November 20, 2007
Visions aren’t the simplest of all things we have to deal with. Commercial visions are Big Business in a confused, surreal sort of way. Conglomerates, corporations, companies, politicians, police chiefs and postal workers seemingly can’t live without those pay-per-view mass market visions. Creating, making, faking, enforcing, stealing, distorting, maintaining and hiding behind visions can be an everyday task.
Visionary consultants enjoy visions of corporate money mountains to be liberated. Visionary self-help authors improve us while cashing our checks. Famous visionary seminar personalities smile at us from the podium, counting heads and the evening’s take. Visionary leaders can send us to war, death and hunger, chanting poll numbers. Other visionaries bore us to death. Visions are not easily shared and not always friendly companions. It’s a good thing there is help available to sort things out. Check out the small list below – if you don’t find the right choice – just keep looking. Someone will knock on your door.
How about getting expert advice by hiring Andre Agassi, Bill Clinton, Bob Costas, Jay Leno, Lance Armstrong, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Michelle Akers, Magic Johnson, Big Bad Voodo Daddy, Alec Baldwin, Dave Barry, Neil Armstrong, Angela Bassett, Ken Riley, Chevy Chase, Bill Cosby, Harry Belafonte, Wolf Blitzer, Paul Reiser, Dr. Phil, Mick Fleetwood, The Zippers, Paula Zahn, Ann-Margret, the B-52’s, Asleep At The Wheel, The Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders, Dog The Bounty Hunter, Goldie Hawn, Drew Carey, George Foreman, Jerry Seinfeld, Shaquille O’Neal, Tom Jones, Yao Ming, Barbara Walters, Ellen DeGeneres or perhaps Tina Turner. You will end up delighted, motivated, reborn and very broke.
Enron had a vision – hit California widows as hard as inhumanly possible. Microsoft had and has a vision of invincibility as did IBM and Saddam Hussein. Harley-Davidson (“HOG”) has a vision of stopping those darn oil leaks. George W. Bush has many visions – none good, legal or comprehensible. Oil companies envision new holes in the Arctic, pumping the heck out of them till nothing is left but pollution, garbage and extinct species. British Prime Minister Chamberlain declared his vision of peace in our time in 1939 after giving away Europe to the evil visions of Adolf. Bill Clinton had and probably has visions that we won’t talk about in this family friendly medium. I’m not sure about Hillary’s vision or those of Monica, Kathleen, Gennifer, Elizabeth, Sally, Dolly or Paula. Etc.
There are religious visions, often referred to as miracles, such as the awakening of the dead – Jimmy Carter being a good example. Sometimes dreams are viewed as visions. Other times they are nightmares – such as the images of Ann Coulter or Geraldo. Some visions are expressed by speaking in tongues – consider Donald Rumsfeld, Robert McNamara or Alan Greenspan. Perhaps it is the mystical experience of seeing the supernatural, such as Elvis still being Big in Las Vegas, or being a supernatural being, such as Michael Jackson or the Alien II monster. It might be a person or thing of extraordinary beauty, such as Howard Stern or Paris Hilton. Some say it is the mark of unusual competence in discernment or
perception; intelligent foresight: a leader of vision, such as Michael Brown of FEMA (or his bosses), Ken Lay or Kim Jong Il.
How about the visions of sub prime mortgage companies of recent fame? Tobacco companies? Alberto Gonzales’ vision of US sponsored torture? IRS visions of you and your returns? The dreams of Iraqi refugee women serving as prostitutes in Syria? Al Gore’s vision of immortality? The Giuliani vision of no jay-walkers, no decadent art and a Disneyland America? The aspirations of Homeland Security. The Visionary Wars on Terror, Muslims, Immigrants, Gays, Science, Pot Smokers and the Teletubbies. There is no end to bad and misguided visions. Just look around you.
The Goodness of Visions
There are other kinds of visions than the bad, the ugly and the many. Those of Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, John Steinbeck, Lord Byron, Jimmy Stewart and Norman Mailer (always remembered). Bono envisions an AIDS free Africa, a vision not shared by Drug Companies. Here are some more such suspects: Rubens, Miro, Aristotle, Miles Davis, Gustaf Mahler, Jack London, Fjodor Dostojevski, Ansel Adams and Henri Cartier-Bresson. There’ll be more about the two last names as we go along, this being a photo blog. These visions are not bought in a parking lot like some already mentioned. Nor are they brought on by grandiosity, greed, confusion, mental deficiencies, crack cocaine or troubled childhoods as some others are.
Some things are different.
Here is one such difference. Visions associated with art tend to survive much longer than the others. Many value related observations of art versus the more mundane visions of toothpaste manufacturers exist. Art does carry a special banner. Art visions, for instance, outlast most cheese burgers, cheese burger consumers and their makers. Art may remain alive for thousands of years. Take that, Letterman, KFC or Rudy G.
Creativity is our second mini subject. As with visions, it is a slightly suspect subject. G.H.W Bush did not favor it and his mighty son does not consider anything as far out as ten letters (or so; 9? 11? duh). The subject of creativity is just not quite as distinguished as “visions”. There are creativity consultants – some bearded and smelling of pot – that usually can’t demand as high fees as the visionary celebrities. Not that they don’t try. But somehow creative thinking or activity ranks way below the vision thing. It doesn’t have quite the ring to it.
In some cases, creativity leads to unorthodox, independent and hence dangerous thinking. Rarely is “different” a good thing. Microsoft Office, for instance, is a given part of almost any organization. That Open Source stuff is not to be trusted except by creative and visionary accountants. Where is the business model? What’s that insane “free” price tag? What if some one expected me to work for free? Damn Commies and Deviants. And how about those crazy blog writers and their silly for-free thoughts. Free is madness. Madness is bad. Obviously, blog writers are mad. A few are creative, making them even badder.
Of course, the above are just some examples of feelings running amok. It can go the other way, too. Just consider the “Creative Writing” classes of many fine institutions that possibly are anything but creative. What about the 281,524 book titles listed on Amazon as “creative”? Bring your reading glasses for treasures such as “Creative Abundance: Keys To Spiritual And Material Prosperity”, “Right-Brain Styles for Conquering Clutter, Mastering Time, and Reaching Your Goals “, “The Tongue: A Creative Force “, “Caffeine for the Creative Mind: 250 Exercises to Wake Up Your Brain”, “Creative Concrete Ornaments for the Garden: Making Pots, Planters, Birdbaths, Sculpture & More”, “Creative Whack Pack”, “Creative Recycling
in Embroidery” and “Creative Interventions for Troubled Children and Youth”. Here are some naturals: “God’s Creative Power Gift Collection; God’s Creative Power Will Work for You; God’s Creative Power for Healing and God’s Creative Power for Finances”. If that doesn’t do it for you, there are 281,510 other titles to enjoy and prosper from.
There are Creative Investments, Labs, Commons, MP3 players and sound cards. Singapore has singapore.creative.com, complementing their vision of a spit and butt free society. How about Creative Advertising, Interactive Media, Multimedia and Creative Linux. Creative Good, Screen writing and Adobe’s Creative Suite. Most are quite creative in taking your money but perhaps not in much more than that.
There’s some evidence madness and creativity go well together. Van Gogh certainly was both. Idi Amin and Bébé Doc Duvalier were both quite nuts but not creative except perhaps in murder. Lennie Bernstein – quite sane as well as very creative. Boris Yeltsin – mad but reasonably good at conducting large orchestras without falling down too often, pulverizing his own Duma and occasionally, creative dancing. By comparison, Putin seems neither-nor everything. Sort of like a pair of empty shoes. Like those of Mitt Romney, Keanu Reeves, Michael Bloomberg, Al Gore, Goofy and Dick Cheney. Anyone home?
We’ll return to the subject of madness in art in a later post.
French chefs create meals worthy of Michelin stars but not your cholesterol count. Cops create an illusion of safety. Insurance companies claim you are in good hands while envisioning saving you 15% in 15 minutes. Reality shows, thieves and politicians demonstrate creativity in lying, cheating, stealing or writing blogs. Democrats are creatively adding taxes for those not giving them money; Republicans are creative in reducing taxes for whoever gives them money.
Creativity and vision have some things in common. One is that the combination can produce great art. Another is that no one knows exactly what either is. There are scores of definitions of both vision, creativity and, let’s throw this one in – innovation. These definitions are all less than adequate. Many are simply self serving.
But most of us recognize creativity and pure vision when we see or otherwise experience it. Such recognition is personal, biased and not always logical. For instance, Leonardo da Vinci is a great example of creativity in just about ever one’s mind. But for what? His airplane thing never flew. He is not the one that invented the Camera Obscura. Already mentioned – Leonard Bernstein certainly was creative but how many of us still sing “Maria” in the shower? How many really admire the creativity in the unusual minds of Mel Gibson, Anderson 360, Martha Stewart, Larry King, Dean Martin, Victoria Beckham, Twiggy or Tom Cruise? Yet we somehow know what creativity is. Just don’t look too closely.
In previous posts, I’ve preached how nothing is what it seems. Light is just a perception, colors don’t exist; cameras lie, eyes and brains fool us, themselves and others. Our familiar three dimensional world isn’t actually three dimensional. Al Gore did not invent the Internet or Global Warming. Hitler was not the first practitioner of genocide. Bush did not create state sanctioned torture all by himself. Elvis is really quite dead. Romance does not lasts forever. O. J. is guilty. Churchill was not a teetotaler. This blog may not exist – you think you read it as I believe I write it. Fool’s Paradise.
Visions, Light, Distortions and Dimensions
Here is the crudest possible perception of a photo: It is a static two dimensional image of a scene as it existed in the briefest moment in time. Those characterizations are not true in the simplest amateur point and shoot cases, much less in any photographic piece of art. The amateur may well successfully capture something of precious value to the intended audience. The fine art photo will probably be viewed by a wider audience, presenting a sophisticated, multidimensional and unique experience.
As part of a series, this essay contemplates what makes a great photo. What does it take to make one? I’m writing as a photographer, not a viewer. Viewers will get something out of it as well. This is not a technical how-to article. Look elsewhere for ideas on f stops, flash settings, rules of thirds, the zone system or Photoshop secrets. Instead, enjoy some rather unconventional ideas that reduce the mysteries of shooting great photos (for you) while preserving the magic (to your audience):
- Understand your very own vision. Explore it. Let it happen. Persist. Ignore the gurus.
- Photography is about distortions and abstractions, not reality. Break the boundaries.
- Light is the basis of all photography. Understand light. Knowing about color helps too.
- Photographs are multi-dimensional. Use that. Think beyond two or three dimensions.
Simple, isn’t it. I’m just kidding. It’s really, really hard to shoot a good photograph. It’s really, really absurd to reduce the magic of art into a few simplistic “rules” as shown above. As you will find out, these simplistic rules are not simple at all. But they are doable and real. Try it.
Success in any endeavor depends on self knowledge. In art, self knowledge defines the artist’s work and is reflected in vision statements and the work processes. Some people require formal vision statements, detailed plans, rules and so forth. To others, it’s all an intuitive process. Right or left brain, there is a process. The photographer who understands visions and methodical executions is much more likely to shoot and produce great and lasting photos.
Take wedding photographers, often following a written script: shoot bride; then bride and mother; add brother; add step father, grandmother and former boy friend…. Do Ceremony, Chicken Dinner, First Dance, Wedding Cake, Uncle Ben Ejected, Limo here, Limo there, Collect Fee and Get Out. Not much of a vision but certainly a partial plan.
Another extreme case is the amateur’s random path without a plan but with plenty of heart and soul. Masterpieces are not likely but it may not matter. A fine art photographer may spend years coming up with an original vision, acting accordingly in a consistent manner. The sports photographer follows the script. Portrait makers deep-six the wrinkles. The paparazzi covers the beat, avoiding bodily harm if possible. Guess who has the greatest chance of shooting something worthwhile to a knowledgeable audience. All do, of course – that’s who. Most photographers are quite similar to the monkey hammering away towards the Shakespeare play. That random path without a plan is more common than any admits. So what?
Many of us look for the middle ground as we deal with the “process thing”. Formalize some aspects to keep on track, be flexible in other aspects to encourage new ideas. The process is vital; the form it takes is personal. It pays to be a bit weary of the random path. Expecting no effort is the true loser.
Whether on paper or in one’s head, the creative process depends on a few basics. I’m sure Ansel Adams (who had to write technical books about his processes and thought patterns) and Henri Cartier-Bresson (who neither wrote technical books, nor volunteered to verbalize his processes) both, consciously or not, considered many of the points to be covered in this series.
Artistry contains two uniquely personal components beyond that vision thing. The first is creativity. Creativity hangs out with that artistic vision. The second is innovation. Innovation makes creative ideas become real, actual works of art. Most artists create art that is unique and very different from that of the next guy. Yet the basic creative thought patterns tend to be similar. Ansel Adams and Henri Cartier-Bresson created art with almost nothing in common except cameras were involved. But read some of their thoughts 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.
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 was 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. They had vastly different approaches to just about any lower level photographic technique. But the basic creative thought patterns are quite similar. Let’s consult some other photographers:
Other Photographers Said:
- “A photograph is a secret about a secret. The more it tells you the less you know.”; “What moves me about…what’s called technique…is that it comes from some mysterious deep place. I mean it can have something to do with the paper and the developer and all that stuff, but it comes mostly from some very deep choices somebody has made that take a long time and keep haunting them.”-Diane Arbus
- The challenge for me has first been to see things as they are, whether a portrait, a city street, or a bouncing ball. In a word, I have tried to be objective. What I mean by objectivity is not the objectivity of a machine, but of a sensible human being with the mystery of personal selection at the heart of it. The second challenge has been to impose order onto the things seen and to supply the visual context and the intellectual framework – that to me is the art of photography. -Berenice Abbott
Here is some more wisdom:
- Let us first say what photography is not. A photograph is not a painting, a poem, a symphony, a dance. It is not just a pretty picture, not an exercise in contortionist techniques and sheer print quality. It is or should be a significant document, a penetrating statement, which can be described in a very simple term – selectivity. -Berenice Abbott
- “I discovered that while many photographers think alike when it comes to equipment and chemistry, there are seldom two who agree on anything when it comes to what constitutes a good image.”; “Great photography is about depth of feeling, not depth of field.”; “Photography is not about cameras, gadgets and gismos. Photography is about photographers. A camera didn’t make a great picture any more than a typewriter wrote a great novel.” -Peter Adams
- “What is right? Simply put, it is any assignment in which the photographer have significant spiritual stakes… spiritually driven work constitutes the core of a photographer’s contribution to culture.”; “What’s really important is to simplify. The work of most photographers would be improved immensely if they could do one thing: get rid of the extraneous. If you strive for simplicity, you are more likely to reach the viewer.”-William Albert Allard
Vastly different personalities, drastically different views of the world and what makes a good photo, the creative thinking remains quite similar. It got to be a point in there, somewhere.
So what’s the fuzz?
What makes art special? Somehow art is more powerful than your average concept, be it Mission Impassable IX, Chicken McSluggets, Senator Hillbilly Clanton or the new Ford Swahili or motivational celebrities. The Ford Swahili is concept tested for years, rolled out on national TV, O% Financed, Traded in, Traded out, then disappearing into a final life as Haitian cabs. Millions may be made and sold, congesting highways, polluting the air and killing some of its owners. Then when it is over – it really is over.
The art of Ansel Adams has a permanent home of sorts in San Francisco. Not many of you have a clue where that is located. Some of his photos hang in museums around the world; others are in private hands. The University of Arizona safeguards the treasure. There are no trade ins, financing campaigns, concept tests, TV ads, marketing budgets or salesmen in smart looking Kmart suits. Occasionally some Adams collection hits the road, visiting Spokane, WA; Saarbrucken, Germany and La Rochelle, France. The local newspapers may cover the event in, say ten sentences filed next to the dog show listings. Most TV reporters never heard of Ansil Adam. Yet the people show up in droves.
Some time ago, I spent a weekend trying to get into a particular Chicago Art Institute exhibition. I never made it – too many lined up in front of me, day after day. It would have been far easier to get into a Bulls, Bears, Whitesox or Cubs game or the Jerry Springer & Winfrey Shows. The Rush Street Clubs or lunching with Richard Daley – much easier, I imagine. Dinner reservations with Charlie Trotter, Rick Tramonto or Grant Achatz – piece of cake by comparison. I’m sure the Art Institute spent some marketing money but that’s not what created the draw. The art created the draw.
Ansel Adams is a name with considerable recognition. Hillbilly Clanton would love his numbers. Now, Adams did most of his famous work in the 1940s and 1950s. Do you remember which was the best selling car in 1954? The top chart song of 1942? The 1938 Senator from Indiana? The dominant fall fashion colors of 1948? The favorite milk shake in 1935? Me neither. Most of us recognize an Ansel Adams picture, though. At least I do.
Adams survived the wear of time together with Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig who died in 1941, Coca Cola (there are always exceptions), Clark Gable, Judy Garland and Winston Churchill. Adams’ 1941 Moonrise, Hernandez, NM photo coincided with the premieres of Citizen Kane, High Sierra, The Maltese Falcon and Dumbo. Bob Hope started his USO shows lasting the next fifty years. 1941 saw Hasselblad opening up a shop in Sweden. The Wehrmacht used plenty of Leica III’s. Joe Louis held on to his title six times. Those are some of the memorable events.
But did you know that Cecil Brown won the 1941 Peabody Award for reporting the news, that Jimmy Dorsey did Green Eyes and Bing Crosby crooned Dolores. Other forgotten songs include “It’s So Peaceful in the Country”, “The Hut-Sut Song”, “Cow-Cow Boogie” and “I, Yi, Yi, Yi, Yi”. Packard Clipper cars sold well as did the Hudson Coupe and Cadillac’s 2-door Convertible. The Cheerios brand was introduced. The radio show Melody Ranch with Gene Audrey, Hopalong Cassidy and the Grand Ole Opry shows all did just fine. The Emerson Phonoradio ($49.95) was enjoyed by many but is long gone. Few of us ponder the Ecuador-Peru Border War considering Pearl Harbor, the Germans just outside Moscow and U-boats sinking everything afloat. So much gone without a trace or regret.
Perhaps it is real simple. Things that deserve to last over time do indeed last. All the junk deserving nothing receive nothing and go away. Surely it’s not that simple. If that was true – would we have to suffer macaroni and cheese, Strauss waltzes, grits, yodeling or Jerry Lewis? I think not.