On Reality 6 Preview: Visionary Photographers

April 11, 2007

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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4 Responses to “On Reality 6 Preview: Visionary Photographers”

  1. pixiemeat said

    Interesting read. Thanks for posting it. 🙂


  2. […] Matt wrote an interesting post today onHere’s a quick excerptIt 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 … […]

  3. Karl said

    Thanks! This, of course, is just the appetizer for the main course which will be online soon.


  4. fencer said

    Looking forward to your main course… This post intriguing and inspiring as well.


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