“Many painters are afraid of the blank canvas, but the blank canvas is afraid of the painter who dares and who has broken the spell of ‘you can’t’ once and for all.”
Vincent Van Gogh
Born June 16, 1917, Plainfield NJ
Died October 7, 2009, NY
Irving Penn was an iconic American photographer, known mostly for his iconic fashion photography, portraits, and still life’s. He studied under Alexey Brodovitch and worked under him as well for Harper’s Bazaar, who published several of his drawings. He worked at Vogue Magazine for most of his career. Where he donned the cover more than 150 times. He met his wife of 42 years in 1947 at a photo shoot. She was a Swedish fashion model, Lisa Fonssagrives. She passed away in 2009.
By the 1950’s Penn had developed a style of photography in which he would pose his subjects in very close corners. He felt is calmed and eased his subjects. He also started to capture a new look with very serious expressions and unique and interesting positions. He also would also start to shoot his portraits in close and fill the frame with subject’s face. And use very simple gray backgrounds.
Subjects photographed with this technique included Martha Graham, Pablo Picasso, Marcel Duchamp, and Georgia O’Keeffe, Truman Capote, and Marlene Dietrich.
While a master of the studio flash, most of Penn’s portraits are lighted with window light. He took this same style and applied it to indigenous people in places like New Guinea, Peru, Morocco and other locations. To do this Penn created a portable studio with a skylight deployed facing north, He was able to get wonderful results, abroad with this setup.
His life’s work is being celebrated at the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art. In an exhibit called Irving Penn, Centennial, they have compiled the largest most comprehensive retrospect to date of this great American photographer.
I was listening to a photo podcast the other day and they talked about a commencement speech that they referenced. Where the speaker talked about a dog and a tennis ball. I have to admit that I’ve been taking in by this idea. I listened to this on Tue and am still thinking about it today, Sunday morning.
All I knew about this speech was that it was at MIT. So I did a little digging and found that it was Drew Huston’s speech for the class of 2013. Drew Huston is the founder of Dropbox. He recounts his story of creating a life well lived. I read through the speech and found the section I was looking for. I hope you don’t mind but I’m going to take my own spin on this.
When I was married my now ex-brother in law had a dog. It was a mutt. This dog was so obsessed with fetching he was totally out of control. No one could come to the house and not have this dog nudge your leg, have him bark at you, sit at your feet, and shove a stick with his nose all in an effort to get you to throw it for him to fetch. And if you did throw it, you were on the hook. He would fetch anything, a stick, a stone, a ball, anything. He was relentless. He would get so excited and enjoyed this so much that I’m sure he only dreamt about retrieving things.
Now years before I had a Labrador Retriever that while he was so obedient and good at doing tricks, he just hated playing fetch. I was so disillusioned, I loved the idea of playing fetch with a dog. He was a retriever for god’s sake, it’s supposed to be in his blood. But you would throw a ball, frisbee or something, and he’d go get it and lay it at your feet. But by the second or third time you did this he’d just look at you and either lay down or go after it and lay down there. He had no interest in playing fetch.
So, what’s your tennis ball? What is it that sets you a running? What do you find yourself doing over and over again? This reminds me of a quote I came across a while back that I’ve seen attributed to Aristotle and Will Durant. No matter the origin, it’s worth taking to heart.
“We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence then is not an act but a habit.”
Take it to heart and live it. Daily don’t wait for the time to be right. Just do it, live it, get busy.
I can’t help but think of the classic fruit in a bowl, or candlesticks with vegetables and a pheasant or a couple of fish. I guess it’s the original foodie pictures.
But this is certainly not limited to food, flowers, clothing, any everyday object can work here. The idea is to create a pleasing arrangement of items with some sort of theme and capture an image that represents the impression, sentiment, and feeling that you are trying to create.
Here is my take on a nautical still-life
“It was not the feeling of completeness I so needed, but the feeling of not being empty.”
1 Elements of Art
I might have put the horse before the cart by writing about critique before the elements, principles, and rules of composition. The truth is I did that because I started the project 52 group. Where we are creating an image a week for the entire year. My intention was to help that group along in helping, assisting, and encouraging each other, in their weekly critique efforts.
There are elements that we as photo artists employ in our art. We use these elements whether we know it or not. These are things like lines that contain space to create a form, or texture, or help direct the viewer’s eye. In this next series of articles, we will direct our attention firstly to the elements of art then the principles of art and then finally to rules of composition. Each of these will probably be a series onto themselves.
I would like to cover some things that are generally considered in the vision, creating, executing and evaluation of art. These are components of art across the board. No matter the medium, drawing, painting, sculpture, and even photography. Whether intentional or incidental, the artist is using these elements.
I should point out that up till now we could apply these thoughts to writing, music, painting, anything that we might create. But here discussing elements of art, we are addressing visual arts.
I mentioned some of these earlier in the section titled critique. I’ll list them here and then discuss them briefly and individually, then devote an article to each one. We have lines, shapes or forms, color, tone, texture, and perspective or scale.
The elements of art are the foundations; the building blocks on which we create. A strong foundation will always support a sound vision. They are the ingredients of which we build our vision. As we work though these elements look to see how you have used them in the past and try to apply them to your future images.
It’s your vision
We all have our own creative direction. Our favorite styles, preferences, and inclinations. I’m a member of a couple of photo clubs, I moderate 2 Facebook groups online. I’m always aware and surprised by the diversity of the people that participate, their interests, and subject matter. For me, I love surrealistic art. Things that make me question reality. Juxtaposing things together that don’t necessarily belong together and challenge my imagination. Make me see things in a different way. By contrast, there are several members that will only photograph realism, birds, flowers, landscapes. There is one gentleman that almost exclusively photographs eagles. If it doesn’t look like how we see it, then they would say it’s not photography.
You may like fantasy or abstract photography, taking license to load up on photo manipulation, postprocessing, trickeries, and tomfoolery; do folks really still use that word. On the other hand, you might like nature, documentary, or you may love realism. Truth in image. No extreme photo manipulation, no composites, nothing that doesn’t represent what the eye would see if you were standing there in person. Better yet you might mix any of these in any combination and come up with your own version. This will ultimately lead to your personal style. More on that in another series.
Always, and I mean always – remember, that this is your vision. You have your concepts and ideas for what it is you are looking to create. It’s to that goal that any critique or constructive criticism should be considered. Be true to your vision and yourself.
I have a friend that while he loves photoshop and photo manipulation, will always point out that I don’t always use my own images. Now don’t get me wrong, if I use an element created by someone else I say so. If I’m taking a class and don’t have something that will work with that technique that I’m studying, I’ll find something in the creative commons that will. Then when I post it for critique, I say so. For me it’s the difference between being able to try something and learning or not learning that technique.
I want to learn!
So, every time he says something along those lines I politely remind him that I know his feelings on it but I’m trying to learn this or that. Then I ask, how does this or that look? And the conversation continues and I get the feedback I’m looking for.
So, with that said, embrace the process and move forward. Learn, teach, share and accept. You now have in front of you the new and improved version or your art. You love it. It looks phenomenal, better than you ever thought it could.
Now what? It’s time to move on. Onto the next project, the next picture. The next critique. The next vision. It’s about vision. What do you see as the next project to put out there? Keep a running list of things to be working on. It shouldn’t be one and done. While you have one online being critiqued, be working on at least one or two others. I always have a couple of things in the works at one time. At different stages of progress and completion. I also have one or two out for C&C that I’m working on as well. This seems to be a pretty good pace to be working at. It keeps me busy but not overwhelmed.
Like always it’s time to keep moving forward. Forward in your creative journey. Your vision. Your dream. Your creativity. Good luck on your trip into the inner vision and pursuit of your muse. Keep her happy and stay in touch with her.
“Above all, life for a photographer cannot be a matter of indifference”
How to receive criticism
So, we are shooting lots of pictures. We are pouring ourselves into our work. We’ve created a safe environment and are open to others ideas, suggestions, comments, and their recommendations. We are posting our pictures for constructive criticism, feedback, and critique. We’re asking questions and specifics as well as sharing our difficulties that we had during our workflow. And OH, MY GOD, SOMEONE COMMENTED! Now what?
Well, a good place to start, is think about it. Roll it around in your mind. Give it serious consideration. Try to picture it in your mind’s eye. Visualize it. Then give it that same critical thinking process that we talked about in the article about that subject. It works both ways, for offering critique as well as evaluating critique. Ask yourself questions about the critique. Is this person genuine? Does he or she have a valid point? Are they offering something that’s obvious? Something that might stem from the basic rules of composition, color theory, exposure triangle, or some other photography basics? In a word, what I’m trying to say is “Reception”.
So be honest with it and with yourself. This is what it’s all about. Where we push ourselves past our comfort zone, and in so doing initiate personal growth. Opening ourselves to that vulnerability that we spoke about earlier. Embrace this part of the process. It’s what we’ve been aiming for.
Now, that you’ve asked these questions and thought about it and pictured it, take another look at your work. Double check it. Do you see what they see? Even if you don’t agree with it. Do you see it? Could it work that way? Get your camera out again, or sit down in front of your computer and try it. Don’t just think about it, picture it, or ask questions about it. DO IT! Do it, because it’s the only way you’re going to know for sure. When you try a different exposure, or another process in Photoshop it opens your mind to be more objective; because you’ve giving it time and effort. This puts you in the position of choosing between the two items that you are invested in. Your original work and the one you just invested time and energy into.
This might be a good time to say that we should only try one suggestion at a time. If you go in and try five different things and don’t like it, will you be able to objectively say that all five of these ideas failed? Probably not. But taking things one step at a time you can make objective decisions for each one. Then you can apply some or all of these things that you’ve learned. Not only for this work but hopefully retained for all future work as well. This is the growth we spoke about. This is where that happens.
Once you’ve tried it take your original work and the new reworked piece and look at them side by side. Compare them, and start again with the questions. Is this an improvement? Did it accomplish what the reviewer said it would do? Now is the time to decide. Did this work for you or not? Either way engage the person that the critique. Open that conversation, and watch the learning process continue. As you and he or she, converse back and forth, they will have a better idea of what you wanted to accomplish. You will get some insight into what they were seeing in your work, and why they were trying to help with a particular aspect of your work. And more often than not you both come away with a better understanding of all things photographic.
Hey Folks, a good friend Nanci is having a show in Carbondale Pa next month.
Here is the event that I created to help get some momentum behind it. If you are here in NEPA and don’t mind passing this along, please share it on your Facebook page, websites, with anyone you think will enjoy it. Her work is awesome and I’m excited to see it myself. Hope to see you on there
I just finished watching “American Masters” episode for Dorothea Lange. I’ve always been a fan of hers. Knowing the scope of her work, with the depression era, FSA, the Japanese internment camps, poverty in America, and in her later years traveled internationally documenting people abroad.
Then this quote came across my computer, and I felt an urge to find a direction. A need to combine my life with my creativity. A simpler life. I hope you find some inspiration in these words for your life.
“Faith is why I’m here today and faith is why I believe I can achieve something in my life.”
– Jonathan Anthony Burkett
More considerations for critique
A great place to start is to find the things that you like. The positive things. Things that are supportive, encouraging, and reassuring. Even if it’s a little thing, find positivity.
Then talk about the things that might need to be discussed for improvement, further development. Or anything else that might need to be figured out for the advancing of the artist. Don’t overwhelm the person. If need be, limit yourself to a few main points.
Then to wrap it up, always finish the discussion on a positive note. Whether that’s improvements that you’ve observed or a positive goal that you’ve settled on. Whatever it is, you don’t want to brow beat the person into the abyss of creative failure. Rather you want to encourage them up their unique creative mountain to find personal achievements and freedom.
Try turning negatives into positives. For example, rather than saying “you have this branch coming out of nowhere, why would you take this picture” (that’s a real line someone used at a critique meeting one night). Turn it around and say, “wouldn’t this look better without this branch here?” Or perhaps better yet, ask them “do you think this would look better without this branch coming in from the side of the frame?” If you can enable the person to identify their mistakes it will be better received.
Don’t attack the person. And I mean don’t attack the person. We’re critiquing art, not people, it’s not personal. Make sure you focus on their work, not their person. Don’t allow your personal feeling about someone cloud your objectivity. Keep to the plan. And always be sympathetic and understanding. My mother always told me you catch more flies with honey than vinegar.
Be specific with what you are trying to communicate. If everyone played by the guidelines here, they asked for specifics, and that’s what you should address. Look for things that the person can engage with. Offer actionable suggestions, steps to lead toward what you see needs improvement. Talk about possible goals that will aide in their improvement. Something to look for in the next efforts. This will give a good direction and help establish achievable, and attainable results.
When setting goals and in all interactions with others take their ability into consideration. We’re not all at the same place. And we all have a tendency to compare our work to what other folks are posting and sharing; especially online. This tends to be their best, the best of their best. While we’re looking at the 100 attempts it took for us to get that one image, if we got it. That shot that we envision in our creative minds eye. More often than not, we don’t stop to think that someone probably took 100 of their own efforts to get that one you’re comparing to.
Always keep it in mind that this is your photography, your art, what you envision. It should be fun, inspirational and something you look forward to. Embrace the process and it always will be.
We should all live behind the golden spectacles everyday.
Living in that childish wonder is a most beautiful feeling – I can so well remember it. There was always something more – behind and beyond everything – to me, the golden spectacles were very, very big.
Children’s book illustrator and writer Kate Greenaway (born March 17, 1846) drew little boys and girls dressed in fashions popular a century earlier. Her drawings were used as inspiration for a line of children’s clothes by the fashion label Liberty.
I’ve had a book that I bought from amazon, and was disappointed in it when I first opened it. It’s called “Inner Excavation” and sat in my kindle library probably over a year now. It just seemed like a second rate book with second rate exercises. The same exercises applied several ways in several applications. I was bored one night and came across it yet again. I bet if you could look at my kindle’s download history that this book has been downloaded and removed from my device several times. I have been working through this book a little bit at a time. You know what they say’ “never judge a book by its cover”. While I’m not sure that the examples and narrative are great writing. I’ve found the exercises to be very enlightening. They offer a clear opportunity to reflect on who I am and what I’m doing. I think it was Aristotle that said, “we are what we repeatedly do”.
So with all that said, I took the interview that she used over and over and answered the questions myself. I thought that this would be a good exercise and insight to where I’m at, and what I do. Below is the result. Probably not the most exciting read, but you might want to take the questions and answer them yourself and see what you are like.
Q: Who am I?
A: I am a creative. A chef. A people person. I find satisfaction in sharing these things with people. These things come together at work. I’m surrounded by energetic college students who are full of life and see the world as a vision of possibilities. I think I try to connect to that. I spend my day offering hellos and smiles to everyone that passes by. I do my best to offer a quality product and make the customers that I serve feel appreciated and valued.
I think there is a part of me that needs that because I am so tired. I’m an aging body who still thinks he should be able to do the things that he’s always done. I’m physically tired. I’m tired of not finding a career that will support me in even a modest lifestyle. I’m tired of always feeling like I’ve let my family down. I’m tired of always hoping the answer is just around the corner, or that this new effort will make things ok.
I’m an ego who allows his appetites get the best of him
I’m a soul who has weaved in and out of this life, just squeezing by. Caring and loving for others but never really feeling like I’ve been found, accepted or understood. Dancing from one end of the seesaw to the other. Rising and falling, as I move from the balance of the middle to the outer edges.
I’m in need of finding balance and security. I’m a seeker, who has never really found the answers he’s looking for.
Q: Who or what inspires me?
A: I find inspiration all around me. I find it in people, music, art and photography, what I read and in my surrounding environment. I often find it in empty places. Buildings and abandoned complexes, I’ve adopted the term urban explorer. I find inspiration in nature and on the side of the road, museums and historical locales. I think that inspiration comes more as a frame of mind rather than the muse that artists seem to find so evasive.
As to specifics…
Artist – I find the surrealists really an amazing art form. Rodin in sculpture, Monet, Van Gogh are a couple of classic painters. Brooke Shaden and folks in my photoshop artistry class for photography.
Music – Blues, classic rock, Motown, Pink Floyd, Jefferson Airplane, Cream, Eric Clapton, BB King, Buddy Guy, The Temptations. This list can go on and on…
Authors – Of recent David DuChemin, Steven Pressfield, Twyla Thwarp. More from the fiction side of things, George RR Martin, Caleb Carr, Andrew Levkoff. Just to name a few.
Q: How do I nurture myself?
A: It depends, I find I have several ways to foster nourishment. Generally, twice a week I go out and write. One night at the bar and have dinner and a couple of beers and I sit there and write for my website, or just for myself. Then usually do the same thing at a café on either Sat or Sun. I’ll have a cup of coffee and some breakfast and spend my day writing.
I have two groups that I organize. One is a photography club. In which we meet every other week. Working through a book or video series, assignments and projects, and critiquing each other’s work. Which brings me to the second group. It’s online and I call it Project 52. This is a group of photographers that have committed to take on a project a week for the entire year. I’m nurtured with these groups in that I am constantly learning and organizing information for and from them. Thus, keeping me refreshed and on my toes.
I also have been able to start to create a small but strong social circle. A group of friends that have similar interests and an appreciation of the creative life. We tend to get together once a month for the first Friday of the month where we go to the gallery openings and look at art. It’s not quite the artists date that Julia Cameron talks about in her book “The Artist’s Way” but I find it serves the same purpose in a group dynamic.
Oh and last but not least I take several classes online, for photography, Photoshop and a mixed media class. This last is an effort to expand my vision and abilities.
Q: How did I find my creative voice?
A: In a way, I found it early and in another way, I’m just finding it now.
It was very clear to me early on in my life that I was drawn to photography and creativity. I didn’t have any natural talent that enabled me to draw or paint. But photography was a good balance of interests. Science, chemistry, technology and creativity they all seemed to work for me.
But with all that said, I always seem to feel like I’m just identifying my voice. That I have something to say, but never really putting a finger on it. I find vision and creative efforts and pursuits but don’t seem to be able to identify a theme, topic, or subject matter to take a stand on.
Still life photography is a genre of photography used for the depiction of inanimate subject matter, typically a small group of objects. It is the application of photography to the still life artistic style. I can’t help but think of the classic fruit in a bowl, or candlesticks with vegetables and a pheasant or a couple of fish. I guess it’s the original foodie pictures. But this is certainly not limited to food, flowers, clothing; any everyday object can work here. The idea is to create a pleasing arrangement of items with some sort of theme and capture an image that represents the impression, sentiment, and feeling that they invoke or that you are trying to create.
This is week seven of my “Project 52” and as usual, I’ve included the tips and such that I shared with other members of the group. Above is the image that I submitted and interspersed are a couple of galleries that have some of the other images that I took.
Tips, Tricks & Suggestions
The usual aperture, shutter speed, DOF, tripod are always going to pay a part in your projects
Pick a theme for yourself. Select a theme and gather a few items that fit that theme.
Try arranging them in a number of different ways. Height and relationship to the different elements will help give different things prominence and notoriety.
Pay attention to the light. Highlights and shadows will define the mood of your picture
You can also use a reflector or second light source to add light into the shadows to help create a lighter mood.
Use desk lamps or some sort of light that you can move easily.
You can also take everything outside or use window light.
Select the background and floor (or whatever is under your elements) as they will add to the mood and style of your image.