Common objects as photographic subjects

Industrial Still Life. East Pearl Street, Boulder, 2012
Industrial Still Life. East Pearl Street, Boulder, 2012

I have driven by this huge power line pole more times than I can count, always without “seeing” it. Perhaps it was the quality of the early morning light that motivated me, but yesterday I finally stopped to investigate. The huge bolts around the base were especially interesting, thus the image above. You never know what you might find when you take a closer look at an everyday object!

My “common object” happened to be outside, but you don’t even have to go that far to find yours.  Here are three common places right at home where photographers have found interesting, creative images:

–In the bathroom…maybe below the sink, or the toilet (As Edward Weston did in this famous image.)

–In the kitchen…glasses, plates, fruits, or even vegetables (As Edward Weston did with Pepper #30.)

–Your ceiling lights (As Cole Thompson did here.)

Use your imagination and have fun!

Photography and Art

Art, This Way. Santa Fe Avenue, Denver, 2011
Art, This Way. Santa Fe Avenue, Denver, 2011

Is photography art? Well, how about these questions:Is a set of water colors art? Is a set of paintbrushes art? Is a box of clay modeling tools art? Does an opera stage and its costume room constitute art?

So, the question misses the mark. We shouldn’t be judging the tools or the methodology employed.

Photography certainly can be art, although most of it isn’t. Like any art, the camera is just a tool and what comes out of it depends very much on the vision of the person behind the viewfinder. Of the millions of images and pretty pictures floating about the human universe (and Facebook!), only a small percentage could be considered art.

The problem photography has, as opposed to the other more traditional and established arts such as painting and sculpture, is that we use a machine in our work–a common machine that everyone has and uses. Since everyone has a camera of some kind, everyone knows that making a photograph is as easy as pressing the shutter button or the icon on the cell phone. But making a photograph and making a photograph that is art are two very, very different things–as I have been discovering. (Here, you could get into the “what is art” discussion which I’ll avoid for now.)

In the 19th century, photography was born with an inferiority complex that it is still trying to overcome in the current 21st century. As an example, although the Denver Art Museum began collecting photographs in 1937, they did not establish a separate photography department until 2008! At least New York’s MoMA started collecting photographs in 1930 and established their department in 1940 but, even today, the area allocated to photography is but one room on one of the six floors–still a relatively minor exhibition space. It would be interesting to know when other major U.S. museums finally hired their photography curators, or when they built spaces specifically for photography exhibitions. Thankfully, there are now many separate, dedicated photography museums that have filled the gap.

But, back to those first photographers who had yet to understand the unique artistic capablities of the new medium. In those early days of the mid to late 1800s, the first photographers tried to gain legitimacy as artists simply by copying the diffuse and dreamy paintings of the time in what is known as pictorialism. Later, in the 20th century, with Ansel Adams and the Group f/64, with their emphasis on realism, clarity and definition, there was an attempt to move photography toward its own distinct niche, to have it stand tall on its own unique technical merits. Today, with the digital super-explosion, once you separate out the billions of crappy grab and snapshots, there is still a huge range of work that could be considered photographic art–everything from bizarre, surreal composites, to multi-terabyte 360-degree panoramas to high-level fashion photography to wilderness landscapes.

The very personal question for me is: how do I move from merely snapping the shutter on a beautiful scene to making photographic art that satisfies my creative drive? This, as it turns out is extremely difficult and it is just as difficult today as it ever was–despite the myriad fancy cameras and the Photoshop software–because making art does not rely on the equipment. It relies instead on the vision of the artist. That is why it is so difficult.

So, as I see it, all I can really do is keep making pictures and continue refining my vision, skill and style and hope I continue to evolve.

The Expose-to-the-Right (ETTR) Debate

Man versus Nature. Boulder County, Colorado, 2012
Man versus Nature. Boulder County, Colorado, 2012

“Debate?” you ask. “I didn’t know there was a debate!” I thought the same until I started investigating a bit. ETTR is not necessarily what you ought to be doing. At a minimum, you need to understand what it is all about, then you can make your own decision.

Before you read farther, make sure you understand that this technique does not apply to you if all you shoot are JPEGs. It does apply when you shoot RAW and you open your images in a RAW converter where you then make your initial basic exposure adjustments. The links I give below will explain all of this. Click here for the article!

A different time of day

Longs Peak from the South, Late Afternoon. From Sugaloaf Mountain, 2012
Longs Peak from the South, Late Afternoon. From Sugaloaf Mountain, 2012

If you always go to a certain spot at the same time of day to photograph, try switching up a bit and go to that same spot at another time of day. For example, I nearly always go to Sugarloaf Mountain for sunrise because I love how the sun comes up over the Great Plains to the east and illuminates the high country of the Indian Peaks Wilderness and the Continental Divide.

Yesterday, though, I changed it up and went up to this favorite spot for late afternoon and sunset. The light was completely different (of course!) and a whole new array of photographic possibilities presented themselves.

Winter arrives!

Autumn Snow on the Flatirons. Boulder, Colorado, 2012
Autumn Snow on the Flatirons. Boulder, Colorado, 2012

Regardless of what the astronomers and the calendar might say, I have always felt like the start of winter was marked by the first significant snowfall. Over the past few weeks we have had some light snow dustings in the high mountains, but it was only just last night when we finally got our white, wet blanket down here in the relative lowlands at 5500′.

Winter offers some great opportunities for photography, so don’t hide inside–get out and create! It might be tempting to sit at the computer in a warm house and play with your old images from summer and fall, but there are new images outside in the snow that await.

One quick reminder about shooting in the snow–you’ll need to overexpose slightly or your snow will come out a muddy grey. I shoot primarily in aperture priority and I simply dial in some positive exposure compensation and check the histogram on the LCD. I try to get the histogram to sit toward the right hand side of the graph but without touching or overflowing past the righthand edge which would mean blown highlights. Shooting in RAW will help you make these exposure adjustments in post-processing, but it’s nice to get them as close as possible to correct in camera.

Dress warm and have fun!

Autumn Tree in Snow. Boulder, Colorado, 2012
Autumn Tree in Snow. Boulder, Colorado, 2012

On million dollar images, galleries and the masses

Brainard Reflection #7. Brainard Lake, Colorado, 2012
Brainard Reflection #7. Brainard Lake, Colorado, 2012

I have no illusions that today’s example image of mine that I have posted above will one day sell for $4.3 million. But last year, an image titled Rhein II by the German artist Andreas Gursky did just that. You can see this surprising…well, some might even say, boring…image here.

Why did it sell for so much? Why would a private collector or a gallery pay such a high price for something that many folks would likely not consider for a wall in their own home?

Well, there are many factors to consider–the artist’s reputation or fame and the latest gossip circulating throughout the art collecting world being, arguably, primary. Then there is the image itself. It is apparently quite exceptional when viewed in person, measuring about six feet by twelve feet and meticulously captured, processed, printed and displayed as a chromogenic color print resulting in exceptional vibrance (or so I am told).

This begs another question? Why is there such a difference between what is exhibited and admired in galleries versus what the masses tend to want to purchase for the walls at home? This was the theme of an excellent talk I recently heard by a talented local photographer, David Bahr. Here, I’ll quickly try to summarize some of the issues he brought up.

If I were to walk into a gallery with this 13×19 print, for example…

Crystal Mill. Crystal, Colorado, 2012
Crystal Mill. Crystal, Colorado, 2012

…I would be out on the sidewalk in two seconds. “What kind of crap are you trying to foist on us!” they might exclaim. If, however, I were to post it to Facebook I’d get a pile of “Likes” and perhaps even some friends would want a print for their wall.

On the other hand, if I presented something like this…

Beach Mood #7. St. Pete Beach, Florida, 2012
Beach Mood #7. St. Pete Beach, Florida, 2012

…the gallery may actually look at more images in my portfolio. (Well, for five minutes, anyway!)

So, why the difference and what do we do about it as photographers and artists? The difference is because the galleries and collectors are interested in the cutting edge of photographic art…the next new paradigm. They want work created from a vision that is new and fresh. They don’t want the “pretty pictures” you see all the time on the postcard stands (like the Crystal Mill, above!)

And what do we do about it? David lists three options:

1) We try to push our artistic vision into new frontiers, we struggle to get into galleries, and no one buys our prints, or

2) We take snapshots at all the tourist spots (Crystal Mill, again) and we sell to one and all, or

3) We divide our personality…one day we make images true to our artistic vision…the next day we take snapshots that will sell.

David Bahr seems to have settled for Option #3–after all, he puts the bread on the table (as he puts it) with his photography and he has to cater to what sells in quantity if his family is to eat. In his extra time, he pursues his artistic vision into some pretty wild abstracts (prints I would certainly purchase!).

Me? Well, since I have yet to market my images and I don’t rely on selling them for my livelihood, I’ll go with Option #1. Now, the question of whether or not my artistic vision interests anyone at all–galleries or the masses–is yet to be seen. I’m not quite there yet.

The Ranch Project

The Ranch #32. Boulder County, Colorado, 2012
The Ranch #32. Boulder County, Colorado, 2012

As photographers, concentrating on a specific project can cause us to focus on our art and our style…force us to try to tell a story as effectively as we possibly can through our images. Maybe we can even make people pause and reflect a bit. With that in mind…

A current project I am working on has to do with the slow demise of America’s family farms and ranches. All across the country these often multi-generational operations are slowly becoming extinct as agri-business flexes its muscular efficiency and urban sprawl pushes ever deeper into the countryside.

My project focuses on one specific family ranch located just north of Boulder, Colorado. It was originally built in 1954 as a horse breeding and sales facility then later became a horse boarding operation. For many years it was a hive of activity, with trail riding, lessons, dressage shows, costume shows, clinics, equine therapy sessions, natural horsemanship instruction, kids’ camps, and so on. Today the ranch is still active, but its infrastructure is feeling the years and how much longer the operation might continue is difficult to say.

As the ranch project progresses I’ll post more, until then here are a few example images…

Equine history…

The Ranch #7, near Boulder, Colorado, 2012
The Ranch #7, near Boulder, Colorado, 2012

The barn cat and the flag…

The Ranch #25, near Boulder, Colorado, 2012
The Ranch #25, near Boulder, Colorado, 2012

Empty buckets…

The Ranch #19, near Boulder, Colorado, 2012
The Ranch #19, near Boulder, Colorado, 2012