Maggie Taylor Redux

Dreamer © 2003 Maggie Taylor

Dreamer © 2003 Maggie Taylor

My last interview for this blog posted in late October 2010.  I was in the desert in Southern California and had not yet landed in our nation’s vortex of all things surreal—Las Vegas.

It has been an adjustment and I am still amazed, more like mystified, by the architectural pieces along the Strip.  Surreal façades propped up like enormous 3-D postcards in a living scrapbook.  Cities near and far bidding us welcome to the ultimate faux landscape in an improbable location.  This interpretative collective consciousness of the essence of these landmarks could have been orchestrated by Walt Disney’s shadow self.

Sprinkled in the midst of this Fantasia are dozens of great local eateries, horse farms, gated communities, Red Rock, golf courses, grade schools, friends and neighbors.  All of them are reminders of normalcy most of us have “back home.”  They wait for us to see if we even notice them.

As you might imagine, with the many woolgatherers here, surreal is an easy find.  One encounters  life Through the Looking-Glass on a daily basis.  It’s upside down and sideways all at once.  Despite the dusting of what appears recognizable, locals need more elastic tethers than all of Cirque du Soleil to keep grounded.

I received an email the other day that reminded me that my short commute to work is more like living in one of Maggie Taylor’s photo collages than I’d ever care to admit.  When I interviewed Maggie Taylor a few years ago, she said that she considered her works “dreamlike” more so than surreal.  (See December 21, 2009 interview below.)   Since that time, however, her works seem to have become even more complex and rich in subconscious imagery.  Taylor’s blended photographic, scanned and computer-generated “realities” give the viewer a tauter tightrope to walk between more sophisticated beckoning and disturbing icons.  Who knows for sure?  My new vivid environment may be making it more difficult for me to wake from Taylor’s dreams.

Regardless, discovery and interpretation are very much demanded.  Are the subjects Maggie’s posers?  Do we even like them?  Why do the bees seem friendlier than the butterflies?  Why are there so many ladders, girls, clouds, etc.?  What do they know?  What aren’t they telling us?  Is it reticence or omniscience we’re viewing?  Where are they?  Do they even know we’re here?  Which of us is in a dream?  Ask them and find out for yourselves.

A good point of entry into the dreamscape is the artist’s website (a visual treat) and Artsy, which is hosting Maggie Taylor’s works.   Artsy also has a very interesting collection of works by Jerry Uelsmann, her husband.  You are guaranteed to have more questions than answers after you tour these provocative and imaginative works.  I encourage you to visit.

Michele McShane

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Orlando Welsh

Orlando Welsh (left) by Michele McShane

Orlando Welsh (left) by Michele McShane

Life is odd.  I’m one degree of separation from Kevin Bacon.   Bacon and his wife stood behind me at the Hollywood Bowl’s hotdog stand one night a few years back when Bonnie Raitt was playing.  The road that lead me to Orlando was more circuitous.  I was at a friend’s house in Desert Hot Springs recently and went to a car lot in the center of town there.  The lot was closed, but I stopped to check out the dusty inventory anyway.  It might have been the best mistake I ever made.  A little guy appeared out of nowhere and said that he used to work at the lot.  He said  he knew another dealer in Indio, who he also used to work for.  That guy had a lot of cars and he would give me a good deal.  I went to Indio and found Orlando Welsh instead of the guy with the cars.  Who says there isn’t a God?  Four degrees of separation from Welsh and one from Bacon.  Not bad, even if it is hard to understand.

Palm Springs Photographer, Orlando Welsh, is not so much a Kevin Bacon as a metaphor of the essence of Leonardo Da Vinci.  He is sophistication that springs from simplicity.  In visiting this Renaissance Man’s site hosting his photographic works, I found myself pausing and then returning again, to study a number of his candid, yet sophisticated, portraits.

The first thing you notice about Welsh is his great hair and smile. The immediate car lot surroundings came across as more prop and movie lot, than that of any reality.  I felt like I was visiting the set of the movie classic, Bagdad Café.  Like that movie’s heroine, Orlando Welsh seemed as if he had been dropped off at the corner for some reason unknown to the viewing audience.

The other thing you experience in meeting this man is his remarkable passion for photography. He is probably more passionate about it than any other photographer I have ever met. In discussing his work, Welsh said:

First off, I shoot what I want to shoot. I really don’t care what other people think. I’ve been told everything from ‘you’re not editing enough,’ to ‘you’re over-editing,’ or, ‘you’re looking like this or that.’ If I like the photograph I really don’t care what anyone says. I don’t want to be pigeonholed. I’d like to travel and shoot landscape photography around the world at one point. Hey, it’d be great to shoot landscape all day and shoot this concert at night. Tomorrow we’re going to Dubai and I’m going to be shooting the city and shooting a concert at one of these palaces.

Woodwork Jeff, Viginia & The Weed Popcorn of Death by Orlando Welsh

Woodwork Jeff, Viginia & The Weed Popcorn of Death by Orlando Welsh

Before concentrating on still photography, Welsh began shooting skateboarder videos:

… when I was very young, me and my brother, Vic Welsh, who is also an aspiring photographer, shot lots of videos. Vic actually still makes videos… and makes a lot of independent skateboarding films. I was one of the filmers on our adventures growing up. He did that for years and years and years. And, slowly, I started getting more into the photography side of it, because I liked having the tangible image frozen, you know, as opposed to having to have to flip through countless hours of video, not that I mind that. Just having a nice black-and-white photo of someone going over a ledge on a skateboard is amazing to me.

Welsh’s techniques in taking stills was influenced by those early videos; he said:

I think it has had a big impact on it. Mainly, because we didn’t have the best video cameras. Back when we started doing video, we had giant VHS. This was probably the mid- to late- 80’s. Those giant VHS cameras went over your shoulders. We weren’t able to afford the expensive lenses or any kind of lighting. So, we basically had to make whatever we had work. A lot of times in skateboarding, you tend to put the camera really low to the ground to capture the maneuvers they’re pulling off on the ground. And, I can honestly say that when I photograph now, a lot of times I’m shooting from the ground up. Or, I’m using the same techniques I would use to frame a guy on a skateboard, as when I’m framing someone posing or a band or a wedding photo, or anything like that.

Point-of-view in any image is a very important principle to Welsh. The camera is more than mechanism. He really paints with light:

Photography is a lot like your handwriting. You know? Everyone has their own handwriting. Regardless of whether I’m taking a photo on an iPhone, a cheap disposable camera or my 1974 Minolta. You can tell it’s me. I can recognize a photo I took. If I’m on the Net, I can tell if it’s mine.

In addition to point-of-view, Welsh added that contrast and lighting were of import in his works:

…I try to be as avant-garde as possible without falling into too many of the stereotypes. I know it’s very easy to fall into cliché angles when photographing someone. I try to get a mixture of candid and a little bit of portrait at the same time in a lot of my photographs. Whether, I’m taking a building by itself. But, you know, I like to think maybe this building is posing for me, standing for a moment, like a person. You know?

EV and My Practice Attic by Orlando Welsh

EV and My Practice Attic by Orlando Welsh

Freed-up energy is pivotal in his shoots, yet Welsh prepares and approaches his work from a sidelong point-of-view:

As far as principles go, I guess a lot of times I wing it to be honest with you, I make sure that the subject that I am photographing is in the right mood, you know? I like to get to know them better too, you know? If it’s someone I am going to shoot I usually email them a lot or I text message the person if a client doesn’t like talking on the phone. I’ll text message the client and just say, “Hey what’s going on today? Tell me something about yourself?” Or, I’ll do research. A lot of times I shoot bands. I”ll listen to their music and see what’s going with them as far as their artistic side. And, I don’t like to show up and shoot a certain way. It might not work for someone. Someone might be really be into zombies and you’re shooting Little House on the Prairie or something like that. You gotta definitely know. You gotta do your homework. That’s one of the principles I apply. I try to be as creative as possible.

In defining creativity, Welsh has a fresh take on its meaning, its getting’ dirty:

You know sometimes I’ll make the subject do jumping jacks or I’ll have them scream at the top of their lungs, or have them scream and do jumping jacks at the same time. Get them loose. That’s what I’m looking for. Sometimes I’ll shoot models and they’ll know how to do all the poses, but, you know, I like to get them loose. I like to get them into a certain mind frame, and say, “Hey, we’re gonna have fun!” But, we’re going to be creative at the same time… I noticed that some of the better shots I’ve done have been have been less than a block of the subject’s home. A lot of times you’ll go and scout a place and when you get there and you don’t have anything and the next thing you know you end up at the last minute doing a couple of shots next to their houses and that’s the best part of the session. You never know with photography and that’s what I love about it. It’s a lot of variables. You know, a lot of variables. And, what I was saying about getting dirty earlier. Like, I’m not afraid of getting dirty. I always tell myself, “One day I’m gonna get a giant jumpsuit, you know, like a full jumpsuit so that I can roll on the ground and not worry about getting my clothes dirty. I never end up doing anything. I just roll on the ground anyway and get all scuffed up. You know what I mean, you know? Maybe wear a helmet.

Christopher Cross Testing Strobes by Orlando Welsh

Christopher Cross Testing Strobes by Orlando Welsh

Welsh’s humor comes through not only in his remarks about wearing a helmet in his crash and burn shooting fantasies, but time and again when discussing how he does his work.

One of Welsh’s subjects, his friend Ryan Jovian, needed to stay close to home since he was watching his child.  No problem for Welsh in shooting The Abduction:

“It was pretty loose. We didn’t have anything really planned out. I brought a couple of strobes with an umbrella. And did rim lighting. It was nighttime and I didn’t have much to work with. One thing led to another and we were putting him on top of an ice chest and he looked like he was being abducted by an alien It looked pretty cool. Not of that was planned at all. I just went in with a loose kind of feeling. We shot for quite some time before we found something we liked.”

Welsh is up for any challenge and allows for flexibility to work for him and his clients whether he has been given five minutes or a full day. Photography is Welsh’s life, but he is also very generous in his appreciation of other photographers’ works. He was really enthusiastic about:

Patrick Hoelck. His work is amazing. I like the new guys. A lot of my friends, like Matt Lingo, I really admire the way he photographs and Adam Elmakais, he’s a fantastic young photographer… These guys are younger than I am and amazingly talented. But, I really tend to like the guys who make videos and still photography at the same time like Patrick Hoelck who made a lot of music videos.

In addition to Hoelck, Lingo and Elmakais, Welsh also referenced the works of Atiba Jefferson, Matt Mumford, Spike Jonze and Chris Hornbecker in Portland, Oregon, as being influential.

As far as his direction in the future, Welsh says,

I just want to download a little bit of everything. I like doing portraits, I love doing any kind of modeling photography. I also like doing the obscure, anything that is not normal or not quite there. I like it all. I’m so in love with photography, I tend to be overwhelmed with it. I like to do it all.

Zoltar by Orlando Welsh

Zoltar by Orlando Welsh

His advice to young photographers is simple:

… Just have fun. Have fun photographing. Don’t get too deep into the gear aspects. You know, that really doesn’t matter. It’s like any kind of pen you give to a person. They’ll draw you a masterpiece or have perfect handwriting. Whatever camera you have in your hand is just an extension of your body. It really doesn’t matter what your equipment is for the most part. Don’t become a gearhead.

Portrait, Orlando Welsh by Michele McShane

Portrait, Orlando Welsh by Michele McShane

Orlando Welsh has a real take it or leave it quality that is uncompromising and I that is why we are likely to see a lot more of him in the future.  I appreciate his interpretation of that quality.  He is clear about what he loves without getting up into your grill about it.

Maybe the so-called lack of editing others have commented to him about is something else, more of a journalistic sense about what is important to him.

Welsh’s portfolio does appear like documentary, like street photography.  And really good journalists publish more stories than fewer, even in the presence of heavy editing.  What Welsh didn’t say is how creative he is in his use of strobes on his shoots.  So, although he is very flexible in his approach, he is prepared to get his best work and he lets the presses roll.

One of Welsh’s photographs, Zoltar, really grabbed my attention. It’s sharp, soft and personal.  And, it has a very off-kilt point-of-view.  Snapshot and candid, yet simple and sophisticated. Or, maybe yet, it is that his photography speaks to something personal to him and individual that makes so many of his works real masterpieces.

Take a look for yourself and when you do, leave your gearhead self behind.

Michele McShane

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Marco Grob

Walter Thompson by Marco Grob

Walter Thompson by Marco Grob

Marco Grob’s relationship to photography reflects a multitude of contrasts coupled with a sidelong entrance, some of which has served him well in providing a rich and varied springboard to his most authentic works. Born and raised in landlocked Switzerland, Grob now lives on an isle surrounded by the Hudson River. In expressing a desire to pursue photography, Grob’s parents pragmatically asked that he first obtain a degree in a more grounded profession. When he finally began working in photography, Grob spent considerable time as a printer. In pressing his vision outward, Grob shot still life, but then recognized his passion for fashion and portraits. At present, it is no wonder his energy surrounding his work manifests something akin to an unstoppable bullet train.

One of Marco Grob’s guiding principles—speed—remains uncompromised in an industry that seems to automatically elevate the value of works in relation to the number of hours it took to create them. In Grob’s portraits, speed often shows the surprise of being caught a little off-guard about the unexpected. The underlying intimacy or vulnerability which often accompanies his subjects’ surface reactions creates an enduring conflict and continuing interest in viewing the works. In contrast to the process adopted by many of his colleagues, Grob avoids photographer interference and interaction during his portrait shoots. In employing his metaphorical egg-timer, Grob allows the nature of his subjects to bubble up and percolate on its own. Photographer and subject meet on an unusual and level playing field. Grob commented about this:

The thing is that my strategy speaks, absolutely speaks… [to] working very quickly. And, to shoot very well because the thing is the attention span of people is just very short and mine is also. I do not interact. Actually, that’s the other thing … Speed and no interaction kind of results in what you call vulnerability and generates a document people have to feel. It’s their action, not mine. I don’t want to use it as a projection. I don’t want to project anything on them. Allow them mistakes. They can do whatever.

Speed is a salient factor in the way he works. But, don’t be fooled. Grob is a master. The principles he elects are more complex than the principle suggests. Grob elaborated about his process:

Accuracy, simplicity and speed. I want my stuff to look like it is the result of hours of work, but I don’t want them to be longer than a minute. You know, a couple minutes. But, it should look like still life in a technical sense. I am very picky. I do this now 25 years. I take great pride in the technical aspects also in that I waste no time. We are very well prepared. So, we get very beautiful results, I think, out of no time. But, that is it. Speed, simplicity, accuracy and concentration.

Marco Grob

Marco Grob

There is an irony in the choices surrounding his process. Although the short duration of a shoot suggests detachment, nothing could be further from the truth. He does not hustle his subjects. To the contrary, in using the time for a shutter to open and close to define the moment. Through holding himself in reserve, the subject comes forward:

I’m actually a shy person. I kind of still try not to make myself too big. The shoot has only one ego, and that is certainly not mine and I want to make it as pleasant for the people I photograph as possible. Even now, I have sometimes a lot of time with subjects compared to earlier times, but I would not use so much more than I did years ago. Because, I feel when it’s gone, I feel when the tension is gone and then I stop. You know? The way I approach it is as a human being rather than as a photographer with a sort of politeness to not push it, to overbook it.

Grob has received very positive reactions from both his subjects and his clients, who are much more accustomed to enduring a lengthy shoot as the understood price tag of professional work product:

I have a guest book and there are a lot of comments about speed by my subject, that I am very quick, the models appreciate it and it is appreciated by my clients as well. I think often there is a trend to overproduce things, especially in portraiture.

Through being meticulous and well-prepared, Grob keeps the technical out-of-sight of the subject. The absence of a technological focus when a subject arrives most likely serves to lower nervous tension. The courtesy gets returned. What seemingly results from this pleasant surprise is a lively energy. According to Grob, overproducing a shoot is to be avoided at all costs. Keep it simple:

It is something you can see. I always say that is not only something that you shouldn’t do it is something you must not do too much too it. It’s like a good steak. Pick the best meat, salt and pepper it, cook it the right temperature and from that moment on you take only away the flavor, the taste and it’s everything.

Alvin Chea by Marco Grob

Alvin Chea by Marco Grob

In researching this photographer’s background, I found not only that Grob was recognized as a master by Hasselblad, but that Marco Grob’s character goes far beyond photography. I am not only referencing that he is a pilot and member of the Nighthawks aerobatics team. His concerns about peace in the world can be seen in his work-in-progress, Enemies. Alice B. Miller previously reported about Grob’s vision of Enemies on the Hasselblad site and what he intends to portray:

…former enemies of different wars of the 20th century —WWII, Vietnam, Korea, Iraq I-II, Afghanistan, and Sudan. Enemies will include generals, soldiers, politicians, men, women, and children who fought—and fight—on all continents. It will be shot on location, in a studio-like environment. Along with an editorial part that documents the stories and contrasts the different war theaters, the work will result in an article, a book, and an exhibition that will be broadcast simultaneously in Moscow, Berlin, Hiroshima, and Washington, D.C.

Grob feels deeply about the issue surrounding why we can’t just agree to disagree before taking hostile actions and said:

It is important to me to show the stupidity of war. People drink coffee, the Veterans of WWII. Now every September they sit and drink together and drink coffee. I ask why didn’t you drink coffee in the first place. That kind of started the project. Former enemies, what does that mean? That moves me.

It never fails to interest to me to speak with a professional like Grob who turns the world upside-down through viewing things from an unfamiliar vantage point, yet makes perfect sense of it. In prior articles, photographers have spoken about how critical their interaction with their subjects is in terms of what results and it works for them. Marco Grob creates his works on his own terms and has found a refreshing approach, which produces exciting and striking images.

Michele McShane

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Douglas Kirkland

My cell phone has a feature for a word to pop up when it is turned on. I selected wonderment with a capital “W.” It serves to remind me of how openness to life, cherishing what surrounds us and having a continued sense of awe, are all key to really being alive.

After talking with Douglas Kirkland very recently, I found that I could just as well have put his name in that whimsical word’s place—Kirkland embodies a sense of openness, wonder, curiosity, involvement and intensity about life, and especially about his first love, photography.

Desert Dance 2    © Douglas Kirkland

Desert Dance 2 © Douglas Kirkland

A great number of articles have been written about this photographer’s very rich career from being hired by Irving Penn, invited to come onboard LOOK magazine at age 24, photographing Marilyn Monroe and other cultural icons, to being a still photographer on more than one hundred movie sets, together with his photojournalistic excursions, his contributions as a lecturer and professional achievement awards and his life with his wife and business partner, Françoise. Double Exposure and Photo Insider are two publications which feature such articles covering Kirkland’s bio and works. Further, his books are impressive and include Light Years; Icons; Legends; Body Stories; An Evening with Marilyn; James Cameron’s Titanic; Freeze Frame and Coco Chanel, Three Weeks.

Because Douglas Kirkland has enjoyed such a wide variety of work experiences, I thought he could lend a very unique perspective to this blog. Notably, while he is shooting, Kirkland develops a relationship between himself and his subjects resulting in an observable connection in the process. Whether he has captured a hand gesture, stance or averted gaze, the people Kirkland photograph exhibit ease in their physical expression that other photographers don’t seem to elicit. Kirkland discussed the process of creating a connection with his subjects:

I talk with my subjects as I shoot. I am comfortable with doing that. In other words, there is a flow of dialogue going on between us. In the case of Man Ray, we were sitting in the apartment, and I did do some tighter headshots and then I did some other shots as he and his wife were leaving to go out. But basically, I was talking with him and he was expressing himself with his hands and that form of expression was very important to me.

Zhang Yimou © Douglas Kirkland

Zhang Yimou © Douglas Kirkland

After viewing his portrait works, professional peers have commented to Kirkland that they felt he really knew a bunch of people. They could see a thread of the human touch shining through his photography. Years ago, while on assignment, Kirkland was often able to spend considerable time, sometimes months, with a subject. The amount of time was not as important as the opportunity, which Kirkland seized upon, to focus on the qualities and characteristics of the person he was to photograph. Today, Kirkland says that he may only have relatively brief encounters with a subject, but, he uses that time wisely in creating an environment, which allows the essence of his subjects to surface in his portraits:

It is wanting to be comfortable with people and have them be comfortable with me. I am a strong believer that if you have a person feeling good at the moment you are with them… it could be a moment or it could be weeks, if you are lucky, it used to be, but today sometimes its an hour. If they are feeling good and comfortable with you, you are most likely going to get and accurate and good picture… I think that is very important. When I am teaching, I often say to young photographers you are only going to get as good an image as your subject feels. If you can help them get comfortable with the camera, you get your best photograph.

Kevin Smith and David Klein © Douglas Kirkland

Kevin Smith and David Klein © Douglas Kirkland

Kirkland’s portraits stand out from those of other photographers, where their keystone is found in a subject’s eyes. Of course, Kirkland does shoot full face portraits, but he is an explorer in treating other elements that constitute a portrait, such as his use of profile, space, hands and looks away from the lens which compels the viewer to reach a deeper sensibility and truth about the subject.

I was drawn to the portrait of Peter O’Toole on Kirkland’s Web site because it exemplifies the lines of his profile, lightness, space and motion:

I happen to like profiles, I feel it’s a great, very distinctive, there is almost a sense of design about many faces. On our Web site, we have our symbol, it’s become that to me, of a strong silhouette profile, it happens to be Twiggy, you wouldn’t know it, it’s a beautiful woman with a long neck, a very beautiful look. I do like the form, the shape. I don’t set out and say I’m going to do profiles. Certainly in a portrait session, it is one of things I always say to myself, is there, if I can ask somebody to turn. Can I get a strong picture? Some people look better that way than others. But, again, with Peter O’Toole, I was photographing him in London, and as part of the session I saw him turn that way, I didn’t even actually, at that particular time, many, many years ago, I think it was the late sixties, he just turned that way, in that case I just captured it. Today, I am more inclined to be asking people to do specific things. But, in the Peter O’Toole photograph I think you are referring to, he was just there and I saw it and had a feeling that it had a sense of art and design and hope that I would bring it into the picture.

Desert Dance 1   © Douglas Kirkland

Desert Dance 1 © Douglas Kirkland

Kirkland shows his range in how works in similar settings can convey such different emotional content, such as the two works in which the desert landscape is present, but plays so differently. Kirkland spoke about considerations in creating Desert Dance 1, which was shot right after sunset, and use of daytime landscape in the Dennis Hopper portrait:

Desert Dance was very deliberate, was totally set up, totally staged. It was Canon bringing out a new camera about ten years ago probably, it was the 1D, one of their first higher end digital cameras. They asked three photographers, I think, and I was one of them, to do whatever they wanted with it. And, …I got the idea of a dry lake bed… and we then did a casting for the couple. We saw about ten different couples and they had to be dancers. This particular couple stood out because the girl was from Brazil and the man was Russian and… they are both professional dancers. And so we went out there very much like a film company. We had a Winnebago with a power generator in it so we could use a HMI light, which is a fill light, and the best picture was done with the strobes just after sunset. Those were small Canon strobes that I set up and waited until it was quite dark and then had an exposure of about ¼ second so you had the combination of things. But, the point is that it was very deliberate. When we cast people, we had them come here and dance. I had them bring their favorite music; music they felt comfortable with dancing. And, what I did was a sequence of shots, quickly of them. We put them together in a small video and it was a way of introducing this camera. That it would shoot sequences and the recycle on the flashes was quite fast because I was only using ⅛ power or something because it was at the end of the day. Now that’s technically how that was done.

Dennis Hopper © Douglas Kirkland

Dennis Hopper © Douglas Kirkland

That is vastly different from the picture of Dennis Hopper. He was in Taos, New Mexico. I was doing a project for Look Magazine on Directors. Francis Ford Coppola was part of it and a number of other people. [Hopper] was working there in Taos, editing The Last Movie and… I happened to see this unusual road out behind where he was living. It was perfect—two roads heading in two directions. I had Kodachrome, put the camera on a tripod. I handed him the reel of film and he was wearing his cowboy gear, which he was wearing all the time there around Taos. I was talking to him and letting him do what he did and be Dennis Hopper in that situation. It sort of formed itself.

So here’s one, the dancers, I created and directed, and Dennis Hopper who I happened to see this area and all I did was see the area and ask to go to that place and basically he did the rest.

Kirkland’s sense of abundance and excitement about his work was driven home repeatedly. He spoke of how important it is for photographers to really use the viewfinder and make the most of the moment in the moment and the significance of an intense involvement in one’s work. Kirkland relayed the emotions he experiences during the process he employs in creating an image:

I look into a viewfinder, well to begin with as I am with somebody. I am seeing the image in my head almost finished before the camera comes up to my eye. Then, when I bring it to my eye, I want to move in tight and get a real bite on the image. In other words, I don’t want to leave it to chance… Get it right in the viewfinder; get it right the first time. As the artist, it’s your responsibility to get in there tight, squeeze and intensify as much as you can as you’re in there tight and working. Sometimes you will move a little higher, a little lower. Sometimes you say in your head, ‘I wish this person would turn to the right or left.’ Now when I concentrate, I find that very often in doing so that the person tends to do what I am thinking. I don’t mean to be pretentious in saying this, but it frequently can happen if you have a good relationship. You wish in your soul or mind, deep in your mind, that something would occur, and if you do it strongly enough, and frequently it happens, not always, but it can. And, that is all part of what happens when you are looking deep into the camera. First you preconceived it outside, and then once again when the camera’s at your eye… make it all happen, use every millimeter of that space, and create as much as you can with it, because the more you feel it, the deeper you feel it, the greater the probability your images will be powerful. And, that could be even street photography. It’s not just putting a frame and just catching it. There’s a big difference between people catching a picture versus making it. And, I feel it quite strongly. I’ve been feeling more and more strongly about this because I’ve observed people shooting and I see they don’t go to that extra stage, they don’t have that burning in them, to get in there and get it even stronger.

Kirkland is very passionate about this. In a previous article, I discussed photographers who said that they got their best work after they had finished their assignments. Their best was more or less an afterthought. Truly, we have no way of knowing whether the best shot was obtained because freed-up energy began to flow or because the photographer never really decided to make a photograph, to deliberately create it, before those last moments. And, perhaps in characterizing a work as being free-form or off-the-cuff relieves us of responsibility for having actively made it (just in case somebody doesn’t like it).

With Kirkland’s works, we do know. Taking artistic responsibility to conceive, focus and intensify the search is central to his work. Kirkland spoke about his first love with such an incredible sense of commitment to the process. He referred to the fire in his belly, about how he experiences photography and about his desire that future photographers don’t miss out on the meatiest part of what’s served up to them. In fact, I felt Kirkland’s guiding principles seem to flow from things resting well outside of photography itself.

Ultimately, Douglas Kirkland’s principles are more of a way of life—his open and positive attitude towards exploration, seeing opportunities all over the place and continuously taking deliberate actions surrounding what’s in front of him, whether there is a camera there or not.

Michele McShane

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Maggie Taylor

Southern Gothic     © 2001 Maggie Taylor

Southern Gothic © 2001 Maggie Taylor

Tech number crunchers report that there are about 156 million Web sites.  Despite the enormous number, few sites are more than a placeholder to briefly visit. Artist Maggie Taylor’s Web presence is more like a condition, or a situation in which you find yourself; one which is both pleasing and disturbing. Sister Mary Thomas, a Grey nun and my tenth grade teacher, would say that Maggie Taylor had found God in the details.  Astrologers describe such attention to subtleties as classic Virgo.  Mark your own reaction, and you will have one, to the superb presentation of this artist’s disturbingly provocative and lyrical works.  A clean portfolio of 21 of Taylor’s works also appears at Art Photo Gallery.

I first came to know of Taylor’s work through the text, Maggie Taylor’s Landscape Of Dreams: Adobe Photoshop Master Class.  Taylor’s background in photography led to her creating her art through a combination of unconventional resources, including scanned tintypes, lace and doll parts. The text explains:

Maggie Taylor is a digital artist with an unusual primary image source: a flatbed scanner. She uses Photoshop to combine odd bits of scanned ephemera, such as the museum postcard… with her own photographs. The end result is completely original and often hauntingly beautiful.

Taylor graciously lent time to talk and mentioned that she worked in a traditional manner in photography for a period. However, her interest in changing her creative process stemmed mainly from the limitations of the medium itself:

I think I was really lucky that the computer came along at a time in my career when it was optimally helpful to me. I was working with an old Crown Graphic view camera and beginning to get frustrated with some of the results of my still-life work. Sometimes I would shoot film all afternoon, then realize I wanted to move a shadow or change an object’s angle. So I would reshoot the next day. I wasted a lot of 4×5 film trying to perfect my little scenes. This was around the time when people were first making Iris prints and some of the earlier generations of inkjet prints so I began to see computers as an option for making artwork.

The meeting of computers and photography worked well to solve Taylor’s personal experience in the limitations found in traditional photography. But, the freedom of being able to change digital art endlessly has its challenges also:

It allows me to have so many more visual options, but it also slows down the process of making the work. When I used to shoot film, in the darkroom I would end up with 20 or 30 sheets of 4×5 film and make contact sheets and make prints. At the end of the year I would have several hundred different images that I could sort through and pick out what I wanted for an exhibition. Now, I end up with only 12 to 15 images a year — it seems to be a much slower process to come up with the finished image. You can work and rework one image for weeks and even months before you are done with it. In a way it’s more like painting, I suppose, like someone who returns to an oil painting day after day. It also is harder to part with the image–to know when you are done. But, for me it seems to be a better process and I’m much happier with the result.

Taylor’s beginnings in philosophy and photography, and her subsequent transition into largely non-photographic media to create visual art, provide a very unique point-of-view in considering creative processes and the presence of guiding principles in contemporary photography. When asked about her thoughts about guiding principles, which she may employ in creating her works, Taylor replied:

Honestly, I am more of a person who likes to make images and not someone who enjoys writing down my philosophy of working or artist’s statement. I sort of feel like I had to do this a lot in school, and I just “say no” to it now whenever possible! In graduate school and for a number of years after that, I had to go through a period of finding my own voice visually. I was trying to come up with images that felt more personally meaningful to me. Although I admire all kinds of photography (including Walker Evans, Robert Frank, Lee Friedlander), in my own work, I have been interested in fabricated imagery ever since graduate school. Working with a camera and a small stage-like scene or a box filled with objects was what seemed to have to most potential for me to tell stories. Walking around in the outside world with a camera is something that I only do to collect fragments of images now.

So, does the use of a computer and scanner require greater preparation in terms of concept or does the process require a fluid style for Taylor? She stated:

Ninety-nine percent of the time I don’t start an image with a preconceived idea. When I first start working on something, I may have a slight notion of what direction it will go in, but I really don’t know until I get pretty far along in the process what it’s going to end up being. So, I am constantly surprised by the result. Over time I’ve learned some ways I can cater to the accidental by clicking layers on and off in Photoshop and by playing with the blend modes in certain ways. I can end up with something visually exciting and very different from what I had originally thought I was doing. I definitely work very spontaneously and for this it is essential to be very comfortable or fluent with the software. If I feel frustrated with an image that is not going in a direction I like, I might put it away and work on another image for a while. Then several weeks or couple of months later I will come back to the problem image and try going in a different direction with it. Often the images I struggle the most with are the ones I end up being most excited about.

Taylor’s work includes many themes. A recurring one is her reference to the Victorian.

The one motif I have returned to again and again are these Victorian portraits which I find really fascinating. I am scanning in old daguerreotypes and tintypes which tend to be portraits of people from the waist up, often wearing fairly simple clothing. I can add other body parts or dresses as needed, using the original image as more or less a template for what else I want to include.

Some describe Maggie Taylor’s works as surreal. I wasn’t quite sure that surreal describes her works adequately. One piece, Mood Lifter, depicts a woman holding her own head above her body against an aged, gloomy sky. Whimsy meets disturbing. Other works, like Girl in a Bee Dress, appear more like romantic or poetic imagery. More important, is how Taylor herself describes her creative depictions:

Well, I usually don’t say ‘surreal,’ only because that really ties it to a more specific point in art history. I would say ‘dreamlike,’ ‘lyrical’ or ‘narrative,’ but I don’t mind if people also think of it as surreal or fantasy-related work. Again, the most important thing to me is making the images, and I am more than happy to leave all the analysis to other people.

Maggie Taylor seems to embrace aspects of something personal to her in olden times, when people rowed their boats gently down the stream. The manner those feelings are expressed may explain the intriguing nature of her contemporary art, which seems far away and challenging at the same time:

I just am fascinated by these old photographs because they represent a time when people had a very different relationship to photography. Getting your photograph taken was an important and rare occasion, not like snapping constant photos with your cell phone camera. Also because of the length of the exposures the people tend to have very still and serious expressions…they have a kind of built-in dream-like quality. I watch daytime TV often in the background while I am working and I see a weird parallel between the ‘talking heads’ on TV and the waist-up portraits I am using in my work. People surrounded by objects and events….but they are people taken out of time in some way I guess.

What has been true of the artists covered in this blog to date is that each has had a desire that their works convey something unique and very personal to each of them.

For Maggie Taylor, the subconscious is present, seemingly revealed and yet remains mysterious. That’s about as personal as it gets and provides us with a very compelling principle driving the creative spirit.

Michele McShane

Here is a 2015 link to Maggie Taylor’s work:

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Barbara Probst

What do Barbara Probst, John Cage, Witold Lutoslawski and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart have in common?—Taking a chance.

Exposure #49: N.Y.C., 555 8th Avenue, 05.21.07, 4:02 p.m. 2007 12 parts: 36x54 inches/92x137 cm each. VG Bild-Kunst, Barbara Probst

Exposure #49: N.Y.C., 555 8th Avenue, 05.21.07, 4:02 p.m. 2007 12 parts: 36 x 54 inches/92 x 137 cm each VG Bild-Kunst, Barbara Probst

In composing his music, Mozart played a game in which musical measures had several possible versions, all given to randomness. The name of the 18th century pastime is Musikalisches Würfelspiel or musical dice game. This chance music, also known as aleatoric composition, also appeared during more contemporary periods in the musical works of Cage, Boulez and Lutoslawski.  Specific measures are defined by chance or performers improvise random measures in accordance with instructions.   In the midst of a highly structure piece, variables appear.

German born visual artist, Barbara Probst, has taken the artistic “game” to a new level through including randomness in her specifically conceived photographic works which include employing a multitude of cameras to capture the to-be-selected shots.

The Madison Museum of Contemporary Art featured some of Ms. Probst’s works this year and describes the Probst’s technical process as follows:

[Her photographs are] captured through a complex system of radio controls, synchronized cable releases and, occasionally, other photographers. Probst uses both color and black-and-white film to capture events¬ some seemingly commonplace, others obviously staged¬ that she carefully choreographs. In Exposure #39,… two photographs depict the same woman at exactly the same moment but in very different ways. On one side, a color image captures her as she strides through a bucolic, alpine landscape. On the other, a black-and-white picture reveals the color photograph to be an illusion: the woman is actually on the rooftop of a New York skyscraper, moving in front of a backdrop depicting an idyllic mountain scene.

This work, like others in the exhibition, ‘invites us to engage in a game of comparing and contrasting the locations of the cameras and photographers who took them,’ says Karen Irvine, who curated the exhibition for the Museum of Contemporary Photography.

Exposure #39: N.Y.C., 545 8th Avenue, 03.23.06, 1:17 p.m. 2006 2 parts: 66x44 inches/168x112 cm each. VG Bild-Kunst, Barbara Probst

Exposure #39: N.Y.C., 545 8th Avenue, 03.23.06, 1:17 p.m. 2006 2 parts: 66 x 44 inches/168 x 112 cm each VG Bild-Kunst, Barbara Probst

I had an opportunity to speak with Barbara Probst regarding her compositions. Probst described the many months of preparation required from concept to execution of the pieces. Elaborate takes on new meaning when you consider that she even shot compositions at Grand Central in New York in which elements were staged, while others were not. The experience to the viewer is in the process itself of identifying, or perhaps just deciding, which was which.

In creating compositions, Probst not only places a number of cameras on a shoot for the purpose of taking her photographs, they are often included as the subject of her visual art. Probst states:

There are other aspects. The works that are dealing with exposing the making of the images; the ones in which all of the photographers are photographed. The cameras are visible. The whole mechanics of the process are exposed. I am interested in showing the making of the images you see at the end in the gallery. You see the images and then you see the making of the images.

And then there are images, which use a photographic background kind of pull the scene and model in really different narrative images. The concept of truth you end up with such different narratives you hardly can believe that is the same moment and the same thing that I took the pictures. And if you get involved in it, it makes you wonder what photography can provide us with and what the relationship is of reality and represented reality in photography.

With respect to what occurs even in light of extensive preparatory work, Probst says:

I have a very precise concept of what I am going to shoot. And, depending on what’s happening during the shoot, you know, I am not able to look through all of the cameras’ viewfinders. There’s a limitation on control I have over the whole thing. A number of unexpected things can happen. For example, the model may be too close to the lens and the image is out-of-focus. I cannot control that because I am not seeing what the lens sees in each of the cameras.

Planning over months prior to a shoot, trying to come close to the concept, but I accept at the end that accidents happen during the shoot and very often it comes out differently than I had imagined. Sometimes I throw it out and sometimes But, very often I am very interested in these so-called mistakes.

Coincidences are often interesting in a way that brings you back to the medium, like a picture out of focus or overexposed. I’m interested in that. The image is about the medium. I am happy to have the ‘mistakes’ that other photographers think are terrible when they happen.

Probst employs her editorial role strategically in selecting which images of the many taken on any given shoot to ultimately use for her compositions. When asked about the truth or documentary nature of what is depicted in various images vis-à-vis one another, Probst replied:

Actually, the more images there are in my work, the more it reveals that it makes it more mysterious or unclear about what really happened. The reality kind of disappears behind the images.

I have come to the conclusion that every photographic image has the same amount of truth. One cannot be more truthful than another. They all have the same value.

Probst’s art is one of controlled and insistent inquiry sprinkled with a little Mozart through the inclusion of elusive elements of randomness. The works exemplify the nature of Ansel Adams’ sentiment that every photograph has two people in it—photographer and viewer.

I find Probst’s juxtaposition of certain images, one with relatively little information and the other depicting a more comprehensive context, a fascinating concept. In viewing her works, I felt pressed to decide which image is really more documentary. In other instances, the preposterous humor of the sharply different narratives of alpine and of skyscraper was enough.

One needn’t decide, but this artist demands that the viewer participates and is conscious of the questions raised about our own highly-edited realities. The compositions in allowing for endless interpretations employ yet again unseen chance interpretations. In any case, the works call for the viewer’s point-of-view, and thus, are engaging.

That’s what I call a guiding principle.

Michele McShane

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Adios Santa Fe

TouristLast spring, Communication Arts ran Beware of the Phrase: ‘In times like these…’, by Wendy Richmond.  After moving away from the city and being torqued by a list of practical considerations, Richmond came to realize that urban life tended to provide things that nourished her creativity.  She described those things as:

… all the elements that feed my creativity, the characteristics of an environment that make me feel intellectually stimulated and emotionally alive. These are essential ingredients that will, in one form or another, show up in my art.

Richmond made the following personal observations about the elements which strengthened her creative voice:

My energy is fueled by the density of the city.  My best ideas come from witnessing visual clashes of architecture and nature, and from being immersed in a population that is a confusing mix of age, race, nationality, sexual orientation and religion. I crave the evidence of edges—like the pronounced change where one neighborhood meets another. This is my content. These are my creative needs. If I deny or ignore them, I’m sunk.

In discussing how practical considerations in times like these often and understandably take precedence over other considerations, Richmond offers the following point-of-view:

… I want to suggest a counter theme song, one that reminds us of an equally critical consideration: the care and feeding of our individual and collective creativity. These fundamentals are not easy to discern. They are subjective, elusive, contradictory and always changing. With the current state of the world, they become even harder to protect.

Although she framed her thoughts in terms of location, Richmond speaks directly to the confluence of energies which uplift our creative selves.

While in Santa Fe, I was repeatedly served up ideas about the impact of  location on creative path and what art resulted from the combination.  Georgia O’Keeffe made notable choices surrounding a locale and created a number of works in which nature is depicted as an enormous transcendent spirit hovering in the sky and blanketing all of us. Those things in the high desert which nourished O’Keeffe—sparse population, serene, quiet, bare and natural—seem polar to those which fuel Richmond.

CottonwoodAlong the way to Ghost Ranch, the cottonwood trees had turned bright yellow and gold.  I had never visited Santa Fe in autumn when the climate is soft and color peppered the landscape.  The unexpected color bursts provided spectacular and vivid contrast to the earth tones.  Although I was in the middle of nowhere, my thoughts drifted to Manhattan.  I had spent many times in New York in early November and delighted in trips down Broadway.  The crispness in the air, falling leaves and the albeit cliche, blustery moments spoke repeatedly to liveliness in me.  It’s not about location per se.  Richmond is right.  Understanding the things that we can draw from and interpret are what counts.  However, it was weird that New Mexico’s sensory referral took me directly to mid-town.  Maybe Georgia O’Keeffe found similar connections that made the unfamiliar, home.  Maybe it was the so very stark and too tall, silent formations that clashed with the blue sky.  Richmond’s visual clashes of architecture and nature of New York can be seen directly in O’Keeffe’s works where the intimate fold of flowers are depicted on canvases as big as skyscrapers.

Before leaving New Mexico, I stopped by Ghost Ranch where O’Keeffe spent many summers GhostRanchand took in the views of Cerro Pedernal in the Jemez Mountains.  The ranch was called el Rancho de los Brujos, a hideout for outlaws.  It became a dude ranch and now is a retreat location, which has managed to keep true to much of what was in the 1930’s.  It is all so subjective.  I viewed Cerro Pedernal to see what O’Keeffe saw, was left about as flat as its top and didn’t understand its mystery.  The subject of a number of the painter’s iconic compositions was silent and the fascination escaped me completely.

Ghost Ranch and Abiquiu are about fifteen miles apart. However, the psychic distance between the place where the veil between heaven and earth seemed almost transparent and Abiquiu, where Sunday means the ladies at the Catholic Church serve Frito pie in the gym, was enormous. gym The energy in Abiquiu vibrated more around the people than the poplars when the security guard at O’Keeffe’s had come outside to grab an apple from one of the trees.  He said that his grandfather had owned the property as part of the Spanish land grants several hundred years ago, but he had given it to the Catholic Church.  The tussle about the meaning of location continued with the stand-in guard who revealed that he had worked in finance in San Francisco and returned to Abiquiu where he had grown up.  Stranger spelled danger for his family.  There was no eloquence or poetry in the clash of the city for him.  In telling a few stories about his encounters with O’Keeffe when he was a boy, his connection to the region and why it held sway over mortgage loan originations in the city by the bay were abundantly clear.

NightThe experiences over the weeks in Santa Fe provided me with an array of views concerning guiding principles, creative flow, city planning and even why there are so few checkers at Whole Foods. In tracking down information about certain photographs I saw in Santa Fe, my electronic travels in one instance extended from Paris to California by way of Canada and England.  I really enjoyed speaking to everyone who contributed so much to these articles.  Those interviewed were all very open, gracious, thoughtful and intelligent.  The conversations allowed me to consider the various subjective, elusive and contradictory views held about creativity and its meaning to one small, but very sophisticated, community. Best yet, in the process of exploring Santa Fe’s art community, I have become much more appreciative of the fact that this inquiry into aesthetics and contemporary photography may well serve to meet Richmond’s worthy admonition for us to well consider the care and feeding of our individual and collective creativity.

Michele McShane

Photographs Tourist Info, Valley, Irrigation at Ghost Ranch, Gym and Night (picturing “Song of Our Patron” bronze by Bill Worrell) by Michele McShane

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Can I Sell It?


Sarah Palin’s memoir, Going Rogue: An American Life, is set for release today. According to the Wall Street Journal, the title references a slam by a McCain insider in describing Palin’s decision to speak off-script.

Coincidentally, Joette O’Connor, the director of Photogenesis Gallery in Santa Fe, is also associated with the rogue label. That is more than likely where the similarity ends. One of the differences is that O’Connor self-identifies as a rogue in the industry in the sense that she holds views about photographic art which stand apart from the prevailing views of many Santa Fe galleries.

Earlier this month, O’Connor responded to the question of the role of guiding principles in photography by stating,

When I look at a photograph, I think, Can I sell it?

Considerations surrounding guiding principles are generally more relevant in non-commercial venues, such as museums, for O’Connor.  She values customer reaction to works exhibited and that is what is key.  At the time, I didn’t think O’Connor’s opinion was very helpful to the inquiry, so I set the article aside for a bit to think about it. In reflecting, I found that maybe O’Connor’s views aren’t so maverick. Ansel Adams clearly recognized the importance of viewers in the world of photography in saying,

There are always two people in every picture: the photographer and the viewer.

In this process of raising questions about the guiding principles that make up a photographer’s aesthetic, I have been confronted more than once with the question, “Does it matter?”  For the sake of artists, even less appreciated ones, I want to step back for a moment, reevaluate the purposes behind this inquiry and look at the nuts and bolts of shooting and looking at pictures.

John Andrew Fisher’s review of Photography and Philosophy: Essays on the Pencil of Nature tells us something about the nature of photography and how it is viewed differently from other fine arts:

It appears that photography has become trendier than painting. One reason for this may be that… photography appears to be relatively unexplored. Moreover, as a medium photography has the advantage over both painting and sculpture of permeating social life and thus of appearing to be easier to understand in an art-world setting than other art forms.

Why does photography merit extended philosophical examination? Few other art media have troubled art theorists as much as photography… Only instrumental classical music has fascinated philosophers as much. In pure instrumental music there is no intrinsic representational content, yet the music feels as if it is saying something and sounds as if it expresses emotions. In the case of photography we have the opposite problem: instead of too little representation, we have nothing but pure representation; we see nothing in a photograph but the objects that are photographed.

The advantage of photography permeating our everyday lives may not be an advantageous at all to photographers or to viewers. The ubiquitous nature of digital images made available by new technologies serves to exacerbate the sense that photography is easy, representative and, therefore, understandable to everyone with little, or no, reflection.  Fisher’s views about the nature of photography reflect in part Henri Cartier-Bresson’s observation that:

Photography appears to be an easy activity; in fact it is a varied and ambiguous process in which the only common denominator… is in the instrument.

Sid Monroe of Monroe Gallery of Photography referenced the impact that changes in technology have had on photographers by stating:

… [I]f you’re walking down the street and you witness a news event, you whip out your cell phone, you can upload it to CNN and that might be the image CNN uses as opposed to a trained photograph who can execute a better picture….[b]ecause of the mass of images we have,…  in some cases very difficult for photographers to carve out their niche,… there is more competition and, in the end, fewer opportunities.

Although Joette O’Connor reportedly had been criticized locally for her outspokenness, in many respects, threshold questions posed by her concerning What sells? and purchaser reaction of, I really like the way this looks, may have a common, non-commercial root in the answer: We really enjoy revisiting works that create a connection through continuing to intrigue, move or stimulate us in some way.

The master of the decisive moment considered the photographer’s creative process to be central. The creative process is, by its nature, rooted in the moment and does not look to the end result, including the commercial viability of an image.  And, the shared moment of humanity is what we as viewers experience with photographers.  As Cartier-Bresson put it, “Photography is not documentary, but intuition, a poetic experience.” So, what do you do?

Cartier-Bresson advises us also that we should be “sensitive to coincidence.”  Last night while thinking about Cartier-Bresson, I saw a commercial for Sony’s camera with its Smile Shutter and blink detection features. The camera takes the picture when the subject is smiling. And, happenstance would have it that Cartier-Bresson is credited with remarking,

I hope that we don’t ever see the day when ready-made photo system, which guarantees good photographic compositions in advance, go on the market.

This particular technology represents something too weirdly sinister in that it dictates a mindset of what a good photographic composition comprises, even if it is marketed to amateur photographers. It sounds more like a Stepford Shutter, where perfection is a real nightmare. The technology not only removes the personal creative process, it determines the decisive moment for the photographer. I would even go further and say that it completely eliminates the possibility of a photographer|viewer relationship. One thing is true: We all have learned greater truths in one hideous snapshot of our loved ones than any smile detector could garner over the life of the gadget-driven camera.

So, maybe it is that Joette O’Connor is the champion of the photographer after all.  In valuing prospective purchasers, the viewers, is she really nurturing the photographic creative process? Interestingly, by using the eyes of the buyer in deciding on what is best to exhibit, O’Connor seems to arrive at an identical place to that of her critics.  It is probably is no coincidence that in placing value on the viewer, Photogenesis Gallery includes the works of Cartier-Bresson.

Michele McShane

Photograph Clouds by Michele McShane

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Monroe Gallery of Photography

Monroe Gallery is one of over 250 galleries in Santa Fe. Sidney and Michelle Monroe specialize in classic black and white photography. Their gallery includes a significant number of select defining moment photojournalist images. MailboxYou might think that the viewpoint of representative|owner differs markedly from that of artist|photographer.  Sometimes it does, but in the case of Monroe Gallery, the opinions expressed by Sidney Monroe go to the very heart of the photographers with whom he deals. In discussing his background in photography, Sid Monroe referenced how his relationships with photojournalists developed:

…at the beginning of my career in the gallery world — to meet Alfred Eisenstaedt and work with him — set a spark, because I discovered I had this great admiration for the field of journalism and the pioneers who made picture journalism what it was, and what it became over the ensuing years.  It was like joining a fraternity because almost all of these photographers were familiar with each other… [A]s we became known as specializing in photojournalistic works, one by one, more and more, came on board. So that’s really been our core focus, and particularly in the seven or eight years since we moved to Santa Fe.

In reflecting upon what particular photographers spoke about in the context of aesthetics, Monroe offered:

It is a very interesting topic that you are exploring and it is very germane, particularly in the context of contemporary photography, and it got me to think that I have been very fortunate to know many of the photographers personally that we represent. They didn’t articulate it as guiding principles, but it was almost their own personal view on what their job was or what they were doing as a photographer…

To Monroe, whether viewing classic images or contemporary journalistic works, it is important for photographers to “have a sense of what’s inside them” and to fully understand what is “driving them to make their images.” A body of work is not likely to succeed “if it requires a lot of explanation.” Strong images stand on their own merits. Continuing, Monroe said:

…[T]he photographers I know were crafters of images.  They knew if they could tell a story with their photographs, they would get published in Life or Look magazine, or whatever the vehicle might be… you could say that photographers competed against one another… [but] they were in the driver’s seat.  It’s the reverse today… by the nature of luck or skill, certain photographers [then] got shots that got published and those have become the defining images of the events. …[I]t was just their own decision-making process that got them in the position to get the photograph.

Famous journalistic images have helped to crystalize our collective interpretation of the meaning of important events.  But, they may even more clearly define the character of the photographer.   Monroe said of certain legendary photojournalists:

..the photographers that come to mind, like Bill Eppridge who took the defining moment of Robert Kennedy after he was assassinated, …the Villagers Fleeing a Napalm Strike, that’s Nick Ut, or  Eddie Adams, who took the execution picture in Viet Nam—the character of those three men was such that they had the determination to tell the story and get there. Eddie Adams… became legendary because unlike other photographers [in Viet Nam], he was an ex-Marine.  When he would go on assignment he would go up to the commander, identify himself and say that he wanted to go with the first wave of men…  So, he put himself out on the front line as opposed to holding back and trying to capture the story after an area had been secured. But, they had these guiding principles… they didn’t necessarily come in with a point-of-view.  They surely had their own political views and their own opinions, but they really went in with determination to get to a story and to get a picture.

In the field of photography generally, understanding the aesthetics, that is, the set of guiding principles that may be reflected in images, has been a slippery, and sometimes elusive, slope for me. In talking to Sid Monroe, what surfaced was a clarifying point: In trying to capture an image, photographers in the field are faced with so many variables, simply getting the image may be the single-most important driving principle in play. I mentioned writer, Malcolm Gladwell, recently.  In another one of his books, Blink, Gladwell suggests that emergency room doctors seemed to arrive at more accurate diagnoses when armed with less patient data than if they have more statistics at hand. It could be that when it comes to blended scenarios where cognitive and intuitive are allowed to flow openly, less is more. That is, our brains may operate at peak when we are more or less flying by the seat of our pants. I wonder then if photojournalists who find themselves in tremendously stressful situations are forced by necessity to function at much higher levels? In a field where preparation is such a critical component to succeeding, the notion of flying at all cuts against the cultural grain. Context is everything. Preparation obviously takes on vastly different meaning in the field, as in battlefield, than in a studio setting. In the past year, I have read a number of times that very accomplished photographers on a well-prepared, lengthy shoots, found that the strongest and most successful images were taken as complete afterthoughts. Or, I should say, the strongest image resulted after the shoot had ended and when the photographer finally felt free to photograph. The repeated sentiment by those professionals speaks loudly to how important our creative instincts are, and, importantly, how they are seemingly relegated to an inferior role in our formal professional processes. In fact, those professionals who took the extra last shot, which succeeded, may have intuitively recognized after their rational minds shut off that something was missing from the day’s work product. We all need to find ways to allow ourselves to fly a little bit more. If you need moral support, review some of the images exhibited at Monroe Gallery. You might, as I did, take a renewed example from those courageous photojournalists, who when confronted with less time, means and opportunity, managed somehow to capture extraordinary images, which ultimately have served to define generations.

Michele McShane

Photograph Mailbox in Madrid by Michele McShane

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windowsillCENT∃R, the well-known Santa Fe non-profit with a mission of supporting, promoting and providing opportunities for gifted photographers, could not be overlooked in my exploration of the photographic art community in New Mexico. Laura Wzorek Pressley, Executive Director of CENT∃R, has had the opportunity to evaluate and appreciate the works of a myriad of photographers. In fostering the photographic community through CENT∃R, Ms. Pressley has been exposed to the works and views of a great number of notable and influential photographers.

What follows are my questions and Pressley’s candid and informative answers.

On a personal level, who are the most interesting photographers to you?

I am drawn to work that attempts to portray aspects of the unconscious and the human connection or disconnection to it.  I am drawn to work that also tries to convey something mystical, conceptual or alchemical.  When I was younger I admired and I still admire the work of Minor White.

Ultimately, what I found to be the most interesting were the descriptive, not the depictive, elements of a photograph and its power to communicate beyond the subject matter.  Now, there are so many photographers who are creating work of the unconscious or subconscious, one contemporary artist, Susan Kae Grant, comes to mind with her Night Journey series, which are essentially shadows – dark, beautiful and sometimes challenging.

What specific works of that artist endure?

I suppose in regards to Minor White, his writings, teachings and projects including Aperture the magazine endure. One particular image that endures is the image of the shadow on the Windowsill Daydreaming.

Are any guiding principles evident in the works themselves?

They are technically strong images with sound compositions, attention to the quality of light, texture, sensuality and that with certain je ne sais quoi, the spirit. Ultimately, its his strong methodology and approach to photography that endured, his style was reflective of his time. If he was shooting now, it would likely look different.

In relation to the evaluation of the work, does it matter if a photographer’s guiding principles are at all discernible in the works?

It absolutely matters to me if the photographer’s intent is evident in the work. In addition to aesthetic principles, which I think can be somewhat changeable, I need to see that there is adherence and resolution of a conceptual question or idea.

Are there any photographers you might mention who have expressed interesting or compelling guiding principles?

Artists are compelled to make work because they are passionate about something (the subject, the connection, the timing) whatever that something is that made them photograph in the first place should be the guiding principle. The aesthetics are responses, or tools and personal expression used to convey passion, compassion, understanding or questions. Many image-makers who attend our programs are guided by that passion.  I very much encourage your readers to peruse to see the strong photographic projects we support.  I think the works are some of the best in contemporary photography.  The work is chosen by impartial juries and is chosen from hundreds of outstanding projects that are submitted by photographers who are committed to their work.

Does the photographic community seem to value one principle over another?

There are different groups in the photographic community and they have different tastes, different inclinations. So other than the work being technically proficient so that the viewer can read it properly, there is no formula. In fact, work that comes to our review events will sometimes be very well received by one person and totally unappreciated by another reviewer. The photographic industry is a different story; industry editors, designers, publishers have needs, budgets, etc and essentially, no one in the industry is interested in derivative work. Their jobs are to get viewers attention, work that is too familiar will not get attention.

Have you appreciated any strengthening of works in which a photographer has stated his/her principles had changed?

One person whose artist statement evolved as did her work –  she moved from creating black and white images to color. The black and white work dealt with playtime and childhood won an Honorable Mention in Center’s Project Competition several years back. Afterwards, the artist began to make color images and her compositions and stories became more sophisticated and complex – and with the color work, artist Julie Blackmon, won first place in the Project Competition a few years later.

Given that artists don’t always recognize what others may see in their works, do you tend to agree with the self-assessments of aesthetic values in a photographer’s work?

At the level of photographer with which I typically work, yes, they have a good idea of what they are doing, how they are doing it, and how it is often perceived. Some, however, aren’t necessarily aware that the work isn’t fully resolved for the audience that are seeking. That to me is not an aesthetic issue as it is an issue of clearly defining their intent.

Do you think digital or technology has changed or impacted the aesthetics of photography at all?

I think digital technologies and the rise of practitioners has upped the bar. Photography is about communicating, so if anything, there is more communicating than ever. This requires photographers to produce the very best work they can if they want to communicate to viewers outside of their immediate communities. Editors should be cognizant of their readership so ultimately, guiding principles, editors, etc., should all be affects of the primary goal, to communicate. The question is how best does one communicate right now. Advertisers, psychologists, teachers, myself, we are all asking that question and looking for answers everyday. Photography is part of that answer.

What are contemporary aesthetic principles?

Well today, I would say, its color, clean, clear, easy to read.  As a partner in the design/marketing firm recently said people don’t read.  People are too busy to read and there is too much visual competition out there. Its more challenging to get your work “out there” when you aren’t speaking the contemporary language.

What contemporary photographers do you think exhibit a strong aesthetic sense?  Are they original to them?

Off of the top of my head, I appreciate the work of Jonathan Blaustein, Lucia Ganieva, Aline Smithson, Cig Harvey, Brian Ulrich, Angela Bacon-Kidwell, Jarrett Murphy, and there are soooo many more. They each have their own strong sense of style and strong concepts so the work is successful.

What insights would you give to photographers vis-à-vis aesthetics and photography?

You have your innate sense of how to experience the world in a sensory way, you have an innate sense of aesthetics. Let your passions guide you.

The wide range of style and aesthetics expressed by the photographers mentioned by Pressley provide a wonderful framework from which to examine intent and principles which surface. Like O’Keeffe, Pressley posits that sheer depictions are not what hold our interest over time, but rather it is the interpreted descriptions which let us see both the not only the subject’s world, but that of the photographer.

Michele McShane

Photograph Windowsill Daydreaming by Minor White

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Georgia O’Keeffe

SkullMountains, cliffs, moons, stars, skies, clouds, trees, flowers, skulls, pelvises, churches, crosses, forms, shapes and colors.  There is probably no artist whose works have been more closely associated with her physical surroundings than those of Georgia O’Keeffe.  This article touches upon some of the motivations of the artist behind the mountains, flowers and stars.

From 1929, during her some twenty summers in New Mexico dating from 1929, and after her permanent move there, O’Keeffe’s paintings communicated her interpretation of various elements comprising its landscape, or as she put it, “an equivalent” of her personal experience of the subject matter.  She made them hers.  In speaking to her interest in painting and painting again the flattop mountain, Cerro Pedernal, O’Keeffe stated, “It belongs to me.  God told me if I painted it enough, I could have it.”  O’Keeffe’s artistic passion for creating personal interpretations unique to her of what she saw seems to be a principle she adhered to religiously.

O’Keeffe’s relationship with the legendary photographer, Alfred Stieglitz, and to photography also serves to distinguish her from other artists.  During a period of great debate about whether photographic images rose to the level of art, O’Keeffe’s openness to photography as an artistic medium reveals much about her intellectual approach to aesthetics.  Consequently, Georgia O’Keeffe provides a unique voice in the discussion of guiding principles and photography.

I previously mentioned that the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum is hosting an exhibit, New Mexico and New York: Photographs of Georgia O’Keeffe, in which the photographic works of Alfred Stieglitz, Ansel Adams, Yousuf Karsh, Tony Vaccaro, and others, are featured.  Barbara Buhler Lynes*, the foremost authority on Georgia O’Keeffe, and scholar on Modernism, graciously agreed to share her views about the painter’s sensibilities in approaching her work and her relationship to photography.

In responding to Georgia O’Keeffe’s relationship to her world in New Mexico and how she conceptualized her paintings, Lynes provides the following insights:

She was very cryptic about any aspect of the genesis of her work. But, I think you can surmise by looking at the work that her objective was respond to experiences that she had here and to things that really made her feel some sort of empathy or association with the landscape.  I think she was attracted to various kind of subjects out here.  First of all, she loved the openness of the sky and the crispness of the contours and the extraordinary colors that she saw.  And she did say, in New Mexico, by looking at the landscape, her painting was half done because the colors are already there.  And, what she meant by that it gave her a point of departure that was exotic and filled with color that she loved.

ChacaIn the stark and dramatic landscape of New Mexico, O’Keeffe’s eye was drawn to local shapes and forms, which spoke to her emotionally, and from which she created her own colorful iconography.  Lynes offers that the artist was:

… attracted to architectural forms, attracted to natural forms and she was attracted to the crosses that dot the landscape.  And, the crosses are objects that are part of the Hispanic culture around here.  She used to say that seeing them was like a veil of the Catholic Church stretched across the country.  And, she was attracted to those forms probably because they contained shapes that she thought were very appealing. So, architectural, human made forms and also natural forms.  From the landscape to depictions of specific types of flowers that grow here, to depictions of Santos,…, and also of Kachina dolls,…

As to how much a part crosses played in the nature of the landscape itself, O’Keeffe herself said, “Anyone who doesn’t feel the crosses simply doesn’t get that country.”

O’Keeffe was guided by her emotional core in making decisions about her works.  Paint on canvas supplanted words in expressing the emotional content of her personal experience.  And, given the relative absence of words about any guiding principles O’Keeffe may have adopted, Lynes offers the following insightful point-of-view:

…her aesthetic is less is more.  And, that is a Modernist aesthetic and she manages with a minimal number of selected forms to convey an experience or feeling she has as a result of what she sees.  It is clean, very simple and elegant, very modernist approach and that quality characterizes her work throughout her lifetime.

With respect to Georgia O’Keeffe’s relationship to photography itself, Lynes states that O’Keeffe thought photography was a “critical medium” and thinks:

… O’Keeffe really paid a lot of attention to photography… photography allows you to look at the abstract structure of things… you can see through a photograph a structure of shapes in the real world or what’s being photographed in a way that you don’t see with the naked eye.  And, I think O’Keeffe used that component of photography because she was very attracted to, and very much involved with, depicting in what she called “shapes” and she said that these shapes came from her head and were part of her imagination and yet she is not an artist whose imagery is separate from the natural world.  She is not like Mondrian whose work becomes a construction on a two-dimensional surface.  But, I think she saw in shapes that come back to her at various times.  When she sees a shape in a photograph, such as an oval of a face, or whatever, that might come into one of her paintings at a certain point.  So, I think the way that a photograph allows you to see an abstract shape, is something that influenced her tremendously.

Alfred Stieglitz, Georgia O’Keeffe, 1918. Gelatin silver print, 9 1/4 x 7 1/4 in. Gift, The Georgia O’Keeffe Foundation. © Georgia O’Keeffe Museum.

Alfred Stieglitz, Georgia O’Keeffe, 1918. Gelatin silver print, 9 1/4 x 7 1/4 in. Gift, The Georgia O’Keeffe Foundation. © Georgia O’Keeffe Museum.

O’Keeffe’s artistic and personal relationship to Alfred Stieglitz is well known.  Early in her career, her public image was shaped by Stieglitz’s photographs of her, many of which were erotic in nature.  As the artist matured, in creating and reshaping her image to more closely comport with her idea of herself, O’Keeffe may have taken the same approach as she did with her paintings in beginning with the inquiry, “…I question, ‘Is it mine?’”  Lynes comments that the current photography exhibition at the Museum:

… tries to demonstrate that there are two public images of O’Keeffe: one that is crafted by Stieglitz in the ‘20’s and although we don’t have some of the more erotic pictures he made of her, he made many and displayed them in an exhibition of his own work in 1921.  It created a public image of O’Keeffe as an exotic force of nature who was expressing aspects of her gender and her sexuality on paper, and she objected to that.  There wasn’t a whole lot she could do about it at the time.  She loved Stieglitz, he was helping her make her way and he was the leading voice in the New York art community.  And, when she moved out here, when she began painting out here, she realized, especially after she move here I 1949, that she could restructure her public image.

Alfred Stieglitz established the first public image of the artist, but what influence did O’Keeffe have on Stieglitz?  Director Lynes imparts a perceptive opinion:

I know that she says that her early abstractions from the teens, especially her paintings of the Evening Star, influenced Stieglitz in his depiction of the sky through his Equivalents.  O’Keeffe stated later on:  He is doing in his photography of the sky what I did earlier in color.  He was influenced by her work.

In discussing the exhibited large-scale portrait of Georgia O’Keeffe by Yousuf Karsh in the context of O’Keeffe’s remaking of her public image, Lynes states:

… I think that the Karsh portrait presents her as she wanted to be perceived.  It is very serious, it is very direct, it is very tempered, and it presents an idea of her as a successful and serious artist rather than as a sexual creature.

GoldenDosPesosLynes continues about O’Keeffe’s public image in stating:

… one of the triumphs of her late career was forging a public image that was strong enough and persuasive enough to take place of the image Stieglitz had created in the ‘20’s which she never really liked and she began a silent campaign in the ‘20’s to counter his image of her with anyone who photographed her, including Stieglitz.  By the mid-1920s, she presents herself as more self confident, less vulnerable and less malleable and you can see that in the images in the exhibition.

In our glimpsing at the person who emerges in the less formally composed photographic works by Tony Vaccaro and Maria Chabot, currently on exhibit at the Museum, Director Lynes further comments:

They are very informal and thus, are, a bit rare.  In other words, when O’Keeffe let somebody into her environment, she usually structured very formal portraits and you see that in the work of the many photographers who photographed her during her lifetime, especially after she moved out here.  So, it’s interesting to see more personable, or more intimate views of her life in New Mexico.  The Chabot photographs of her at The Black Place… where they camped often in the 1940s are also informal glimpses of her, more intimate and more spontaneous.  Between these two public images, that I referred to, the one Stieglitz created, and this one that is exemplified by the Karsh picture, the every day or real person slips between the public facades, and that the Vaccaro pictures and the Chabot pictures capture that less known aspect of O’Keeffe.

In reworking her public image, the lighter, informal side of this woman may have been diminished, if not lost altogether, except for the exhibit at the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum.  The public can get a glimpse of the third, unpublished self through the photography exhibit and evaluate and compare the different persona portrayed.  Lynes comments about the woman:

She was really a very generous, kind person, who was very supportive of the Abiquiu community, and she had certain friends that she was very generous with, and people came and stayed with her, so the myth of her being a loner, and by herself all the time, and a hermit and a recluse was just part of the myth she created, but in reality there was a real person there, who had a keen sense of humor, was very witty, and very warm and I think the Vaccaro pictures captured that.

The photographs of O’Keeffe on exhibit at the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum do provide clues, not only of how others saw her, but interestingly, of how the artist saw herself.

And, whether we examine those who photographed her, O’Keeffe as the subject of a photograph, the woman, the artist or her art, by her very nature, Georgia O’Keeffe seems to have insisted that what remains are the striking impressions of how she experienced the world she chose as home.

Michele McShane

*Barbara Buhler Lynes is the Emily Fisher Landau Director of the Research Center as well as curator of the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum in Santa Fe, New Mexico.  Lynes is a scholar of American Modernism and the leading authority on Georgia O’Keeffe.

Uncaptioned photographs, Skull, Chaco and Dos Pesos, by Michele McShane

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Yousuf Karsh

TiedMalcolm Gladwell’s book, Outliers, caught my attention a few years ago.  An “‘[o]utlier,‘” according to Gladwell, “is a scientific term to describe things or phenomena that lie outside normal experience.”

In his book, Gladwell walks us through why some people succeed and others do not.  And, many of the factors are a bit surprising.  Gladwell thinks that in addition to innate talent, wildly successful people have an accumulative advantage that usually takes the form of “a community around them that properly prepared them for the world.”  Gladwell’s theory says that innate ability and hard work simply are not enough.  The concept is thought-provoking, but it also rubs us the wrong way because it seems to negate our beliefs about the rugged individual, the iconic maverick, who achieves the American Dream all alone.  To the contrary, Gladwell acknowledges the role of native talent, drive and other individual characteristics.  However, he credits unnoticed factors that seem to explain why one determined and talented person becomes successful and another does not.

Gladwell’s book came to mind because Yousuf Karsh’s background suggests that he may be one of those really talented individuals whose direction and career was channeled and buoyed by what turned out to be an accumulated advantage.   A short and fascinating biography of Karsh appears at  It seems clear that nobody at the time thought of his relationship with his uncle as an advantage, especially Karsh, since Karsh had set his sights on studying medicine.  But, his Uncle Nakash was a photographer, and Karsh found himself immersed in the world of photography instead of medicine.  We have only God to thank that his uncle wasn’t a plumber.  Gladwell emphasizes the opportunity for the successful person to practice, and he means, PRACTICE, as in 10,000+ hours of experience in a field.  When he was sent to Canada to live with his uncle, the 17-year-old Karsh was transported into what turned out to be the perfect lab for a youth to learn, take time and practice the art of photography.

Karsh’s thinking about his approach to photography was expanded when he later apprenticed for the portrait photographer, John H. Garo, in Boston.  Taken from the website, Karsh writes:

…Garo taught me something more important than technique… [he] prepared me to think for myself and evolve my own distinctive interpretations. ‘Understand clearly what you are seeking to achieve,… and when it is there, record it. Art is never fortuitous…’

It wasn’t solely his exposure to the technical aspects of photography and mentors that distinguish Karsh from other aspiring photographers.  Something else needs to be added to the recipe—the musicians, writers, actors and other artists in Boston—with whom he became acquainted through Garo.  This addition of this sensitive, emotive and/or theatrical community served to support the development of the young artist.

The impact of Karsh’s unique experiences with skilled photographers and social contacts can be seen when he decided to place his work squarely in the realm of the arts when the opportunity arose.  Karsh is quoted on the site as stating:

I welcomed an invitation to join the Ottawa Little Theatre, an enthusiastic group of amateur players.  The casual invitation was to have lasting effects on my life and career.  The experience of photographing actors on the stage with stage lighting was exhilarating.  The unlimited possibilities of artificial light overwhelmed me… Moods could be created, selected, modified, intensified.  I was thrilled by this means of expression, this method of interpreting life; a new world was opened to me.

As for the guiding principles Karsh adopted over time, we know from Karsh himself that he adopted the principles of thinking for himself, envisioning the outcome in advance and developing a personal “distinctive interpretation” of his subjects.  Karsh was known for doing his homework in understanding the subject of his portraits.  He used the process to refine and better understand the underpinnings of his subjects.  He understood that a “truth” arose from the interactions.  Apparently, Yousuf Karsh listened to those truths in terms of what is revealed in his works.

Jason Christian, a consultant to the Estate of Yousuf Karsh, lent time to speak about the photographer.  Christian said that Karsh created photographs of Winston Churchill and Ernest Hemingway, for example, that became definitive of the subjects.   He observed that Karsh’s “…portraits of authors, creatives and dancers as well…” are set apart from portraits of others and show “…a sensitivity to those subjects that you don’t see in [the portraits] of politicians.”

We know that Karsh’s exposure to local artists was greater than with the political set.  And, seemingly, creatives and their attributes were closer to Karsh’s heart.  Karsh’s connection to those in the arts, and apparently, their connection to him, shines through brightly in his large-scale portrait of Georgia O’Keeffe currently on exhibit at the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum.  Christian sees the work as extraordinary and one that is “recognized as Karsh.”  Further, the work is set apart from others in that “it is set in her own space at Abiqui” and is “more contemplative in contrast to his photograph of Hemingway.”  Christian finds the work is phenomenal in terms of “technical achievement.”  It stands out due to its stunning composition, “tonal qualities” and “range of tones.”

I would have to agree with Mr. Christian on all counts.  The Karsh work stands out in his interpretation of O’Keeffe in her environment.  She is looking away from the camera and yet becomes part of a more personal, interior landscape incorporated into the whole with her surroundings.  The tonal range is stunning and lends itself to the strength and beauty of the work.  Of interest is the scale of the photograph.  O’Keeffe made elements of things otherwise unnoticed on a grand scale.  Similarly, this portrait brings the unnoticed to life in a large 30”x40” print.  The size of the print alone forces the viewer to see the positioning of the artist’s hands, the antlers and other relatively small things.

In considering the relationship of Karsh to his subject, O’Keeffe, one “truth” to consider is certain similarities between the artists.  Before either began work, each thought about what it is they were going to depict and what moved them personally about the subject.  In their best works, what resulted were very personal depictions, and, therefore, very distinctive interpretations of the world which each saw as their own.  The ties that bind are often overlooked.  These two artists were profoundly impacted in very different ways by notable photographers in their personal lives, which in turn influenced their respective creative visions.

The power of Karsh’s portrait of O’Keeffe led to me write this article. The purpose of this blog is to focus on the aesthetics employed by photographers and other artists to learn about what guiding principles they chose and for you to decide which ones endure or hold meaning for you. Karsh’s background and the influences of the community surrounding him were very important in influencing the way he thought about creative individuals. Apart from any opinions about his artistic vision, the humility and humanity of this great photographer comes through in his writings about those who he thought influenced him the most.  Far from detracting from his individual spirit, Karsh’s community helped the best in this individual to surface.

The next time I see a Karsh photograph, I know I will reference not only his fertile background and how he employed it in making distinctive and enduring works of art, but I will think about the positive manner in which he encountered dramatic life changes—by arranging the pieces in front of him so they created a viable work-in-progress.

Michele McShane

Photograph Tied by Michele McShane

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Tony Vaccaro

okeeffeIt was a pleasant surprise to view the works of Tony Vaccaro on exhibit at the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum.  I was familiar with his WWII works, but have learned much more about the photographer over the past week.  I want to follow up with Mr. Vaccaro if at all possible.

On my walk to the museum, I anticipated seeing Stieglitz’s portraits of a young Georgia O’Keeffe. When I was a teenager, I felt a real connection to the works of Stieglitz, especially his photograph entitled, Georgia OKeeffe’s Hand and Wheel, which I proudly posted on my bedroom wall.  His works were certainly interesting to see from an historical perspective and did not disappoint.

However, what really took hold were the whimsical and lighthearted moods of the subject depicted in Tony Vaccaro’s portraits.  Mr. Vaccaro seemed to bring out a side to Ms. O’Keeffe that I had only previously glimpsed at in the Ansel Adams photograph of her with Orville Cox. Vaccaro and O’Keeffe’s relationship is apparent although he is not pictured. In the works on display, what surfaces is the photographer’s focus on the quiet elegance of the woman rather than the artist.

Vaccaro’s images are light in quality, “light” as in the incredible lightness of being of their collective spirits.  In his O’Keeffe Opening the Curtains, Georgia O’Keeffe’s back is to the camera.  The silent swish of the curtains opening tells of the shift in atmosphere as light pours on the right creating a very strong and brilliant composition.  Although her facial expression is not visible to provide more information, it is, nevertheless, the intimate side of this woman.  She is doing a simple chore, something she did most likely did on a daily basis, like many women do their household chores, with purpose and pleasure, that is what Tony Vaccaro so deftly captured.

Interestingly, although the subject matter and tone are vastly different, one of Mr. Vaccaro’s famous photographs, White Death: Photo Requiem for a Dead Soldier, employs black-and-white in a similarly elevating, silent and spiritual manner. The photograph depicts a slain American soldier in a field of snow during the Battle of the Bulge. Vaccaro said that he wanted to “symbolize the beauty of death” and to communicate in “an elegant manner” our fighting men during WWII. You can hear him speak about the circumstances surrounding the making of the photograph on You Tube. The story ends on a synchronistic and very Jungian note. The soldier’s name was Henry S. Tannenbaum. The very spot where Tannenbaum (which is the German word for Christmas tree) died is now used to to grow Christmas trees.

Pictured above is Vaccaro’s Georgia O’Keeffe with Cheese; it’s personal, light, filled with great lines and greater mystery.

See the exhibition if you can make it.  It is well worth the trip.

Michele McShane

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Irving Penn (1917-2009)

1943Sadly, the world lost Irving Penn at the age of 92.

Today, The New York Times published an online article treating Penn’s style and touching upon the divergent aesthetic directions of Penn and Richard Avedon.  The Times piece also includes a few links regarding the prolific photographer, which you may find of interest.

His legendary journey into fashion photography reflected his graphic design background–it began with a still life.  Throughout his lengthy career, Penn revealed the plastic nature of his intellect in conceptualizing his end work whenever he first sketched what he envisioned prior to shooting any photography.

A colleague once told me, “Don’t give them everything.  Hold a little bit back.”  I was too young to understand that he wasn’t advising me to create inferior works or to be passionless about art.  He was telling me to be more like a sculptor and to master the art of “taking away.”

Penn worked like a sculptor.  He created photographs which somehow included the unseen.  For example, his use of 1:1 aspect ratio seemed to take something away.  A sense of inherent tension replaced that “something” and resulted in an image which resists stasis.  Moreover, the vacuum allows for an air of mystery to bubble up.

There is a purposefulness, a determined choice, to intelligence, which when reflected in art, gives us a reason to return to an image repeatedly, and to reflect.  In revisiting Penn’s works, I find that his choices allow me to engage with the subject with a fresh sense of interest as if I were about to discover something new about an old friend.

Michele McShane

Photo: October 1, 1943 cover of Vogue by Irving Penn

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Santa Fe, New Mexico

HomewardOver the course of the next twelve months, photographers and other artists will be interviewed about the aesthetics they employ in creating works. They will be asked what guiding principles they adopted in creating their art and how their community supports or otherwise impacts those principles.  Tastemakers, curators, gallery owners and educators will also be included in the discussion.  Why the blog?  It interests me that we are living in a completely unique period of time in which the editor seems to have left the building in almost every sphere concerning the arts and journalism.

We begin in Santa Fe.  This region itself provides ample vistas, culture of the Pueblo tribes and an evolving city, which have been well-documented in landscapes and portraits.  World-renown Native American works made from textile, clay and glass feature unique and compelling designs and have provided a visually-stimulating springboard for 20th century artists.  Through her well-known paintings, Georgia O’Keeffe expressed in novel and abundant manner, the nature of this region.  Its vastness has also been reflected in the works of many landscape photographers.  Beginning October 2, O’Keeffe’s relationship to photography as the subject and with notable photographers is being celebrated at the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum in its  New Mexico and New York: Photographs of Georgia O’Keeffe.  The exhibition includes photographs by Alfred Stieglitz, Ansel Adams, Yousuf Karsh, Todd Webb, Tony Vaccaro and Don Worth.

The region is steeped in creativity, but some say the community and spirit of Santa Fe has changed.  Not all think its evolution has been a positive one.  Thousands have flocked here to retire.  Many find a haven in which to reweave their threadbare souls, while others simply seek a place apart, or in their experiences, above.  Such visions are challenged by the miles of service providers cluttering the ascent into the enchanted city.

Should the newest of newcomers, a California visitor, have kept moving along to some other place?  No.  I want to unearth the best of what is here and what is concealed and protected from view.  The photograph I chose to accompany this introduction is not of Santa Fe, but one depicting the melting pot hills of Southern California, and a road home to someone.  The open road is the spirit in which this particular learning is encountered.  On my path here in the next few weeks, I hope to reconnect with the spirit and heart which I have previously experienced in Santa Fe.  Whatever the duration, or the reasons for one’s presence here, I think it is the perfect starting place to explore aesthetic choices in photography and how contemporary culture here impacts those choices.

As for the future, it is my intention to publish interviews and articles covering artists in various regions.  I hope you enjoy the coverage and join in the dialogue.

Michele McShane

Photograph Homeward by Michele McShane

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