Andre, engaged the viewer on a lifelike human scale. The paintings could be walked up to (or, in Andre’s case, onto) and moved away from. They held their own, on a wall or in a room. “If painting can be that scale and be effective, then a photograph ought to be effective at that size, too,” Wall concluded.


Jeff Wall Jell-O

In Spain, “I saw the Velázquez, Goya, Titian — I loved it and wanted to be part of it somehow,” he said. “Every time the bus stopped, you were looking out the window, and there was a sign in a light box. I began to think, it’s luminous, Velázquez was luminous and I’ll try it.” When he emerged in 1978 as a fully formed artist, he presented photographs that demanded equal status with paintings. In sheer size, they were measured in feet, not inches.


Large Size and Staging

He dislikes the way photographs were typically exhibited as small prints. “I don’t like the traditional 8 by 10,” he says. “They were done that size as displays for prints to run in books. It’s too shrunken, too compressed. When you’re making things to go on a wall, as I do, that seems too small.” Many of his images exceed several feet in any direction. Some are over 10 or even 15 feet wide.

An Octopus:

Jeff Wall An Octopus

He desires the sharpness of large formats. The sharpness of such an image comes close to what the ever-adjusting and compensating eye perceives. Moreover, the size of his final images requires sharpness. This precision usually eludes the documentary photographer who catches fleeing, split-second moments. We know the grainy, blurry images of Robert Frank, Weegee, Cartier-Bresson and other documentary photographers. We somehow deduct these deficits are signs of authenticity. Although grainy, blurry pictures may convey a desired mood, they do not reflect authenticity.

Some Beans:

Jeff Wall Some Beans

In his early methodology, Wall sidestepped the challenge haunting the street photographers: how to impose a technically satisfying formal composition on a subject captured instantaneously. Rather than hunt for material to photograph, he initially manufactured all his subject matter in the studio.

Very soon he moved out of the studio to shoot landscapes and street scenes on location. He looks for “the indeterminate American look”, which he says he can find by not looking for anything in particular. “You have to forget about the idea of the spirit of the place,” he says. “It’s one of the big, consoling myths of people who live nowhere.”

Using a large-format camera on a tripod severely constrains street photography. Beginning in 1982, he circumvented the problem by re-create subjects using that he calls “cinematographic photography.” Typically, he would see something, often a small event with compressed human drama and political overtones. Rather than snap it, he would go home, think about this glimpse of everyday life or popular culture. If he wants to proceed, he hires performers to re-enact the scene.


Jeff Wall Stumbling

But staging a street scene and then photographing it as if it had “really” occurred: Wasn’t that a pretense that betrayed the honest parameters of photography? Shouldn’t a photograph be a document of things the photographer found in the world? “Not necessarily”, Wall says. “What an artist could do with photography wasn’t bounded by the documentary impulse”. He pointed out that in the visual arts only photographers and cinematographers are criticized for staging rather than directly recording scenes. Other arts always offer re-creations of the outside world.


Light boxes

By the late 1970s, Wall worked furiously on the light-box transparencies that still characterize his artistic career. His images of the late 1970s and 1980s were enormous transparencies lit from behind by fluorescent bulbs, a “light box” format that was typically used for advertising. Like a commercial light box, a Wall photograph grabbed you with its glowing presence and, unlike an advertisement, held viewers with its richness of detail and harmony.

The Vampires’ Picnic:

Jeff Wall The Vampires' Picnic

His use of a light-box format derived from advertising and might have suggested a critical analysis of consumer culture. “I was not especially interested in doing a critique of advertising — it was an accident.” His concern with the physical beauty of his images also set him apart from most of the contemporary avant-garde photographers and closer to the painters he revered.



He was ready in late 1978 for his first one-man show. Presenting his exhibition as an “installation” rather than as a photography show, he placed “The Destroyed Room” in the storefront window of the gallery, enclosing it in a plasterboard wall. You could see it only from outside, where, especially after dark, it resembled an actual vandalized room. Before the show closed, the piece was purchased by the National Gallery of Canada, a great send-off to his career.


Digitalization and Special Effects

Wall no longer restricts himself to light boxes. Over the last decade, he acquired four small buildings in a convenient if drug-infested downtown Vancouver district. There, helped by two full-time assistants and others as needed, he develop and print all of his work. He began making large, beautifully gradated black-and-white photographs on paper in the mid-’90s and more recently inkjet color prints. Many recent images, such as “Men waiting”, are presented in black and white, breaking his past reliance on color.


Jeff Wall Volunteer

In his studio he recently staged a vampires’ lawn picnic and, extravagantly, a conversation among resurrected Soviet soldiers slain in Afghanistan. He imported Hollywood special-effects consultants as part of his team. “I used up a lot of blood,” he says. He quickly grew tired of these outlandish subjects, but computer technology remains an important part of his artistic arsenal. By converting his film exposures into digital files, Wall can then superimpose them invisibly and endlessly, often assembling a final image on film from many different shots.


Jeff Wall Citizen



Not everyone loves Jeff Wall’s work. Some find his obsessive micro management plain out of sight, not to mention a monumental waste of resources. Others find that his work lacks in depth and simply consists of elaborate snap-shots. Here is Walter Robinson:

  • “The critics love his light boxes, which I think are obnoxious, and say his photos are beautiful, when I think they look like big snapshots — but I guess that’s the point of their being so laboriously constructed.”
  • “Many of his images, much reproduced, are less than thrilling. ‘A Sudden Gust of Wind (after Hokusai)’ is a yawn, as is his illustration of a scene from Ralph Ellison’s ‘Invisible Man’, a set piece showing a shabby apartment with hundreds of light bulbs on the ceiling. ‘Dead Troops Talk’, a scene of fallen soldiers in Afghanistan, is in poor taste, to say the least.”

Other critics chime in:

He is an intellectually ambitious, morally earnest perfectionist navigating through the shoals, fevers and chills of avant-gardism. A control freak who smothers the life out of his picture, hung up on his process, he is seduced by the elaborateness of his techniques and the gorgeousness of his images. The effort to make viewers think hard in a Modernist way about the gaps and distortions inherent in perception is ignored.

A Fight on the Sidewalk:

Jeff Wall A Fight on the Sidewalk

His shift into narrative representation and Pop versions of subject matter in the light boxes was a strategy to make conceptual art more communicative. It eventually became so grand and so glamorous, aimed so much at redeeming pictorial traditions, that the original intention was lost. Wall tries to do as a 21st-century photographer what 19th-century painters like Manet and Seurat did in their elaborate depictions of contemporary life which is a historically absurd undertaking. “His claim to be a new history painter is very problematic for me,” a critic says. “The pictures have become very overwhelmingly spectacular objects. There is a kind of Wagnerian Gesamtkunstwerk quality. You have the set and the narrative; all we are waiting for is the sound.”



What do I think? First, to me it is impossible not to admire the immense creativity of his visions and execution. Second, the dedication of spending weeks or years to find the perfect or near perfect image is a lesson to every photographer. Third, the combination of many expressive means, from large format cameras to digitalization to light boxes and huge prints with the references to other art forms is quite humbling; at least it is to me.

Just about everything he does makes sense – if you are him. His techniques are not for everyone but they should provide food for thought to any photographer. After all, providing food for thought does not impose the techniques on anyone. Although his influence on individual photographers is quite substantial, I won’t adopt his ways in my own work except as an inspiration to try new things.


Jeff Wall Milk

My reaction to what counts – his images – is mixed. Admiring what it took to get there is not the same as falling in love with the result. The extreme staging leaves me with a feeling of aloofness and lack of spontaneousness. It is too deliberate even if he intended it that way. Some of his subjects leave me wondering if they are worth the attention.

What exactly does “Men Waiting” tell us? What do the links to Delacroix, Manet or Ellison contribute to the images? Are the subjects “better” or more interesting because of these links? I doubt it. I find, for instance, “Picture for Women” to be of little interest, Manet or not. “The Flooded Grave” is impressive in its many contradictions – but why? A few subjects are, to me, utterly banal and uninteresting. Perhaps the answer to that is, so are those of others avant-gardists including, say, Andy Warhol with whom, I think, Wall has more in common than he has with Delacroix.

I do like quite a few images for what they are, not for the elaborate staging or art links: “Outside the Nightclub” is great, as are the “Milk” and “Mimic” images. I enjoy the “Octopus” and “Some Beans” scene and the “Sudden Gust of Wind”. The original “Diagonal Composition” is much more interesting than the later No. 2. “The Vampires Picnic” is intriguing indeed.

I do not believe painting, cinematography and photography are of the same pictorial tradition, not in execution or in vision. Ultimately a photograph is the result of releasing a shutter, freezing a moment. That’s the uniqueness of photography. Combining a bunch of such moments into a new image perhaps resembles the brush strokes of a painting. It still does not change that frozen, unique moment.


Previous and Next

Here are more posts from this blog that deal with photography. The posts are newer as you go down in the list:

Explore and enjoy.


A recent comment on this blog questioned whether a meme is a blessing or a curse. Having no idea what a meme might be, I was relieved that it was Fencer, a blogger I hold in the highest esteem, who wrote this mysterious comment. Obviously, whatever the curse might be, it couldn’t be all that bad. And who doesn’t want a blessing?

Intrigued, I did a bit of research on what on earth this meme thing might be. Of course, I found out I’m totally out of touch with recent science. You esteemed readers probably have known about memes for years. After doing my research, it seemed to me that memes are a rather harmless variation on pyramid schemes (minus the money aspect). Well, that sounds a bit suspicious. You send someone a meme and that person will, in turn, send a meme on to a specified number, such as 5, of others, who in turn passes the torch on to (now) 25 others, who in turn…. you got it? Eventually every soul on earth will be memed, unless the meme succumbs to a timely death as pyramid schemes tend to do.

The Thinking Blogger Award

The memes create clusters of people with common interests and/or skills. In this particular case, Fencer awarded me a meme called the “Thinking Blogger Award”. The idea is that your blog is sufficiently intriguing to earn this reward from someone who earned the same award from someone else. I am grateful to Fencer for bestowing this honor on me.

Should I choose to accept the award (which of course I will), the next step is to 1) follow the general guidelines for the award, and 2) pass the torch to five other bloggers who “make me think”. Now, in my case, passing the torch is a hard one because I really only read a smattering of blogs. Then, I apparently have to think when reading these blogs. Ouch!

My Nominations

Who should I nominate? After pondering that for a while, weighing different possibilities, ranking various factors, consulting my Scottish Terrier Angus on the matter (who couldn’t care less since no food seemed to be involved), sleeping on the matter (twisting and turning) and worrying about making a fool of myself, here are my nominations:

  • Suresh Gundappa and his meditative blog. It’s a gentle blog that does make me think.
  • A Swedish blog in which a mother and a daughter collaborate. High in emotional content, the blog covers the frustrations and horrors of a close relationship under the gun. No names are available and the blog is in Swedish.
  • Jonathan Schwarz’ blog A Tiny Revolution because it does make me think. This is a pretty big time blog that may ignore, or not, this nomination. So be it. It’ll be interesting to find out.
  • Odiyya’s blog The Conscious Earth out of Vancouver, BC provides great thoughts on Global Warming and various environmental issues. He also has a good taste in books. His movie favorites are not quite up to snuff in my book. Great blog, though.
  • Finally, I nominate another pretty big time political blog: Blogs for Bush. It is safe to say I disagree with almost all the views expressed in this blog. But the requirement for nominating blogs is simply “they make me think”. That this blog does. I won’t detail my thoughts. This is a family friendly blog.

The Rules (for those nominated)

Here are the rules for accepting the nomination if, and only if, you are nominated. Fulfill the requirements; then you can display the “Award” button and pass on your own five selections:

  • If you are nominated, write a post linking to 5 blogs that make you think.
  • Link to this post so that people can easily find the exact origin of the meme.
  • Optional: Display the ‘Thinking Blogger Award’ linking to the post you wrote.

To those nominated: Pass the torch by nominating (tagging) five blogs with real merits, i.e. relevant and interesting content which does make you think: be it good, bad or ugly thoughts.

There’s a slightly coercive element to this meme with its tagging/chain mail mechanism. It is up to the nominated blog to decide whether or not to participate. In my case, I think this is a way to honor a few blogs that made me think although I don’t necessarily agree with the blogs’ ideas. Thus, the pluses outweigh the one minus, in my view.

The 50 Post Milestone

This is the fiftieth post published in this blog. That means an average of a little less than 1 1/2 post per week since the blog was created in August of 2006. That may be below the posting rate of many blogs, but my posts are generally much bigger than average – up to 40 pages in print format.

I started the blog as a vehicle to share my thoughts on being an artist in the 21st century. That still is a major driver, but I quickly veered into new territory where this blog is divided into three major areas: Artist life, Photography and Politics. There are four parallel series of essays: On Reality, On Ethics, On the War on Terror and On Global Warming.

The Reality essays cover art, artistry and photography with a touch of science. The Ethics part explores similar issues but adds politics and, of course, Ethics. The War on Terror essays wonder how we got into the mess of Iraq and why we claim to fight terror when in fact we do not. Global Warming is today’s prime subject. I hope to raise awareness of its potentially catastrophic impact.

From a real modest start, this blog has attracted well over 30,000 readers. That still is quite modest compared to the big guys, but to me it is amazing and humbling so many have found the blog and perhaps got some benefit out of it.

Here is a link to a Table of Content for the blog. Enjoy and my gratitude to each and every, past or future, reader. Do keep me on my toes by coming back. Give feedback by commenting as much as you can.

Thanks, Karl

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Vision, vision, where art thou? Calling it the Vision Thing, George Bush the elderly had no idea. Luckily GHB was not a photographer because to us, visions are crucial. Fence by KGLIn contrast to the Bush Presidents, an artist has to have not only a vision (know what the heck you do) but also a path to make the vision into actual art.

Leaving the Bushes to their fate, this post is a preview of the upcoming “Mysteries of Photography” essay which covers a great many, well, mysteries of photography. This essay should come out in a week or two. Lately I’ve written a lot about the War on Terror and Global Warming. I wanted to get back for a while to my real passion which happens to be photography. I’m a pro documentary and fine art photographer, after all. This preview gives you a first look at a few of the full essay’s many subjects.

Photos in this preview are by myself, Ansel Adams, Robert Capa, Henri Cartier-Bresson and Leni Riefenstahl. How is that for a mixed company?

The Mystery of Photography

The mystery of a great photograph is why and how it touches the photographer and an audience. Such a photograph is not just a piece of paper treated with light and chemicals or covered with ink applied using a stream of computer bits. It truly is a piece of magic, as is any real piece of art.  by Leni Riefenstahl

It is often easy to look at a photo and exclaim “this is a great shot”. It’s much harder to say why that is the case. Then it’s even harder to go out and actually shoot a great photo, especially if you don’t know what makes a good photo in the first place.

The mysterious magic of a great photo does not just happen in a random fashion. You don’t suddenly take a walk and come back with a great photo. For one thing, you need to take a camera along, meaning you have some purpose which is a good start. Next, bringing that camera along may be subject to a deliberate and soul searching artistic vision. Then the probability of returning with some decent shots improves tremendously. Therein lays the subject of this essay.

The Metaphysical Process

To any photographer or artist, this soul searching vision is the life line. Consider Ansel Adams versus Henri Cartier-Bresson, both masters but with hugely different visions in place. One was a large Metaphysical Worker by KGLformat nature photographer and technical guru, the other a Leica street photographer and painter. One was deliberate in approach to the nth degree, the other hoped to encounter the split-second Decisive Moment. One took hours to set up a shot, the other achieved success in fractions of seconds. One spent endless time in the darkroom; the other viewed a simple camera as the principal tool. Both are legends. Both produced magic. Either approach is valid.

However different these two approaches might seem, they share features such as: their images present a multi dimensional, engaging, complex image, modified to the specific, personal vision of the artist. Hang on for details on this somewhat bold statement.

Be Artistic

Creativity is about you being creative. Creativity is your mental process of discovering new ideas or concepts, or finding new associations between existing ideas or concepts. Creativity derives from Ansel Adamsdivine intervention, cognitive processes, spirituality, social environments, your personality traits and chance. It associates with your genius, mental illness and humor. So goes one definition.

Artistry has two components. The first is creativity. Creativity provides visionary ideas. The second is innovation. Innovation provides the means for creative ideas to become actual works of art. Most artists create art that is unique and very different from that of the next guy. Yet the basic thought patterns tend to be similar. Adams and Henri Cartier-Bresson created art with almost nothing in common. But read some of their thoughts on their art and you will find great similarities, not in everything but in spirit:

Ansel Adams said:

  • In my mind’s eye, I visualize how a particular…. sight and feeling will appear on a print. If it excites me, there is a good chance it will make a good photograph. It is an intuitive sense, an ability that comes from a lot of practice.
  • All I can do in my writing is to stimulate a certain amount of thought, clarify some technical facts and date my work. But when I preach sharpness, brilliancy, scale, etc., I am just mouthing words, because no words can really describe those terms and qualities it takes the actual print to say, “Here it is.”
  • When I’m ready to make a photograph, I think I quite obviously see in my minds eye something that is not literally there in the true meaning of the word. I’m interested in something which is built up from within, rather than just extracted from without.
  • Simply look with perceptive eyes at the world about you, and trust to your own reactions and convictions. Ask yourself: “Do these subjects move me to feel, think and dream? Can I visualize a print – my own personal statement of what I feel and want to convey – from the subject before me?
  • I have often thought that if photography were difficult in the true sense of the term -meaning that the creation of a simple photograph would entail as much time and effort as the production of a good watercolor or etching – there would be a vast improvement in total output. The sheer ease with which we can produce a superficial image often leads to creative disaster.

A vision is not an analytical notion. It very much contains an emotional aspect which reflects and synchronizes where you are mentally and emotionally. You cannot fake a happy documentary Edith Piaf by Henri Cartier-Bressonunless you actually are happy. The emotional context also reflects your connection with a particular subject. If you hate clear cutting, that should be reflected in your images of clear cutting. One reason your emotional stance is important goes back to another vital concept: honesty. If you can’t convince yourself the vision is truly honest and a reflection of your innermost feelings, then it is unlikely you will convince anyone else. You end up being a fake.

Henri Cartier-Bresson said:

  • They asked me: “‘How do you make your pictures?” I was puzzled and I said, “I don’t know, it’s not important.”
  • I prowled the streets all day,feeling very strung up and ready to pounce, determined to ‘trap’ life – to preserve life in the act of living. Above all, I craved to seize the whole essence, in the confines of one single photograph, of some situation that was in the process of unrolling itself before my eyes.
  • This recognition, in real life, of a rhythm of surfaces, lines, and values is for me the essence of photography; composition should be a constant of preoccupation, being a simultaneous coalition – an organic coordination of visual elements.
  • If the photographer succeeds in reflecting the exterior as well as interior world, his subjects appear as “in real life.” In order to achieve this, the photographer must respect the mood, become integrated into the environment, avoid all the tricks that destroy human truth, and also make the subject of the photo forget the camera and the person using it. Complicated equipment and lights get in the way of naive, un-posed subjects. What is more fleeting than the expression on a face?
  • To me, photography is the simultaneous recognition, in a fraction of a second, of the significance of an event, as well as of a precise organization of forms which give that event its proper expression. I believe that through the act of living, the discovery of oneself is made concurrently with the discovery of the world around us which can mould us, but which can also be affected by us. A balance must be established between these two worlds- the one inside us and the one outside us. As the result of a constant reciprocal process, both these worlds come to form a single one. And it is this world that we must communicate. But this takes care only of the content of the picture. For me, content cannot be separated from form. By form, I mean the rigorous organization of the interplay of surfaces, lines and values. It is in this organization alone that our conceptions and emotions become concrete and communicable. In photography, visual organization can stem only from a developed instinct.

To both photographers, the making of a photograph is a spiritual act, an inner conviction and a desire to abstract essence beyond the material world. Neither of them mentions tools or techniques except to say those are not important. I’d imagine they would not agree on whether a particular photograph is great or not. I’m sure they had vastly different approaches on just about any lower level photographic technique. But the basic creative thought is quite similar.

Creative Artists

Creativity is never static; it evolves in different directions and changes over time. Take Pablo Picasso and his periods: the Blue, Rose, African, Analytical Cubism, Synthetic Cubism, Classicism and Surreal Periods. Igor Stravinsky, shocking audiences, covered a vast musical landscape with hisDance by Henri Cartier-Bresson Russian, Neoclassical and Serial Phases. Arnold Schoenberg went from late Romanticism to Twelve Tone Music without stumbling one bit although perhaps his audience did.

In the same vein, Cartier-Bresson covered Cubism, Surrealism, went through an African Period, returned to Surrealism, became the Leica symbol in his cross-Europe Period, moved into photo journalism, founded Magnum Photos (with, among others Robert Capa) leading to his Indian, Chinese, Mexican and East Indies Periods followed by refining the Decisive Moment idea. Then he abandoned photography in favor of painting for the last 30 years of his life.

Leni Riefenstahl was a dancer, actress, film producer, director and a photographer. Starting as a dancer, she moved on to starring in the German Mountain soap operas, climbed her way to her own Track by Leni Riefenstahlproduction company, became a Nazi (later denied), a friend of Hitler, covered Nazi Party conventions and the Berlin Olympics as a documentary film maker and an artistic symbol of Nazi propaganda. Her film work was visually and artistically stunning. After a short imprisonment following the war, she became a Non-Nazi and gravitated into photography; no doubt a camera was friendlier than post war movie distributors. She achieved renewed fame with her African photos. In her later 70s, she learnt to scuba dive and turned to underwater photography (and some film work). An infamous liar, social climber and self serving turncoat, she was, to her death at 101, an incredibly talented and multi faceted artist.

Other artists stayed in more or less one arena: Robert Capa was the War Photographer. Ansel Adams was the f/64 Yosemite Valley Genius. Diane Arbus fame came from disturbing portraits of society’s fringe. Robert Mapplethorpe showed an in-your-face, explicit homoerotic scene. CindyD-Day by Robert Capa Sherman staged portraits, often starring herself. Annie Leibovitz made inventive, staged and much published portraits. Ralph Gibson redefined the photographic language of symbolic simplicity.

Other one subject artists: Ingmar Bergman introduced his brand of intuitive existentialism and misunderstood Lutheran faith to an unsuspecting audience. Olivier Messiaen made strange music resembling birdsong. Rolling Stones “Can’t Get No Satisfaction” in spite of trying for the last 42 years. The Beatles quit. Richard Wagner locked in High German Mysticism and Romance. Haydn and Mozart found their grove and mostly stayed there. Ernest Hemingway’s language of concise clarity never changed.

All of these artists are or were hugely creative. All practiced their own version of art. I doubt many of them bothered putting vision statements down on paper but they certainly had a clear understanding of their art. Without creativity and the associated vision, they would not be the legends they all are. Luckily, they also knew how to share the results of their visions with their audience which leads to the next topic: from vision to results.

That’s it for now! Thanks, Karl

Previous and Next

Here are more posts from this blog that deal with photography. The posts are newer as you go down in the list:

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Bill Clinton never really acted on it although Al Gore was right in the house. George Bush deep-sixed it to the wrath of the world and eventually the Americans. The US continued being the largest emitter of greenhouse gases, causing massive, unregulated contributions to warming temperatures around the globe. These emissions, if continued, will have catastrophic impacts. A new IPPC report from the UN will provide details by April 6th 2007.

Since I started covering Global Warming about a year ago, a major point of mine was that Global Warming could be dealt with in the same manner that sulphur dioxide pollution was successfully reduced to acceptable levels in the 1970s. That reduction happened because Congress passed Clean Air Acts. Emissions dropped by more than 50% compared to the 1970 level. Acid rain and health issues became much more manageable in most parts of the world.

The current problem is that EPA, which led the sulphur reductions, refused to do the same for green house gases. EPA cites some smoke screen excuses. The real reason was that George Bush directed EPA to ignore the existing Clean Air Act. This was part of Bush’s general denial of Global Warming. That denial led not only to muffling EPA but also to the suppression of facts about Global Warming to both Congress and the American people. Recent house hearings disclosed this misinformation and the Administration’s blatant lies.

The issue of the EPA refusing to regulate CO2 using the Clean Air Act and its mandatory limits became a case before the US Supreme Court. The suit was brought by 11 states and a few cities. The complete case goes back to 1999. The Supreme Court heard the case in late November 2006. We now (April 2nd 2007) have a decision.

A Glimpse of Daylight

April 2nd, 2007, the Supreme Court of the US ruled in a split decision that EPA must enforce the Clean Air Act on greenhouse gases originating from auto emissions. The court further ruled that EPA cannot ignore its obligation to regulate greenhouse gases in general unless they have a scientific basis for doing so.

This decision, if acted on, is a major and frankly surprising step forward towards reducing greenhouse gas emissions from the US. It is a very well deserved step backwards for George W. Bush and his do-nothing policy on Global Warming. No doubt the Administration will play a game of resistance and delays but it appears the case is quite solid. Do or you will be sued.

The Sulphur Case of the 1970s

The US passed the Clean Air Act in 1963, followed by a major amendment in 1970. The 1970 Act was amended and extended several times up till 1990. Ronald Reagan did his best to ignore the Act. The Candidate Bush promised mandatory reduction targets for SO2, CO2, mercury and nitrogen oxide. The President Bush forgot that promise immediately after taking office. VP Dick Cheney is doing all he can to ROLL BACK the Clean Air Act as a favor to his buddies.

The 1970 law empowers EPA to establish and enforce emission standards for certain airborne pollutants. These standards were quite demanding and in some cases overly ambitious. The auto industry, for instance, required extensions due to technical and economic issues. The law has four main parts: 1) a national air quality standard, 2) a performance standard specifying limits for different industries and regions, 3) limits specific to cars (90% reduction of certain emissions), 4) rules for engaging states in the enforcement of the law.

At the time, acid rain was quite an issue, destroying forests, fresh water supplies and soils. Acid rain is largely caused by industrial emissions of SO2. Power plants and the pulp and paper industries are examples of SO2 polluters. These industries faced major capital expenses to reduce emissions to the set standards. Typical remedies are elaborate scrubbers attached to smoke stacks. These are expensive, both as capital investment and as operating costs.

Emission trading is a related scheme: a polluting facility is issued a license to emit a certain level of pollutants. Usually, after installing clean up equipment, the facility can sell the surplus part of the license. This is similar to CERs but with the important difference that the emission trading is not a subsidy from one nation to some non-regulated country. It is a US company to a US company trade.

The 1970 Act resulted in major reductions in many polluting emissions. SO2, for instance, turned almost immediately from a rapid increase in the ’sixties to an equally rapid decline, starting very soon after the Act was passed. SO2 emissions today are only 25% of what they would have been without the Act. The Act was expensive to industry but very friendly to the environment. Here is the impact on SO2 emissions:

US emissions of SO2 in the 1900s

SO2 emissions spiked in the 1940s, no doubt as wartime production of aircraft carriers and tanks took precedence over pollution. By the mid 1950s, SO2 emissions had returned to typical levels but started a rapid growth that peaked in 1970-73. Acid rain and general pollution that actually killed people caused the passage of the Clean Air Act amendment of 1970. The CAA imposed mandatory caps on SO2 emissions and an emission trading system soon followed. Many other countries, notably the UK, following the leadership of the US under, believe it or not, Mr. Richard Nixon, arch Republican.

Several major industries were forced to invest heavily in cleanup equipment, mostly smoke stack scrubbers. It was expensive. It caused difficulties. Industry whined. Some obsolete plants closed. Did it cause serious damage to the economy? The answer is most assuredly no. Did it cause serious suffering? It definitely did not. Did it produce opportunities? Yes it did. Was industry in better shape afterwards? You bet.

Here is what happened. After 10 years of mandatory caps, emissions were down 17% compared to the 1970 level (upper percentages in the graph). The 1990 reduction reached 24% and today SO2 emissions are half the 1970 level. Compared to a case of continued increases in emissions at the trend rate of the 1960s (dotted yellow line in the graph), emissions were down 36% compared to such a “stay the course” trend. That extrapolates to 52% by 1990 and 76% today (lower percentages in the graph).

Those reductions are very close to what is required to eliminate the issue of Global Warming. Simply apply the same tools of caps and trade to GHGs. Question why this can’t be done. Write your Congressman, Senator, Deputy or Representative in the Bundestag, Congress, Senate, Sabha, Parliament, Diet, Folketing, Knesset, Eduskunta, Duma, Bundesrat, Seima, Assembly, Storting, Council, Riksdag or Politburo. Let’s get it done.

The SO2 situation is not identical to that of GHGs. Resolving GHGs and Global Warming is more complex. The SO2 issue was localized to relatively few and well defined industries. The villains of Global Warming cut through far more parts of society throughout the entire world. The SO2 spike in emissions largely lasted ten-fifteen years, not 250 years. The technology and economics are more complex in the case of Global Warming. Sadly, the political attitudes are far less proactive now than in the 1970s.

But no one can tell me it is impossible, crippling or unnecessary to take on and win the battle of Global Warming. All resources needed are present and accounted for: technology, science, R&D, political tools and structures, labor, experts, bloggers, champions, stakeholders, financial resources and real life organizations exist today. It’s just a matter of lightning the fire..

The Current Battle

The issue of the EPA refusing to regulate CO2 using the CAA and its mandatory limits is now a case before the US Supreme Court. The case is brought by 11 states and a few cities. The case goes back to 1999 and was heard before the Supreme Court in late November 2006. Transcripts from the hearing reveals total confusion, misunderstandings and an apparent unwillingness by the court to take on such a “complex issue”. Source: Slate and others.

Here is a piece of news that came in from Bloomberg late November 2006:

Nobel Laureates Pushing Bush to Act on Global Warming

[Nov 20 2006] Environmentalists concerned about global warming want the U.S. Supreme Court to turn up the heat on President George W. Bush.

The justices, taking their first plunge into the debate over emissions that scientists blame for increasing the Earth’s temperature, hear arguments Nov. 29 in a case brought by conservation groups and 12 states. Their goal is to force Bush’s Environmental Protection Agency to regulate so-called greenhouse- gas emissions from new cars and trucks.

Bush argues that the government needs more scientific evidence before it acts against such emissions. A victory for environmentalists in the case, which may scramble the court’s usual ideological lineup, would “light a fire” under the administration, says Carol Browner, who headed the EPA under President Bill Clinton.

Below is an extract from a letter to George W. Bush from Senators Boxer, Binganam and Lieberman:

[Nov 15, 2006] As incoming Chairs of three important Senate Committees on global warming, we seek your commitment to work with the new Congress to pass meaningful climate change legislation in 2007. The U.S. must move quickly to adopt economy-wide constraints on domestic GHG emissions and then work with the international community to forge an effective and equitable global agreement.

Scientists are now warning that we may be reaching a “tipping point” beyond which it will be extremely difficult, or perhaps impossible, to avoid the worst consequences of climate change.

The recent elections have signaled a need to change direction in many areas, including global warming. If we are to leave our children a world that resembles the earth we inherited, we must act now to address GHG emissions.

The issue is that the US EPA refuses to act on its responsibility to impose mandatory limits on CO2 emissions as regulated in the Clean Air Act. A case is brought before the US Supreme Court by 11 states and a few cities. The case goes back to 1999 and was heard before the Supreme Court in late November 2006. Transcripts from the hearing reveal total confusion, misunderstandings and an apparent unwillingness by the court to take on such a “complex issue”.

Under previous administrations [Clinton] the EPA did enforce these very same regulations [on CO2]. Now [under George W. Bush] they are saying they aren’t required to use this authority.

“The Supreme Court’s first public discussion of global warming was, in large part, an inquiry into the opportunity — or lack of it — to bring a lawsuit to try to force the government to promptly address the problem (the ’standing’ issue)”.

Chief Justice John Roberts—whose distaste for the baby penguins, the polar ice caps, and anything else ….characterizes the scientific reports in this case as “spinning out conjecture on conjecture”.

Scalia shoots back that he’s not a scientist, laughing, “That’s why I don’t want to have to deal with global warming, to tell you the truth.”….Justice Antonin Scalia asked, “When is the predicted cataclysm?”

The EPA’s argument, presented by Deputy Solicitor General Gregory Garre, quickly sounds very familiar. 1) I can’t clean it up; 2) Even if I could, I don’t want to clean it up; 3) You can’t make me clean it up; and 4) China is making an even bigger mess.”

Roberts chimes in that even if the United States reduces its own emissions, it would be irrelevant if China doesn’t regulate its own greenhouse gasses. Scalia wants reassurance that a “reduction by two and a half percent in carbon dioxide … would save two and a half percent of the coastline.”

Garre insists that there is a “likely connection” between greenhouse gases and global warming but that “it cannot unequivocally be established.”…. argues that carbon dioxide is not a “pollutant” within the meaning of the Clean Air Act.

“A decision dismissing the case on standing grounds is a real possibility.”

Now, in February 2007, the Democrats control Congress. They understand how the political might of Global Warming can undermine the power of the Bush administration. Some Republicans are sufficiently concerned about reelection and the miserable ratings of Bush to express support to some Global Warming issues. Here are samples:

The new House Speaker: Nancy Pelosi created the Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming to hold hearings and recommend approaches to mitigate the effects of global warming. “The science of global warming and its impact is overwhelming and unequivocal.”

The hearings: “White House officials micro manage the government’s climate programs and control what scientists are allowed to tell the public”; “It appears there may have been an orchestrated campaign to mislead the public about climate change,” ; “The Bush administration routinely imposed their own views on the reports of climate change scientists.”; “Press releases about the findings of climate change studies had been delayed, altered and watered down.” ; “In one instance the potential consequences of climate change was entirely deleted from a report to Congress.”

Candidate Politics – 1: “This is a problem whose time has come,” Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y., proclaimed. “This is an issue over the years whose time has come,” echoed Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz. Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., said “for decades far too many have ignored the warning” about climate change. “Will we look back at today and say this was the moment we took a stand?”

Candidate Politics – 2: “John McCain, the current front-runner for the GOP’s 2008 presidential nomination, is co-sponsoring legislation that would cut U.S. greenhouse-gas emissions by two-thirds by 2050. Two of his co-sponsors are Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama.

Running for cover: Republicans are racing to voice their support for reducing carbon dioxide emissions. Even corporate leaders are calling for mandatory caps, recognizing the problem’s gravity and fearing that state action will create a patchwork of confusing regulations hurting the bottom line.

That sounds quite good, doesn’t it? But several months later, not much changed. Hopefully the Supreme Court decision will fire up the stagnated efforts of Congress. We will have to see but the lame efforts so far are bothering.

Here Are Additional Posts on Global Warming

Thank you – Karl

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