Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Abstract Inspiration

Today I offer a glimpse at the life and work of the great American Abstract Expressionist, Aaron Siskind (1903 – 1991), a photographer who has had a big influence on my approach to creative photography.  Andy Grundburg of the New York Times characterized Siskind as “one of the most idiosyncratic and under appreciated figures in 20th century photography” (NY Times, Sept. 8, 1989). Anyone worthy of such a designation is someone I should know a little something about.

My introduction to Siskind came about when I read a post by John Paul Caponigro entitled Literally Abstract - Aaron Siskind .  John Paul commented that Siskind “emphasized that what he made was not a representation of something else, but “the thing itself”.” This really piqued my interest since I’ve been wrestling with a personal artistic dilemma.  Specifically, how can I claim to have created artistic works when I photograph objects which themselves are often the creative works of others (architecture or sculpture for example)? Caponigro went on to state “Sometimes a photograph looks nothing like the thing photographed. To photograph is to transform. A photograph is never the thing it represents and never just a photograph.” Armed with these words of encouragement and the work of Siskind identified as perfect example of this principle, I embarked on my journey of discovery, hoping to gain insights into my own work.  So what did I learn?

Siskind began shooting in a very representational – almost documentary style, artfully - but faithfully - capturing the identity of the objects before the lens.  Shooting in New York in the 1930s as a member of the New York Photo League – a group committed to depicting social aspects of the urban experience - he created his now famous collection of photographs of life in Harlem.  Although very “documentary” in style, the fascination with light and shadow, form and line obvious in this early work is a foreshadowing of the hallmarks of his later abstract work.

Siskind was close friends with prominent abstract expressionist painters such as Franz Kline (in honor of whom he later created a tremendous photograph homage series) and Willem de Kooning, and like them was influenced by the non-representational paintings of Wassily Kandinsky.  At this point in his career Siskind’s photography started to show signs of transformation from description to abstraction; from documentary to subjective creativity. It was in this transformation and Siskind’s perspective on his work that I found an answer to my own creative dilemma.  He said it all. “When I make a photograph, I want it to be an altogether new object, complete and self-contained, whose basic condition is order.”

Siskind’s work is characterized by very tight, very flat compositions.  His images commonly incorporate letters, bits of signs or posters, graffiti and other calligraphy-like forms.  They are masterpieces of texture, line and visual rhythms; lights and darks; shapes and the shapeless. "Mr. Siskind's discernment of the poetic in the casual and passed-by aspects of every day reality are rich in their eloquence of line and shape and take their place with the serious expression of the modern American artists."

Although considered an abstract expressionist, Siskind’s work frequently contradicted the abstract principle of ambiguity by providing hints of recognizable objects in his compositions. But rather than decreasing intrigue I think his inclusion of a hint of context added additional dimensions of interest in his works.  Viewers wonder not just “What is it?” but “What was it?”, “What did it say?, What became of it?”  As he tells it, We look at the world and see what we have learned to believe is there. We have been conditioned to expect... but, as photographers, we must learn to relax our beliefs.”

So what does all of this have to do with me and my approach to photography?
Well, for one thing, like Siskind I share a similar fascination with tones, shapes, lines, textures and the relationships among them.  I also like to employ elements of abstract principles in my work.  Clearly my creative abilities in these regard are orders of magnitude inferior to the likes of a Siskind.  However, his work inspires me and provides insights to help me move in the general direction of his creative genius. 

But more important than similarity in style, Siskind’s perspective on photography offered me a firm foothold in my uphill struggle to understand how I might express unique creativity through the lens regardless of what is in front of it.  Two of his quotes summarize it best for me:

“Move on objects with your eye straight on, to the left, around on the right. Watch them grow large as they approach, group and regroup as you shift your position. Relationships gradually emerge and sometimes assert themselves with finality. And that's your picture.” (emphasis added)

“As the language or vocabulary of photography has been extended, the emphasis of meaning has shifted, shifted from what the world looks like to what we feel about the world and what we want the world to mean.”

Now that I have spent time with his photography and read some of his perspectives, Siskind will forever remain a major influence on my own creative efforts.

Thank you Aaron Siskind.

Check out these resources for additional information about Siskind and to view some of his photographs:

I’ve included a couple of my own images that I think are similar in style and intent to Siskind’s iconic work.  

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Photographer Jekyll and Fisherman Hyde

Like most avid trout fishermen, I like to boast about successful days in the field all the while being exceedingly evasive about the specific location of successful outings.  As a photographer I like to share images of successful days afield but have no misgivings about sharing location info.  

These schizophrenic attitudes towards location sharing create a real conundrum for me whenever I plan a post describing an outing that my Photographer Jekyll and my Fisherman Hyde go on together.  This post is a case in point.  

I had a terrific day photographing the beautiful bluffs bordering the trout stream I was fishing. The iconic bluffs are awe-inspiring and ever a source or wonder for me, revealing the geologic history of Wisconsin in their linear sandstone strata. Experiencing bluffs in tourist settings is impressive, but for me experiencing them in the Wisconsin wild is something akin to viewing animals on safari as opposed to in a zoo. So I decided to include some shots of them in the blog.  But how do I share them so that others can enjoy them for themselves someday, without giving away the secret of my fishing spot?

Well, after wrestling with the challenge for a while I think I have arrived at a solution. Here goes.

The fishing/photography trip featured today took place in the Ocooch Mountain region of Wisconsin.  

"Ocooch Mountans?" you ask.  Yes, the Ocooch.

The Ocooch Mountains, first referenced in Edwin James 1823 journals describing an expedition from Pittsburgh to the Rocky Mountains, are located in the Western Upland region of Wisconsin, an area better known as the Driftless Region. According to James "The only hills worthy of particular notice, not only in this variety but in the whole section under consideration, are the Ocooch and Smokey mountains, which are broad, elevated ridges rather than mountains. The former is situated twelve miles north of the Wisconsin one hundred miles above its mouth."

So there you have it. The location of these beautiful bluffs in their native environment. Not exactly GPS coordinates, but pretty darn generous by Fisherman Hyde standards.  

The last pic today is included as justification for Fisherman Hyde's obfuscation. In addition to beautiful bluffs - 'Thar's gold in them thar hills!'

This beautiful brown trout was lovingly returned to the water immediately after
this shot.  We'll do battle again I'm sure.

Thursday, April 6, 2017

From the Ashes

Confidently entering the House of Representatives he seated himself in the Speaker’s chair.  Upon his commanding signal the assemblage immediately came to order.

“Gentleman,” he shouted, “the question is, Shall this harbor of Yankee democracy be burned?”

“All in favor of burning it say Aye!’ he declared.

He was temporarily deafened by the boisterous affirmative response.

As he expected, his second declaration “Those opposed will say Nay.”, was met with stone-cold silence.

“Light up!” he exclaimed, satisfied that this mockery of democracy he built into the execution of his order would only add insult to the damage he and his colleagues were intent on inflicting on the Republic.

No, this is not a transcript of the One Hundred and Fifteenth Congress and the speaker referenced is not the current Speaker of the House, no matter how tempting that deduction might be in light of the scenario’s similarity to today’s political predicament. 

The event depicted actually took place in Washington DC on August 24th, 1814, during the course of the War of 1812.  The speaker was Admiral Cockburn of the British Royal Navy and the assemblage was composed of officers and soldiers of the British army. The ‘harbor of Yankee democracy’ was the Capitol of the fledgling United States of America. 

And ‘light up’ they did.  Using the books of the Library of Congress as kindling in the north wing of the Capitol they ultimately burned the Capitol to the ground along with the entirety of the Library’s modest collection.

But in a Phoenix-like resurrection that by example might offer hope for the millions concerned about the prospects for recovery from the current challenges to democracy, construction of a new Library of Congress was authorized.  Completed in early 1897, the Thomas Jefferson Library Building succeeded in serving as a grand demonstration of the resilience of the United States of America and its commitment to education, literature, arts, law and science.

Built in the Italian Renaissance style, the new building was the largest, costliest and safest library in the world.  Its classical-inspired grandeur and rich artistic appointments make it one of the most impressive public buildings in the United States. In an unapologetic expression of the scope and capabilities of American art, commissions were given to nearly fifty American sculptors and painters to decorate the interior of the building. It is these great works and their common theme of honoring the arts, literature and science that give the Library its unique character and impressive visual appeal.

According to Herbert Small's 1897 publication 'The Handbook of the New Library of Congress':
' general interest is concerned it is the magnificent series of mural and sculptural decorations with which the architecture is enriched that has contributed most to give the Library its notable position among American public buildings. Although a similarly comprehensive scheme of decorations was carried out at the World's Fair in Chicago... the government itself had never before called upon a representative number of American painters and sculptors to help decorate, broadly and thoroughly, one of its great public monuments.'
Despite the fact that the splendid architecture and ornate interior rival better known structures in the Old World, only a small percentage of visitors to Washington DC take the opportunity to explore it.  This final entry in my Project 66 series features a small sampling of the Library’s beautifully ornate interior captured during a recent visit to the Capital. The images are paired with descriptive passages abridged from Small's 1897 ‘Handbook of the New Library of Congress'.  The passages describe the significance of elements featured in the paired images.

Shooting the interior of the Library with a handheld camera while trying to avoid inclusion of the throngs of visitors in the main atrium and galleries presented a bit of a challenge.  The images are woefully inadequate surrogates for the real thing.  Nevertheless, I hope they inspire readers to make a journey to view the exquisite Library of Congress for themselves.

Do it before the current occupants of Washington DC decide its time to "Light up!" again, even if only metaphorically.

'The ceiling proper rests upon a white stylobate supported on the cove. It is divided
by heavy beams, elaborately paneled, and ornamental with a profusion of gilding, and
contains six large skylights, the design of which is a scale pattern, chiefly in blues and
yellows, recalling the arrangement in the marble flooring beneath.... perhaps as fine an
example of gold ornamentation on a large scale as can be found in the country. It is
impressively rich and elegant without in the least overstepping the line of modesty
and good taste.'
'Beneath the second-story cartouches on the east and west sides of the hall are
tablets inscribed in gilt letters with the names of the following authors: Longfellow
Tennyson, Gibbon, Cooper, Scott, Hugo, Cervantes. A single moulding in the marble
cornice above is touched with gold, as an introduction to the rich coloring and the
profuse use of gilding in the covered ceiling which it supports.'

'The North, South and East Corridors on the first floor of the Entrance Hall are
paneled in Italian marble to a height of eleven feet, and have floors of white, blue
and brown marble, and beautiful vaulted ceilings of marble mosaics..... In all three
corridors tablets bearing the names of distinguished men are introduced as part of
the ornament.'
'Upon the newel post which terminates the railing of each staircase is placed
a bronze female figure upholding a torch for electric lights. The two figures
are somewhat taller than life, measuring six and a half feet, or eight feet to
the top of the torch, and ten feet including the rounded bronze base on which
they stand. Each has a laurel wreath about her head, and is clad in classic
'The vaulting of the broad passageway to the Reading Room consists of a series
of six small domes...The colors are light and bright, and three different patterns
employed consist mainly of garlands and ribbons, and of simple bands of color
radiating from a center medallion.... and eagles occur between the double consoles
which receive the weight of the domes upon the east wall.'

'The penetrations and pendentives are richly embellished with a great variety of
ornament, both conventional and otherwise.  The treatment differs in different
corridors, however, on account of the varying relative position of the paired columns
which support the arcade - from which results first a series of wide and then a series
of narrow pendentives.'